Saturday, September 10, 2016

Reunions, Plural: Love Fest in St. Louis

Grandchildren. Crepey skin. Politics. Recipes for stuffed pepper soup. Kindles versus “real” books. Crabby knees. Empathy among Gen Xers. River cruises. These topics and many more came up over the course of a weeklong visit to St. Louis, where I grew up and lived most of my adult life before moving to San Francisco in 2010.

The occasion was my 50th high school reunion, but that stellar event took up just one evening. The rest of the week was one big love fest, with brunches, lunches, coffee dates, happy hours, dinners and parties. I also managed assorted drive-by hugs (thanks go to Judy, who drove), two shopping expeditions, an appointment with Michael, my in-town acupuncturist (doesn’t everybody have two?) and some quality time hanging out with dear friends.

The big reunion was great (do go to yours) though it started off oddly. When I walked into the upstairs party space at Schlafly’s Tap Room, I looked at all the happy people talking there and thought, “These are my parents’ friends! Maybe I will see Dorothy and Tony.”

Quickly I realized they are gone, as are my parents. These people in the room were MY friends.

With that, I joined the group closest to where I stood and soon was laughing and talking with them, though I was disappointed momentarily to learn from Randy that our classmate Dennis had stayed home to watch Randy’s dog instead of coming to the party.

About 170 people were at the event; a good turnout for a graduating class that numbered over 630. Two or three of my classmates look exactly as they did in high school, and I told them so. Most of them look their age – our age – in spite of professional hair color and artfully applied makeup. But as Mary said, “We’re all beautiful!”

In a previous post, I wrote about looking forward to seeing Don because I remember dancing the polka with him back in junior high. When I found him in the crowd, I asked if he had read what I wrote. He laughed and said yes. When I said, “Please don’t ask me to dance,” he laughed harder and replied, “I can’t.” We certainly aren’t feeble, but we aren’t all as mobile as we used to be either.

One lovely moment occurred when Alan, the editor of the junior high paper, and Bob, the editor of the high school paper, stood mock-arguing about who could take some credit for my success as a writer. “Hey, I had something to do with it,” I said, and we all laughed.

Another classmate and I take credit for convincing the president of our senior class to attend the event, and Jim clearly was glad he had made the trip from California. Mary, Jim and I took a photo to send to Dean, his wife, who graduated in the class behind us. Next year is her big year.

Driving downtown for the reunion, I got a bonus: A great view of the Gateway Arch, my favorite national monument. There it was in all its glory! I remembered I was present on Oct. 28, 1965, when the Arch was “topped out” and the last section was put in place. I also remembered I wrote the magazine cover story for the Post-Dispatch when the city celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Arch. Or was it the 30th?

My high school reunion was a grand event, and the largest of the many mini-reunions that filled the rest of my time in St. Louis. For instance, I reconnected with

my Five Favorite Female Friends (we met over 40 years ago)

my son’s dad and Other Mother, who held a Labor Day potluck (seven desserts!)

a dozen female pals from my days at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

two favorite editors from the same paper

a special friend from my former water exercise group

on-line Scrabble pals for a real-time game that included a cat

the writing workshop group I started over a decade ago

the Wise Women Book Club

friends from the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Not only did I get to see my theater buddies – with my longtime pal Gail I got to see the dress rehearsal for an extraordinary production of “Follies.” The Rep is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and I’m proud to say I was in the audience when the theater opened a few blocks from my high school back in 1966.

For many years, I was a Rep subscriber. Then I attended as a theater critic for the paper. After I left that job, I continued to see shows right up until I moved away. Walking into the familiar lobby Sept. 6 was eerie in a good way, evoking an acute awareness of the many, many times I have done so before. It was great to be back, and such a privilege to get a sneak peak at this wonderful show.

While in town, I also walked into a lot of restaurants and enjoyed some great food. With friends, I went to Remy’s for mahi mahi and polenta fries, Cravings for bacon-wrapped figs and a remarkable fresh peach sundae, the Boardwalk Café for pancakes, Milagro for tacos and street corn, PJ’s Tavern for a hearty Reuben, Robust for “figgy piggy” flatbread and Big Sky Café for vanilla brioche French toast. Yum! And of course I hit Starbucks more than once (even more than twice) with Champe, Judy and Vickie.

