Category Archives: Strathmere

by the sea, something new

Strathmere 2014 - Conch shell

I spent this week by the ocean listening to the whoosh of a new story.

Of houses, big and small and just right.  Of family, then and now.

I walked to find the rhythm of the words, and scribbled down their shell-like fragments.

Of the past and the future. Of tradition and change. 

I read about the shaping of memoir and about the history of the place we’ve been coming to for years.

Of why we keep returning. Of what we seek. 

Dear waves, what will you do for me this year?
Will you drown out my scream?
Will you let me rise through the fog?
Will you fill me with that old salt feeling?
Will you let me take my long steps in the cold sand?
Will you let me lie on the white bedspread and study
the black clouds with the blue holes in them?
Will you let me see the rusty trees and the old monoplanes one more year?
Will you still let me draw my sacred figures
and move the kites and the birds around with my dark mind?

Lucky life is like this. Lucky there is an ocean to come to.
Lucky you can judge yourself in this water.
Lucky you can be purified over and over again.
Lucky there is the same cleanliness for everyone.
Lucky life is like that. Lucky life. Oh lucky life.
Oh lucky lucky life. Lucky life.

from “Lucky Life” by Gerald Stern


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reminders of the hope of future days, one year after the storm


I believe
And I believe cause I can see
Our future days
Days of you and me…

“Future Days” ~ Pearl Jam

Marking of one’s days and dates is the stuff that life is made of, either consciously or not.  For The Husband and me, moreso than most, there’s more than the casual interest in the chronology and passage of time. We look for patterns, correlations, coincidences. We remember and recall dates, the mundane and the momentous. It is one of the characteristics that has always made our relationship tick, so to speak.

A year in the life of a cancer patient – a cancer family – is an odd thing, at least it is from this perspective. There are parts that, from The Husband’s viewpoint as The Patient, are complete blurs and that’s for the better. From this vantage point as The Caregiver, most of it seems like a missing year; like we weren’t quite here.

In a very real sense, we weren’t.

If I ever were to lose you
I’d surely lose myself
Everything I have found dear
I’ve not found by myself
Try and sometimes you’ll succeed
To make this man of me
All my stolen missing parts
I’ve no need for anymore…

“Future Days” ~ Pearl Jam

Red Swing Corner 2Today is the one year anniversary since The Husband’s cancer surgery and as events in our lives tend to go, it coincided with the devastation that Hurricane Sandy incurred on our beloved New Jersey shore. The reminders of the storm – the meteorological one – are all over the news this week with the re-opening of Ellis Island and as my friends post photos of the way things were, with water up to porches and windows and stop signs, and how many people are still – one year later – living very much in the shadows of the storm.

As I wrote in a November 21, 2012 column for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

As Hurricane Sandy pounded and decimated the Jersey Shore, my brother sent me a photo of my aunt’s Strathmere street. There, the Atlantic Ocean and driving rains had submerged mailboxes, crashed into front doors, swept entire decks into the bay, crept more than halfway up the street signs.

“Not even high tide yet. Things don’t look good,” my brother texted me.

I sat helplessly a world away here in Pittsburgh, where my husband had just had surgery. I simultaneously watched the ICU monitors and the storm aftermath on the news. The feeling of loss was too familiar, the surging tide knocking me asunder. I braced for the possibility that we had just spent our last family vacation in Strathmere.

Two days later, as I again sat in my husband’s hospital room, my phone buzzed. Another photo from my brother. “Our” house. Still standing.

Porch stop signThere were times when I wondered. How. What if. Why.

“When hurricanes and cyclones raged
When winds turned dirt to dust
When floods they came or tides they raised
Ever closer became us
All the promises at sundown
I’ve meant them like the rest
All the demons used to come round
I’m grateful now they’ve left
So persistent in my ways
Hey Angel I am here to stay
No resistance, no alarms
Please, this is just too good to be gone …”

“Future Days” ~ Pearl Jam

In June we saw the house for ourselves, the aftermath of the destruction, the water lines and the commemorative signs on the wall of our my favorite restaurant. Our own emotional house was still shaky, still under reconstruction with no end date in sight.

