Wednesday, June 22, 2016


Sometimes the oddest small happenings trigger a chain of memories. Not always a long chain, but in this case, potent, despite the seventy years it stretches across. This kind of summer-wondering has led me to a profound question: What ever happened to the wink?

I have learned that I sometimes have a balance problem when I’m carrying a bag of groceries and I have a scar to remind me. So yesterday, groceries slung over an arm and new orthopedic insoles forced me to walk cautiously as I made my way home from Safeway. The sun was shining, and I might have been smiling (or gritting my teeth a little) as I went along. Ahead of me a small grizzled black man stood on one edge of the sidewalk looking my way. He was old, like me. A little humped, but smiling big, he met  my eyes. His glance shimmered with good cheer. I smiled big back at him. I couldn’t hear his words as he winked, but I smiled even bigger and was forty years younger, my steps light and sure.

My first wink came in the sixth grade. Innocent in those days, we gained boyfriends through snickering rumors. The latest rumor was that Erwin, who sat two seats in front of me, liked me. “Did he say so?” I asked the friend who had whispered the news. Erwin had never even glanced as me. He was okay, though, except for his Day-Glo socks, and he was never mean on the playground like some of the boys. When our strict teacher relaxed his patrol of the room, looking for something in his closet, Erwin turned around, grinned and winked at me, confirming the rumor. I got the message, but I never did get used to his bright orange socks.

I read that in the Wodabbe tribe in the Niger area, a man who wants to have sex with a girl will wink at her. If the girl continues to look at him, he will slightly move his lip corner, showing the direction to his selected bush. However, Wikipedia adds that in other cultures, a wink can express approval and appreciation. That’s the kind of wink I am referring to. No bushes involved.

Other winks are only twitches in my memory, but I’ll never forget the one in Lucca. I was walking along a street, my husband in language school, I foraging in English for our dinner. Using my fingers I had learned to say eight slices of prosciutto and to point at the melons and I had the prerequisite string bag hanging on my arm. A block or so from the market, three or four old men stood talking and smoking. They seemed to stand a little straighter as I approached. They smiled. I smiled back. When I passed the quieted group, the one closest to me winked and, his voice, low and Italian, whispered “Bella.”

“Bella,” after seventy-two years of aging, bad knees, sun spots. I have taken courage from that wink and that word for almost ten years. And today, a gentle man winked at me and I felt the same surge of joy. If males understood the power of a wink, they’d learn to lower one eyelid, smile, murmur one sweet word. No telling what would happen after that, but I think it would be good.

Jo Barney Writes

Sunday, June 5, 2016


For a minute I felt a little like Lana Turner must have felt as she sipped her Coke at a Hollywood drugstore counter and heard the guy sitting next to her say, “Would you like to be in movies?” I’m guessing she turned, smiled brightly, said “Yes,” as he took her by the hand and led her away to fame.

I sat in a wicker chair, so dry-mouthed I had to force my lips to open. No drugstore, only the Pacific mumbling below us. “I like the sound of your story.  Will you send me the manuscript?” I licked my mouth, tried to curve it into a smile. “Yes.” The NY agent walked me to the door and into a life of fame. But first I had to find a glass of wine or at least a Coke so that I could celebrate, tell the news to my friend.

We had spent the day at a writers’ workshop listening to a speaker tell us how we should write our next novels. I fidgeted. I couldn’t relate. I had finished my next novel and I had paid the fee to pitch it to the guest agent. I waited two sweat-palmed hours for my fifteen minutes with her and with destiny. “Send me the manuscript,” made the year of writing, the long workshop, the wet hands, the dry mouth all worth while.

I went over each page one more time, incorporated some of the changes one of my Beta readers had suggested, and created a title. The Long Road, I decided late one night. Done. Punched “Send” and flung my book into the world. Then I waited for fame––or at least a response from the pleasant young woman who had nodded through my halting synopsis in that ocean-fringed room.

“We get three hundred queries a week,” she had warned. Then she added, “We are a small agency. We bring out about four or five books a year.” For days I tried not to think of the odds. I went for walks, drank a little too much white wine, was so crabby that my husband escaped regularly to the bakery down the street for a little peace and his New York Times.

On the tenth day, I opened my emails and her name appeared.

It was not a standard everyday rejection. She referred to the great weekend at the beach. She had read The Long Road, liked it, but. . . “But I’m afraid that I just didn’t get that breathless sense of connection while reading your pages, and that’s the kind of enthusiasm that I need to summon when I decide to go to bat for a book.”

Fair enough. I know about that breathless sense of connection. I’ve experienced it in books I’ve read and loved, the ones I wished I’d written. Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf, the first half of Penelope Lively’s bio Dancing Fish and Ammonites, come to mind. These stories are my kind of stories, about the lives of older women. Perhaps I’d do better with an agent over sixty instead of a smiling twenty-something.

But I’m questioning whether I’m brave enough to risk further attempts to find an agent. Or tenacious enough for more rewrites of The Long Road, breathless connections in mind. When I decide,  I’ll have my summer’s work laid out.

Jo Barney Writes