Observations from a happy marriage

The flowers McIrish brought me today!

The flowers McIrish brought me today!

I don’t know much about how to make a happy marriage. All I know is how to make my marriage happy, you know what I mean? But today is my 23rd wedding anniversary to McIrish, and we are very happy, so I thought I’d share a few things we do to stay that way. It wasn’t just Cupid shooting arrows. We’ve worked hard at this, and we still do. We’re not kids anymore, after all. One of us will turn 50 next year (me. I’m a cougar).

Appreciate. I remember a day when McIrish asked me to move a pile of gravel from one place to another (there was an actual reason for this, not just a feat of strength). It was a long, hard job, and when I was done, he said, “You moved about a ton of gravel today. Not everyone could do that.” Another time, when I was wicked sick, he said later, “I’ve taken people to the hospital for less pain than you were in.” Those comments made me feel like a superhero. And who

The laddie's favorite: apple pie.

The laddie’s favorite: apple pie.

doesn’t like that? For my part, I love to brag about McIrish online, telling you guys when he saved a dog or did something special. (He loves your comments, you know.) My mom was widowed young. Two of my friends lost their husbands this past year. We can’t just assume that we’ll always have each other, so making every day count…it’s really important.

Compliment. After a couple of decades together, it’s easy to forget this, because you’re so accustomed to each other. “You smell nice” or “your hair looks cute today” reminds your spouse that you still notice.

The two of us in Sydney, climbing the bridge.

The two of us in Sydney, climbing the bridge.

Be spontaneous. Doing things spur of the moment is always fun. Get in the car and go to a town you’ve never been to and have lunch. Open the door naked (but not to the UPS man…an important difference).

Prioritize. Yes, your kids are the most important people in the world to you. Nothing is more important than raising them right. It is our sacred duty to do our best on that front. But don’t forget that someday, those little fledglings will leave the nest. Make sure your marriage is given the time and importance it deserves, so it will last a lifetime—not just until the kids go to college. I recently had dinner with a couple who’d been together for more than 40 years, and their life is so full, and their love so obvious that it made me excited to get older and be married longer. (Hi, R&B! Yes, I’m talking about you!)

McIrish consoling me at Derek Jeter's last home game.

McIrish consoling me at Derek Jeter’s last home game.

Show kindness. The other night, one of us (not telling you who) woke up feeling crummy. It was three o’clock in the morning. Suddenly, it seemed quite reasonable that the cause was Ebola. (Damn that 3 a.m. Everything seems so much worse at that hour.) The other spouse reassured and soothed and got an extra blanket and promised all was well. There was no, “Not this again, you crazy hypochondriac.” No. Because we love each other.

Take action, and not just the nooky kind. There was a study recently that said being hugged for 20 seconds causes oxytocin to be released. Oxytocin is the happy drug, the same that floods a woman’s system when she gives birth. Little touches, like stroking your honey’s hair or neck, or holding hands, reinforce your bond in actions. And you know what else does that? Filling up the gas tank without being asked, or baking cookies for no reason.

23 years ago!

23 years ago!

Profess. Not a day of our 23 years of marriage has passed without us telling each other “I love you.” Most days, those words are said three or five times. Because it’s true, and it’s a gift, and we know better than to take it for granted.

Happy anniversary to my honey! Thanks for 23 wonderful years!

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UnknownUntil I became an author, I rarely had a professional manicure. I had my nails done for my wedding, I think. Otherwise, nah. I’m a Yankee! I garden. I had little kids and had to wash hands constantly. What’s the point?

But now, I do signings and go out in public, and I figured I should have decent-looking hands. Doing my own nails is too much of a challenge in the hand-eye coordination department, so I generally end up looking like a marbled-nails-fail-400x400toddler—a blind toddler—did the job.

Hence, I now go to a salon fairly regularly, and Sophie (not her real name) does my nails. She’s Korean, very beautiful and tiny, with long, long hair and very strong hands. She’s also very patient as I explain why all her hard work from two weeks ago has been sullied. “Oh, is that cookie dough?” I might ask. “Sorry. Oh, wow, that nail is torn. I was wrestling with the dog, and it got a little crazy. It’s always been funky, ever since I lost a chunk on a fishing lure. A lure? You know, fishing? For large mouth bass? It was a scum frog. Scum frog? I almost caught something that day.”

