Reflections on the A to Z Challenge

A-to-Z+Reflection+[2015]+-+LgI hate writing into the black hole. If I wanted to express myself in obscurity, I’d stick with journaling. Submissions are iffy—usually I don’t even get an auto-reply let alone an acceptance. So I took up blogging almost two years ago just to have a place to park my writing.

Back then I had the notion that blogging was also good for building “platform,” whatever that is. The Philadelphia train platform where my wallet was stolen 40 years ago? An unfortunate shoe trend from the 70s? Whatever it is, I’m pretty sure I don’t have it, since my number of subscribers, page hits, and “Likes” tends to match the number of degrees on a Minneapolis thermometer in winter. (This analogy is inspired by my writing friend Paula’s wonderful blog, which I discovered on the A to Z!)

Now I’m less concerned about platform and more concerned about developing a more regular writing practice. As someone with advanced avoidance skills who is also very responsive to deadlines, it helps to have a commitment. That’s what I like about blogging in general, even though most of the time I think “Who cares?” whenever I post something.

The real question is: Do I care enough to commit to my writing? I knew if I signed up for the A to Z Challenge, I would complete it. So getting over the ambivalence hurdle by signing up—a week before the deadline, no less!–as my writing friend Claire urged, was my first victory.

The second was figuring out some technical things, like how to put the Challenge badge on my site. Have I mentioned my belief that WordPress causes cancer? (I’d been tearing my hair out trying to understand WP right before I was diagnosed with cancer in September 2012.) At the very least, it is a scientific fact that WordPress makes people break out in hives. I find writing in general to be a torture, but it is nothing compared to my technophobia. The Challenge motivated me to face my fears and stumble my way through a few of them. (My attitude toward Twitter, however, still hovers somewhere between horror, contempt, and “Never.”)

The Challenge definitely helped strengthen those flabby writing muscles that can find any excuse not to work out. It was so helpful to know I had a daily deadline, a place to post it, and readers. Especially readers. Claire had told me that a key part of the Challenge involved visiting and commenting on other blogs—good etiquette as a way to build readership. This might have been Claire’s delicate way of saying, “You really ought to comment more on other people’s writing instead of plastering Facebook with your own posts.” Or perhaps it’s just my guilty conscience informing me I need to engage more, even though I can barely keep up with email and putting dinner on the table.

I am still mystified by where people find the time to be good citizens of the blogosphere. But the Challenge definitely was eye-opening in terms of the numbers of people out there writing on all kinds of things—and from all over the world! I enjoyed visiting, even though I couldn’t figure out how to leave comments through Google+. I loved surfing the list and clicking on the blog names that appealed to me, such as Backsies Is What There is Not (long time Frances fans, unite!) and The Quiet Writer.  A weeklong April vacation with little or no internet access definitely slowed me down in keeping up with other wonderful bloggers—though it did enhance my pre-planning and WordPress scheduling skills!

In addition to forging some new writing relationships, the Challenge helped me write faster, if not better, and sparked ideas to develop further. About two-thirds of my posts were written from scratch; one-third were previously written pieces that had never found a home in the public eye. I doubt I could have done it without having a bank of retreads to fall back on. But if This American Life and Fresh Air, with their vast staffs, can rebroadcast old shows, why can’t I?

So the Challenge was exhilarating and exhausting. I’m glad it’s over, but I miss the planning and purpose it encourages. Will it amp up my commitment to greater engagement with others and a more regular writing practice? I hope so. Just after the Challenge ended, I agreed to an extra writing assignment with a very short deadline precisely because the Challenge proved to me that saying “Yes” to writing has rewards beyond measure.

Thank you to all of those who planned and executed the Challenge, to those who took part, and to readers and commenters. You inspire me to push myself.

Now onto next year, and maybe even the Twitter Challenge!


What voluntary challenges have you pushed yourself to take? Which did you hang back from? Reflections? Regrets?

Z is for Zzzz

Zzz sleepyhead_zzz_sleeping_card-p137684508940701452z85p0_400

Is there anyone crossing the finish line of the A to Z Challenge who is not ready for a good long nap? I know I am. It’s been quite a marathon. Or is it 26 consecutive sprints? Whatever it is, I’m exhausted. And exhilarated.  Glad that it’s over, really glad I did it, and really, really glad we are not talking Cyrillic alphabet here.

