Sunday, December 6, 2015


My chest is tight. I have that oh-oh feeling when I wake up each morning. I say mean things to my fine husband. Like, “Will you please put your day-old socks in the dirty clothes basket for once? They are having a two-day orgy on the foot of the bed. Very distracting and I’m trying to make a list of things to worry about.”

Don shrugs, smiles.  “Perhaps one item on the list should be to investigate why my black socks resting quietly on my side of the bed make you think of orgies.”

Not orgies, really, more like riots.  Like what’s going on in my head.  I explain, “It’s almost Christmas. I had the nightmare again last night. The one where I’m about to give a speech and I can’t remember why I am standing dumbstruck at a podium.”

“Oh, oh,” he answers and he picks up his socks.

I am the matriarch of my small family. Actually, my mother is but she’s 101 and ten years ago she handed over the scepter to her elder daughter. A pencil, actually. And a piece of paper.

I rewrite my list four times, shop my catalogs, and review the menu, always cheese fondue for twelve folks, young and old. But last year something happened to the cheese and eating it involved trying to spear and move to one’s mouth long strings of rubber.  I don’t like working all day on a meal and ending up having people laugh at it.  This year it will be vegetarian lasagna, I decide. Safe. 

The phone rings.  My cheerful son surprises me by volunteering his talented teenage daughters as cooks for our Christmas Eve dinner. “To give you a break,” he says.

“Sure,” I manage to answer. “I’ll set the table.” I am deposed as matriarch. I hang up, overcome with negative thoughts.  Even they don’t want the fondue again. They think I am too old to manage.  They hate singing carols. The Bible story we always read bores them. Maybe they’d rather stay home.

Depressed, I ask my mother how she felt when I took over the role from her.  “Happy.” She gives me her sweet smile. “Why?” Nowadays Mom smiles a lot.

I do understand that change is the only constant. However, when you have eighty years of changing, usually for the best, it is difficult to accept what is changing right now: the control of body functions, neck, memory, ability to get up from the sofa without groaning, children whose hair will soon be as gray as mine, the loss of the responsibility of stirring a pot of cheese into rubber. 

“Everything changes,” my husband says as we walk to the bookstore. He takes my hand, perhaps because I’m inclined to shuffle over cracks, perhaps because he needs me as much as I need him.

 “Old age ain’t no place for sissies,” Bette Davis and my mother whisper.

 I‘m going to stop whining. I squeeze his fingers. “I’m not a sissie,” I tell him. 

“Nope, and I’m not either. Ice cream store coming up. Kefir again?”

Jo Barney Writes

Saturday, October 3, 2015


In the midst of constant radio coverage, TV photos of traumatized students, a million words pouring out of the minds and mouths of onlookers who attempt to gather their thoughts into rational responses to yet another mass murder, how can I rejoice in a small happy moment of my own life?

I was swirling through my Facebook account, reading the posts of both famous and not-so-famous people who, though stunned, managed to express their anger, shock, their condolences, and their sense of helplessness. We, we, we, have to do something, they wrote, and some had ideas of what that something might be.  Control guns, do more about the mentally ill, protect our schools, defend ourselves with our own weapons, and one, not smiling, suggested that congressmen who voted against more funds for mental health projects be sent to a mental health facility for a while to experience what is not being done for those who need that kind of help. (Never mind that many of those facilities have been closed for years in a wave of new medications that promised to deal with disturbed people without locking them up. But perhaps that’s another story.) Others threw up their virtual hands, which shook with anger, fear, hopelessness, offering no solutions.

I couldn’t bear to read any more.  My silent voice had joined this chorus of keening mourners, and I needed to find some sort of respite. I went to my email. When I clicked on a note from a familiar writing site, I was informed that a review of Never Too Late was complete. It had received five stars and had been posted on a number of social media sites. The review made my book seem like the next New York Times best seller.