Another day, I walked into a senior living center, where my best friend from high school and the maid of honor at my wedding now lives in the memory care unit. Susan knew me, she was glad to see me and I now know she is content and well cared for in a safe, structured environment. After the visit, I had lunch with her husband, and I like to think we were able to help each other on this journey that neither of us ever imagined.

You can go home again, even after you’ve made a new home in a different city – and this weeklong return to my roots overflowed with love.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Packing Memories for a 50th High School Reunion

Ann and Ginny. I will see them. Susan. No – Susan won’t be there. She has early-onset Alzheimer’s and now lives in a memory care unit. Peggy has made extended trips to the mainland twice this year from her home on the Big Island and will not attend.

Carl. Will he be there? As an adult, I bought candy from him when he worked at an upscale chocolatier, and when he transferred to a bed store in the same mall, I bought a bed. I hope I will see Carl.

As kids, Carl and I once spent an evening with half a dozen other kids draping toilet paper over trees and shrubs in the yards of a fancy neighborhood. “TPing,” as it was called, was a precursor to filling lawns with plastic pink flamingoes. Maybe that morphed into the much crueler cyber bullying? 

All this is what comes to mind as I pack to travel from San Francisco to St. Louis for my 50th high school reunion.

Tempus fugit

Fifty years! How can that be? “It is what it is,” my 87-year old aunt said, laughing at my amazement. She knows more about the passing of time than I do.

Jim will be there. I didn't know Jim well in high school. Oh, I knew who he was – he was president of the senior class, but more than 600 people were in my class. For 46 years, I had no idea what had happened to him. Then four years ago, I got an email from Dean, the woman Jim married. She was one year behind us, and Dean and I had become friends in journalism class.

Dean wrote to say that Jim was now president of a seminary in the Bay Area, and when she learned I live in San Francisco, she wanted to reconnect. The three of us met for dinner, and have continued to do so. Plus, Jim directed me to the seminary’s marketing department, and now I write for them from time to time.

At a barbecue at Jim and Dean’s in July, another member of our high school class and I were on a mission. Mary and I had learned that Jim was not planning to attend the reunion because of schedule conflicts at work, but we were determined to convince him to make the trip. We succeeded. Now I can’t wait to tell people at the reunion that our class president bakes a mean strawberry-rhubarb pie.

Carol, a classmate I have stayed in touch with, has decided not to drive from her second home in Michigan for the reunion party Friday night or the picnic later in the weekend. She avoids all large, loud crowds, she says. Plus, the idea of sitting outside at a picnic in the Midwest over Labor Day weekend gives many people pause – and that was true before climate change, too.

Carol and I helped organize the 10th reunion for our class. Our research back then revealed that half the Class of 1966 still lived in the same suburb where we went to school or in the neighboring suburb, which in high school was considered a rival. The others were spread all over the world. One woman lived in a tree house in Tahiti. Sitting in St.Louis, I was envious!

Memories of reunions past

I skipped the 20th reunion, which was held at a country club – not my natural habitat. The 30th was a blast. I remember dancing the night away in a big group that included Ronnie. He’s gone now. The 40th reunion was the best yet, held on the top floor of a popular brew pub. I remember laughing a lot.

There was some sadness, too. At that reunion I learned that Don had died. His ex-wife, also a classmate, told me. To her, it was old news, but I was shaken by it. My first date was with Don, Ann and Don’s best friend, Charlie, when we were 14. The four of us took three buses to see a matinee showing of the movie “West Side Story.” Soon after, Don bought me an inexpensive ring with my birthstone, a gift that upset my mother. “It’s just a ring,” I said, trying to calm her. I have it still. 

Another classmate named Don will be at the reunion. I remember many great things about him, but especially that from time to time we would take off across a crowded room in a spontaneous polka. Those were the days! I also will see Tina, another dear friend I have kept in touch with over the years.

Other classmates come to mind, people who have not been located by the reunion committee. Some were quirky in high school, and seemed headed for interesting lives. I am sorry I won’t see them at the party, but maybe their lives are so interesting that they choose not to be in touch.

Though I had good friends, I didn’t much like high school. My family moved from the city to the suburbs when I was in sixth grade, so I was always an outsider, on the fringe among the kids who had been together since kindergarten. That feeling is difficult to forget, especially when you also are misidentified in your yearbook. (Bob, a classmate who since has died, wrote on the photo to make me feel better.) Also, at graduation the principal mispronounced my name.