Before I retire, some shout-outs to:

  • Claire, who encouraged me to take the Challenge (I will take this up with you privately later, Claire!)
  • The Write On Mamas and my two small writing groups, always encouraging, gracious, and generous
  • The Challenge hosts and their minions, who put in huge efforts to make it all work
  • My family, who accepted very casual dining (not to mention spotty housekeeping and spottier attentiveness) with good cheer
  • My fellow bloggers, who provided inspiration and camaraderie
  • My readers, who made it all worthwhile
  • My commenters, who erased that dreadful feeling of writing into a black hole, and who really keep me going.

Now, to catch some Zzzz’s.

Except that I can’t.

For one thing, there’s all that catch-up from a month of neglect: Bills to pay, correspondence to respond to, laundry to fold, groceries to buy, Facebook to scroll through, the New York Times to read. (On the other hand, in my Challenge-hazed world, Freddie Gray is still alive and Baltimore and Nepal are still standing, so perhaps falling behind has its advantages.)

For another thing, as a post-menopausal woman, I never sleep well, even when I am good about shutting down those electronic devices early and limiting my caffeine consumption. Long-time readers of Shrinkrapped may remember my Holy-Grail-like quest for a new mattress. Alas, third time’s not been the charm.

And finally, how can I possibly sleep when alphabet visions keep dancing through my head? For more than a month my brain has been exploding with letters and corresponding ideas, and I can’t stop obsessing! Whatever happened to L is for Lucky Charm? Or N is for Narcissism? Or R is for Recycling/Repurposing? Or S is for Serendipity? Or W is for Weight Watchers; Writing About One’s Children; Write On Mamas; Wikipedia (where would we be without it)?

WTF! That’s a lot of W’s! Well, there’s always next year!

So thanks, and good night! Sweet dreams . . .


 What did you think of the A to Z Blogging Challenge? Any favorites?

Y is for You Look Fine

You Look Fine (El Toro County Park, April 2015)

Recently my husband and I came across this signpost after hauling ourselves up a steep hill in Toro County Park, a vast region of rolling hills, trails, and recreational facilities on the outskirts of Salinas.

Was it social commentary on our fat-shaming and appearance-obsessed culture? Or just the frustrated lament of someone waiting for hiking companions to tidy up their wind-blown and hat-crushed hair for a quick smartphone photo? (More important, would there be another signpost at the end of our long, hot, trek pronouncing, “You Look Like Hell?”)

The message was welcome, if oddly placed, and one that got me thinking (which helped propel me up the many arduous and dusty miles to come, not to mention providing me with a “Y” post that is not a bunch of Yosemite photos or a “Y Am I Doing this Challenge?” lament).

Mostly I think of “You Look Fine” as the bare-minimum response that gets a man out of trouble when asked the world’s most dangerous question: “Does this make me look fat?”

(In case that unforgivably gender-stereotyped sentence makes your blood boil, rest assured that just this morning, my husband, who is red-green color-blind, asked as he was rushing out the door if his jacket looked okay with his pants. “No, it doesn’t,” I said. “You should wear something else.” He looked upset and hurried off as I unconvincingly called after him, “It’s fine. Really.” Later I emailed him the “You Look Fine” photo, amending my early morning candor.)

Wouldn’t it be nice if “You Look Fine” signposts proliferated? Imagine them replacing mirrors, or showing up in mirrors, alongside your reflection! What if they were on street corners, subways, doctors’ offices? Even better, what if we could get away from feeling influenced by any assessment of our appearance, whether positive or negative?

What we really need are signposts that say “You Are Fine.”


What’s your theory about how the mysterious YLF signpost got there? What signposts would you like to see proliferating in unexpected places?

X is for X-BFF

X BFFsI’ve been in and out of love with men many times over the decades, but breaking up with my best friend, Sharon, was worse than any failed romantic relationship. It knocked the wind out of me for years, consuming me as I tried to figure out what went wrong. How could someone who was so much a part of me be gone from my life? I felt like a crazy person, unable to move on from my guilty, shameful obsession.

I’m not the only one. Almost every adult woman I’ve talked with has a similar story. The details and personalities differ, but the women I’ve spoken with all feel equally crazy and obsessed by a deep hurt that at best leaves a lot of scar tissue, but often never heals. (I was lucky—Sharon and I eventually reconciled.)

I wonder if the hyper-idealization of friendship between girls and women is part of the problem. Our friends are supposed to be everything to us—super supportive, always there for us, able to finish our sentences, someone who gets us inside and out. In fact, sometimes we seem like the same person, inside and out! That urge to merge is so delicious—and so deadly.

