The house we rented in Maine is very old and very large. It has history. Perched on a small hill above the lake, it has sprawling porches, front and back, and lovely views. There’s a spacious kitchen, a laundry room, and five roomy bedrooms with four baths. There’s a massive stone fireplace in the living room. But it does not have wi-fi, and the cell signal is only one elusive bar, which seems to flit from room to room like a butterfly, and then disappear.

It has been a long time since I have left my phone sitting on the night stand, turned off, and walked away for the day. I feel released from electronic bondage. The impulse, in an idle moment, to look down at the phone is gradually being replaced by a willingness to look up, to think, to let my brain idle. That’s how writing happens. 

I had become increasingly aware of the way my phone had taken over my life. I am continually scrolling through my messages. There’s not a scene that passes before my eyes that doesn’t make me reach for the camera. There’s not a drive that isn’t accompanied by a podcast. 
It’s too much. It’s too many voices. It’s too much externality. And none of those things are good for a writer.

This week I wrote in the mornings. I hung around with my family. We did a complicated puzzle. I sat on the dock and dangled my feet, and thought about things. I jumped into the cold lake. I cuddled children. I drank cocktails. I went to bed with a book. 

It was a kind of detox, and it has put me on the path to getting my brain back. 

The temptations to return to my old habits will be strong, and I imagine there will be a gradual regression toward over-use. But I have a plan to keep it in check, and at the moment, it doesn’t even seem appealing to go back to my old ways. 

But addiction is hard. We’ll see.

Not with a Bang, But a Tote Bag

Back in the pre-covid days of festivals and conferences, my husband used to travel a lot, and my closet overflowed with tote bags. This essay appeared in the now defunct Weekly Standard September 26, 2018. An article in today’s NYTimes brought tote bags and all their environmental baggage once again to the fore.


I seem to recall an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson in which he predicts that the world will be subsumed not by fire or flood, but by an overwhelming mound of common pins. It hasn’t happened so far, but that may be because we have shifted the cultural weight, as it were, to a far more voluminous enemy: the tote bag. 

My husband is on the festival circuit. He goes to exotic and beautiful places like Maui and Aspen, cavorting with celebrities and beautiful people, while I stay home with the dogs. It’s not as bad as it sounds, really, and it has the advantage of enhancing spousal appreciation, but it does have a curious byproduct. Every time he returns, he presents me with a tote bag.

Tote bags are nothing new. They have been the mainstays of museum gift shops and the low-cost premium for subscriptions to magazines and public television for decades. Environmentalists made them important by urging us to pile our groceries into their bacteria-infested depths week after week, rather than wounding the earth with the clean, fresh, disposability of plastic or paper grocery bags. 

I love the earth. But I have questions about tote bags. 

I have never had a statement handbag, but then, I live in the Midwest where things like that are considered ostentatious. I do find, however, almost against my will, that I have begun to select the tote bag I want depending on where I’m going and who I will be seeing. There is a hierarchy to tote bags that is more subtle than the kind of car you drive. Tote bags can brag without your ever having to say a word. They are signaling mechanisms to announce your affiliations. 

The local grocery store gives out a flimsy, paper-thin canvas wine bag when you purchase more than one bottle. It’s okay if you leave that one behind at your friend’s house. I have a beautiful well-made canvas bag with a painting of the Flatiron Building that I purchased in a museum gift shop. It is sturdy enough to carry books and signals my cultural sophistication. This may have slightly more cachet than the thin fabric WNYC tote that seems to suggest that I am a donor (I am not) or that I am part of the East Coast intelligentsia (I am most definitely not). I have a bag from the American Enterprise Institute, proving that I am “Fighting for Freedom, Opportunity, Enterprise.” That sounds nice. The TaxPayers’ Alliance signals my support for fiscal restraint, and the Hoover Institution is a nice way of encouraging people to enquire whether I have met Milton Friedman or George Shultz. I have bags from book conferences that suggest my writing bona fides. I have one that declares “We Can Change the World,” a claim whose sincerity I don’t doubt, but about whose particulars I am somewhat skeptical. Perhaps my favorite is my niece’s gift, a utilitarian lightweight “Totes Ma Goats” bag in which I carry my own books (especially my novel The Audacity of Goats) for publicity events. 