As the song says, I’m grateful now that the demons have left, that they’re at bay. And as much as I might wish the coverage away and banished from my world as a reminder, I think  it takes seeing the rebuilding to remind oneself of what is, was, and always will be possible.

“I believe
And I believe cause I can see
Our future days
Days of you and me
You and me
You and me.” 

“Future Days” ~ Pearl Jam

Row of pink flowers on porch

photos taken by me

Strathmere, NJ

June 2013

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the sunday salon: after the books of summer have gone

The Sunday Salon


It’s here. The unofficial end of summer.

Let’s have a moment of silence for what has gone before, please.

In general, I had a fantastic summer reading season – which we all know goes from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Many of the 24 books I read were –  like those perfect days with 75 degree temperatures poolside – pure perfection and an absolute joy. And we were lucky to have more than a few of those perfect 75 degree days.

Oh, just relax about the 24 books already. It’s not I languished about reading the likes of War and Peace. For whatever reason, this was The Summer of The Fairly Short Book.

Which means that I am going to be a summer school dropout in the 2013 Big Book Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Sue at Book by Book.

It happens. I’m pleased that a lot of the books I read over the past few months are going to land on my Best Books I’ve Read This Year List for 2013.

The Other Typist, by Suzanne Rindell.

The Illusion of Separateness, by Simon Van Booy.

The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets, by Kathleen Alcott.

(if you wrote a book with “the” as the first word in the title and I read it this summer, play the lottery.)

The Virgin Cure, by Ami McKay.

The Grievers, by Marc Shuster.

Sea Creatures, by Susanna Daniel.

There were books that helped me think about my new approach to eating (My Beef with Meat) and that taught me something new about someone I thought I knew (Helen Keller in Love).

And there were the books by some of my favorite authors, like George Saunders (In Persuasion Nation), Elizabeth Strout (The Burgess Boys), and Colum McCann (Songdogs).

And a book by a favorite singer/songwriter (Love is the Cure: On Life, Loss, and the End of AIDS, by Elton John).

This was the summer of poetry. As I said, I was all about the short book and the idea of sitting by the beach with Mary Oliver (West Wind) or at the pool with Mark Doty (Still Life with Oysters and Lemon; Sweet Machine) was heaven.

Some of that poetry, as the genre tends to do, left me a little …meh. (Annie Dillard’s Mornings Like This; Mary Oliver’s Swan, Poems and Prose Poems.) There were poems by an author who I only knew by her fiction. (Baptism of Fire; Jacklight, both by Louise Erdrich).

There was the book that I read for the Post-Gazette (The Light in the Ruins), which is always fun.

And there was the book I read in preparation for editing a client’s new novel (Blood Type). I’m so excited and honored to be starting work this week on Melissa Luznicky Garrett’s sequel, Blood Draw. Thanks so much, Melissa, for trusting me with your words.

Into each summer some rain must fall. There were those books that, in hindsight, I wish I could reset time and get those days back (E Street Shuffle; Down the Up Escalator) and those I expected much more from (Anne Lamott’s Help, Thanks, Wow).

And those that I declared part of the elite Did Not Finish club.

As for saying farewell to the summer of 2013, it’s a rainout of a Labor Day weekend here. Perfect for reading. Last night I finished Down the Up Escalator: How the 99% Live in the Recession, and I thought Labor Day would be an apropos time to run that review.  I’m also hoping to finish Mark Doty’s Paragon Park and to perhaps start Colum McCann’s Zoli or Dirty Love by Andre Dubus III.

OK. Enough prattling on. I’m prolonging the inevitable.

Say goodbye to the summer, Gracie.


Strathmere Bay, Strathmere, NJ
June 2013
Photo Credit: Melissa Firman


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When You Reach the End of the Internet, Keep Calm and Go Fishing. (And Call Prince Charming.)

Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens (41)

As seen at the Phipps in Pittsburgh, PA
August 2011
Photo Credit: Melissa Firman

So yesterday afternoon we’re hanging out online, me and the kids, when we reached maximum overload.

