What’s In a Pen Name?

pen name3So today is my birthday.  Not a particularly special one, but one more in the can.  Entering my 58th year today – in a few years, I’ll be 60.  Well, in three years to be precise.

My husband is 60 on Sunday.  Sorry, honey, I know.  Who wants to be reminded of that birthday.  Even if 60 isn’t what it used to be (or 57, for that matter!)  You did notice, smart reader that you are, that our birthdays are exactly two days apart.  Not that we planned it that way, but it is curious.  Yet in my dating life, it wasn’t so curious at all, as I knew a lot of people born in October and November.  For some reason, I gravitated towards them or they gravitated towards me.  My first husband’s birthday is a week before mine, too.

Statistically, October is a big month for birthdays – which must have something to do with the fact that January is a pretty cold month in the Northern Hemisphere, so people get busy indoors.  With the predictable result happening in October.

Not that I mind, but it’s crowded in our family.  My son was complaining the other day about this – all the birthdays are this month!  For him, that’s his sister, his girlfriend, his mom and his dad and his step-dad, and than in very early November, his two step-brothers (who are twins).   That’s a lot of birthdays.

So enough of birthdays – they happen, we’re lucky that they happen as they mean we’re still here and that’s that.  They are just one day a year and for most folks who don’t share my birthday, October 24 is no big deal (unless you work at the United Nations, then it’s also their ‘birthday’ or anniversary day of their founding, so you probably know about this day, too.)

I’m still at work on the novel and gearing up for NaNoWriMo which starts in about a week.  I’m going to use scrivener this year to write book two of my series.  Of course, I haven’t yet finished book one, but I’m pretty close.  So I’ll probably bang that out at the beginning of the NaNo month – and if you don’t tell, neither will I.

And along with all this writerly stuff, I decided that I’d like to maintain some separation between my fiction writing versus any non-fiction writing I may try to publish.  So for that, and for the fact that my real name is boring, I’ve picked a pen name.

I should back up a bit.  I’m a bit loosey goosey on names anyway.  Most women are, quite frankly.  After all, traditionally we are the gender who actually changes our name upon marriage – and less often changes it back upon divorce.  Names have a fluidity for many women that men cannot begin to understand.  Well, after all, we do live in a patriarchy, or so I’m told constantly by young third-wave feminists.

In fact, some of them are giving a rasher of shit to George Clooney’s brand new wife for changing her name to his.  She’s already gone so far as to have her name changed at her law firm in London – I’ll bet she even got new business cards with the new name.

Because some people are making a deal about this, I applaud the new Mrs. Clooney.  She wishes to give her husband this gift of aligning herself to him in this way.  I know . . . why does she have to align herself to his family?  Why doesn’t he choose to change his name to hers?  Well, in this case, he’s too well known by his name and she is less so by hers, which is probably part of it – but okay, I’ll go with patriarchy as the primary explanation.

We’re living with this a bit in our own family right now.  My step-son and his girlfriend are having a baby in March, a boy.  They’ve had the name discussion – not just first name – and agreed that the baby’s last name will be my step-son’s, but that the middle name will be a family name from her family (although not her last name apparently – she’s using another family name which can double as a first or middle name.)

There really is no reason why this baby has to have my step-son’s name, obviously, or even hers.  Parents can, legally, pick any name they want for their child, and that includes the last name.  But almost always babies get their father’s name – yup, there’s that patriarchy again.  Sorry – I guess in this way it’s real at least in the Western world.  I’ve no idea if this is the same elsewhere, although I’ve been told that in Japan if a man marries above himself in class, he often changes his name to match his wife’s family name, which serves as career enhancement.

And in our own house – I am finally in the process of changing my name to match my husband’s.  I did it once in 1981 when I married for the first time.  It took awhile and it was a real pain, the memory of which obviously has lasted longer than the marriage.  When the ‘Publican and I got married in 2006, I had a private practice under my first married name (I didn’t revert when I divorced because I had a child), so until I retired a year ago, it never occurred to me to change it to my husband’s.  People knew me by that name – I had a whole adult identity tied up with that name.  Although boring and somewhat common, it was mine (okay, and a whole lot of other people’s too).

