Monday, October 24, 2016

Neighborhood Watch

The Grim Reaper appears in our neighborhood the end of September. It is six feet tall, blank faced, and planted firmly in the flowerbed outside the orange rambler with the blue rocking chair on the porch. It is an omen; a sign; its outstretched arms beckoning for more macabre decorations to follow. And they do. By week’s end our neighborhood is dotted with headstones and pumpkins and cheap, Styrofoam ghouls. One yard boasts a skeleton, flat on its back on a gurney, an infant skeleton emerging from its pelvis.

There are accidental decorations, too. A black cat has met its fate on 7th East. A young married couple have giddily painted “It’s a Girl” in red lettering on their living room window. I pass the house the day after a rain storm, the careful letters running like blood, the happy news made unintentionally horrific.

Mid-week I haul my son down the street for a playdate. Our neighborhood is lousy with three-year-old boys, and it is something of a joy to watch them play, to witness the buoyancy that comes with innocence.  “You’re the only one without a baby,” my friend says as she pulls her infant daughter from her car seat. This observation is simultaneously painful and comforting. We talk about preschools and diets and grocery shopping. I am thankful for the beneficence of geography—that we women are not only neighbors, but friends.

On Friday the street a few blocks down from us is cordoned off by emergency vehicles. Police swarm the home of a retired couple—parents who have recently taken in their thirty-something son. Rumors fly about the son, and I gather slivered gossip that includes words like explosive devices and teenaged girls and abuse. The retired couple, by all accounts, are not to blame.  "Good people," my neighbor says of the parents. "At church every Sunday."
That night I can’t sleep. There are reports of stolen cars and egged houses on the neighborhood Facebook page. The wind howls outside my window. It seems the world itself is ill at ease; a world where adult children masquerade as clowns and take things that don't belong to them and seek the presidency. I think of my own babies, asleep in their beds, and try to console myself with the thought that most children grow up to be just people. I try to reassure myself that we are safe, here in our home; that the walls are solid, the foundation sure.

And then comes morning, calm and bright and blue. There is nothing like a brilliant autumn day. I am thankful for the mercy of the equinox, that the bitter is balanced by the sweet. 

A few days later, I drive past the house of the retired couple. The father is on a ladder, caught up in the arms of an apple tree. He reaches up and plucks an apple from a branch, and perhaps it is just wistful thinking on my part, but the motion seems exceptionally tender, as if he is sparing the fruit from its otherwise inevitable fall.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Best Friends Forever

We both moved onto the same neighborhood block the year before we started first grade, and before you knew it we were inseparable. I liked her because she was brave and a good listener and had lots of interesting things to say. When I had an untied shoelace at recess, she was the one who asked Mrs. Fisher to tie it for me, because I was too afraid to ask. I liked her because she was sophisticated and cosmopolitan: we listened to cassette tapes of the Beach Boys in her bedroom and she had an aunt that lived near La Jolla (the ‘j’ makes the “hah” sound).  She slept in the basement, and we had to pass her older brother’s room on our way down the hall. Sometimes, his door was ajar, and I could catch sight of posters bearing exotic cars and daring ski stunts and bikinied women.
Her family drove Saabs, spent Christmas in Hawaii, skied in Park City and had a boat and jet skis. We didn’t have cable, but they had a satellite dish the size of a minivan on a cement pad in their backyard. And on one auspicious day, they installed a miniature TV set in the kitchen. They had a Mount Olympus water dispenser and, after school, we would drink the sweet water and spread butter on Saltine crackers and watch episodes of Small Wonder and Full House.

She had beautiful hair. My sisters and I had our thin hair trimmed at Fantastic Sam’s, but she went to a stylist—a man I imagined as a Fabio-type character with linen pants and bare feet.

She knew, at my house, that my mom made popcorn with real butter and that my dad liked to sing. She was allowed to drink from the big cup of ice water that my mom kept filled on the kitchen counter—but not any other friends. We took piano lessons from the same teacher and made up a song about her incessant praise for the metronome. We both had a crush on Aaron Lingman and we both were in the same Primary class at church.
In the summer we’d watch Overboard and Grease and Better Off Dead. We ran lemonade stands together and rode our bikes around the lazy, suburban streets. We had sleepovers, lots and lots of sleepovers. We’d talk late into the night and, as we grew, the topics changed from Santa Claus and lost teeth and Barbie dolls to training bras and periods and boys. We’d talk and talk until one of us said “I’m going to fall asleep soon, but you keep talking until I do.”

She was the first of us to experience loss. Her maternal grandfather died, and she didn’t dare to go to his funeral service. It is the only time I remember seeing her with some of her bravery gone.

