September 7th, 2012 — 7:49am

I was lucky to catch a screening of the new independent film Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor, in Arlington, Virginia last week. I was by far the youngest member of the packed audience and trust me, I am no spring chicken. As far as I could tell from the unit emblazoned t-shirts and baseball caps, and the gasps of recognition when they spotted one of their own on the screen, the room was full of Marine Corps Vietnam Vets and their spouses.

The screening opened with a brief prayer from a Bravo Company veteran, the room completely silent after his powerful final line: “Thank you for bringing us home.” And though I was standing with the military folk of another generation, that prayer felt like every prayer I have heard as an Army spouse whose husband has been through three deployments—those are the words of every single miraculous return, and unspoken in those words are the memories of all the soldiers who did not come back.

It was this universal feel of Bravo! that kept me at the edge of my seat for nearly two hours. I listened to the Vets on the screen talking about mortar attacks, about their intense comradery, and if I closed my eyes, they could have been any newly returned soldier recounting tales from Iraq and Afghanistan. Betty Rodgers, who co-directed with her husband, announced before the screening that this was “everyone’s story, not just Bravo’s.” It was Betty (hurray for spouses!) who convinced Ken, a member of Bravo Company, to make the movie after he had been trying to “figure out how to tell this story for forty-four years.”

Husband and wife team, Ken and Betty Rodgers

Bravo! recounts the siege of Khe Sahn, when the 26th Marine Regiment held out against a superior force of 20,000 North Vietnamese Army (NVA) for 77 days, from January 19 to March 31st. The film, with moving interviews and actual footage, traces the arrival, the siege, the ambush and massacre of members of Bravo Company, and the retaliation that the massacre prompted, spurring the Marines into an early morning offensive against the NVA that finally broke the siege, as well as the Marines’ return to America. The wartime photos and video of the day to day life of the young Marines, showing them washing their clothes, cooking in their hooch, reading books, clowning around, digging trenches, interspersed with interviews of their older selves, pieces together a startling close and personal view of the siege and its aftermath.

Like the best war reporting or storytelling, the words that open the film try to express the filmmakers quest for truth: “This is not a pro-war film. This is not an anti-war film. This is what happened.” One man, when asked why he joined the Marines, said, “I felt like we were doing what Kennedy asked of us, something for our country.” And another, still moved to tears by the harsh way he was welcomed home by war-protestors, “I want this country to love me as much as I love it.”

Betty Rodgers said, “We want the whole world to see this film” and I wholeheartedly agree. If you are interested in learning more about future screenings, would like to make a donation, become a sponsor or just help spread the world (the film still needs a distributor, etc), please contact Ken and Betty at 208-340-8889 or

The next screening is Saturday, September 8, 2012, at the West Roxbury Division Veterans Affairs, 1400 VFW Parkway, West Roxbury, MA, Time: 3:00 PM
For more about the men and women trying to bring Bravo! to the big screen: Bravo!The Project or
To read Ken Rodgers’ blog about the Arlington screening: “Why I Fight” or

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The Kindness of Strangers

August 16th, 2012 — 2:37pm

During interviews or book club discussions, I’m often asked how civilians can help our military. So I thought I’d take up a little cyberspace to recognize some of the exceptional ways people have gone above and beyond in support of our troops.

A few months ago, I wrote a blog about a trip to Walter Reed. Many readers responded and asked for more information about the clothing and book drives that have been taking place there, outfitting our young Vets with everything from ties and suits for upcoming interviews, as well as providing children’s clothes and books for the families that live on the hospital grounds while their wounded Soldiers and Marines attend difficult rehabilitation.

Soon after, I was asked to join a You Know When the Men Are Gone book discussion via speaker phone with the Philadelphia law firm Woodcock Washburn LLP, led by Barbara Felicetti, the firm’s librarian. While preparing for our discussion, Barbara happened to read the original blog about my Hooks Books event at Walter Reed, and was taken with the plight of our military there, many of whom are missing limbs or suffering from brain injuries. She mentioned that her firm often sponsored local charities and that they might like to send “some things.”

Janis Calvo and some WW Book Club members with boxed donations (clockwise from left): Barbara Felicetti, Marie Ware, Lori Roman, Faith Poore, Kelly Freels, Wendy Troester, Anissa Haynes

Well, the kind folk at Woodcock Washburn outdid themselves and “some things” became a deluge of generosity. Janis Calvo (who first recommended You Know When the Men are Gone to the Woodcock Washburn book club, and also knitted 20 pairs of booties to send to Walter Reed!!! I love you Janis!) spent countless lunch hours alongside fellow employee Betty Rackus, organizing donated goods and packing everything up. The facilities manager, Bill Jordan (himself ex-military), helped with staging space and getting the materials shipped to Walter Reed.

Here is an abbreviated list of the things they shipped:
16 boxes of books (including 3 boxes of children’s books)
More than 120 neckties (sent early for a job fair being held on Walter Reed, see flyer below)
22 boxes of clothing (supposedly enough to clothe Rhode Island 🙂 )
And extras: handmade hair bows; fancy fabric back packs; shoes; women’s clothing and coats; men’s pants and shirts; a Bill Blass trench coat; new-bought socks and ties, 4 bags of neatly folded and labeled children’s clothing – with little shoes!

The ties were sent out first in anticipation of the upcoming job fair. Here is an excerpt from an email from Cindy Dwyer, the wonderful woman who organizes these drives:

“We had our “interview clothing” distribution yesterday at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. The guys came out of the woodwork! We advertized an hour-long visit but were there for over 2 hours as guys kept coming! I did have one lady with the great responsibility of matching ties (with suits). She had them all rolled up just like Nordstrom’s.