But when I retired, I re-thought it.  My reasons for keeping my first ex-husband’s name – not really that relevant anymore.  Most of our family knows me as either that name or as Mrs. Husband’s name.  So why not just go for it?  And The ‘Publican liked it too, even if he never wanted to force me to do it.

Well, I’ve not done that much to effect the change, but I know what I need to do which includes dealing with both the DMV and Social Security Administration, neither of which I’m really looking forward to.  But it’s on the list and rising higher there, so it will be done – just about nine years later than usual.

So . . . back to the pen name.

Once the decision was made,  then it became what should it be?  And you know, it was an easier choice than I thought it would be.  I wanted the last name to be my father’s last name – or as we quaintly put in the patriarchy, my maiden name – and then I wanted to use a variation of my middle name which also is a variant of my mother’s name.

This honors the people who gave me life and is probably not as common a name as the one I carry around on a daily basis, and it’s a nod to the patriarchy, too, I guess.  After all, I’m going to use my father’s last name as my pen name, and yet, change my every-day name from my first husband’s to my current husband’s.  Brother – I need some re-education somewhere, I guess!

My actual middle name is Suzanne (yes, my mother’s first name is Susan, so Suzanne is a variant of her name.)  My pen name is Susannah.  Just a more musical sounding variation.  And a slightly different spelling.  I’ve always liked Suzanne as a name and when I was a kid I experimented with dropping the Laura and just using Suzanne.  That never stuck entirely, but I’m fond of the name and I’m especially fond of the variation of Susannah.

My maiden name is Brewster.  I didn’t realize what a common name this is in England until I visited for the first time many years ago and saw it splashed on manhole covers and on the roads of London.  I think the company either built the roads or, at the least, quarried the asphalt that made them.  When I was growing up I didn’t know anybody with the name, of course, and for some reason I got teased for it.  It’s obviously not any worse than most last names and is a whole lot better than a lot of them, too.  Yet, as a child, I was called “rooster” and, oddly, “booster.”  Okay, that’s not awful, but couple this with being a fat kid with glasses, and it was just one more thing to be unmercilously teased about.

I was glad to shed it upon marriage.  I never looked back, even when I got divorced and there was the question right on the form – “restore wife’s former name”.  Nope.  I was keeping this name I’d married into.  Although to be even more honest, it wasn’t even the real name of my husband, but his middle name that he’d changed to legally.  He was born a Smith and he couldn’t stand how common that name was, so he took his middle name as his last and picked a new middle name.  His father wasn’t too pleased about it, but other family members understood.  I was never Laura Smith.  I probably would have ditched that upon divorce!

I did say I was pretty loosey goosey about this stuff, right?

So . . . Brewster was a name I didn’t like as a kid, but was stuck with, and now I’ve mellowed about the name and, as an only daughter who didn’t pass on the name further, I decided to revive it with a pen name.  I guess if I get a book or two published, that will be a legacy of sorts that honors my dad.

So after all this buildup and meandering, I introduce my writer persona, Susannah Brewster. 

Now, back to writing!

This is What It’s Like (The Mom Chronicles, Part 3)

This is what it’s like.

The dog is barking.  The doorbell is ringing.  I’m asleep – or trying to be – on a Sunday morning at nine.  Roughly roused from slumber by the sounds of Izzy and doorbell, I finally emerge to find my mother mounting the hardwood stairs.

“I was ringing the doorbell.  I finally used my key – and here I am!”

“Oh.”  I’m tired and grumpy in my flimsy nightgown – my hair needs washing and I feel taken over by the ground invasion that is my mother.