We know how to be close, but difference often feels like an unbearable distance. That’s often when trouble starts. Worse, women seldom know how to deal in a healthy way with all those “not nice” feelings: conflict, aggression, envy, and competition. So we sweep problems under the rug, hoping they’ll go away. Or act out big time. Or exhaust ourselves with endless processing. (No wonder the movie Bridesmaids  always strikes a nerve for me—I’ve seen it four times!)

What makes female friendship so susceptible to ruptures? Can we enjoy tight bonds without cutting off the circulation?


What do you think? What are your experiences with X-BFFs? Were you ever able to drop the “X” even if regaining “BFF” proved elusive?

V is for Vaccination Village

herd immunityI live in Marin County, California—ground zero of the vaccination wars that erupted after this winter’s measles outbreak in Disneyland. Marin County is one of the most affluent, best-educated, and progressive enclaves in America. It also has some of the highest rates of personal belief exemptions for standard childhood vaccinations. Left-wing parents here who do not want to vaccinate their children cry “Freedom!” just as loudly as their right-wing counterparts. Some have quipped that Marin County is the place where the Tea Party and the Green Tea Party come together.

I support SB277, a bill currently making its way through California’s Senate that would eliminate all but medical exemptions for vaccinations for school-aged children whose parents wish to enroll them in public schools.

Yet I hesitate to wade into the battleground, knowing how firmly held beliefs become even more entrenched when disputed, even in the face of scientific evidence. Although a false claim linking autism to vaccines has been thoroughly debunked, fear persists. I do not know how to approach parents who fervently defend their right to choose what is best for their children when I know it is not best—for their kids, or for anyone else’s. Maybe if my friend Mark Paul’s essay, “My Polio, My Mother’s Choice,” were required reading, it would be more persuasive than my impatient incredulity.

These days, though, I fear that perhaps we’re suffering from something even worse than the easily preventable outbreak of disease. The vaccination wars speak to deeper problems in our country: distrust in the government, both earned and unearned; too many who turn away from science; and, most gravely, the abandonment of the village. The near-universal practice of vaccination confers herd immunity, protecting those who are too young, too old, or too immuno-compromised to be vaccinated. But if enough people seek “freedom”—freedom from their responsibility to the herd–where does that leave us? We are too much in it for ourselves now, no longer interested in contributing to the common good. This worrisome trend affects many issues beyond vaccination

It does, indeed, takes a village. But what if people want only the rights, and not the responsibilities, of being a villager?


U is for Undercommit, Overachieve

 undercommit, overachieve

“Undercommit, overachieve.”

It’s not exactly what we’re used to hearing in our hyper-striving culture, but it’s advice I treasure from a writing teacher.

Every week when we went around the room to commit to what we’d do before the next writing class, our teacher would encourage realism: “How much time are you spending writing now? None? OK, how about one hour once instead of several hours every day in the next week?”

My Weight Watchers leader does the same: “If you’re not exercising at all currently, will you really go to the gym on a daily basis?”

One small commitment can grow into so much more.  A massive overhaul, though? That’s just a set-up for failure. If you don’t believe me, just ponder what happens with all those New Year’s resolutions!


 “Give it your all!” or “Undercommit, overachieve” —

Which speaks more loudly to you?

T is for Training Hikes

Mont-Blanc_001My husband and I met on a 15-mile hike almost 31 years ago; as such, we have our reputation to uphold. That’s why you’ll usually find us hiking. The French Alps have long been on Jonathan’s Bucket List (my BL is rather more modest, but still, I’m game), so that’s where we’re headed in June.

We would have headed there last year, except that Jonathan was laid low for five months by bum knees—not just the little twinges of middle age, but excruciating pain for no apparent reason. Instead of walking five minutes down our hill every morning to catch his bus, Jonathan relied on me to drive him to the bus stop at 6:30 a.m. Which meant I was up and out early enough to hike up Baldy most mornings before I had to go to work. Jonathan had never been lamer, and I had never been more fit.

Slowly but surely, Jonathan regained the full use of his knees (he’s the one person I know who religiously follows his physical therapy regimen). We went from hobbling a few yards for a picnic to our usual and far-afield hikes.

So we booked a six-day trek through the French and Swiss Alps on Mont Blanc. Why not celebrate rejuvenated knees while we still can? Plus, we both turn 60 this year, and Jonathan is retiring! Might as well make it an occasion, even though our knees had not been out for a good test run on the kind of terrain our Tour de Mont Blanc threatened promised.