When the guys left they were looking good thanks in part to your efforts! Please pass on my sincere thanks! Our young veterans have nearly double the unemployment rate of others. We wish them well at the job fair!”

Woodcock Washburn managed all of this, as well as sending 10 boxes of books and a very generous monetary donation to Operation Homefront in PA, NJ, and Delaware.

I will never crack a lawyer joke again.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been moved to tears by book groups who decided to make packages for our troops. Please know that our soldiers and their families are equally amazed and grateful for these acts of generosity.

A lovely Pasadena book club sending packages to deployed soldiers

Some of my husband’s favorite deployment stories are those that center around the random boxes of gifts that rolled in on a Humvee—enough books from Hilton Head South Carolina (thank you Beth Evans!) to help start a University Library in the Maysan Province of Iraq, 50 care packages that included feather pillows from a country club in North Carolina (thank you Lynne Sneed and Ann Goldman!) for soldiers who had been resting their weary heads on rolled up t-shirts night after night, and countless other exemplary acts during his three deployments. Like our wounded in Walter Reed, your generosity, from boxed-up hand-wipes and Twizzlers to Crayola-ed cards from First Graders, lets our soldiers know that they are not forgotten.

Soldiers in Iraq opening up Christmas care packages.

More gifts from home.

Donated beanie babies handed out at girls' school, Iraq.

Please remember all of our troops currently fighting in Afghanistan– I bet quite a few of them would love to hear from folks at home.

More info about the Walter Reed job fair and how your company can help our Vets:
Walter reed job fair

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What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas (Unless You Blog About It…)

July 18th, 2012 — 10:39am

There are few trips more glamorous than a writers’ conference in Las Vegas (OK, maybe one in Monaco, but I am a mere writer, folks, I do not chose these gigs, these gigs choose me. Vegas therefore is pretty fetching). The truth is, when I go to an event out-of-state, be it Las Vegas or Los Angeles, the place where I spend the most time is the desk of my hotel room, doing work.

It’s a sin, and certainly not sinful in the general Vegas way. This is where I typed away the majority of my free time, listening to the shouts of the brave inebriated riding the New York, New York roller coaster just outside my window (when I was in Las Vegas last, I did ride that roller coaster; I kept my eyes closed, screamed my head off the whole time, and lost my favorite earrings). Every once and awhile I would interrupt my writing to go to the window and watch the party goers wandering from casino to casino, wondering who was drunk or sober, who had lost or won.

My one crazy night out, and a Saturday to boot, found me walking the strip alone, staying away from all the weirdos handing out baseball-card-sized flyers of naked women. I saw a bride in a white dress with a dirty hem, too many girls in too high heels, and I stopped long enough at the Bellagio to call my daughter and husband while watching two different fountain displays, one synchronized with Tchaikovsky, the other to the Beatles.

Not quite the sort of Saturday night Vegas is known for.

Both the pro and con of being a writer is that you can write anywhere. The pro of being a writer and a mother is that, while doing events or attending conferences, I suddenly have a hotel room all to myself and there’s no child begging me to take her to the hotel pool or let her watch the Disney Channel.

I did not even touch a slot machine.

But let’s not think I didn’t have a good time. I was attending the Nevada Veterans’ Writing Conference held at New York, New York on June 2-3. And I found myself in the company of some of the best authors around: Matt Gallagher, David Abrams, Caleb Cage, Pinckney Benedict, Lee Barnes.

Lee Barnes, the Clint Eastwood of mil writers (Special Forces Vietnam Vet, Nevada police officer, writer extraordinaire) with Caleb Cage, director of Nevada Office of Veteran Services and mastermind behind the conference

What made this particular writers’ conference unique was that the attendees represented the entire spectrum of the United States military experience, all branches, male and female, spouses and Gold Star mothers. The writers had experienced our country at conflict from Vietnam to our most recent endeavors in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they had great stories to tell. I was also amazed at how many female service members were in attendance and urged them to write their lives, their experiences being one we do not read about enough.

David Abrams and Matt Gallagher, both Army vets and conference speakers, outside New York, New York

I was heading out to lunch with Matt Gallagher and a few other authors after a panel when Matt and I were stopped by a couple. The man was missing his left arm, his face was badly scarred, and it was clear that he had been blinded. He held on to the leash of a sweet faced German Shepherd-mix guide dog. His wife, blond, in an elegant and airy wrap dress perfect for the Vegas heat, told us her husband had been injured in Afghanistan when he was with the EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal, or bomb disposal). We were lined up in a narrow hallway: I was facing and speaking to the spouse, Matt Gallagher the soldier.

The woman continued, telling me the conference had been inspiring to her husband, who had been wrestling with ways to tell his story. She said her soldier was also urging her to write about her own experiences as a military spouse during the deployment, injury, and rehabilitation. Her voice took on an edge of excitement I recognized, that spark of a new idea, that enthrallment with a new storyline. I felt it too– I have never heard of a husband/soldier and spouse/army wife collaboration like this, and I begged her to write this book NOW. It is something I want to read. As we headed our separate ways, she thanked me, and I shook her hand, patted her sweet and patient dog’s head. I blinked and tried to keep my eyes dry; I couldn’t even imagine the long road this amazing couple had taken, the long road they had managed to survive together.

“Thank you,” I said. “You make all of us spouses proud.” She smiled, embarrassed, ran one hand through her short blond hair and put the other around her husband’s arm. “Please, please keep in touch.” I gave her my business card. “I want to hear your story, and America does too.”