Finally! My first reaction. All those weeks of scouring the internet for  someone to read my book(s) had resulted in one person who did.  And liked it. A cloud of sweet euphoria settled over my shoulders and I read the review three times.  Maybe I am a writer, I told myself.  Maybe I should keep going on that novel languishing in my computer.

Then I remembered.

And now, hours later, sadness and joy are still crouched inside me, in a facedown, eyeing each other, making tentative jabs at tender places, desiring to win the fight to determine which one would win my day. However, a moment ago I experienced an epiphany, a truth so obvious I won’t write about it to my friends on Face book. I was looking at the review one more time, and I understood the power of one person telling another that she is worthy of her dreams. I knew then that somehow joy will overcome sadness, in me, in others. The result will be Hope.  And with hope we all can move forward as we support each other’s dreams.

Jo Barney Writes

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Finding Peace, or Maybe a Piece of It For A While

I’m really tired of thinking about marketing my three novels that are being re-published this month. I have already marketed them under their original titles and they all have good reviews and now it’s déjà vu all over again. Tomorrow I’ll get out my To Do list and find out if anyone is interested in previewing them (again). Probably not, I’m guessing.

But today, on this sunny afternoon, I’m going to think not about selling books but about the importance of finding the calm places in one’s life. Even when one is as old as I am, life gets complicated and demands on time and energy present themselves every day. I have wondered what would happen if I said no, not only to others, but even to my own demands of myself, not every time, but consciously, once in a while.

I decided to try it.

A group of women I know are getting together, everyone bringing something, for an evening of food and talk. I, after weighing my mixed reaction to the invitation, said I could not join them, I was busy. Truth was, I didn’t want to have to scurry around finding a decent pair of shoes to wear, my sandals now not appropriate.

A civic- minded person I admire wondered why I didn’t volunteer at the local homeless center. Perhaps I would get some ideas for a book, and more important, feel as if I were doing something good for the community. I thought about my need to do something good for me, like take an exercise class for deteriorating bodies like mine. I chose to write a check, and then sign up for my next yoga session.

A friend from college asked if I’d like to go to lunch and catch up. All I could think of is why should we catch up now when we haven’t spoken to each other for three/four years? I begged off and spent time someone I know intimately, our phone calls salve to our sometime wounded days.

A neighbor wondered if I’d have book club at my house, serving dessert. I recalled my last club dessert, a cacophony of pudding and chocolate and graham crackers that exploded as I cut into it. I chose to avoid any such embarrassment again unless I could serve a Trader Joe’s cheese, but I didn’t offer that alternative. I just said no.

I got to a spot in my next book that I couldn’t move forward. I’d really messed up the storyline. I’d have to begin again if I wanted to pull my character out of trouble and into a path leading to a happy conclusion. Then I asked myself why I wanted to do that, that the character got herself into a mess, maybe there was no way out for her. So I put her in a drawer to find her own solution.

I read somewhere that as one gets older, she will slough off friends and obligations in natural moves towards simplicity. This may be why my buddy Pat, enjoying her solitude, knits sox, hundreds of them to hand out to friends when she feels like it but she doesn’t do Christmas. It may be why my mother crocheted an dozen afghans watching TV sitcoms and why I have five of them in my linen drawer, waiting for me to wrap myself in when I start re-reading all of the books on my shelves, a quiet hour goal.

I know my anticipating the peace of old age is why I have a bag of yarn behind my chair and a not-too-difficult sweater pattern to follow during the long hours of the coming winter.

But the sweater will have to wait for now, I’m pretty sure, until I’ve finished my marketing To Do list for three books who, like literary orphans, need homes. It’s very difficult to say no to them.

Jo Barney Writes

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Alicia Waits: Patience is Virtue

During the past week, I sat on the floor and screwed on the legs of two counter stools I ordered on the internet. I ended up not being able to chew for two days because I had gritted my teeth so tight twisting that screwdriver, I had thrown my jaw out of whack. “New way to diet,” I moaned through teeth that didn’t meet anymore.