Raw Travel, the company we booked with, offered training tips:

 “You should prepare for walking several hours a day (5 – 7 hours per day) with steep ascents and descents. We will average almost 800-1000m a day in ascents so your training should reflect this in the lead-up to the event. Choose hills with steep ascents to train on and push yourself to do long days to prepare yourself adequately.”

Piece of cake! Plum cake, to be precise, since that’s what we encountered at every last Alpine hut on our previous sojourns in Switzerland and Austria. We could easily manage 800-1000’ climbs!

Oops! Wait a minute—did they say meters? A unit of measurement that equals three feet and change? Sure, those little Baldy strolls I do most days would be great conditioning—if I repeated the circuit twice.

“Probably most of the people booking with them are from Kansas,” I said to Jonathan hopefully.

No such luck—Raw Travel is based in Australia, land of the Walkabout and an entire populace living out of tiny backpacks for their 18 months of foreign travel. Was the company name some kind of warning or cruel joke?

So Jonathan and I started trying harder—13 miles on rolling green hills, all day long on my birthday, for example. A similar killer trek up Mt. Diablo recently.

“Great,” I’d remark to Jonathan each time. “We’ve just achieved the bare minimum of altitude gain.”

So during the past few days, we redoubled our efforts, even though we need to triple our efforts to simulate a typical Mt. Blanc day. We hiked on the Big Sur coast, famous for the coastal range plummeting into the Pacific. For three days in a row, we went pretty much straight up. And straight down.

This would be all well and good, except that perhaps those knees aren’t as rejuvenated as they might be. Jonathan’s still protest from time to time, and mine joined the chorus right on schedule the week I turned 60. And why not? After all, my birthday brought notice from my disability insurance company that my premiums would go up, and my doctor’s office informed me that I was now eligible for the shingles vaccine. Why shouldn’t my body issue its own birthday communique?

Still, what are ice and ibuprofen for–not to mention trekking poles (a sure sign of middle age)? So up we went and down we came—with ticks and poison oak serving as the welcome committee for the glorious, wildflower-bedecked vertical cliffs disguised as “trails.”

We have now returned home from our training session, our supply of ibuprofen depleted, our knees more or less intact. Here are some pictures so you can save yourself the trouble:

Now we have only to wait to see if we start to itch where poison oak has left its mark, or if bull’s-eye-shaped bites emerge. Or if we can walk at all tomorrow.

But Alps, here we come! At least there won’t be any ticks or poison oak.


Where is your favorite place to hike? Have you been to Mt. Blanc? Should we buy the kind of travel insurance that includes Medi-Vac?

S is for Send-off


I prowl the bulk food aisle at the grocery store, scooping my daughter’s favorite dried organic mango and granola into plastic bags. Ally’s about to leave for college, and I’m in charge of provisions. Scanning the shelves for the chai tea she loves, I find myself thinking of the King Tut show that came through town a few years ago.

At the exhibit, case after case contained wondrous artifacts that kept the Boy King company on his journey to the afterlife: a whimsical child’s chair; a model boat fashioned from papyrus; clay vessels for his favorite food and wine; an inlaid board game to while away the eternal hours.

I imagined Tut’s grieving courtiers and family members busying themselves by accumulating the little treasures of everyday life. What did he prefer to eat?  Remember how he crowed triumphantly every time he won this game! Don’t forget his boat, complete with oarsmen to help him cross over. This little clay animal will remind him of the pets and people who still love him when he is lonely in his journey to the afterlife.

My daughter, still very much alive, is simply starting college. But I feel a kinship with the ancient Egyptians as I place the mango and chai into the box next to the toothpaste and family photos I have been stockpiling for Ally’s send-off.  After all, she’ll need to be prepared for the new life that awaits her far from home.  Who knows if they have proper provisions in the world beyond known as college?

I add Scrabble and a deck of cards to the cache of treasures. When Ally’s homesick, they’ll help her conjure up nights of laughter with those who love and miss her. For good measure, I tuck in her old stuffed dog, whose soft pink plush Ally long ago caressed into a colorless, misshapen bundle. The mundane accoutrements of home will provide succor for the uncharted passage ahead.

We moderns marvel at the golden funeral masks and ornately painted sarcophagi unearthed from the royal tombs. Yet it is the relics of domesticity used in the ritual of farewell that captivate us. Several millennia span the time between King Tut and today. But the impulse is timeless to send along a bit of home, a bit of ourselves, in the hard task of saying goodbye.


What tokens of home help you or a loved one when far away?