Sophie just gives me a little smile, then says something to her coworker in Korean. Probably, “This idiot still doesn’t realize I speak perfect English. And not another story about the funky nail. When’s my coffee break?” I overtip to compensate.

My feet are not actually this hairy, for the record.

My feet are not actually this hairy, for the record.

About twice a year, I get the dreaded pedicure. Picture Frodo Baggins. Now, picture his hideous, leathery feet. If only I could grow kidneys the way I grow calluses, there would be no need for transplants ever again. She gave me a pedicure after I broke my ankle and it was all black and blue. I thought she was maybe going to throw up, but she bravely powered through.

To make Sophie’s job easier, I bought a tool this winter. It’s sort of a cheese grater/pumice stone/scrubbing brush/sander. About four weeks before I need a pedicure, I go into training. I even bought some mysterious callus remover that you smear all over your feet, wait five minutes (or until you can’t stand the burning), and then “wipe your calluses away!” It doesn’t actually work, so I bought a rather dangerous razor blade thingie. You know, just to shave off a few centimeters so Sophie doesn’t get a permanent hunchback working on my hobbit feet

“You let me do,” she said this last time, frowning over my too-pink feet (which were almost done bleeding. “No more tool. Okay?”

I took that to mean “No more being such a tool, Kristan.” Chastened, I agreed.

Unknown-2Sophie has the quietest voice I’ve ever heard on a human. She’s very sweet, and laughs a lot. She seems to be the most popular manicurist, and I only go to her. I like to think that makes her happy (because of the overtipping, you know?) The last part of the manicure is when she rubs lotion onto my hands and massages my fingers. I always feel like hugging her when she’s done.

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My other true love

700-fill-power-down-pillow-A-mdI had one of those making-out-with-my-pillow moments the other day. I live for these. No, I do!

First of all, my pillow is very special to me (obviously). Huggy Pillow, I call it. McIrish threw the original Huggy Pillow out about 15 years ago in a fit of rage and jealousy…well, okay, it wasn’t that. It was that all the feathers in Huggy Pillow had broken down, and it was this sad, limp thing and not very hygienic, either. He gave me a new Huggy Pillow, but it took about a year to get that thing into shape. But Huggy Pillow is named that for a reason; I’m always very cold at night, so I clutch the down pillow to my chest and have McIrish or the dog snuggle up to my back.

goose-down-pillows-hong-kongAnyway, Huggy Pillow also serves as my fake boyfriend when I’m writing a book. So the other day, I was flopped on the bed, where some of my best work is done, talking to Huggy Pillow (also known as Connor O’Rourke these days, as he is the hero of my current work-in-progress), and voila! A scene was born. A really great scene that involved a few difficult admissions, some tender words, and yes, kissing.

shoppingI talk to Huggy Pillow a lot when McIrish is at the firehouse every fourth night. Huggy is an excellent listener; sometimes better than McIrish himself, who has this tendency to fall into a deep coma the second he lies down. I’m usually the first one in bed at night, so even if McIrish is home, Huggy and I may have a nice long conversation. “What did you say?” my sainted husband might ask.

“I’m not talking to you,” I answer. “It’s none of your business.” I then continue with my deep, loving talk with the inanimate object.

A martyred I can’t believe I’m married to a writer sigh comes from my husband. Huggy and I ignore this rude intrusion and continue with our soul revelations.

Is it weird? Of course it is. But hey. You’re reading this blog. You must like my books. We’re in this together, gang.

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A Connecticut Yankee in Milan & Paris

Okay, here’s the thing. Women in Milan dress incredibly well. Better than we American chicks can ever pull off, I think, and that takes some pressure off. It was very inspiring! Even old ladies and little girls have flair. Also, it seems to be the law that they wear a scarf tied in a fabulous, interesting way that we Americans will never master. A lot of hats. Colored tights. Gray, black and white clothing. Everyone has a fabulous bag and a leather coat.