Writing to the rescue

Journalism saved me. In ninth grade, I was on the junior high school newspaper staff. The student editor (Alan -- he'll be at the reunion) may recall that was the year I decided to be a reporter when I grew up. Later, I was on staff of the high school paper. My senior year, I also wrote for a neighborhood weekly paper and for a teen page in the St. Louis Globe Democrat, one of the city’s two daily newspapers at the time.

One day, a story I wrote was published on the front page of the Globe Democrat for all of metropolitan St. Louis to see. A CBS news team had come to my high school to film “16 in Webster Groves,” a documentary about teens in an upper-class suburb. When the show aired, I wrote for the Globe about the students’ reactions. 

For decades, the documentary was shown in sociology classes at universities across the country, and people in Webster Groves still debate to what degree the film misrepresented the students. I quit talking about the show years ago. At the time “16 in Webster Groves” aired, I was 17 in Shrewsbury (a working-class suburb in the Webster Groves School District) and I was busy looking ahead, excited about getting ready to leave for college. Maybe the subject will come up at the 50th reunion. Maybe not.

Last week, a friend in San Francisco asked, “Are you nervous about going to the reunion?” I am not. It’s a party. We 68-year-olds will celebrate being alive 50 years after our graduation and enjoy our time together. It will be fun!

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Viking Cruise to Culinary Delights

Charming towns, the storied Rhine, modern cities, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the winding Main, world-class museums, busy marketplaces, the beautiful Danube and even waltz lessons in Vienna – Viking Cruises offers all that and more as part of its Grand European Tour, a 15-day trip from Amsterdam to Budapest.

I made the trip in July. While researching the geography, culture and history of Central Europe, a refrain from an old song skittered through my mind, something about pretzels and beer. (The song was “Those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer,” released in 1963.) Apparently I was headed to a part of the world that worships both – and sausage too!

On Viking-sponsored outings and also during free time after daily walking tours, I sampled some of each and enjoyed every moment. Here are some of the highlights of my personal culinary tour.

Cologne, Germany

Viking offers an evening excursion in Cologne, a traditional dinner at Brauhaus zur Malzmuhle (established in 1858) that includes stops at two other brew houses.  Kölsch, the local beer, is served ice cold in seven-ounce glasses, and the only way to stop waiters from replacing a half-empty glass is to top it with a cardboard coaster.

What a great excursion! We dined on haxenhaus (tender, slow-roasted pig’s knuckle), sauerkraut, mashed potatoes and salad dressed with a pungent mustard vinaigrette. Dessert was a custard of malt sugar topped with pieces of dark chocolate. Philip Crowder, a native of San Francisco who has lived in Cologne for decades, led our lively group, and the beer dinner absolutely was a highlight of the trip.

Miltenberg, Germany     

At the center of this small, historic town is the Gasthaus zum Riesen – a 425-year-old guesthouse – where I stopped with friends for beer (Faust Hefe-Weizen),  pretzels (served with a sweet, hot mustard) and apple strudel (served with vanilla ice cream).

Flushed with joy (okay, and maybe from the beer) after buying an Ulla Popken jacket marked down from E60 to E10 in a classy nearby shop, I also bought a Faust beer glass, perfect for enjoying Hefeweizen at home.

Bamberg, Germany

A trip to the Franconian countryside (an optional tour out of Bamberg), was a must so I could taste the legendary Rauchbier, a smoked beer. At Drei Kronen (Three Crowns) in the town of Memmelsdorf, the brew master greeted us, pretzels were brought to the table and each of us was served a glass of the smoked beer and a glass of a light wheat beer.

Some say the smoked beer tastes like ham, and most people – including the captain on the Viking ship – don’t care for it. It was OK, but the wheat beer, made with hops from Oregon, suited me better. Everybody enjoyed the pretzels, and some of us darted across the street to a bakery to buy some to take back to the ship.

Nuremberg, Germany

Here I went in search of the famous gingerbread cookies (which I didn’t like at all) and then I settled in at a table at Bratwurst Röslein, a restaurant known for excellent sausage served on a traditional tin plate, with sauerkraut on the side. What a great lunch!

Later, meandering around the Nuremberg market, I came across a booth selling beer ice cream – on a stick! Brewer Michael Bellair (see also makes beer ice cream from his dark beer and mascarpone cheese. Yum!

Regensburg, Germany

The Alte WurstKuche (Old Sausage Kitchen), said to be the world’s oldest bratwurst grill, is in a tiny building, so customers sit at picnic tables outdoors near the river. I sat down at an empty table, ordered a small plate of sausages and a beer, and was quickly joined by seven Australians traveling together on another cruise ship.

