Thursday Update


More Travels with Jessica!

I’m working on more essays for the book (yes, there will be a book!)—stay tuned for information about that. And I am trying to come up with an approach for Conversations with Jessica to become a book, working with amazing artist Lynne Baur.

And, for your reading pleasure, a useful post on defining your characters.


Dojo Wisdom for Writers, second edition, now available!
Catch a Falling Star (by Jessica Starre) and The Matchmaker Meets Her Match (by Jenny Jacobs), two of my favorite novels.

And don’t forget classes for writers—and more on writing at

Travels with Jessica: Last Stop Before Home

We go to Naples on a bus, not the most charming city ever. It’s crowded with tall residential buildings with all the wash hanging on the balconies. Every apartment has a balcony. The traffic is a mess; Neapolitans seem to regard lanes as nothing more than a suggestion.

We arrive in Pompeii, which is our goal, and the tour guide says Vesuvius is still active, “but don’t worry, it probably won’t erupt today.”

After the long bus ride from room, I need to walk around, so I make Jessica skip out on the arranged lunch and hit a cafe with me, feeling a little like a kid playing hooky. It the cafe the waiters speak Italian with an Indian accent. We have a quick bite to eat and then go exploring.

Jessica sees a cat in a doorway, and realizes there are cats everywhere and this becomes the symbol of Pompeii to her, roughly translated as “place of the cats.” She buys a tiny furry figure of a cat to help her remember.

Later, we poke about the ruins with the tour guide who regales us with stories about how these ancient people lived, and how the ruins were discovered, and I help Jessica over the rough stone paths, through narrow, twisting streets. There are stray dogs everywhere, which she finds more entertaining than the ruins. There’s a restaurant-slash-convenience-store-slash-souvenir shop stuck smack in the middle of everything, right there around the corner, which should be a jarring intrusion, and is, but somehow it makes the fact that this was once a city more real.

The next day, we go home. “Best vacation ever,” I say, cramped in my coach seat with a jackass in front of me who insists on reclining his seat.

“I liked the cats,” says Jessica.

Travels with Jessica: Italian Cooking

We take a cooking class at Scoglio di Frisio, a restaurant near the train station in Rome. The chef praises Jessica for her excellent questions about how sauces are made.

“Brava,” he tells her over and over as they consult about the sauces, discussing how the addition of wine prevents the overcooking of the meat in the sauce, and he explains about how alcohol evaporates when Jessica says, “I am too young for alcohol,” and then further describes the various substitutions one can make if required.

My use of the knife gives him indigestion. “I do not know how you have not cut off all of your fingers,” he says, wrestling the knife away from me. “Ay ay ay.”

I have never actually heard someone say that until now, and it’s just as emotive as you’d think. Then he teaches me how not to cut off all my fingers with the knife, which is kind of useful.

He turns to Jessica to discuss the best way to cut squid for the most tender, flavorful sauce and then they move onto how the pork is cut from the cheek of a pig, which makes me a little woozy – I don’t eat meat for a reason – but Jessica is quite impressed and months afterwards makes me deal with squid in the risotto.

“My mom uses sauce from a jar,” Jessica confides, which nearly gives Eugenio a heart attack. He suggests that perhaps she should take over kitchen duties from me.

Then it is time to make the pasta – from scratch, of course. There is no need for Jessica to tell Eugenio that I get mine from a box, because he has already guessed this successfully. “How did you know?” she exclaims, and he just rolls his eyes.

“I make pasta using a rolling pin, but it is too hard for you,” Eugenio says, “so you use a pasta press, and then you will make fresh pasta, eh? And not dried, from the box.”

But Joel, the assistant, gets an extra dowel down for me to try rolling pasta myself, and Eugenio sighs, and shows me how to do it, and I’m kind of enjoying myself, there is something zen about it.

“Do not think!” Eugenio says. “Just do!”

“You are putting wrinkles in,” Jessica says as I try to roll the pasta around the dowel as Eugenio can do, and Eugenio takes pity on me and show me how to roll the wrinkles out.

Later we eat the meal we have made, a most delicious meal, and Eugenio gives us a parting benediction: “Now you will leave Rome with more knowledge than you had when you came.”

