I respect her.

            And I like her.

            She's articulate, bright, creative, and thoughtful.

            As a narrative genius, she's a really great math professor.

            Her love is the legal thriller: she's so crazy about Scott Turow's work that she thought she could be the next Scott Turow (Hey, sorry Scott, if you get good enough, there's always going to be a next you, even if there's a current you). She knew all the right elements - the good guy with a shadow past, the sympathetic but somehow sinister victim. When she put them all together, they should have worked like a fine watch to create a readable narrative, but they didn't because it takes more than all the elements to make a story, just as it takes more than all the ingredients to make a cake. What she wrote wasn't even really a novel: it was an organized notebook.

A handful of publishers, big and small, weren't really interested, although several letters praised her voice.

So she published it herself, through one of the crop of straight-to-digital publishers, among them Amazon's Kindle Direct, and others that offer the services of an editor and package, as well as marketing advice and direction. Amazon has an obvious edge, but of the sixteen self-published direct-to-e authors I know, ten swear by other favorites.

Several other friends have self-published in "trade" (large form) paperback, some accepted by publishers with no up-front tariff who do the design, some editing, and lend a hand with a marketing plan. The author can earn up to 70% profit on every book sold by POD, or "print on demand."

"I'd much rather do this than get an advance I might not be able to earn. There's so much less pressure," says the next Scott Turow.

Because she is a beloved, charming, credible person (and because those suspenseful elements promised so much) five thousand people bought her first book. Her second followed quickly. "It works!" she said. "I have total editorial control. I know what I'm doing. No one is changing one word that I write."

That's the sad fact. No one is changing one word that she writes.

Authors say traditionally that when you want to administer self-abuse, you read your reviews on Amazon. Sometimes, the reader reviews will say that your latest book is a masterwork (this is usually your best friend). Some will say that your work compares favorably to (insert most dreaded author name here). One of the ways that readers show that they are forces to be reckoned with is to say that this book could have "used a good edit."

What those readers mean is that the book should have been shorter.

Often that book has had a good edit, or three or five.

Sometimes the edit adds pages. Most people don't know that. Sometimes, the edit forces the author to explain the obvious in more ways than anyone could believe.

Most often though, the editor has saved the author from wearing a great suit with a big blot of mustard on the lapel. A great editor has a price beyond rubies. That editor may not know what it's like to write, but sure knows how to read, and has extraordinary taste. Editors' futures and reputations ride on the success of their authors.

Would I have a book published over which I had complete editorial control? The very thought is like two hands grabbing my stomach and twisting. It's that horrifying.

A friend of mine at a university in the Midwest has accepted two students into the Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program she directs. Both had enormous potential and that indefinable something - talent? Ease within language? One young woman had seven self- published books to her credit; the other had five. Those books had cool titles and clever conceits and their covers showed a savvy sense of branding, in that they were different from each other, but colors, titles, designs and type-faces all worked to identify them as a certain kind of confection, from a certain company. They were smart books but they were not good books.

My friend has written two books and is finishing a third.

Her books were published in the traditional way. If your student has written seven, there's a certain skewed presumption - even if your books were critically acclaimed or made "the list."

The presumption is that the student knows best.

The presumption is scary.

There are more books than ever out there, most published the usual way. Even some that get extraordinary attention are dumb. I would venture to guess that even more self-published books are dumb because I think second eyes are essential.

What kind of gatekeeper can let this new enterprise flourish without making the bar so low you don't even notice it?

What difference does it make? I'm afraid that there's a drawn big boomerang: After buying a few, or even a slew, of self-indulgent, self-published books, readers are going to get fed up.

But they're going to get fed up with everyone who writes books, except Scott Turow and Jodi Picoult
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           Chris Meloni is an actor best known for playing Elliott Stabler, a detective, on the 'Law and Order' spinoff series, NBC's 'Special Victims Unit.'

            He left at the beginning of this, the show's 13th season, when contract talks broke down.

            I have no idea what Chris Meloni was making for playing the part of someone who was misnamed but brilliantly cast (I don't get this, Dick Wolf. If a guy looks obviously Italian, and acts Italian, and is Italian, why do you search out a name like ... Stabler? Why not have the psychiatrist (played by B.D. Wong) called Jason Finley or Brian Hewitt instead of George Huang? Could you call me, Dick, before you go naming characters again?). Anyhow. I'm trying to get over the fact that Chris Meloni left, because, although I made my twelve-year-old cover her eyes in the gross bits, watching "Elliott and Olivia" kept thoughts of remorse, ennui and self-destruction at bay during many a bloody, bloody Sunday over the past couple of years.

