Lillian’s Light


Photo credit: Lisa Kusel 

Memories, like Jell-O, shake,
fall off the Spanish chandelier
all she left me, my father’s mother,
once she died, it hangs there from the ceiling
in our dining room, ceramic flowers
pink and blue and yellow like a child’s toy
giving light with open arms

spraying light and then
she is stooped under it
gnarled painful back, humped
spreading tuna salad
on rye toast
heaping canned fruit bits, cherries
redder than an oil painting,
squares of pineapple so perfect
a geometry teacher would marry them
on my plate and I wipe

treacly juice
from my small mouth
from the table
my elfin reflection
in that lucid bough hanging
over her table alive with possibilities
I could not perceive

before I escaped to
my Florida friends

Marco Polo

before I could scurry from
dry cold old-smelling air into
a humid embrace like a mink stole
saddling sunburned shoulders

she kisses my freckled cheeks, in her hands
like a vise tightening waiting sides
leaving me lipstick smudged,
plastic smelling Hollywood Red, Uptown Red, Marilyn Red
Radiant Red, Royal Red, Ravishing Red, Really Red, Truly Red,
Russian Red, West End Red, Silent Red,
Burnt Red, Flame Red, Hot Red,
Red Licorice, Red Ribbon, Red Devil, Red Fox,
No Question Red, Deep Cut Red, Riot Red
Fatal Red, Midnight Red, Velvet Red, Drop Dead Red
Classic Red rubbed off with thumb and spit. Cleaning

a hanging light is treacherous.
So many reflections lie beneath the dust.
In the breeze they make no sound.

What’s Going On, Lisa?


Thanks for asking. It’s been a while, so I figured, what, with this 3-day weekend upon us, I may as well catch you up.

I spent three weeks in northern California this summer and it was an altogether fabulous holiday. Among my many adventures, I

  • visited my girlfriend Lela, the doctor who delivered Loy. She opened a new ob/gyn practice in Santa Rosa with an attached spa that offers skin-altering facials, one of which Lela treated me to. After the machine sucked out the toxins and the aesthetician rubbed some magic lotion on my skin, I positively glowed. For a few days, anyway, I looked a decade younger.
  • ran into my old boyfriend, Doug, of Modern Love, Rejected fame. (Still happily married, he did not take notice of my shiny countenance.)
  • hiked 8 miles (and 1545 feet of elevation gain) up a mountain dyingafter both mistakenly taking too much of my ADHD meds, and not bringing along enough water in blistering heat. I almost died.
  • reconnected with friends from our former lives in Nevada City which made me consider moving back there again.
  • enjoyed two blissful weeks in Lake Tahoe, writing, cooking, hiking, swimming, reading, and hanging with my BFF Lori. I sort of never wanted to leave.IMG_0133

But leave I did and once back in Vermont, I got back to work. Yeah, writers do more than just stare off into space, conjuring up fantastical plots and wondering what to name their fictional characters’ dogs (I did actually spend a lot of time doing that). Among other things I

  • listened to 8.5 hours of the first run-through of the audio version of RASH, stopping every 22 seconds to note mistakes made by the narrator, most of which were Bahasa and Balinese mispronunciations. Granted; I should have recorded it myself, but Sharon Larson, the producer I chose, lives in Idaho and it was easier to let someone else take it on. Sharon is working on the final edits and the audiobook should be available in the next month or so.
  • finished the final edits on my domestic suspense novel Love Lies Here. I am now composing the ever-important query. I never had to write a query before: my previous agents came to me through introductions. I follow this guy, Nathan Bransford, an ex-agent turned writing blogger. He offers in-depth, accessible advice to newbie writers, as well as to old hands like me who still need some help. As to query writing, Nathan says:
Writing a query is such a tricky balance. One the one hand, you have to condense an entire novel into a few dozen words. On the other hand, you want your query to reflect the uniqueness of your book and stand out from the pack. You need to be general, but you also need to include detail. You need to be clear, but you need to be original. You need to give flavor, but you can’t get bogged down. How in the world do you do all this at once?


Now then. Besides the query-writing I

  • flew to Florida to check on my mother. I’d like to be the bearer of good news where she is concerned, but, unfortunately, this is not to be. (Have I mentioned that the heat of Florida in August is not that different than the heat in Bali anytime?)
  • fretted over the fact that my daughter, Loy, just started her senior year of high school. I miss her even though she’s still here and now my head and heart are swirling with a kaleidoscope of
    1. sadness
    2. pride
    3. wonder
    4. questions about my own mortality
    5. time
    6. success: what does it even mean?
    7. #metoo
    8. motherhood
  • made reservations at various Airbnb’s around the US in advance of the many colleges Loy and I will check out together in the coming months. Her heart is set on Barnard, but hearts, as we well know, are made to break.
  • sifted through boxes of recipes, pulling out the non-meat ones since the high school senior has just informed us she is a vegetarian.
  • dwelled far too much in past memories and fantasized far too much about what I want my future to look like.
  • filled out the volunteer application for the local food shelf but didn’t yet turn it in.
  • wrote a polite thank-you note to a book blogger who reviewed RASH in a most favorable fashion.
  • considered re-organizing my office.
  • meditated daily with soothing meditation teachers.
  • made a list of writing residencies I was absolutely going to apply to, then missed half the deadlines.
  • saw Tony Bennett perform at the Flynn and waxed nostalgic about my dead father who was a huge fan. I am constantly amazed by music’s profound ability to unmoor me.  As the late Oliver Sacks wrote in his book Musicophilia: “Familiar music acts as a sort of Proustian mnemonic, eliciting emotions and associations that had long been forgotten, giving the patient access once again to moods and memories, thoughts and worlds that had seemingly been completely lost.” Interestingly: my mother has lost so many of her memories due to dementia, yet, when old-time crooners swing by her facility to entertain the residents, she sings along to every song, remembering all the lyrics.  Apparently, this is because
Musical memory is considered to be partly independent from other memory systems. In Alzheimer’s disease and different types of dementia, musical memory is surprisingly robust…
  • fell out of love with Facebook while spending hours scrolling through Instagram, alternately experiencing boredom, awe, and FOMO.
  • connected with an old housemate from when I lived on Balboa Island and attended UC Irvine. Debbie found me on FB, and after I told her I based a character in my second novel on her, I noticed my Amazon sale numbers shot up precipitously.
  • binge-watched Crashing (the British version), Fleabag, and The Handmaid’s Tale. Victor and I are presently ensconced in season 2 of Billions. I can watch Paul Giamatti tie his shoes and still be riveted. If you haven’t yet, you must see his series, John Adams. Both he and it are phenomenal.
  • starting reading Kristin Neff’s Self-Compassion so that I may learn how to give myself more of that.
  • wrote this blog post.















War is Heck

It didn’t take a whole lot of arm-twisting to convince my husband Victor that I needed to go to  England and France if I wanted Mary’s Crossing, the WWII romance novel I was writing, to be as true-to-life as possible. I’d already spent the last year reading dozens of books, interviewing veterans, watching countless WWII movies, perusing innumerable websites, and listening to hundreds of interviews recorded by the National WWII Museum.

Certainly, secondary research is all well and good, but I had yet to fully capture the emotional and physical journeys of my two main characters: Eugene Walsh, a naval officer from a small town in northern California who lands on Utah Beach on D-Day; and Claudette Delors, a French woman trying to return to her village in occupied France. For that to happen, I felt I needed to see what they saw. I wanted to walk beside them.

Which meant, of course, that Victor and our three-year-old daughter, Loy, were going to walk beside them as well.


I’d developed the book’s rudimentary historical plot in 1998, when during a trip to France with Victor, we chanced upon the village of Oradour-sur-Glane where, on June 10, 1944, every man, woman, and child, was rounded up by Waffen-SS troops and executed. The men were shot to death; the women and children herded inside the village church and burned alive.

When he saw the devastation, President de Gaulle ordered that a wall be erected around the town so future generations would never forget. The “Village des Martyrs,” as it is known today, looks almost exactly as it did in 1944. We spent hours there, silently strolling the haunted ruins through a light drizzle. By the time we got back to the car, I knew in my bones I’d write about it someday.



The modern day segment of the plotline floated into my mind’s harbor in 2003 (by then I’d had two novels published). While out on a walk, Victor casually mentioned an article he’d read about the Queen Mary 2which was to be the fastest ocean liner ever to be built.


Its maiden voyage was planned for 2004 and it would be large enough to accommodate 2620 people.

“So, basically, everyone who lives here could fit on that ship,” I’d said, referring to our hometown of Nevada City, California. “How weird would it be for a whole town to sail together across the Atlantic Ocean?”

