Thursday, August 28, 2014

Thanks, That Was Fun!

I am being discharged from Baltimore's Sinai Hospital tomorrow afternoon, and I have to say it has been a wonderful experience -- far less traumatizing than I feared. I think I'd equated returning to a hospital with returning to the useless, helpless blob I was during my last hospitalization.  It didn't happen. Having hip surgery did not turn me into the nearly dead thing I once was. This time around, I was just Susan in the hospital.

Surgeons found my hip to be even more messed up than they expected, but the surgery went smoothly. Pain wasn't anywhere near as bad as I anticipated. And, most importantly, the staff here at Sinai -- including the rehab unit -- were INCREDIBLE. I have spent the last ten days with some of the most compassionate, skilled, and truly dedicated people I've ever met.

So tomorrow, after a full week on the rehabilitation floor, I am headed home for about five more weeks of restricted movement and physical therapy. I know I will do fine. I have to -- looks like I'm coming back here in a couple months to do my knee. Woo-hoo! I'd be dancing right now, but I'm not allowed.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Hasta La Vista, Baby

I'm going in for surgery tomorrow morning. Please send me any spare positive vibes you might have lying around, and l'll check in when I can. Thank you!


Saturday, August 16, 2014

I'm (so not) Ready For My Close-Up, Episode Two

Corolla, NC with Celeste and the film crew 

Starting a new relationship is a risky proposition, and whether we realize it or not, we often go through an inner bargaining process before we take the plunge. We negotiate with ourselves over this basic question:  is our desire to experience something wonderful stronger than our desire to avoid painful loss?

     Economists and investors refer to this behavior as “loss aversion,” and studies have shown that we humans have a much stronger desire to avoid loss than acquire gains of the same value.  I think this tendency can exist in the realm of the heart, too. We all know someone who’s given up on romance because the last time they entered the tunnel of love they crawled out with a fatal case of black heart, and swear they’ll never go prospecting again. Maybe we are that person.

     I bring up the concept of loss aversion because it came into play back in the summer of 2013, when I had to decide whether my boyfriend should become part of the Love Between The Covers documentary in which I was featured. Filmmaker Laurie Kahn and her crew had already spent quite a bit of time with me by then. They’d gone with me to the gym and to appointments with my prosthetist. They’d filmed me in my writing studio, sitting under the trees on my back deck, and hanging out at home surrounded by friends and kids and dogs. And now Laurie and her crew wanted to join Celeste Bradley and me on our annual beach writing retreat to Corolla, NC. There was a catch:  Celeste and I planned to bring significant others along for the first time, which was a risk in itself. Would the two men – who had never met – like each other? What would Celeste and I do if they didn’t?  And did we really want a film crew there to document the unknown?

    On a personal level, I had to ask myself whether my ten-month relationship with Martin – and the twenty years of friendship that preceded it – was solid enough that I wouldn’t one day look back on the documentary and cringe. Were Martin and I going to make it in the long run?  Would we stay together through the years, as we both hoped? Would we even make it to the movie premiere?
I was a little surprised that Martin had no concerns about being in the film and happily signed up for the adventure. I assured him he could change his mind and not appear on camera if he wished, or even choose not to go to the beach at all, but he seemed genuinely happy about the whole thing. His enthusiasm helped me kick my nagging loss aversion tendencies to the curb. Besides, what would one more leap of faith matter? My entire relationship with Martin had been nothing but a grand, go-for-it, no-regrets kind of risk. And once we were there at the beach house, there were many moments when I would see the gentle, fun-loving glint in Martin’s eye as he hugged and kissed me –with Joe’s camera shoved in our faces and Dan’s tiny personal microphones clipped to our shirts --  and my doubts would disappear. 

      At this juncture, you might be waving your hands around trying to get my attention. “Uh, Susan?  Hello? Did I miss something? Who the hell is this Martin guy and when did you become a couple? How did you meet?”

     Those are valid questions and you have a right to ask them, since I did sort of spring this on you. I met Martin in 1994 at a gathering at my best friend Arleen’s house. I really enjoyed his company. I spent time with him off and on through the years, and always thought he was funny and charming. Then, in 2005, I went on a trip to New Mexico with a group studying the similarities between ancient Celtic spirituality and Native American traditions. It was a life-changing trip for me, and Martin was there. We got to know each other. At the time, I was on the cusp of leaving my husband and going through all the emotional turmoil that entails, but I remember Martin was kind and attentive to me, making me laugh when I was on the edge of tears. It almost felt like he’d taken it on himself to help me through the chaos. And, unless I was mistaken, I sensed that he might have had a little crush on me.  The time wasn’t right for anything like that, of course, and we parted with a big hug and best wishes going forward, the way we always did.