“Oh, oh,” Don said.

Then I decided it was time to paint the living room. At the neighborhood paint store I mulled over the chips until I was blind and couldn’t tell pilgrim gray from jailhouse drab, so I brought home twenty samples of grays to show the two painters I had scheduled to interview that afternoon. “One or two coats? The trim white or gray? Eggshell or semigloss? Oil or latex?” they asked. I answered evasively, vague. The second guy walked to the door shaking his head. “Eggshell? Sounds nice,” I remember saying as the door closed..

Today I began my day by refinishing my dining room tabletop. Hours later, the wood gleaming, me feeling really good, I opened a closet door and started throwing things out, building a volcano of old games and stuffed animals and plastic blocks, the hallway a dystrophic scene of destruction. “I can’t get to my desk,” my husband complained. “So live with it,” I screeched, wiping the sweat off my forehead. “I’m on a mission.” I wasn’t sure where the mission was taking me. but I was definitely on it.

New paint ideas led to the sofa. Don, now quite worried about me and my mission, whatever it was, chaperoned me to a couple of furniture stores and then to an upholsterer and we paged through books, umming and ahhing, disagreeing on everything we showed each other. “Maybe you should take a few books home," the shop owner suggested, in an effort to avoid having to call for police intervention. We went home. We had a glass of wine. Or two. We compromised. I got my way.

“You’ve been a little strange, the past few days,” Don commented when by then we’d entered the center of the storm and could talk a little. “Obsessive, actually.”

“It’s Alicia’s fault,” I answered. “She won’t . . . Damn! She won’t BECOME!”

“Do I know her?” Don asked.

That’s the problem. No one knows her. I, her creator, I. who am trying write her story, don’t know her. She’s lying comatose, wanting me to wake her up. She’s breathing deeply, staying calm as she waits for me stop fussing around, for God’s sake, about eggshell or semigloss. She waits for me to relax and listen to the story she has to tell.

Jo Barney Writes

Monday, June 22, 2015

This Will Keep My Brain Active and My Body Immobile

So, I’m relaxing after a new episode of Orange is the New Black, or maybe it was a replay of Empire. And I have returned to the torture of becoming a face on Face book. I posted one message.  Minutes later I removed it when a relative objected to it.  Too personal, she said.
 As a novelist, I’m open to revealing any number of personal secrets usually through a nom de persona, of course,  so my fences around my privacy are jumpable and I have found out that my boundaries are not necessarily the boundaries of others.  A good lesson for a Facebook member, perhaps: “Don’t tell the truth,” Not a good lesson for a novel writer.
I do try to keep some things private, for the sake of family and marriage, yet I indulge and in fact, am expected to promote my writing in the most unprivate ways, to complete strangers. “Social media,’ my publishers advise. “You need a platform.  Lots of friends..”  I’m confused about what that means.
I understand that I should not divulge my husband’s current urinary complications, but I do tell friends, real friends about it.  But I’m becoming confused about what the word “friend” means now. I would like a few more friends the way I knew the word meant twenty years ago.
Facebook keeps telling me that so-and-so would be a wonderful friend, Twitter lets me know the someone in Ghana wishes to know me better .
Amazon, a new kind of really big friend, offers lists of books I will like next since people just like me have ordered these books too.
Today Facebook lets me know that I’ve not answered three friend
requests. Am I sick, it wonders, with great concern.
And the most intimate leak of information, for me, a reasonably private haus-frau, has  nothing to do with  choice of reading matter. It is my weekly grocery list. Lately, the local  foodstuffs giant sends me coupons for many of the foods I’ve bought recently, recipes that might go with the cheese I chose a week ago, and to make sure I drop by in my weekly manner, a discount on the adult diapers I buy for my mother. In a friendly gesture, it sends a small check at the end of the month.  To spend on the diapers, I suppose.
Next month I will enjoy few days at the beach with old ladies like myself, whom I’ve known since before anyone knew what digital meant, but we do know what friendship is, and we will share our ideas of what the world is coming to over glasses of white wine.