Internet-wise, that is.

It has been an incredibly full summer, one that has gone so much better than I would have ever predicted back in June with the prospect of 12 unfilled weeks ahead.

(Tight finances this year = no summer camp for kids and curtailed activities.)

We more than made the best of it by going to the pool, the beach, the library, gymnastics lessons, riding a bike for the first time (and for an hour a day afterward), sleeping in, having an extraordinary evening in Ligonier, getting into an enrichment camp program through school, picking blueberries in the backyard, picnicking, reading a ton of books, playing tourist in Pittsburgh and in neighboring Ohio, making movies at Apple camp, attending a church program, and visiting grandparents for almost a week.

We are also bigtime Internet consumers. Biiiiiiiiig.Tiiiiiiiiiime. We get spoken and unspoken shit for it from relatives and friends, I know. Between the freelancing and the Facebooking, the resume-sending and the researching, the news-junkie consuming, The Husband’s watching of sports, The Boy’s video making and watching, The Girl’s self-described “One Direction infection” (oh, yeah, we saw them this summer too when some tickets serendipitously appeared) … well, we’re kind of Internet dependent.

I’ve been making an effort to be more unplugged. (See the summer list above for proof.) And it seems that my Internet provider is fully supportive.

With minus 48 hours left to go before school starts, we’ve more than Passed Go via a vis the dog days of summer. The Boy is in Heavy Denial Mode and hence, was coping yesterday in the way he does best: chilling out online, watching videos.

“Uh, Mom?” he said. “I’m getting a message when I go on YouTube saying that if I do, I’m going to be charged $10.”

“The hell are you watching?” I said, thinking Miley Cyrus had released her latest “Twerking for Tweens” video.

“Nothing. I just tried to go on YouTube and I got a weird message from [our Internet provider.] I already emailed Dad.”

Because of course Dad, who was at work, could naturally fix the situation from his office 25 minutes away. Because that’s what he DOES.

“Just ignore it,” I said, offering up my solution for everything. “And for God sakes, don’t click on anything.” 

“Dad will look at it when he gets home,” I added.

Not long after this exchange, I went onto LinkedIn, wanting to update my profile there.

Or, tried to anyway. Instead, I got a message similar to what my boy described. Apparently, we were nearing the end of our “Internet capacity” and we would be charge $10 per every GB that we went over.

“Hey, pal?” I said. “Can you show me the message you got when you tried to go on YouTube?”

He clicked. Same warning.

“Oh, wow,” I said.

“Are you gonna email Dad?” The Boy said.

“No, I am not gonna email Dad,” I said. “I’ll take care of it.”

Which I did, by taking a picture of the message on my phone. This might make a good blog post, I thought. (See what I mean? Internet addicted much?)  And when The Husband came home, I showed it to him.

“You seen this?” I asked. “What the hell?”

“That doesn’t look right.”

“I know. I think it’s some kind of scam. A phishing thing, maybe.”

“I am NOT going fishing,” said The Future Mrs. Harry Styles (a.k.a. The Daughter).

“Nobody’s going fishing,” I said. “Get me our last bill. I’m calling them. I’ll handle this.”  Because, you know, nobody messes with mama and her Internet. Especially not with 48 hours left before school.

I dial. I muster up my professional tone that I reserve for such occasions. I use words like phishing to impress Steven on the other line, who needs to advise me that our call may be recorded for training purposes.

“Actually, it’s not a scam,” Steven says.

“Huh?” I say, all professional-like.

“We do this when customers, such as yourself, are close to reaching their maximum Internet usage. So you know, before you get charged extra.”

“Wow. I must say, I’m kind of astounded. For what I am paying each month, rather significantly, I might add, this is news to me that there’s this …this CAP.”

“The good news is that your usage resets tonight!” Steven said.

It’s finally happened, I thought. I’ve become freakin’ Cinderella. Bring on the pumpkin and the mice and my Prince Charming in the form of Steven to save my boy from a meltdown about school and needing to placate himself with his videos.