The food. Is. Incredible. The men are short and good-looking, and boy, do they know how to talk to a woman. There’s a little charge with the men in Milan, from the guards who checked my bag and called me bella to the concierge at the hotel who told me I must think of the hotel as my second home to the waiter who told me I couldn’t be finished, because then I would leave him. It was incredibly flattering. I often felt like purring.

Drivers seem to enjoy jamming their foot on the gas, then slamming their foot on the brake. There is only speeding and screeching to a halt. Also, the highways? Oy. I’ve never been in a car going that fast.

And onto Paris. (I’m skipping Hamburg, because I wasn’t there long enough to make a full impression. Next time, I hope!)

Paris is a lot like New York to me in that things move very fast. Everywhere you turn, there’s a monument and a statue and a building that’s more beautiful than the last one you just saw two seconds ago. The beauty of the architecture is quite staggering.

Parisian women have great hair. Tattoos seem far less common than in the U.S., but so many people here smoke! There are beggars with dogs everywhere, though they weren’t as aggressive as the beggars in Venice. The subway system was actually easier to use than New York’s. Seriously. Parisians have heaters blasting everywhere you go, even in the outdoor cafes. I think they feel the cold more. If you go into a restaurant and wait to be seated, you may just be ignored, because the custom is to sit yourself down. Service is much slower than in the States because French people actually like their food. There’s not a lot of obesity here, even though Europeans clean their plates and eat late in the evening and drink a lot more wine. I think we Yanks are doing something wrong.

They’re also incredibly helpful and polite. All those rumors about Parisians not liking Americans and scoffing at your attempts to speak French? Absolutely not true. A lot of people complimented me on my accent (thank you, Mrs. Williamson!) and every shopkeeper said “Bonjour!” when I came in. They were just lovely, whether I bought something or not.

Oh, I loved being abroad! And you know what? It’s thanks to you, my beloved readers. It’s because of you that I was given this magical trip; you’ve made my books popular, and I thank you for that with everything I’ve got.

To the readers in Milan, Hamburg, Lyon and Paris, a thousand thanks for coming out to see me in your free time (or skipping work!). Thanks for the many gifts—your generosity is quite remarkable! Thanks for the pictures and tweets and blogs and posts. Thank you for saying nice things about my hair and accent, and thanks for the food recommendations and directions. To those of you who were nervous to meet me…well, I was a little nervous to meet you, too, and it turned out to be for nothing, didn’t it? Feels like we’re old friends already.

I’ll be so happy to be back with McIrish and Dearest Son, to spend Thanksgiving with the Princess home. But I’ll miss you, and these incredible cities so rich with history and good smells and better food, and I’ll carry these memories with me for the rest of my life.

Grazie. Danke. Et merci beaucoup!

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DSCN6948[1]Random thoughts on my new favorite city…

There is no such thing as an Italian speaking in a monotone. Everything sounds terribly exciting when said by an Italian. She might be saying, “I need to buy shampoo,” but it sounds like the most passionate and beautiful thing in the world.

Venetians do not have their phones implanted into their hands, ignoring what goes on around them. They talk to each other. A lot. Nonstop, in fact. No one has their phone out during meals. No one. It’s very refreshing.

DSCN6929Ask four Italians for directions to the same place, and you’ll get four very different answers. “Take the 4.1 to San Marco and change to a southgoing boat.”

“Take the 4.2 north. It goes all the way.”

“The 4.2 doesn’t go to Murano. Take the 3 to Plaza e Roma and change.”

“Get off at San Samuele and walk.”

“This boat no longer goes to San Samuele. It did an hour ago, but it doesn’t now.”

DSCN6858In Venice, one cannot walk in a straight line from A to B. Instead, picture a bumblebee. A drunken bumblebee. That’s how the streets are laid out. And many streets and bridges look exactly the same.