We read Anne of Green Gables and called ourselves bosom buddies. I pictured her as Diana, the dark-haired beauty, and myself as Anne, the awkward writer. We watched Beaches over and over and cycled through boxes of Kleenex. I pictured her as Bette Midler – although not as brassy – and myself as Barbara Hersey – just as quiet, but perhaps not so long-suffering. Other girls our age moved in and out of our neighborhood, but our alliance and loyalty were set. I’m certain we wore the “Best Friends” necklaces on more than one occasion – the cheap dollar store kind with chains as soft as sand and jagged broken edges.  But we never needed to: everyone knew that I was her best friend, and she was mine.
There were small resentments, too. She landed more babysitting jobs than I did. In sixth grade, we both served on Safety Patrol, but she was selected as captain.  At lunch, she started sitting with the girls who used words like “screw” and “condom” and “virgin” – dark, secret words that, at the time, I found terrifying. And then, there was always that hair of hers.

I moved the summer before we started junior high, and before you knew it, our lives started to separate. We went to different schools, had different friends, different interests. I suspect, if I had stayed on that same neighborhood block, our lives would have diverged anyway. But the distance gave us an excuse to drift apart; it allowed our friendship to adjust without any bitterness or hurt.
She invited me to go to Lake Powell with her family just weeks before we started high school. We were no longer best friends, but we had kept up well enough with the occasional phone call or visit. The night before we left, she and I climbed onto a giant red rock and laid down and gazed at the stars. It’s been over twenty years, but I still remember that night sky —the texture and illumination and sheer wonder of it. We were tanned and lean and on our way to adulthood— our knees tucked up and our hair splayed out around us like halos or supernovas. We talked and talked in that easy way we’d always had, mostly about starting high school and friends and boys we liked. I think we were both a little afraid of the mystery of adulthood that loomed large in front of us. But there was a certain security in the two of us, talking side by side, the universe of my childhood contained in the locket of her memory, and hers in mine.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Hello, Cephalopod Coffeehouse participants!

This month I listened to Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain on Audible. I had heard a review of the novel on NPR when it was published back in 2012, and was interested in reading it but, for one reason or another, never got around to it.  Thankfully, I recently saw a preview for the movie adaptation, and decided to give it a go. I'm glad I did.

The novel takes place during one day: a Thanksgiving day Dallas Cowboys football game, where Billy Lynn and his other Bravo Squad mates have been invited to participate in the halftime show, where none other than Destiny's Child will be performing. The soldiers have received this rather auspicious invitation because they have been deemed heroes, thanks to an embedded Fox News crew's footage of a firefight against Iraqi insurgents, and is the concluding event in their "victory tour" before they are sent back to serve another tour in Iraq.

One of my favorite scenes of the book is when the members of the Bravo Squad are given footballs and are shown into the Cowboys locker room for autographs. The depiction of these soldiers, who have literally risked their lives, kowtowing to these professional athletes is poignantly ironic. Fountain details the enormous investment made into the athletes: the planning, organization, and infrastructure needed for each game; the superior care and attention given to the players' physical needs. He also illustrates the economically depressed backgrounds of the soldiers, contrasting them with the "patrons" of the Cowboys, who can spend $1000 on a logo monogrammed leather jacket.

This book contains mature language and topics and may not be suitable for all readers. However, if, as I believe, the greatest end of a book is to engender empathy, this book is well worth your time.

Monday, September 19, 2016

You Can Do Anything With an English Degree, and other Tall Tales

Anything feels like a dead end. I am twenty one years old, newly married, and am beginning to question my life choices. The career counselor is not helping.  “You can do anything with an English degree,” she says for the second time. I am a semester away from graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English. I have selected this rather audacious course of study because, in the classroom, William Carlos Williams’s red wheelbarrow and Gerard Manley Hopkins’s spring felt like more than words on paper. They felt like everything. But now, with the prospect of actually providing for myself before me, poetry is losing some of its relevance.  “What, specifically, can I do?” I ask. The counselor gives me a wan smile that looks like defeat.
So upon graduation I keep on with the job that I got to get me through college. It is somewhat underwhelming, this job, but it is better than nothing. It is, I tell myself, something. A steady paycheck. Benefits. A place to go from 9 to 5. Still,  I buy a spiral notebook from Albertsons with plans to write a novel. I start and stop and then stuff the notebook in my nightstand, overwhelmed by all the space within its pretty lined pages.

