Archive | Life Stories

Publish or perish: A 2nd-grader’s perspective

Beth Mende Conny of Write Directions writes about  the publish or perish obsession writers have and how hers began in 2nd grade.

Me, age 7. A budding and already tragic writer.

One day while reading my 2nd grade Weekly Reader, I came across an article about a 6-year-old girl who had published a book of poetry. Because she didn’t know how, literally, to write, she dictated the poems to her mother. (“Yo, mom, take down this sonnet!) Voila! — she became a published author.

I don’t remember the girl’s name, I do remember thinking: “Oh no! I’m seven and I still haven’t published!”

Embarrassingly, I continued to utter those words well into my late-20s, when I began publishing steadily. Even today, I utter a variation of them: “Oh no! I’m in my middle years and still haven’t written the Great American Novel!”

If you’re a writer, I bet similar words have slipped into the conversations you have with yourself and others. Such words belong to the universal language of writers — to all creative people, for that matter. We are all waiting for deliverance.

But universal as these words may be, there is no strength in number. Ultimately, we writers stand — and sit — alone.

Sitting down to write is key. It is the only way to quiet the Muzak looping through our minds:

La-di-da. Publish. Perish. La-di-da. Perish. Publish. La-di-da.

And so I’ve learned to sit, to let the sound of my keyboard block the Muzak. And when that fails, as it sometimes will, I will stand, stretch … and sit again.

 

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Focused ion beams, climate change and the Other Woman

focused ion beam

Sideview of a soot particle as seen in a Focused Ion Beam thingie.

My friends Glen and Kimba and I were hanging around last week and somehow our conversation shifted from Facebook to a discussion of particulate matter, focused ion beams and climate change.

My husband, Joe, happens to study atmospheric particles as part of his climate change research. A particle is a mere spec, but get a bunch of them together and they produce clouds and smog, among other things.

Each spec is made of molecules, and to figure out what they are, you need an electron microscope armed with a gizmo called a FIB (focused ion beam)

 

focused ion beam

Top view of same soot particle.

The FIB enables you to view particles three-dimensionally and on a molecular level. A two-dimensional view is insufficient. It cannot identify which molecules are on the particle’s sides or back; nor does it identify which are buried within its depths.

The FIB works like a bread slicer, only instead of slicing bread, it slices the particle. The particle is placed (staged) on a wafer (think of it as a plate) that is made of germanium. Wafers can also be made of silicon, carbon, etc. (Joe explained his preference for germanium, but I wasn’t listening because I was trying to grasp the whole bread slicer thing.)

 

focused ion beam

Same soot particle, staged in carbon and partially sliced; molecules beginning to show.

Anyway, instead of making 20 cuts per loaf of bread, the FIB makes hundreds of cuts per particle. Each is measured in nanometers (1 millimeter = 1 million nanometers).

As the FIB slices the particle from the outside in, its innards (molecules) are revealed. The FIB then identifies the what’s in the molecules themselves, e.g., silicon, iron, carbon, copper, etc.

Why go through this rigmarole? Because if you can’t identify the elements floating about the atmosphere, you can’t tell which are contributing to climate change. For example, some elements absorb light, heating the atmosphere (bad), while others reflect light, cooling the atmosphere (not so bad).

And there you have it: focused ion beams, particulates, molecules and climate change. Impress your friends. (FYI, should you be impressed with me, my husband actually vetted the above.)

You also now know what my hubby does for a living, does for love. The FIB is the Other Woman with whom he spends an inordinate amount of time. Unless there really is another woman. Hmmm … is he FIB-ing?

 

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Sisterly Bonds and the Mountain Miracle

sisterly bonds

I recently found this essay among old writings. The memory it evokes is as vivid as the mountains and, most especially, my daughters. Let me share it with you.

I’ve got two kids, both girls and they’re nearly eight years apart. Given their age difference, there’s little they have in common, save fighting, which they do often, most especially when our family’s on vacation and they’re forced into each other’s company. Each year, I swear I’ll never go anywhere with them again. But fool that I am, I do it anyway.