            I hate that Elliott left.

            But Olivia (decently-named and beautifully played by Mariska Hargitay) is staying.

            The other day in an airport, after the flight to Philadelphia left, I did what I customarily do, walk around the waiting area and pick up the celebrity magazines, newspapers and sometimes hardcover books (although not leftover muffins). Paging through a magazine, I learned that OLIVIA may soon be replaced by JENNIFER LOVE HEWITT (once the perpetual fiancĂ©e on 'Party of Five' and lately the perpetually bemused 'Ghost Whisperer.')

One of the show runners said that they'd been "circling" her for a long time.



            Consider this: Mariska Hargitay - beautiful, tough, a seasoned, award-winning actor with wonderful pitch and Jennifer Love Hewitt, a very pretty young woman who is, I'm sure, very nice and beloved of her family.

            Isn't enough truly enough?

            For years, I've written, openly and closed-ly, to Dick Wolf, reasoning that I could play a judge (another author does) or a reporter (I am one) or at least a corpse (someday I'll be one) on any iteration of 'Law and Order.'

Even if Dick Wolf doesn't give in to my pleadings and righteous good sense on the former, he must hear me now: There is no way that Jennifer Love Hewitt (who would probably be called Detective Consuelo Feinstein) should replace Olivia. Maybe I'm just getting old. But it's harder to let things go. And this show is hemorrhaging.

            If history is any teacher, Chris Meloni will be like every series actor who left in a blaze of anger management issues (and I am making the notable exception of George Clooney) to turn up decades later in another series looking like the Picture of David Caruso.

            It's only TV. But it's such a consolation.

            As Carly Simon once so poignantly wrote, I know nothing stays the same/But if you're willing to play the game/It's coming around again. Just a couple more years of 'S.V.U,' as it's currently construed - with Ice T., with Dann Florek and Richard Belzer.

            I'll be okay then. I'll be able to go on.

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         On the night before we moved out of the home we had loved for ten years where six of our nine children came home, where, thirteen years ago, we took our marriage vows, there was no time for nostalgia.

         There was only time for wrapping.

         My best friend and I, and - under duress - my eldest daughter, wrapped presents for nine children, two brothers and their families and various far-off friends. At the time I located the various iterations of Legos, crockery, scarves and Scheherazzade costumes, I had no idea who they were actually for. With few exceptions, my approach to holiday shopping is like that of a practiced fly fisherman. I cast out and see what I hook, and if it looks good, I know that I'm not the only one who'll prize it. And so, the day was a trial of diplomacy as well as efficiency.

         "When was the last time she gave you anything good?" Pam asked, referring to a pal.

         "I suspect her of re-gifting," I admitted.

         "I'm thinking soap," Pam said. "Goat's milk, soap, but soap."

         My eldest girl, nearly 16, put in, "Why does Santa hate William?"

         Will is her eight-year-old brother, whose haul (it always happens to someone) was clearly on the scant side.

         "I'm thinking soap," Pam said. "Wrap bars individually."

         It deteriorated from there. Francie's interest in packages involves opening them.

People complain that the array of gifts under the tree resembles a department store display or the set of a daytime soap opera. Francie has no problem mixing red and green, or wrapping paper and paper bag. Our work product rapidly grew in authenticity and shabby chic, as if Francie were the shaman for a group of blind craft workers. She was finally apprehended, using a staple gun and a shawl to wrap our nephew's Spidey backpack.

Then, we were all finished, and Christmas stowed in packing boxes, to be celebrated as best we could, far from the ones we love.

Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane were not famous otherwise. But they wrote, in words rarely sung in the original version:

"Come next year, we all will be together, if the fates allow.

Until then, we'll have to muddle through ... somehow.

And have yourself a merry little Christmas, now."


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Interview with Author Jacquelyn Mitchard

Second Nature, the latest from Jackie Mitchard, tells the story of a woman whose face is horribly disfigured and how her life and relationships change when her face is restored, more than a decade after the accident. Here's more from the author of Deep End of the Ocean:

Jennifer Haupt: How did you come up with the premise for this story?