A new server appeared and handed the lone man in the group a plate of food. When the original server came back to the able with my beer, she looked at the man, looked at the food, looked at me and said, “That’s your food.” She asked the man if he had even ordered. He admitted he had not, and continued to eat my lunch.

When the server walked away, the Australian women (one was the guy’s wife) and I all burst out laughing. After we all had been served, the group bought my lunch because they said I was such a good sport. (Friends know I love Australians. Ross Winter, an Australian who was very important in my life, likely would have swiped the plate back from the guy, but even Ross would have laughed.)

Aboard the Viking Longship Gefjon 

Two nights later, dinner on the Viking ship honored the cuisines of Germany and Austria, so it was time for more sausage, pretzels and beer as well as other traditional dishes and enticing desserts. (Dirndls and Lederhosen were not required, but some were in evidence.)

Before I left the dining room, I asked the ship’s hotel manager – who happened to be Bavarian – to thank his people for their fine foods and beverages.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Fun Ain't What It Used to Be -- and That's Okay

I used to be fun.

I think that a lot, and sometimes I say it aloud. In a recent email, a friend said it about herself:

“Went to the office Christmas party. Was dragging, then had a Manhattan and perked up. It reminded me that I used to be fun.”

Maybe a bumper sticker is in order? Or even a book?

(Though first I have to write a book called “All Women Are Tired.“ Been threatening to write that one for decades. Too tired.)

Fun. Yes – I remember!

I have dusty memories of testimonials from friends claiming I was fun and even dustier photos showing me being fun. In many of the photos, I am dressed in one costume or another (though I consider all clothing as costumes), probably drinking a bit and definitely dancing a lot.

Not far from where I now sit typing in my jammies is a remnant of those days, a throwback to fun from years gone by. In a bag, high in the closet, is my nine-foot-long feather boa, its shiny black rooster feathers now sparse and definitely bedraggled.

Still, it’s here, which means I wanted to be prepared to have fun when I moved to San Francisco five and a half years ago. In preparation for the move, I got rid of two-thirds of my stuff. I did bring remnants of the fun years, but not long after I settled in, I took most of them to the classiest of the vintage shops on Haight Street and I sold them.

Goodbye to the black silk-lined cape I bought in Sydney; goodbye to the deep purple opera gloves I bought in Paris; goodbye to the velvet clutch purse fronted with a bejeweled peacock I bought in Delhi. All these items came from flea markets and all these items served me well.

“Why are you getting rid of these lovely things?” the shop owner asked.

“Because this is not who I am anymore,” I said. “My life is different now and it’s time for these things to go to others who will enjoy them.” I didn’t say it, but I remember thinking, “I used to be fun.”

I’m not saying I don’t have fun now. I do!

Moving somewhere new at 62 changed so very much about my life, and the new beginning was more than welcome. For instance, I am fascinated with San Francisco’s history and have a shelf of books about this city, which was rowdy then and is rowdy now. Also, every day, things happen in the Bay Area that surprise me, and some of the most astonishing events are part of the natural world.

One day on a road trip to Bolinas, I drove past six turkey vultures perched on a single power line. When a dead humpback whale washed ashore in Pacifica, I went to watch the necropsy. This week a 900-pound pregnant elephant seal charged up out of the water and tried to cross Highway 37. She even attacked a car that got in her way! I’m a fan – and to me, all this counts as great fun.

Because I can, I drive to the edge of the continent often and stare at the sea. It’s always different and I never know what to expect. In addition to watching the ocean steal the land with every wave, I see pelicans, surfers, gulls fighting over garbage, people flying kites. Last week, I saw a guy trying to master his new hoverboard, and wondered whether it would catch fire as I watched. (It did not.)

To me, these trips are fun -- and restorative at the same time.

Of course I still enjoy spending time with friends. I go to parties via Skype with pals in St. Louis, and here I initiated a Full Moon Cocktail group. Four of us go out for drinks and bar food once a month, sometimes even on the night of the full moon. A silky smooth pear martini, a basket of truffle fries and friends to laugh with – that’s my idea of fun!

My family is here and I treasure time spent with all of them, but especially time spent with my grandson, who is almost 4.  We work puzzles, play with cars, interview his stuffed animals about their favorite colors and foods and go on adventures to the zoo and the science museum, where I can teach him about animals and the Earth.

