Jane Austen, Alison Bechdel, and me

My fourth YA novel comes out on Tuesday. (But you can get it this weekend at the LA Times Festival of Books!) Like the previous three, it’s loosely based on a Jane Austen novel—in this case, Emma. I strayed pretty far from the original this time, so if you’re someone who likes her Austen modernized but still very familiar, consider yourself warned and please don’t yell at me because there’s a non-Austenian subplot

Still, I did borrow quite a few elements from the original, which meant I found myself facing a by-now-familiar challenge: how do I take a marriage plot novel and transfer it to a high school setting without making the girls in it ridiculously boy crazy? Putting aside the whole marriage issue (which I do, of course), I still don’t think teenage girls should be obsessed with landing boyfriends.

Don’t get me wrong: I love a good romance. I just feel my heroines should stumble upon love in the process of doing other stuff—it shouldn’t be their goal, just a happy bonus.

Plus there’s the whole Bechdel Test thing.

For those of you who haven’t heard of it, the Bechdel Test came from a comic strip written by the incredibly brilliant Alison Bechdel (of Fun Home fame). It was written to be about movies, but it works for novels too. Here’s the strip:

The famous strip

The famous strip

I’m not sure if Austen’s original Emma would itself pass Bechdel’s test, but she gets a break–back in her day, unless a woman was super rich, she pretty much had to marry her way to a decent future. Plus she’s Jane Austen--one of the most brilliant writers ever. She gets to do whatever the hell she wants because she does it so freakin’ well.

But I’m no Austen and times have changed, so I wanted my novel about modern young women to pass the Bechdel Test. My solution? Change the eligible bachelor storyline to an eligible college storyline.

In my version, “Emma” isn’t trying to convince her friend to pursue a guy who may or may not be interested in her—she’s trying to get her to apply to a college that may or may not accept her. Now the girls are talking about something other than boys. Like most of the high school seniors I know IRL, they’re focusing on their next four years of school, where they’ll go, whether they’ll fit in, what it will be like.

Fictional romances can be fun and inspiring and exhilarating. But they should never make a young woman’s value dependent on her ability to successfully land a guy.

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A Post from My Daughter

My 17-year-old wrote today’s post about living with an autoimmune disease.

Dear Addison’s disease,

Thank you for shutting down my adrenal glands, thyroid, and other body parts.
Thank you for making me tan.
Thank you for making my scars darker, legs weaker, and eyes heavier.
Thank you for the endless doctor visits and hospital gowns.
Thank you for making me special.
Thank you for the medical bracelets.

And, if I’m thanking you, we can’t forget the 12 vials of blood that gets taken from me when prescribed. I’d like it, though, if you could make me less tired, and let me occasionally have enough energy to curl my hand into a fist. Because it’s actually scary when you can’t. And I’ll never forget the time when–because of you–I got diagnosed with two other diseases, and asked my mom after seeing the doctor “Mom, why do I keep getting diseases?” Because although that’s scary on one hand, it gets quite confusing when later you’re told “you’re fine. Go run a mile” when you know you really and honestly can’t.

And while we’re at it, thank you for scaring my parents when I get to the point where I can’t walk or talk because one little white pill is a bit off. School is already hard, so why are you trying to make it harder? How bad are you, and why can’t anyone give me a clear answer about it? It’s hard enough to wake up to go to school, but that’s not enough for you, is it? No, you have to make it so I don’t have cortisol or energy in the morning to even stand a fair chance.

But, Addison’s, here’s the kicker: I kind of love you. You’ve made life hell, but you’ve made me special. No one understands you, so no one can make assumptions. But, could you ask people to stop asking what it’s like to go on a roller coaster without adrenaline? Cause I don’t really know anything different.

So, here we are in our twelfth year of living together. You know me, I know you. What are we going to do now?


PS send help


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Surviving a Depression, in a Handy List

After I wrote my November post on being depressed, a lot of people reached out to me, so I wanted to give one last update.

No point in burying the lede: I feel much, much better. Turns out everyone was right–depression does lift, even if that feels impossible when you’re in the middle of it.

While I’m happy to wave goodbye to it (and, frankly, to 2014, which was Not My Favorite Year for a lot of reasons), I don’t want to blithely move ahead and act like it never happened, partially because I feel the peace is a fragile one that could easily fall apart, and partially because I feel like I learned some stuff that I don’t want to forget.

Which of course I’ll share with you all, in a nifty list format. (Everyone likes a list!)

1. When you’re so depressed you feel like life is a pointless, joyless cesspool of unrelenting disappointment . . . seek out help from a professional. Because you’re deep into feeling like life is a pointless, joyless cesspool of unrelenting disappointment, you may not see the point of getting better, but if there’s a single person (or animal) in your life who cares about you, tell yourself you’re doing it for that person (or animal) and make the appointment.