She has stuff.  Stuff to give me.  All from the dollar store.  Excited, she sits down and begins to hand me things from her bag – a book for my husband to read, another book full of recipes from the Special K folks (so it’s about dieting, gee, thanks), another straw hat, family memorabilia from my Aunt B, a magazine called “South Bay”, a long indecipherable letter about all the stuff, and a check.

“I wrote to the magazine and told them that their magazine was too expensive.  It needs to be less.”

I don’t doubt she wrote them.  In her handwriting that only a doctor would love, I imagine they will tack her letter up on a board somewhere and chortle as they puzzle out the scratchings from a gray-haired Roseanne Rosannadanna.

In case it wasn’t obvious, my mother is manic right now.  It happens every few months.  She is bipolar, type I.

She has probably been bipolar most of her life and now, at just under 80, it’s no better.

She lives about three quarters of a mile away from us, and this morning has probably been up since four or five am so by nine, she’s had three cups of coffee (“the coffee at Rod’s is terrible!”) and wants more, wants a cigarette, and is just gearing up to say more and faster.  Her emotions are raw and  mostly annoyed – at everything and everybody.

“So I was pissed when you pooh-poohed getting the couch reupholstered.  I might live to be 90.  I can do what I want.  I’ve got the money.”

She does.  She has a great pension, courtesy of the people of the County of Los Angeles.  Our tax dollars at work – but I’m grateful, of course.  I don’t want her to be living in near poverty, but her buying ramps up significantly when she’s manic.  A lot of stuff she buys she ends up giving away or throwing away.  When she’s not manic she is full of financial fear and self opprobrium, paying off credit cards and hunkering down in depression.

But now, with the inflation and grandiosity in full swing, she’s exhausting.

This is what it’s like.

She doesn’t drive anymore.  But she wants to maintain as much independence as possible, so she’s learned to take Dial-a-Ride and even the LA County transportation for elders and disabled folks called Access.

Usually this works pretty well, but minor disaster seems to follow her when she’s manic.

It starts as many of the minor disasters do  – with her having had no sleep for a day or more.

She was at Albertson’s when they opened and got money out of her bank ATM at the store.  She got $400, the maximum allowed, and bought a carton of cigarettes.

She also left her wallet at the store.

Not realizing this, of course, she walked home and was picked up by Access a few hours later.  Taken to the mall in Torrance, she realized the wallet was gone when she went to pay the driver.  She asked (or demanded) to be taken back to the grocery store so she could retrieve it.

Now, it helps to pause and realize a few things.  Some of which I only learned after this whole thing had blown up.  One, Access is a service that you have to qualify for – they have a procedure and member number and a whole host of things for the population they serve.  Dial-a-Ride only serves people within the city, but Access takes them further.  Where we live, there are about five communities that are nearby each other, but each are separate cities.  So even though Torrance isn’t that far, Dial-A-Ride won’t take her there.  Both services are inexpensive to seniors and usually have regular drivers, some of whom even know my mom by name.

What I didn’t know but learn after the calls and waiting and being hung up on, is that when Access is low on drivers, they contract with local cab companies to do the pick-ups and deliveries of people.  Which means that the alternate drivers may not be at the same quality as their regular drivers – that is, in dealing with a cranky elderly woman with a mental disorder and a grandiose sense of entitlement.

But whether it’s a regular driver, or a contracted cabbie – Access is supposed to just pick up the person at the appointed time and deliver them where they have agreed to go, not just drive them hither and zither.

So the perfect storm – she couldn’t pay and wanted to go back and the driver didn’t have good English language skills to boot.  He didn’t understand what she was asking for and wasn’t supposed to do this anyway.

So, being manic, she got pissy and loud and slow, trying to enunciate her words as if he was deaf, not just unable to understand English very well.  He finally understood what she was asking and after pleading that he wasn’t supposed to do this, he relented.

Amazing what a sense of entitlement will do to buffalo those around you.

So he drove her back to the Albertson’s in Redondo Beach and parked.  She managed to toddle in to get her wallet (of course missing the money! but debit and credit cards left untouched), and when she left the store and crab walked out – the driver was gone.