A weird idea, indeed, and more than a little provocative. A few weeks later, I finished an outline for my next novel’s plot: The small gold mining town of Lost Hill, California, is in turmoil because the Mionee Indian tribe has applied to build a casino on its outskirts (I based this on the real-life battle consuming the Gold Rush town of Plymouth, CA). Eugene Walsh is Lost Hill’s curmudgeon, embittered by the tragic events of WWII. He is also the town’s richest man. His only friend is Henry Weymouth, an unassuming house inspector who plays chess with Eugene most every evening. When Eugene dies, it is up to Henry to see that Eugene’s wishes, spelled out in his will, are carried out: Eugene offers to pay the Mionee to take their casino elsewhere. He also bequeaths every Lost Hill adult $10,000, if everyone in town agrees to accompany his ashes to France on the RMS Queen Mary 2. He wants his remains to be spread on the grave of a woman he met on the original RMS Queen Mary in 1944, back when he was on his way to war, and she was on her way home. After a lot of contentious debate, the entire town agrees to the proposition and travels aboard the QM2. Unresolved tensions between main characters flare throughout the crossing. Henry and Julia (Eugene’s estranged granddaughter) fall in love. Finally, they all reach Oradour-sur-Glane where lessons are learned and a shocking truth about Claudette is discovered.


By the beginning of 2005 I’d written a first draft and scoured every bit of historical research I could lay my hands on. My office was crammed full with books. Maps lined my walls. But so many details were still hazy. First off, I needed to see both ships. Flying down to Long Beach, where the original Queen Mary—now a hotel—was berthed was easy enough. I paid the admission price and walked around the decks, getting a feel for what Eugene might have experienced while traveling to England as a twenty-three-year-old naval ensign. I got a better sense of what the QM looked like when she was fitted out to be a troopship.

troops on queen mary 16x9

During the peak of the buildup to D-Day, as many as 16,000 troops were crowded onto a ship designed to hold just over 1,900 passengers. A glamorous and comfortable crossing it was not.

Most importantly, I saw the isolation ward where Eugene first meets Claudette.

isolation ward

But…how to describe the QM2? And what of the villages in England and the battlefields in France where Eugene spent months? It would have been remiss to set huge portions of the plot in places I knew only from photographs. Or, well, that was the logic I presented to Victor. “Loy is three. She’s so easy. We can travel cheap and stay with friends,” I’d offered. I also reminded him that his parents would be in Alsace for the summer. He said he’d “look into it,” and went back to reading to Loy.

The QM2’s incentives for first-time passengers turned out to be generous enough for us to afford a second-class (Princess Grill) stateroom. We contacted friends of friends who lived within driving distances of the many museums and sites I planned to visit. The grandparents even offered up some funds as incentive to detour northward for a visit.

In late May we boarded the QM2 and began our six-day transatlantic crossing. I spent those six days noting the myriad details I would use for the voyage of Lost Hill’s inhabitants. I charmed an invitation into the first-class (Queen’s Grill) area of the ship where butlers hung clothes and accompanying dogs had their own playground. During the day we three sipped strong tea in the ballroom whilst being serenaded by a string quartet. loylisaqm2At night, before fetching Loy from the daycare run by British nannies, we drank martinis in the Commodore Club overlooking the sleek bow. We listened to lectures, stared up in amazement in the planetarium, splashed one another in the pools, jogged the running track, and stretched out on comfy deck chairs in the breezy sunshine. By the time we docked in Southampton I knew, amongst other particulars, exactly what my characters ate for breakfast and what pieces of art they passed on their way to the dining room.


We rented a car and drove down to South Devon where I scouted out where Eugene lived and trained for the invasion. I’d chosen Salcombe, one of the three departure points for the Utah Beach landing force. We put Loy in her stroller and roamed the charming seaside village so I could affix to my mind what Eugene saw as he stepped out of his Quonset hut each morning before heading to the harbor for military exercises.

In the village of Frogmore I found the 19th century inn where he and Claudette met for a second time. I sat in the room where they made love and vowed to be together after the war ended. We picnicked in the grassy field where Eugene begged Claudette not to go to France.


And then, like my characters, we were off to France. To honor the thousands of men who lost their lives on D-Day, we crossed the English Channel on June 6, exactly sixty-one years after Eugene did.

lisamuseumI filled notebook after notebook as we wandered battlefields, war museums, beaches, and cemeteries. Since Eugene commanded an LCVP, a small landing craft, there was nothing I didn’t know about LCVPs—on paper. 
amphibious-military-vehicles-wwi-to-presentIn Saint-Marie-du-Mont I got to climb onto a real one. I stood where Eugene would have stood as he and his men crossed the choppy waters.

If we knew a particular exhibition displayed gruesome or violent imagery, Victor would take Loy to a nearby playground or bistro while I, alone, immersed myself in the many displays of Nazi brutality. Hours later, stinking of death, I’d come out of the darkness, blinking against the bright sun, and go meet up with my husband and child. I’d desperately want to tell Victor about my ghastly discoveries, but inevitably he’d shush me. “No, Lisa. Not in front of Loy.” Like a puppy being house-trained I learned to hold in the horrors.

I returned to Oradour-sur-Glane, and when I saw the remains of the slaughter through Eugene’s eyes, as if for the first time, I was again shaken to my core. Since our last visit an underground memorial had been built to exhibit photographs, Oradour-victims-2_articleimage (1)films, and recordings about the tragedy. Personal effects found among the carnage were presented in clean climate-controlled glass cases. A watch, frozen at 3:15. A charred schoolbook. A hairbrush which may have belonged to Claudette.


After the obligatory trip to Alsace to see the grandparents we set off for London, where I’d reserved time in the Imperial War Museum’s extensive library. On July 7, the night before our planned departure from France, suicide bombers carried out a series of attacks throughout the city, killing 52 people and injuring over 700.


The Chunnel ceased running, so we were forced to return our car and ferry back over. We disembarked in Dover on July 8, stepping onto a vastly different landscape than we’d left a month earlier. There were police everywhere. Travel was restricted. A sense of doom and danger permeated the air. Here, I’d been consumed by a war long over, and was now suddenly slapped into a present-day conflict.

We hunkered down at a friend’s house in East Sheen. Instead of traveling into London together, Victor and Loy stayed behind. Every morning, as I boarded a train, I wondered if the terrorists were finished terrorizing or if I’d become another innocent victim who happened to choose the wrong train car. The fear overwhelmed me. Would I see my family again, I asked myself as I glanced furtively at the other passengers. I looked into their faces. Scanned their clothing for signs of bombs. Only when I reached my stop and exited the train was I able to breathe again.

Sure, I could have eschewed the paranoia by staying in the suburbs, but knowing the Imperial War Museum housed tens of thousands of primary sources from WWII, I was determined to finish my research. (Recall please, that in 2005 the internet was a far less powerful resource.) For the next week I scoured innumerous medical records from Queen Victoria Hospital (Claudette was assigned there). I flipped through thousands of photographs of naval training exercises. climbingnetsI held in my hand actual letters and diaries from soldiers, sailors, and civilians. There, in the small silent room I read their stories and let myself get transported back in time so that I could almost grasp their feelings: The gung-ho young men excited to be traveling abroad, as if going off to war were an innocuous adventure. The mothers and sisters, wives and girlfriends who cloaked their apprehension with words of pride.


Back in California I sequestered myself in my writing cottage. Now that I had all this data, my characters would finally get to see what I’d seen. Hear what I’d heard. I would color every scene with my memories and bring history alive. I would make Eugene suffer so much, he’d return to Lost Hill a broken man.

What I hadn’t planned on was returning to Nevada City a broken woman. Two weeks after I started rewriting Mary’s Crossing, I fell into a deep depression.

What had I been thinking, trying to recreate war? What had possessed me to believe it’d be easy to transfer the grisly scenes onto a page? I was beholden to the dead and constantly felt the pressure to get it exactly right. I began questioning my ability to tell the story. I hated everything and everyone.

I had become Eugene Walsh, the town curmudgeon.

One afternoon after I’d walked into the house and slammed the door because I felt so grumpy, Victor said, “You’ve become a real jerk, you know.” Before I could get defensive, he added, “Maybe you should stop writing that book. It’s just pissing you off.”

He was right. Maybe I should. “I’m going for a walk,” I announced.

“Mommy. I made this for you. Drink it before you go,” Loy said, handing me a plastic martini glass filled with green Mardi Gras beads. I drank it, making gulping noises as the beads dribbled all over my face and down onto the floor.

I handed the empty glass back to her so she could wash it in her fake sink. “Yum. That was tasty. Thank you.”

“Did it make you feel better, Mommy?”

“Yeah, did it?” Victor asked.

I left without answering and flew down the hill, jumped over the fence, clomping through the neighbor’s yard and over to the gravel road until I hit the trail that lined the wide creek flowing below our property. I cut right at the grove of buckeyes and carefully picked my way across the white boulders to a small eddy hurried-rushing-waters-of-a-stream_800where we often brought hot chocolate and a picnic lunch. Where I usually panicked as Loy walked along the slippery rocks, knowing that if she fell into the fast creek she’d be washed away in the blink of an eye.