Jessica looks at me on the walk back to the hotel. “I think risotto is easier to make. I think you should probably try to learn to make risotto, and not pasta.”

I don’t take offense; I don’t have a serious interest in making fresh pasta every night. “We have had some fantastic risotto in Italy, haven’t we? Who knew you could make risotto in so many varieties?” I ask. “It is probably easier to make than pasta. I think all you need is patience.”

“Uh oh,” says Jessica.

Travels with Jessica: When in Rome

I am standing in a Christmas market in the Piazza Navone, trying to explain the limits of our suitcase to a child who does not wish to understand. You can guess who wins this argument.

“Let’s have dinner there,” Jess says and points to a bistro. She orders the grigliata di scampi, which sounds like prawns to me, so I get the same thing. It turns out to be the whole shrimp, claws, eyeballs, and all. I am almost sure I cannot do this but then I enter into the spirit, clacking the claws and saying, “Prego!” and “Arrivederci!” as I eat.

Jessica gives me her I-am-not-amused look and turns to her own dinner, which she eats without flinching, although she sets the eyeballs aside. “What is your favorite thing about Italy so far?”

“I have liked everything. Venice was beautiful –”

“I mean the people.”

“Oh. I liked our driver in Verona.”

“That is because he does not speak English, so he could not argue with you.”

“Probably,” I say, and clack some claws together.

Travels with Jessica: Oops.

If you happen to be a guest at an actual castle in a small town outside Verona, and the check-out time is noon, and it happens to be New Year’s Day when you are leaving, and you have perhaps engaged in revelry the night before, no one will be so crass as to knock on your door at five minutes after noon to inquire as when you might be expected to vacate the premises.

No, what will happen is that at two p.m. you will get a gentle phone call from the front desk asking if perhaps you would like the chef to prepare an omelet for your breakfast and perhaps some coffee as well, and the question will so alarm you that you will croak, “What time is it?” and the desk clerk will tell you, and you will shriek, “Oh my god! We will be right down,” and she will say, “Ah, madam, it is no problem at all” and she will sound a little distressed that you could think they would be so boorish as to imply that you are inconveniencing them.

So you will scurry around the room packing while Jessica demands to know how you could have slept so late, leaving out her own culpability insofar as she’s never slept past nine a.m. in her life, and why would she pick today of all days to act like a teenager?

Then when you go to reception to settle the bill, you will say, “I am so sorry! That jet lag!” and the clerk will say, “Really, it is no problem” and kindly will not point out that the jet landed four days ago, so apparently you have delayed-onset jet lag. And you really want to tell her you only had two glasses of wine and a sip of champagne, but you decide to just rest your case.

She will say, “If you go to the bar, my colleague can make some coffee for you,” and you do and he does and also provides orange juice for Jessica, who is trailing behind you saying, “I cannot believe you slept so late,” like an external conscience, and when you go to pay the tab the colleague will look on you with pity and say, “Breakfast is included,” with only the barest glance at the clock, now reading three-thirty or, actually, and somehow more awful: 15:30.

Then as you make your way to the lobby to meet the driver, the clerk will hurry after you and hand you a small package wrapped in plastic, and she will say, “Madam left this behind,” and you really really hope it’s the Murano glass necklace from Venice but no, it is your underwear because your mortification would not be complete without that, and you say “Grazie,” even though you really wish the maid would just have discreetly thrown your undies away.

Since your luggage is already packed, you stuff the underwear in your coat pocket, which action you will promptly forget until you pull out your gloves on a packed train platform on the way to Rome and you will try desperately not to notice that you have dropped your underwear but this is not possible because you have your oh-so-helpful daughter along and she will point out the offending package by your feet and announce, “You have forgotten your underwear again!” and while you hope that no one on this platform speaks English, everyone turns to stare at you, and you gracefully pick up your underwear.

This time having learned your lesson, you put it in your shoulder bag, where it will, of course, how could it not, fall out onto the reception desk of your hotel in Rome as you pull out your wallet, and an extremely distinguished and now appalled Roman gentleman will look at it with mingled revulsion and curiosity, and you will say the only thing there is to say under the circumstances, and that is, “Oh, good lord. I forgot my underwear again.”