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!

It’s October – Where is Zental Floss?

So I’ve been writing. In fact, I’ve written a lot of words – on a novel. Yes, one of those. I’m in the third act and trucking along on the first draft. Will it be good? I don’t know. Probably not.

First novels aren’t usually that good. Okay, exceptions exist. Always.

But I’m not that lyrical a writer – not yet anyway. I have modest goals. I don’t need the money. Although that would be nice.

So I suspect when I finish draft number one that I’ll sit on it for a bit. Will I even have the guts to start revising? Because revision is a whole other ballgame from getting that first draft done.

I’ve never gotten this far before. Several years ago I finished NaNoWriMo with about 55K words give or take on a novel, but it was a mess. Most of it was the middle and I couldn’t figure out how to finish it up. I didn’t write it in order, and it was written in Word, so it wasn’t as easy as using Scrivener to move sections around. And frankly, by the time NaNo ended, I was done with the story. I just didn’t like it that much.

Maybe it was the story I had to write and almost finish to just do it.

Last year for NaNoWriMo I rebelled and wrote over 50K words on blog posts – both for this blog and another one I was contemplating. A dark and ironic political blog. Hah! Nobody wants to read such things, but I got a lot of venting out during November.

Now in less than a month, NaNo calls my name again.

Where I’m at with my story is this – it’s part of a series, I already see that. Otherwise, the book would be inordinately long. It’s a genre story. In a category that I’ve made up, but it borrows heavily from Romance and Chick-Lit. I call it “Dame Lit” because it’s really chick lit grown up and gotten divorced. You know, for the boomer, over 45 set. But positive and optimistic – yes, there’s a HEA or HFN. Which for those in the know is the hallmark of the romance genre – the “happily ever after” or “happily for now” ending. I’ve got a lot of nice things in the first book. So I think NaNo will be for book two of the series.

And that way, I don’t have to do any big revisions to book one. Ha. See how I did that. Just pushed over revisions to another time. Like December or something.

On another note, October. Where did September go? And most of August?

For us, August was for some significant birthdays – My father-in-law, my father and my mother. My mother turned 80. My father-in-law 87 and my dad 84. Now every parent is 80 or over in our family and yes, we have all of them present and accounted for still.

Then in September, it ended. First, back in late July, my husband’s aunt died at 95. Then on September 6 his uncle died at 97. Then seven days later, my father-in-law died – yes, at the age of 87. A mere youngster.

So now our parents are starting to look like more normal families – it was rare at our age (I’m 56 and my husband is 59) that we had all four parents still. Now we don’t.

Weird. Who’s next? Unfortunately, the race is between my parents – even though they are both younger than my mother-in-law, they both smoked for decades (and my mom still smokes). Neither is in great shape. The one who will live the longest will be my mother-in-law (she of the siblings who lived well into their 90’s.)

And on a more positive note, we will be grandparents again – my husband’s oldest son and his girlfriend are having a baby boy next March. We’re excited about that. And for the gender balance as Nugget is a precocious 2 1/2 year old girl. I of course have already stepped in it, as I’ve offered my screed on names, which is never a good thing to do. Parents are going to do whatever they want on names . . . (I keep telling myself to shut up on the topic.)

When 2014 started I predicted that it would be a year of funerals. I wasn’t wrong. I’ve been to three in about six weeks. I can take a break now, really.

And I’ve got a few ideas to not completely abandon this blog, too. It’s been fun and I want it to continue to be fun. And I want to finish the novel and write the next one.

Can I do it all? (big breath.) I think so. Thanks for hanging in there and reading this.

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.