I crept up to the pool and dangled my right hand in the icy water until my fingers started to sting. I welcomed the pain.


My doctor prescribed Lexapro. In a matter of weeks my anxiety was gone and my anger subdued. I finished writing Mary’s Crossing, sent it off to my agent, and then promptly titrated off the drug. I liked being on an even keel, emotionally speaking, but I’d become less sharp; my cognition was less nimble. I wanted my full brain back again.

In the end, my agent never did sell the novel. Editors loved “the conceit of the story,” and many adored Eugene and Claudette, although the majority of readers thought it was overwritten. There were too many main characters, and they found the present-day plotline less compelling than the historical section.

Instead of rewriting it, I moved to Bali where I began writing a different novel altogether: one that had nothing to do with war or death.

“Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.” 
                             ― Edmund Burke

I figure someday I’ll return to Eugene and Claudette’s fateful tale, but in the next version, I’ll cull the casino story and focus only on the love story. After all my family and I experienced during those months abroad—from landscapes swathed in graves of dead soldiers to the London bombing—I’ve come to accept that there will never be an end to war in my lifetime or in my daughter’s lifetime. We, as individuals, can only do so much to stop hatred and its violent consequences. But we must try to attain peace, if not for the sake of our children, for the sake of those who lost their lives in wars past and wars present.

I know that my writing a romance novel that takes place during a war will not change the course of history. Eugene and Claudette are fictional characters sprung from my imagination, but through them, because of them, I have to believe that love will someday prevail.





Author Interview with Gilion

RCR header 2


In case you missed it on FB and IG, I was recently interviewed by the extraordinarily charming and generous book blogger, Gilion Dumas; aka Rose City Reader. For anyone itching to find out the whys and hows of this tropical tale of mine, have at it: 

How did you come to write your recent memoir Rash about moving your family from California to Bali?

Truly, this book was a long time in coming. A week after we returned to the States from Bali, I met my agent for lunch in New York City. I asked him to advise me how to make the novel I’d been working on better. He suggested I put it aside and instead write “the Bali book.” He’d read my email dispatches, he said, and thought my experiences would make for a fantastic, relatable book. Since I’d always been a fiction writer, I fought him on it. I had no interest in writing a memoir. I mean, who wants to talk about themselves for 300 pages? (Given the abundance of memoirs out there, I suppose lots of people do—although I, for one, did not wish to.)

I never forgot his entreaty, though; even as I worked on my next novel, his words continued to shadow me. Two years after that lunch date, I gathered up all my emails, papers, photographs and mementos from our time in Bali, checked into an empty B&B in northern Vermont, and spent three weeks writing the first draft. (When a snowstorm sealed me in, I came close to channeling Jack Nicholson in “The Shining.”) Four more drafts and a new agent later, Rash found a publisher who fell in love with it.

You don’t sugarcoat the experiences you had while living abroad. Did you have any qualms about sharing so much?

That is a definitive YES! Qualms, reservations, and queasiness to boot. Over-sharing is not in my nature, but honesty is. I knew if I wanted this book to be good, I would need to be completely forthcoming and authentic. I remember nervously pacing the house while my husband read the first draft. Given that Victor is a preternaturally private person I was uber worried he’d be angry at me for broadcasting our intimacies. After he pointed out a few factual inaccuracies, his response was something along the lines of, “You left out a lot and it was much worse than you depicted. Go write it again.”

I almost hate to ask, but can you give us a hint about what the title means without ruining the story?

That’s a great question. It’s funny, but my agent wanted to title it Bitch Mom in Bali: Confessions of a Desperate Woman in Paradise. Gosh, but I hated that. I was bitchy, but certainly not a bitch. I chose “Rash” because I love a double entendre. It was a rash decision to pack up and move to the other side of the planet mere weeks after I discovered Green School’s existence. The other use of rash—the literal usage—speaks to my constant fears about our daughter’s safety. Mosquito-borne dengue fever is rampant in Southeast Asia. And, for children, it is often lethal. One of the first signs of infections is a flat red rash. Given that our bamboo hut was completely open-aired, it was impossible to avoid getting bitten by mosquitoes, no matter how much bug spray I slathered on Loy. I was forever checking the poor kid for rashes.

For all you guys went through, your book is quite funny. How did your sense of humor affect your time in Bali or your book writing?

It’s an odd thing to write memoir. Some of the more surreal or scary experiences I encountered—like the monkey attack or the ant invasion—weren’t funny while they were happening, yet when I wrote about them, I was able to laugh at myself. I’ve often described the book to people as “I Love Lucy Goes to Bali” because I really am a bit of a nutcase. I always mean well, but my tendency to act before thinking got me into some pretty crazy situations.

Are there other expatriate memoirs that you love or inspired you to write your own?

No other book inspired me more or gave me the courage to write my own story than The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific by J. Maarten Troost. Here is the Amazon blurb:

… Troost discovers that Tarawa is not the island paradise he dreamed of. Falling into one amusing misadventure after another, Troost struggles through relentless, stifling heat, a variety of deadly bacteria, polluted seas, toxic fish—all in a country where the only music to be heard for miles around is “La Macarena.”

If you were to substitute “Bali” for “Tarawa,” “mosquitos” for “bacteria,” “rogue monkeys” for “toxic fish,” and “gamelan” for “La Macarena,” you’d essentially be describing my book. I read Troost’s book years before I knew Bali existed and I loved it. When I read it again—post-Bali—I knew I had to share my story too.

Naturally, I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, especially since lots of people and reviewers have referred to Rash as the anti-Eat, Pray, Love. I really enjoyed it, even though our experiences in Bali were polar opposites.

Who are your three (or four or five) favorite authors? Is your own writing influenced by the authors you read?

Ack! I can’t possibly answer this. I never play favorites. Okay, here are three dead and four living authors I greatly admire.

  • Dead: Nora Ephron, Ray Bradbury, Evelyn Waugh
  • Living: Ian McKewan, Jumpha Lahiri, Julian Barnes, Stephen King

I respect the heck out of these writers. They excel at their craft and know how to tell a good story. All good writing inspires me to be a better writer, whether it be a book, an essay in a magazine, or a blog post.

What kind of books do you like to read? What are you reading now? 

The word eclectic could never suffice to describe the ever-growing pile on my night table. Honestly, no genre takes precedence. I’m usually reading two books (one non-fiction and one novel) at a time and, because I travel a lot, I always have an audiobook downloaded.

Presently, my NF read is A Path with Heart by Jack Kornfield. As I am writing my first young adult novel, I’m reading my way through my teenage daughter’s bookshelves. I just started The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley. And—because I cannot neglect my adult proclivities—The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. I recently finished listening to the eighteen-hour-long audio version of the brilliant A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. I’m flying a lot in the coming weeks, and just downloaded The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer to help me through the long layovers in Atlanta.

You have a terrific website and are also active on twitter and Instagram. From an author’s perspective, how important is social media to promote your book? 

My website is the clearinghouse for all things Lisa Kusel, not just promoting my book. It has links to all my published work, book reviews, and links to my other social media accounts. It’s also the place for me to occasionally blog about personal stuff—from recipes I’ve cooked to essays I choose not to submit to magazines.

What is the most valuable advice you’ve been given as an author?

  • Kill your darlings (Faulkner).
  • Something most always be at stake (literary agent Brian DeFiore).
  • Read. Read. Then read some more (6th grade writing teacher).
  • Just because you’ve thoroughly researched your subject matter doesn’t mean you need to share all of it with your readers (Stephen King).

What is the best thing about being a writer?

Without a doubt, it’s the friends I’ve made around the world. Something magical happens when you publish a book that speaks to personal struggles, no matter what the context. Strangers by the dozens have reached out to me since the book was published. They tell me they loved it. They related to it on so many levels (okay, so yeah, my agent was correct). From those initial emails or FB posts or Instagram messages, the conversations have continued—deeply personal exchanges that mean the world to me.

I am beyond grateful to be a part of the larger community of writers. I am the sort of author who writes to every single reviewer to thank them for reading my book—even if they didn’t like it. I write to bloggers and bookstagrammers; fellow authors and aspiring authors. I believe everyone has a story to tell and, if I can be of any help, I will.

What’s next? Are you working on your next book?

At the moment I’m writing a long essay about what it was like to travel through France and England with a small child while researching a WWII novel. (I’ll post that on my website soon). Two weeks ago I finished a complete rewrite of a novel I wrote a few years ago. It’s a genre-bending suspense story. While I wait to hear back from publishers, I’ll return to the young adult book I workshopped at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. It received outstanding feedback from an editor at Knopf, and I’m excited to dive back into it.


Hui Means “Smart”


Edith Dora Rey “Blue Necklace” (2007) 12×12″, oil on wood. Image used by permission.

