In the Spotlight: The Art of Complaining Effectively

January 5, 2017

You’d think that thirty-two years of experience as a lawyer and more than a decade of negotiating with school district officials for appropriate services for my son would qualify me as an expert at making complaints. I’m not. I lose my patience, I can be stubborn about compromising. This year I plan to do better because I have learned the C’s of complaining. They start with being CALM and end with a reminder to always keep COPIES to back up your position, but there’s much more to the process. In clear language with a large dash of humor (and a COOKIE recipe), author Amy Fish shows readers how to reach amicable and satisfactory solutions to the disputes that interrupt our days.

So that you, too, can become a master at resolving complaints, the first Spotlight of 2017 shines on Amy Fish’s delightfully helpful book, The Art of Complaining Effectively.




In the Spotlight: Fotoffiti

September 15, 2016

Looking for something to spark your creativity? Do you take far too many pictures with your phone and let them sit. Try a (currently) free app that gives you the tools to turn ordinary photos into street art using a variety of background walls, shapes, text, and effects. For putting me in touch with my inner Banksy, today’s spotlight is on Fotoffiti.



In the Spotlight: The Parent’s Tao Te Ching

June 30, 2016

On the third day of second grade, our son hid under his desk and would not come out. That is when our family crossed over into the world of special education, with its multiple evaluations and conflicting diagnoses; with the private schools that did not have to keep him and wouldn’t, and the public school that wasn’t aware when he cut classes and came home. Every decision we had to make—where to live, which doctors, therapists and interventions to try, whether and when to medicate—was accompanied by agonizing soul-searching about what was best for him, at the moment and long term. At the time, he wanted to be a police detective. One of the games we played involved hiding something in the basement and asking him to find it. He liked to use a flashlight and he didn’t want any clues. What if the decisions we made for him when he was seven or eight prevented him from pursuing this dream or another? I made every mistake possible, many times over.

One book, more than any other, was my touchstone. For years, I read one entry from its’ pages every day. Slowly, slowly, I found a way to accept my mistakes, apologize and correct them. I learned to make better choices more quickly and to accept that he was becoming who he was meant to be. For the wisdom, guidance and measure of peace this book has bestowed on me, the spotlight is on The Parent’s Tao Te Ching by William Martin.

In the Spotlight: Crash Course

I have come rather late to personal writing; well, more precisely, to sharing what I write. It is still much too easy for me to talk myself out of the whole enterprise. Finding a structure and a voice for a story is daunting, but the silence of not working drains my spirit and punishes my body. Lately, the censors in my head have been particularly quarrelsome. I am learning, again, not to shout them down; instead, I have been searching quietly and methodically for way to continue. A few days ago, I found that opening while I was reading a new book on craft. A connection among the disparate sections of a stalled project began to emerge. The censors are still grumbling, but they have stepped aside. For the humorous and inspiring way she has shared her experiences and insights, the spotlight is on Robin Black and her latest book, Crash Course: Essays From Where Writing and Life Collide. 

In the Spotlight: Field Notes®

April 28, 2016

Most of what I write starts out handwritten, in a notebook. The pages curl and crinkle from the pressure of my pen. Sliding my hand across the rippled pages afterwards helps me know who I am, a woman working her way to understanding, one word at a time. Researchers have confirmed what I came to instinctively. Handwritten notes enhance learning.

When I went to Guatemala in 1992, I brought a notebook primed with important addresses and phone numbers. I recorded the progress of the adoption I was there to complete. After my arrest, the last items taken from me by the matrons were my pens. The next day, I begged a visitor from the embassy for a replacement, my first item of contraband. I waited another day before I wrote anything down and prayed that no one would report me to the guards. Those notes, along with the memories they rekindle, form the spine of my memoir in progress, Nothing Can Hold Me Here.

These days, I nearly always have a notebook with me, sometimes more than one. My favorite is pocket-sized, with pages that may be graph paper, blank, or ruled. The standard edition reminds me of the covers we made from brown bags for our school books, but there are seasonal special editions which are always surprising and beautiful. For helping me record my memories in style, the spotlight is on Field Notes®.




In the Spotlight: Tournaments

March 24, 2016

Two kinds of madness compete for my attention in March. I stumbled across the NCAA Tournament in 1979, the year Magic Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans beat Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores. Ever since, the sounds of spring returning include the thud and squeak of sneakers on gleaming hardwood, as well as birds chirping and trilling in the trees.