Matt and I walked away, both of us silent for a moment before we caught up to the rest of our party.

That’s what this conference is all about, I thought, quickly slipping on my sunglasses before anyone could see my eyes.

And indeed it was. Lee Barnes, in his keynote speech, rallied his listeners, telling them that they were Vets who had survived so much, certainly they could handle the ups and downs of writing a book. They are our brave, our disciplined, our most fearless, they have stood up for our country when she needed them most—when they write their stories, surely we should read them.

I recommend:

Fire and Forget, a new anthology on shelves 2/5/13, featuring a Foreword by National Book Award winner Colum McCann, and new fiction by Brian Turner, Colby Buzzell, Siobhan Fallon, Matt Gallagher, David Abrams, among others.

Jeff Hess’ Home of the Brave— with works by Tobias Wolff, Kurt Vonnegut, Tim O’Brien, James Salter, Benjamin Percy, among others.

MilSpeak Foundation: Military Words in Literature and Art, a great military publisher with Sally Drum, editor and Veteran, at the helm.

David Abrams’ soon to be released novel FOBBIT

Caleb Cage’s memoir The Gods of Diyala

Matt Gallagher’s memoir Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War

Taking a look at Nevada Office of Veteran Services

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The End of the Road…

April 30th, 2012 — 12:44pm

Tonight is my final book store event. There are a few conferences in my future, but this evening, at Porter Square Books, will be the last time I’ll be flanked by smiling indie booksellers and their shelves of stock, standing up and reading from You Know When the Men Are Gone. (Everyone please cross your fingers that I am lucky enough to read at bookstores when my work-in-progress is finally finished and out in the world). It has been an wild ride, getting to visit bookstores, and just the fact that I am still doing any events a year and a half after hardcover was released in January 2011, goes to show what a phenomenal publicity team I have.

I know I have been lucky in every way.

Every single event has spread the word about my book. Even if there were only five people in a room that could have seated fifty, I’ve always known that an important part of the ‘tour’ is meeting the indie booksellers themselves, letting them see and hear you, hoping they will continue to talk about your book long after those empty chairs are folded away. And for every audience member, perhaps there were ten people who noticed the flyer in the window, five people who were busy that night but interested, three who will come back another day and pick up that brand new paperback.

And yet, as miraculous as it is to have your very engaged and indulgent publisher send you to wonderful cities, touring can be as difficult as it is wonderful. Wonderful, because, c’mon, the ‘book tour’ is every author’s dream. Just to have your book taken seriously enough that your publisher is actually sending you out in the world to talk about your written words. But it is also difficult to disrupt your work schedule (when you so desperately want to get back to your desk and write book number two), to leave your husband and daughter, to sleep on airplanes and unpack rumpled clothes in countless hotels (note to reader: front desk employees do not appreciate it when you tell them you lost your key again and have no clue what room you are in). Also difficult because writers are usually a shy bunch of people who generally chose to write because we are not very good at saying things out loud. It is scary as all hell to get up in front of strangers and try to charm them for a half hour.

Which is why I was floored to learn that Benjamin Busch, author of the memoir, Dust to Dust, was doing a multi-month book tour, from April through September. Yes, you read that correctly, APRIL THROUGH SEPTEMBER—that’s a five month book tour, folks. Now, I know Ben is an ambitious and very talented man. When I first met him a year and a half ago at the War, Literature, and the Arts Conference at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, he had a photography exhibit of images he had taken while deployed and was also talking about a new film he was directing. And now here he is with a memoir, by a respected and large publisher, with a tour schedule no mere mortal could survive.

Impossible, I thought. I had never heard of such a thing.

I saw Ben read at Politics and Prose in DC a few weeks ago and asked him about this fabled tour.

I started the conversation something like this, “Ben, you are a crazy man! Are you really book-touring forty-eight states? Did your publisher give you a private jet?”

He replied, “Private jet? I’m driving myself and sleeping on the couches of generous acquaintances. My publisher was going to give me a twelve day national tour, you know, the big cities, but I asked them to give me those funds, make calls to all bookstores they thought might be interested in a reading, and let me do it on my own.”

His publisher was giving him a book tour to twelve cities, wow, and this guy had already been on many major news outlets, and he said no? He said, Let me drive myself and sleep on couches????

He could tell that I now thought he was indeed crazy, as in certifiably and unhinged crazy. He laughed.

“I wasn’t going to let my book die after twelve days,” he said. “I’m doing everything in my power to put it everywhere, into every single hand I can. It took too much work writing it to just let it go. I want people to read it. Really read it.”

Ben is a husband, a father, but he is also a Marine who has been deployed to Iraq twice, so being away from home is probably not a hardship in the same way it would be to most. And yet every day he has to steal himself for the long drive ahead, figure out the passages he will read aloud, get a sense of his intro and audience, work up the right enthusiasm each and every night. The stamina, the determination, the absolute commitment he has to his book is staggering.

Though writers might tend to be recluse types, we do hope to publish our books for a mass (or mini) audience. Even if we are not the most confident, well-adjusted bunch of people (we are neurotic enough to write lots and lots of weird things down, for one), we have to go out there smiling, telling people our book is worth their time and money, believing ourselves that our book is worth their time and money.

Daunting stuff. And maybe that’s why I keep coming back to Ben Busch, why I found him so inspiring. He believes in his book. He believes in the power of his words to touch and connect with readers. His memoir is about childhood, family, war, memory, immortality. It is full of themes people have been discussing since the Epic of Gilgamesh got the whole epic poem/literature ball rolling. And yet isn’t the act of all writing a grasp at immortality? A grandiose hope that total strangers will find your story and it will speak to them. That somewhere, someday, when the author has rotted away in the ground, maybe someone will pick that book up off a shelf and the writer’s words will come alive again.