I visit my mother so often these days it sometimes feels like I’m starring in Groundhog Day: The Florida Version.

It’s always the same. I wake at 3:30 (after having spent the night anxiously checking both my clock and iPhone, afraid I will sleep through both alarms). I drink a cup of tea, feed the yawning cats, dress quietly, pack up my computer, zip close my suitcase, walk out into the cold darkness, and climb into the idling Uber.

While most everyone on the airplane sleeps, I fit my treasured and indispensable BOSE over my ears, sit back, and listen contentedly to a book or podcast. Sometimes, if the flight has backseat screens, I watch an episode of Chopped on mute, or a movie I know my husband has no interest in seeing. When the cart appears alongside my row I ask for tea.

“Two bags, two creams, and two cookies please.”

biscoffOver time and countless flights on Delta, I’ve become a Biscoff-dunking expert: two dunks is just enough to soften their ultra-hard crunch, but three dunks will cause the dipped part to break off and tumble in, settling as unwanted sludge at the bottom of the cup.

After touchdown, I step outside into the steaming exhaust-filled air and hop a shuttle to the car- rental counter. I ask for a Nissan Sentra or Rogue because I know they are comfortable, and they handle well. In Florida you need a nimble car: people here drive at either recklessly high speeds or dangerously slow ones, and, as far as I can tell, Floridians don’t concern themselves with lane boundaries, turn signals, or with keeping a safe distance between cars.

Once at the gated community where my aunt and uncle reside, I pull up to the guard house and hand over my name and driver’s license. While waiting for the guard to determine whether or not I pose a threat, I listen to the peaceful gurgles from the fake concrete creek flowing nearby.


Sophie greets me at the front door with growls and high-pitched barks until my aunt yells from the kitchen, “Sophie, shut up!” at which point the mini poodle waddles off in search of her ball. I kiss my mother’s incredibly likeable younger sister and—if he’s not out playing pickle ball or cards—my affable uncle hello, tell them the flight was fine, and roll my suitcase down the long white-tiled hallway, passing the elegant dr.jpgdining room with its enormous glass table and glittering crystal chandelier, into the guest suite. I kick off my black boots and my jeans and sweater and replace them with flip-flops and a sundress, respectively. After washing my face and hands I lug the 1960s vinyl-topped card table from the enormous closet, and pull open each leg until they lock into place with a squeaky satisfying click.

For the next four to fourteen days, this will be my home office away from home office.

I traipse into the kitchen and eat whatever lunch my sweet aunt has thrown together for me. It will more than likely be carb/fat/sugar-free, but I will be starving so I won’t mind. I’ll ask if she and my uncle have dinner plans tonight. Ninety percent of the time they will: since retiring to Florida they have become the busiest and most social human beings I know. They’re never too busy, though, to tend to mother when she needs them. For this I am beyond grateful.

I fill my pink water bottle with ice and water from the door on their refrigerator, say, “I’ll see you later,” and hop into my sauna car, blast the AC and speed by the many dark-skinned bugsgardeners peppering the air with their ever-present lawn mowers and leaf blowers and pesticide dispensers. To be sure, wild and unruly are not commonplace here in V_____, and only by blood am I allowed passage into this moneyed village of stucco mansions, perfectly-placed palms, and sparkling German automobiles.

I jam out past the guard gate, turn left and head north. Twelve minutes later I arrive at H______, a sprawling tan building that houses 100 assisted living residents, as well as 56 people who suffer from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. In vain I search for a shaded parking spot, grab my purse and go in. I am supposed to sign my name in the visitors’ log but I never do and no one ever asks me to. Instead, I head for the locked door into the memory care unit, say, “Can you please let me in?” to the receptionist who points a clicker. The light next to the door turns from red to blue, and I push through.

As is the case lately, I expect to find my mother sleeping somewhere, whether on a couch outside her room or in a chair on the sun-drenched patio. Today, I find her in a chair in the living room area next to the dining area. Even though the sun is shining brightly, the room is dark; the overhead lighting adding little brightness. There are about a dozen residents arranged in a semi-circle around a large television; a few, including my mother, are asleep. I don’t think anyone is actually watching the television, which seems to play a continuous loop of Tony Bennett songs, I Love Lucy reruns, and black and white movies from the 1940s. At a table behind the group, two bored kitchen workers fold dark green napkins in preparation for dinner. I look around for any caregivers or activities people and find none. I am frustrated by the lack of activities here as well as the ratio of caregivers to residents and will, again, at some point during the week, make my dissatisfaction known to the executive director, who will again promise that things will change.

I will again pretend to believe her.

I kiss my mother awake. She opens her eyes and, looking as if I’d been there all along, says, “Hi darling,” with a sweet smile. “How are you?”

“I just flew down,” I inform her.

“How’s your father?” she asks, not aware that he died last June. Not remembering that they had an acrimonious divorce more than thirty years ago.

I say, “I have no idea,” and take her hand. “Come on; let’s go for a walk.” It takes me more than three minute to heft her up. She’s in pain all over. She’s heavier than she’s ever been. (At some point I will drive to T.J. Maxx and Ross and again buy her new pants that will fit her ever-expanding girth. Such is the result of inactivity coupled with three large meals, two snacks, and two desserts per day.)

Slowly, we make our way outside to the patio where I help her settle into a cushiony chair before dragging the one umbrella-shaded table over toward her so she is covered. We catch up for a few minutes. I tell her about her granddaughter’s recent accomplishments. She smiles proudly, but no longer asks questions or attempts to further the conversation. I ask her if she wants to play cards and she says sure. I spend eight minutes trying to find a deck and when I return, she is asleep. I check my email, play a word game, move the table over a few inches so she’s out of the sun, watch her sleep.

And so it goes.

Sometimes there are activities, such as BINGO or drawing or trivia games from a downloaded program on the TV. Sometimes a few of the more ambulatory residents are put on a small bus and taken out for a donut or pizza, or just for a drive around town. When I moved her into this particular facility in January, I was told there would be a Shabbat service every Friday. In her previous place it was one of her favorite days of the week. She loved reading through the prayers, listening to the cantor sing, sipping the wine. Here, they have yet to find a Rabbi.

When I notice her face getting red from heat exhaustion I bring her back inside hoping the activities director will have found something fun for the group to do. If there’s a live musician we go together to the room where the “singer” will perform. (I put that in quotes because, frankly, the ones I’ve seen here stink. 13-murray-schaffer-snl.w700.h700.jpgThey don’t even bother memorizing the songs and sing while reading the lyrics from their computers.)

Since some of the assisted living folks might want to see the show—and God forbid they come into the memory care section of the building—the memory care folks must be herded, like slow-moving confused cows, to some other part of the building. I suppose the change of scenery is good for them, but still…it takes up to thirty tortuous minutes to get them all from one place to another.

I slip out during the performance since dinner will be served as soon as it ends, and I really don’t want to eat dinner with my mother. It is enough that I will spend the entire day here tomorrow as well as the next day and the day after that, sitting, reading, playing cards, watching her sleep, listening to bad music, and joining her for lunch.

Eating lunch with my mother is a disquieting affair. In the small dining room we are surrounded by a few wheel-chaired residents with much advanced symptoms who must be spoon-fed liquid food. Other residents continuously hurl insults at their plates, screaming to whoever will listen that they refuse to eat this slop. (The food at H____ is actually quite good. Fresh quality ingredients. Well-seasoned. Varied menu.) There are never enough caregivers to help server so the mealtimes often feels rushed, chaotic, and loud.

Additionally, it hurts my heart a little to have to remind my mother to put her napkin on her lap—the very same woman who lived for good manners as if her life depended on them. Watching her eat her soup with her fork frustrates me, but I’ve learned to keep my mouth closed. If she wants to drop food onto her clean shirt, I need to let her. Just as I need to let her finish every last morsel on her plate because eating is one of the last great joys she has these days. She used to enjoy a lot more than food, but not anymore. No longer does she read. Television holds no appeal. Arts and crafts mean nothing to her. Card playing confuses her. Because she still knows numbers I always suggest Crazy-Eights, card-game-570698_1920but after one round of “Do you have a six?” she just starts plucking card after card from the deck until she’s holding most of the cards. I utter, “Mom, you won!” and she nods contentedly.

But now it’s just music and food that sustain her. Music and food and her robot cat which purrs and meows when you rub its head or belly.


As the aged crooner sings about wasting away in Margaritaville, I lean close to my mother and say, “I love you, Mom. I’ll see you tomorrow.” She shrugs her shoulders. “I thought you were staying here,” she says with a frown.

I smooth her hair away from her eyes. “No, I’m staying at Aunt Sharon and Uncle Marty’s house.”

“Why are you leaving now?”

