Bella Voce IV, Part II: meeting my Fan.

Meeting Geraldine Brooks was just the beginning.  Last Thursday at Bella Voce, I met—get ready for it—a fan.  As in:  someone who doesn’t know me but likes my work.  As in, like, a fan!

I’ve never had a fan before.

Sure, since the beginning of this blog I’ve claimed to have “three faithful readers,” but it’s probably time to admit:  I made them all up.

I mean, I’m pretty sure that—on occasion and somewhere out there—I have three readers, but I don’t know if they’re “faithful” and, come to think of it, I don’t know if there’s even three of them.

And as for having fans?  Ha!  I’d just as soon pray to wake up one morning with longer legs and a fuller bust.  (I’ve tried.  It doesn’t work.  But that doesn’t mean you should stop going to church.)

Last Thursday, however, the universe tilted and the stars realigned and I met, in the flesh, my friendly, funny, first-time-ever fan.   She may well be my first, last, and only, but so what?  I’d say a fan-in-the-hand is worth three faithfuls in the bush.  Or something like that.  You get me.

It all started, of course, with Renee Newman.  I told you how she gallantly introduced me to Geraldine Brooks before the event (can a woman be gallant?  let’s say yes.)  What I did not tell you is that she also introduced me to a friend of hers afterward, a woman who works at Umpqua Bank as well, which sponsors Bella Voce.  A woman who turned out to be….my FAN.

It was well after the book signing when most women had left, except the few of us who were truly pathetic committed.  Having hovered over Ms. Brooks as long as was legally viable, I turned my gaze about, pretending to look for someone (anyone), though in truth all I saw was that my table had been cleared and my jacket and purse stacked solicitiously on a nearby chair.  (Were they giving me a hint?  Well, I thought.  Just try to kick me out.)  I dug in my heels and waited for something else wonderful to happen, because that seemed to be this day’s destiny.  And so it did.

“Jennifer!” It was beautiful Renee, approaching me with more beautiful tidings.  “Have you met Kerri?  She’s a big fan of yours.”  Renee said this breezily as she walked by, leaving me reeling in my own shock and self-importance.  Wait, whoa–what?  Did she just say I had a fan?

fan?  An hour earlier, I would have told you that meeting Geraldine Brooks was the highlight of my day (life), but that was before I discovered that I…have…a… FAN!!  In this moment of moments,  there was only one thing to do:  take a selfie.

Meet Kerri.



Isn’t she cute, young, and sparkly?  Just as I knew my Fan would be! (Because, as you know, it’s all about me.) And just look at that beautiful smile.  Kerri was as warm and fun as she looks in the photo.  Meeting her was a blast and, as you can tell from my expression, somewhat dizzying.  (What can I say?  I’d just discovered my Fan.)

As if this wasn’t enough of a hoot, we then asked Renee to join us in the selfie, which she merrily informed me would make it a three-fie.  (In addition to her charm, Renee is also very, very cool.)  Having little experience with selfies (see above), I asked Renee to take the picture, since this was kinda her gig and well, she had the longest arms.  As she held the camera out, she gave me a standard selfie tip:  “stick your chin out.”  Looking at this photo, I wonder:  how did I think that advice could ever apply to me?  It served only to make a big problem bigger.  Oopsie.


But look at gorgeous Renee!  Really, she was just so gracious and fun.  And I had so much fun flanked by these two lovely ladies who made my fabulous day even fabulous-er.  I may have had tired eyes, a runaway chin, and the Worst Hair Day of My Adult Life, but now I also had:  a Fan.


(Did I mention that I have a Fan?)

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Bella Voce IV: Meeting Geraldine Brooks

Let’s start at the beginning.  Last Thursday morning I woke at 5 a.m. with a beat in my heart and a skip in my step; it was Bella Voce  day!  And not just any ordinary Bella Voce day (although there’s no such thing), but the Bella Voce day in which I would, at long last, meet Ms. Geraldine Brooks, bestselling author, literary giant, and intellectual extraordinaire.  I knew the day was really about to her, but I also knew that hey—I had to look good.