When I think of it that way, every dose of jetlag and plane-induced-neck cramp has been worth it a million times over.

And I wish Ben Busch all forms of caffeine and soft couch imaginable in the long months ahead.

Thanks to every bookstore and library that carries my book. Thanks to every conference, bookstore, and library that has invited me to read and speak. Thanks to every book club who has invited me to join their discussion in the flesh, by Skype, by phone, or just gone and read my stories on your own with good wine and chocolate cake. Thanks to every person who has bought my book, come out to hear me read, sends me an email, mentions me on their blog or writes a nice review on B&N or Amazon, or clicks ‘like’ on my inane Facebook posts.
Thanks to every single person who has believed in my writing, and made me believe in it too.

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A Visit to Walter Reed

March 29th, 2012 — 8:57am

Driving onto the Walter Reed National Medical Center at Bethesda has the feel of driving on to many military bases—the huge front gates with uniformed men and women checking IDs, the fenced-off the perimeter, the no-nonsense buildings facing off in the distance. But inside Building 62, you know you are in a very different place. This is the outpatient treatment center. This is where young men with wide shoulders, clean shaven faces, buzz haircuts, sometimes in their PT clothes, sometimes in the black-skull-and-cross-bone type platoon or unit t-shirts, zip around expertly in wheelchairs.

I was doing a Meet and Greet at a long table, copies of You Know When the Men Are Gone arranged prettily next to me, signing books and handing them out to anyone who lingered and made eye contact. There was another table next to mine, unmanned and stacked high with boxes of Girl Scout Cookies. I slid a signed paperback across to a waiting young man, twenty years old or so, with a ruddy, Irish complexion, a rosy thumbprint on each cheek, and the darkest of lashes ringing his big green eyes. He’d asked me to make the inscription out to his mother.

“Don’t forget to grab a box of cookies,” I said.

He hesitated. “My neighbor sent those,” he said. “She sent a whole load to me in Afghanistan, but the mail truck got hit with an IED. You should have seen it, cookies were everywhere.” He grinned and the guys behind him chuckled. “So she sent me those to make up for it.”

“Seriously?” I asked, imagining Tagalongs and Samoas, melted chocolate, caramel, coconut, raining down from the sky. “Girl Scout cookies hit by an IED? That’s incredible— can I steal that for a story?”

“Sure, you do that,” he grinned again, the red splotches on his cheeks a little brighter. Then he and his Marine buddy, his buddy’s wife and their one-year old son in a stroller, wheeled away, heading to the bowling alley.

I watched them, both Marines missing most of their legs, my smile starting to hurt. Here they were, joking about improvised explosive devices, and I was too much of a coward to ask about the one that hit them and changed their young lives forever.

Perry, Siobhan, and Loretta in Building 62

My Author Meet and Greet was just one of the many free events that Perry Pidgeon Hooks and Loretta Yenson, both of Hook Book Events (, organize for the wounded heroes of Walter Reed/Bethesda Medical. They have brought other authors to Building 62, such as Max Cleland of Heart of a Patriot, Sebastian Junger of War, and Nathaniel Fick of One Bullet Away. Perry’s company, Hooks Book Events, with the help of generous donors, as well as the author’s publisher (in my case, an indulgent Penguin/NAL) donate boxes and boxes of books for these soldiers to browse and take home at no cost.

I learned from this experience that some of these soldiers and Marines stay at Walter Reed upwards of six months. When they are able to move around on their own, they and their families are given housing on the grounds of the medical complex. So there are plenty of young wives with small children who arrive with a suitcase while their soldiers are fitted with prosthetics and attend physical training. There is a bowling alley, baseball diamond, and fitness center at Reed, but there isn’t a library (there is talk of one being built in the future) and things can get slow for soldiers and families day to day, so Hooks Book Events sponsors these events in order to offer a diversion.

When the first Marine in a wheelchair approached my table, I had to try very hard not to cry. And he certainly did not want my tears, he wanted me to inscribe a book to his fiancé. They lined up, these incredible young men, waited patiently, asked me to write sweet things to their wives, girlfriends, mothers. They laughed, told me stories, played with the front wheels of their wheelchairs, energy to burn. I smiled in return, made small chat, hoped I was pronouncing Semper Fi correctly to the Marines, asked if the Army soldiers had been through Fort Hood. The spouses, also devastatingly young, willowy and pretty, thanked me for being there, shook my hand, said they were excited to a read a book about them. And there were mothers. Unlike the military members and their spouses, who somehow all seemed in great and hopeful spirits, the mothers looked stunned. They seemed to be trying to grip their emotions tightly, but their faces hid nothing. Their faces said: “Why did this happen to my beautiful boy?”

Perry and Loretta expertly moved among the people who stopped at the table, asked about home, how long they had been at Walter Reed, or how they had been wounded. Now, from the hindsight of my keyboard, of course I wished I had talked to them too, really talked to them, the soldiers and spouses, the moms and dads, but while I was there I was afraid, afraid to sound like an idiot, afraid to pry, afraid that I would crack and start to cry. Only later did I realize I had failed my vocation. I was there to give books to the soldiers and their families, but I am also the writer, I was there to take their stories home with me, write them down, and get them to the reader, let the reader feel as if they shook those brave boys’ hands, let the reader see their scars.

