Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Behind the Scenes: Travels with Lynne

My friend Lynne Cox is the author of the memoirs Swimming to Antarctica and Grayson. She is also one of the best open-water swimmers of all time. In October 1992 we went on a driving tour of Alaska together, and wrote up the story for Westways magazine. At the time, Lynne was well known as a swimmer (she had swum the Bering Strait a few years earlier) but not as a writer. Her goal, she said, was to publish something in The New Yorker. Sure, I said (name a writer who doesn't want to publish something in The New Yorker). In 1994, she spent a few weeks at my apartment in New York, working on a memoir about her swimming career and shopping for an agent. The latter was a frustrating experience and the manuscript languished. I moved to Tanzania, and we lost touch. Then, in 2003, I opened up The New Yorker—and there was Lynne's byline! Read on for the behind-the-scenes story of our Alaskan road trip, for which we gave ourselves the pseudonyms Mad Dog (Lynne) and Booh (me). 

The Alaskan Adventures of Mad Dog and Booh
By Sara Tucker and Lynne Cox

It was Booh who first proposed that she and Mad Dog take "the trip that Thelma and Louiseshould have taken." But Booh had been picturing something along the lines of a vintage Thunderbird convertible, equipped with a CD player, speeding across the Arizona desert. They would spend a week or two catching fish and frying them over a campfire, rafting down the Colorado, and shooting pool with gentleman cowboys.
  It was Mad Dog who said, "That's too boring. What about Alaska?"
  Their plan was to make a loop that went north as far as Fairbanks and south as far as Homer before returning to Anchorage. Using a map and a calculator, Mad Dog figured the trip would be about a thousand miles. (It turned out to be twice that.)
  For the first two days, they drove around Anchorage, which in mid-October was cold and sleepy. They ate mounds of succulent crab claws at Gwennie's and juicy halibut at the Hilton. They got an introduction to Alaskan culture at the Museum of History and Art and an advanced course at Mr. Whitekeys' Fly-by-Night Club, where a musical revue billed as "the Alaskan show that the department of tourism does not want you to see" was packing 'em in.
  Now the two of them were ready for the open road.

Here I must confess that both Lynne and I had flunked the off-road driving course that we'd been given prior to our Alaskan adventure. The instructor, Joe, was an editor for Four-Wheeler magazine, and Lynne, who is real good at talking people into stuff, had arranged for him to give us some driving lessons in an ATV park in the high desert east of L.A. Off-road driving sounded like fun, but it was actually pretty hair-raising. You can get into a lot of trouble with an electric winch if you don't know how to use it, and neither one of us did, despite the how-to video that Joe loaned us. The reason our Montero didn't have a stick shift was because Lynne backed that one into a Subaru, a fact that did not make it into the Westways article. The article actually got us in big trouble with the folks at Mitsubishi, who felt we didn't talk enough about the car they had loaned us (which we nicknamed "Buddy"). It was a nice car. 

They were driving a borrowed four-wheel-drive Mitsubishi Montero. With fog lights on top, extra gas cans mounted on the rear door, two spare tires and a high-lift jack—not to mention a winch, a CB radio, a package of flares and a first-aid kit—it was ready for just about any challenge the back roads of Alaska had to offer. But neither Booh nor Mad Dog knew much of anything about off-road driving. Booh could drive a stick shift while eating a cheeseburger and wearing a silk blouse, but that would hardly get them out of a ditch.
  On their first day out of Anchorage, they drove Buddy as far as Palmer, 40 miles north in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, and checked in at Glacier House. The bed-and-breakfast inn was built into the side of a butte facing the Knik Glacier and thus had a stupendous view. The Mat-Su was settled 5,000 years ago by ancient Athabaskans and, more recently, homesteaders, miners, railroad workers and Depression-era Midwestern farmers. The region is famous for its giant vegetables (75-pound cabbages, 16-pound stalks of celery). But since it was after harvest, there were no cabbages to be seen, and there wasn't enough snow yet on the valley floor for dogsledding. So Mad Dog and Booh contented themselves with hiking to the top of the butte behind Glacier House. 

