Car talk

click and clackSome of the best conversations I have with my kids take place in the car. Maybe because there’s no escape, maybe it’s because I threaten to listen to Car Talk unless we converse, but there it is. Today, I drove Dearest Son back to college, and we talked about the semester and the upcoming summer, potential jobs, friendship, dealing with stress, family members…the whole gamut.

unicornI used to tell stories to the kids in the car back in the day—Mickey the Fire Engine; the badger who befriended a little boy; a sister and brother who found a secret underground city powered by the magic of a captive unicorn; that same pair joining a children’s army when all the adults disappeared; a Christmas Eve when a little girl and her brother get a special treat from Santa.

storkUncomfortable conversations are great for the car, too, since the driver can’t maintain eye contact while the passenger dies a thousand deaths. We’d cover where babies come from. Where babies don’t come from. Where my babies came from. Both kids learned long ago to cringe and hunker down in the seats when I started a conversation with, “I’m bringing this up in the car so we don’t have to look at each other.”

moonWhen the kids were really little, we’d go see my in-laws and, at the end of the visit, put the little ones in their jammies and drive home in the dark. The Princess would watch the moon, delighted that it was following us. Dearest Son would fall asleep, usually holding her hand, and McIrish and I would listen to a baseball game and talk quietly. When we got home, we’d carry the kids inside and tuck them in bed, and they hardly ever woke up.

Those were happy times. But these are too, talking about the state of the country, the future, which states would be fun to live in. I drove back from Dearest’s college, missing him already, missing the Princess, who drove herself back today. But I’ll see them soon, and they live in my heart, no matter how far apart we are.

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Craptastic Friends

 

One of the things I find so interesting (objectively) and so painful (personally) is when a friend turns out not to be such a good friend after all. Men don’t seem to have this problem, but every woman I know has a story. Every one! Whether it happened in high school, at work, over a guy, during a wedding, over nothing discernible at all, we all have that story. Or sometimes, stories.

Would you take advice from these two?

Would you take advice from these two?

Happily, I have about a dozen best friends. One of them, author Joss Dey, is also fascinated with this subject. In fact, Joss and I became super-close five or six years ago, when we were both dealing with a mutual friend who was, to put it in delicate terms, going off the rails on her crazy train. She had seemed so normal, so nice when we first met her, and then, month by month, certain things red flags began fluttering, then flapping, then slapping us in the face. But we had to help, we thought. Because we were friends. We had to talk to her and tell her to take a breath, calm down, stop doing destructive things, stop lying to us.

Joss is very wise. (Picture taken on my 50th birthday)

Joss is very wise. (Picture taken on my 50th birthday)

Suffice it to say, things didn’t go well. They never do, right? Joss, who is very wise, pointed out that while there are roughly 10 million books about romantic relationships, there don’t seem to be any about how to build a female friendship.

There’s a pink silk veil of expectation that floats over women’s friendship. We’re all steel magnolias, right? We’re Thelma and Louise! We meet, hit it off, and boom! We’re great friends. There’s no vetting system, like there is in dating. There are no steps outlined, the way there are in countless books and websites. There’s just instinct, and, unfortunately, this notion that if you like another woman, you’re going to be lifelong friends.

Kristan is known for maintaining her calm in crisis situations.

Kristan is known for maintaining her calm in crisis situations.

But people are people. Maybe we were wrong about how awesome our friend was. Maybe it took us awhile to figure that out. If a guy had treated us so craptastically, we would’ve dumped his ass in a New York minute… but with girlfriends, it’s harder. It’s almost verboten. It can feel like a betrayal, even if it’s in your best interest. And sometimes, it’s agony!

So…Joss and I have decided to do a podcast, tentatively called Shitty Friends & Circumstances.

Great friends lo these many years!

Great friends lo these many years!

Joss and I will get together, talk about shitty friend situations (for now, female/female, non-romantic friendships). We’ll talk about what happened, how it could’ve been prevented, and what to do now. Are we shrinks? Nope! We’re just two great friends. But we’ll have guests on from time to time (including our friend the therapist), as well as other friends, authors and bad-ass women.