Perry Pidgeon Hooks can always use donations for her ‘Meet the Author’/book giveaways in order to purchase more books (her company, Hooks Book Events, donates around 50 books, then relies on donors and the author’s publisher to donate 50-100 more to hand out for free to soldiers at Reed). Thank you to my publisher, Penguin/NAL, for donating fifty plus books for this event, as well as one of Perry’s kind supporters for donating a box of You Know When the Men Are Gone.

In addition to the author Meet and Greets, Perry works with wonderful women who organize a clothing drive, which is also an essential way to help. These soldiers, spouses, and children who live at Walter Reed indefinitely are in need of clothing— everything from baby clothes to military ball gowns. Even men’s business clothes for those soldiers who will be getting out of the service and transitioning into civilian life, facing job interviews and office jobs. So any lightly used, good quality clothing is especially needed. If you can help out in any way, please contact Perry directly at her email address of

It was humbling to have all these young men and their wives thank me for giving them a mere book, when I know how much more they have given to our country. They were so appreciative. Perry said that she has never seen so much gratitude as she does at the clothing drive, it being difficult for these kids to go shopping for themselves (because the ones I met really were kids, they seemed like high school athletes more than seasoned soldiers who have recently faced life-threatening injuries that will stay with them). There are also two tailors who go to the clothing drives and donate their time to fit and hem the clothes.

Two extraordinary non-profits that also help our wounded troops and their families are:

Wounded Warrior Family Support (one of the things they do is send families and their wounded warriors on an all-expense paid, handicap-accessible vacation to help facilitate the family’s readjustment to the soldier’s return):

The Wounded Warrior Project (their motto is “The greatest casualty is being forgotten”):

To find out more about the facilities at Bethesda, please got to Walter Reed’s official website at

Thank you to all for reading this blog, and please spread the word about our wounded warriors at Walter Reed/Bethesda Medical. Please don’t let them be forgotten.

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Beware the Fifth of March

March 2nd, 2012 — 9:09am

My husband and I are celebrating our eighth anniversary this March 5th (for our wedding on the beach in Hawaii, a week before he deployed to Afghanistan). There are many ways a couple could spend this happy day, but KC and I are marking the occasion by doing a Livestream chat at!/WhattheWorldIsReading

We won’t be giving marriage advice from my little home office, we’ll be talking books, specifically You Know When the Men Are Gone. My husband will be acting as the moderator (Penguin recommended I get myself a ‘helper’ to field the questions) and I will be the terrified lady sitting next to him (I am a little shy), eager to chat, hoping people are actually asking questions to necessitate his role as helper.

So for those of you who have any questions about the book, or are just curious to see how red in the face this Irish gal can get, please go online and help an author out with a question or comment, 3 p.m (Eastern Standard Time), Monday, March 5, and make this a memorable anniversary for me and my good-sport, handsome muse (it’s no accident that I dedicated my book to this guy).

Oh, and below are photos of how we looked when we were young. To see how we look now (old, haggard, beaten up by deployments and parenthood), you’ll have to tune in on Monday…

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A Tale of Two Countries

January 31st, 2012 — 12:06pm

I’m an Army spouse and therefore I am used to moving around. In eight years of marriage, my husband and I have moved seven times, the most recent being our transplant from Amman, Jordan, to Falls Church, Virginia. None of the moves are easy. Right now we are hanging around our rental house, sitting on folding chairs, waiting for the furniture we brought to Jordan to wend its way back to comfort our backsides sometime next month. We have researched new schools, dentists, doctors, gyms, grocery stores, local dives. I have had to buy all those things you take for granted in the back of your pantry: salt, flour, sugar, cinnamon, parsley, multi-vitamins. The cats, Jordanian refugees who have never seen a squirrel, let alone a deer, sit on the window sills all day in mute amazement.

We are as settled as we can be. After nearly a month of hotels, movers, and airplanes, I am happy to have a home again, even though we have been complaining about our house ceaselessly, like, who the heck did this so-called paint job? And what professional cleaner left gunk in our freezer, goop that my husband adamantly claims is mucus dripping down the closet walls, and blood on the floor boards? Hmmm, perhaps our eight moves have set our expectations too low?

Lest you think I have forgotten my last year abroad, here is my list of all the…

Things I will miss about Jordan

Stray cats (of course).

The food.

People riding donkeys at rush hour. Or camels.

Seeing Beduoin camps in the middle of the strangest places, like on a rocky hill, along a stretch of lonely desert highway, or just glimpsed behind a row of nice houses. There would be the tattered tarp, perhaps a Toyota Hi-Lux parked outside, a few goats, a camel. Very Spartan except for the satellite TVs.

Fruit sellers on the corner, offering fresh figs and pomegranates and peaches for next to nothing.

Hijab dolls, cereal, candy, etc.

Random strangers telling me my four year old daughter is beautiful. Arabs genuinely LOVE children.

Being able to hop in our car, drive 30 minutes, and see something literally biblical (Bethany-on-the-Jordan, Lot’s Cave, the Dead Sea).

Feeding a family for four dollars (though you might have some intestinal problems for a few days afterwards. However, if we are talking about the incredible shwarma from the small town just outside of Petra, then the two days of diarrhea was worth it).

Climbing all over thousand year old scupltures, ruins, mosaics (just about whatever you damn well please, even if it is all roped off, and you are usually urged to do so by the official tour guide/guard)

The weather: six months of cloudless blue sky and temps in the 80s.

Pictures of King Abdullah (sometimes with his father and son) EVERYWHERE.

The friendly customer service, from MacDonalds to gas stations, felt like four start treatment.

All the interesting people, American and various other expats, who also found themselves in Jordan during the Arab Spring.