Venetians enjoy tricking tourists by naming streets and bridges the same thing. “Campo Santa Maria Formosa,” “Campo Santa Maria del Giglio,” and “Campo Santa Maria Mater Domini” are all (supposedly) legitimate places. Google Maps was as confused as I was. You know that little voice feature that guides you? “In 60 feet, take a left onto Main Street.” Well, it kept saying, “Turn around and head 0 feet for Ponte della Something.” For the record, there was no bridge in front of me. I’d turn around. It’d tell me to turn around again. And again. I was getting dizzy.

The dogs are not as friendly in Venice as American cities. Neither do they go on leashes. They just run ahead of their people. And they never get lost. True Venetians.

No one wears jeans or sneakers except tourists (but not this tourist, I’m proud to report).

I only saw one cat the whole time I was there.

Men are very friendly here. They sing to you, tell you you’re beautiful, stop talking to each other to give you the eye and call you bella.

cappaVenice seems like a small town. Everyone says, “Ciao, Paolo, Ciao, Maria, Ciao, ciao, ciao.” Makes the city seem so welcoming.

The cappuccino is beyond compare. Eat your heart out, Starbucks.

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Don’t worry. Be happy.

Unknown-1Worry is the song of my people. We’re Hungarian. And Catholic. That means I’m twice blessed in the worry department. So this week, I took out accidental life insurance. What if my plane goes down? What if I fall into a canal and am run over by gondola and drown? What if I get hit by a bus in Paris?

I already have life insurance (please, of course I do!). But now I have accidental life insurance, too. I called my guy at Fidelity, and he immediately remembered me—the romance writer who has written her own eulogy four times and keeps an active list of songs to be played at the wake. (It’s all good stuff—U2 and Dave Matthews and The Boss, don’t worry. You will not hear On Eagle’s Wings.) Anyway, Ken happily sold me more life insurance, just in case.

And then the fun began.

My family is covered. Princess, Dearest and McIrish will be wealthy in their grief, you know…just in case.

Unknown-2No, this was the fun life insurance, when I can give out money posthumously. Fisher House Foundation. Yale-New Haven Hospital, where both my kids were born. My nieces and nephews and godchildren. My book club—a weekend away, on me, with really good martinis all around. My aunt and uncle who have cooked us dinner so many times—a fabulous vacation. A high school girl who wants to be a writer when she grows up—a scholarship. My plotting friends—another weekend away, on me. May they cry sloppily and laugh more. The girls down the street, who have long played dress-up with my fabulous shoes—my fabulous shoes. My mother-in-law, who is wonderful, and her best friend—a travel fund, so they can have lots of fun on me.

I can’t tell you what a good time I had, typing away, making my list, instructing McIrish to honor my wishes. I became quite bossy, specifying what the money could and could not be used for. How old a person had to be before spending it. What would happen if the heir (yes! Finally, I had heirs!) couldn’t use it.

UnknownI pictured the Reading of the Will, to be done in a fabulous library somewhere, read by…oh, I don’t know, I envisioned Morgan Freeman. “And to her godchild, Margaret…” “And in honor of her children, a sum of…” “And so her mother will finally cut down those rhododendrons and reseed that lawn, a gift of…”

Listen. Everyone has to have a hobby.

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Sometimes, you have a friend who’s always got your back, even if you don’t hear from them for a while, or see them too often. I have a few of that variety (you know who you are), and it’s so good, isn’t it? Knowing that at any time,  someone out there understands you, would sympathize or laugh with you, and genuinely likes you.

One of that stellar brand of friend was Brian, my closest friend from Holy Cross who died without warning last year. He became such an impressive person in his adult life; when he and I first met, we were 18, dopey college students and instant friends. And we stayed friends; we went to each other’s weddings, visited each other in our early 20s. Our daughters were born the same week, and our sons just months apart. I was so proud when he went into the Coast Guard and wrote to him often when he was deployed. He got such a kick out of my career. In fact, in the last email he sent me, he asked when my books would be made into a movie, because he thought they were really good.