If you want to share your story, you can email us at joss@jossdey.com or kristanhigginsbooks@gmail.com. All names will be kept confidential.

Can’t wait to get started!

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A horse, a goat and a kitten

horseThe other night as I was driving home, I saw what I thought was a deer crossing the road. It wasn’t a deer, though; it was a horse galloping down the road in the dark. Following the horse was a goat, just a little brown blur following its friend. I grew up around horses, so I stopped and got out of the car. It was very cold out, not even 10 degrees. A couple had stopped first, and I told them I’d help, since I grew up around horses (and my own used to bolt from our field from time to time). The owner wasn’t home, but the other folks had called the police.

We flushed the horse off the street. She then hid behind the garage, so I went to her barn, using my phone’s flashlight, and got her some hay. In a minute, I heard hoof beats clattering on the frozen ground. “She’s coming your way!” the man called, and I’ll admit, it was a little scary, since it was too dark to see her. But she went right past, the little goat frisking along behind her.

catI sent the other folks off, since I had no plans that evening, and stood, waiting for the state police or owner to come home. Then a wee cat hopped up on the porch and sat, mewing in front of the door. When I approached, she started to purr. I picked her up and snuggled her; she was so chilly! After she was warmed up, I tried the door. Lo and behold, the door was open. I put the kitty inside and then went back to the fence in case the horse made another break for freedom.

It’s a strange thing, being outside in the dark when it’s so cold. The sky seems closer and brilliant with stars. The sounds of the horse eating her hay and the occasional bleat of the goat were reassuring. I’m not often outside in the frigid cold, staring at the night sky, listening to the quiet.

The minutes ticked past. I called the coppers again and asked when they’d get there. They said they weren’t coming. “Aren’t you afraid the horse will get out again?” I asked. “I can’t tell where the break in the fence is. What if she runs back into the road and causes an accident?”

“We called the owner, ma’am,” said he. “You don’t have to stay. It’s not your problem.”

But it was, sort of. My urge to save the world is strong, and I don’t get many chances to be heroic. What if someone’s kid was driving home, and the horse bolted and the kid hit a tree? What if it was my kid? A pregnant lady? An old person who might stagger out of the car and freeze to death in the woods? Such are the thought of a writer. So I stayed until the owner came. She was most grateful for my help, and the horse was locked in the barn for the night with her little goat friend. I got back in my car, brushed the hay and cat fur off my coat, and headed for home feeling very chipper and neighborly indeed.

skyI was going to write a blog about the new year and try to offer advice and tips on how to be happier, more productive, gentler on yourself. But maybe this story told it better than a list. Keep an eye out. Try not to be afraid, even when you don’t know what’s coming at you. Look at the sky. Feel the quiet. Don’t always be in a hurry to get somewhere. There’s little else in the world that will make you feel better than doing a favor for someone else.

Happy New Year, my friends. I wish you health and happiness and quiet nights full of stars.

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’Tis the season

 

sweetie and meI’ll admit, I like giving presents more than I like getting them (with the exception of chocolates in my stocking, which I immediately devour like a four-year-old). It can be hard to find the perfect present, so I came up with a list for you last-minute folks!

Babysit for someone with young children. It’s good for the soul, and even if your back might be a little stiff the next day, it’s so worth it to get those hugs and sniff those little heads, and give the parents a little time off.

Bring flowers or a plant to someone in a nursing home. Those places can feel very sterile and lonely. There was a study that showed even caring for a plant improves mental health.

flowersGot a friend who’s recently widowed, separated or divorced? Spend time with him or her. Listen. Bring cookies or wine. Or both.

Give a gift certificate for work you’ll do for someone. Are you a good gardener? A clean-freak, like me? A gifted baker? Doing something for someone is such a lovely feeling.

water buffaloDonate in someone’s name. Every year we donate to Heifer International in my mom’s name. Mom is someone whose house is bursting with stuff. She doesn’t need more earrings or blue vases, so we loving giving a water buffalo or goat in her name. I like to tell her there are many animals named after her. (We use www.heifer.org).