Things I will NOT miss about Jordan

Stray cats (especially when they wound up in my house for some kind of surgery).

Seeing the food before it looked like food (and suddenly understanding why it might give you intestinal problems).

The driving. Each day I took my daughter to preschool could have been my last.

Feeling like a total floozy because I was wearing a short sleeved shirt in the summertime.

Getting honked at by every single taxi that passed by, whether I was dressed like a floozy or covered head to toe.

Random strangers telling me my four year old daughter is beautiful, then grabbing her, kissing her, throwing her up in the air a few times, even if she looked terrified. Then handing her a piece of bubble gum, which she would inevitably put in her mouth and swallow before I could stop her. Maybe Arabs love children too much.

The Israeli border crossing, which was so prohibitively slow, confusing, and frustrating, even with our diplomatic passports, that we only dared to cross the border into Israel/Palestine twice. (I actually took a photo of the border crossing but am afraid that if I post it, the Mossad will hunt me down and seize my computer.)

Absence of sidewalks. If there is a sidewalk, you can be assured that it was put there so someone could plant a tree on it or park their car. Sidewalks are mostly decorative and not meant to be a walked on. Just ask all the people that like to walk in the street during rush hour even when there is a treeless sidewalk directly parallel to them.

A barrage of gunfire in the middle of the night, indistinguishable from either a wedding/funeral celebration or the US Embassy under siege.

Public toilets, especially at the above mentioned biblical sites.

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Cruise on the Nile

November 23rd, 2011 — 2:25pm

This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for a lot of things. I am thankful that my small family is together, my husband here with us rather than deployed like so many soldiers who will be eating instant mashed potatoes and dried-out turkey in an Iraq or Afghanistan DFAC. I am thankful that my four year old is healthy and sassy and sleeping at the moment so I can write this. I am grateful to have fabulous friends here in Amman (two of whom – Sara and Kristin– are going to host Thanksgiving for about 60 Americans eager for pumpkin pie). I am thankful we have been able to spend this incredible year in Jordan, with a healthy dose of travel to other Middle Eastern countries that have opened my eyes and boosted my hotel membership status to gold.

Until a couple of days ago, I had been especially thankful about our upcoming trip to Egypt, which we’ve been planning for a month– the penultimate finale of our Middle Eastern adventures, our last grab at this world of wonders before returning to the United States in January. To sum it up, the trip would be Cairo, Alexandria, the Pyramids, Luxor. And most exciting of all for my daughter and me, a cruise down the Nile!

Of course, I started to feel a little less gratitude and a little more anxiety over the past couple of days when I learned that protestors were starting to gather once again in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Especially since the plush Hilton Conrad we had booked (cashing in on our gold status) was a block or two north of said square – close enough for the tear gas to waft up.  Especially when news reports started to speak of the protesters in “tens of thousands” and “rubber bullets” and “Molotov cocktails.” But my husband, being a man who has spent three years deployed to various Middle Eastern war zones, just cheerfully booked us a new hotel across town, and told me we’d be fine. “The protests are confined to a very small area,” he said with a grin. This from a man who once patrolled 200 square miles of Afghanistan with a mere 45 men, so his idea of a ‘small area’ is very different from mine.

Thousands of protesters gather in Tahrir Square (Khaled Desouki AFP)

Then my brother called last night.

“Ah, I don’t mean to talk about the elephant in the room,” he said. “But please tell me you cancelled your trip to Egypt?”

“Not yet,” I replied. “But the embassy won’t let us go if it’s not safe. Oh, and don’t mention the trip to Mom.”

“Mom’s been watching the protests on Fox News 24 hours a day,” my brother said. “But she thinks you are going to Greece. She will have a stroke when she figures it out.”

Afterwards, I called my mom.

“Siobhan, you are going to Greece in a few days, right?”

“Uhm hmmm, yes, Greece…” We were just in Cyprus last month. Southern Cyprus is sort of Greek so I told myself I wasn’t totally lying, then tried to think of a way to change the subject.

“But, Siobhan, I could have sworn you said something about a Nile Cruise? Is the Nile in Greece?”

“I don’t think the Nile is in Greece, Mom. By the way, what do you want for Christmas?”

“OH MY GOD, the Nile is in Egypt, isn’t it?” Voice rising. “Egypt? Siobhan, you are not going to EGYPT?!?”

Protesters clash with police (Mohammed Hossam AFP)

Today, a few minutes after my husband had texted to say he had gotten our Egypt Visas and all was well, our trip was officially cancelled. He received an email from the embassy: Last night was the largest demonstration since the fall of the Mubarak regime. Although the fighting is still confined to a small area in all of the cities involved, the footprint is growing daily. There has also been a larger amount of anti-American sentiment than normal. With the added stressor of the elections next week, there is too much risk for your families to allow the trip to go through.

I should be happy to have averted an incident replete with the sound of tear gas canisters hissing in the distance. To stay safe and sound in Jordan, an extra eight days to write, get my house packed up, neuter a few more stray cats. But, like my husband, I am crushed. The Arab Spring runneth over, this is a moment in history, the outcome completely unknown, its effect across the region potentially huge. A writer can’t help but want to get a glimpse.

And, let’s face it, a blog about NOT taking a trip to a country seeming to fall apart at the seams is a hell of a lot less interesting than a blog about taking that trip.

But it also makes me thankful for the stability of my own country, that we are not currently under the self-proclaimed rule of a Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, we don’t have to worry about the Muslim Brotherhood waylaying principles of individual freedom, we have a Constitution that has served us well for over 200 years, and our democracy, while imperfect and subject to slings and arrows in this time of economic difficulty and our own protest movements, is still that, a democracy.