     The years went on. Martin lives about an hour and a half from me, but we kept running into each other at get-togethers. I always liked him. Arleen and I went to visit him when he was in the hospital after Achilles tendon surgery. I went to his wedding. He came to visit me in the hospital many times, bringing all kinds of gifts, and sharing with me that his marriage was over. On Thanksgiving of 2012, I noticed that Martin was flirting with me outrageously, in front of his whole family in fact, and I realized I liked it. A lot. And for the first time I really thought this might work – I might be able to date my best friend’s brother.

Flirting at Thanksgiving Dinner, 2012
     Yup, you read right. I’m sorry for burying the lead. Martin is Arleen’s older brother. We began seeing each other after Thanksgiving, 2012. He was so good to me and I had so much fun with him that I fell in love. He did, too. Martin enjoyed doing things for me like cleaning the garage, fixing my back-yard pond, and helping me purge and plan for the inevitable move from my home. It’s nice having a German engineer as a boyfriend – he gets things done and he gets them done on schedule. With Martin at my side, all these stressful and dirty jobs were almost fun.

     Martin brought me flowers often and for no reason – big, beautiful, extravagant bouquets. He held me while I sobbed over what had happened to me and all the challenges I faced. He even took me tent camping, and was willing to deal with all the extra crap required for camping with a one-legged, pain-ridden, middle-aged woman who couldn’t even walk to the campground bathroom. Basically, Martin was wonderful, and he took care of me in a way that no man in my life ever had.  We started dreaming about the future. RV trips we would take, mountain cabins where we’d live, and our eventual return to New Mexico – together.

      So I suppressed my loss aversion long enough to be okay with him being documented on film for all eternity as my sweet, patient, loving, and devoted boyfriend.  I told myself that my relationship with Martin was part of my journey, a journey I had agreed to share in the documentary. True, I have no idea how much of Martin will end up in the film and how much will end up on the cutting room floor. I don’t even know how much of me will appear in the final cut. But I do know the crew was there for some extremely personal moments, especially the first time I stood in the sand on a prosthetic leg.

      Simply put, one of the things that kept me alive while in the hospital was the dream that someday, somehow, I would walk on the beach again. I wasn’t ready to try during the 2012 beach retreat – I couldn’t even fathom how I would go about doing it. But Martin made it possible the next year. The cameras rolled as I trudged up the wooden steps bridging the dunes, in horrible pain. But Martin was at my elbow, whispering encouragement to me, and keeping me laughing until I made it to the top of the steps. He hugged me when I cried in relief. Everything – on camera.

Martin reading one of my books, 2010
Once on the sand, Martin pushed me up and down the surf in a beach wheelchair, pulling wheelies and racing around while I laughed and screamed with happiness. All on film. We flew a kite together, me standing in the sand with Martin helping to keep me balanced. Documented. Martin sat with me on the deck and held my hand as we watched the sunset. Documented.  Kisses and hugs. Documented. Martin even happily agreed to do a solo interview with the crew, during which he told Laurie how we got to know each other on the New Mexico trip and all the reasons he loved me the way he did. Afterward, Laurie said to me, “You’ve got a keeper, Susan.”

With Martin at the beach, 2013
      Soon after we returned from North Carolina, I found out why I had been in so much pain – I had a malformation of my right hip and I was going to need surgery. The news devastated me. I completely freaked out knowing I would have to go back into the operating room, and all those horrible traumatic memories and fears got the better of me. Martin held both my hands in his and told me everything would be all right, that I would not go through it alone, and that he would be with me every step of the way. I have to admit that hearing this made the idea a lot less terrifying for me.
My mother died on October 22. Martin didn’t come up to see me. He did come the following Sunday afternoon, however, and we went on a drive and out to lunch. I felt it – there was something wrong. He was impatient with me, annoyed that I needed extra help getting out of the car and walking into the restaurant. But you know what? I didn’t have the energy to make a big deal about it. I was exhausted over my mother’s death and just happy to have Martin around.

       Listen, I didn’t live in denial. I knew it SUCKED that I couldn’t join my boyfriend in many of the things he loved – biking, walking around D.C., going to Nationals games, hiking, sharing outdoor art shows, dancing – but he assured me those were minor issues, and besides, we knew that after my hip surgery I could go back to physical therapy and in time I would walk again.  But after that rather awkward lunch, Martin began to disappear from my life. He was busy. He was sick. He couldn’t help me move because he had plans to play Frisbee golf with his friends. I was supposed to be joining his family – Arleen’s family – for Thanksgiving again, but one day before the celebration he texted me with this news flash: I think we should just be friends. You can still come to Thanksgiving if you want. I promise I won’t be an *(&hole.”