A couple of years back, my husband and I decided to take the kids to West Virginia and hike in the Monongahela Forest. This was a pretty risky proposition, given we couldn’t get them to trek from the couch to the kitchen to toss their candy wrappers. Nonetheless, we got them into the car and up a mountain from which we had an incredible view of six counties’ worth of blue sky and dense forest. All we heard was birds and wind.

But here’s the best part: For whatever reason, the girls not only called a truce but instituted a love feast. They laughed, hugged and acted like the sisters I always hoped they would be.

To convince myself I wasn’t hallucinating, I grabbed my camera and snapped away. And when the film came back, there was my four-color proof: the girls’ full smiles and arms wrapped around each other.

I have the photos hanging above my desk. It’s my reminder that miracles happen.

sisterly bonds

P.S. The miracle continues. My girls are now 28 and 20. They live in the same city, and rarely does a week go by that they don’t see or talk to each other. They hug, they kiss; they are each other’s confidants. And I am their very happy mother who has above her desk numerous pictures of them together. They are the sisters I always hoped they would be.

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I learn the facts of life

Beth Mende Conny of Lifencity and Write Directions.com writes her memoir about learning the facts of life aka the birds and the bees

© 2014 Beth Mende Conny

I am 10-years-old. My friend Laura asks, “Do you know where babies come from?”

I don’t like her tone; it is more of a taunt. Laura is as close to being a woman of the world as a neighborhood kid can be. She knows stuff the rest of us don’t and doles it out in jaw-dropping snippets. I sense she is trying to scare me, but ha! I happen to know the answer to this question thanks to my infallible source, aka my mother.

“A man and a woman fall in love and from their love comes a baby,” I say.

“Uh-uh. A man and a woman fuck.”

“No they don’t!”

“Yes, they do. They FUCK!”

Although I don’t understand the “F” word, I know that it does, indeed, have an “f” in it and is somehow related to the penis spray painted onto my elementary school’s wall. I don’t understand penises either, other than I don’t have one and wouldn’t want one based on the graffiti artist’s depiction.

I decide not to argue with Laura. She sounds far too confident, and, besides, I am crying. I run home, burst through the door and scream at my mother: “Where do babies come from?!”

I don’t remember her answer but likely it was less authoritative than her first. She hands me off to my father.

My father is a writer, not an artist, so it is quite confusing when he sits me down and starts drawing flowers and bees. He waxes poetic about pollen. I don’t know what pollen is but get the sense I don’t want to either.

Enter my sister, three years my senior and another woman of the world. She looks at my father’s sketches. “You’re teaching her the facts of life, aren’t you,” she says in her trademark superior tone.

I look from her to my father to his drawings and I struggle to find a connection: Flowers, bees, pollen, men, women, fucking, penises and facts of life. Facts? Like the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620? That 5 x 7 = 35?

Next memory: Continue Reading →

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Joseph-Beth Booksellers

booksellerWhat’s the difference between a coincidence and a sign of some other force at work. To me, they are distinct phenomena, however muddled their boundaries may be.

I think of coincidences as generally happy happenstance: You hum a song and moments later, it’s on the radio. You think of a friend and — voila! — they call. You search for your keys and find them beneath your bed (why did you even think to look there?!), only to also find the earring you assumed was lost forever.

Signs are different; they feel different. They make you stop, look and listen. They answer a question, give you direction, instill belief in yourself, others and the Universe.

Example:

Three summers ago, my youngest was college-bound, causing family members to redefine themselves as individuals and as a unit. I knew Jenna would be fine; she’d forge a new life with new friends. But what of Joe and I? I’d heard that when kids leave home, the ties between couples often frayed. Would that be true for Joe and me?

That summer, I drove three hours to Fredericksburg, Virginia, and spent a weekend with a friend. We talked for two days and nights and went to a movie. It was dark when we stepped outside, which made the signs of restaurants and shops that much brighter. And there, in the distance: Joseph-Beth Booksellers.