Our host in Palmer was a guy named Wayne who took one look at Buddy and said, "Nice car; let's drive it out on the glacier." Getting Buddy swallowed up by a crack in the Knik seemed like a sure way to piss off the folks at Mitsubishi, so we declined. Wayne was so disappointed that we offered to let him drive Buddy up onto the roof of his B&B, which was dug into the side of a gently rising slope. We handed Wayne the keys. He drove up onto roof as if he'd done it a million times. We took some pictures. Then Wayne pointed out a 100-foot dropoff at the edge of the slope, a few feet from where Buddy would ideally come to rest after rolling back down off the roof; funny how we hadn't noticed it earlier. To come to a complete halt before hitting the dropoff would take some very nimble maneuvering. Wayne started to pace around, looking nervous. He suggested that one of us might want to take the wheel. No way. Buddy made it off the roof without a scrape, but Wayne managed to sprain his ankle. Until then, I hadn't realized it was possible to sprain an ankle while driving a car. We left Palmer a little more sober than we'd been when we arrived.

To be continued.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Oh, the Thrill!

Oh, the thrill of opening up the September issue of Condé Nast Traveler and finding one of its writers id’d as “Sara Tucker, author of Our House in Arusha; married to a Frenchman.” I cannot claim credit for the Frenchman (beyond having had the good sense to marry him). The book, however, is all mine, and the labor of bringing it into the world was long and hard.
            After retrieving the magazine from my mailbox, I spent the rest of the afternoon on the porch swing, slowly turning pages. The September issue celebrates 25 years of publication, and it’s as sweet and ripe and juicy as a late-summer tomato. Kevin Doyle (my editor, xoxoxo!) wrote the cover story about Hillary Clinton, after hitching a 19,000-mile ride with her to China, India and Bangladesh. There's a story on extreme birdwatching by Jonathan Franzen, and an adorable piece about Couch Surfing by Bill Sertl (rhymes with "girdle"), and, and...well, you'll just have to see for yourself.
            I remember putting together the first issue of Condé Nast Traveler. I was a roustabout in those days, working for two or three magazines at a time. I liked Traveler because it paid well ($15 an hour; Vanity Fair was only $12). Plus, it was a class act.
Moments like this—the arrival of the September issue—are bittersweet these days. Whenever I get good news, I want to IMMEDIATELY share it with my mother. Only she isn’t here any more. People say, “She knows.” But I miss seeing the joy on her face.
And she would be so pleased. My mother, though not much of a traveler, was a voracious reader, and she appreciated good writing. She was also a small-town person with a giant social conscience, which Traveler has. For me, the magazine is a great landing, and I’m proud and tickled to be part of its twenty-fifth anniversary issue.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

That Cosmopolitan Girl

Helen Gurley Brown in 1964.
In 1989, Helen Gurley Brown sent me a four-leaf clover that she had plucked from the lawn of her sister’s house in Shawnee, Oklahoma. I was living in Los Angeles at the time, and we had been exchanging letters off and on since I left my job at Cosmo, four years earlier, to begin a nomadic life as the wife of an itinerant actor.

After hearing the announcement yesterday of Helen’s death at age 90, I looked through some boxes of memorabilia in search of that clover. I didn’t find it. Maybe it went the way of other HGB mementoes, like the blue-and-white Tiffany plates (a wedding present) and the party dresses (we were the same size). Instead, I found a letter of recommendation that was produced in 1985 on Helen’s clattery old manual typewriter. The voice is distinctly hers—breezy, confidential, and opinionated. “To Anyone This Might Concern,” it began: “Sara Tucker has worked in the copy department of Cosmopolitan for six years, the last two years as head of the department (copy chief). She is really terrific. You know how harried copy departments are. Well, this one has worked the best it’s ever worked because Sara is dedicated, conscientious, gifted and a perfectionist but she is also calm and pragmatic. I am devastated that she is leaving … some lucky company will get to hire her next!”

The words I’ve italicized (Helen loved italics) were actually underscored—her old typewriter didn’t have an italic font. And I’m a little disappointed that I rated only one exclamation point (“screamer” in industry slang), a punctuation mark that Helen adored!