Jo Barney Writes

Wednesday, May 20, 2015


A counselor I enjoy and respect told me the other day that the thoughts that wander endlessly though one’s mind are only words, not reality. He said that when one is attacked by a thought that brings negative feelings, about oneself, about one’s life, about one’s decisions, one should not shove it down inside somewhere and try to forget it.  Instead, one should defuse the sadness, pain, anger that thought produced by acknowledging the existence of the thought while understanding that it is just words and may not be telling the truth.

“There goes that same thought,” he suggests as an example to me, “I had yesterday about not being a good mother.” After this acknowledgement, he says one can stand back, clear the way to find the truth of those words. I try it. “My children think I’m pretty good at this job, except the time I hit one of them in the face with as frozen fish, which he will never let me forget. We still laugh about it.” With this truth, the swirl of pain that had come unbidden to me by some triggered roll of my Rolodex of memories calms. 

This management of random negative thoughts takes practice.  I’m not very good at it yet, but as I try to put into words what this defusion of negativity is all about, I realize that if indeed I have one more book in me, the old woman I’m writing about will learn how to do it.  She will open her life to new people, experiences, herself.

As a writer telling stories about real people, I know that each of my novels is also telling a story about me.  Graffiti Grandma is about an old lady who isolates herself from those around her until she meets an unlikely teenager who has done the same.  I know about pulling away from those around me. As a writer, I isolate myself for weeks, months, as I enter another world. In Uprush, I spent many disconcerting hours recalling pieces of my past years and wondering what is next, just as my characters do. I was so inside Edith as I imagined her life, that I found myself swearing more, thinking about daughters-in-laws, and looking at husbands, black men and women in a way I had never done before.

In this next book, my character will change from a very self-centered, crabby old lady
whose every thought is negative and painful to some degree to a woman who knows that thoughts are just words, not truth.  I’m anxious to find out how her (and my own) life will change.

If you are interested in more details of this approach to thinking about thoughts, you will want to look at The Happiness Trap, How to Stop Struggling and Start Living by Russ Harris. 

And, yes, for those of you who read last month’s blog, I am working on defusing my negative thoughts about social media.   

Jo Barney Writes

Tuesday, April 28, 2015


Today I planted a dozen pink and red geraniums in the pots on my deck after I clipped away the dying greens from the tulips that greeted us on our return from our cruise. We had never gone on a cruise and luckily chose one that suited us just fine:  great food, free wine (me) and multiple desserts (Don) at each gourmet meal. We cruised to celebrate our mutual eightieth birthdays after we noted that in each port we could choose to walk around the town if we opted not to climb the volcano. It's important to have choices when one's choices in life are narrowing in many ways.

The geraniums were a choice, too, after my attempt at blueberries on a sixth floor terrace failed. No one, even a cruel winter, can kill off a geranium, at least here in Oregon, if it gets a little water and occasional kind words.

I've made another choice also. I have chosen to sign with a new publishing company which has offered to redesign my three books, make them a "set " of books that resemble each other and market them as a series. I will still have to help market the books and am obligated to join a list of social media sites to make my and their presence known. This kind of publishing, which includes paperback, e-book, and auditory versions, also uses the Print on Demand sources, but not Amazon or Createspace. Companies like this call themselves "hybrid publishers," and do much of the upfront work of putting out a book as well as support with websites and advertising as their authors market.

Two problems with my choosing to sign this contract. I will be spending many hours tweeting and  Facebooking, not to mention Tumbling. But my son Peter says all this a activity will keep my brain active, like crossword puzzles, so there will be an upside to this effort. The upside for him might be that it may prolong the time before I end up living in his basement.

