What Should I Eat While I Watch That Movie: G.I. Jane

When it comes to Ridley Scott’s G.I. Jane, we are a nation divided. Ask someone about this 1997 film and you are likely to get one of two responses: a dismissive eye-roll accompanied by a jerk-off gesture, or a fist-pumping “Fuck yeah!” Rotten Tomatoes supports this observation, where the movie earns 55% on the Tomatometer and an audience score of 53%.

G.I. Jane tells the story of Lieutenant Jordan O’Neil — played by Demi Moore and her supernatural lats, quads, and glutes — the first woman to be accepted for U.S. Navy Combined Reconnaissance Team training (a fictional stand-in for U.S. Navy SEAL BUD/S). There is a plot here, something to do with Anne Bancroft’s Senator Lillian DeHaven making a deal to keep military bases open in Texas. But honestly, who cares? The power of G.I. Jane, its ridiculously strong heart, has nothing to do with plot and everything to do with action.

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O’Neil is taunted and ostracized by her fellow trainees. Her military higher ups are a bunch of Sexist Evil White Men™, all of whom are conspiring to get her to ring out of the program. In one pivotal scene, her master chief (Viggo Mortensen and his lush mustache) beats the crap out of her and then threatens to rape her during a simulated POW training. In an environment known for pushing trainees to the absolute limit physically, mentally and emotionally, she is on her own, a pawn in a game she doesn’t even know she’s playing, and staring down institutional sexism that’s locked and loaded. But does O’Neil waver? She does not. She rejects any accommodation to her training (fuck that helper step on the obstacle course), does her push-ups like a man (no knees), and shaves off her hair while The Pretenders sing The Homecoming. As for the master chief’s attack, she breaks his nose with her head while her hands are tied behind her back and then tells him to suck her dick.

It will come as no surprise that, in the matter of G.I Jane, I am firmly in camp “Fuck yeah!” I love this movie, despite its predictable plot, stereotypically drawn characters, and unambiguous politics. I love it for its warrior heart and brutal training sequences, for Viggo Mortensen’s tiny shorts, Anne Bancroft’s silver-bobbed badassery, and Demi Moore’s buzzed head.

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Among the eye-rolling set, a common complaint about G.I. Jane is that it’s an impossible scenario; that there is simply no way any woman could ever complete SEAL training.

This has always seemed a ridiculous argument to me.

This is an action movie. Last I checked, there are few complaints about a lack of it-could-happen-just-like-this-in-actual-life-as-defined-by-my-own-experience-and-abilities realism in action movies. Instead, we eat it up when a millionaire playboy is a secret superhero, humanity is enslaved to robot overlords, a regular cop defeats all the terrorism, a college professor takes on Nazism with a whip and a hat, and a lady in a yellow tracksuit is a sword-wielding assassin who can punch her way out of a buried coffin and kill you by tapping on your chest.

It may very well be true that no woman will ever have the physical ability and mental toughness to complete SEAL training. None have been allowed to try, although with the U.S. military lifting the ban on women in combat that is changing as I write this. We do know that most men who attempt it ring out, because it is hell. That anyone gets through elite Special Forces training is utterly remarkable.

For my money, I think there will be a woman SEAL one day. Women have a history of doing the “impossible.” But for those of us who cheer, “Fuck yeah!” at the mention of Jordan O’Neil, that’s not quite the point. Even if no woman ever makes it all the way through BUD/S, G.I. Jane will always be a clarion call, will always matter, because there is something deeper here, a truth we know in our bones and muscles.

G.I. Jane is a goddess myth in fatigues.

Jordan seems so much larger than life because she’s nothing less than Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and courage, law and justice, and war. She is the stuff of myth, and like all myth, she rides in the place where awe crosses mystery. You may not know her name, but you do know her. She is the grit that stiffens your backbone when it would be easier to quit. She is the fire in your belly that burns hotter than fear. And when the world tells you what you cannot do, what you must not do, what has never been done before and will never be done, not ever, it is she who speaks when you say, “Watch me.”

Hooyah.

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What should you eat while you watch G.I Jane? I think you should go ahead and have whatever it is you’re truly hungry for. Whatever the hell you want. Tear it up.

Read What Should I Eat While I Watch That Movie: The Silence of the Lambs and What Should I Eat While I Watch That Movie: Blue Valentine.

Want to know what to eat with that movie? Leave a comment here or tweet me at @stefgunning and I’ll suggest a pairing for you!

Heart of the Matter

The night before Valentine’s Day was going to be celebrated at my daughter’s school, I received the following text from my husband, Jonathan:

Emmy bought God cards. Won’t give them up. Crying. Help.

To translate our married shorthand, he was telling me that our 9-year-old, Emerson, had somehow selected religious Valentine’s Day cards, and now that he had discovered the fact he was trying to explain why she simply couldn’t hand them out to her friends, and she was very upset.

I called the house and he answered on the first ring. “How bad?” I asked.

“Bad.”

“Like ‘Jesus died for you have some candy’ bad?”

“Like, one puppy telling another puppy that God wants us to be friends.”

“Oh.”

“Also, there’s a Bible verse.”

He felt terrible about it, but in all honesty, those cards were sneaky:

godmadeusfriends

Awww. Puppies! I’m glad we’re friends too, puppies!

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Wait, hold up a sec…

In the grand scheme of things, one animal baby telling another animal baby that God brought them together in friendship is no tragedy. But there are several factors operating here that made this a Threat Level Red, Zero Card Thirty, codename God Cardgate situation.

First, there is the fact that we live in the kind of neighborhood where trying to find the owner of a lost blue hat can turn into a culture war. I just want to write my check to the PTO and bring my pie to the annual pie-related fundraiser, not set off a debate about the imposition of religious values on a multicultural community through the distribution of propaganda with a kitten on it.

More significantly, we’re Jewish! Sort of. I’m Jewish, culturally at least. Emmy is technically Jewish in the same way I am, because she’s the child of a Jewish mother. Jonathan was raised Catholic. We’re both Buddhist. And yet, in the sprit of Candy is Delicious and Everyone Loves Presents, we celebrate all the things, our Christmas tree glowing in the light of our menorah, Easter candy decorating our Passover table. We leave offerings to our Ganesha statue when faced with an obstacle. We welcome Persephone on the first day of spring. We smudge any new apartment we move into. My point is, if we were going to hand out God Cards, they would not feature the God of 1 John 4:8.