Jackie Mitchard: The seed for this story was planted fifty years ago, when I was so young I'm not sure how much of the events themselves I actually remember and how much is invented memory. On the west side of Chicago, near where grew up, there was a fire at a school called Our Lady of Angels. One memory that I know is genuine is of seeing of my mother answering the telephone and then crying so hard that she slid down the wall and sat on the floor, the phone receiver just lying there. I remember even the height of the kitchen table next to my head. No one on the west side was untouched by what we called simply "OLA." I grew up with kids whose siblings and cousins died in that fire, which killed ninety-two children and three teaching nuns. It was, and remains, the second worst school fire in history.

You don't ever really recover from such a huge transformational event, even if you survive it. Of course, I never forgot it, and remember playing with friends whose mothers had a little shrine in the house with a photo of the child who died and candles and a status of the sacred heart. For years, I've wondered about the personal dimension of something like that, about the wounds that show and the wounds that don't - which can be much more serious. This is how I began to think of Sicily Coyne, and how being disfigured on the outside is different from being denatured on the inside.

JH: Why did you pull Beth Cappadora, your beloved character from Deep End of the Ocean, into this novel?

JM: Beth grew up in the town where the Holy Angels fire happened, and her father was a firefighter there. The bonds of memory and proximity are strong. It was natural to intertwine those characters' lives, and to see what happened. But what happened was more than I ever expected would happen.

JH: How much research did you do concerning women who have been facially disfigured?

JM: This book was so research intensive that I nearly snapped my cap. I ordinarily do a great deal of research for books, rather than writing simply from my own experience. I write not just about what I know but what I want or need to know. So I talked with people who are facially disfigured and also with those who help them, including burn surgeons and anaplastologists who make prosthetic noses and ears, whose vital art form is going to be out-moded by soft-tissue transplants that can give people real noses that actually work and have nerves and sensory capability.

People who were maimed fell into two categories: There were those who went veiled, emotionally and physically, who withdrew from the world in agony and shame, with this behavior based in part of the level of their disability and in part on their personality before. The other group was like Sicily, who was almost, if you will, in your face about her disfigurement, daring anyone to treat her differently, fighting for a career and as much of a social life as was humanly possible. Those kinds of people often attract so-called "normal" partners, because their spirit is unique and deeply attractive. For Sicily, it was when she no longer had her broken face to explain everything about why she was the way she was that she began to flounder, and she was smart, knowing instinctively that it was always wise to be careful what you wish for.

JH: How is this novel a departure from your previous works? What was your biggest challenge in developing this story?

JM: This is a science fiction novel. It is fiction and it is about real science. It's not about aliens or a rogue virus, but it is about a future world. My early education was in science and I love it; most of my reading is in science, natural history, paleoanthropology and botany. However, I was breaking off a big chunk here, however, in part because there are no generalizations about face transplants yet, because of there having been no more than twenty cases. So I had to consult with doctors and potential candidates for face transplant procedures based on speculation; but it was educated speculation because these procedures are too important, for example, to burn victims, that they won't become more common and aesthetically spectacular.

JH: Why aren't these procedures more common?

JM: I think it's because of the emotional connotations for the families of donors. In just the same way as people can talk on TV about sexual abuse and selling drugs but draw the line at money, people give birth on TV but draw the line at faces (except in cosmetic surgery shows). The face is probably the most psychological private part of the body, even though, ironically, it's the one people see most. The face has mythic connotations, as the mask of the soul, with eyes the mirror or porthole to the spirit.

So, why are there so few face transplants? There are so few donors, I think. First, someone who donates a face for transplant has to be either healthy but brain dead or dying of a disease that has nothing to do with the health and strength of their soft tissue ... and who has a family who can come to terms with burying the beloved spouse or child or brother without a face, which is not the same thing emotionally, not at all, as burying someone without a heart or lungs. When we get past seeing this idea as "cosmetic," and realize how vital it is for people disfigured in accidents to be able to talk and taste and kiss their children, we'll see the ultimate humanity of this gracious gift. Part of the reason that the fictional Sicily, a medical illustrator, asks for this whole process to be documented photographically is to get past the weird science and 'Phantom of the Opera' aura that surrounds it. For me, the biggest challenge was wandering in the wilds of immunology, with my friends who are doctors pulling me back onto the trail.