Maybe instead of thinking that I used to be fun, it’s time to admit my definition of fun has changed, and be okay with that.

And maybe – just maybe – tonight when I put on my nicest sweater and my best jeans before I head out for a casual New Year’s Eve dinner party, I will top off my ensemble with that nine-foot-long feather boa.

Wouldn’t that be fun?

Sunday, October 4, 2015

A Woman Walks into a Bar with a Tiny Coffin

As I put my tote bag on the bar at my favorite upscale Indian restaurant on a busy Saturday night, a small cardboard coffin tumbles out. The bartender looks at the coffin, looks at me, looks back at the coffin.

“I went to a solo show and the actor gave out souvenir coffins,” I say brightly. He’s heard it all before – the man’s a bartender. He just nods and asks if I want a drink.

I do. But not because I am carrying around a tiny coffin.

The show was “Loveland: Good Grief,” presented at The Marsh in San Francisco by Ann Randolph, a gifted writer and fearless performer. Mel Brooks declared Randolph a genius and she has been compared to Gilda Radner.

"Loveland," which is hilarious and profound at the same time, is about a woman traveling by plane from California to Ohio after the death of her mother. Randolph portrays half a dozen or more characters. Along the way, she makes the point that sometimes, great beauty comes from loss.

Her brilliant example? Erosion carved the Grand Canyon.

Talking to Paper: A Worthy Conversation

After the show, I stick around with another 40 people for Randolph’s writing workshop.  First, she assures us her own mother is not dead, though the 70-minute piece was crafted from a place of personal loss.

Pads and pencils are handed out. Randolph asks us to think about a time of grieving.  Then she instructs us to write “What I remember most about this moment,” and see what we have to say after that.

I thrive on these sorts of exercises, on talking to paper. How do we know what we think until we ask ourselves? Everyone has a story, a story worth telling.

Plus, first sentences are always magical to me. After more than 35 years in the newspaper business and 10 years as a certified writing workshop leader, I still am delighted when the perfect first sentence pops into my mind.

Being handed one is a bonus.

Choose Me! Choose Me! Choose Me! 

We write for eight minutes. I am not surprised when I veer away from past memories of grief. And I’m not surprised that my hand goes up as soon as Randolph asks for a volunteer to come on stage and read.

The Marsh stage is familiar to me. Last fall I took a course at the theater in solo performance development from Charlie Varon, another gifted playwright and performer. (For classes, see ) After eight weeks of writing and rewriting, we six students were granted time in the spotlight at a public performance.

I'd been on other stages before. For eight years, I tap danced around the Midwest wearing an abundance of red sequins and a fabulous wig. I’ve also done a great deal of public speaking. But performing my short bit at The Marsh that night last December was exhilarating, and 10 months later, I’m not over the thrill.

So I jump up to read. The audience makes soft, empathetic sounds and, when appropriate, they laugh. They are with me every minute. They applaud wildly when I finish reading.

That’s why I wanted a drink with my appetizer – to celebrate the rush.

Anticipatory Grief vs. Anticipatory Joy

Here, with only minor editing for clarity, is what I read:

What I remember most about this moment is that it is not a memory so much as it is an example of anticipatory grief over something that hasn’t happened.

I’ve been to grief counseling about this depressing habit. Perhaps I come by it naturally, embracing my Irish melancholy, and by tallying up my dead:

my brother

my mother

my father

a beloved friend

my left breast

And several dear friends, many pets -- and oh yes, a marriage -- and other smaller losses too.

I’ve been told all this is why I experience anticipatory grief, though I have made great strides in turning it around to anticipatory joy. That’s a term I made up, and I am unsure whether it is accepted in psychology circles.

Fighting Off Foreboding for My Miracle

I well know the importance of living in the moment, of being here now, of breathing from the belly to fully appreciate this moment over all others.

Still, sometimes out of nowhere – or OK, probably somewhere – comes this deep shuddering sense of foreboding when I try to come to grips with the realization that I have less time ahead of me than behind me, and that the day will come when I will have to say goodbye to a three-year-old boy.

Wait! Hold on a minute! He is three right now, and that day has not arrived. Maybe I will live to see him through high school, or maybe longer.

But no matter how long we are together I must help him know while I am here that he is a miracle in my life, a miracle my mother never got to experience, a special treasure I want to inhale and absorb fully -- my grandson.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Will Fog Make Me Taller?