Because I hate everything about this place. Because I hate the smell of soiled adult diapers and impending death. The dark rooms and vapid TV shows and stale music. I hate the weariness and cynicism I see on the faces of the caregivers when they think no one is watching them. I hate the wheelchairs and walkers and the vacant stares.

“I want to beat the traffic,” I reply, giving her a quick kiss and running off.

I wait until I am in the car with the AC blasting before I let myself cry. I let loose the pain, gulping the air between sobs, my emotions swaying back and forth between anger and anguish.

Dementia is a vicious and wily disease. One never knows how it will materialize; in what fashion it will go about mucking up an individual’s brain.

After she was diagnosed two years ago with mild cognitive decline, I had no idea how quickly my mother would start to disappear into the ether like so much exhaled cigarette smoke. Only a few months ago she could still play gin rummy. Still read and write.

Now she is totally incontinent.

She cannot dress herself or shower alone anymore.

She can’t remember my daughter’s name. She has no idea how many children she has or where she went to school.

Now she tries to drink her fruit cup and often believes her hands are not her own.


I’m feeling sorrier than shit for myself as I pull into a grungy half-shuttered strip mall a few miles down the road. I’d read on Yelp about a great Chinese take-out-only place, menu.jpgand, as long as my aunt and uncle are busy tonight, I will treat myself to some Asian junk food. I deserve it, I tell myself as I grab a menu from the counter of the tiny restaurant. I have a parent who’s dying. I am suffering. I am sad. I get to eat whatever I want.

I order more food than I can possibly consume, pull out my phone and lean against the wall to wait. The dirty kitchen door swings open and a little girl strolls out and sits up on a barstool next to me. She’s wearing a pink dress with a white cardigan. Her jet black hair glints under the fluorescent lights.

I smile at her. She smiles back shyly. For a second, her bright colorful presence in this dingy dive makes me think of the girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List.

“Hi,” I say as I drop my phone back into my purse. “Are you getting food?”

“No. My mother is the cook,” she says as she steadies her petite hands on the filthy counter and twists back and forth on the seat. “I have to wait for her.”

“Ah.” A millions scenarios race through my head. “Does she own the restaurant?” I ask, hoping she does.

“No. It’s his,” she replies, pointing to the man who took my order.

“How old are you?”


“Third grade?”


“You like school?”

She nods. A young couple walks in and orders food in another language, one the owner knows.

Now that we’ve become acquainted and she doesn’t think I’m a scary stranger I tell her my name and ask the pink girl what hers is.

“You want to know my American name or my real name? No one can pronounce my real name.”

“Your real name,” I say slightly horrified. Are we still at a point in this country that children have to use fake names?

She looks behind her as if she’s about to share something she maybe isn’t supposed to. “My name is Whee.”

I’m pretty sure I heard Whee pronounce the beginning of the name with a microscopic catch in the back of her throat and I try to echo it exactly when I ask, “How do you spell Whee?”

“H. U. I.”chinese_character_hui_meaning_meet_mouse_pad-reab439d70a984cc8b50141d0812586cb_x74vi_8byvr_307

And that’s hard, why? Are Hui’s schoolmates—those Emmas and Sophies and Jacksons—so thick they cannot commit to memory such a simple word?

“Does it mean something?”

“Hui means ‘smart’,” she states assuredly.

I raise my eyebrows with exaggerated curiosity. “And? Are you?” I ask.

“I think so. Yeah,” she says, adding an emphatic nod.

Just for fun I show Hui the letters of her name in American Sign Language. asl
She imitates the H and the U but before she gets to the I she giggles. “I can’t do that. It’s the Chinese fucky sign,” she says as she surreptitiously points her pinky finger toward the sky and grins. I grin along with her, imagining her giving the pinkie to those nincompoops in her school who made her change her own name.

“Your necklace. It’s so beautiful,” she declares totally off-topic. I touch the pendant hanging from the black leather cord. It’s a round pale-blue glass stone set into a black filigree flower. I don’t remember where or when I got it, but I love it, and wear it often. “It looks like it’s magic.”

The kitchen door swings open and a young woman carrying two bags of food appears. She places them on the counter before looking over at Hui with a harried worried expression. Her brow glistens with sweat. Her apron looks as if it’s never been washed. Hui says something to her in (presumably) Chinese, after which the woman nods. She smiles at me and bows ever so slightly then disappears back into the kitchen.

“Your food is ready. You’re going now,” Hui tells me. I don’t know whether she’s relieved or disappointed. She’s eight, I remind myself. What does she know or care of impermanence? Of people flashing in and out of her life like lightning. The moment I walk out the door I will no longer exist. By the time I eat the last fried pork dumpling at my aunt’s kitchen table, our twelve-minute conversation will no longer matter to Hui.

I suddenly picture my mother having her dinner. If no one bothered to cut up her meat I’m sure she’s using her hands instead of a fork to convey what’s on her plate into her mouth. If they gave her thousand island dressing for her salad, she will not remember that she hates thousand island dressing and eat it anyway.

I wish I’d thanked her more than I have for all she’s done. For all she sacrificed for me and my bothers. She never hesitated to give of herself, even if it meant giving away her own happiness.  Sure, my mother is alive, but the woman who raised me to be the person I am today no longer exists. Because I hold close the memories of her, she still matters. She will always matter.

Before I have a chance to reconsider, I unhook the necklace and tie two knots in the twine to make it shorter. Hui asks me what I’m doing.

“I’m giving this to you,” I say as I clasp it around Hui’s small neck.

She looks confused, but unmistakably delighted. “Why?” she asks as she lifts the pendant and peers down at it.

I don’t tell Hui it’s because for the past twelve minutes I didn’t wallow in my own selfish grief and that talking with her brought me the sort of simple joy I rarely experience when I’m in Florida.

I don’t tell her it’s because I am sorry that she has to grow up in a world where she needs to be known by a name not her own.

I don’t tell her it’s because I want something I do to matter.

I don’t tell her it’s because I want her to remember me.

I find my keys, snatch the bags of greasy steaming food and say, “Because I’ve already used the magic and now it’s someone’s else’s turn.” Then I open the door and walk out into the still-hot evening.











I Can Relate


When a book reviewer discovers that they can relate to much of what went down in a memoir, you know the review is going to be great. This is one of those reviews. Heidi, a nurse and paramedic who lives in Australia, reads a lot. (How she finds the time, I have no idea.) She and her family traveled around her own country in a caravan (trailer) for THREE YEARS. And she’s been to Bali. A lot. Because of that, and because she pens terrific, in-depth reviews on her blog, I begged asked her to read RASH and she said yes. I am so thrilled she did. Thank you, but books are better!!!

Title: RASH

My Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

I don’t normally read a lot of memoirs. Lisa Kusel’s book Rash made me reevaluate that choice, because there is something infinitely touching about someone sharing their life story with you, the good, the bad, and the downright ugly. As I laughed, cringed and shuddered my way through Lisa’s honest and vivid account of her year in Bali, I related on many levels to her story. For us, the thing that would fix all of life’s problems was a three-year stint travelling around Australia in a caravan with two kids under five. I wish that I could be sitting around the campfire with Lisa and compare notes, because what a laugh that would be!

Who would give up the comfort of their life in California, uproot the whole family and move to a little tropical island in Indonesia? Someone looking for a change. Change is good, right? A change of scenery may even fill that hole of chronic discontent in our heart that niggles that there must be more to life. So when Lisa found an advert looking for teachers to help set up an innovative new school in the tropical rainforest of Bali, it was like a dream come true. Her husband Victor applied for the job, and soon the whole family set off to embark on their new adventure.  But life is usually not that simple, and Lisa and her family soon find out that their tropical paradise is not what it was supposed to be.

I loved Lisa’s candid writing style, her self-deprecating humour and her warts-and-all approach in describing her “seachange”. There are no enlightened moments with Balinese medicine men or serene rides through lush rainforest on an old-fashioned bicycle to the gentle tinkle of windchimes. Instead, her days are spent squashing giant killer ants that threaten to carry off her daughter in the middle of the night, hiding under layers of netting to escape swarms of dengue infected mosquitoes and scraping thick mould off bamboo furniture and walls to the deafening sounds of gamelan music as she is reflecting on her crisis-stricken marriage. There were quite a few funny moments, too, like Lisa’s standoff with a protective male monkey, which I related to from our own personal experiences in Bali – I never forget the time when my husband tried to fend off the fang-bearing killer monkey with his thong (the flip-flop kind, not the underwear) whilst his womenfolk fled in panic. Lisa, if you had indeed spent some time in Kuta with those beer-swilling Aussie rugby teams you may have learned some life-saving thong combat action!

