The Years of Magical Thinking #didion

It’s a warm Sunday morning already in Birmingham on Labor Day weekend. On Saturday, the town fled to the lake or one last gasp to Gulf Shores or more likely the Auburn or Alabama game. On our way home last night from giving Olive water therapy at a friend’s pool, we stopped at the store and the parking lot was empty.

Norah was driving and I didn’t have to help her navigate into a parking space because there were hundreds of empty spaces. It was a ghost town. Even the restaurant next door had shuttered for the weekend. We could hear a few shouts from far away, which always signals that somebody somewhere was watching “the game.”

I don’t watch the games but I check scores. We checked them last night after watching “Notting Hill,” a film Norah had never seen and declared a million times better than “Love Actually” and why hadn’t I showed it to her by now?

It came up because Kiffen and I walked through Notting Hill ourselves this past summer.




Anyway, I know that Auburn lost to Clemson in what must have been a heartbreaking game 19-13, and Alabama beat the crap out of USC. My dad watched the Alabama game in San Diego where my parents live far away from Alabama. I think about these things now that my parents are in their 80’s, and Norah is a senior in high school.


My friend, Lanier, used the phrase “magical thinking” last week after describing the pain of dropping her son off at college all the way across the country. I always think of Joan Didion saving her late husband’s shoes “in case he came back.” Her year of magical thinking.

I definitely had some sort of magical thinking happening  back when I took this job in 2009 to teach Creative Writing at UAB. I thought I would be able to freeze time – just a little. Only a little. That wasn’t asking too much, was it? I could maintain my LA and Alabama lives with relative ease. Our kids would kind of stay the same age. Flannery would be an artist/filmmaker/musician in LA after graduation from UC Santa Barbara, Lucy would be settled at Sarah Lawrence painting in her studio, learning Spanish, swimming on the team, taking trips into New York, and Norah would remain in that nebulous 6th-7th-8th grade time of being a kid. We’d do this for a number of years, and then I’d go home to my husband, whom I miss more each year away from him.

I think this is year seven, but actually as I recount, I’m starting my eighth year teaching here. What? And Olive, the dog we adopted in 2011 is seven, according to the records at the vet.



And even more shocking though it’s not as shocking as it once was – students come and go. They leave! They study a while and then graduate and go off and live their lives and even start families. Many of my students from just a few years ago are having kids. One student is even having her novel published by a major publishing house, and she began it in our “Writing for Young People” workshop in 2013.

INTO WHITE by Randi Pink (Feiwel & Friends, Macmillan)

And Booklist gave it a starred review! I’m thrilled for Randi not only because she’s such a lovely person who worked really hard, but she actually did what every kid’s writer should do. She joined and became very active in SCBWI – Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and attended conferences, found an editor and an agent, and worked at navigating her way in publishing. And now her beautiful story is going to come out into the world next week.



Here’s a funny memory from Norah’s first year in Alabama that we were talking about last night while she grilled. Norah has become rather skilled at the barbecue, firing up the briquets in their canister on our grill that was once a tacky blue “Budweiser” grill, but Kiffen painted it black this summer, and it almost looks new.

(“Paint it black” jumped out at me as I was writing the words, which distracted me and made me think of the Rolling Stones, and Flannery covering “Start Me Up” with his band, Flypaper Cartel at the Greek Theatre in 2005 and channeling Mick Jagger, and then  Janet Fitch’s novel, Paint it Black...but in our case, Kiffen painted an ugly grill black, and it looks infinitely better. )


Anyway, when Norah was in 6th grade I got her into a program at the Homewood Rec Center so she could make friends and learn about places in her new Alabama home. It was called “Homewood Environment Adventure Team.” Or “H.E.A.T.” for short. They went to baseball games, movies, the circus, the Veteran’s Day parade – all that kind of stuff. It was for 6th-7th-8th graders. And this one time she was out with a group of girls at the local mall and they ran into one of their teachers who asked them, “What are y’all doing here?”

The girls replied, “We’re in heat!” and the minute they said they knew it sounded just slightly off.

The teacher paused and said, “Excuse me?”

Norah said she looked rather concerned and so they all said together, “Homewood Environment Adventure Team!” and the teacher laughed and seemed relieved.


And speaking of magical thinking, next week my parents are going to the National Champion Reunion at Pitt. We beat the Georgia Bulldogs in the Sugar Bowl 40 years ago in 1976.

Forty years ago!

Players and coaches are all returning to Pitt to celebrate the National Championship win where I remember meeting the “Six Million Dollar Man” in the hospitality room of the Sugar Bowl. Lee Majors. He kissed me on the cheek. I remember thinking – I have to tell my field hockey friends. I was close friends with several girls on the field hockey team at Vicentian in Pittsburgh. We were the Vincentian Royals coached by Big Will. I missed my Pittsburgh friend, and I knew I would leaving them to move to Knoxville as soon as the house in Pittsburgh sold.

But it was the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, and I was with my Dad and he wanted me to meet Lee Majors. Lee Majors had a different last name once upon a time (Harvey Lee Yeary!!!!!!) and chose the name “Majors” after his hero, Johnny Majors. How do I remember that?  True, I just looked it up, but I absolutely recall a tattered article I read over and over in a magazine years ago about Lee Majors and Johnny Majors.

Besides, how could the Six Million Dollar Man remain Harvey Lee Yeary?

And this:


On a completely different note, I read recently that Tony Dorsett, the star of 1976 Pitt Panthers, has degenerative brain disease, which makes me very sad.

It was beautiful to watch Tony Dorsett run way back then in the old Pitt Stadium.


My friend, Rebecca Carpenter, a wonderful filmmaker and coach’s daughter, too, has made a film, ‘Requiem for a Running Back’ about her father’s journey through CTE – degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). He was Lew Carpenter and he coached for years at Green Bay.

I miss Rebecca whom I used to see regularly on Sunday afternoons in a writing workshop in Silver Lake before we knew her father was sick.

We bonded being the daughters of coaches when my first novel, OFFSIDES, was published.


This was me in Pittsburgh several years before the National Championship game in sixth grade, one of the longest years of my life. It had been too many years of being the tallest girl in the class and shrimpy boys asking, “How’s the weather up there?”

St. Teresa's Sixth Grade Class(2)

I didn’t mean to write about any of this on this warm Sunday morning in Birmingham.

Football always highjacks my writing. Maybe it’s because I’m not watching the games. 🙂

I had intended to write about a gentle man in our first apartment complex in Hollywood on Valentino Place where Flannery was born and I read him Where the Wild Things Are. But I’ll save his story for another Sunday (best day for blogging I’m realizing) and sign off with Olive, the otter mermaid, swimming. It’s so good for Olive’s back legs and building up strength from her paralysis even though she HATES getting wet.

Maybe, in a way, we’re all swimming. And thinking magically – a least a few of us as the years go by.


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