But of all the tote bags, the most exclusive are those presented as swag to attendees of various high-level conferences, like the Aspen Ideas Festival. We now have three or four Aspen tote bags. One is beautifully made from military grade canvas with leather handles and represents philanthropy to a veterans group. A bag from an exclusive corporate philanthropic retreat has a lovely insulated pocket underneath to carry your properly chilled bottle of New Zealand sauvignon blanc or possibly a can of bug spray that wouldn’t mix well with the potato salad. 

Does Davos have a tote bag, I wonder? Do Davos attendees ever do anything that requires the use of a tote bag? Or do they bring them home as a bonus gift to their nannies? 

As my husband’s spoils of conquest accumulate in the hall closet, and the door becomes harder to close, I have begun to feel the need for some form of triage. How many tote bags does one family require? I ought to sort through, choose the most exclusive, and chuck the rest, but I’ll probably keep the nice plastic one from the now-defunct local bookstore. It’s easy to disinfect.

The Curse of the Immortals

When I’m walking the island, my mind wanders to many things. Sometimes they’re related to the book—I often work through plot ideas while I’m walking—but not always. I have learned through hard experience that if I don’t record the idea it will disappear forever. In fact, if my notes are too cryptic, they will may still be unfathomable. Yesterday I had a thought about the coronavirus and the Greek gods. I don’t know why. They were trapped in quarantine on Olympus and bickering together—it made me laugh. but there was another idea—What was it?

Maybe not so funny: that quarantine’s illusion of immortality—of time stretching on infinitely—took away that sense we ought to have of racing against a waning lifetime. Maybe it was a respite for a while? Maybe it was a relief not to have to keep churning. But that idleness—that missing sense of time passing—is precisely what made the gods so mischievous. They had no real purpose, no goals. They were, in a word, bored. And aimless. Okay, two words.

But for mortals, it was an illusion. Time did pass. As survivors, we are, of course, just as old as we would have been otherwise. Or maybe, had the pandemic not happened, we would have been out in the world and hit by a bus. We can’t know. Even for those of us fortunate enough to have spent the pandemic merely unmoored in time, there was great loss; if not of someone we knew and cared about, then of community, of ourselves, of our precious time on earth. I feel new sympathy for the unjustly imprisoned, who must have some version of this same feeling: the sense of having been robbed of time. But especially, I grieve for those whose lives were so directly affected by the illness itself.

But as with all forms of grief, we must choose to either lie down in it and never look up, or to get up and get on with things, knowing that, whether we choose it or not, some new grief or old will be waiting to pop out at us when we are unwary. But then, so will new joys, and new, unhoped for experiences.

We move onward, with resignation and hope together, and that purpose, which comes from our sense of passing time, is the blessing of mortality.

Electronic Narcissism

I like silence. Perhaps it is a commentary on the state of my nerves, or maybe it’s because I’m a former musician and my brain is aurally focused, but I find unwanted noises distracting. I need silence to think and to write, and when I want sound, I prefer to choose whether it’s words or music. So I find the contemporary taste for household appliances that ping, beep, and play tunes extremely annoying. 

If I seem cranky, it’s probably because I have been trying desperately to write a novel amidst continual interruption from household appliances.

I have a notion that devices should A) make your life easier and B) not require distraction from your thoughts, and, come to think of it, C) achieve their purposes in silence while leaving me alone. 

In my quest to break my writing stalemate, I recently packed up and left home for the seclusion of the Island. The house I rent when I go away to write is a place I know well. I have been going there for years, and it’s like a second home. It’s a charming place: roomy, but cozy, with a wonderful property where I can walk in privacy with the dogs, and a lovely landlady who knows the precise formula of solitude and companionship to feed a writer. I have written parts of all my books there, and there’s something about the atmosphere that inspires productivity. My days there are a perfect pattern of writing and walking, and no one disturbs me unless I want to be disturbed. The house is not old, but my landlady had just replaced the range, the refrigerator, and the washer-dryer, all sparkling new and ready to be used. She is a generous woman, and likes to buy quality things.