     Dear blog reader, if your mouth is hanging open, I understand. My mouth hung open, too. Arleen’s mouth hung open. My kids’ mouths hung open. Celeste’s mouth hung open. And when Laurie found out, her reaction was “WHAT  THE (bleep?) HAPPENED?

     I had no answer for her. I had no answer for myself, let alone anyone else.

      Despite the enticing invitation, I didn’t attend Thanksgiving dinner. Martin didn’t help me move, I didn’t see him over Christmas, and he won’t be at my side when I go into surgery in two days. In fact, we’ve never seen each other since that uncomfortable afternoon together in late October. We wrote a lot of emails back and forth and we did talk on the phone once, back in January. As he explained to me, there was no real reason he broke up with me except that he wanted his freedom, and he couldn’t deal with the possibility that he had disappointed me or made me angry. He still loved me, though, he said. He just didn't want to be in a relationship with me.

      The moral to this blog story? I guess there are two.

       1.      Don’t date your best friend’s brother, especially if you’re already like a member of the  family, because if it doesn’t work out, you’ll lose a boyfriend and a family;

      2.      Taking a chance on love is fine --  just think long and hard before you let a film crew document that chance-y love for all of eternity.

      Laurie has invited me to the premiere of Love Between the Covers next  February at the Library of Congress. She’s also asked me to sit on the panel and answer questions afterward. Honestly, I don’t know if I can do it. I’m not sure I am brave enough to watch that movie.  I know it will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but I’m not sure I could handle it. I’ll have to answer this question for myself:  Do I desire to take part in this fabulous and important event more than I desire to avoid having my guts ripped out in front of an audience and then answer questions about it afterward?        
Thank God I have a few months to figure it out. But I can tell you this – if I do go to the premiere, I will walk in there under my own power, without Martin (or any other man) at my elbow. It may sound hypocritical coming form a romance writer, but I think I better keep my heart to myself for the foreseeable future.  I've had all the loss I can take.

Monday, August 11, 2014

I'm (so not) Ready For My Close Up - Episode One

Writing Retreat, 2012 

. . . And the day came that a cameraman and sound guy followed me into the bathroom so they could document how I brushed my teeth while standing on my prosthetic leg. Why, you ask? It’s a long story. Let me tell you all about it.
I started working as a newspaper reporter just out of grad school, and followed that career path for about a decade. Back then, newsrooms were cavernous spaces bustling with ringing phones, clacking keyboards, screeching police scanners, shouting editors, and reporters incessantly on the phone. It was that way at every newspaper I ever worked for, from the smallest daily to one of the behemoths of American Journalism. And I loved it. The commotion energized me.
So imagine how jarring it was when I switched to fiction writing and found myself sitting in the near silence of a home office. I remained there, hour after hour, alone save for a few of my closest personal friends (and yes, I’m referring to my personal computer and my personal demons.) It was hard for me to adjust. Honestly, after fourteen years I’m still adjusting.
     Spending so much time locked up in a room made it easy to become eccentric. What saved me from going completely cuckoo was that at the end of every workday I had to make re-entry into the world of family life. I would immediately transition to fixing dinner, fetching one kid from baseball and the other from ballet, and taking the dog for x-rays because he may have swallowed portions of a houseguest’s 36-C underwire bra. But still, I spent so much time alone that I often forgot I was part of a multi-billion-dollar global publishing industry full of writers much like myself.
Celeste and Me, 2011
     Luckily, I write romance, and when I joined Romance Writers of America, I became part of a huge, well-organized, and diverse community of authors. We meet up regularly at conferences. We give workshops together and sit shoulder-to-shoulder for group book signings. We prop each other up in bad times and celebrate together in good. (Also, we drink a lot and laugh so hard our jaws and bellies ache.) Through this organization, many writers build lifelong friendships. I count myself very fortunate to have dozens of writer buddies from all over the world. Then, at the 2004 RWA National Conference in Dallas, I met my creative soul mate.
There was something about Celeste Bradley’s writing that I loved. Her romance novels were set in Regency England, which has never really been my cup of tea (pun intended.) But she wrote such funny, sexy, and action-packed stories that I couldn’t resist. So by the time I met her at a cocktail party hosted by our mutual literary agent, I was already a fan. Besides, our worlds overlapped so much that I couldn’t have avoided her if I wanted to. In addition to being represented by the same agent, we started our careers about the same time, were contracted with same publishing house, and even had the same editor.
So that night in Dallas I was doing my usual social butterfly routine, chatting up a bunch of writers with my vodka and cranberry in hand, when I saw Celeste sitting near a window talking quietly with one other author. Celeste was a tall woman, with volumes of thick, dark hair that fell down her back. She seemed so poised – calm and self-contained. In other words, the opposite of Susan Donovan, who was short, loud, and goofy.
If this is starting to sound like a love-at-first-sight/opposites-attract opening scene from one of my novels, I guess there’s a reason for it. I walked over to Celeste and introduced myself. We began talking. We clicked. We made each other laugh. And I thought to myself, “what a dignified lady she is.” Flash forward to the next year, at the RWA National Convention 2005 in Reno. Along with a few other middle-aged-mom-type romance authors, we spent a rather surreal night on the town. Much of it is still a blur, but I know it involved karaoke and random cowboys who insisted on stripping for us when they found out we were attending a romance writer convention. This was followed by a group excursion to a . . . well . . . if you must know, we went to a BDSM-themed novelty shop.
I think the field trip left me scarred for life, and must be at least partly to blame for why, many years later, I failed to enjoy the infamous  Fifty Shades of Grey as much as others did. I guess I had this image burned into my memory: Celeste Bradley bringing an assortment of handcuffs, whips, and chains to the cash register – along with various and sundry latex novelties – to calmly ask for clarification on their uses. No, Celeste didn’t really buy all that stuff. And yes, the clerk hated us with every fiber of his being. But I remember looking at Celeste up there at the counter and thinking to myself, “This chick is going to be one of my best friends.
As fun as that was, Celeste and I lost touch for a few years. Later we would discover that we had simultaneously been going through the divorce-and-starting-over phase, and had both pulled away from the social aspect of romance writing. But we met up again in 2009, when the annual conference was in Washington D.C. I remember I just walked up to her and told her I had this feeling we were supposed to write a book together, and a had this idea for a novel simultaneously set in historical London and modern-day Boston.
Yeah, I know. I would have called hotel security, too. But Celeste looked at me serenely, smiled, and said, “Let’s do it.” Looking back, it was fate. Pure and simple.
Celeste, Denver 2010