JH: How do you find inspiration for your writing? Is there anything you do that, on the surface, has nothing to do with writing, but it actually helps your creativity?

JM: Travel and exercise are the big things. I literally can feel my mind get sharper and deeper as I see new things and tire my muscles. Reading is more obvious, but I try to confine my reading, during those times I'm writing fiction, to non-fiction - to subjects that are around the world from the research I'm doing or the story I'm telling because it's there than I find the nugget of information that gives my own work more texture.

JH: You teach a lot of workshops. How does teaching other writers nurture your creativity?

JM: I'm an adjunct professor in the Masters of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing at Fairfield University and I am a faculty fellow, earning my own MFA, at Southern New Hampshire University. While it's difficult to give my students everything they need with the demands of my other responsibilities in life. teaching is something I just will never give up. It really does fill the well, at the same time that it drains the well. You can't have ego, and you can't give halfway. When I'm at the residencies for the programs with which I'm associated, there is no time for me. I disappear into the teaching just as I disappear into writing or being a mother, and I emerge new and raw.

JH: What role, if any, does faith play in your writing life?

JM: Apparently, it plays a much, much bigger role than I understand. I would consider myself to have the life of the spirit of the average salt shaker. I certainly do not consider myself to be conventionally a believer, there is a huge portion of almost every story that turns on the hinge of faith and moral choices based on deeply held values. Sicily's aunt is a nun. When she prays for the recovery of her son, Ben, Beth Cappadora uses the words of the Latin mass, "Agnes dei ..." Where the heck did that come from? Who knew I even remembered it? I was a kid when that changed. Apparently, it's true what an old friend said about me, that I'm a Puritan who examines her soul every day and finds it wanting.

JH: What's the one true thing you learned from Sicily?

JM: I learned the truth of what Saint Teresa said so eloquently, that there are more tears shed over answered prayers than unanswered prayers.

New York Times bestseller Jacquelyn Mitchard's novels include The Deep End of the Ocean, Twelve Times Blessed, and The Breakdown Lane. She is also a journalist and author of The Rest of Us: Dispatches from the Mother Ship, a collection of her newspaper columns. She lives with her husband and six children in Madison, Wisconsin.

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            The other day at the pool, I heard a man tell his son to hurry. "We have hockey and then math," he said.

            We'd had summer school, too, for a month. And now a week of swimming lessons. The rest of the time, the kids ran up and down and screamed. They made Hot Wheels tracks from cardboard boxes. They made castles from cardboard boxes. They made rabbit traps from cardboard boxes. They jumped on the trampoline two hours a day. They swam in the pool four hours a day. When it rained, they played Mario Brothers.

It started as a social experiment.

            No, that's a lie.           

            It started with two desperate mothers of invention.

            This past summer, my neighbor Pam and I had five children under the age of seven, two twelve-year-olds, and a schedule of travel for work so heavy the bottom was falling out.

            So we dialed back, and not on those punishing schedules.

If we'd done that, it would have meant her losing an essential contract and my dropping out of graduate school. Our responsibility to our kids is to support them in every way, including economically.

            We dialed back in time, to the Sixties, which I was a young kid and my neighbor was a concept. There were plenty of mothers at home, then, in the summer, but there were plenty who were not.  Older brothers and sisters were forced to give up being tormentors and assume the position of guardians, grudgingly yet with a certain pride. Had we raised lily-livered sissy babies who would be unable to find re-runs of 'Bugs Bunny' on TV or slap together a PBJ?

We decided not to know this even was possible.

            For this entire summer, we have crossed our fingers and prayed for good instincts, leaving the "big girls" in charge of the free-range, peer-raised youngsters.

They've gone on backyard picnics. They've built entire cities from cardboard boxes. They've made some pizzas that disgusted even the dogs.

Some mornings the "big girls" went to summer school.

Then, one of the boomerang boys, a basement post-grad living the vampire life on the reverse clock as he hunts down a fulltime job, was coaxed from the shadows to make breakfast and his presence evident. Those were special days. Kids who mixed their cheerios with ice cream most mornings ("It's milk!" Mia argued) dined on strawberry crepes and Hawaiian smoothies.

            How did they do?