I hopped out of bed and showered, dressed, primped, blowed and brushed only to realize that I was, indeed, having the worst hair day of my adult life for what was supposed to be the most glamorous day of my adult life.  (Think my courtroom ‘do, but with an actual attempt preceding it.)   Regardless, my strict travel schedule forced me to take one last look in the mirror, suck in my gut, and tell myself, no matter; time to move on.  Three hours later, after a beautiful sunrise drive down the gorge, I pulled up to the swanky Portland Hilton, handed my keys to the swanky Portland valet, and hot-tailed it to the swanky ladies room, where I saw that I was, in fact, still having the Worst Hair Day of My Adult Life.  I tried to offset it with (yet another) layer of lip gloss, but no matter.  Time to move on.

I walked through the beautiful double doors of the beautiful Hilton ballroom and there, in the front of the beautifully bedecked author’s table, stood Reneee Newman, director of Bella Voce, smiling and waving me over as though she’d been waiting for me.  (Remember the final scene in Titanic, when Rose walks up the staircase posthumously and finds Jack standing at the top, smiling and waiting for her?  It was kind of like that.)


“Jennifer!” Renee gave me a hug and immediately said, as any woman worth her salt says to another woman, “Great outfit!”  I was about launch into a tirade about the lengths I’d gone to to achieve said outfit, (not to mention the harrowing misadventure with my hair), when she said, “Look, there’s Geraldine right over there.  Let me introduce you.”

I followed her gaze and saw a lovely, tiny woman in a cozy sweater dress standing and talking with a group of guests.  I looked around and gulped.  I was going to meet Geraldine Brooks, already?  I guess I’d assumed that once I arrived, I’d have some time to get ready for the Big Moment. Where was the prep lounge, the green room, the warmup time?  Sure, cocktails were being offered left and right, but that did nothing to help a Mormon girl with an oily T-zone.  (It happens when I get nervous.)  I needed something more along the lines of a chapel—or at least a bathroom.  Shoot, I’d have settled for a brown paper bag at this point.  But instead of offering me something to throw up in, Renee offered me Ms. Geraldine Brooks.  And before I could try to fluff up my hair (again), she was standing right in front of me, petite and plucky and perfect.

“Geraldine,” Renee began, “I want to introduce you to Jennifer Smith.  She’s a writer and blogs frequently about Bella Voce.”

Oh no, I thought.  No no no no no.  Did Renee really just call me a “writer” in front of Geraldine Brooks?  Geraldine Brooks, whose bestselling novels have been translated into twenty-five languages?  Geraldine Brooks, who’s traveled the globe as an award winning journalist before she, you know, switched over to fiction and won oh, I don’t know…the Pulitzer Prize?  (Who wins the Pulitzer Prize, anyway?  I thought those people were made up.)  Geraldine Brooks, world famous writer, had now just heard me addressed by the same title.  It was, as Elizabeth Bennett would say, a most humiliating spectacle.  But with manners befitting her education and experience, Ms. Brooks responded with a warm and open smile–and the most delicious Australian accent I’ve ever heard.

“What is your blog called?”  Her voice was quiet in the loud room (people like Geraldine Brooks don’t need to talk loud to be heard.)  But with my bad hearing and poor social skills I, of course, had to lean in and practically shout,


“What is the title of your blog?”  She smiled calmly, a pool of serenity to my puddle of frenzy.

“Oh.  Oh, um…it’s called, um, justastrayjuniormint.”  I muttered the last part into one murky word, hoping she wouldn’t hear me and change the subject.

“I’m sorry, Jennifer, what was that?”  I had no choice but to speak up.

“Um, it’s called just a stray junior mint.”  She leaned forward intently and then said, in that gorgeous Aussie clip,

“Just a…stray…junior…mint?”  Her voice lifted on the last word, as if gently deciphering a toddler’s cryptic new speech.

There have been a few times in my life when I’ve wanted to die—when the ground splitting open and swallowing me seemed preferable to the situation in which I currently found myself.  Once was during my freshman year of college when I asked a boy (whom I had a terrible crush on) to Sadie Hawkins.  He told me he was very sorry, he was seeing someone, but if he hadn’t been, sure, he would “love to be my boyfriend.”  (I had asked him to the dance, not to be my boyfriend.  Jerk.)