“Put her on the phone,” I said, standing to pull on my coat. It was now 7pm, I was still at work, and the evening suddenly included buying replacement Valentine’s Day cards, bringing them home, helping her to fill them out, and soothing her hurt feelings. Oh, and explaining God to her.

So, a typical Thursday.

“Helllloooo moooooommmmy,” she warbled in a tiny little voice.

“Hello baby,” I said. “I hear you picked out some cards with God in them.”

“Yes,” she said, crying. “I don’t understand. Daddy says I can’t hand them out, but they are just puppies. And I worked so hard on them. And there’s one for my teacher. And why is there anything wrong with God saying we should be friends? That’s nice!”

“I know, sweetheart,” I said. “And I’ll explain everything to you when I get home. But for now, you just need to trust me. I’m going to go to the store and buy you some other cards, and you can give those out.” We negotiated a deal. She would shower and put on her pajamas. I would buy new cards and bring them home. We would fill them out together, and I would try to find a way to tell her about the difference between puppies who love each other under the benevolent gaze of a gentle deity and the centuries-long bloody complexities of organized religion.

I thought about what I could tell her, while I shopped for cards at the CVS and rode the subway home from Manhattan to Brooklyn. I was raised in an atheist home. My mother is so anti-religion, such a disbeliever, that she threw a fit when I wanted to mention heaven in my grandmother’s eulogy. In the house where I grew up, no book was off-limits, no movie inappropriate, no cultural or political topic not worth talking to death, and my boyfriends started sleeping over when I was 16 — but no one talked about religion. I once asked my mother what she thought happened when we died, and she said she thought it was nothing. No heaven, no hell, no ghosts or spirit, no afterlife. Just the power going off in a house about to be demolished. Nothing left but the memories other people had of you, and a pile of paperwork to be attended to.

I met God my freshman year of college, in a Western Civ. class taught by a professor who captured my full attention. More than God, he showed me god in all his forms, and hers. A universe of myth and story stretching from the underworld to Asgard, spanning time from the moment that first prehistoric ancestor looked up at the sky in awe to me in the drugstore buying cards for my good-hearted daughter, and in doing so wrestling with ancient mysteries about what we wish, what we fear, what we stand for. I minored in Religious Studies in college, and while it may have started as a way of flirting with my professor and horrifying my mother, it matured into a genuine fascination with the sacred places of myth and faith, the archetypical stories of heroes and gods, goddesses and monsters. But for all this, I am no true believer. I have no answers. I’m just another traveler. Another curious wanderer. A storyteller who loves a big yarn. Perhaps, I will concede, better read than most.

I arrived home to find Emerson freshly showered, her thick hair combed out, wrapped in a blanket on the couch. I showed her the cards I’d bought. They had gel window clings on them, in the shapes of dragonflies, butterflies, frogs and owls. She thought they were wonderful. And I’d brought a special card for her teacher, too, with Snoopy dancing on it. We sat at the dining table together, me and my sweet girl, and I read her the names of her classmates while she carefully filled out each card, selecting just the right cling for each friend — a butterfly for Sophie, an owl for Gus, a dragonfly for Paloma.

“Mommy,” she said when we were done. “Why were the puppy cards not ok?  They were so cute!”

They were, I told her, they were adorable. But the thing is, those cards were about a specific God, the God that is in the Bible called the New Testament, and not everybody believes in that God. The people that do are called Christians, and not everybody is Christian. Some people are Jewish, and Muslim, and Buddhist. Some people don’t believe in God at all. And if you are a person who doesn’t believe in that Christian God, or any God, it can feel upsetting or confusing to get a card about that God. And anyway, religion is between the religious person and the God they believe in, we don’t impose those kinds of beliefs on other people. And giving out those cards could feel like you expected the person you were giving it to to believe in that Christian God.

She nodded. “Ok,” she said. And then she asked me the real question, the question at the heart of it all. “Mommy, what do you believe?”

What do I believe? I believe that religion is the cause of endless suffering, of war and hatred. That it’s a way to control the rebellious, creative, far-reaching, fierce thing that makes us human to start with. That it is yet a another way of dividing the world into an “us” and a “them,” and we have far too many of those. I am no fan of religion. But I do believe in something bigger than me, something vast and ferocious, made of rage and pain, pleasure and goodness, vengeance and forgiveness, something unknowable and unsolvable. I believe that sometimes god is a lion, with hot breath and a rough mane, and you visit him by sneaking through a wardrobe. Sometimes god is a grey-eyed girl who carries a bow and a quiver of arrows. Sometimes he’s a dangerous swan. Sometimes she’s a demon slayer. Sometimes god is a lightening bolt, a crash of thunder, a flood, or a fire. Sometimes he is a dancing elephant who clears the way forward. Sometimes she is a fierce mother who finds you in the dark and rescues you from the arms of a monster. I believe in the stories we tell, in the kindnesses we do, in the ways we find to love each other. I believe in the mysteries. I believe in what I don’t know. I revel in everything I don’t know.

“You’re so silly mommy,” she said, and she crawled into my lap and hugged me. “God is a lion?”

“Sometimes,” I said. “His name is Aslan, you’ll read about him one day.”

There were several cards left over, and Emerson asked if she could have the clings. She arranged them on her window, a little scene where the dragonflies flitted with the butterflies, and the owls kept company with the frogs. “They’ll be so pretty when the sun shines through,” she said, and she climbed into bed. I kissed her and hugged her, wished her sweet sleep.

I do not know what she dreams about. And I revel in that too.

Curiosity and the…Cat

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a working mother in possession of even a single hour alone in her own home will inevitably look upon some heretofore unremarkable object and think to herself, “Huh. I wonder if I could masturbate with that?”

Such were my circumstances on a recent Thursday morning, when I found myself blissfully showering in an empty house, all on my own but for the company of my Clarisonic. A Clarisonic, if you’re unfamiliar, is a cleansing brush that oscillates at a sonic frequency that produces over 300 movements per second. It’s a power washer for your face, essentially. It is also a waterproof, handheld device that vibrates at a truly admirable rate.

“Why not?” I thought, and proceeded to have a perfectly lovely interlude with the business end of my Mia 1.

Hello lover.

Hello lover.

