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Enormous Changes at the Last Minute

I always loved that title — it's Grace Paley's. Yesterday, I experienced them first-hand. It happened so fast. Early in the morning, I was sitting at my desk, looking at a tour schedule that, to my way of thinking, included plenty of good stuff — bookstore readings, radio and print interviews and local affiliate TV tapings. The USA Today piece had just been published, and I was happy. Casually, I considered how best to pack my suitcase for my departure on Saturday night. At 9:30 a.m., I threw on some clothes and headed up the highway for a haircut.

The salon is a noisy place, and even if I could have heard my phone ring in my bag on the floor, I wouldn't have answered it in mid-snip. I glanced at the screen as I paid my bill, and noticed that I had four voice mails — a lot for me. Before I crossed the parking lot to my car, the cell rang again, and my publicist asked where I'd been — she had big news.

"Getting my hair done," I said.

"Well, that's a good thing," she said, "because you're booked on Good Morning America, and you have to leave tomorrow."

Months ago, when we sent GMA the publicity materials for Carved in Sand, we'd had high hopes, tempered with low expectations. This was my first book, and attractive as the subject matter was, it would be sheer hubris to think that I'd make it to the big time.

"Can you do it?" Camille asked.

"My calendar," I said. "Let me think."

In the course of writing the book, I learned that two places that I once successfully stored information — the figurative "back of my mind" and the metaphorical "top of my head," (as in, "off the top of my head") ought to be avoided at all costs. I have proven, again and again, that there is no longer any such place as the "back of my mind," and anything that comes "off the top of my head" is bound to be seriously inaccurate.

"My older son's birthday," I wailed. "Thursday. And my younger son's classroom performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream. He's Bottom."

There was silence on the other end. I knew what she was thinking. Would I really give up an opportunity like this in order to celebrate a 17th birthday, or view a bunch of 7th graders reciting Shakespeare? We'd run lines for weeks, and the kid had the part down. I sucked up the guilt. Briefly, I bathed in it. Then, I told her to say yes, wondering all the while how I was going to leave on my tour three days early. I'd sorted out a few clothes over the weekend, but the to-do list that remained was legion. My husband would not be pleased. Two and a half weeks away was a great long stretch that had to be carefully planned and negotiated. Now, it had stretched to three.

Within minutes, GMA's machine was in motion. Last second airline tickets (ooh, how much did those cost?), limousines, hotel rooms and media escorts were all in place. Suddenly, my publisher, HarperCollins, a company that had taken a "let's wait and see what happens" attitude for months, loved me and couldn't do enough. Overnight, it seemed that my professional life had been transformed.

At three in the afternoon, around the time I usually turn from working writer to full-time mom, another call came. GMA would like to send a producer and a camera crew to my house for some pre-taping — just a little interview and some B-roll footage. Could they meet me at home at 5pm? That gave me two hours, and to be honest, I still hadn't found a moment to take a shower. My hair, freshly conditioned with some expensive thing the stylist insisted I needed, hung limply. I was to dress casually, as I would if I were hanging around the house. I assured the producer that he did not want to see — ever — what I looked like when I was hanging around the house. Remarkably, my once-a-week house-cleaning service had been in just that morning, so at least I was not going to have to get out the mop. I called the kids and my husband, warning them of the tornado that was about to strike.

"Where are you?" I asked my elder son, when I reached him on his cell.

"On the way to work," he said.

"Um, when you get home, there will be a camera crew from Good Morning America in the house," I said.

Another moment of silence. Then, with the utmost cool, the kind that an about-to-be 17-year-old musters better than anyone else: "O...kay, then."

The crew turned up on time, and instantly, it was a party. Our two dogs assumed that the crew was there to film them, and began to bark insanely, while they chased each other from kitchen to dining room to living room. To escape, I suggested that we get some footage along the walking path near my house, with San Francisco Bay in the background. Back at home, they taped a long cuddle session with my boys on the sofa, photo albums open before us. "We really do this," I assured the producer. "It's one of our favorite ways to remember things, especially when it's going to be somebody's birthday." Around 9pm, the crew departed. We all looked at each other, thoroughly exhausted.

"This means you're not going to be here for my birthday, are you, Mom?" my older son said morosely. "What about my presents and my birthday dinner?"

I shook my head, and again the guilt washed over me. I'd never missed a family birthday celebration before. In fact, I'd made a big deal about how showing up for family events was not optional, looking ahead to the years when the guys would have wives. And a mother.

"I am very, very sorry," I told him. "But this is important, for all of us." Could I really expect him to understand? Was he that grown up? One look at his face told me that he was struggling. I invited him to bring a friend and meet me for the weekend in Los Angeles in a couple of weeks, where I'd be giving a reading.

"We'll go out for a fancy dinner," I said brightly. "We'll have fun. It will be okay."

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Enormous Changes at the Last Minute:... Used Trade Paper $6.50
  2. Carved in Sand: When Attention Fails...
    Used Hardcover $3.50

Cathryn Jakobson Ramin is the author of Carved in Sand: When Attention Fails and Memory Fades in Midlife

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