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Updated: Jul 3, 2022

I am writing a novel, but you knew that.

Everyone who knows me knows I am writing a novel. It has been many years. I have written it while I was grieving, and I have written it while I was falling in love. There were fat years, where I stayed up with it until the sun started peeking over my windowsill. This has been a lean year, a year full of all kinds of shock and all kinds of reckoning, a world crisis year, a family crisis year, one of the most demanding and taxing years of my professional life. In many ways, it was a long dark winter.

Who was it that said writing a novel is like driving a car at night? That you would only be able to see as far as the headlights, but you could make it the whole way there like that. Was it E.L. Doctorow? Or E.M. Forster? Either way, how optimistic of him. I always say writing a novel is like swimming in a lake with heavy boots on. I know where I’m going, and I know how to get there, but it’s exhausting and I can’t shake the feeling that I should be going faster.

Put plainly, this project is a cat and not a dog. I can’t coax it into my lap. It doesn’t always want to spend time together when I do. It might bring me a gift but it might also nudge my coffee off my desk. Steinbeck once wrote to his editor while drafting East of Eden: “This book has pups!” It’s true; sometimes the more work you put in, the more the work multiplies. The farther you swim, the farther the shore seems. And writing is such a solitary activity. All those years of being told by teachers and peers that you write well land you in an empty room. You’re in there with the door closed, hoping to realize your precious secret vision. No one is telling you that you’re on the right track. You punctuate the literary magazine rejections trickling into your inbox with blind stabs at the keyboard.

But then cats can be so loving, too, can’t they? My project rewards me so generously when it rewards me, the way a cat does when she kneads your skin or shows you her belly or falls asleep curled in your lap. What a dopamine hit to find the perfect word, or have a sudden revelation, or feel the satisfying snap of the solution to a plot problem you’d been puzzling over for months.

I’ve been turning that old quote over in my head this past year: “It does not matter how slow you go as long as you do not stop.” Yes, that’s me, over here clutching the wisdom of Confucius to ward off my ennui about my novel-in-progress. When I started teaching full-time, I used to say: “I’m young! I can do both!” Now I am not-as-young and I'm moving a lot slower.

I’ve tried so many ways to spice it up, a suitor relentlessly courting her muse. I’ve visited special places specifically to write there, whether that be an afternoon at my favorite coffee-shop or a week in a foreign country. I’ve written in the mornings. I’ve used a timer. I’ve enrolled in novel-writing courses ($$!). I’ve gotten a computer program to hold me to a daily word count. I’ve seen a psychic about it, and listened back to the recording of her clairvoyant reassurance dozens of times. I’ve made altars: notes from mentors, feathers and shells. The antique glass rosary beads from my mother draped around the voodoo doll from my father. I’ve written myself so many letters over the years: you can do this, you’re already doing this, your inner critic is a loud liar.

I expressed to my therapist recently my dread that my project will abandon ship because I’m not working fast enough, that it will flutter over to some other artist and I’ll read a lukewarm review of it in the Times and turn right into stone.

“Why do you keep working on this book,” she asked me, “in spite of that fear?”

Toni Morrison once said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I want to read this exact book about a 1940s carnival traveling the American countryside. And not to bury the lede, but the more I learn about the weird world where my characters live, the cooler it becomes. The house-trucks the strongman builds for each member of the show. The failing New York City tattoo parlor. The ghoulish glow of a disgraced doctor’s basement laboratory. The blind tailor’s workshop. The witch’s hut. The suburban brothel. I want very badly to share what it’s like in this place that I’m exploring alone all the time.

I think about all of this, and then I have to admit to myself with a leaden resignation: after you’re done with it, in all likelihood, you will want to do it again.

In another letter to his editor, Steinbeck describes writing as “a real horse’s ass business. The mountain labors and groans and strains and the tiniest of rodents comes out. And the greatest foolishness of all lies in the fact that to do it at all, the writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold on to this illusion even when he knows it is not true.”

Today feels like a good day to write myself another letter of encouragement. Here’s to time well-spent.

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Updated: Aug 13, 2021


As a high school junior, I was briefly friends with these two cooler seniors in my poetry class. Very Perks of Being a Wallflower. One of them was Beth Slutsky, a girl who delivered thrilling details about her weekend matter-of-factly from behind her snarky valedictorian glasses. The other was Jono, a kind giant always wearing a messenger bag, always straddling a bike. I remember the two of them talking about how infrequently they did laundry. There were articles of clothing you didn’t have to wash after wearing once?! I was riveted. Anyway, both Beth and Jono were agreeing that jeans required less laundering than other articles of clothing. I must have been absorbing their conversation off to the side like someone on the bleachers at a tennis match. “Yeah, I mean, jeans are like jackets,” I remember Beth saying. Jeans are like jackets. In my mind, doors flew open. Jeans were so much sturdier than other articles of clothing, weren't they? And I certainly felt the way about my jeans that I felt about jackets: I only needed a few. Jackets were sometimes even made of denim. It wasn't like jeans every smelled, like the crumpled clothes in my gym locker always started to. My life could be a lot easier if I didn’t wash my jeans so often. Was Beth Slutsky a genius?


It sort of snowballed from there. A decade later, I had started to adopt strict philosophies about denim. I believed a person only ever needed to own two pairs of jeans: one black pair and one dark denim. I wore skinny jeans then, because they were what was in style. And I was fully operating under the principle that jeans did not need to be washed with every load of laundry, a la Beth.