So maybe I am missing out on a view of the Pyramids and a non-refundable Nile Cruise, but, trust me, that’s nothing compared to everything I have to be grateful for.

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This Girl in Riyadh

November 1st, 2011 — 6:43am


When we were planning our trip to Saudi Arabia, I knew from guidebooks that I’d have to wear an abaya (dark robe) over my clothes to cover any hint of feminine curves. I’d also have to wear a black veil over my hair, ears, neck. I was prepared for this, even went shopping at Amman’s Mecca Mall and picked out an abaya that snapped up the front and had rhinestones on the gold-velvet sleeves, as well as a black Kuwaiti headscarf that squeezed my face through a small hole and felt suggestive of strangulation whenever I wore it. But I was excited to don this gear in Riyadh, for both the costume appeal and the odd anonymity of it, but most of all to get a glimpse of what it felt like for millions of women who cover themselves in such a way every day.

However, I was not prepared for Saudi Arabia’s segregation between men and women. I didn’t realize that our very nice Sheraton Hotel would not allow me to swim in the hotel pool. Or go to the main gym on the first floor. Instead, I had to use the small women’s gym on the fourth floor with it’s two elliptical machines and a stationary bike. Even Starbucks would not allow my friend, Katie Monge, and I to sip in the main area, instead directing us to go through the frosted-glass automatic doors and sit inside wooden cubicles, lest someone see us with suggestive cappuccino foam on our lips. At this point we started to re-examine our guidebook, realizing that many of the restaurants we had circled with enthusiasm (baby camel anyone?) had the words Men Only in tiny italics near the operating hours, and that the museums had “Family Hours” (the euphemism for “Hours in Which Women are Allowed Entrance”) only in the late afternoon.

It seemed a little bleak for we women at first, especially since mine and Katie’s husband had meetings at the American Embassy at Riyadh for a couple of days. We ladies were left stranded at the hotel (it was also recommended that women not take cabs without a male escort, and the only thing within walking distance was a mall that didn’t open until 4 p.m.). Outraged, I filled out a hotel comment card in capital letters, letting the Concierge know how upset I was about not being to swim with my four-year old daughter. A few minutes later,  I was amazed and a little abashed to find the Concierge knocking at my room door and handing me toys for my sequestered child to play with.

This would be my emotional reaction to everything: at first my American sensibilities were frustrated at a situation and I would get all fiesty about perceived injustices. But a moment later I would glimpse the Saudi solution, and while not always perfect, I realized that I had to try to think outside my veil.

I was peeved that there wasn’t one treadmill in the women’s miniscule gym (my husband told me there was an entire wall of treadmills in the main/male gym on the first floor). Yet I couldn’t help but appreciate having the women’s mirrored-room to myself, using the free weights without worrying that grunting men in lifting belts were going to smirk at my sissy eight-pounders held shakily aloft.

I was annoyed we had to eat our Taco Bell in the family seating area (ahem, yes, we were in Saudi Arabia and our first stops were Starbucks and Taco Bell, but no one was in the mood to try that aforementioned baby camel…), away from all the young men in their white dishdasha robes and flowing red and white checked head scarves who merrily munched at crowded tables right in the center of the action. Yet the “family area” looked out on a wall of windows facing a manicured garden with fake balloons staked to the ground, was sparkling clean and, unlike the men’s section, had plenty of open tables to choose from.

Though we were supposed to be accompanied by a male member of our family at all times, Katie and I happened upon a “Ladies’ Kingdom” floor of the mall only opened to women, where gals took off their veils and unzipped their abayas, drinking coffee in the open, even ignoring the call to prayer (everything in Riyadh, including all the shops in the malls, closes for about 30 minutes during each of the day’s five calls to prayer). The women of the Ladies’ Kingdom certainly did not seem like a meek or submissive lot.

Taking the veil (and abaya) to the mall with my daughter and Katie

During our tour of The Gulf, we’d attended some deliberate educational events, including a lunch at the Dubai Culture Center.  A man lectured while we ate the local spread, and since he was a man, and since he was a man wearing white, I was a little skeptical when he claimed, “Wearing a black abaya is like wearing sunglasses—you don’t sweat from your eyelids when you put on your dark sunglasses, do you?” He also said abayas were great when his wife was running out of the house and didn’t want to get “dressed up.”

In Riyadh, I had no choice but to wear the abaya (it is enforced by the religious police, or Mutawa, who supposedly carry around paddles to beat people who commit religious infractions). I might be a little skeptical about the sunglasses theory, but, man, it only took me a couple of hours to fall in love with my abaya. I adored its instant elegance, its flowing length and shining sleeves, especially when I had my non-treadmill-using-gym-clothes hidden underneath. Even my daughter started asking to wear her mini abaya by the end of our trip, willingly wrapping a purple scarf around her blond hair before leaving our hotel room.

Which made me wonder what other presumptions I had made, how many subtle details of dress and culture my untrained American eyes had been  missing. Since arriving in Jordan last March, every time I’d see a woman in a black abaya walking down the street I’d feel a flash of irritation, especially if she was walking next to a man in a t-shirt and jeans, wondering how she allowed herself to be made invisible, wiped clean of individual flair, of color and form and identity. But on this Gulf trip of ours (seventeen days in the Sultanate of Oman, United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia), where traditional clothing is worn by both sexes much more often than it is in relaxed Jordan, I saw women wearing black abayas of every shape and style. I couldn’t help but notice the details, the bedazzled cuffs, the embroidered hems, the glint of sequins and metallic threads in the dark veils. Most interesting of all, the women who are completely covered with the niqab, with only the area around their eyes revealed, even these women have found ways to express themselves, sometimes using an intricate knot system at the back of their heads to keep the veil across in place, the cord looped and twisted so that it looks like a braid different than anyone else’s.