Throughout my first day, unfortunately, I spent a great deal of time debating when to tell my host that there were red squirrels nesting in the roof. I knew it would upset her, and I also knew it would mean workmen disrupting my writing. The squirrels’ chirping and scratching was irregular but loud, and I feared they were doing damage. It wasn’t until late in the afternoon that I finally realized that it wasn’t squirrels, but the new refrigerator. I have no idea why a refrigerator should make a noise like red squirrels. Maybe someone thought it was cute. Or maybe no one ever spent any time in a room where it was running. I suppose it was companionable, in its way. I mean, at least the noise resembled living things.

The stove however, was much worse than squirrels. Writing can be both lonely and vaguely excruciating, and it is during these moments that I usually take a break to cook something nice for myself. Sometimes the food in my novels is actually something I’ve just made. Food, for me, is comfort, and when I’m alone, I look forward to meals as a way of permitting myself a break, and as a kind of companionship. In some ways, it’s as much about the cooking as it is about the eating. Cooking is a pleasant diversion, and creative, but as I’m chopping onions or browning beef, my mind is able to continue the intellectual rambling necessary for building a story.

So, having grown accustomed to the refrigerator squirrels, after a few hours of work and a long walk in lovely silence, I turned on the oven, and was jolted out of my plot-related reverie by a jaunty little tune. It wasn’t just a beep, but an actual musical phrase, only with tinky-tonk noises. When I set the timer it produced another tune, and like so many electronic devices, instead of one smooth dialing motion to set the temperature, I had to press it each time I added ten degrees, each time producing another beep. When the oven reached the temperature I had laboriously set, it sang yet another tune. Apparently each melody has a specified meaning, but I’m not interested in providing room in my head for determining which is which. I found myself missing my vintage stove at home, whose only noise is the satisfying “whomp” it makes when you light the oven with a match.                                                                          

Then there was the new washing machine. I pack lightly when I go away to write. I mean to say: the car is full of stuff—much of it dog-related, and some of it bourbon—but I don’t bring a lot of clothes, so I’m happy to have a washer dryer in the house, and I often throw something into the washer while I’m writing. This new machine could be featured in a museum as The Loudest Washing Machine in the World, and it makes what I can only describe as a rhythmic mechanical gagging sound for the entire cycle. It’s some sort of water-saving design, which is, I guess, mandatory, but seems a little silly when you’re only steps away from—literally—a quadrillion gallons of water. I found the gagging somewhat less charming than the nesting squirrels.  As if this were not enough, it beeps. Not once, for each time you choose a cycle, or once when it’s finished, but every 30 seconds after the cycle, until you interrupt the sentence you’re writing to get up and open the lid. I have had the care of less demanding puppies. 

Thankfully, I was able to close the door to drown out the worst of the noises, but the beeping penetrated the walls. Not surprisingly, the matching dryer is also an electronic nag. But the thing is, if they make weird gurgling noises and show signs of nausea, how would you know until you got them home? I have a new washer and dryer at home, and they both have the options to turn off the signals. I made sure of that. Of course, I don’t live in the same room with them, either. So there’s that. 

But still.

It used to be that appliances would sit silently and make themselves useful. Now, for reasons I do not understand, they seem to feel a need to call attention to themselves, as if, like electronic toddlers, they are announcing: Look at me! Look what I’ve done!

It strikes me as an indication of a deeply flawed society. What personal failings have led us to develop narcissistic appliances? Is it a reflection of modern life, the electronic equivalent of so-called influencers, who must announce their doings on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook, or be forced to question the value of their own existences? Have we created appliances like ourselves? Is there anyone who likes this incessant mechanistic signaling? Or is there something about the electronic miasma in which we all exist that assimilates our nerves into a state of noise acquiescence? Is there some consumer movement I need to join to dissuade manufacturers from this evil path?  

The last time I bought a microwave oven I asked the saleswoman which ones beeped only once and stopped. It was clear by her reaction that no one else had ever asked this question, but she dutifully investigated the beeping of each one, no doubt thinking bad words that I am grateful not to have heard. But each time I buy a new appliance, I find that the noise factor has intensified, as if this has become a signal—as it were—of improvement. I believe it is, instead, an instrument of consumer torture.