Standing on the edge of the continent, I am enveloped by the fog. It has time for only a quick embrace, and then rushes off to nourish the coastal redwoods, which grow 300 feet and higher.

Will standing in the fog make me taller?

I’m shrinking. Not in mind or spirit, but the body has taken a hit. For decades, I was 5 feet, 4½ inches tall. (During these same decades, I told everyone in my water aerobics class that I was 5 feet, 10 inches, and they bought it because I was loud.)

Now I’m barely 5 feet, 3 inches.

At one doc’s office, my height was recorded as just under that. I fluffed up my hair, but a second reading was the same. I protested to the doctor – a short man – and he changed my chart to show 5 feet, 3 inches. We are friends for life.

Why am I shorter?

Allegedly, chemo some 20 years ago took some of my height. Now I’m shrinking because of changes in my bones, specifically in my spine. (Diagnostic Tip: My doc says if you lean on the grocery cart to relieve pressure in your back when you shop, you likely have spinal stenosis.)

It’s Not Just Me

Don’t feel sorry for me. You’re shrinking too.

The National Institutes of Health reports, “The tendency to become shorter occurs among all races and both sexes. People typically lose about 0.4 inches every 10 years after age 40. Height loss is even more rapid after age 70. You may lose a total of 1 to 3 inches in height as you age.“

What can we do about it?

The NIH counsels: “You can help minimize loss of height by following a healthy diet, staying physically active, and preventing and treating bone loss (osteoporosis).”

What you can’t change is this: Evolution has not yet adjusted to our lengthened lifespan – so our parts wear out. And yes, you can get a variety of replacement parts at a hospital near you, or have surgery on parts that can’t be replaced, in the hope of feeling better as you age.

Here’s a shocker: In 1900, the average lifespan for a woman was 48 and 46 for a man. By 1950, the average lifespan was 71 for a woman and 65 for a man. Today, the average American makes it almost to 78.

If You’re 65, Head for 85

The longer you live, it seems, the older you may get. No less an authority than the Social Security Administration (and they pay us, so they should know) reports this: “A man reaching age 65 today can expect to live, on average, until age 84.3. A woman turning age 65 today can expect to live, on average, until age 86.6.”

The typical diseases of aging – degenerative disc disorder, spinal stenosis and bulging discs – all are “manageable,” at least when they are at the mild or moderate stages. Here are my management strategies:

using trekking poles when I walk

doing physical therapy exercises

scheduling acupuncture appointments

walking in a warm-water pool

taking a restorative yoga class

Plus, I’m always working to find that all-important balance between too much movement and not enough.

That’s tricky, but worth the effort, because if I can improve my mobility, I can go to Disneyland, a lifelong dream since I first saw the place advertised on “The Mickey Mouse Club.” Bonus: I can go with a wee boy in tow.

Dancing with Delusions 

That’s not aiming too high.

But how’s this for delusionary thinking: At a physical crisis point a few weeks ago, I did indulge in a modest dose of pain pills. Lying on the couch in a mellow mood, watching “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” I so admired the elaborate dancing that I decided to enroll in a Bollywood dance class.

Holding off on that so far.

But I continue to visit the seaside on foggy days.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Livin’ La Vida Freelance

My friends say I am living the dream, working part time as a freelance writer and playing the rest of the time in San Francisco, my adopted city.

I am. But the landscape in this particular dream has shifted over the years, making my professional future more uncertain than ever. Most employers on Craigslist now want “content providers” instead of writers, and those content providers must be savvy about social media and often be willing to handle some office chores as well.

Some publications that once paid decent rates now offer freelancers the opportunity to “build a resume” instead of paying them. Some writers, desperate to do just that, agree to write for free because competition is so stiff. Of course, working for free hurts all of us.

Think about it. In the last decade, every daily newspaper in the country has sacked or bought out up to two-thirds of their staff, plunging a lot of highly skilled, deadline-abiding people into the freelance pool. Small ad agencies and p.r. firms have closed or been devoured by larger ones.

Yet colleges and universities continue to hand out degrees in journalism, communications and media studies.

Over Half a Century of Bylines

Fifty years ago, I sold my first magazine article to a national teen publication. Because I thought those magazines were written by teens, not grown-ups, I submitted a feature on a boy at my high school, a gifted comic artist. The magazine sent me a check for $25, which I never cashed.