Hug. There’s something so magical, warm and comforting about giving a hug to someone you love. You feel loved and safe, and you make them feel the same way. In NOW THAT YOU MENTION IT, which drops Tuesday (the obligatory mention of my upcoming book), Nora’s stoic mom doles out hug therapy, and it has quite the effect on people. You can do it for free.

st. judeAnd if you do want to buy someone a book for Christmas, proceeds from preorders and first week sales of NOW THAT YOU MENTION IT benefit that most wonderful place in the world—St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, which gives hope when hope feels impossible.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, my friends! I am so grateful for all of you!

 

 

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All I wanted for Christmas

12_6_nicholasMy son was a preemie, born 10 weeks early by emergency C-section in the wee hours of the morning. He weighed one pound, ten ounces and, stretched out, was twelve and a half inches long. His skin was bright red, his legs the thickness of my index finger. We could hold him in the palm of our hands. He was born on December 6—the feast of St. Nicholas, who is, of course, the patron saint of children.

When I got to hold him after eight days, it was tricky. He was still on a nasogastric tube at that point, still had an IV, monitors for oxygen saturation and heart rate. Just taking him out of the incubator was something of balancing act; the natural act of a mother reaching for her baby complicated by the science that was keeping him alive. Every day, I’d check his chart, see if he got any bigger; even a gain of a few grams was a triumph. His hands were heartbreakingly small.

Meanwhile, we had another child, our nearly three-year-old daughter, at home. We tried to make her life as normal as could be. I baked Christmas cookies, because I didn’t want her to miss that tradition (and because martyrdom runs in my family). We got a tree. McIrish and I went to a department store to do all our shopping in one fell swoop; when I became too tired, he pushed me on the cart, and we threw in  items willy-nilly. A mermaid doll. A clock. Candyland. Preemie-sized outfits that were two times too large for our tiny baby.

summer 08 008 (1)I couldn’t sleep on Christmas Eve; moved to the couch around 3 a.m. and called the hospital. Mary Ann, the night nurse, told me she had tucked our son into her sweater and was cuddling him right now, and she held the phone to his head so he could hear my voice. I love you, I told him. We all miss you. Next year, you’ll be home with us.

In the morning, our daughter opened her gifts, and her brother’s, too. She got a dollhouse from Santa; he got an Elmo doll. She had picked out an Oscar the Grouch small enough to fit in his incubator. My brother gave him a baseball mitt.

I remember sobbing on the phone to my sister, who was celebrating her own baby’s first Christmas. The fact that my son was so small and so fragile, was almost unbearable. “Next year will be better,” she said, and I prayed she would be right. I prayed that we wouldn’t be remembering the tiny baby who didn’t make it.

When we went to see him later that day, the nurse informed us that the hospital had had a visitor during the night. Santa had left gifts for all the babies in the neonatal unit. A blanket—knit by Mrs. Claus, the nurse said; a piglet beanie baby, and a teddy bear that would remain bigger than our son for three years. She also handed us a Polaroid photo: Santa Claus, standing by our son’s incubator.

Best friends.

Best friends.

Our boy is fine now, as you may know. He is completely normal in every way, except in the ways in which he is exceptional. He is extraordinarily kind, charming, wicked funny and alternately extremely lazy or very hard-working. He is also very handsome, with smiling brown eyes and thick, curly dark hair. He teases his sister, is loved by small children and animals, riles up our pets and is quite a slob. We love him with all our hearts, of course.

Thank you, Saint Nick, for watching over our little guy. And thank you, angels at Yale-New Haven Hospital’s Neonatal Unit. You’ll never be forgotten.

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Here’s to the power of female friends

Besties. The Plotmonkeys at one of our writing & laughing weekends.

Besties. The Plotmonkeys at one of our writing & laughing weekends.