By now, in my mid-40s, you might think I’d learned a few things. Such as, if one is beginning an adventure with the thought, “Why not?” one might pause for a moment to go ahead and answer that question PRIOR to skipping gaily forward. Perhaps one might think, “Self, despite its pleasing shape and cheerful vibration, this device is designed, literally DESIGNED, to remove deep-seated impurities from the skin. It’s for DEEP CLEANING the skin ON YOUR FACE which is exposed all the time. Do we really think this sonically oscillating brush head is something we should jam against our usually sheltered flower?” And further, to paraphrase the poet — Chris Rock — just because one CAN masturbate with a thing, does not mean one OUGHT to.

But la-di-da, I have always been a devil-may-care, pay-the-piper-later, adventuresome sort of girl. “Why not?” is my raison d’être.

Sisters, look upon me and learn, for I have dirty danced with sonic technology and come home to tell the tale.

First came the stinging, a sensation very much like rug burn, only decidedly more painful and in a place where you’d really have to work to get contact with a rug. It grew worse as the day progressed, and by the next morning the situation had escalated.

Significantly.

S'up.

S’up?

Yes, in the wake of my Clarisonic indulgence, my secret garden had swollen to a primeval forest. It had swollen past the point of pants, sitting, or clarity of thought.

I did the only rational thing, and I called my best friend, Lisa.

“I’ve made a terrible mistake,” I said, and confessed my folly. She stopped laughing at me long enough to burst into a parody of My Sharona, thusly:

Oh there you were, there you were
in the shower, hon
Watching that motor run, CLAR-I-SONIC

Never gonna stop, give it up
Such a dirty mind, always get it up
For the touch of the vi-bra-ting kind
My my my i yi woo!
My my my my CLAR-I-SONIC

I mean, with friends like these.

I spent the weekend alternating between warm compresses, perching on an ice pack, and suffering my husband’s amused sympathy.

Eventually the swelling subsided, to be replaced by the itching. This was a hellish itching, spawned by Satan himself in an fiery underground bunker where punishment is born. I withstood it as long as I could, then finally broke down and made an appointment to see my gynecologist.

Of course, I am not the first person to turn up at the doctor with a story of self-pleasuring gone awry. But like so many things, it’s only funny if it’s NOT YOU explaining how your Clarisonic talked fancy to you and now that the baboon swelling has subsided you itch in a way that is Biblical. To her credit, my doctor was understanding and matter-of-fact. She examined me carefully and pronounced me healed but suffering from bacterial vaginosis. The cure? Five days of a cream to be applied nightly, and a gentle suggestion not to do it again.

For the record, Clarisonic has not called, texted, or emailed me since this all went down. It’s also unfriended me on Facebook.

Bastard.

It’s a Date

With her 47th birthday rapidly approaching, my best friend, Lisa, has dipped a toe into online dating for the first time. Lisa is professionally successful, slim and lovely, hilarious and brilliant, cooks like Ina Garten, dresses like a model, and has a head of hair that would make a Disney princess angry. In other words, she is rich, gorgeous, generous, sensitive, and authentically cool (and I am totally unbiased).

And yet, her experience online so far has been less than a fairytale. And so it occurred to us one recent evening while simultaneously trolling Match.com and watching The Bachelor (shut up) that there ought to be a competitive elimination dating show for ladies and gentleman of a certain age. That age being the white-knuckle hydroplane into the black ice of “the middle.”

Join us, won’t you, for The B-AARP-chelor. One man with a prescription for Viagra and a houseful of perimenopausal women in the pursuit of love, marriage, and the chance to spend down their retirement plans together.

  • Watch as the women fight over the temperature in the house. It’s too hot!! No, it’s freezing!!
  • Adventure dates…for colonoscopies!
  • A night in the Fantasy Suite…where the couple talks about how much their knees hurt before dozing off in front of the TV while watching The Good WIfe!
  • Swapping beauty secrets…like which derm has the lightest hand with the Botox!
  • Dyeing each other’s hair…to cover the grey!
  • Fine dining…before 5pm!
  • And instead of a rose ceremony, the presentation of an aloe plant, to naturally hydrate dry skin!

We were kidding, of course. Sort of. This is the same kind of whistling in the dark we’ve been doing since we were old enough to whistle, since we were old enough to know there were awful things in the dark, terrible things we could only face by holding hands and telling jokes and making each other laugh until the laughing turned to crying and the crying let in the truth.

We have been friends for a very long time. So long, I have never known the world without her. We grew up together; tethered by our mothers’ lifelong friendship and our own sisterly attachment, which was forged in the fire of absent fathers and secrets we kept from everyone but each other. In the lonely confusion of childhood, she was as essential to me as my hands, my eyes. She still is.

In our 20s, our lives diverged. I married young, far too young, to the wrong man. And just as my first marriage was falling apart, Lisa married a man 20 years her senior, who promised her everything and gave her hell instead. I was already remarried and pregnant with my daughter, Emerson, when she left him. We were in our mid-30s by then, and in radically different places. She was raw from her divorce, and newly single. I was a newlywed and about to become a mother. But we were tied together more tightly than ever, and in the decade since we’ve each lived two lives, vicariously. Working mom and single world traveler. Gentrifying Brooklyn and chic Manhattan. The comforts of marriage and the excitement of potential.

I know her, is what I’m saying. I know her as well as I know myself, even better than I know myself, in some ways. And because I know her, from the way her hair misbehaves in humidity to the way she doesn’t feel properly groomed without a pedicure, I know what sorrow hides in that shadowy chasm between making fun of arrogant profiles on Match.com and the harem shenanigans of The Bachelor.

What hides there is the truth of being a woman in your late 40s who is still looking for the kind of love that feels like a homecoming. What hides there is the particular sadness of realizing that even if you do find that kind of love, you are too old to now to grow up with someone. What hides there is something that has already been irretrievably lost.

“This is some cast of characters,” I said, scrolling through potential dates for her. “Why does this 50-year-old man have a parrot on his shoulder in his profile picture? Is he a pirate?”

“You see what I’m up against?!” she laughed.

Despite the odds, she believes, we both believe, that is possible to fall in love, crazily in love, fantastically in love at our age, at any age. Who knows what surprises are yet to unfold? But for everything she has, everything she may yet still have, what she will never have is an uncomplicated beginning with someone who is still figuring himself out, who hasn’t already become whatever it is he’s going to be. A shitty first apartment together, to look back on and laugh about. Raising children together. Accumulating friends together. Making a life together.