I debate how pathetic I will sound by asking Prince Charming exactly what time tonight the Internet will reset.

I go for the gold.

“You’re ABSOLUTELY SURE it will reset itself tonight?” I say. I feel like I am talking to a wizard, the Grand Poohbah of The Internet instead of Steven Stuck in a Call Center Making $7.50 An Hour.  I imagine if Steven hasn’t already pressed record on this conversation, he’s about ready to do so.

“It really will.”

I breathe. “Okay.”

“Here’s an analogy for you,” Steven says. “Imagine the Internet is like a river. And you, the customer, is like a pipe, siphoning off what you need. Some customers take more, some less. We could charge more for those who take more, or one flat rate – up till a certain point. That wouldn’t be fair, right?”

I’m thinking Steven is really either a philosophy or a poetry major with a six-figure student loan debt.

“Um …uh huh,” I say, wanting to add that we are lucky to live in a city with THREE rivers so there should be unlimited Internet, with liberty and justice for all.

“Does that make sense?” Steven says.

“It does. So, then. We’re good? This is a real thing then, the message? That was my main concern, that it was some kind of scam. A phishing thing. But thank you for reassuring me. And the Internet resets tonight?” I said, once more for good luck.


“OK. Well, then, that helps. Thank you.”

“Is there anything else I can do for you this evening?” Steven says, probably hoping to God I would say no.

“We’re good here. Thank you for your help.”


Waiting for Prince Charming
Strathmere, NJ
Photo Credit: Melissa Firman

Blueberries 4

Blueberries in the backyard on the 4th of July
Photo Credit: Melissa Firman


The best kind of web on summer vacation
Strathmere, NJ
Photo Credit: Melissa Firman


Fish at the Carnegie Science Center
August 2013
Photo Credit: Melissa Firman


Strathmere Bay, Strathmere, NJ
June 2013
Photo Credit: Melissa Firman








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The Sunday Salon: My Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer Vacation Reading

The Sunday Salon

“Roll out those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer
Those days of soda and pretzels and beer
Roll out those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer
Dust off the sun and moon and sing a song of cheer.
Just fill your basket full of sandwiches and weenies
Then lock the house up, now you’re set
And on the beach you’ll see the girls in their bikinis
As cute as ever but they never get em wet….”

Apparently, the beach bums of Nat King Cole’s hit song were too preoccupied by … well, other pursuits, to include a book in their basket with those sandwiches, pretzels and beer. And while I’ve been known to indulge in a hoagie and a soft pretzel while downashore (are my Philly girl roots showing yet?), the number one requirement that I have is a book.

I mean, it’s not even a question.

So, the question becomes “which book“? And, in what format (hardback, paperback, from the library, Kindle?)

There are no easy answers. But by following some simple, self-imposed rules, I’ve always had a plethora of beach reads. Hence, the method to my lazy, hazy, crazy summer reading madness.

1. Bring more books with you than you can possibly read.  This is a given. At the bare minimum, one book for each day of the vacation.

2. No books on parenting or special needs are permitted. I read a lot of autism parenting memoirs the other 51 weeks of the year., Not this one.  

White Chair

White Chair on Strathmere Porch, June 2013
photo credit: Melissa Firman

3. Library books are verboten to be read on the beach. They can, however, be read on the porch of the beach house. The reason for this rule dates back to 1985, when, as a teenager, I worked in a library shelving books. Nothing was more off-putting and sensory-repulsive to me than handling library books with grains of sand imbedded in the covers. (I still cringe just thinking about it.) Or maybe it was a reminder that the affluent patrons of the library were taking the books to far-flung beaches in the dead of winter that made me so sensory-adverse.

4. Kindles are for the car. A recent development (and a welcome one) is the fact that I can read in the car – on my Kindle only. (Reading a print book still gets me carsick but the Kindle doesn’t.) But, my Kindle does not go to the actual beach.

So, for those keeping track at home, that means I needed

  • 6+ books for this vacation
  • a non-library book to read on the beach itself
  • a book to read back at the house, say, on the porch in the evenings (this book is permitted to be a library book) and
  • a Kindle book for the car (it’s an 8-hour trip from Pittsburgh to the beach) 

Got all that?