Also, I need to decide which genre my books fit into. If I indicate Women's Fiction, they may end up next the Romance books. Or pecking away in the Chick Lit trough. My books have a little romance in them, but my women don't consider romantic love to be number one on their to-do lists any more. An intent look and a whispered, "Bella" works pretty good for most of us. A genre called Contemporary Women's Literature seems to indicate ambitious women characters with good hair and glass ceilings—and maybe about thirty years younger than my Ellie, Edith, and the pals in the beach house.

A number of phrases describe my women:  women of a certain age, older women, hens, old ladies, boomers (these are the more positive terms), and I'm being asked to direct my marketing efforts and my choice of genre toward this market.

So, I am again faced with a choice. Except I don't like any of the possibilities. Geraniums choices were easy. The genre of my books isn't. I need some help from anyone who knows what I'm talking about–the age thing–the importance of choice thing. Please.

Jo Barney Writes

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Welcome to Edith's cooking club: A recipe. Who knows what comes next?

Edith never did get that strata baked, what with Art's mysterious death, the clues from his pockets she had to follow to discover what he'd been up to, Brody, the new dog she had to walk, and of course, the unexpected  friendship with Kathleen, her too-perfect daughter-in-law.  When things settle down and everyone can relax a bit, she'll probably try the recipe again. She still has most of the ingredients except the muffins which Brody has learned to love.  This time  a lover might sit across the table from her.  But until then, I'm offering to anyone who has made it to this blog and has read this far EDITH'S CANADIAN BACON STRATA RECIPE.

This is not entirely because I'm a recipe sharer, or even a strata fan, but because EDITH, the book, is  on a tour across the nation, visiting a number of other folks' blogs and their followers, introducing her story,  and maybe convincing some of these people to buy the book to find out if this cranky older woman killed her husband or not.  Edith wondered most of the way through the book also. Edith and Art weren't very close.

I'm advised I should offer my readers on this tour an award for spending  a little time with Edith.  I couldn't  figure how white wine, Edith's favorite drink, could be delivered to anyone but me.  So strata it is.  Easter is coming.  Maybe this dish would be great for a spring celebration as well as Edith's interrupted Christmas brunch. Bon appetite!

Edith's Canadian Bacon Strata
*       Softened butter for pan
4       English muffins, split, toasted, cut in half
1/2    pound sliced Canadian bacon, slices halved
1/3     cup finely shredded parmesan cheese
8       eggs
3       cups milk

1 1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
         Coarse salt and ground pepper
1/4     teaspoon Tabasco sauce

Butter a 2-quart shallow baking
dish. Alternately arrange, cut side
down, muffin halves and bacon in.
dish. Sprinkle with cheddar and
parmesan cheeses. Set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together eggs,
milk, mustard, ½ teaspoon salt,
pinch of pepper and hot sauce. Pour
over muffins and bacon. Cover
tightly with plastic wrap. Refrigerate
2 hours, or up to overnight for an
especially custardy consistency.

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.
Remove plastic wrap and a place
baking dish on a rimmed baking
sheet. Bake until puffed and set in
center, about 1 hour and 30 minutes.
Tent loosely with foil if strata
starts to brown too quickly. Let
stand 10 minutes before serving.

The Oregonian

Jo Barney Writes

Monday, March 2, 2015


This week I received six novels for which I paid one cent each.  Of course I also paid the postage ($3.99), and the novels all look much used and written upon and eaten over. All were on Amazon, on the “other listings” section, the prices beginning at one cent and going upwards.  Only one was on Kindle. They arrived one by one from bookstores all over the country like gifts from unknown lovers.  Book lovers, that is.

I decided a month ago to write some sort of article about the paucity of novels about old ladies, my genre.  I can think of quite a few books about old geezers, written and applauded around the world. J. M. Coetzee, Wallace Stegner, John Updike  come to mind, probably because they are on my bookshelves.  As for women, only Olive Kitteridge is tucked in with the S’s.  Books by women of all ages, of course.  About?  Not really.