Now, back in Jordan, when I spot a woman in head-to-toe black walking down a hot and sun-lit street next to a man in a t-shirt, I might narrow my eyes a bit about whether or not she is wearing bodily sunglasses, but I am also wondering if maybe she’s just got gym clothes underneath.

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Portrait of the Artist at a Festival

September 25th, 2011 — 6:05am

Cork International Short Story Festival. Yes, it was just as incredible as the name implies. Six days, five nights, in Cork, one of Ireland’s golden cities, with hotel, meals, transportation provided for, and most spectacularly of all, drink vouchers (only in Ireland). I had been long listed for the hefty Frank O’Connor Prize but didn’t make the short list, so naturally I assumed that I was invited because of my Celtic name (and after having the name mangled by American mouths for three plus decades, it was about time that name gave a little something back).

Cork caught between sun and rain.

My excitement about this festival surprised me a little bit. Aren’t we writers supposed to be a shy, slightly damaged bunch, spying on all the functioning folk in the world and neurotically scribbling down the details we observe? Aren’t we more comfortable hiding at home with our ink stained fingers or laptops, prone to panic attacks when we have to give a reading or an interview? And yet there is the undeniably social aspect to writing. We write to be read. If we wrote just for ourselves (the way some more ascetic scribes like to claim), then we all would be sitting in padded rooms, dreaming up stories in our own safe little heads, never having to worry about crafting the words on paper, never facing the horrors of rewriting, rejections, bad reviews.

These festivals we attend somehow ignite the contradictions of our nature as reclusive-social-animals. All these bookish readers/writers are thrown together and forced to mingle. Once they figure out how to have a conversation with one another, the conversations are bound to be about, glory be, BOOKS! A whole room (or pub) full of people who only want to talk about writing! Throw in those free drink vouchers and I think it’s about as close to heaven as this gal can get.

Colm Toibin, Ethel Rohan, Suzanne Rivecca, Orthlaith Foyle, and a giddy me

The intimacy of the CISSF was also a nice departure from some of the larger American festivals. CISSF is small (there were a leisurely 24 events during five days, compared to the more frenetic American AWP with over 400 events in the span of four days). It was a cross section of the writing world the likes I have never seen, with writers just starting out and getting their short stories placed in literary magazines, up to the forty-year career of such masters of Edna O’Brien, with over twenty books under her glamorous belt. And because of the small size, everyone  gladly shared information, rallied around one another, and tried to attend each other’s readings (this Irish-named-nerd also bought the six short listed collections and tried to read them all in advance, but that’s because I like to be a smarty pants). Remarkably, there was the feeling that we are all in this together– from the debut writers to those whose stories are always in The New Yorker. I won’t reveal their personal ups and downs (Edna O’Brien told me she is working on a memoir, so be on the lookout for that!), but everyone seemed to have them. Which is both frightening and comforting. Writing doesn’t get any easier after the first book or after the twentieth. Nothing will ever change the hard truth that each book starts out as nothing but a writer and a blank page.

Writers' lunch with Ethel Rohan, Tania Hershman, Yiyun Li, Alison MacLeod, Orthlaith Foyle

Edna O’Brien was the festival favorite; anytime I asked one of the short listees who they thought would win, they all said Edna. And she did win, deservedly so. Edna is force of nature. Eighty-one and magnificent, in sequins and crushed velvet gowns reminiscent of Victorian England, tall and straight backed, flame haired, perfectly made-up, with a melodic voice that has the best of both Ireland (where she was born) and England (where she has lived since her twenties). I had the good fortune of catching a flight to Heathrow with her at the finish of the festival and I have never been so honored to heft someone’s carry-on bag. For a crazy moment in which I forgot my child and husband patiently waiting for me in Jordan, I imagined moving to London and becoming Edna’s personal assistant. She has that kind of magnetic charm.

Heathrow baggage claim with Edna O'Brien

As a lengthy aside to those of you still reading, I recommend that you all run out and buy the books by the six short listees: Edna O’Brien, Saints and Sinners. Colm Toibin, The Empty Family. Suzanne Rivecca, Death Is Not an Option. Alexander MacLeod, Light Lifting. Yiyun Li, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl. Valerie Trueblood, Marry or Burn. All very different, all amazing.

Pat Cotter (CISS's wizard/man-behind-the-curtain) and Valerie Trueblood

Valerie Trueblood’s collection especially resonated with me. The title grabbed me, the fiction inside sizzled along my brain and I swear it rewired me a little bit—I feel like I will now write differently (and better) thanks to reading her stories. They are winding, elusive tales that start in one place and end up somewhere completely different. Which is an incredible freedom, for writer and reader, to move through a story in such a way, following a daisy chain of events, seven degrees of separation between the characters, all of it so alive with possibility.

I also recommend the work of writers Ethel Rohan, Orfhlaith Foyle, Alison MacLeod, Michael Christie. Except for Ethel, who is Irish but living in San Fran, they are Irish, British, and Canadian, so we don’t hear as much about them in the US as we should, though we might be hearing about them very soon.

Thanks again to everyone at the Munster Literature Centre, especially Pat Cotter and Jennifer Matthews, for the perfect literary extravaganza kind of week.

Ahhh, the memory of it all makes me want to curl up with a big pot of tea, toasted soda bread, and make my way through a high stack of short story collections…

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