Here in the middle, we already have our lives, and pasts. We have careers, and friends, cabinets full of good dishes and furniture we bought new. We’ve loved and lost multiple cats by now. We have children, some of us, and ex-spouses, ex-lovers. We have scars, and stories. Histories upon histories.

“It’s all so complicated,” she said. “The idea of taking two entire lives and fitting them together. It’s like starting a movie in the middle. Two movies that you have to watch at the same time.”

It is. But Lisa and I bet on love. We bet on hope. We bet on the improbable happy ending. Every single time. Because otherwise, we wouldn’t have made it this far. Otherwise, we would have given it all up for lost a long time ago.

“Maybe,” I said, “Or maybe it’s more like when Emerson plays with all of her Playmobil sets at once.”

Emmy has a half dozen of these plastic sets — dinosaurs and mammoths, a whole zoo full of animals, a camper with a pop up top and teeny tiny dishes. She plays with them without consideration for time or logic, the camping family driving into a prehistoric adventure, the zookeepers tending the mammoths. She plays it all at once, history folding into the present to make a single story where a caveman takes a shower in an RV and a lion marries a saber-toothed tiger.

Maybe that’s what it can be like, to love in the middle. Two stories that seem disparate but somehow synchronize, like when you play Dark Side of the Moon and watch The Wizard of Oz at the same time. It may not be the kind of beginning we get when we are young. But it is a place to start.

We’re still debating the best sponsor for our mid-life version of The Bachelor. I’m pulling for Maalox. She thinks Lipitor.

That’s Lisa. Playing it from the heart. Every time.

Just You And The Words And The Dark Sky You Shout To

About a week ago, I received a tweet from a reader named Thomas, which read:

I started a novel and got 3/4 the way written then lost inspiration. Anything I can do to rekindle the desire to finish my book?

With permission, I’m replying here.

Dear Thomas,

Let’s begin with a confession: I haven’t finished my debut novel yet either. I’m working on it, with a NOVEL OR BUST sign hung across my chest, but it’s not done. I am unpublished, unrepresented, and unrepentantly optimistic.

Furthermore, I have been working on this novel of mine for a long time. It started as a glimmer of an idea I had in 1999 while on vacation with my best friend, Lisa. 1999 was not my finest year. My first husband had left me just months before, and I was in a haze of depression, anxiety, and emotional turmoil that made it difficult to put on pants, much less consider writing a book. And yet, this idea nudged at me and poked at me and stamped its foot while I tried to ignore it and did other things. It absolutely refused to go away. The main characters took on names, and then personalities, and started asking — demanding to know, really — why I was ignoring them.

I made at start at writing my book in January of 2013, and it was like falling in love — a headlong hot rush of words and ideas. That lasted for a few months, and then in April of 2013 I attended the Robert McKee STORY seminar, which is to writing seminars what Ultraman is to endurance races. I do not exaggerate when I say I cried through most of that seminar, for a few reasons:

I cried with frustration, because I was more than 100 pages into a novel that I now realized had to be dismantled and rewritten from page 1.

I cried from relief, because finally, FINALLY, I had a method for doing the work. I have been to many writing classes and seminars where the focus was on beautiful writing, finding your unique voice, and being brave on the page, and these are good, worthy things to learn, but holy hell — INDEX CARDS ARE THE KEY TO EVERYTHING. (OK, now I’m exaggerating, but the McKee seminar gave me a precise method for understanding characters and crafting a story. It gave me tools, not permission.)

I cried because on the last day of the seminar we watched Casablanca for hours — with McKee stopping the film to explain the mechanics of the plot, the subplots, the way everything from camera angles to costumes tell us that Elsa and Rick are soul mates – and I always cry when I watch this movie, hoping in vain that this time he won’t put her on the plane, this time she’ll refuse to go, this time there will be an epilogue where they find each other after the war.

I cried because it is four very, very long, exhausting days, and it is so cold, and the seats are so uncomfortable, and I was so hungry, and I had to pee all the time, and did I mention I had to throw my whole book away and start over?

That was April 2013.

I went home from McKee, and took the book apart. I went back to basics. I outlined. I wrote character bios. I wrote scenes. I threw them away. I made a timeline. I made a Spotify playlist. I tried again. I wrote and rewrote.

I thought I had it.

I didn’t have it.

In mid-2014, I got stuck. Profoundly stuck. Scary stuck, the kind that makes a person want to give it all up and re-watch The X-Files. All of The X-Files. Including Season 9. And both movies.

So I stopped writing the book, and I started thinking about it instead. I had a problem, a major problem, and the problem was I didn’t know what my main characters wanted. Oh, I had lists of things they desired, dreams and wishes, motivations and hungers, but nothing that could be expressed in a single sentence, nothing that would drive a person forward.

I thought about them all the time, these two characters who first appeared to me as I climbed a mountain in Costa Rica with my best friend in 1999. I thought about them as I drifted off to sleep. I thought about them on the treadmill. I sat in front of my computer and I tried a million answers to the questions “What do you want? What do you wish for? If you had a magic wand, what magic would you do?” I listened to Into the Woods. I listened to Bleachers. I listened to Motown. And I finally got my answer last month, in December of 2014. It was a terrible answer, raw and full of pain, but it was the absolute truth.

I wrote it on an index card and I got back to work.

This is a very long way of telling you that I am no field commander in this business of giving advice about finishing the book. But I am here in the foxhole with you, and I will share my cigarettes and coffee and tell you what I know, what I believe.

You say, Thomas, that you lost inspiration ¾ of the way through. Which makes me suspect that you don’t have an ending, something went awry that makes it impossible to get to an ending, or you’re scared of what will happen (or won’t happen) when you finish.

Do you have an outline for your novel? Do you know what happens in act 3? Do you have an honest resolution for your plot, your subplots? Will you know when it’s done? These are questions you need to ask yourself, and if the answer is no, then you have work to do; however you do it (index cards!). Returning to the bones of your story, writing an outline that takes you from where you are to that last moment, figuring out the “and then and then and then,” will free your mind to write beautifully. It will give you the comfort of knowing exactly how it all goes down, and the ability to structure your time by giving yourself assignments and deadlines for those assignments. It sounds so obvious, but you need to know how it ends to write the ending.