With her walker in his trunk.

A few hours later, after I’d picked her up and delivered her home, after I’d made numerous calls and been on hold a few times, after I’d made a formal complaint about abandoning an elderly person and without her walker – after I’d talked to the cab company directly, all without having eaten and just gotten out of my shower, with dripping hair, I realized that –

This is what it’s like.

This was also my life growing up.

And nothing much has changed.

Well, that’s not entirely true.  She’s older and more vulnerable now, and some of the symptoms of manic behavior have moderated.  No longer the indiscriminate sexuality, for example.

Yes, she’s medicated.  Yes, she has a psychiatrist.  I have a hard time remembering what it was like before she was medicated (I think I’ve blocked a lot of that out), but images come:

  • a naked man and woman asleep downstairs in our townhouse – yes, that’s my naked mother, but who’s the guy?  my eight-year-old self wonders;
  • the vacuum cleaner running at 2 and 3 in the morning;
  • my room never my own as she comes in and cleans and reorganizes it for me, instead of making me do it myself because I do a bad job (hey, I’m not too proud to admit I learned to use this for my own ends);
  • her anger flaring at my minor indiscretions so I learn to be careful around her at some times versus other times when I can easily get my way;
  • her crumpled body on the landing from falling asleep at the top of the stairs and taking a tumble.  This results in stitches from cracking her skull; and
  • spending a week at my aunt and uncle’s after she makes a suicide attempt (again, I was about eight years old.)

This is what it’s like.

Her depression is not exhausting, except to her, but it is, in some ways, more frightening.  Last year she contacted the State of Oregon to find out if she could just take the train up there and utilize their assisted suicide law (the answer is probably no, as she is not a resident of the state.)  But apparently nobody she talked to had any clue what she was asking, she told me with disgust.

Maybe she was disgusted, but I was horrified.

Not that she wanted to commit suicide.  When she’s not manic, when she’s depressed, she’s severely depressed.  Of course she thinks about suicide.

No, my horror was that she took the action of trying to figure out a more socially acceptable way to end her life, and her matter-of-factness about it.  As if she was just ordering a pizza.

This is what it’s like.

When manic, she always asks for a computer.  This is something we try to deter by foot dragging and just not talking about it.  My husband makes a good point that her, with a computer, would be possibly lethal.  Not that the computer would reach out and strangle her, but that she would be vulnerable to phishers and online scammers, to spending money even more profligately than she already does, and frankly that her various demands on me would amp up if she had email.  It’s frightening what damage she could do with a computer.

Once she downshifts in her mood, talk of a computer is over and we breathe a sigh of relief.

Of course her learning how to use a computer, or anything that is electronic, is an ongoing issue.  We recently got her a DVD player and my husband patiently got it all set up, going over the instructions on how to use it.  A week later she announced that it was broken and that my husband needed to fix it.

This is, by the bye, how a lot of her stuff ends up being great pickings for folks going through her trash.  We ended up with a compact stereo system this way, slated for goodwill, but rescued by my husband.

Of course she’d forgotten the instructions.  So this time, I annoy my tech-savvy husband by having him go through each painstaking step and I write down instructions and then re-write them to make them as simple and mom-proof as possible.  We’ll see how this works – I expect she’ll throw away the written instructions in a cleaning frenzy at some point, and we’ll have to go through this exercise once again.

This is what it’s like.

Being manic is, at first, a welcome relief from the despair of depression.  She revels in it.  She gets things done – many things that she’s put off for the past few months.

She gets out more and can be quite charming.  Everybody along Artesia Blvd. knows my mom.  She’s on a first-name basis at the local eateries, and the dollar store and the used book store, and definitely at Albertson’s.  She even has favorite checkers there.  All of this makes my duty a bit easier, as there are others looking out for her.