Another was my senior prom when, after inexplicably allowing my grandmother to help me shop for a dress, I showed up in a shiny, pleated peach monstrosity that brought shame even to the high school formal wear of 1991.  (That evening didn’t go down well, the dress being the least of its disasters.)

And yet both of these train wrecks paled in comparison to the cringe factor I felt upon hearing Geraldine Brooks–Geraldine Brooks!–trying to politely push the words “stray junior mint” through her astute and accented tongue.  What had I brought this poor woman to?  How had I pulled her down to my world?  It was like stuffing a butterfly back into the cocoon.

“Well,” I started, “the title’s based on a story I tell on my blog, about when a, um, stray junior mint, you know, like the candy…” I stopped here and made a circle with my forefinger and thumb, lest she didn’t understand, “was rolling around my purse, and it, like, melted and got on a bunch of stuff, and my husband teased me about it, and you know…”  She and Renee were now both listening judiciously, apparently under the false assumption that I was actually on my way to making a point.  My voice grew as my panic rose.

“It’s just kind of a lighthearted, silly blog, you know, kind of a-day-in-the-life sort of thing, so the stray junior mint kind of symbolizes all that…”  Oh my sweet goodness, did I really just use the word symbolize in front of Geraldine Brooks?  I may as well have been standing in my peach prom dress, asking her to be my boyfriend.

Remember my telling you about Life After Life, wherein the protagonist gets to go back and do her life over til she gets it right?  Sniveling in front of this gracious intellectual, I thought:  I would give anything to go back and give my blog a different title.  Anything would have been less awkward to explain at this moment than just a stray junior mint.  I could have gone with Thoughts by Jennifer or Musings by Mom or even a throwback to that great seventies show, One Day at a Time.  Shoot, Sands Through the Hourglass would have been more impressive than the random, childish, assonine title I’d stupidly assigned this blog so many years ago.  Why, oh why, I thought, had I named my blog justastrayjuniormint?  But I knew why: because I never thought I’d have to justify it in front of a person who had won the Pulitzer Prize.  (Heck, I didn’t even think those people were real.)

I finished my dissertation with some garbled garbage about “you know, sticky and sweet, just like me!” then threw in a few more likes and ums to drive my point home.  Flawlessly courteous, Geraldine smiled and said,

“Well, I can’t wait to read it.”

Wait–what?  Did Geraldine Brooks just say she couldn’t wait to read my blog?


Of course she was only being polite, but who cares?  If that ground ever did swallow me whole,  I’d go down happy.

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Fortunately, the ground beneath me stayed solid for the rest of the lunch, though my feet were floating substantially above it.  I sat (right next to!) Ms. Brooks for the remainder of the meal, until she was called to the stage to speak.  And she was, well, spectacular.

Sometimes good writers are bad speakers or bad writers are good speakers, but in this case, a great writer was a great speaker.  She shared her love of writing and traveling, and laughed about her first “writing” job out of college (covering local horse races) and her husband’s endearing obsession with all things Civil War.  (He’s a writer, too.  Can you imagine them as dinner guests?)  Her vast and varied experiences included a night spent with Ayatollah Khomeini’s widow and another night spent in a Nigerian jail.  She spoke in depth about her time covering the Iran-Iraq war, and how much she’d learned from the many Persian women she’d met, all of whom welcomed this Western journalist warmly, despite their differing world views.

She said she looks for the history that is unbelievable, then writes a believable story around it; she loved true stories that fell under the category of “you can’t make this stuff up.”  She used the image of a lit piece of paper floating down an old well, lighting up the sides of it as it went, illuminating story after story after story.  She said those forgotten stories, the ones left in the dark, are the ones she longs to tell—the ones that belonged to our grandmothers and their grandmothers and their grandmothers.  She wants to carry on that great female tradition of looking at those who come after us and saying “Once upon a time, this is how it was for me…”

I don’t want to say that I hung on her every word, but:  I hung on her every word.  So engaging was she that I had to remind myself to finish the piece of pumpkin cheesecake that was set before me.  (But finish it I did.  No worries.)  Afterward she was asked to sign books, so I got promptly in line for a personal autograph on the title page (even though, as you know, I’d already enjoyed a witty and fruitful discussion with her about my blog.)  When I made it to the front of the line, I told her again what a pleasure it was to meet her.  She smiled and thanked me and then, while signing Geraldine Brooks across her latest bestseller, the Pulitzer Prize winning, world-famous writer said—once again and with a sincerity I was starting to believe—“I can’t wait to read your blog.”