Yesterday, I had dinner with his widow, who became my friend during the course of their marriage (I knew she was The One the second I met her), and their son, who reminded me so much of Brian that it did my heart good. We talked about him, and the loss of a dad at a young age, and The Walking Dead and all that good stuff. And we talked about little signs after someone has died; those little odd things that turn up unexpectedly, or finding something just when you need to.

And a funny thing happened when we left the restaurant. I wasn’t sure which car in crowded the parking lot was mine, because it was a rental. I clicked my unlock button, and the taillights blinked, and my friend said, “Oh, look! We parked right next to you!”

I like to think it was a little sign from Brian, a smile and wink from my old buddy, saying he was glad his son and wife and friend were able to see each other.

Miss you, big guy.

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A ghost story

Once upon a time, my parents bought a little house on the Cape. It was an investment; we had our family house already, but Dad figured he’d buy another, hold it for a few years, then sell it at a profit.

I loved the house. It was fully furnished, and I thought the layout was cooler than our other house. But it was strange, because there was still stuff in the closets—toys and clothes and all that. Dad told us that the family had to move suddenly.

UnknownThe first time I stayed at the house, it was winter, and bitter cold. I went to bed, and in the middle of the night, I woke up because I was freezing. My window was open, which was odd, because I didn’t remember opening it. I closed it and flipped the lock, figuring it had a funky spring.

In the morning, it was open again.

I guessed that I got hot and re-opened it. But I had no memory of doing that.

Fast forward to another visit when my friend and I were staying there together. There was a marble-topped bureau in my room, and in the morning, it was covered with pennies. “Why’d you leave all this change here?” I asked.

“I didn’t,” my friend said.

Okay. Well…she must have.

And then…then came the summer I was living up at the other house on the Cape. My parents asked me to clean the newer house between renters, and so I did, bringing my own laundry over, since my place didn’t have a washer or dryer. I finished cleaning, and because it was so hot, went down cellar to read as my laundry finished drying.

I sat in a folding chair and read.

And then…suddenly…I was freezing.

I could see my breath.

And I was terrified. The hair on my neck stood up, and dread washed over me in a sickening wave.

There was only one thought in my head, repeating over and over. Don’t turn around. Don’t turn around. Don’t turn around.

But the stairs were behind me.

I also knew I couldn’t stay.

Before another second had passed, I bolted for the bulkhead stairs, threw open the doors and burst into the backyard and hot sunshine. I was almost surprised to be alone. The bulkhead doors yawned open and I rubbed my arms, still freezing cold.

After a few minutes, I settled down. But my laundry was still down there. All my clothes and towels for the week.

It took me half an hour to work up the courage to go back down…slowly, slowly.

It was no longer freezing cold…just cool and damp. Still, I grabbed my laundry and ran back up the stairs, locking the door behind me. I never did laundry there again.

A few years later, we sold the house. I was helping my dad pack up some stuff, and when we got in the U-Haul, I told him the story of that summer day.

“Well, yeah,” Dad said in his matter-of-fact way. “The house is haunted. That’s why your mother will never stay here.”

“What?” I screeched. “Why wasn’t I informed?”

“I thought you knew,” Dad said. “The wife…she killed herself.”

That explained a lot. Why there were still clothes in the closet. Dishes in the cupboards. Toys in the kids’ rooms.

“How?” I asked.

“Well,” Dad said more gently. “She hanged herself in the cellar.”

Over the next fourteen years, that house was sold again and again and again. Every time I went to the Cape, it seemed like there was a For Sale sign in the yard.

Finally, when I was checking the house out one day, a man came out and walked over to my car. “Can I help you?” he asked. I explained that my family had once owned this house. “How do you like it?” I asked.

“You mean, do we find any pennies?”

“Yes! Do you?” I asked.

“No, he said. “I guess that stopped with the last owners. Whatever was here seems gone now.”

May she rest in peace.

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Turn your head and cough

Nursing1I had a doctor’s appointment this week, which as you know is thrilling for me. I feel so special. I got weighed (no comment) and measured. Still five-foot-eight, no matter how much I want to be five-foot-nine. Blood pressure, one of my strengths, was nice and low. “I could be your poster child for blood pressure,” I offered. Heart rate was also slow and steady, because I was feeling chill.