A few days after I got home and settled into a new appreciation of my quiet appliances, the brand new, very expensive water heater silently burst a valve and unobtrusively leaked water all over the basement floor. 

I felt oddly grateful.

What Writers Do When They Should Be Writing. A List

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  1. Decide to take dogs for walk.
  2. Look for sunglasses in purse.
  3. Go outside to see if sunglasses are on porch.
  4. Talk to neighbors for two hours over fence.
  5. Look for sunglasses on bedside table.
  6. Pick up t-shirt on bedroom floor.
  7. Notice box of new beach towels in guest room.
  8. Put away  new beach towels.
  9. Look for sunglasses in car.
  10. Make grocery list.
  11. Recharge computer.
  12. Check e-mail. Nothing from anyone.
  13. Look for sunglasses in tote bag.
  14. Wonder if sunglasses are still at bookstore from last night.
  15. Call bookstore.
  16. Wonder if sunglasses are at restaurant from last night.
  17. Call restaurant.
  18. Look for sunglasses in car again, focusing under seats.
  19. Talk to friend on phone.
  20. Look at plot map. Notice holes in plot.
  21. Ponder death.
  22. Empty purse on floor looking for sunglasses. Find emptied bottle of zinc tablets in bottom.
  23. Clean out purse. Pick off lint from zinc tablets. Return to bottle.
  24. Accidentally call book store from last week. Chat with proprietor.
  25. Decide to write blog post.
  26. Look for sunglasses in car again, focusing on trunk.
  27. Stare at blog screen.
  28. Send irritable e-mail to online company who keep sending surveys that flash at you when you’re trying to think.
  29. Look for sunglasses in tote bag again.
  30. Find two day old NY Times in tote bag.
  31. Do crossword puzzle in NY Times.
  32. Walk path from car to door, hoping to find sunglasses in grass.
  33. Rub tummy of Dog One.
  34. Stare at blog screen.
  35. Rub tummy of Dog Two.
  36. Look for sunglasses in different tote bag. Find sunglasses.
  37. Resolve to carry fewer tote bags.
  38. Don’t write a single thing all morning.
  39. Decide it’s too hot to take dogs for walk. Swimming would be better.
  40. Look for sunglasses.

Now Me Also Commenting Here

When writers get together, the conversation immediately moves to the vicissitudes of publishing: which house treats authors well; who never issues checks on time; what kind of publicity is offered. And in these days of social media madness, the subject of blogging is always high on the list of topics.

If you’re a writer, you have to have a blog. And if you have a blog you live for comments. But you are always lured into disappointment by Spam. “You have 162 comments!” your blog site tells you. Eagerly, you check in, only to discover that your comments are 100 percent spam.

Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t understand how spam works. The majority of the come-on attempts are so patently false, and–at least on my blogging system–so completely separated out from the genuine, that I almost feel sorry for the perpetrators. Almost.

Remember Mad Libs? It’s a party game in which you are instructed to come up with a list of words: a noun, a verb, another noun, an adjective. And then your words are inserted into a previously unknown paragraph, with hilarious results.

Spam comments always remind me of this. And this is why I am puzzled.

Somewhere in the world, someone has provided a list of English synonyms to be inserted into standard sentences for the express purpose of permitting miscreants to invade your website and computer. Maybe the mastermind behind it played Mad Libs games as a child. Or maybe he has an unwarranted confidence in the intellect of his minions. And not incidentally, he may be underestimating the intelligence of the average blog writer.

To wit:

(All errors below are as written by senders.)

“I’ve been browsing online more than 3 hours today, yet I never found any interesting article like yours. It is pretty worth enough for me.”

“Personally if all web owners and blogrrss made good content as youu did, the net will be much more useful than ever before.”

“i’ve read this put up and iff I maay desire to suggest soke fascinating issues of suggestions.”

“Ahaa, its good conversation not he topic of this article here at this website, I have read all that, so now me also commenting here.”

“Thank you for the auspicious writeup. It in fact was a amusement account it. Look advanced to more added agreeable from you!”