I’m aware that this makes me come across as a little unhinged. But, hey, you don’t mess with a proven system. And this one, crazy as it sounds, works.

Here’s what was in my beach basket (i.e., my beach book) this year.

Red House

Beach Bag Book, Strathmere, NJ
photo credit: Melissa Firman, June 2013

Red House fit almost all my criteria. (Also unsaid is that I like my vacation reads to be somewhat relevant to the place or experience or life situation I’m in. I like to conjure up the “perfect book at the perfect time” scenario for my vacations. I also like to bring my own books along.)

Okay, I’m aware to the uninitiated that this post is sounding a bit bizarre.

Ahem.  Red House, then.

It’s the “mostly accurate account of New England’s oldest continuously lived in house,” and I selected it because of the history of our own beach house.

I only got up to page 44 or so of this one (because it was exclusively a beach read and I am still reading it now that we’re at home) but I liked what I read.

“There were houses, she knew, that you bought simply to inhabit – apartments or houses like these she had grown up in – nothing special. And then there were houses that could change your life: the rooms, the walls, the roof, the land, and view from its windows could reshape you, mold you.” (pg. 17)

Yeah, I can kind of relate.

My Beach Books

Stack of beach books
Photo credit: Melissa Firman, June 2013

Of course, as we’ve established, that’s just one book. These were the others that came along.

Not pictured is my Kindle, on which I read Blood Type by Melissa Luznicky Garrett while we were traveling. I spent most of my vacation with that, The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell, and West Wind by Mary Oliver. I didn’t get to any of the others.

Blood TypeYou couldn’t ask for more of a variety. Blood Type has drawn comparisons to Twilight, which, ironically, Betty was (and is) currently reading. Now, I’m not much of a vampire teen fiction fan. It’s just not my thing, and I probably wouldn’t have picked Blood Type up if Melissa wasn’t a friend. That said, I do like her work and this was no exception. I was in the mood for a light, YA-ish read en route to and from the shore, and this fit the bill nicely. It wasn’t overly gratuitous, gory, or scary and I would have no problem with my 11 year old reading this. I’ll have a longer review up at some point.

The Other TypistI spent the most vacation time with The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell, which was fantastic. I’m reviewing this for my gig with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, so I can’t say much more about this one other than I absolutely loved it and it will be among my favorite books of the year.

West WindThere’s a little library on our shore island, which is such a treasure (and a nice resource to have in case one – horrors! – runs out of books). My aunt was in need of some summer reading of her own so while we were there, I checked out West Wind, by Mary Oliver on her card. This short volume of poetry is the perfect summertime companion for reflecting by the sea or in the mountains or wherever your travels take you. I spent a few hours on the porch soaking this one up.

The Light in the Ruins

My current read is Chris Bohjalian’s upcoming novel The Light in the Ruins, due out July 9, and which I’m slated to review for the Post-Gazette. I just started this last night.

Now we’re back home and honestly, that vacation seems like it was already a lifetime ago. June is almost over.

You’ll wish that summer could always be here, indeed.


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Words in Process


We are back from a few days by the ocean and the bay, a few days during which I walked these paths and gazed at these skies I love. As is often the case with the weather at the Jersey shore, the skies were sometimes stormy and sometimes breathtaking within the same few minutes. One never knows what to expect from one second to another and these few days by the ocean were that way.

Writing is like that too, isn’t it? Sometimes, our words surprise us. Our characters find themselves on  roads they (and we) never knew existed.

Despite my best intentions, I only pulled out my novel and notes once during this vacation in preparation for my talk tomorrow evening as part of the Words in Process writers series. I did do a lot of thinking and internal prep work for my remarks.


I hope you will join us tomorrow evening, June 18, beginning at 7 p.m., when I will read from my novel in progress. I will also discuss the world of book blogging and how writers can promoting their work through their blogs. (Keith Campbell’s legendary red velvet cupcakes with chocolate liqueur are rumored to be served.)