“But Stefanie,” I imagine you protesting, “I do have an outline! I have all of act 3 carefully planned on multi-colored index cards and I’ve got a string map that shows how the plot and sub-plots resolve. I made a Pinterest board! I have a Spotify playlist! I’m just not feeling inspired to finish.” It is possible, Thomas, that you aren’t feeling inspired because there is something essentially wrong with your story, something dishonest, a problem to be fixed that requires dismantling and reassembling. You may need a rewrite. It may be terrible, the idea of starting again, but take heart in that it happens to the very best writers. You are in good company, if this is the case.

But it may be something else. It may be that as you stand on the cusp of finishing you are thinking, “Well shit, it looks like I’m actually going to finish this thing and then what? What if I finish and no one wants it? What if I can never find an agent, find a publisher? What if it DOES get published, and the world thinks it sucks? What if it DOES suck? What if I suck? Even worse, what if it’s good and I have to do this AGAIN?”

I am well acquainted with this kind of crazy making thinking, and after years of therapy and meditation and yoga and journaling and studying the Dharma I have found there is nothing for it but to tell that voice to Shut. The. Fuck. Up. and do the work. That voice does not have your best interests at heart. That voice is not your best self. That voice rides with fear, and complacency. That voice likes The X-Files. Even Season 9. And both movies. That voice is an asshole, Thomas.

It really does help to have a teacher to consult. For me, that teacher is Robert McKee. When I get mucked up, I turn to the two notebooks I filled during the fours days I attended his seminar, and his giant book STORY. If McKee isn’t your thing, Anne Lamott gives some wonderful, encouraging, beautifully Lamotty advice in Bird by Bird. Neil Gaiman has some excellent things to say about getting the work done (although I find it hard to hear him over those soulful eyes and magnificent floppy hair). Stephen King’s On Writing will kick your ass (and scare you half to death). Steven Pressfield can help you get out of your own way. Find the one who speaks to you, who can help you figure out what to do next when the going gets tough.

Here’s what it comes down to, Thomas. There is so much in this world left undone, unresolved. People leave us in all sorts of ways, for all sorts of reasons, and we never get to tell them the one thing we always meant to — I’m sorry, I love you, it was always you, I didn’t mean it, thank you. Jobs end. Accidents happen, and tragedies. We make choices, and by their nature those choices leave us wondering about what might have been, lingering wants, regrets that can’t be made right. There is no way to control all that gets left behind as we make our way through life, but you do control this. Finish the book. Finish it. Give it closure. See what it feels like to be done, to have done this thing, to have said the thing you meant to say, to not back down to fear or apathy, to have given your heart and your sweat and your time and your best intentions to something with no guarantee, no promise, just you and the words and the dark sky you shout to.

Always,

Stefanie

The Life That Will Be Your Life Forever

I received the below email from a reader on New Year’s Eve. With her permission, I’m replying here.

Dear Stefanie,

I’m 37 and single and not a mother. I was engaged for a while and have been in a series of relationships for the last 12 or so years. I recently realized I want to have a family, but I’m mystified as to how I could possibly ever believe love lasts and being a parent is something I wouldn’t screw up. I really loved your piece on FaceTime and your daughter. I have babysat for children in the midst of young romance and have been so moved by their ability to open their hearts so wide without fear (well fear of being embarrassed I guess). I suppose this isn’t a question you can really answer, but it felt right to send it out into the Internet ether: How do you settle into a life that will be your life forever? How do you know what man will be a good father to your as yet non-existent children? How did you know?

Anyway, quite personal I know, no one answer fits all, but I am so new to wanting actually wanting a family, that I would gladly accept any thoughts you have.

Anne

Dear Anne,

There’s a story I tell about the day I found out I was pregnant. It’s a funny story, about how I took a pregnancy test in a bathroom stall at Nickelodeon, where I was working at the time, and how I was utterly floored to find myself knocked up by accident at the age of 35, a newlywed, and days away from quitting a lucrative full-time job I despised to start a career as a “permalance” writer. You can go read it, if you want to, and then come back here. Or not, that’s all right. What you need to know is that I took all the elements of that day, the day I found out I was unexpectedly, ambivalently pregnant, and turned it into a sweet story with a happy ending.

It’s not a lie, that story I tell, but it’s not complete.

I’m going to tell you the part I always leave out, because it goes to the heart of what you’re asking, or at least some of what you’re asking. I’ve never written about this before, and I’ve told only a few people about it. But these questions of yours demand courage, in the asking and in the answering.

I went home from work the day I found out I was pregnant and told my husband, Jonathan. He was surprised, but joyful in his gentlemanly, muted way. That night we discussed logistics (Oh God, our apartment is so small and we have no doors!!!) and finances (Oh God, we have no money!!!) and if I could still quit my job (Oh God, it’s a huge pay cut and I’ll lose my paid maternity leave but if I don’t quit it will surely ruin my life but how can I possibly?!?). Sometime after midnight we fell into bed exhausted and giddy, having decided that babies are small and surely we could fit one into our Brownstone floor-through apartment, and it was inaccurate to say we had “no money” because we were managing, and would continue to manage, and that I would quit my job, no question about it. We’d figure it out.

At six the next morning, I woke Jonathan from a sound sleep, so overwrought I was nearly dry heaving. I’d been up for two hours by then, sobbing in the bathroom (the only room in the entire apartment with a door). I told him I wanted a divorce. I was going to have an abortion, and I wanted him to move out, right now, today, and I wanted a divorce. Because this baby was going to turn him into a father, and fathers leave. That is simply what they do. It was unbearable, to think of this man I loved turning into a father— unknowable, frightening, ultimately gone. And anyway, who was I to believe I was the kind of person who got this life? This love, this husband, this baby? I was the girl who got left, everybody left, I was made for loss, but not this time. This time I was the girl who was leaving.

He let me go on like this until my throat was so raw I couldn’t talk anymore, and then he opened his arms to me and I fell into them. If I wanted an abortion, he said, then he would take me for one. And if I wanted a divorce, he said, he’d give me one. And if I truly couldn’t bear to have him in the apartment, then he’d just sit outside on the stoop. You know that quote, he asked, the one from Winnie the Pooh? “If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day so I never have to live without you.” Well if you live to be a hundred, he said, I promise I will live to be a hundred plus one day, because I am going to be the man who never leaves you.