Whilst Lisa spends many lonely, miserable days in the country she had hoped would be the answer to all her problems, she reflects on the eat-pray-love phenomenon and questions herself on her lack of Gilbertian enlightenment. Having been to Bali I can see that living in a rather basic bamboo hut in the middle of the Balinese rainforest without some of the conveniences we take for granted would look a lot more serene in a movie (or the Green School advertising clip I found on Youtube) than in real life. I appreciated Lisa’s honesty as she shared her struggles every step of the way, and the way her Western views regularly clashed with the different cultural practices she is faced with in her new home. Her inner probings to explore her capacity for unhappiness are relevant in our society today and made for some reflection on my part whilst I was reading her honest account. I have read somewhere before that characters in books never seem to eat or pee – well, Lisa has it all in her book, which makes it all the more relatable! What also made this book speak to me is that I knew most of the places Lisa talked about in her story – we may even have aooommmmhed on neighbouring yoga mats during a yoga session at the Ubud Yoga Barn without realising it.


All in all, Lisa Kusel’s memoir is a poignant account of a woman searching for happiness and contentment in a far away land, only to find that all her problems have followed her. Written with honesty and humour, Rash will appeal to everyone who has ever dreamed of escaping it all. I hope that Lisa and her family have found contentment in their new life in Vermont and that the year in Bali is but a distant memory that ultimately brought them closer together. If nothing else, it made for a damn good read!

Thank you to the author for the free electronic copy of this novel and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.

If Not For an Orgasm, I Might Have Been a Millionaire

money2It’s been a bad few months for people who own technology stocks. For someone who doesn’t have enough cash to buy a new car, let alone invest in the stock market, I’ve paid little attention to the news about record losses. But there was a time, long ago, when I was almost a contender.

Back in the mid-1990s, while working as a web producer for Microsoft, I had to wear an orange ID badge around my neck, exposing the fact that I was a contractor, and not an employee. Employees sported blue badges.

Being an “orange badge” meant that I was paid hourly instead of yearly. My email address had to be preceded by an “a-”. I didn’t earn stock options and received no health benefits. My orange key barred me from entering certain buildings on campus, often causing me to feel like an Untouchable Orange in a world of Brahmin Blues.


More disturbing was the fact that I had no job security. Every time they assigned me a new project I was keenly aware that if I didn’t deliver a finished product on schedule and within budget, my contract would not be extended.

Given that I aspired to be one of those young glowing millionaires who strutted around with blue badges bouncing against their chests, I worked my ass off, usually putting in 60 or more hours in any given week.

Back then, the Microsoft Network (MSN) was little more than an ISP for dial-up users. It had email and some chatrooms, a few newsletters and such, but the company was desperate to jump aboard the speeding New Media train and compete with the likes of CompuServe and America Online. To do that, they’d need to add a whole lot more content.

“What if we come up with some sort of arts directory?” my then-boss Judith B. threw out during a meeting one morning. “I mean, there are hundreds of thousands of websites. We’ll tell people which ones are worth visiting.”

She assigned eight people to my team and told me to go forth and create something out of thin air. A few months later we launched Matter, Microsoft’s first online guide to arts and entertainment on the world wide web. It was pretty good. Elegant, fast, and bursting with hotlinks, animated gifs, and clever summaries, it was ahead of its time. Some days as many as 5,000 people clicked on it! (You can stop laughing now.) Here is the home page:

screen shot 2018-11-21 at 1.25.09 pm

and one category of website links:

screen shot 2018-11-21 at 1.27.00 pm

Because Bill Gates wanted to win the content war, he hired Hollywood hotshot Bob B. to lead the charge. Rumor was that Bob piloted the swift rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I’m sure he had other, more relevant, credentials, but the turtle thing was all we talked about before he arrived on the scene. I still remember his first day on the job: it was early in the morning. The halls were silent but for a few early birds scattered about. I was sitting in my windowless office typing away when this bald guy with multi-colored glasses far too big for his face walked by. He stopped, backed up, poked that head of his in.

“Hi there,” he said holding onto the door jam. “I’m Bob. What do you do here?”

“I’m Lisa. I run Matter,” I replied proudly, eager to score points with my new chieftain.

He pushed those candy-colored frames up onto his head in what I would soon learn was a nervous gesture. They stayed there for a few seconds and then he dropped them back onto his nose and said, “It’s that zine with all the words?”

“Words? Um, yeah. But we also—”

“I’m pulling the plug on it today. Sorry,” he stated mercilessly before walking away.

Once it came to light that Bob planned to produce state-of-the-art multimedia content for a new and improved MSN 2.0 (he was given some $400 million to do so), I stopped panicking about being fired. I figured he was going to need people around him who knew their shit.

Following a few weeks of frenzied pitches (by blue-badges only), Bob greenlighted about a dozen “shows” that were to appear on one of six “channels.” That Bob’s aim was to fashion a television simulacrum for the internet seemed to many of us both innovative, as well as profoundly moronic.msn_program_viewer

Among the shows chosen was UnderWire, a show geared toward women. RIFF was all about music. Mungo Park would allow users to explore exotic destinations from the comfort of their desk chairs. Chatting live with someone like Jean-Michel Cousteau in real time was sure to be a quantum leap in online experiences.

Robert M., a blue-badged graphic designer who moonlighted as a builder of whimsical grandfather clocks, pitched a time-related trivia game show called How Long?

How Long? is a media-rich, interactive question-and-answer show that tackles any viewer question, provided it deals with time, begins “How long…,” and strikes our fancy. Answers are presented in pictures, sounds, animations, and words.

Every weekday, How Long? takes five new questions from its viewers and answers them with wit and alacrity, not to mention pathos, insight, and a little tongue-in-cheek. Weekend editions feature special topics and occasional celebrity guests.

Don’t let the artwork fool you into thinking we’re mostly for kids. We provide information on topics as wide ranging as the shelf life of dairy products, the birth of love affairs, and the death of the universe.

Robert’s show won a spot in the lineup. I was appointed producer, given a budget of $900,000, and a team of eleven people. In four and a half months’ time, we constructed the website and produced six weeks’ worth of daily questions and answers that were going to ooze their way through people’s still-mostly dial-up connections.


Because I had the funds, I even hired celebrities to answer some of the questions. Big names like Captain Kangaroo, the Car Talk guys, Gilbert Gottfried, and Dr. Ruth. (I just tried uploading the .wav file where John Ratzenberger tells us how long it takes to cook a 3-minute egg, but WP says it’s not a supported file. If you want to listen to it, email me and I’ll send: it’s very funny.)

I recall the uneasy excitement and anticipation in the weeks leading up to the official launch. It was going to be huge. Momentous. Microsoft produced a $2 million commercial, burned it onto a CD-ROM, and sent it out to its 1.6 million subscribers.

msncdDays before the switch was to be flipped on MSN 2.0, J., one of the VP’s who reported to Bill Gates, met with all the producers to discuss the upcoming press conference.

[I wrote about J. in a previously published essay.]

During the meeting, J. informed us that she’d be projecting the new MSN onto an enormous screen in front of hundreds of reporters. She wanted to make certain that what they saw was the creme de la creme. After clicking through every show on every channel—commenting, critiquing, questioning—J. chose five shows to highlight for her presentation. Those of us who weren’t chosen for the Show and Tell were asked to leave the room.

On the day of the press party, I was working diligently at my desk, when my then-boss, Bill M., suddenly appeared outside my office. He looked as if he’d just been told his stocks had lost half their value.

“What?” I asked, mildly concerned.

“I’m supposed to fire you right now.”

I assumed it was because I’d perhaps stolen too many staplers and pens, and was just about to swear I’d return them, when he uttered, “Because of the orgasms.”


“Lisa,” he sighed woefully. “Did you know How Long? was running a question about orgasms today?”

I twisted around and clicked over to How Long?’s home screen. Sure enough, the question in the bottom right corner was “How Long Do Orgasms Last For Women?” I’d sent one of my editors to New York City a few weeks earlier to record Dr. Ruth’s penetratingly informative answer.

“I didn’t know it was on today’s page, no,” I said, confused by his interest. Our editorial calendar had been signed off on and fixed long ago. Every day another five questions and their answers were uploaded and left to their own devices. I had no time to check in with the daily offerings.

“You should have been warned [J.] about it,” Bill said. “She’s really angry.”

“She clicked on it?”

“She did.”

“But she didn’t say she was going to,” I protested. “We weren’t supposed be in the lineup.”

“Yeah, but she did.” Bill then went on to describe the scene of the carnage: J. up on the stage, clicking through the pre-selected shows, proudly parading their cutting edge interactive features to a packed house of a clearly-impressed news media. One show after another—the flashy animations, upbeat music, and imaginative content creating a dazzling spectacle. But then… maybe she got cocky, or someone in the audience asked what else she had. For whatever reason, J. clicked on Channel 2 and up popped the front page of How Long?; the word ORGASMS looming as large as an elephant behind her.

A reporter immediately raised his hand and asked if, given the adult nature of the show, Microsoft had a rating system in place, like the movies do. Would there be ways to block kids from seeing things their parents prefer they didn’t?