The next year, Celeste and I participated in a romance reader event in Denver, and we started brainstorming on the book that would eventually be titled A Courtesan’s Guide to Getting Your Man, and later re-released as Unbound. It was shocking how fast and easily our ideas meshed. It was as if our brains shared the same operating platform. Basically, we spoke each other’s language. We ended up plotting the entire 125,000-word novel in a couple days. We were still taping notecards to the wall five minutes before I had to rush off the airport for my flight home. We went back to our respective towns and began writing. A couple months later, we met in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and hammered out the whole thing, piecing scenes together, writing transitions, drinking potent coffee and staying up till all hours. Again, we worked right up until I had to race to the Albuquerque airport. We hit the “send” button to our editor and shot out the door.
I believe Courtesan/Unbound is one of the best things I’ve ever written. I know Celeste feels that way, too. I’m so proud of what we did with that story. So when our publisher asked for a follow-up, we signed on the dotted line. Of course we did! Celeste and I were on top of our careers. Life in general was very good. The following May, Celeste and her sister, Cindy, traveled with me to Spain to celebrate my 50th birthday, and we returned home just before Courtesan was published. A couple months later Celeste and I went to New York for yet another conference. I was up for an award.  We knew there was no limit to what we could do together as a writing team. Nothing was going to stop us now. 
So when a documentary filmmaker named Laurie Kahn asked Celeste and I do an on-camera interview for her project Love Between the Covers, we answered with an enthusiastic “absolutely!”
It was a fun interview. We joined Laurie in her hotel suite, which had been turned into a film studio, and met Dan (the sound guy) and Joe (the cameraman) for the first time. We had so much fun in that interview. Celeste and I laughed and chatted about our lives and the adventure of writing – together and as individuals. It’s all recorded for posterity, and watching it is a bittersweet experience for me. I don’t want to be too maudlin here, but I look at myself in that clip and I see how happy I am. I look so healthy. So sure of myself. In other words, so completely clueless about the darkness about to put an end to everything – my happiness, my health, my faith in the wide-open possibilities of my life.
Sorry Laurie, but here’s the honest-to-God truth: If I had known that fun little interview would open the door for a film crew to document my deeply personal struggle with illness and recovery, I probably would have declined the offer to take part in the film.
Happy, Healthy, Hopeful -- and Unsuspecting. Summer 2011
Laurie called me many months later, in April 2012, to see if she could catch up with me. Of course, she had no idea what I had been through. I hadn’t made a public announcement about it, and it would be another year and a half before I started this blog. Laurie was devastated to hear the news but planted a seed in my head:  maybe one day I would be willing to talk on camera about it.
Sure, I said. Maybe. One day. I’d keep in touch.
Whoo, baby! I would end up doing more than talking. I would end up welcoming the crew into my home, my physical therapy sessions, my family, and my annual writing retreat vacation with Celeste. That’s how Joe and Dan ended up in the bathroom with me.

But don’t change that channel! I’ll be back with another episode soon.