The most poignant, difficult parts of my books always come from personal experience. In NOW THAT YOU MENTION IT, one of those passages is Nora’s experience in high school, where she’s a lonely kid, uncomfortable in her rapidly changing, adolescent body, a loner at a time of life when being a part of a group seems hugely important.

 

 

Robyn Carr and me. We talk on the phone for hours at a time!

Robyn Carr and me. We talk on the phone for hours at a time!

There was a girl in my neighborhood who went to the same school, and we’d share a ride. She was very, very beautiful and struck me as a little tough. She had a boyfriend. She smoked, in front of her parents, even, which was so bold and foreign that I could barely wrap my brain around it. She knew how to wear makeup; I didn’t even start with that stuff till I was 20 or so (and have made up for the lost years many times over, I’m sure). In a nutshell, she was everything I was not, and our proximity and her confidence made me feel…well, invisible.

 

 

 

Kathleen and me, about 30 years after graduation.

Kathleen and me, about 30 years after graduation.

Then one day in my freshman year, a girl I didn’t know well turned around and said, “You’re funny,” She smiled at me. She had a mouthful of braces, a pretty face and the best laugh ever. Her name was Kathleen, and all of a sudden, I had a best friend. And man, did I need one! (Hi, Kath! Miss you!)

In college, when I was horribly ill-prepared to leave home, where I didn’t drink alcohol and had never kissed a boy, I basically hid in my room and went to classes. Sometimes I skipped dinner because I didn’t have

Between us, Catherine and I have 5 kids, four of them preemies. (Yes, they are holding a skeleton.)

Between us, Catherine and I have 5 kids, four of them preemies. (Yes, they are holding a skeleton.)

someone to eat with. But then, Catherine and I found each other. We’d get enraged over social injustice, listen to David Bowie, nurse each other through relationship woes. She’s the godmother to the Princess, and when I had Dearest Son, she walked me step by step through mothering a preemie, since she’d had three of her own. We talk or message each other every few days.

 

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Never a dull moment with this pair.

Never a dull moment with this pair.

At my very first job out of college, I met Heidi, a few years older, already married, so pretty and vivacious. When my father died, she came to his wake, her newborn in the car with her husband as she waited in line at the funeral home. I babysat her little ones, pretending they were mine, and last year, I went to the oldest daughter’s wedding. In February, I’ll go to California and see Heidi again, and I can’t wait.

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Blessed to have a daughter who is also my best friend.

Blessed to have a daughter who is also my best friend.

Life has given me at least a dozen best friends. When the chips are down, my pals rally around me like an army, and I do the same for them to the best of my ability, which I think is pretty good…otherwise, why would I have the greatest friends ever?

One of the things I so liked about Nora from NOW THAT YOU MENTION IT was that she knew how to be a good friend…and accept friendship, too. Girl power, yo. There’s nothing quite like it.

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Being dumped

 

Nora! He's a jerk! Dump him!

Nora! He’s a jerk! Dump him!

In the opening chapter of NOW THAT YOU MENTION, Nora Stuart, M.D., finds herself in an emergency room, not as a doctor, but as a patient this time. She’s been hit by a van from Beantown Bug Killers, a pest control company, and thinks she’s probably dead. I mean, all signs point to dying. She saw a light (CAT scan) and feels floaty (pain meds plus concussion). As she considers which outfit would look best for open casket, she hears her boyfriend flirting with another woman. Over her corpse (well, not really, but that’s what she thinks, anyway). Suffice it to say, their relationship comes to a grinding halt.

Which brings me to my own best breakup story: John of the Rock, as my plotting friends call him. I do have to say I think I won “most humiliating way to be dumped” on one of our weekends when I shared this story, and ever since, my girlies have been waiting to see J of the R used as a character in a book.

Girlies, wait no longer.

Sigh…

Sigh…

John of the Rock, you’re saying. That sounds kind of noble and saintly. No. It’s not. He wasn’t. I mean, to his credit, he was a nice person and had a good sense of humor, yadda yadda whatever. But this is how he dumped me, people. Pull up a chair and listen to your Auntie Kristan.