And then came the fun. Dr. H., a smiling woman with lovely green eyes, and the actual exam. Since I am me, I had several diagnoses for her. “I think I need to be put into a medically-induced coma,” I said. “I’m a little tired.”

Unknown“Getting more sleep also works,” she said.

“Please?” I said. She held firm.

I was not deterred. “Also, I have a brain tumor. My left pupil sometimes dilates more than the right. It’s always after I struggle with my contacts.”

“It’s probably your contacts and not a brain tumor.”

“Can you check anyway?”

So she gamely did the eye-tracking test (aced it!) and checked my reflexes (I have them!). She once again patiently explained that I do not have Lou Gehrig’s disease. She asked after my broken ankle and laughed when I told her it passed the slutty shoe test.

“Do you want a flu shot?” she asked.

images“Yes!” I said, like she’d just offered me a jumbo-sized Snickers.

The nurse wanted to draw blood, but it was 10:30 a.m., and I’d guzzled some coffee and an English muffin. I’m not the “skip breakfast” type.

So guess what? I get to go back next week.


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On the road

photo[1]You might know that I was on book tour this week, out in the heartland. My publisher hired a car service to shuttle me to and from the airport, hotel and bookstores, and two of my drivers were aspiring novelists, so we had a great talk. One guy, named Loyal, had this gorgeous head of white hair and the nicest Missourian accent. Charles had a porkpie hat, and Glenn was waiting for his first grandchild to arrive.

Hotel_Arista_roomThere’s a surreal sense about this part of my career: being driven places, staying in lovely hotels. Most of my work days are spent in the company of my dog. McIrish and Dearest Son might pop in to say hi, but I’m alone all day. No makeup, slippers instead of heels. That’s the writing life. Book tour…that’s the author life. And it’s fun, I won’t lie! It’s like I’ve been let out of my halfway house or something. The bathroom at that first hotel was glorious. These are the important things when you travel, you know? Soft towels and good-smelling soap. I had a little balcony at the second hotel, but it was raining pretty hard, so I just opened the slider and let in the fresh, damp air.

One charming hotel concierge and I had a long conversation: I have a “Tell Me Everything” face, which is helpful if you’re a writer. He told me about his rather tough childhood, growing up poor, having the electricity turned off, having to eat at friends’ houses because his family didn’t have enough food. “I wouldn’t change anything,” he said. “That all made me who I am today, and I’m a happy guy.” He sure seemed to be.

Unknown-1I loved the neighborhoods I got to see; lots of bungalows and pretty yards. Good for trick or treating. Charles, one of my drivers, told me the real estate prices; the Midwest is a lot more affordable than the East Coast. The leaves weren’t quite as brilliant as ours are at home, not yet, anyway. It rained inches in Kansas City, but it was gorgeous in Chicago.

Then, of course, are the readers who drive for hours in some cases, which is such an honor that I can’t really put it into words, how humbling and thrilling that is. One lady brought in her little doggy to meet me, and he was such a sweetheart. I also called her daughter, who’s in college up north, and chatted with her. People brought me presents from their towns, and my dear friend Kim brought me soft, silly socks and lots of chocolate. (I ate a candy SonaliKristanMeloniebar for breakfast Thursday morning, being the Nutrition Queen. Don’t tell Evil Boxing Trainer.) Sonali Dev, Melonie Johnson and Joyce Lamb, who are fellow writers and friends, came out to see me in Chicago. I received gifts for McIrish and Willow. When I had my usual wardrobe malfunction, one reader had a safety pin, so I didn’t end up flashing anyone (thanks, Jayshree!).

Best of all is getting to meet you, gang. Thank you for your warm welcome, your notes, your posts and tweets and gifts and hugs. I’m so lucky to have you!

And now, back to work, back to the doggy and the big goofy chair, back to my silly socks and shark slippers. Home, sweet home! Until I go to Easton, PA on Tuesday, and then Boonsborn, MD, on 11/1, and then, thrillingly, Europe. But for now, the laptop, the chair, and the Hershey Nuggets.

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