You asked, Anne, how I knew. This is how. I showed him my most ugly, vicious, terrified secret self, and in return he showed me exquisite compassion and promised me the thing I could never bring myself to ask for. He promised to love me, in all my broken sorrow. He promised to stay.

For the longest time, I wondered how he managed it. How he was able to comfort me exactly the way I needed, cracking open the door to possibility just enough for me to walk through. I’ve come to realize part of it is who he is, his goodness and decency, his fearlessness. But also, I let him. He was the first man I was willing to be completely honest with. No fronting, no performing, no trying to be interesting by pretending to be what I thought he wanted. The irony of all this is that, when we first met, I thought he was so out of my league I didn’t even bother trying to be anything but what I was, and it was me in all my messy realness he fell in love with. Go figure.

I wonder, Anne, what is the promise you can’t bear to ask for? And where do you keep it hidden, this visceral, essential need you have? It’s worth investigating, I think. And once you’ve thought about it, can you be courageous enough to show someone, to let them see you in your raw, most vulnerable wanting and answer you with kindness? Can you show up and say, I don’t know how to believe, but I want to. I want to believe in a love that lasts, I want to believe I can have kids I won’t screw up. I want to make a family somehow, but I don’t know where to begin. Here is why it’s so hard for me to trust in that. Here is why it’s so hard for me to ask. Will you stand with me and let me show you how I am when I’m at my worst? Can you see how my worst is also my best?

I think you can. I think you’re that courageous.

That’s how you start. You find out what your plus one day is — the secret ache you hide, the thing you suspect no one could ever possibly give you — and you ask for it. You keep asking until someone opens his arms and says yes. And then you believe him.

I know how overwhelming it sounds, how scary, but it gets easier, the more you do it. And you do have to keep doing it. Because even when you find that lasting love, even when you have the kids and you’re almost certain you’re not screwing it up, there is no such thing as a life you live forever. You were engaged and then you weren’t and then there were relationships and then there weren’t, there were friends and jobs and places you lived and here you are. For years I was scared and then I was alone and then I was in love and then I had a baby and now I am a wife for more than 10 years and have a child who can FaceTime. And soon I will have a teenager and then she will be gone and Jonathan and I may finally take the honeymoon we never managed and we all roll along, the years unfurling like an endless road while we keep telling the truth about who we are now and the secret thing we still need, in the face of change and heartbreak and joy.

Always,

Stefanie

Pantheon, One Fallen

I have been trying, and failing, to write about the Bill Cosby abuse allegations for weeks. I am finding it nearly impossible to talk about, because I am so sad.

On the surface of things, this story doesn’t touch me personally. I’ve never met Cosby. I don’t know any of the many women (23 at this writing) who have accused him of drugging and assaulting them. I believe these women, without ambiguity. And while I am distressed at how familiar this narrative is — the powerful man, the vulnerable girl or woman, the fear of not being believed, the threat or payoff to stay silent — that doesn’t account for how bereft I feel.

I am desolate over what has been revealed here, because Bill Cosby is one of my pantheon of fathers.

I’ve written before about my biological father, about his particular damage and how it made him behave in thoughtless, cruel ways. He and my mother split up when I was 6; I ceased all contact with him when I was in my early 30s. In-between, we waged a war of love and fury, estrangement and dark intimacy. He was, in many ways, a great love of mine. He was, in others, a malevolent force that nearly destroyed me. He was so many things to me, but a good father was not one of them.

For that, I had Pa Ingalls. James Evans. Atticus Finch. And Cliff Huxtable.

. . .

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Charles Ingalls, a father who fiddled so you could dance.

I was about to turn 5 when the 2-hour Little House on the Prairie movie premiered in 1974. Like many little girls, I was obsessed with Half-Pint and her braids, perfect Mary, the dinner pails and single room school, that bitch Nellie Oleson. (For the record, I met Alison Arngrim once, and she is delightful. What? Yeah that’s right, I interviewed Nellie Oleson when I worked at TV Land and it was even more amazing than you think it was.) But the real draw of this show, for me, was Pa. Charles Ingalls was a man you could look up to, a man who could shoot and ride and plant and reap, who could build his family a house and then fill it with music he played himself. This was a father, and I turned to him the way sunflowers turn their open faces towards the sun. I never read the books, because someone told me that Book Pa was actually sort of strict and a disciplinarian, and I wanted none of that. For me, Pa is bright blue eyes, moppish hair, social liberalism, a charming sense of humor, and a faithful, enduring, enlightened love for his wife and children.

. . .

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James Evans, whose daughter was always his Baby Girl.

Good Times also premiered in 1974, and I fell in love with the Evans family immediately. As an adult, I wrote about this show for TV Land, and I was shocked — I mean genuinely shocked — to realize they were poor and lived in a dangerous housing project. As a child, all I saw was they love they shared, the wholeness of their family. I wasn’t an idiot, I knew they weren’t wealthy, but anything they might have been lacking, might have been wanting for, was made insignificant by James Evans. Here was a deeply proud man who was willing to do what needed to be done, who worked two jobs at a time to provide for his family. And when that failed, he was cool enough to make money playing pool. He was a man who called his daughter Baby Girl in a way that felt protective and kind, that made the world safer. A man who was there for for his children, adored his wife, and navigated a brutal world with a steadfast power that awed me. This was a father. Poor? Hell, these people were rich as far as I could see.

. . .

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“Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.”

There were years when I carried a copy of Harper Lee’s  To Kill A Mockingbird around with me wherever I went, tucked into my backpack. Atticus Finch made the world bearable. His humility, his passion for justice, his brilliance. The way he could shoot. The way he chose not to. His uncomplicated, profound love for his children. His compassion. His courage. His dignity, and the way he offered a sort of grace to everyone around him. Atticus was the definition of a good man, a gentleman, a man whose fundamental decency was the truest thing about him. This was a father, someone to look up to, who could guide you to the next right thing, the hard thing, every time. He would not fail you.

. . .

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Which brings us to Cliff Huxtable.

I was 15 when The Cosby Show premiered in 1984. By then, my mother had remarried, and my biological father had come back into my life after disappearing for several years after the divorce. My stepfather is a good man, and he has treated me with kindness and love from the start. But it was complicated, being the daughter of these two fathers, both sort of strangers. It was messy, confusing. It was hard to know whom to trust, whom to love and how to love without feeling I was perpetrating some kind of betrayal against one of them.