Thank you Ms. Brooks.  You can’t make this stuff up.


The day I went to court in my pajamas

It was the day before I was due to go to Bella Voce.  It was, for lack of better phrasing, the day before The Most Glamorous Day of My Life.

In other words, it was today.

Let me explain how it happened.  We got home from a long and lovely weekend in Seattle late Monday night, and Tuesday morning hit us all hard.  We were tired and grumpy and not ready to face Life yet, but face it we did.  And for me, that meant sifting through a huge stack of mail, school papers, church stuff, and trying to morph nineteen separate pieces of scribbled-on paper and post-its into one Master To-Do List.  (At least then I’d have only one list to ignore.)

The prior week had been hectic so my inbox was already suffering before skipping town for four days.  So Tuesday morning, after shooing the chicks out of the nest, I stared down my mountain of papers, mountain of dishes, mountain of laundry, and did the only thing I could do:  locked the door behind me and went shopping.

Oh, stop judging me—in forty-eight hours, I was going to Bella Voce to meet Geraldine Brooks!  What, you think I’m gonna show up in my twenty-dollar Forever 21 dress?  (Wait.  That’s the cutest thing I own.  Crap.)  I needed something subtle, sophisticated and, above all, something that made me look smart.  (Once you hit forty, the heavy-rimmed fashionista glasses don’t work anymore; everyone knows you actually need them to see.)  So I scrambled through every women’s clothing shop in the greater Kennewick area–all three of them–and after searching and sorting and trying and tussling, came back with exactly two pairs of jeans.  (Hey, I needed them for spring.)


By the time I returned from my non-shopping spree, it was time to pick up the kids from school and start the standard violin/volleyball/basketball routine.  By the time I returned from that, it was time to get the kids settled and start the standard Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire routine.  And by the time I returned from that, it was time for me to lie in my bed and make a conscientious decision to leave the Pile Of Important Papers for the next morning.  First thing, I promised myself as I dozed off.  First thing…

Fast forward eight hours.  I woke up late, got the kids up late, shuffled everyone to school kinda-on-time-ish.  I came home, still in my pajamas (sweatsuit that doubles as pjs, I swear nobody can tell) and sat down to tackle The Pile, figuring I would shower and shine a little later on.  Under The Pile lay my big family calendar which, though heavily lettered, did not have anything on it for this particular Wednesday morning.  Which was good, because I really needed this particular Wednesday morning to go through The Pile and get myself organized.  Shuffling through the papers and pulling out the calendar, I sighed and thought, good thing this morning was clear.  Crystal clear.  But…wait.  What was that I was seeing scrawled across  Wednesday, February 18?

Oh.  Wait.

Yes, Wednesday morning was clear–except for that little cursived note at the top ‘o the day, in my own handwriting, reminding me that I was DUE IN COURT.  At nine 0’clock.

I glanced at my phone.  It was eight fifty-five.

My mind reeled back to three weeks earlier when, while zooming my son from guitar to basketball practice, a rather disagreeable state trooper pulled me over for having a bit too much zoom in my zoom.  (I told him I thought it was 65 mph, not 60, which would have rendered my 71 virtually harmless, but my pleas went unheard.  Men.)  He wrote me the first ticket I’ve had in ten years (men!) and a few days later, I received a notice in the mail stating the time for me to appear in court and also stating–in an unnecessarily frightening tone, I thought–that “failure to appear” would result in the suspension of my license.

In other words, I had five minutes to get from my couch to the car to the courthouse to the judge or I would  not be able, the following day, to drive through the Gorge and meet Geraldine Brooks.  At least not legally.

All I could think was:  thank goodness I’d brushed my teeth.  See?  I wasn’t a loser.