We’d been dating a couple of years. John and his buddies rowed single scull boaty things…you know, crew and all that snooty prep school stuff. We went to someone’s house for the weekend and the guys decided to have a mini-regatta (race to you and me, the great unwashed). Since I didn’t row and was a girlfriend, not one of the gang, I offered to be timekeeper. John rowed me out to a rock (you see where this is going, right?).

I would not have been sad if a shark had eaten them, to be honest.

I would not have been sad if a shark had eaten them, to be honest.

I arranged myself attractively, smiled and for the next hour or so, I dutifully called out times as the skinny little boats went past, pretending to enjoy the Prep School Glory Days Reenactment.

Then…the boats stopped coming. I guessed they were taking a break. It was fine. A lovely day. Fine. I kept looking at my watch. More minutes passed. Then some more. And still more.

It dawned on me that John and his pals had forgotten about me. I was not in view of the lake shore, so I couldn’t stand up and wave. I was in the middle of a lake, in shorts and a t-shirt and sneakers.

I waited some more.

How I may have looked that day.

How I may have looked that day.

Then, finally, fury kicked in, as it will when you leave a woman on a rock in the middle of a lake. I jumped in the water, swam to shore, stomped through the woods and bypassed the little lakeside party altogether. Walked back to the house where we were staying, sodden and murderous.

Suffice it to say, John and I broke up that day, and a few months later, I met a cute Irish boy while standing in line. Next week, that Irish boy and I will have been married for 26 years, and he brings me

McSweetie and me

McSweetie and me

coffee every morning, tells me he loves me at least three times a day and has never once abandoned me in a body of water.

So thanks, John of the Rock! And thanks for being good fodder, too. As my friend Huntley said, “It’s about time you used him.”  : )

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What could possibly go wrong?

sighI think it’s clear by now that I’ll buy just about any beauty product. My latest, however, was something of a disaster, but being a discerning consumer has never been a strength of mine. Yes, I bought Baby Soft Foot Peel (and have zero regrets), and the ice pack for my eyes that resulted in near-frostbite. The acid scrub that left me unable to go into the sunlight for a week. The self-tanning lotion that made me look like a Dust Bowl farmer during the Depression.

toothbrushBut today was probably the worst.

There’s a disconnected between store-me in the store and home-me. Several months ago, I saw this little product. “Ooh! Charcoal tooth whitening powder!” I exclaimed, showing the Princess. “Want to try it with me?”

“No,” said she.

“Your loss,” I said, tossing it in the cart. When we got home, I put it away and promptly forgot about it, as one does.

This morning, I rediscovered it and thought, “What could possibly go wrong?”

9:35: Open the packet to discover they weren’t kidding about charcoal. Realize this will make a great blog and grab phone for pictures.

9:36: Dip brush in and get to work.

hilarity ensues9:37: Surprise McIrish with big smile (he has since generously agreed to stay married).

9:38: Read instructions, and learn that I was supposed to keep my mouth closed, not trot around the house, laughing and drooling.

9:39: Spit. Rinse. Spit. Spit some more. Rinse more. Note my resemblance to a 19th century coal miner.

9:42: Wonder why spit is still gray and if teeth will remain blackened forever.

9:43: Rinse with regular old chemical-rich mouthwash. Feel gums begin to burn.

9:44: Notice that spit is now pink.

cheese!9:45: Curse self for being so gullible.

9:46: Brush teeth with Crest.

9:48: Floss. Brush again.

9:50: Check tooth color. No discernible difference.

9:51: Clean up bathroom, which is spattered with black powder and spit. Throw away pajamas (don’t worry, I have a backup pair).

9:52: Chastise self once again for buying what is essentially snake oil.

11:44: Write blog. : )

I’ll be off next weekend, eating turkey sandwiches with my family. Happy, happy Thanksgiving, my friends!