J. froze. Apparently, no one: not a single person, had bothered to consider this issue. Being the consummate executive, J. offered some “of course there will be” assurance and clicked on, finishing her presentation to thunderous applause. Just as J. exited the building, the car transporting Bill Gates, who was scheduled to speak next, pulled up to the curb. She said something to the effect of, “It went well, but be warned: you might be asked about orgasms,” before marching off to find the bonehead who’d embarrassed her.

“She’s furious,” he remarked after finishing the story. “She wants you gone.”

“You signed off on the content, Bill,” I whined in my own defense. “You knew the question was on the schedule.”

He shrugged. Looked behind him. “You lost a lot of points on this one, Lisa.”

“But I—”

“Do me a favor and just keep out of her way for a while, okay? Try not to let her see you,” he said, slowly closing the door to my office, effectively shutting the door to my blue-badged future as well.

With zero chance of advancing beyond minion status, I left Microsoft and embarked on a four-month adventure through southern Europe and eastern Africa with my new husband. While we ate tapas and stared at wildebeests, MSN 2.0 foundered. Human beings are a preternaturally impatient species, and having to wait up to a minute for a Macromedia Shockwave Flash animation to download was too much to bear. Some users hated the software so much, they created a website devoted to deriding it:


By the end of 1997, it was clear that MSN 2.0 needed to be overhauled. Most all of the fizzy game-like shows got axed, as well as the contract employees who produced them. As Amy Harmon reported in the New York Times [“More Geek, Less Chic; After a Tryout at Microsoft, the Hip Gives Way to the Really Useful” 13 Oct. 1997]:

“… even the hippest on-line programming and the most sophisticated literary efforts that the company has floated on MSN and the World Wide Web have not drawn enough of an audience to make money. Many of MSN’s shows were ”spectacularly unsuccessful” says Pete Higgens, vice president of Microsoft’s Interactive Media Group, citing as an example How Long?, which addressed questions cosmic and mundane about time and space.” [emphasis mine]

Was I hurt or humiliated by Mr. Higgens’ insult? Not at all. How Long? truly was nothing more than a mindless distraction, one I’d actually had a lot of fun producing. I was majorly vexed, though, when the same article mentioned Microsoft’s radical realization that what internet users really wanted was practical, informative content:

“Microsoft has, moreover, given MSN a makeover that emphasizes function over form, with easier-to-use E-mail and a new schedule of programming more heavily weighted toward fare like ”A Click Away,” an interactive directory of Web sites.” [again: emphasis mine]

A directory of web sites? Such a brilliant concept! Too bad the man with the big head and ties to turtles favored dazzle over depth. If he hadn’t killed “that zine with all the words,” I might not have had a run-in with orgasms. I might have instead been upgraded to blue badge status and endowed with enough high-earning stocks to buy a car that doesn’t smell like spoiled milk. And just imagine the staplers I could have bought.

Oh well. No matter.





Sometimes They Write Back

When my first book, Other Fish in the Sea, was released back in 2003, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram didn’t exist. There was no social media platform on which to display its pretty cover. No place where I could announce, HEY, I PUBLISHED A BOOK, or show off any positive reviews.

Additionally, this lack of connectivity meant that readers had no easy way of letting their friends (or me) know if they even liked (or hated) the book. Because my tech-savvy friend, Igor, built me a rudimentary website, I got to hear from a few of my fans.


My first ever email about the book was from someone named Teri, and oh but it was a juicy one:

Dear Lisa,

Well…I am so glad you have a web site.  What a thrill.  I’ve never written an author before, but here I am. There I was, browsing in the library, trying to get over my “affair” with a married man, who I didn’t know was a married man  and didn’t know I had been having an “affair” until after we had been together for a year, and I spied your book….”Other fish in the sea”…yes, that’s what I wanted….something to distract me and keep me from calling him, but….getting into the book…and yes, I admit, I couldn’t put it down…there I was in Seattle…where of course, my guy lived … (I am from Portland…which I suppose accounts for the fact that I didn’t know he was otherwise engaged since I only saw him when he came down to visit…every weekend, I might add for the first 6 months) and I was pitched back into my real life.Just

Anyway, what I really wanted to tell you (and I’m so glad you have a website where I can reach out to you) is that I loved your book. You are a fabulous writer. 

I could quote you endless paragraphs where you touched my heart. You have such a handle on seeing life as so many people do, but rarely notice. (Or maybe that’s just me). Or maybe, that we notice, but don’t think other people think the same little things are as important as we do. I’ve never felt compelled to write to an author before, but I just hope you do keep writing. Your book is great. I feel your destiny is big. But I’m sure you already have it, and already know this.

Thank you for this opportunity to tell you.  Your book is inspiring. If you are ever in Portland signing your books at Powell’s or whatever… I’d love to tell you in person. I’m nobody important, but just a regular woman who so appreciates your take on the world. Thanks for sharing it with me.

Your friend,


I printed it out and framed the words of this supposedly unimportant regular woman. They meant the world to me.


A few years later, I received this letter from a young woman in the Philippines:

Hi Lisa,

Hope you are well as you read this email. 

I have never heard of you before or of your work, but when I saw “Other Fish in the Sea” in a bookstore, I picked it up because the title intrigued me.

I have just finished reading it – in one sitting when I was sick and therefore not at work – and I loved it. I especially liked the wit of “SWM” and the ambiguity and surrealism of the “Other Fish in the Sea.”

And the last story ended on such a hopeful note which made it satisfying because I was starting to get worried that I might end up like Elly – forever searching for love.  J 

I searched you online and got your email from your website. I just wanted to write and tell you how much I enjoyed your book. Being a “budding” writer of short fiction and a bit of poetry myself, I imagine it would be fun for me to receive such feedback about my work. I’m from the Philippines and it’s sad that, often, only fellow writers read fiction produced by writers in the Philippines.

That’s all. Hope that I get to read more of your work. May God bless you! 

(Metro Manila, Philippines)

To think that someone went out of their way to find my email address, then take the time to write me, touched me to no end.

Naturally, I wrote her back. (I wrote EVERYONE back!)


Flash forward to 2008. By then, everyone and their sister had a blog. One day I came across Ilia’s blog. It was mostly about writing. But there was one particular post that struck me…


I was supposed to write something about punctuations today. But reading one of Neil Gaiman’s tweets changed my mind. He twittered a link to his assistant’s blog where she wrote about how she spends her day as his assistant. Reading that eventually led me to her post on what not to send your favorite writer. And that switched a lightbulb in my brain and gave me an idea for today’s post. 

So after Rem’s rather “heavy” post, I will now attempt to write something lighter and proceed to tell you of the one and only time I ever wrote a writer I liked.

There’s this stall (if you can call it that) right after the EDSA entrance to Star Mall and I often pass by it to look for good finds AKA quality books at cheap prices. It was there that a book called “Other Fish in the Sea” by Lisa Kusel wouldn’t leave me alone until I picked it up. So even if it wasn’t in the most perfect condition – there were creases and stains – I bought it.

It was a short story collection featuring one main character named Elly who gets herself in all sorts of relationships – set in various locations and at progressing stages of her life. I usually buy books of short stories to help me learn more about the genre but I rarely read all the stories in one book – because it gets kind of tedious “hearing” the same voice in a series of stories. But this time – I read all of the stories in that book.

I believe in the Chinese proverb: The teacher comes when the student is ready. I really appreciated “Other Fish in the Sea” because I think it came to me at the right time in my life and it gave me hope. The stories inhabited my brain for several days and the longer they stayed, the more I enjoyed them. 

So browsing over the book, I noticed it mentioned a website. The next day, I checked out the URL and the website did exist and had an email link. So I said to myself, why not? Why not email her and tell her how much I enjoyed her stories? I knew it would be a long shot but I really didn’t have anything to lose. Plus, if I were in her shoes, I’d want to hear from people who enjoyed my work. [Yes, we would. Always.]

A month passed and I didn’t get any reply. Soon, I sort of forgot that I ever wrote her. Then one day, I came into the office, turned on my computer, opened my email inbox and there it was – a reply from her. I let out a squeal of glee and received varied looks of confusion and annoyance from my colleagues.

Now I share to you what she wrote me. Here is part of her email to me:

Ilia, what a lovely lovely surprise, finding your letter among the scores of business-y and spam-y emails in my inbox. You completely made my day with your words. Thank you for that.

And for reading OFITS. I am so proud of those stories; thrilled that women everywhere find parts of themselves in Elly.

…Until then, I wish you all the luck in the world with your own writing–poetry, fiction, any words that paint pictures for yourself, for others–it’s all such a wonderful art, no? Practice all the time. Get frustrated. Be easy on yourself, though. Enjoy every moment of your own creations and eventually others will too, if that’s your goal.

all my best to you today and always,  lisa kusel [I’m sure I said lots more, but I don’t have the email I sent her.]