            We had some moments when our heart stopped from fear (A phone call: "Will's making a fire, but it's outside ...") and some when our hearts sang from requited love (A note: All the kids are mean and selfish and bullies and rude and I hate them but they are fine.) It turned out that Will had lit one match. The kids ARE mean and selfish, but fine.

            Despite the truth that we wished to be there more, and we did avert some catastrophes, the kids woke their imaginations from boredom, planning pretend beach trips and hatching butterflies in syrup jars, and nobody was abused or neglected or went hungry. They have memories that we don't have, and an understanding of each other that, for better or worse, would not exist with us doing the editing. It was a lesson on both sides.

            Although they didn't grow up, they did grow, in tolerance, boldness, and inches. We didn't want to leave them to their own devices, but now know we can.

And so do they.


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Author Illie Ruby has introduced a new website called The Great Women Series. She features authors, artists, athletes, scientists, healers, and survivors. She asks each woman the same 21 questions. Here are my answers.
Visit her website The Great Women Series to follow the other amazing women she has interviewed.

1.    What is your favorite guilty pleasure? My Kindle and all its narcotic pleasures. Instant gratification.

2.     If you had one wish for the world what would it be? Clean water. For everyone.

3.     What is your favorite word? Least favorite word? Massachusetts. Panties.

4.     Do you believe in second chances? If so, what would you want to have as a second chance? I would like my very own life, but without ever hearing the name of the investment thief Trevor Cook - who is serving eight to twenty five years ... but we will serve for a lifetime.

5.     If you were trapped in an elevator for four hours, who/what would you want with you? My Kindle, my first boyfriend, and the right to turn the elevator into a time machine.

6.     What was the most difficult age for you/why? Forty-five. I knew I couldn't have any more children. I did, though.

7.     What has been the best age for you/why? Forty. I had everything I ever wanted and a chance to use it all.

8.     Are you superstitious? What about? Every. Thing. Every. Single. Thing. Shoes on the table. Hats on the bed. New moon seen through window glass. Spilled salt. But most of all ... and really, everyone should know this, never walk on the opposite side of a fixed object from someone you love. You'll be parted. Really. Don't try this.

9.     Do you believe in karma? Synchronicity? Love at first sight? No. I believe we make our own luck.

10. What was the best/worst advice your mother/father ever gave you? (or the mother or father figure in your life). My agent, Jane Gelfman, said, "You don't have to tell everything you know" and her husband, my beloved late friend, Sam Cohn, said, "Tell the truth. It's so much easier. And people don't expect it."

11. Do you have a secret talent (that you can share?) I know the lyrics to every song I've ever heard and I've heard pretty much every song. I have a bet with all my kids that if I don't know the words to a song I've heard, I have to give the witness two hundred dollars on the spot.

12. In your next life what/who do you want to come back as? I want to be Audra McDonald. And this life would be fine, too.

13. Have you overcome your biggest obstacle and how? My biggest obstacle is fear. I try never, ever to make a decision based on fear.

14. Who is your favorite woman? Jane Goodall.

15. Will you share your biggest epiphany? I could be happy if I never said another word and only listened.

16. Favorite song/favorite book? 'Vincent' by Don McClean. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.

17. Plug your book/blog/or product here. My next novel is called Second Nature: A Love Story, and you can find out about it on my website, Jacquelyn Mitchard
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Red-jacketed elves in fluffy boots are leaping and cheering in the snow outside the Chicago Academy of Performing Arts, next door to St. John Cantius Catholic Church on the West side of Chicago.

"Hooray for our next contestant! Good luck!" cry the elves from Oxygen Network.

The worshippers in their long black overcoats smile dreamily at the scores and scores of young performers passing by -- in tall black boots, ripped jeans and the best miniskirts their parents could buy. The performers don't smile back, although their expressions are just as dreamy. They carry their music. Some carry sleeping bags, dance gear and water bottles. Some wear sunglasses, although the early morning is overcast. Many wear paper respiration masks to keep the cold air away from their vocal cords. Few of them are confident enough to greet the elves. They search the street for their parents -- who are nervously navigating the narrow intersection of Carpenter St. and West Chicago Ave., hoping for a place to park and worry in peace, over a paper cup of coffee. There's not much hope. This is the last of the auditions for 'The Glee Project,' a reality show that will choose the next member who will guest-star in Season 3 of the astoundingly popular Fox phenomenon 'Glee.'