When I Googled “books for older women,” I found lists of publications discussing the possibility of sex after sixty, beauty aids one can find in one’s refrigerator, and one entitled Get Your Balance Back with Yoga.  No novels except a few tepid romances for women of a certain old age. I know they are tepid because they are rated as warm, not hot, certainly not burning.

Then I Googled “Novels about older women” and found a list of books from a number of countries, most published before ebooks existed.  All but one were written by women. All for sale for one cent.  I ordered the six or so that sounded good, even though I didn’t recognize most the authors. The copyright dates stretched from the l960’s to 2006.  For many of those years I was changing diapers and going to PTA and not thinking about getting old, just getting through the day. 

I’ve read three of my new/old books and have scanned the rest. I love them. Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel, May Sarton’s As We are Now, Penelope Lively’s How It All Began are piled on the Find a Good Place for These Books corner of my desk. The other pile is teetering on the bedside table waiting for this evening when I turn on the bed light and choose one of them. 

What I’ve decided, with this research, is that my own three novels about old ladies are important contributions to the genre Literature for Older Women. I can only hope that one way or another women who are wondering what’s on the path ahead will find them and accept their messages of courageous exploration—on Amazon, on Kindle, or on the one-cent table of some internet book store. 

Jo Barney Writes

Wednesday, January 28, 2015


At some point, one must say, “It’s finished.” I have punched the Publish button at Amazon.  Edith going to have to go it on her own from now on.

I’ve edited, re-read line-for-line and had friends point out typos. I’ve done some new formatting, centered the little trees at the beginning of chapters, and consistently double-spaced when the scenes change.

 I’ve researched the large number of anachronisms that snuck into the first drafts.  AIDs in 1974? Bubble tea in the early 90’s? All gone.  Jake’s Crawfish is still in the book. Actually, so is bubble tea, inaccurate but fun to read about. Tarantino has replaced HBO as an incentive for Edith to say a certain uncouth word a few times, after research indicated he didn’t shrink at using the word over one hundred times in an early 1990’s film.

I reviewed the timeline of my story and changed my characters’ ages by two years so that Edith could get through high school before she had to get married, which made her son as little younger than I wanted, but I changed that, too.

The most shocking changes I had to make were to words that over the almost- three hundred pages of the book I had repeated so often I wondered if a cog were loose  somewhere in my brain. When I noticed a repetition of the word “swallow,” (several of my characters like their wine), I typed it into the “Search in Document” space on the Word page.  A side column appeared and told me that I had used the word thirty-some times, once or twice a chapter.  Not always drinking.  Edith swallowed her words; the noise in the room swallowed her; she couldn’t swallow a story being told her, a fog swallowed the neighborhood.  Of course, a certain amount of wine and alcohol also got swallowed.  I asked for synonyms from my wordy husband:  “gulped, sipped, filled his mouth, drained,” he advised.  “And maybe you should change the whole sentence to some other action, ‘like closed his eyes.’” I knew I had used that phrase pretty often too.  It took me a day to get down to about ten irreplaceable swallows. 

Several other verbs made themselves known for the same reason. “Touch,” for one; “turned,” for another. Then I was relieved to realize this writing flaw was not senility–related. I recalled that in my first unpublished novel, a teenager shrugged at least twice in each chapter and I could come up with no other description of that action. And the little grade school kids in the same book smiled so often their cheeks quivered all day. Same kind of problem in the next two novels.

I apparently have some sort of repetition tic that emerges when I’m at my computer trying to make a story go into words.

I wonder if Annie Dillard or Alice Munro or Cheryl Strayed spend much time with the “Search in Document” space.  Or, perhaps they hire a good editor, like all of the books on writing advise us would-be authors.  I will too, maybe, on the next story, now that I’m finished with Edith.

Jo Barney Writes