For the Huxtables, life held no such complexities. There was no mistaking how comfortable these people were, no mistaking the joy and playfulness in that house, the saucy love between the parents, the comical throng of siblings. Cliff was present for his family — literally present, his office was downstairs — and he took such clear pleasure in his children, their achievements and quirks, their adorable babyhoods and teenage dramas. This was a father, one who would talk to you, listen to you, make you laugh. One who was genuinely engaged with who you were, and whom you might be someday. One who didn’t give you secrets to keep, unless it was that he’d given you chocolate cake for breakfast.

And he is lost to me now.

. . .

One of the largest parts of growing up is accepting the fact that your parents are people, with flaws and passions and hungers of their own, with their screwed up histories and regrets. Sometimes you realize  they are dangerous, and the only thing for it is to build a wall between you. Maybe you forgive. Maybe you can’t. But at some point, if you are to have anything for yourself, you find a way to stop blaming them. You take responsibility. You take up the threads of your life and weave a tapestry of your own design.

I know this.

But it is hitting me hard, this realization about Bill Cosby. It is a fresh hurt in a place I’ve been wounded before. Because I believed Cliff Huxtable was like Pa and James and Atticus. I believed he was the kind of father who could keep me safe from men like Bill Cosby, men like my own father. And as much as I want to separate the character from the man, they are inextricable. When we talk about Bill Cosby we are talking about someone who, by reputable accounts that I believe, would drug and abuse more than 20 women while publicly joking about hoagies. Cliff feels like a lie now, the kind of lie my father would tell his friends and colleagues about our relationship, the kind of lie I was meant to agree with, about how close we were and how proud he was of me, while all the while he was hurting me in ways no one could see. This is personal. It is a tangible loss in the father-shaped place I have been trying to fill since I was 6.

Make no mistake. I stand with the women who accuse him. But I stand with a broken heart.

My Life in Books

I was flattered and delighted when We Wanted to be Writers asked me to contribute to their Books by the Bed series. I was also immediately thrown into all my old insecurities about not being good enough or smart enough or educated enough for this task, since We Wanted to be Writers has its genesis in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a place that seems nearly mythical to me, like Camelot, and deals in fancy authors with impressive degrees and publications.

This particular demon, the one that tells me they made a mistake when they asked me to write for them, that I am unworthy, a hack, a pretender and a loser and no one is interested in anything I have to say, is named ‘Broken Childhood SUNY Bachelors Degree’ and it is an old friend by now. I have learned to ignore it, to tell it to hush and send it on its way.

One of the ways I learned to do this, to not snuggle with the demon and instead do the next good (scary) thing, was reading. Books have been my solace, my escape, my education, the father I needed, the adventure I craved, my ticket to the world. Over and over, I have been transformed and sustained by books. I do not exaggerate when I say Wally Lamb saved my life, Anne Lamott set me free, Atticus Finch showed me what a man is, Jennifer Weiner was the friend I needed.

Books have been my constant companion, they are how I lived my life. They are also how I remember it. And so, I shushed the demon and wrote a love poem to the stack by the side of my bed, that ever-changing tower of inspiration and friendship, grief and care.

Demons be damned.

My Books by the Bed post: http://wewantedtobewriters.com/2014/12/books-by-stefanie-gunnings-bed

Let’s Talk About Books: She Can Fly by Michael G. Gabel

I was asked to review the book She Can Fly via a thoughtful message on Twitter. Prior to that message, I’d never heard of the book or Kerry Keyes. It’s for the best that I came to She Can Fly cold, because I don’t know that I would have had the courage to pick it up if I’d known what it was about.

That would have been my great loss.

Written by Michael G. Gabel, She Can Fly is a creative nonfiction memoir project dedicated to raising awareness and support for victims of domestic violence. It tells the story of Kerry Keyes, a sheltered young woman who fell for a charismatic (aren’t they always?), manipulative, viciously abusive man and got trapped in an escalating, seemingly inescapable horror of a life. Horror is a big word, but it’s the right one for Kerry’s life with her abuser, Wayman.

I am no stranger to stories where terrible things happen to women, but these books are nearly always fiction and the women in question generally triumph, or if not triumph, come to a resolution that feels satisfying. There’s closure. Sometimes there are even happy endings. Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone springs to mind as an example of the kind of book I’m talking about. And as I made my way through Kerry’s story, I found myself trying to retreat into the comforts of fiction.

Kerry has children with Wayman, surely she will flee with her sons and disappear into a false identity, like in Anna Quindlen’s Black & Blue!

Wayman seduces and has children with other women, and at times Kerry and these women live together in a single home. Surely they will bond in sisterhood and fight Wayman together, like in The Witches of Eastwick!

She kills him, right? She absolutely murders him. Like in Practical Magic.

She Can Fly is full of the kind of drama that makes for a gripping story — forbidden attraction, involuntary commitment to a psych ward, crimes committed, jail time done, an escape from the abuser, evading the authorities, living on the lam. But it is no fiction. And knowing this, reading Kerry’s words, her prosaic telling of the circumstances that set her up as a target for Wayman and left her bereft, having intimate knowledge of what was done to her, what she had to survive, makes me want to wail. It makes me want to rip my clothes and throw dust on my head.

This isn’t an easy book to read. But there is redemption here.

Kerry is alive to share her story. She has the courage and willingness to do so. Gabel — who met Kerry when he was a child and she was his nanny — has the resources, talent, and passion to share that story. And we are here, to bear witness, to raise awareness, to work towards a world where every woman has a way out, a way to safety, if she needs it.

She Can Fly is harrowing. It is ineffably sad. It is deeply important and necessary.

And we owe it to ourselves, to each other, to Kerry and all the women like her, not to look away.


You can read She Can Fly for free online, or purchase a copy on AmazoniBooks, or Nook. (I am not an affiliate and will not receive any compensation if you choose to purchase, I’m linking for convenience only.)

Please consider making a donation to the National Network To End Domestic Violence, Safe Horizon, or the domestic violence prevention organization of your choice.

It’s Called FaceTime for a Reason

This summer, my then 8-year-old daughter, Emerson, experienced two important rites of passage.

First, she became the object of a young man’s affection. This boy, whom we’ll call DG, had it bad for my moppet. So bad, in fact, that he asked if she had email, and told her that if she did NOT have email he’d make an email for her, so they could write during the evenings and over the weekend, when he was bereft of her company.