Allegory Gallery is located at 139 East Main Street in Ligonier, PA. Hope to see you there! 



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Still Standing

My parents were not what you would call “vacation people.” We never visited Disney World or skied at fancy resorts or took car trips across multiple states. When he was inclined to take a day off (which was rare), my dad would work on some home improvement project or catch up on the yard work.

We took family vacations. They were just simple ones. And the same every year.

Three days in Sea Isle City, New Jersey. No more and no less. We stayed at the Dolphin Motel at 4th and Landis. Every single year.

That last year, the summer of 1984, I was being a pest about the vacation thing. Call it being a teenager whose friends were going places, call it intuition, but I was absolutely insistent on the idea of our family taking our traditional Sea Isle City vacation. Come hell or high water, we were going downashore, as we say in Philadelphia.

It would be our last family vacation ever. Six months later, my dad would be dead at the age of 44 after a bout with the flu and a stomach virus that attacked his heart.

But that August, as we sat on the sandy beaches of New Jersey, my dad had spoken to his sister. She and her husband were thinking of buying a beach house not too far away from where we were sitting. The place was steeped in tradition for her. Right after Sea Isle City, New Jersey comes a tiny blip of a town called Strathmere, one so small that it rarely makes it onto the maps. Nestled between Sea Isle and Strathmere is a strip of beach called Whale Beach, which is where my dad and aunt vacationed as children with their parents every summer.

Since we were down in Sea Isle, my aunt asked her brother, would we have a few minutes to stop over at this house she was considering buying and give her his opinion? She trusted him, valued his feedback.

We piled into our golden yellow 1973 Pontiac LeMans and drove over to see the house. We didn’t even get out of the car, didn’t even allow 5 minutes to pass before my dad found a pay phone and called my aunt, hollering that the place was a dump and that she had to be out of her goddamn mind to even think about buying that house.

We later learned that we had gotten the address wrong and the house was several houses up the street – also in not-great condition, but that didn’t stop my aunt and uncle from purchasing it.

My dad never made it to the real Strathmere beach house. Settlement was the same weekend we buried him.

For 27 years, that house has been ours. Not ours ours: my aunt and uncle’s, who have graciously hosted family and friends alike for all of those years. It has a weatherbeaten, lived in feeling that makes whomever is occupying it at the time feel like it is their home.

By Strathmere Bay

Because of my dad and the family connection and history, I like to be down at the beach house on Father’s Day weekend. During the last few years, that’s coincided nicely with our vacation times from work and that’s where we’ve been. I like being around the sepia-toned photographs in the house of him and my aunt as children, sitting on a dock that is a few hundred yards from where his never-met twin grandchildren jump in the waves.

I like to imagine that he sits there, still, watching.

On Monday, as I wrote in my previous post (“Better Days”), this was the scene on the street of the shore house as Hurricane Sandy pounded the Jersey shore.

We were already nervous and worried enough about The Husband’s surgery on November 1. And even though I knew this was “just a house,” I could not face the possibility of losing this, too. Seeing this picture, though (before high tide) made me convinced that we had just spent our last family vacation in Strathmere.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, I spent a lot of time checking Facebook and Twitter for Sandy updates. I found two souls in Strathmere (more on them in another post) who were photographing homes and the town and updating residents, easing their minds. Things were, one of them said, better than we might had thought.

And then, as I sat in The Husband’s hospital room watching him sleep, a photo came from my brother.

“Our” house. Still standing. Completely the same. Practically untouched.

“UNBELIEVABLE!!!!!” he wrote. No damage whatsoever. My brother had driven down to the house with my uncle to survey the situation and they found no damage at all.

I stared at the photo, showed my groggy husband. “Look!” I exclaimed, trying to break through his drug-induced post-surgical haze. “There’s no damage at the house!”

“Thaz niiiice,” he slurred.

I sat back down and stared at the photo some more.  Made a donation to the Red Cross in gratitude.

And wondered if maybe my handyman Dad did his sister another favor after all, stopping by the house again to make sure everything was okay.

Thanks for getting the address right this time, Dad. Thank you. So much.

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