I went to work for Helen in 1979, when she was 57 and at the height of her powers. Cosmo had three million readers then and was thick with ads. I was 26 and knew nothing about copy editing—the task I had been hired to do. I had to learn on the job—just as Helen had done, years before, as an advertising copywriter. There were six of us in the copy department and we went through tons of paper, colored pens, and White-Out—desktop computers were years in the future. It was not a glamorous job, and I worked like a dog—we all did. But nobody worked harder than Helen.

On my last day at Cosmo, Hurricane Gloria struck the East Coast and New Yorkers stayed home. I went to work, because I couldn't not go--I had to clean out my office. Helen was there and she was irate that her entire staff had deserted her on account of the weather. A few of them had rushed out to Long Island to see if their vacation homes were still standing. I remember Helen poised, ramrod straight, at the bulletin board outside my office, posting one of her typewritten notes to the staff. "You're all pantywaists!" she had written. Imagine staying home because of a hurricane.

In my search for the clover, I rediscovered another artifact from those years: a letter that Helen had dictated to her secretary, Ramona. It was dated two weeks after I left the magazine and moved to Louisville, where my husband’s work was then located. “Sara dear,” she wrote. “Thanks for your darling note. We miss you badly—those were such halcyon (because everything worked!) years with you. That is such a tough job and nearly everyone in it goes slightly mad but you never did. Of course you may have Got Out In Time! I’m quite serious – you can always come back.” There’s another paragraph, and then the closing, which reads “Sara, tell me about your life down there when you have a chance. Love, Helen.”

During those six years when I worked for one of the most successful magazines ever published, I often felt like I was wasting my time and talents on a product that had nothing to do with me. I felt utterly disconnected from the Cosmo reader, and the magazine—indeed, the entire magazine industry—inspired in me both fascination and loathing. But the more distance I put between myself and Cosmo, the more I came to appreciate what I’d gained from toiling in Helen’s shadow. In fact, I was developing myself as a writer, an editor, and a human being. I learned skills that I would rely on throughout my career. Helen’s letter of recommendation opened countless doors for me. Maybe the clover helped, too.

Despite Helen’s kind offer to keep the door open, I never went back to Cosmo, and eventually she and I lost touch. The 1989 letter containing the four-leaf clover was my last communication from her. Over the years, I have repeatedly thanked her—in my imagination—for the opportunity that she and Cosmo gave me. But I never expressed my gratitude to her. I became one of many young people for whom Cosmo was just the beginning, not the main event. We gulped the experience and fled, never looking back.

So thank you, Helen, for the Tiffany plates and the Givenchy dresses, the underscores and the screamers (and the passion to go with them!), the lucky charms, the lessons learned, the glamour and the grit. Above all, thanks for the weather-be-damned chutzpah to Get Out In Time and embrace the Next Big Thing, whatever that thing might be.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Thinking About the Future

Last weekend, the house where my mother, my husband, and I have lived for the past five years was filled with flowers, food, and family members. Now that the flowers have faded, the food has disappeared, the family has dispersed, and I've had a few quiet days to myself, I've begun to think about the future. I've thought since June that this summer would be my mother's last, and I therefore cleared away most of my commitments to allow time for her. Now I find myself using some of that time for reflection and musing. What do I want my life to be like, now that she is no longer at the center of it?

I've made one decision so far, having to do with the immediate future: Patrick and I will host a fall session of the Writers Studio @ Korongo, then we'll close the gallery and flee to France for the winter.

Over the past year or so, the Writers Studio has developed a core group—people who've taken at least one eight-week class and indicated that they plan to continue writing. This fall session will be an attempt to keep us motivated and inspired. We will read and discuss each other's work, whether fiction or nonfiction, and learn from each other. We'll meet on Wednesday mornings for eight weeks, from September 12 to October 31.

I wasn't sure whether I would have the energy and the will to host a group this fall. I will miss my mother's presence. I would miss her more, however, if I didn't get together with her writing friends to share her lifelong passion for words.