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Girls Weekend NYC

 

ourhouseI’m a great lover of renting other people’s places. This weekend, my friends Julie and Mags, also writers, and I went to New York City to do a little writing, a little sightseeing. I was put in charge of housing options, and sent them three—one ridiculously fabulous apartment that would’ve only cost a couple of major organs each; a place in Brooklyn; and a place on the Lower East Side. We picked the Lower East Side.

socksIt was love at first sight. Sure, sure, the door to the apartment was a little, er, colorful with graffiti and stickers, and the flights of stairs were something out of an Escher painting, but once we got up, it was heaven, gang! We were instantly cooler, just by being in a brick-walled NYC apartment. Jules and Maggie, being friends for ages, shared the master bedroom, and I slept in a little twin bed in the tiny bedroom next door, separated only by a thin wall, almost like their kid, listening to my two moms chat late at night. For NYC, it was really quiet, and the place was so cozy and charming!

abrahamNeither of my friends had ever been to New York before, so I became their tour guide. We took the Staten Island Ferry for the views of the city, went to Ground Zero, Tribeca, SoHo, Greenwich Village Washington Square Park, had dinner at my favorite restaurant—Porto Bello on Thompson Street. We talked about books and friends and family…all of us lost a parent too young, all of us love children. Maggie and I are happily married to wonderful men; Julie is single, but a palm reader told her that won’t last long.

your husbandThe whole weekend was wonderful and invigorating and so, so much fun—especially karaoke in the world’s sketchiest place, but man, did we rock the house! (Enthusiasm counts for so much!) Julie and I should cut a single of Endless Love because yes! We were that good, and no! It wasn’t just the margarita talking!

Now the girls have left, since they needed to catch flights, and I’m sitting alone in the sweet little apartment, a little sad to go, but eager to see McIrish and the dogs (and cat). Staying in this apartment, hearing about my friends’ lives, eavesdropping on strangers, making friends with the crazy singing guy on the subway…there’s nothing better. And now I’m dying to get home and write. There’s a lot to be said for filling the well with love and friendship.

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Quiet time

IMG_4843This past week, I’ve been blessed by staying at my family’s little house on Cape Cod. The weather has been in the 60s and 70s, clear and sunny, and I’ve taken the dog to the beach every day. For the first couple of days, I was joined by my friend, Huntley Fitzpatrick, another writer. We talked, we wrote, we asked each other questions about our stories, we wrote some more, we read each other’s first chapters. In the end, we decided we are sisters of the heart and will be little old ladies together, preferably in a seaside cottage, along with the other fine women in our plotting group.

Then I was alone for a couple of days until McIrish came up with Luther.

Although I’m alone fairly often, I’m interrupted by the usual things—my husband coming and going, my sainted mother with a question about her computer, the dogs, the phone, the laundry, a friend popping in.

IMG_4826But here at the Cape, it’s different. I have a friendly relationship with the folks across the way, since we’ve owned this house since I was little, but otherwise, I don’t know a soul up here. I recognized a tall woman who seemed to go the beach at the same time I did, and who properly acknowledged Willow as the prettiest dog in the world. I bought half-and-half one night. Otherwise, no human interaction.

IMG_4863My kids text me maybe once a day, or they email, but we’re not in constant contact, which I think is appropriate—they’re growing up, almost there, and while I’m always here for them and love hearing about their lives, I like that they don’t need me to hold their hands through their college tasks.

So. Solitude. On Thursday, I took Willow to the beach in the late afternoon and let her run into the waves, catch her leash in her mouth and lead herself out, an act she repeated 20 or so times. Then we walked and walked as the shadows grew, and the wet sand reflected the deepening sky. I figured it IMG_4879would be a nice sunset, so I put my wet doggy in the car and drove over to the bay. The tide was out, leaving rippling sand. The sun set without too much glory, but then, about ten minutes later, the sky lit up with pink and gold.

I took a few pictures. Put my phone in my pocket and stood there for a long, long time. Didn’t text anyone. Just took it all in, the wind and sea and sky.

In a busy, tumultuous world, it was the best feeling I’ve had in a long, long time.

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