One fellow (non spam) writer confessed to me that she was so fearful of contamination from these comments that she was afraid to even look at them.  She was missing the opportunity for some fine comedy.

But all the same, I am deeply grateful for spam filters. And I look advanced to your comments.

An Editing Cautionary Tale

We are in the final edits–the galleys–of North of the Tension Line (Beaufort Books, September 2014; Available now for pre-sale on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Sorry. Had to be done. ) just at the very moment that things are intense at work. Although a professional proofreader and my editor have been through the book, as the author, I, too, need to review it, and time is pretty crunched. My good friend, Mary Beth, aka “Impromptu Librarian”, offered to be an extra set of eyes, and I gratefully accepted. In less than a day she had read the book for probably the third time,  and returned the proofed documents for me to pass on to my editor. But the next morning she called and we had an odd conversation.

Mary Beth: “What is hapcedarss?”

Me: “I’m sorry?”

Mary Beth: “Hapcedarss.”

Me: “I hate your bluetooth system.”

Mary Beth: “It’s in your book. Hapcedarss.”

Me: “Hapcedarss? It’s in my book? Are you sure?”

Mary Beth: “I’m sure. The proof reader has many notes about it.”

Me: “In my book?”

Mary Beth: “She had been commenting on it several times, and then pointed out that she had googled the word and checked with OED, but cannot find any such word.”

Me: “That’s hardly surprising. I don’t think there is any such word.”

Mary Beth: “Well, it’s in your book.”

Me: “Hapcedarss is in my book.”

Mary Beth: “Right.”

Me: “Hmmm. Very odd.”

It was a busy day of meetings and preparations for meetings at work, so it wasn’t until quite late that, now having forgotten about hapcedarss, I was able to finally sit down with my manuscript to begin my own proofreading. Not far into the manuscript light finally dawned.

I sold my book much more quickly than I had expected, so submitting my manuscript for fact-checking had therefore also had a much tighter timeline than I had expected. Among the more essential things was sending the book to my friend, Captain Bill, the ferry captain, to make sure that I hadn’t committed any egregious ferrying errors. He called me, and in one of the more delightful moments of this whole process, left a message telling me that he had read the book, and that he had liked it. I still have his voice mail on my phone and listen to it when I’m feeling blue. Anyway, when I called him back, I anxiously enquired whether I had made any mistakes about the ferry, or said anything stupid about the lake or its navigation. He assured me that it was all fine, but he had one correction. The trees at School House Beach, he pointed out, were not pines, as I had written. They were cedars.

Armed with this information, I sat down with my manuscript and created a “find and replace”. Wherever P-I-N-E appeared, it should be replaced with C-E-D-A-R. For some reason, I have rarely used find and replace, even though I have been using Word at home and at work for a pretty long time. What I hadn’t realized was that find and replace doesn’t just find and replace words. It finds and replaces the interiors of words.

It was late in the day, but I called my editor in New York. “I’m so glad you called to tell me this,” she said. “I had a terrible day, and this makes it so much better.”

Apparently, there is a great deal of happiness–or at least the talk of it–in my book. And it’s likely that hapcedarss will forever be a part of Mary Beth’s and my, and my editor’s vocabularies.

Our cups overflow with hapcedarss.







An Unprepossessing Beginning

Today was one of those days. Generally, I try to remind myself that all my problems are lucky people problems. But sometimes you have to allow yourself a tiny bit of self pity.