I don’t know if this is a universal experience, but I walked out of my very first appointment feeling a little less alone. I felt like someone was in the fight with me, someone who (unlike my family) wasn’t frustrated with me for feeling this way and desperate for me to just stop being like that, but was instead completely in it with me.

2. Exercising helps. The first thing my new-found therapist said was, “Start exercising today–get your heart rate up for at least 20 minutes.” I did it and felt better. IMMEDIATELY. That feeling slowly dissipated but still . . . it reminded me what it was like not to feel sad and anxious all the time and made me realize I wanted more of that. Plus there’s no downside to exercising–the side effects are kind of nice. (Except that my knee is twingeing today, damn it.)

3. Modern science is a wonderful thing. I’ve been on an SSRI for the last eight weeks or so and within a week of starting it, I realized I was perseverating much less about the things that were making me anxious. It was like I’d been carrying a backpack filled with crap around for months and suddenly I could just PUT THE BACKPACK DOWN AND WALK AWAY now and then. I knew the crap-filled backpack was still there where I’d left it; I just didn’t need to carry it around with me all the time. You don’t know how good that feels until you feel it. I was worried that meds might change me in other ways, but nope–my brain just stopped churning and churning about things that were unpleasant. Otherwise, I’m still me, for better or for worse.

I would marry my Zoloft if I could, but it seems content with our relationship and the fact that I swallow.

4. Don’t romanticize mental illness. Yeah, maybe some brilliant artists and writers suffered from depression, but that doesn’t mean it was their source of genius or creativity or a sign of YOURS. Depression and anxiety suck productivity out of you. Feeling like you’re isolated from the rest of humanity doesn’t make you special or elevated: it makes you sad and lonely. Do what you can to get better.

5. Reach out to other people. Tell them your story. Let them tell you theirs. I loved the friends who said to me, “I’ve been there and it took a while but I got through it.” It made me feel hopeful but also validated. I also adored the friend who went right to asking me if I wanted to hear a stupid funny joke. I did and it made me laugh and that felt good. The only response that mildly bummed me out was, “Oh, wow, that must be terrible for you. I’m so sorry.” There’s no empathy in that–just pity and a tiny bit of superiority. I didn’t need people to pity me; I needed them to crawl in the hole with me for a minute or two. But overall people were fantastic.

6. Even misery has its lessons and the occasional silver lining–I’m trying to hold onto those now that I’m feeling better. I was always rushing around before, impatient with delays, annoyed at chores, jealous of people who were more productive and successful than me. Then I stopped caring about anything other than getting through the next hour. Now I’m trying to hold onto the good side of slowing down and living in the moment. I take my time running errands, walking the dogs, cleaning the kitchen . . . even flossing my teeth. I can’t remember why I was always in such a hurry before, always so desperate to be somewhere else. I’d like to hang on to this feeling of being present in the actual moment, now that the original accompanying despair is gone. Maybe not permanently gone, but gone for the time being and, since I’m living in the moment, that’s enough for me right now.

Anyone have anything to add to this list?


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Hatred Is Not a Religious Belief

I don’t usually write about religion. I’m not the kind of person who wades into areas fraught with potential peril. I’m the kind of person who flees from fraught. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. So here goes.

I think people should be free to believe whatever they want. They should get to worship whatever god or goddess or many gods they believe in, alone or with others who want to join them. They should also get to NOT worship if they choose to, and their morality should never be questioned because of that choice. People should all be judged by their actions, not by their professed beliefs.

I will fight to defend anyone’s right to believe and practice what he wants to, so long as his religion doesn’t impinge on anyone else’s.

People should be allowed to practice their own religious beliefs in peace.

What people should NOT allowed to do is marginalize, disenfranchise, persecute, abuse or harm innocent people and claim that it’s in the name of their religion. That’s not a belief. That’s bigotry and criminal behavior.

It doesn’t matter what religion you start out with, what you call it, or what you claim to believe: if you are hurting other people and fomenting hatred, you are a person of violence, not a person of faith.

From the little I know of comparative religions, almost all of them are based in kindness, generosity, and peace. Anyone who uses his religion as an excuse to practice violence and cruelty is twisting and perverting what’s actually there in an act far more harmful and offensive to the original religion than anything a peaceful and tolerant nonbeliever could ever do.

Seems obvious, right? But there are huge numbers of people all over the world–and in this country–who stridently claim that their religion gives them the right to criticize, marginalize, refuse to hire, persecute, bully, and even kill people who are innocent of any crime, who simply want to be allowed to live their lives in peace. We can’t accept “my religion says you’re evil” as an excuse for hatred. That’s medieval.