R is for Rodents

Rodent controlWhen mice skitter across your kitchen counter in broad daylight, it’s time to call in the pros. That’s how Dave the Exterminator came into my life. He was the White Knight to my Damsel in Distress, and I fell for him hard.

Dave praised me for correctly identifying mouse droppings in the cutlery drawer. “Most people are way more in denial—they think they’re coffee grounds,” he cooed. Who wouldn’t love a guy willing to credit me with astuteness when it had actually taken mice traipsing through the dinner preparations for me to give him a call?

Dave came, he soothed, he plugged my holes. Like a partner who loves you anyway despite cottage cheese thighs, he reassured me that mice were a natural part of living next to open space, not a sign of dubious housekeeping or moral rot. Best of all, he came every couple of days with his little black bag to discreetly remove the corpses. The dog loved him. Who can resist a man who passes the pet test?

My friends tried to temper my infatuation. “Sure, he’s cheerful and reliable. But do you really want to throw over your husband for a guy whose name is stitched above his pocket and who carries around dead mice in a briefcase?”

They had a point. But even if it wasn’t true love, my first exterminator will forever have a place in my heart. Also on my refrigerator, since his company’s magnet reassures me that Dave is there for me should I ever be invaded by mice again.

Today Mick the Termite Man arrived on my doorstep. Having a doorstep meant the house was still standing, so the call was obviously premature. Since I wasn’t buried by a towering mound of sawdust, I saw no need for further Exterminator Lust. But the Homeowner’s Association insisted that I go on this blind date, interested or not.

The dog liked Mick as much as he’d liked Dave, but this time I was more discerning. Politely bored, I only half listened as he told me about what he’d found in probing my siding. He showed me a tiny hole near the garage harboring termite feces. With unseemly excitement, he said there was no way to tell if the infestation had just begun or had been there for years. For $4,000 he’d be glad to tent the house and kill everything in it. Except, of course, the termites might come back right away.

“What’s the point, then?” I asked, like a woman pushing 40 finding out after the first cocktail that her date has suspicious gaps in his resume and no interest in having children. Why bother to even order an appetizer? Chitchat over bruschetta is for those with time on their hands and hope in their hearts.

Maybe the dog was still a sucker for animal magnetism, but my taste had matured. This was a guy who went around pumping poisonous gas into people’s houses, after all! And the termites, unlike their rodent counterparts, were hardly causing me to shriek and jump on top of the stove in a pathetic pre-feminist caricature. If they wouldn’t bother me for several years, who was I to bother them?

Sorry, Mick. Sure, you can give me your phone number. I’ll maybe call to set something up. Like after the house collapses.

But wait a minute. There on the corner of the estimate was a faint notation in red ink: “Tell about rats.”

“What’s this?” I asked, pulse quickening.

“Well, there are some rat droppings, nothing much . . .”

Move over, Dave.

Q is for Quick and Dirty

quick and dirtyMy apologies if you were hoping for something steamier, but that’s not the kind of quick and dirty I have in mind. I’m talking about the shortcuts, the cheats, the tricks and tips that are good to employ when time is short but obligations long.

Such as the obligation to post something every day but Sunday during the A-Z Challenge, when you are already wrung out from L-M-N-O-P, but are about to leave for a few days of hiking.

One of the reasons I took the Challenge was to become better at a daily writing practice. When I am not actively avoiding writing, I dither and agonize. I like to write on topical events, but by the time I get around to it, the events belong to ancient history. I need to stop overthinking everything, write faster, and stop trying to weave together a million disparate threads to create a beautiful word tapestry that nobody understands.

I need to write quick and dirty.

Mark Trautwein, the editor of KQED’s Perspectives, wrote a wonderful essay a few years ago for the New York Times on what it is like when your AIDS death sentence is commuted by the advent of protease inhibitors. An editor he knew at the Times had called and asked if he’d like to contribute to their special anniversary feature.

“Yes, of course—but when do you need it?” Mark inquired.

“Yesterday,” came the reply. “But get it to me within six hours.”

Deadlines, as we know, sharpen the mind. Mark told me he wrote faster and better because it had to be quick.

I don’t know about better in my case, but the Challenge has definitely helped me write faster, not to mention more often.

I’ve come to view quick and dirty not so much as a guilty cheat, but as an absolute necessity. Apparently I’m not alone: There’s a whole website devoted to quick and dirty tips for just about everything. One of my favorites for writing is Grammar Girl.

And then, of course, there’s the #1 Quick and Dirty of All Time—Wikipedia. Where would we be without it?


What are some of your favorite Q&Ds?