So, I arrived at the office, dressed for the long day of back-to-back meetings. Since I usually start early, I eat my breakfast at my desk. I am fortunate to have a beautiful office in an historic building, with oriental carpet, oil paintings, and a brass chandelier. But underneath my desk, in a concession to practicality, is one of those plastic sheets that allow your office chair to roll on carpet. I should note that for once in my life I was wearing (relatively) sensible shoes, a pair of low-heeled black sandals, but with, as it turns out, very slippery soles. I was carrying my bowl of yogurt and blueberries in one hand, and my cafe au lait in the other, and had just stepped behind my desk when my foot slid from under me. In what seemed like slow motion, I went down, my hands went up, and a cascade of yogurt, blueberries, and cafe au lait went up into the air in a spectacular arcing curve, landing, with rather remarkable accuracy, on my head. My Italian designer suit jacket sleeves were soaked through with coffee, my hair was clinging to my forehead,  and there were blueberries kind of mushed into the part of the oriental carpet that wasn’t covered by the plastic sheet thing. The receptionist called from downstairs to ask if we had knocked over a file cabinet. “No,” I said. “That was me.” My colleague from across the hall tried to be helpful by laughing and bringing paper towels. After going through a massive stack of paper towels, in a triumph of optimism over yogurt, I went to one of my female colleagues (assuming that the males would be of little use in this case, since they would have only laughed) and asked her if I were presentable enough. She paused for a moment as she looked me over. “I think you need to change.”

I went home to start again and missed my first meeting.

I suppose, in some respects, it was the highlight of the day.


Lessons in the Modern Age

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I know. I’m supposed to have a Facebook page to market my book. But I have spent Facebook’s entire existence avoiding it. It seemed too intrusive; too much trouble; too…unrestful. But this morning, succumbing to earnest advice, I launched my page.

The first thing I did was omit to capitalize the initials in my name. I had managed somehow to type  J. f. Riordan.  So I went to edit it. You can’t. I couldn’t believe this, thinking it must be some personal failing on my part. But it wasn’t. You actually can’t. If you try, they want you to submit a copy of your driver’s license. I am not doing that. So I tried to ask Facebook for help. This was my first exposure to Facebook customer service. There is none.

Then, I thought, maybe I can put my author’s bio at the top of the page. I can’t. You can’t. No one can. You have to have the things they want on the top of the page. Like your favorite tv shows, and movies you watched recently. I went to the “about” section and removed things like favorite tv shows and movies I watched recently. But the tv shows were still there. TV shows have nothing to do with why I have a Facebook page. But it doesn’t matter.

Then I realized from my sister that my birthdate–which wasn’t my real birthdate–had been posted, even though I didn’t want to post my birthdate. “Oh yeah?” she wrote. “You were born only a few months before we were married? Hahahaha!” I don’t want to post my birthdate. Did I mention that? So I “hid” it. But when I look at the page it still shows in my timeline. I tried changing my birthdate. A Facebook message popped up: “You can only change your birthdate a limited number of times.” How many? I wondered. How often do people want to change their birthdates? And why can’t I change it whenever I want? Why would they care? What’s one woman’s vanity to them? (Answer: they are collecting data on you and want to tell their advertisers that they know everything about you.)

Facebook asked to access my e-mail contacts. Reluctantly, and against my better judgment, I allowed this. Should I send to business associates? I suppose. It’s marketing, right? To the vet’s office? Maybe. I write about dogs. The Dentist? Well, why not? They want me to like them on Facebook. A billion e-mails went out to people who will probably be wondering who this J.F. Riordan is who is sending random invitations to perfect strangers. 

By this time, my 1 friend–a relative–had increased to 7. I had friends! But the reason I had built the page was no longer visible on the time line–namely, my book. My husband informed me that (oh, fond hope) once you have 5,000 followers you can’t have a regular page. “You shouldn’t have a regular page,” he said. “You should have a book page. You’re an entity, not a person.”

This sounded about right. I was feeling rather like an entity. So I went back to Facebook to create a business page. It wanted to link to my other page, to J. f. Riordan. I really didn’t want my book going out with an error in my name. But nothing I did, from private browsing, to creating a new e-mail account with a different name enabled me to escape from the original page. I deleted the account and tried all this again. I got an e-mail saying they would delete my page forever in 14 days. Was I sure I wanted to delete this account.  I was sure. Very, very sure.

So I have spent my entire morning in my pajamas fruitlessly messing around with social media on the computer. I have become that person. My day is half gone, I am frustrated, the dogs are restless and unhappy, and I haven’t gotten one actual piece of writing done on my one actual day of writing. 

And billions of e-mails have gone out to invite friends, associates, veterinarians, dentists, and miscellaneous others to a nonexistent Facebook page. 

Facebook, I hate you.