A few years ago, a different bracketed tournament captured my imagination. Now in its’ 12th season, The Tournament of Books brings avid readers a head-to-head competition featuring some of the previous year’s best fiction. Since I began following the tournament, the long list has been a source of ideas for holiday gifts and the shortlist inspires my winter reading list. If I have any preferences at the outset, the weeks of the competition usually provoke me to wonder at least once how the organizers manage to select judges with so little discernment. The books remaining after the quarterfinals include Bats of the Republic, The Turner House, The Tsar of Love and Techno and The Sellout. Since I haven’t read any of them yet, I have no skin in the game this year. Last year, I was passionate about An Untamed State and furious when it was eliminated.

The discovery of new books and new authors is worth the yearly consternation of busted brackets, so this week, the spotlight is on The Morning News Tournament of Books.



In the Spotlight: Why We Write About Ourselves

March 10, 2016

Revise, revise, revise. It is not what I do best. I get stuck, repeatedly. The words of a current draft seem so tightly formed that I will never pry them apart. The story is in my heart, fully formed but somehow wordless. Will it ever be recognizable on the page?

About a week ago, to clear the latest blockage, I began reading a new book. Somewhere in the 20 short chapters about memoir writers there was bound to be some guidance that would show me what I need to know. Last Friday, I read the segment about Pat Conroy, the author of many wonderful novels and memoirs, all circling the events of his childhood and their lasting effects on his life. Each chapter of the book ends with the subject’s advice for other writers. Conroy offered the insight I sought. I copied his last point into my journal around 7:00 a.m. When I learned that he died in the evening of that same day, his thoughts took on a greater meaning since they are among his final words on the subject of memories and secrets. In gratitude for Pat Conroy’s persistence in working out his story and to Meredith Maran, the editor who brought this project into being, the spotlight is on Why We Write About Ourselves.



In the Spotlight: Patti Smith and Abigail Thomas

February 25, 2016

The honeymoon phase of entering a new decade is over. I monitor the return of the light, the increased activity of birds and squirrels, the stealth of the raccoon climbing a neighbor’s tree at dawn, but observing the natural world offers does not offer the usual inspiration. If only March, the broom that arrives next week to sweep away winter’s debris, would clear the inner clutter impeding my forward progress. I have become solitary, nearly feral in avoiding contact. I do not want to be distracted. I am waiting for something, although I don’t know what it is. Even reading has largely failed me. Until last week, I hadn’t finished a book for several months. Loyalty to my book club prodded me to finish Patti Smith’s new memoir; her book called to mind Abigail Thomas, author of one of my favorite memoirs, Safekeeping, who also published a new memoir last year. The latest works of both women are reports from the largely unexplored territory of aging without surrender. For filling in a bit of the map of the future, the spotlight is on Patti Smith’s M Train and What Comes Next and How to Like It by Abigail Thomas.



In the Spotlight: Home Ground

February 11, 2016

The spring when I was 22 and married less than a year, we drove across the country in a bright green VW beetle to live in southeastern Washington State. I fell in love with the changing terrain and weather on those long May days behind the wheel: with the thunderstorm that sent inky clouds boiling down the highway near Blue Earth, Iowa; with the miles of empty highway in Wyoming where a herd of antelope running parallel to the road was the only other sign of life; with the dry, rolling hills around the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, so much like a 1950’s sci-fi movie that I was sure a giant tarantula would crawl over the next rise and flip our bug onto its hood.

The most beautiful place name I remember was the Horse Heaven Hills. In the fall, we went into those hills once with friends to break down deadfall and haul it out. I didn’t know we wouldn’t stay long enough to enjoy the winter fires I dreamed of that day. After we moved home to Pennsylvania, the marriage didn’t survive. Our time in the west belonged to a previous life until I delved into a dictionary of America’s geography given to me one year at Christmas. Hungry for names and definitions for every feature of the landscape, I vowed to read an entry a day, from ‘a‘a, a type of lava flow, to zigzag rocks, a term for Native American fish-funneling dams. But it was in the Introduction, written by Barry Lopez, where a fragment of my internal geography was restored. Within the first few pages, he mentioned some maps of the Pacific Northwest that included my fleeting beloved, the Horse Heaven Hills.

For deepening my love for the land and reminding me of places I’d forgotten and others I still hope to discover, the spotlight is on Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, Barry Lopez, Editor and Debra Gwartney, Managing Editor.