It feels so good sometimes, especially in your 20s, to establish a firm philosophy about something. It felt like standing atop a mountain, hands on my hips: check! I had fully conquered jeans.


I like jeans. They’re durable as all hell, and they match with anything according to the rules of our society. Pulling on a good pair of jeans can feel like pulling on a well-loved leather jacket for the first time in the fall: it remembers your body, has kept its shape. That sensation is what I imagine Peter Pan felt after Wendy sewed his shadow back on. But after the first eight months or so of quarantine, after I hadn’t pulled on a pair of jeans once, I could no longer outrun my responsibility. I had to revise the theories I’d formed a decade ago about denim. Somewhere in there I had another mind-blowing conversation about jeans, this time with my friend Dana Jaye. Why do jeans have to be boring? we wondered. Why does the workhorse status of denim pants translate to them looking so uninspired? Remember Britney and Justin’s matching Canadian tuxedos? What about painted jeans, colored jeans, embroidered jeans?

I took a hard look at the jeans I owned. They were tight. They restricted movement. The pockets were too small. I couldn’t see myself ever getting into either pair again.

So when things began to open up again, I dropped my jeans off at my local consignment shop and went back to the drawing board.


After I got vaccinated, a pair jumped out at me in a thrift store. The dressing rooms were still closed so I didn’t try them on, but when I pulled them on at home, they felt really comfortable. They were oversized. Maybe too oversized? Well, they weren’t falling off. Roomy! And they were so much more comfortable than any other pair of jeans I’ve worn.

One Casual Friday several weeks later, a female coworker remarked to me, “I wear men’s jeans too!” I froze. Were these mens’ jeans? I have no qualms about wearing mens’ clothes, but I prefer to do it intentionally. (Also, would men’s jeans really feature a button fly?)

But then while I was chaperoning the literary magazine’s open mic that night, a student directly counteracted this comment by exclaiming, “Pal, I like your fit!”

I beamed. After all, every adult knows it’s not “imitation” but “praise from teenagers” that is the highest form of flattery.


The new jeans are not the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, though, and I know that. It’s the little things: I took the waist in a tad and did a sloppy job, and I think the button fly is ultimately unflattering. (Though does every item of clothing need to be flattering? I had a boss once who routinely had her pockets sewn shut by a tailor because she said it was slimming. She always looked great, but I imagine a closet full of useless pockets and can’t help but shake my head.) I know exactly what I’m looking for; I just haven’t found it yet.

The first time I went to Paris, I emerged from the metro and nearly bonked right into a stall selling denim cutoffs. No, that doesn’t quite do it justice: several full racks of gorgeous vintage cutoff shorts, old Levi's in perfect faded colors and all kinds of sizes. I had somewhere to be, and I was starving, but I had to stop and try some on.

I still have the pair I bought: they’re loose but they fit snugly around the waist and hips; they make my butt look good; they’re broken in and soft, always one summer away from starting to disintegrate. The kind of shorts you can wear to go grocery shopping in and hike in and read on the dock in and then wear to the diner.

My therapist cautions me, tries to remind me that perfection is an illusion. Still, I reach for my denim cutoffs almost every morning in the summer, and when I pull them on, I can’t help but think: this is it. They’re perfect.

My favorite shorts at the dog park and the funhouse this summer

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Updated: Aug 13, 2021

suburban composting

We started composting in the spring, and it has been genuinely, surprisingly fun. Millburn ran this composting pilot program -- 50 households could sign up for access to new composting bins at the town yard to be guinea pigs for a possible larger program. We jumped right on it! We had to pay $50, watch a webinar, and pass a quick quiz (“Which of the following items is NOT compostable?”). Then we received an airtight bucket, biodegradable bags, and the lock combo for the town compost bins. Then every week a company picked up the town's compost and transported it to their industrial composting site. We were so excited that it’s kind of embarrassing. For the first week or so, throwing anything in our kitchen compost warranted a minor celebration. I couldn’t believe the amount of food waste we had been accumulating. It felt so good to know we could divert some of our trash from a landfill and convert it into a resource again! One time I went to this residency that had a steel compost drum larger than a casket in the yard. People can get used to anything, and I did get used to dumping my scraps into that thing... but barely. A hellish stew of nightmares simmered within. It was summer, and the smell would just slap you across the face when you opened it up. But that was nothing compared to what it looked like in there. I’ll spare you further description. Anyway, home composting ended up being nothing like that experience! Filling up a 5-gallon bucket is way different than filling up a hundred-gallon barrel. Then someone else does the stinky part. Well, sometimes our bucket smells a little vinegar-y. Like we’re accidentally making cider or something. When we bought our place in Orange, we were really bummed we had to stop composting. But then I searched up Java's Compost, the company with which Millburn had contracted for that pilot program… and Java does residential pickups! For a monthly fee, they'll scoop up scraps every other week and disinfect your bucket. Could it work? We don’t have any outdoor space, so keeping the bucket outside like we did in Millburn wouldn’t be an option. But there was that weird wine fridge in our new home’s kitchen, and we never drink wine... Praise be to the environmental gods! I removed the shelves from the inside and found a bucket that would fit in there. Voila! We have a compost fridge!

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