I am twenty four years old and hauling two stuffed suitcases onto the London Underground. My husband has come to study abroad and I am along for the ride. I put together my resume, my “CV” as the Brits call it, and send it out to several temp agencies. I am called in for an interview and receive an optimistic eyebrow raise when the recruiter notices I have an English degree. He might have something for me, he says, at a publishing house near the West End. I hit up the high street for a pinstripe jacket and meet a man in a slim, trim suit who seats me in front of a computer and tells me to “format the document.” I click aimlessly through the thing for the better part of the morning until the man returns to see how I’m getting on.  Not well, apparently, if his dour expression is any indication. “What, specifically, should I do?” I ask.  He gives me a crooked smile before asking me if I wouldn’t like to take an early lunch, go on and call it a day.

So instead I find work at a hospital, doing billing for patients with private health insurance. On the weekend I go to the octagonal-shaped library in West Kensington, the one that reminds me of some primitive, makeshift spaceship, and reserve an hour on the computer. I pull up Word and attempt to write. Nothing. The blank screen stares back at me like a void. I am a reader, not a writer, I tell myself, and check out a book for my hour-long commute.
I am twenty eight years old, a new mother, and renting an apartment in northwest Indiana. My husband is a newly minted attorney. The reality of being a lawyer’s wife is not squaring with the expectation I had when he began school. It is somewhat underwhelming to dwell in an apartment with carpeted kitchen, but it is better than nothing. It is, I tell myself, something. A beginning. A starting place. An almost home. But the money is tight and the apartment is cramped and the baby is beautiful but he cries and cries and sometimes, when I can't get him to settle down, I feel like I am losing my mind. "What, specifically, can I do?" I ask. He gives another epic wail before spitting up on my shoulder.

And then, one night, when the baby is sleeping and my husband is snoring, I wake and creep into the carpeted kitchen. I switch on the light, snag a pen from the junk drawer, and place a sheet of paper on the little round kitchen table. I have waited long enough. Overwhelming or not, there is space here, on this blank page. There is room here, I think. Room of my own. Maybe my career counselor was right. Because the page before me feels like more than something. It feels like an open road. An answer. A calling. It feels like anything.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

This is happening!

On August 9th - two weeks from today - my young adult novel, Accidentally Me, releases for publication with Cedar Fort.

As part of the release, Cedar Fort has organized a blog tour. Check out this darling banner:

To launch the novel, I will be signing books at The King's English Bookshop on Tuesday, August 9th, at 7 PM. Please come celebrate with me!

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Cover Reveal: On the Corner of Heartache & Love

On the Corner of Heartache & Love
Cover Reveal!

Coming September 2016!

About the Book

After three years, Maren Summers is elated to finally have her dream wedding to her dream man, Kevin Bryant. In her sights is the promotion to Weddings she’s worked so hard for at the newspaper. Happily ever after is within her grasp…
Until Kevin jilts her at the altar, elopes with another woman, and becomes her boss. Devastated by the twisted turn of events Maren moves in with her best friend and notices the not-so-homeless guy on the corner, Zane Whitfield. As his heart-wrenching tale unfolds—his vow to wait a year on the corner for his lost love—Maren sees his compassionate human-interest story as her ticket away from 
Kevin, weddings, and her heartache.
But as the New Year approaches, is Maren headed for heartache again when Zane's lost love returns or has time changed more than one heart?

About the Author

Lisa Swinton caught the romance buy early by way of fairy tales and hasn’t been able to cure it yet. She feeds her addiction with romance novels, films, and chocolate. A doctor’s wife and busy mom of two, she enjoys putting her musical theater degree to use at church and in community theater. She enjoys researching her family tree, painting her house, and baking. She loves to travel and all things Jane Austen. In her next life she’d like to be a professional organizer.

You can visit her at:

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: Station Eleven - Not your teenager's dystopia

Hello, Cephalopod Coffeehouse participants!

This month I read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. For your viewing pleasure, the cover:

Um, wow. I heard about this book on NPR, and then, later, spotted it on my mother-in-law's coffee table. The book begins with an on-stage heart attack of a famous movie actor -- playing the role of King Lear, no less. On the heels of his death comes the demise of civilization: a highly contagious virus, the Georgian Flu, wipes out essentially 99.9% of the world's population in a matter of days.

The book is comprised of several narratives from several view point characters and the chronology bounces from pre-collapse to post-collapse and back again. The thread tying all of these characters together is the eponymous Station Eleven, a graphic novel created by Miranda, the actor's first wife.

Although billed as a science fiction dystopian novel, Station Eleven struck me as more of a poetic, philosophical treatise. I mean, the tough guys in this book are a band of musicians and thespians called the "Traveling Symphony." There is some interesting exploration of what is socially significant: if you had the chance to rebuild society, what would you keep from the past? What is worth passing on? What survives?

Although the jumps in point of view and chronology were somewhat distracting, I was engaged because the novel seemed to be building to some great revelatory conclusion. For me, the book ended without fulfilling its promises. Reading this book was like waiting at a train station, instead of taking a ride.