And really, that totally made my day. I know that writers answering fan mail is not exactly unheard of but having never tried anything like that before, receiving a response was glorious.

It’s amazing how technology has made it so easy to communicate with people from the opposite side of the globe. Now if only I weren’t too shy to approach Filipino writers when I get happen to be in the same room with them. Ha-ha.

Just remembering that made me excited all over again. I hope I get the chance to pass on the favor someday.

It is amazing how technology has changed the way we communicate. Nowadays, there are countless channels by which to reach out to authors. Since Rash, my third book, was published, people from all over the world have written to me, IM’d me, friended me on FB, and followed me on Instagram. I treasure what each and every person has said about the book. And yes, I still write back to all of them.

And then last week it was my turn: I finished reading Less by Andrew Sean Greer and was so overcome by the love I felt for the book that I wrote the author on Twitter, never for a moment expecting a reply. I mean, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author taking the time to answer my small tweet? No way.

But guess what? Sometimes they do write back.


And, just like Ilia said, receiving that response was indeed glorious.




Photo by Radim Schreiber /

Last Saturday I awoke with a nasty bellyache, a sharp throbbing pain in the middle of my gut. No matter what I tried, it would not abate. I contorted my body into yoga poses. Drank bubbly water mixed with apple cider vinegar. Sucked on fennel seeds. Sipped peppermint tea. Finally, I gave in and gagged down four TUMS. All to no avail. After an hour of grimacing, I took to my bed and found that if I lay on my right side and tucked my left leg up by my chest, the pain diminished significantly. But only if I stayed in that exact position.

Needing a diversion, I extended my left arm backwards and grabbed a random book from the messy pile on my night table. My hand retrieved “Unbound: Finding Freedom from Unrealistic Expectations of Motherhood,” written by Jamie Sumner.

I groaned. I kinda sorta didn’t want to read it. I wanted something FUN, something LIGHT, something maybe a little IMMORAL or IRREVERENT to distract me from my discomfort; not a  book about GOD and INFERTILITY. As I again reached backwards toward the jumble of books, a voice in my head shouted, “Lisa! Think about all the shit you’ve been going through and the fact that this woman in Tennessee, a woman you’ve never even met, has been so supportive. And lest you forget: she wrote an amazing review of your book. She mailed you her book because she wants you to read it, you idiot. Don’t be such a selfish jerk.”

I opened the book.


Last year, in an effort to promote my new book, “Rash, A Memoir,” I asked some fellow writers in a private Facebook group if anyone would be willing to read and review it. Jamie Sumner was the first person to volunteer.

After she received the book she emailed me: “The cover is so COOL. It makes me want to scratch at the surface. Literally. What would Bali and angst smell like if we made it Scratch N’  Sniff?” This, naturally, endeared me to her.

After she published a remarkably flattering review of my book on her blog, I wrote to thank her and, soon enough, we began emailing one another. We shared a few personal stories, but mostly, we discussed the world of publishing. Things like how difficult it is to find the right agent. The niggling self-doubts that often accompany the writing life. Nothing too deep or needy. But when my agent sent me a curt email containing three rejections of my latest novel, I forwarded it to Jamie, along with a some pathetic whining.

I instantly regretted it and sent an apology letter, admitting that I have ADHD and sometimes over-share my woes onto unsuspecting listeners. I didn’t want our new friendship to veer into overwhelming intimacy, and offered to back off.

Jamie refused to let me withdraw: “We are both not just here for advice, but for support in all the things that make us human. I will take anything you can throw at me. You are lovely, in all your ADHD glory. I was reading Anne Lamott’s ‘Operating Instruction’ and came across this: ‘I tell my writing students to get into the habit of calling one another, because writing is such a lonely, scary business, and if you’re not careful, you can trip off into this Edgar Allan Poe feeling of otherness.’ Let’s keep each other from the otherness. I think that’s why we met.”

It wasn’t until after this exchange that Jamie let on that she had a book of her own coming out.

“That’s fantastic,” I said, thinking I would be first in line to offer to review it. “What is it about?”

“The book is about motherhood and all the expectations met and unmet,” she wrote. “It’s a faith-based memoir of sorts with a hefty dose of sass because I can’t handle the Christian books that read like they should be written in cursive or made into a Hallmark movie.”

A Christian book? She wrote a Christian book?

While I knew from our emails that Jamie had a bit of a religious disposition, I was rattled by the  disclosed weight of it. I hadn’t realized what a true blue, God-fearing, Bible-toting, commandment-following, Christian she truly was.

As opposed to me: a Buddhist-curious, commandment-breaking, non-believer.

Before I could throw the proverbial baby out with the holy bath water, I decided to keep an open mind. As a constant seeker of truth and knowledge; someone who meditates and strives to be a more compassionate person, I knew it shouldn’t matter that our spiritual paths resembled a Y in the road with huge gap between. We made each other laugh, and I got the sense that she didn’t care that I slept in on Sundays instead of communing with God. (Though I did tread carefully with my emails, backspacing whenever I accidently took the Lord’s name in any form approaching vain.)

Besides which, Jamie made me feel safe, listened to—enough so that by this point in our virtual friendship, I opened up more of my own personal drawers and admitted that I was struggling with my mother, who had been recently diagnosed with dementia. In fact, I was flying down to  Florida in a few days to move her into a memory care facility.

I wrote to Jamie from Florida and detailed some of the not-so-fun challenges I was facing. The sadness and loss that were weighing heavy on my heart.

“I am tired for you,” she replied, “which does not change the situation one bit, but might make you feel better. I love you and I’ll be shooting prayers into the sky like arrows.”

Having someone pray for me was an entirely new experience, but I liked it. I pictured this smart pretty woman with her eyes closed, asking an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-seeing Being she worships to throw a little extra love in my direction. The image of her prayer arrows, like bursts of light flashing across the skies, comforted me more than I ever could have imagined.

Which is why I nicknamed her


“Unbound” is listed under the Christian Books and Bibles category on Amazon. I knew from the description that Jamie would be perching her personal saga alongside Biblical females, and I was ready for those snippets of Scripture to detract from, or even derail, my interest in the central story. Still, I was determined to at least read a few chapters, for the sake of our friendship.

Crunched up as I was like a Roly-Poly bug in my bed, I started reading Jamie’s book at 11:00 AM. I read it while sipping the cup of chamomile tea my kind husband brought me. I read it when I began to feel well enough to sit up and lean against the headboard. I continued reading it after nibbling a light dinner, and even skipped watching the Netflix show I’d been binging on so I could keep turning pages. I couldn’t not read it I was so caught up.

I finished it that night.

I was surprised—and ineffably relieved—by how much I enjoyed the book. There was no didactic Sunday School flogging. Instead, Jamie deftly and humorously weaved Christian narratives through her own adventures and misadventures with the lyrical grace of a folklorist. A whole lot of women in a whole lot of books have spilt their procreative beans, but Jamie’s voice, cadence, and craft made for a drama that kept me on edge, guessing, wishing, laughing, crying, and, yes, sometimes even praying, along with her.

After I finished the book, I stared at the snapshot of Jamie, her husband, Jody, and their three children she’d inserted into the book. I smiled, turned out the light, and kept the image of those five shining faces behind my eyes until I finally fell asleep. The next morning I thumbtacked the photo to my bulletin board.


Now, whenever I need a moment of grace, all I have to do is glance to my left.







KMS8623I am not a woman,


I am women,


I have a face, although you don’t

see my face. 

“Look at me when I’m talking to you.”

I have a face.

I have a voice.

Hear me roar. Better yet, come 


and hear me whisper. For my screams

you blithely ignore, as though they are

inconsequential laments from a baby

not your own.



It will be my whispers then;

the runty sounds 

that turn inside my head

like a Ferris wheel in the distant dark.

Whispers shall carry us through

to the day you stop scorching our souls with the

party-line precepts stowed securely

in your breast pocket.

Your right hand pats them once, twice,

then rests solemnly as you pledge allegiance

to the hatred and subversion you married.



I watched as you anchored your beliefs to

this totem of power

this phallus

this fallacy

then chose to back away from the moral ledge.



between friends, words spoken through clouds 

of outrage, but uttered nonetheless, shared with 

Marina and Anne, Topaz, Meg, Lori and Susan

Monica and Kelley.

A match has been lit. Held in the

whispers of Jenny and Deby

and Aimee and Judy.


You haven’t heard us yet, have you?

Because we’ve been whispering.

What do you think a million angry whispers

sound like when uttered

in a small wood-paneled room?

Imagine it.

Go ahead.

A whisper from one woman who spoke her truth

should have been enough

should have been more than enough

to set your world ablaze.

No matter.

We are here now, full, on fire,

ready to burn down your injustices like

flames ripping through fields of drought-dried wheat.


We’re here now

whispering amongst ourselves.