I laughed because, well, how could I not? Consider:

Had I not been in Fredericksburg or that particular movie theater, I never would have stumbled upon Joseph-Beth Booksellers. In fact, I doubt there are many (any other?) Joseph-Beth Booksellers in the country. Ditto for Joseph-Beth Books, Joseph Books or Beth Books. The fact that I write books and theirs is a bookstore — not a bar, hair cuttery or antiques shop — surely goes beyond coincidence. It can only be a sign.

But this is what convinced me: The hyphen. Joseph (hyphen) Beth Booksellers.

That hyphen confirmed what I had hoped but also somehow knew. The ties between Joe and me would hold, and if we were smart about it, they would strengthen.

We’re being smart.

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The Dark Side of Parenting

dark side parentingHere’s Joe. He’s hitting the ball. He’s having fun.

Where’s Beth?

She’s back in their small apartment, trying to fold laundry while attending to her newborn. She has been trying to fold laundry for hours, but her baby cries and poops and is hungry. Beth cries too and thinks: “18 more years of this?!”

A couple of hours later, Beth hears Joe call her name. She goes to the window. Two floors below is Joe. He’s smiling. “I’m going to go to (some guy’s name) and have a beer.”

Something happens to Beth’s voice. It sounds as if she has been possessed by an evil spirit rising from the deep. She lets out a primal scream: “Get the hell up here!”

Beth has never yelled at Joe. She has always been civil. But she has crossed over to the Dark Side — Parenthood — where it is every man (and woman) for himself.

Beth feels bad, but she gets to fold the laundry — and then throw in another batch. Victory!

 

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Dear Diary

Beth Mende Conny of Write Directions and Lifenicity writes a childhood diary.Note: When I was 9, my mother gave me a diary. It was 10 days before Christmas, and I simply couldn’t wait until the new year to begin writing in it. Hence, my diary covered more than one year.

December 15. I make my first entry in my very first diary:

“Dear Dairy, My mother said that I would not write in you evry day. I do not think it is true.” One month later, I make my second entry:

“Dear diary, I will treat you like my best friend. I love a boy named Josph. I try to show it but It is of no use.”

I remember Joseph. He had a shiny black crew cut and had an older brother who was so cute that I ran away whenever he came near me.

Beth Mende Conny of Write Directions and Lifenicity writes about her childhood diary.I don’t know why I liked Joseph. I do know, however, that my passion was short lived. On Feb. 6, he merited one last mention: “In my drems I drem of him. Josph likes some other girl. I wish he would like me.” And then Joseph, the boy of my dreams disappeared. Like a dream.

But such is the nature of childhood memories. They fade as they lose their immediacy and edge. One memory blends into the other into the other. And yet some memories shine through; they live on by virtue of having been entered in my diary. As a (former) journalist who has been trained to think in terms of news worthiness, I wonder why I reported some events and not others.

Some events, have obvious significance, of course. For example: Feb. 18, 1963: “A new singing group was born. The Beatles. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I love them all.” Or Nov. 22, 1963: “The Presadint is dead. 3 gun shots fired at him. John F. Remmedy.”

Beth Mende Conny of Write Directions and Lifenicity writes about her childhood diary.Other entries are more questionable:

Feb. 10: “I wish I knew ballay.” April 1: “April fool, go to school, tell your teacher she’s a fool … .” April 22: “Today is my girlfriends birthday. I put this down just to satisfi her if she knew war was in here.” Or June 4: “Today it is the 4 of June.”

Like any historian, I know I shouldn’t judge the past from the vantage of the present. That I felt compelled to report on June 4th that it was June 4th means that it was a significant day, especially when I consider that the entry was one of only 20 I made all year.