Twenty-five years ago, I wrote my first book, a whale-watchers guide for Globe Pequot Press. At the time, I worked as a newspaper reporter, and an ambitious agent tracked me down after reading some of my syndicated travel stories. She talked me into writing that book, and now 16 titles – all nonfiction, on a variety of topics -- bear my name.

Ten years ago, I took a buyout from a daily newspaper after more than two decades there. Thanks to a small pension, a lot of hustle and now, Social Security, I am a full-time freelance writer, at least part of the time. Just a month ago, in three days I interviewed five people and finished six articles for the web sites, marketing firms and newspapers that buy my work.

Why am I doing math to help explain my life as a writer?

This Trophy Proves It

A few days ago, a friend noticed a small trophy on my bookshelf. The plaque reads, “First Place” and indicates I won it for a “beginners news story" in 1964 at a Missouri Interscholastic Press Association Conference in St. Louis.

After talking abut the trophy with my friend, I realized that ironically, by the time I won it, I was no longer a beginner.

The first paper I worked for was The Plymouth Rock, in 1962 at my junior high school. (I am still friends with my teacher and my first editor.) Then I branched out to write for and edit The Peppermint Press, the Candy Stripers’ newspaper at a local hospital where I volunteered.

After I won that trophy but before I left high school, I wrote regularly for the teen page at a daily paper in St. Louis, a weekly suburban paper, a St. Louis Press Club publication, a local teen magazine and my high school paper.

Time Spent in Service to the News

Once I got a taste of the writing life, knew the thrill of a byline, I wanted more.

I got it. After putting in time at an ad agency, a hospital’s public relations department, a religious book publisher and a federally funded educational laboratory, I spent 23 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. There, I worked as a feature writer, news reporter, health writer, theater critic, lifestyle columnist, travel writer, restaurant critic, food writer and night city editor.

At the paper, I predicted that the FDA would ban silicone breast implants. I also helped spread the word about endangered pandas and I spent many an afternoon interviewing Broadway stars. Along with my colleagues, I worked seven days a week covering the Great Flood of 1993. (I was interviewed on CNN about that.) I also wrote about pothole repairs, the birth of the zoo’s first baby elephant and recipes for apple pie.

I loved all of it.

In 1968, when I was in journalism school at the University of Missouri at Columbia, we were told that the day would come when everyone would have a home computer. Keep in mind that in 1968, computers took up entire rooms! (Our professors also told us there would be no more newspapers on front lawns; that readers would print out their papers at home. OK, they missed on that one.)

Loving the Freelance Life

By 1990, when I wrote my first book, that prediction seemed more likely than ever, so I started freelancing in case I needed a back-up plan for my career. Over the years, I’ve written articles for Ms., Southwest Airlines, the San Francisco Theological Seminary, Family Fun, Northwest Parks and Wildlife, the Catholic Hospital Association, Toastmasters International, Cruise Travel and numerous grocery magazines. My stories have been published in newspapers across the country, including USA Today.

Writing skills are transferable, so I also have penned web copy, brochures, releases, newsletters, direct mail pieces, speeches and one play. Clients have included a massage therapist, a theater company, a retail shop, an acupuncturist, book authors, a marine conservation organization, a dermatologist, several marketing firms and the lovely town of Gustavus, Alaska.

What are my books about?

When people ask, I say I am a production potter, willing to make whatever sort of paragraphs that publishers want. My best sellers include “Chemotherapy and Radiation for Dummies” (Wiley) and “Dolphins for Kids” (NorthWord Press). With Eve Batey, I wrote "100 Things to Do in San Francisco Before You Die." Other titles include books about cougars, waterfalls of the world, manatees, the St. Louis Zoo, sharks, the St. Louis Science Center and beavers. One book is a collection of my favorite columns from the newspaper.

Keeping the Dream Alive

Today, I am proud to be a contributing writer for Next Avenue (, the web site for people 50 and older. I also write regularly for jWeekly in San Francisco and the St. Louis Jewish Light. My former newspaper buys two or three travel stories a year from me. From time to time, I put together calendar copy for a firm in Detroit and I do business with a marketing company in Tucson.

So what's my secret to succeeding in freelance?

That's simple. Most often, I say “yes” to work queries that show up in my email because “yes” means work and work means money to pay the rent. Work also means a great deal of satisfaction that I still do the work – and care deeply about it -- that chose me when I was 14 years old, back in junior high.

I am living the dream. But keep those emails coming!