I grabbed my purse, flew out the door and flew down the street, fully aware that I was risking a speeding ticket on the way to pay for a speeding ticket.  I flew into the courthouse parking lot which was, providentially, a mere five minutes away.  (I love you, small town.)  I parked the car, flew out, flew across the lot, flew through the front door, flew through security, and flew down the hall to Courtroom Number Four.  I flew through the double doors, then came to a sudden and complete stop.  The courtroom was silent, with only a single person standing before a scowling judge.   I could see the slumped back of the accused and the dismal face of the accuser.  Mercy.


There are two things you should know at this point:

1)  I was fifteen minutes late.

2)  I was, in fact, still wearing my pajamas (“sweats”), thick fuzzy pink socks with brown leather mules (so the heels of the socks showed and no I’m not kidding), no makeup and, tragically, no bra.  (Going bra-less in a baggy sweatshirt isn’t usually an issue for me.  But it did seem rather poor form in court.)  My hair hung in a flat, greasy sheaf against my ruddy and large-pored cheeks, and I’d thrown the heavy brown coat that my entire family hates over the whole mess, hoping to strike a sympathetic note somewhere between impoverished and ignorant.  I slowed my pace, bent my head, and stooped to the last bench in the back.  If I couldn’t look pretty, I could at least look penitent.

Sitting small and alone on that pew, swathed in my own morning smell while I waited for the formidable justice to apprehend me, I could think only one thing:  thank goodness I’d brushed my teeth.

The judge dismissed Convict Number One and cast his disapproving eyes on Number Two.  He didn’t ask my name, but rather the one question I dreaded:

“What time is your court appointment for?”

“Nine.”  I squeaked it out.  “I’m sorry.  I’m really late.”  (see:  “ignorant”)

“Well, come up.”  He waved me forward and I sighed with relief.  The judge would see me!  I wouldn’t lose my license after all!  I would meet Geraldine Brooks–legally!  I almost burst out this last one, so happy did it make me, but then met the judge’s eye and thought better of it.  He looked mad.  Or maybe just old and unattractive like the rest of us.  He frowned down at me.

“Do you have anything you want to say for yourself?”

“Well, um, I was going 71 in a 60, but I was just sure it was 65, so though I was speeding, I didn’t realize the extent of my speeding…”

“If you were going 65, he wouldn’t have pulled you over.”

“Yes, yes, I know.  I shouldn’t have been going that fast.  See, I was rushing to get my son from guitar to basketball on time, and…”

“Well, it didn’t work.”  He seemed pleased with this statement.  I half-smiled, hoping he would notice my brushed teeth.

“I know.”  He kept glaring.  So I kept talking.

“Um.  Yes.  I know.”  Steady glare.  Was he looking at my pasty hair?  Or did my big brown coat anger in him as it did my family?  For perhaps the first time in  my life, I could not interpret an older man’s stare as an admiration of my beauty.  He finally spoke:

“Sometimes you have to accept that you’re going to be late.”  The irony of his statement was not lost on me as I stood before him in my pajamas and pink socks.  He scribbled something on a piece of paper and handed it to me.  “I can get you down to ninety dollars.  Pay at the cashier.  Good bye.”  And just like that, it was over.  I flew down the hall to the cashier’s window and happily signed off my check for ninety dollars.  What was ninety dollars in the wake of Pulitzer-Prize winning authors?  I was suddenly Jane Eyre roaming the sunny countryside, calling out to my beloved Mr. Rochester.  “I’m coming, Bella VoceI’m coming!”

Mama always said things would work out.  And the best part was, I didn’t waste good shampoo, body wash, or make up on the whole dastardly affair.  But I couldn’t help wonder:  if I had exercised any amount of personal hygiene this morning, could I have gotten him down to less than ninety bucks?  Hmm.  That is a question I’d rather not ask these days.  I am forty-one; perhaps I should stick with the impoverished and ignorant angle from now on.  At least when I’m staring down the law.

But not when I go to meet Geraldine Brooks.  Tomorrow, when I meet Geraldine Brooks!, it will be all class and enlightenment and brilliance and style.  (Okay, it will be my white blouse and fake silk scarf.  But I tried, Geraldine.  I tried.)  And at least I’ll be wearing a bra.  Of one kind or another.