Basic morality says we should be generous to those in need, kind to those who are suffering, and tolerant of those who are different. If your religion is teaching anything other than that . . . you should probably get a new religion. There are a lot out there to choose from.


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The Clouds Smell of Gasoline

In Wrong About the Guy, a character launches into one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite plays–Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee. (I lifted this version off the internet, so it may not be punctuated correctly.)

Gentlemen, progress has never been a bargain. You’ve got to pay for it. Sometimes I think there’s a man behind a counter who says, “All right, you can have a telephone; but you’ll have to give up privacy, the charm of distance. Madam, you may vote; but at a price; you lose the right to retreat behind a powderpuff or a petticoat. Mister, you may conquer the air; but the birds will lose their wonder, and the clouds will smell of gasoline!”

I’ve been thinking about this quote a lot lately.

Maybe it’s because I see so many people sitting at tables together, staring at their phones, not talking.

Just to be clear, I’m a fan of science and technology. I think we should always move forward. I don’t harbor any nostalgia for the old days, when plumbing sucked, people got polio, and it took you all day to go fifty miles. I just think we have to be aware of what losses might come with each gain and fight to hold onto the things that make our lives good.

The obvious example: I love my cell phone with a passion. I love being able to text my kids wherever they are and hear back immediately from them, unless they’re in class. (Oh, who am I kidding? They text me back even when they are in class.) I love being able to look up anything I want whenever I want and know what the weather will be anywhere and check my email when I’m in line at the supermarket. Smartphones are amazing. They’ve enriched out lives. They keep us informed and in touch.

But . . .

People don’t look around anymore when they have a free minute: they just stare down at their little screens. My kids used to devour books on trips and vacations: now they just watch videos or text friends. Free time for all of us has stopped being a chance to see something new or to think random and possibly creative thoughts. It’s  just another opportunity to check our email or post a photo. So much progress at such a huge cost.

But that’s not actually why I brought up that quote. This is why:

My oldest son just graduated from college.

From college.

From college.

Sorry. I don’t mean to repeat myself. It’s just . . . holy crap, you know? How did he get so old? How did I?

The night after my husband and I attended his graduation ceremony, I had a brief dream that was so vivid I couldn’t shake it the next morning. It was very simple: I was reaching up as Rob handed me our toddler son, and I felt that good, warm, solid, satisfying weight of a small child transfer over from him to me. He put his head on my shoulder and I held him close, feeling happy and whole.

I woke up and lay there, remembering how good it felt to hold all my kids when they were little, how it gratified some kind of skin and emotional hunger in me to have a little person I loved settle in against me. My kids are all taller than I am now. Carrying them is a long distant memory but in my dream it felt real, like I’d never stopped, like I would never have to stop.

the little guy he once was

the little guy he once was

My son has graduated from college and it’s been a long, crazy, inspiring, frustrating, challenging, unpredictable journey for him and for us. I’m so proud of him.

But, oh, how I loved the feel of that toddler in my arms. I miss it with an almost physical pain.

For every gain, a loss. Progress is never a bargain.

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A Sentimental Education

Because I’ve been sad, I’ve spent a lot of time lately trying to figure out which way happiness lies.

I’ve always been a little obsessed with that subject, which hardly makes me unique. I’ve read a lot of books and articles that say people are really bad at figuring out what makes them happy. We think buying material goods will bring us some kind of long-lasting joy and assume that what sounds good to us today will sound equally good down the road. Neither is true.

What is happiness anyway? Years ago, I said to a friend, “I just want my kids to be happy.” And she wisely pointed out that I wouldn’t actually want my kids to spend their adult lives lying on a beach smoking weed all day long, no matter how blissed-out they might be. So it’s more complicated than “happiness”: I want them to have longterm goals and achieve them; I want them to have families and take good care of them.

Of course, I’m proof that even those things aren’t the complete answer: I have a loving spouse and kids and the luxury of getting to do what I enjoy, and yet I’ve still found myself this fall in the throes of an anxious depression.. Some of it is chemical. Some of it is that there are things going on in the world that are scary. And some of it, I think, is that I had lost the ability to appreciate the things that make life sweet. And that’s what I’m working hardest on getting back.

(A side note: It was challenging for me to write the rest of this. I grew up in the least sentimental family in the U.S. My parents wouldn’t have dreamed of crying at our graduations or weddings–I didn’t even know that people could cry from happiness until the year I watched It’s A Wonderful Life and had to figure out why my cheeks were wet at the end. Anyway, the point is, I feel embarrassed when I say sentimental things, even though I’m well aware I’m not my parents, because when my oldest son graduated from high school, I sobbed so hard I sounded like I was vomiting.)