'Glee' exceeded its modest expectations in the way that Oprah Winfrey's Book Club made a joke of those who said that TV was no place to bring people to reading.

With its sly slapstick, innuendo and heart, 'Glee' gathers parents in delight with their tweens, teens and college students around the electronic hearth. It isn't really about the best high school show choir on earth (despite the truth that they never win regionals!) 'Glee' succeeds not only because of the music (and the music is another phenomenon; who'd have expected kids to squeal to download old numbers from 'Funny Girl?') Loosely arranged like an artful scarf on the fragile bones of each week's plot is pretty much everything -- love, alienation, desire, alienation, loneliness, popularity, slang, sexuality, sarcasm, class warfare and did I mention alienation?

'The Glee Project' will follow an as-yet unspecified number of hopefuls through three months of exaltation and anguish in training for what may be the biggest letdown of their young lives -- not being chosen to guest star in multiple episodes of season three in the fictional halls of William McKinley High School. Surely, Americans will be enlisted to vote with the text-messaging function. Surely, there will be internecine battles and Gleeky wannabe romances, all reported in breathy prose by entertainment press. A veritable Dancing with Egos and may the strong survive.

Everyone here on the street this morning is searching for something. 

Arriving alone or in threes and even fives as the morning progresses, the kids are an enigma setting their sights on getting chosen for a reality show, also an enigma -- with the top prize being the chance to portray an enigma on TV. They're coming to find something life may have given their peers who are still asleep. Kids who sing require a powerful combination of security and insecurity. No one performs just for the love. Too much is on the line. People who perform have been hurt (or labeled or alienated.) 

These performers, in fact, have much in common with the worshippers, who arrive in droves, hour after hour, for the next service. They fasted this morning and got up before daylight. They drew on the deepest selves they have. 

The church bells ring.

The Oxygen elves dance.

Everyone is hoping for a miracle.

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Age isn't just a number.

It's a measure.

It's a measure like the set of marks on a doorframe that chart each child's height as they grow: The new marks, on the top, are bold and declarative. The ones that are older have grown faint.

Lately, I've been thinking about age in terms of measuring the length of time that a glorious older woman can be married to a glorious younger man. Like that doorframe, the marks that came first grow faint with the passage of time -- the very ones that were cause for exclaiming and celebration when they were new.

When older women "score" a younger man, there's universal cheering. It's a gotcha moment, the presumption of a life (or more truly, a decade) of fabulous sex. Morning talk-show hosts - men who consider themselves the truth-speakers, give out with the cruelty that presumably is what most people really think. "Marry me," said Bob, of the Bob and Tom show, when 42-year-old Demi Moore married 27-year-old Ashton Kutcher. "I'm having menopause. You don't have to worry about me getting pregnant!"

I'm nearly twelve years older than my husband. The one sentence on people's lips, when I've had occasion to mention this disparity in ages is, "Way to go, girl! Good for you!"

But then, along comes the bad news. There's a price to pay.

The latest is the rumored split between Demi Moore, 47, and Kutcher, now 32. The rumored reason? His infidelity.

Last summer, Hollywood's venerable power-political couple - Susan Sarandon, 63 and Tim Robbins, 41 - ended a 23-year relationship. The rumored reason was his infidelity. Three years earlier, The Scots dramatist Ralph Fiennes was rumored to have attempted to have cheated on the proud and beautiful Francesca Annis. He was 44. She was 61. They had been together for eleven years.

Everyone understood. The guy can't help it.

No one thinks of the marriage of Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart as faintly distasteful and just a little repugnant - even though he's 22 years her senior. Michael Douglas is 25 years older than Catherine Zeta-Jones, Back in time, Charlie Chaplin was 36 years older than Oona O'Neill. And the great jurist and naturalist William O. Douglas married Catherine Heffernan (who was 23 and not yet out of law school) when he was 67.

Two years ago, the website Science Blog pointed out that, biologically, this proclivity was a good thing. It turns out that older men chasing younger women contributes to human longevity and the survival of the species, according to new findings by researchers at Stanford and the University of California-Santa Barbara.

But the other way around? Science and human nature agree: Not so hot. The online Advice column Hearts4U earnestly advised a young man involved with a 40-year-old woman: "This may sound harsh but (you) are 23 years old and however much you think she is the one believe me in a few years - you (will) realize you have put everything on hold for ... you will grow bitter, resentful and angered ... just go have fun, travel, do something different, but don't tie yourself down!"