She told me this matter-of-factly one hot July night after camp, as she shoveled mac-n-cheese into her summer pink face. My baby, who has my pointy chin and round cheeks, her Daddy’s beautiful mouth, and more hair than anyone has a right to. My sweet little girl, who loves dragons and making things out of clay. My precious child, who is the kindest, funniest, and most generous person I have ever known.

“Well, Mama. Do I?” she asked.
“Do you what?”
“Do I have email?”
“Yes, my darling, you do. You have email so you can write to Grandma and Grandpa in Florida, and Grandma in Connecticut, and Yaya.” (That’s her nickname for my best friend, Lisa.)
“Well write it down for me, so I can give it to DG and he can send me an email.”

I didn’t just hand over her email address, of course. First I confirmed that this person was actually another child and not a 40-year-old ice cream vendor who hands out balloons to his “special” customers, but you have to climb into the back of the truck — which is really just a white van that he painted to look like an ice cream truck — to get your balloon (I watched far too many After School Specials growing up). Cue the epic eye rolling as she assured me that YES MAMA he’s a KID! He’s 10! We then had a giggly conversation where she admitted DG had a crush on her, and while she didn’t have a crush on HIM, she liked the fact that he had a crush on HER quite a lot.

I told her that she’s under no obligation to like him just because he likes her, that she doesn’t have to give anyone her email or phone number or smile for them or tell them her name or respond AT ALL just because a boy likes her. But if she IS going to be friends with him, she should understand that he has more-than-friend feelings for her, and be kind to him. And that if he, or anyone else for that matter, ever makes her feel uncomfortable or hurts her feelings or pressures her to be more than friends when she just wants to be friends then she should immediately tell me or her Daddy, and we will kill him. With our bare hands. And make it hurt. Bad.

Maybe I didn’t say that last part.

At the time Emerson didn’t have her own device on which to receive email. No iPad or iPhone or computer to call her own, because she is the most deprived child in all the land of Brooklyn. Her email came through on my iPhone, however, and so I was privy to the besotted musings of this 10-year-old Romeo. Here’s how it worked: He would send a message. I would see it on my phone, but not open it. I’d go home after work and tell her she had email. She’d take my phone and read the message, giggle, and then hand the phone back to me so I could type her dictated response, because I am her secretary. Sometimes she’d get bored and wander away, and I’d go scrambling after her because it is one thing to be transcribing a message from an 8-year-old girl to a 10-year-old boy, and quite another to be texting said 10-year-old boy by myself.

Things got serious when he started in with the emojis.

This went on for quite a few weeks. He even emailed her while we were away on vacation, counting down the days until she returned to camp, pumping out a string of emojis we had to consult a glossary to decipher. And then, sure as winter follows fall, came rite of passage number two: He dumped her. She went to camp one day, and he casually informed her that they were breaking up, but could still stay friends. She shrugged it off — she really hadn’t liked him that way, and was content with his ongoing friendship — but I admit to feeling a little miffed. I’d gotten pretty invested in all those emojis after all.

In August, for her 9th birthday, we got Emerson an iPad. She was so happy she cried. Mostly this iPad has been used for watching Wild Kratts (#TeamChris forever), taking photos of herself using Photo Booth, emailing grandparents, and FaceTiming Yaya.

And about a week ago, she used it to FaceTime DG.

I do not know what her motivation was. I think she was just missing her friend. He gleefully shouted her name when he realized it was her, and they talked for a long time, about school and games they were playing online, about his parents’ divorce and his brother and sister, about her fish. I didn’t eavesdrop – she did it in front of me, sitting on the couch. It was sweet, and tender. He told her he cared about her, and missed her, and was so happy to see her face.

He is a lover, this DG. His vulnerability slays me.

This is just the beginning, of course. The beginning of the boys and men (and perhaps women, who knows?) who will love her, whom she will love. And I want it all for her, all the ecstatic wonders and heart-cracking pain that is loving another person. The lavender-scented joy and the eating a tub of frosting in the bathtub while crying. I wish her everything, all of it, every electric moment of love and passion, eventually, when the time comes.

But first, this girl and I had some business to take care of.

I found her curled up on her bed, reading one of the BONE books. “Hey Emmy,” I said. “Can we have a conversation?” She put her book to one side and turned her open, sweet face to me.

“Sure. Am I in trouble?”
“Of course not. Why would you think you’re in trouble?”
“Well, what do you want to have a conversation about?”
“I want to have a conversation about FaceTime.”

I nude modeled in college, for sketch classes, and painting classes. I loved it. During breaks I would slip into a white robe, light a cigarette, and wander through the rows of easels, looking at the canvases and seeing myself the way others saw me. It completely changed the way I thought and felt about my body, made me appreciate the curved landscape of my belly and hips, my neck and breasts, the wild tumble of my unruly hair. I had a lover who photographed me nude, and I trusted him with my life. When we broke up, he gave me the photos, and the negatives.

I didn’t tell my daughter any of that. I will, someday, when my 20-year-old innocence and wildness can serve as a fond anecdote, rather than a model for her own behavior. Instead, I told her that sometimes when people have phones or other devices with cameras they can get a little silly and take pictures of their bodies, like their tushies, and then send them to other people. She laughed at that, thought it was ridiculous. And it is, I told her, it is very silly, but it is also sort of serious, because the Internet is an endless place, where nothing ever truly goes away. And even if you just send a photo like that as a joke, to someone you trust, once it leaves your Photos it might go anywhere. So we struck a deal. She will never take a photo, or video, or FaceTime of any part of herself below the neck. In a nervous spurt of creativity, I even made up a cheerful rhyme, to help her remember:

If it is not of your face, do not send it anyplace.

I also told her that if anyone sends her a photo of anything but their face she’s to show me or her Daddy immediately, and we’ll help her take the right next steps. If they show her any non-face parts on FaceTime, she’s to shut it down and come tell us.

I’m almost completely certain this was the right thing to do. She’s young, she’s so exquisitely young, but if you’re old enough to have your own iPad, know how to shoot photos and use FaceTime, and have a romantic boy to FaceTime with, then I think you’re old enough for this conversation. I think this conversation is required.

The world is so wide and full, so delicious and riotous. And I want her to have all of it. But for now, only from the neck up.