In the Spotlight: Albert D. Horner’s Pinelands 

January 28, 2016

The photographs of Eliot Porter were one of my obsessions when I was 17. On rainy spring nights when I couldn’t sleep, the color plates of his Appalachian Wilderness gave my restless mind a secret destination. Lately, the New Jersey Pine Barrens have invaded my imagination. This singular national reserve rests on a vital aquifer within a few hours of New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., yet manages to maintain a sense of remoteness and mystery. Albert D. Horner is a South Jersey photographer who has been wandering the Pinelands and capturing its beauty for years. Some of his best pictures were published in a monograph last year. For creating images that lure me into dreaming the way Porter’s once did, the spotlight is on Horner’s masterful work, Pinelands: New Jersey’s Suburban Wilderness.

In the Spotlight: Drive by Daniel Pink

January 14, 2016

The new year is two weeks old. Are you wondering how will you find the motivation to accomplish the goals you set for 2016?  Several years ago, I read a book that helped me crystalize a purpose for the last third of my life. A simple exercise, attributed to Clare Booth Luce, suggested that readers ask themselves, “What is my sentence?” After noodling around with the question for a few days, I realized that the most satisfying moments in my work as an attorney occurred when the law was able to change lives for the better. In my own life, whenever I re-examined what I believed about myself, I was able to write my way to necessary changes. Volunteering with young people in the process of discovering the power of their own voices and stories energized me more than almost anything else. Doing this exercise helped me find a sentence that sums up the essence of who I am: “She changed her story and helps others change theirs.” Now I test decisions about how to spend my time against that sentence. For providing the spark that led me to this awareness, the spotlight is on Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink.

If you’re searching for motivation, read Drive. Find your sentence. Let Daniel Pink know how it’s working for you.



 In the Spotlight: The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson

December 29, 2015

Some of the books I read this year were ephemeral pleasures: the latest Flavia de Luce mystery, As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust by Alan Bradley and The Grimm Conclusion by Adam Gidwitz, among others. Since I no longer finish books that I don’t like, there were few disappointments in 2015. I read to the end of On Looking, an essay collection by Lia Purpura, wanting to understand and failing. Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee was tolerable only because I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird first. Hand to Mouth: Living Bootstrap in America by Linda Tirado made me uncomfortable in the best possible way, while An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison put me at ease by deepening my understanding of bi-polar disorder.

Of all the books I read this year, my favorite was a novel about three generations of women on Barbados. Instead of identifying with one of the sisters coming of age during a summer on the island, or with their troubled mother back in Brooklyn, the character who resonated most with me was the grandmother, Hyacinth. Through this family’s story, I realized that in the year since the birth of my granddaughter, Olivia, I have gained a new perspective. For showing me that I see the world with a grandmother’s eyes now, the Spotlight is on Naomi Jackson’s first novel, The Star Side of Bird Hill.


In The Spotlight: WePAC

December 16, 2015


My love affair with books started more than 50 years ago, when my mother read aloud to me, sometimes twice a day. She awakened in me an abiding passion for stories. It is her most meaningful legacy to me and one I am trying to carry on. Each Wednesday morning during the school year, I spend a few hours as part of a team of volunteers in the library at Samuel Gompers Elementary School. Gompers is one of 13 schools in Philadelphia with libraries reopened by the West Philadelphia Alliance for Children (WePAC) as part of their mission to promote childhood literacy.

When time permits, we read aloud to five classes over the course of the morning; and every week we do our best to get books into the hands of students. Over the two days each week that the Gompers library is open, WePAC volunteers circulate books to close to 400 eager children.

I don’t know about other states, but Pennsylvania’s priorities are inverted. Libraries are mandated in prisons, but not in elementary schools. Perhaps someday the laws will change, but our children can’t wait for the legislature. That’s why this week’s Spotlight is on WePAC and the work they do for the children of West Philadelphia.

In The Spotlight: Megan Daum

December 1, 2015

On November 18, I had the privilege of giving a public reading from “Becoming His Mother,” my contribution to the anthology, Oh Baby! True Stories About Conception, Adoption, Surrogacy, Pregnancy, Labor and Love, published in October 2015 by In Fact Books. I wrote a story of wanting to be a mother, of how the desire narrowed my perspective until I took more risks that I should have to realize my dream.

Some people agonize the way I did about parenthood and come to the opposite conclusion. Not everyone loves babies; not everyone wants children. Many of us are lucky in America. We get to choose (for now) whether or not to be parents. Back in April, a collection of essays about remaining childless/child-free was published by Picador with the stereotype-skewering title, Selfish, Shallow, And Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited and with an introduction by Meghan Daum.

I wish this book had existed when I was making up my mind. Not because I would have come to a different decision, but because the thoughtful way in which each author writes about her or his choice would have let me know that I wasn’t alone in interrogating myself about parenthood and listening for the answer that was right for me.