Presumably, the older woman no longer traveled, had fun or had anything that she needed to put on hold.

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose, as they say.

Women can rob the cradle ... but not if they're looking for a lifetime companion. Men can rob the cradle too, even with one foot in the grave and a bevy of nips and tucks - 'til death they do part.

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My Day Off

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There were so many things I should have been doing that they were numberless -- raindrops on a windshield -- and urgent, deep as the Mariana Trench.

But I took a day off.

I took a whole day off, nine hours.

I didn't work.

I took ... a walk with my husband and our daughter's dog.

I baked ... tea cakes to surprise my children, with the gift of a fancy muffin tin given me by a fellow writer. We drank tea and talked about ... movies. We talked about why even loving couples might want separate bedrooms and closets if they were rich. We talked about what it would be like to go to Tucson in March and we remembered the times when we might have gone to Tucson and stayed two extra days at the Red Door Spa, rather than asking for extra shampoos from the hotel maid's cart to bring home as gifts for the kids.

Times have been hard.

For fun, I counted the hours off I took this past summer. The total came to 32. That included dinners with friends, three times seeing 'The Wizard of Oz,' a production my kids were in, and Thomas H. Cook's seminar with Mary Higgins Clark and an impromptu visit to the beach at sunset, during which I waded into the water fully dressed. That last bit worried me. Even workaholics can lose their minds and I'm not a workaholic. The secret to my past success was balance -- hard work and hard leisure, lots of laughter and music, eager sleep at night. Now I'm afraid to sleep, as I fear what dreams may come. Some are recurring dreams -- the dream of a cabin that I am sure, in the dream, I owned, but which I could not have owned, the dream of men in business suits no taller than my knees, who have knives. In the morning, my bed looks to have been occupied by teenage lovers instead of a middle-aged woman whose husband is on the road, looking for work.

On my day off, the wind rose to gale force. I watched a hawk surfing the air 200 feet above the ground perusing the prairie for the incautious squirrel. I watched the hawk for five full minutes. I never do that. I played the 'Free Rice' vocabulary game on freerice.com and contributed 650 grains of rice to hungry people I will never meet.

My day off lasted until sunset, when I need to have a conversation about a job and read to three kids, aged four, five and seven. As I read, I thought of how it would be to be a full time mom, but had to lasso those dreams. That's not a path I'll ever walk. I suspect to retire about eight years after my own death.

But a day off restores you. Last night, I still had nightmares but this morning, my breathing came easier. More seemed possible. There was restoration in looking away, even for a moment, from the abyss of the matters I need to solve.

I will solve them.

Or I won't.

The tea cakes won't be the deciding factor.


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You know how you think, if only I could invent something? Like Velcro? Like the SCUBA tank or the Fushigi Ball? Or little kid Crocs? Or the DeLorean (I thought it was cool).

I'm going to patent Jackie Water.

Water that I put in any glass is better than any other water, from any source.

I can fill a glass from the tap and add ice and, within moments, someone in my family will ask, "Is this your water?" And that person will proceed to drain the glass.

I fill it up again and the same thing happens.

It doesn't matter what the person's age. My son who's 26 will come and drink my water as readily as my son who is four. My twelve-year-old daughter will talk up two stories to get at this water. People will come in from outside, from down the street; they will wake me up at night for this delight.

I flatter myself that it's because my family - and my children's friends, close relatives and people I've met more than once consider me hygienic, sparkling, refreshing, kind of like pure water. They think they can imbibe confidence and grace along with the H20.

The truth is, your mother's water is like your mother's kiss when you're hurt as a child. It just works. It's to be trusted. It's simply better.

When one of my older children was young, he was explaining to a group of other, more sophisticated six-year-olds that the Tooth Fairy had brought him a dollar. Looking down her nose, one of the other kids said, "Don't you know that your mother is the tooth fairy?"

Horrified, my son turned to me and said, "Are you the tooth fairy?"

Thinking quickly, the woman whose daughter had left the fib out of the bag answered for me. "Yes," she said. "Your mother is the tooth fairy. But she's the tooth fairy for everyone."

That's the philosophy behind Jackie Water. A little irreplaceable security in every sip.

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