But her charm and friendliness also has the hard edge to it, too.  She gets in people’s faces more – she’s aggressive and pushy in her pronouncements.  She tells Manny, a recent widower where she lives that he should shave every day to be presentable.  She’s mad at the management company at her apartment complex (one for seniors) about all sorts of things that they are, or are not, doing.

She tells my Aunt B that she should be more assertive with her son (my cousin), and she’s mad at my son for not being grateful enough at a birthday check he received.  And she’s perpetually mad at me for not answering my phone more often, but hey, do you blame me?

Last week I had something every single day focused around my mother and her needs.

Everything from a mid-day medical appointment, to a lunch with her, me and Aunt B which took up half a day, to the fiasco with the missing walker and the abandoned senior citizen.  Which meant not only figuring out where it was, but the next day, my driving to an industrial area to retrieve the walker.  And yes, ordering a second walker from Amazon.com (just in case something like this were to happen again.)

Yes, this is what it’s like.

And it will be like this until my mother is no more.

I love her.  And I get annoyed by her.  And I am grateful that, even with her smoking and her unsteadiness and her mental condition, that she’s out every day, walking and living her life and is still peppy and interested in the world.  She’s interesting.

I am supremely grateful that I have a husband who, because it’s not his parent, can laugh at her shenanigans, help with driving and fixing and instructing, listen patiently, and even mix her favorite drink, Smirnoff vodka over ice, two olives.

She’s not your average grandmotherly type, that’s for sure.  At this stage of her life, her pluck and verve are mostly welcome traits, as long as she’s not your mother.

She just hired a personal trainer who will be arriving to do a session with her in the pool tomorrow.  And she found her passport and is planning a trip to Cuba – why Cuba I have no idea.  Perhaps it’s those cars from the 1950’s that attract her.  Or maybe she plans on smoking a good cigar, or just being in a society where smoking cigarettes is more socially acceptable.

When I think of the childhood I had with her as a mother, it wasn’t pretty a lot of the time.  But that’s ancient personal history and now is my time to be there for her to the best of my ability.  Not that it’s easy, but I know it’s time limited.

And I suspect, even with all the aggravation, I will miss her terribly.  I suspect for years after her death we will tell “Susan” stories.

And sigh and remember –

This is what it was like.




Dying with My To-Do List Undone


I have written a bit about retirement and it’s one weird state.  Because once you are in school at the age of four or five or six (depending on where you live, what time you lived in and so on), you are in the harness until you retire.  I mean, that’s like 60 or more years!

First it’s the school harness – you have a place to be for so many hours every day for years (decades in some cases.)  Except for vacations and other holiday periods, you are strapped in, baby.

Then when you are finally released from that harness, you go on to the next harness – working life and adulthood.  Even if you were to marry and start having babies immediately, you are in a particular harness of taking care of your kids and home and so on.  But for most of us, child rearing is the second job.  We have the regular 8-to-5 (or 9-to-6) job at least five days a week and then we’re picking  up the kids from somewhere and we’re home getting homework done, dinner made, baths for the little ones and pure exhaustion for the big ones.

That’s a pretty tight harness.  For most of us, the only time away from it is the weekends (and often at least half of the weekend is for the chores that didn’t get done during the week), and about two to three weeks a year when we are on “vacation.”

Then you retire.

If you’re really considered lucky, you retire before 65 or 70 nowadays.  You get a present and a cake or a luncheon (or all of the above) and human resources processes your last check, you pack up your crap, and you’re done.  For the freaking rest of your life.

Or, like me, you close your business, field the calls and make referrals to people, shut down your website and let your license go inactive.  You don’t get a cake or a final check.  But you might go and buy yourself a cookie.

And then you take off the harness of work or business . . . you breathe . . . inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale . . . slower and slower.

And then what?

It must be a sign of being human that we so want compartmentalization and organization, neat boxes to store our junk (whether real or in our minds.)  We want long to-do lists with plenty of tasks to do on them.

We are genuinely terrified of freedom.