Still today, decades later, I wish I had been more expansive. I‘d like to know what I meant when, on Jan. 14, I wrote: “My grandmother yelled at me. I do not think it was fare.” Or when on Jan. 13, I scribbled, “So many things happened.” Period. Was so much happening that I couldn’t find time to write about it? And what did I mean by “things” anyway?

I’ll never know, of course, just as I’ll never fully know or remember the third-grader who kept her diary hidden beneath a pile of clothes lest her older sister find it and read its deep secrets. I’ll have to be satisfied with piecing together the entries and matching them up to old photographs, report cards and the other paraphernalia of childhood.

Beth Mende Conny of Write Directions and Lifenicity writes about her childhood diary.And though I don’t remember much of third grade, I will have to trust that as a budding journalist I was objective when, on Dec. 31, I reported, “The end of a fun fill pack year.” May I have more like it.

 

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Happy BD Julie, my Olympian

Beth Mende Conny, president of Lifenicity and Write Directions, writes a birthday essay for her oldest daughter, Julia Mende Conny. Here's the story of how Julia wanted to be an Olympic skater.

My oldest daughter, Julie

Happy birthday, Sweetie Pie!

May today be free of traffic and telemarketers, grouchy people and bills in your mailbox. May you get good cable reception, so you and your sister can watch Veronica Mars while eating Indian take-out. May you go to bed feeling loved by family, friends; the world.

I’m glad you got my birthday card. Apologies that all my love couldn’t fit into the envelope. To make amends, let me tell you a story. Conveniently, it is about you.

The year: 1994. You are eight, and like many kids watching the Winter Olympics, you are dazzled by the ice dancers in their sequined costumes and heavy makeup. They jump and twirl and perform moves that you (and the rest of us) don’t understand: axel, sow cow, lutz, etc. But no matter.

Amid the cheers of the crowd, you hear them call: “Julie! Be me! Be me! You can be me!” And thus, for a few glorious (and expensive) weeks, you became an ice skater.

Dad and I signed you up for lessons, rented and then purchased skates. We bought you a pretty pink outfit, the kind even mommies covet. You were not grace in motion (forgive me!), but you didn’t know that. Nor did you have to. It was your right as a kid to not link your dreams to your abilities. That’s something grownups do.

One night I walked into your room to tuck you in and you were crying. I sat and asked you what was the matter.

“I don’t want to be alone,” you cried.

“I’m right here.”

“No, I mean when I go to Colorado.”

“Colorado?”

“Where the skaters go.”

Ah, yes. Colorado Springs, where many famous skaters train and live — without their parents.

“I’m going to miss you so much.”

I nodded. “I’ll miss you too.”

“Can you move with me?”

Hmmm. What to say? I had come to a fork in the parenting road and knew that what I said would have a significance that extended beyond the moment.

But which road to take? The one that bee-lined toward the “Real World” (aka “Get Real World”)? Or the one that meandered, its edges sprinkled with seeds, any one of which could sprout?

I made my decision. “Sure, I’ll move with you,” I said

“What about Dad?”

“He’ll visit.”

“He won’t mind?”

“Nah.

You nodded. We hugged. I rubbed your back, kissed your cheek. You went to sleep. Months later, you stopped skating and began gymnastics. Another seed, another sprout.

Beth Mende Conny, president of Lifenicity and Write Directions, writes a birthday essay for her oldest daughter, Julia Mende Conny. Here's the story of how Julia wanted to be an Olympic skater. This  picture is of the two of them together.Today, the thought of our moving anywhere together would be more nightmare than dream. (For both of us, by the way.) And so we live an hour from each other. I am far enough away so you can forget I’m around, but close enough for me to skate over when you need a kiss, a hug or rub on the back. Call me anytime.

So happy birthday my tattooed Olympian. I love you, love you, love you — and then some.

 

 

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Cold Cuts, Pastries, Funerals

cold cuts, pastries, funerals

Babu

When I was a kid, funerals were my favorite gatherings. Strangers would appear at the door, bearing platters of smartly folded cold cuts and pretty pink boxes of pastries. When they heard I was Judy’s girl, they’d look at me and ask my age. “How can that be?“ they’d ask accusingly, which always confused me. Why would I lie about my age when there were better things to lie about?