What I’m clinging to these days as I drag myself up out of the hole (stop laughing, Johnny) is each and every instance of kindness, affection, love and gratitude between me and others. Yes, I feel like an exposed nerve these days, and that means the smallest touch can hurt, but it also means I’m exponentially more sensitive to the good stuff, too. As I stop focusing on tomorrow–because lately I’ve just been trying to get through one day at a time–I find myself much more aware of, and grateful for, every email from a friend, every encouraging comment on FB, every shared pastry at Starbucks, every stranger who smiles at me instead of shoving by, every good-natured exchange, every moment of solidarity, and every example of generosity, whether it’s directed at me or someone else.

There’s so much in the news that’s sad and scary but so much in my own life that’s decent and affirming. For a while, it felt like I couldn’t see that. I knew it intellectually: I just couldn’t feel it. But this is the strange gift of my own struggles: I’ve become very aware of the choices we all make at every moment of the day–how we can choose to be kind and generous or malicious and selfish–and I’m so grateful that the people I care about make the choice to be kind. I’m pretty sure that kindness, love, and generosity are all we’ve got to fall back on when everything else feels wrong or meaningless, and that every positive interaction makes life that much more livable for all of us. And the more I stop to notice the goodness all around me, the less hopeless I feel.

Happy Thanksgiving y’all.


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Less Lonely Now

First of all, a warm and heartfelt thank you to everyone who reached out to me in some way–comments, emails, messages, tweets, phone calls, quick visits etc–after I posted my last blog. Whether you were just checking in to see how I was doing or sharing a story of your own struggles, you made me feel less alone and very loved.

Secondly, an update: I’m doing better, due to a combination of exercise, therapy, and, yes, the miracle of modern science in the form of an SSRI that seems to be successfully slowing down the gut and brain churning. (Unfortunately at a cost of insomniac nights and dry mouth–anyone else deal with those and have advice?) I’m not exactly dancing in the streets and my heart speeds up unexpectedly at the slightest bit of tension and I’m fiddling with dosages, and I’m not getting any writing done, but still . . . being better is better than not being better, I always say. (I’ve actually never said that before, but it’s hard to argue with, isn’t it? I love a good tautology.)

One thing that struck me after the last post is how many people told me I was “brave” to write publicly about my anxiety and depression. I honestly don’t think I deserve praise for that (although I’m grateful for the generous thoughts that prompted the praise). I’ve never had a problem being honest about things that I don’t feel ashamed of or guilty about, and I’m not ashamed that I’ve been dealing with depression and anxiety. I believe there’s an underlying physical and chemical reason for it–albeit a complicated one–and so I don’t think I should feel any more ashamed of my emotional distress than my son should for having Celiac Disease.

But I know other people don’t feel that way, that it’s hard for them to talk about feeling weak and helpless. Sometimes there are practical reasons not to want to tell the world what’s going on–you have a job at a place where they might question your ability to get your work done if you admit to emotional distress. Or you come from the kind of family that isn’t comfortable with showing the world anything less than a perfect exterior. Or maybe you just want people to see you as focused and successful, and admitting to depression or anxiety will work against that. Or you’re genuinely the strong, silent type: you can take care of yourself and your family, and you don’t need other people’s sympathy, pity, or help.

I totally get all of that and know that it’s a luxury to be able to speak freely. I’m a mouth flapper. It helps me to talk or write about stuff. I mean, sometimes I’m too deep in the hole to communicate, but that’s rare. Most of the time, I’m in over-share mode. It helps me to talk things out. My friends give me good advice, my family gives me love (they don’t mind my talking–they worry about my silences), and my new acquaintances can decide if they want to share right back or quietly edge away from me. Anyone who thinks less of me for being honest about the crap life dishes out isn’t going to be someone I’ll want to be close to anyway.

So, again, thank you for all the support and kindness and stories and affection. Writing that post was the best step I took toward feeling better. Which means it wasn’t brave–just smart.

Finally, there’s a video going around that most of you have probably already seen, showing a dog obedience lesson. The owners call to their dogs from the opposite end of a floor mat that’s lined with dog treats, toys, chews, etc. The first few dogs trot straight to their owners, ignoring the bounty, but there’s one golden retriever who just bounds delightedly all over the mat, checking out every single item, sniffing, eating, chewing, destroying and just having the best time ever.


This is my real life dog Harvey. He’s getting a little old but he’ll still detour for food any time, any place.

That dog is my hero and my inspiration. Someday I want to feel that kind of exuberance and delight and dedicate myself to enjoying things simply because I  can. That golden retriever reminds me what I’m working toward as I try to make myself healthy again. Here’s to going off the beaten path to crunch some liver treats!





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