No wonder so many retired folk actually go back to work again – just maybe not as intensely.  They work as consultants to their old employers, or on a contract basis.  They take part-time jobs.  They volunteer.  They welcome jury duty.

Anything to put that harness back on, at least for a little while.

Being a mostly anxious person, the thought of free floating time is not my first idea of bliss (although it could be, I guess), so I’ve had to adapt or go mad.

One way both my husband and I are organizing our lives and our time is to put ourselves on flexible daily schedules.

We are not lollygagging in bed until noon.  I am up around sevenish, setting up the coffeemaker and taking my only cup of the real stuff downstairs into my old office which is now my “happy place” for journal writing, meditation, reading and yes, one of these days, yoga DVDs.  (Obviously, not quite to the point of the yoga DVD.)

My husband is up just a bit later than I am, feeding the critters, getting the Roomba ready to rumble on our new wood floors upstairs and then he grabs coffee and heads downstairs to HIS office to write, too.

It is a probable gender difference that, for the ‘Publican, he is happiest with projects and for me, I’m more into the zen approach, although I like my projects (meaning – beginning, middle and end) just fine, too.

So he’s not just writing any old stuff – he’s working on a novel which started life as a short story.  He’s working on it for as long as it takes, but usually around noon or so, he’s done for the day.

He also plays in a community orchestra and on various local musical theater companies, so there’s time involved in practice for that.  We try and get to the gym three times a week.  Plus the daily stuff of pet care and people care.  Beyond that, we have two blogs (one is a travel blog we work on together, although now it’s mostly his, and this one for me), plus plenty of reading.  We also regularly donate platelets at the Red Cross.

And we have the ‘Rents – our elderly parents.  The ‘Publican now spends at least once a week visiting and assisting his parents who live a town over and I’m on call for my mom, too.  I take her to appointments and to see family and friends who are outside the dial-a-ride zone.  She’s pretty independent still, so if she can get to a place on her own, she does.  But we’re cognizant that our parents need us more, not less and will continue to do so until they’re gone.

With all this going on, we really have little time leftover.  We don’t watch TV during the day at all.

I actually have a lot of boxes left unticked on my to-do list which is surprising and a bit disconcerting.

Our one big change that we’ve managed to put together is to buy a motorhome for both short and long trips.  This is a big purchase and not exactly a smart one (not if you’re talking investment), but it’s one that I think will improve our lives for the next few decades.  Right now, the trips contemplated are fairly short – three to four days up the coast or out into the desert.

We took a long trip in January and drove (pre-motorhome) back to Florida to see my father and to just explore.  We stayed in motels (found out the La Quinta chain has the best bang for the buck, especially if you have a pet with you – which we did.)  We had a lot of fun chasing the bad weather or having it chase us, so travel is something we want to do before we’re too old to do it, or enjoy it.

I also want to do more international travel, but for that we’re not talking motorhome.  There’s a lot of Europe still to see as far as I’m concerned.  But an awful lot of the USA and Canada is out there and I’m hoping we can work out times to be just on the road for weeks and perhaps months at a time.

I was always one of those people who thought “When X changes, then I’ll start living my life . . .”.  The “X” could be a million things, of course.  When I can drive a car, when I am 18, when I finish high school and go to college, when I lose my virginity, when I get married, when I have a baby, when I’m thinner, when I get this job, when I move to the next house, when I get divorced, when I get married again, when I get my license and leave this awful job, when I build up my practice, when I retire, when I die.

That last one, of course, is the irony of all of the others, right?  If I’m waiting for some condition to change . . . well, the end is predictable.

It was meditation that broke the grip of this pernicious thinking.  It actually taught me that all of my thoughts, good, bad, indifferent, were just part of the passing parade.  And that maybe I could just live right here and right now.  And the things I chose to do in the present would inform my future, but that the future is not even guaranteed.  So those things I chose to do – I just did them.  No more preparing – just doing.

We are definitely works . . . in progress, not perfection.

And yes, I’m expecting that I will die with many things undone on my final to-do list.

ecards to do list