These strangers would then turn to my mother and accuse her too: “Six years? We haven’t seen each other in six years?!” But instead of defending herself, my mother would hug them.

The strangers would then whisper, “How’s She/He holding up?” My mother would point, and we’d all turn our heads. There She/He would be, the surviving spouse, son or daughter, surrounded by attentive ears as if it were story time at the library.

Oh, but it was story time, with everyone taking turns telling tales that made people laugh, cry, cry, laugh. I’d observe and think, “What’s with these people?”

Over time and the course of numerous funerals, I learned that these strangers, indeed tribes, were family. Via bonds and tethers, we were connected, and via funerals, we reconnected.

The first funeral I attended was for my 97-year-old great-grandmother, Babu. I was five and didn’t think she was particularly great. She spoke only Yiddish, wore thick glasses and was missing a leg (diabetes, I later learned). She gave me the creeps.

Next up, Grandpa Al, who dropped dead on the street while pushing his hot dog cart through Manhattan. Turns out, he wasn’t my grandfather but the man my Grandma Dora took up with when she could no longer stand her alcoholic husband (aka Grandpa Benjamin, who died before I was born.)

cold cuts, pastries, funerals

Grandpa Al (on right)

My family didn’t like Grandpa Al and had to scavenge for good things to say about him.

“Well, he did take her to Florida that time,” they recalled. Florida wasn’t Paris, of course, but it was a big deal for a woman who had lived in shtetls all of her life: one in Eastern Europe, the other in the overcrowded Jewish slums of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Florida had been her one and only vacation.

I was about eight when Grandpa Al died. I remember walking over to Grandma in the funeral parlor and her pulling me to her ample bosom.

cold cuts, pastries, funerals

Grandma Dora

Let me say here that like many Old World grandmas, she was all bosom. Only when she wore a belt could I locate her waist. And so when she pulled me to her and squeezed tightly it was as if I were being sucked between couch pillows. I couldn’t breathe. I panicked. I started to cry.

Finally, she let go, and when saw my tears, she cupped my face. “Ah, kinder, kinder. It’s okay to cry. You loved him too.”

Next up: Uncle Harry, the kind of uncle you kiss hello and goodbye and forget in-between.

cold cuts, pastries,funerals

Aunt Mollie and Uncle Harry

At family gatherings hosted by Aunt Mollie, his wife, he’d sit at one end of the long table, its seats crammed with three generations talking over each other. Aunt Mollie would sit at the opposite end of the table, close to the kitchen, so she could ferry platters to the raucous masses.

Somehow, amidst the shouting, Aunt Molly could make out everything her husband said, and she would scream, “Shut up, Harry!” Poor Uncle Harry. He couldn’t even say, “Pass the salt” or “How ‘bout them Yankees?” without getting yelled at.

I was surprised, therefore, when Aunt Mollie wailed at his funeral; you’d think she’d be happy now that he had finally shut up.

But people are like that, I’ve since learned. Something about grief balances relationships. What they once hated about someone loses its potency. What they once loved sharpens, cutting their hearts in two.

Next up:

Cousin Barbara, Grandma Dora, Uncle Victor, Uncle Jack, Grandma Ida; my father. No longer a child, I was no longer an observer but a participant, mourning with the grownups and sometimes even helping with funeral arrangements. I came to understand the undertow of grief. How, when people die, they take a piece of you with them. Sometimes this is sad, other times a relief, which makes death — and life — so very complicated.

Last weekend, I went to a memorial service for a friend’s husband. It was held in the small country church he attended as a child and where his ancestors are buried; he’ll be in good company.

A few people stood up and shared memories that made us smile. But I am old enough now to know that memories aren’t enough. They can’t lie next to you at night. They don’t snore or buy milk on the way home. They don’t remember your birthday; they can’t comfort you when your heart shatters. My friend was going home alone. At some point, we all are alone.

When I got home, I swapped my black pants and heels for jeans and sneakers. I ran an errand. I thought about my friend and how I might help fill the vacuum in her life. There is little I can do, of course — except to appear at her door bearing smartly folded cold cuts and pink boxes of pastries, to sit beside her for story time.

 

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Girls—this is how I met your father

Beth Mende Conny of Write Directions writes about the first time she met her husband.

Source: flickr creative commons

College. February. Best friend’s birthday party in a Chinese restaurant in downtown Binghamton, New York. Huge oval table and Madge is assigning seats. I see a cute guy sitting at the far end of table. I lean my head against hers. “Who’s he?”

Madge sighs. “That’s Joe. I told you about him.”

I, of course, can’t remember. I’m in love with another guy (I’ll call him “X”), one I hope will love me back — once he dumps his girlfriend. Not that he plans to. My friends keep trying to give me a heads-up, but my heart’s playing dumb.

Madge grabs my wrist. “Come on,” she says. A few strides later, she makes introductions: “Joe, Beth. Beth, Joe.” And off she goes.

I sit, and Joe and I begin talking about the one thing we have in common: Madge.

“How do you know each other?” he asks. I tell him Madge and I transferred to SUNY-Binghamton in our junior year and lived in the same dorm.

My turn: “And how do you know Madge?”

Turns out Joe is Jeff’s roommate, Jeff being Madge’s boyfriend. A light bulb goes off. Oh, that Joe; the one Madge had, indeed, mentioned and wanted to set me up with. Interesting.

Joe and I shift our conversation to college majors. His is botany. At present he’s studying the lifecycle of the phaseolus vulgaris,aka the common bean. I’ve nothing to say — a bean is a bean is a bore — but I nod somewhat enthusiastically because he’s cute and nice, which is a somewhat unusual combination in a guy in his early 20s.

Joe asks me what my major is.

“Comparative religion,” I say, ready for the inevitable question: “What’re you going to do with that?” To which I’ll inevitably reply, “Pray for a job.” (Actually, I don’t want a job; I want to write, though I’d probably make more money comparing religions.) Joe, however, seems to think comparing religions is interesting, which makes me think he is not only cute and nice but also intelligent.

Our Chinese dinner wraps up and Joe asks if I’d like to go to his lab. Yeah, right. Your lab. What a line. But what the hell. It’s Saturday night and I have absolutely nothing else to do but wonder what “X” and his girlfriend are doing. Yes, I will go to Joe’s lab.

Turns out, Joe really does want to go to his lab to check on his beans. So I go with him and nod (and almost nod off) as he discusses their anatomy. A couple of hours later, it becomes evident that my anatomy is of no interest to him, and I head home.

Flash forward two weeks. Beginning of March. I decide to call Joe. Maybe his beans are done growing. Besides, “X” is still with his girlfriend, and I’m beginning to think I should move on.

Joe is happy to hear from me. I suggest we get together. “Sounds great!” he says, “I’ll call you this summer, when I’m done with my classes.”

Summer?! Did I mention it is the beginning of March?! I get off the phone and wonder which is worse: waiting for a guy who prefers another woman, or waiting for a guy who prefers beans?

Summer rolls around and, true to his word, Joe calls. We go to a Greek restaurant, where we order octopus and Ouzo, a Greek liquor that doubles as paint thinner. Joe’s still cute and nice, but there’s no spark, even after shots of Ouzo.

We see each other a couple more times over the next year: a couple of dinners; a hike. I graduated, prayed for a job and got one with a consumer group. He worked in a factory, saved a bunch of money, packed up his old Datsun and started driving around the country. North and South and East and West.

The Western leg turned out to be the most important leg of his journey. It brought him to L.A. one evening in late July. It just so happened I was in L.A. that night, and when he walked through the door, he was as cute and nice as I remembered. This time there was no talk of beans. But there was a spark.

To be continued…

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