Marion Winik
The writer prepares for a book reading in Martha’s Vineyard.
The writer prepares for a book reading in Martha’s Vineyard.

Feeling sorry for yourself now that summer’s almost over? University of Baltimore Professor Marion Winik’s retelling of her less-than-perfect break will have you feeling like maybe your holiday wasn’t so bad after all.

Often the best thing I can say about my attempts to live a decent, productive and meaningful life is thank God no one is watching. But then I think about how, insofar as I have any mission here on earth, it is to lift the spirits of others. And unless you are Bradley Manning or living in Syria, it might give you a little boost to hear how lame my summer was and be glad that whatever other burdens you are laboring under at least you are not Marion Winik.

1. The Breakup(s)

Despite my published proclamations of happy singlehood, the tree of life, via its avatar Facebook, shook me down a boyfriend back in the spring. From a small town in Pennsylvania, with thick-lashed brown eyes and arm muscles of granite, he was a 27-year veteran of unloading rail cars at a paper mill. He painted pictures and wrote song lyrics on the side.

He told me he was bipolar the first day of nonstop texting, so it wasn’t a total shock when he also told me that he was in love with me a couple days later. In fact, I went right along. I like intense. Before long, he was wearing my leather ID bracelet and I his varsity jacket from high school. I became quite attached to his favorite breakfast spot, his giant motorcycle, and his affectionate parrot, to whom he now probably regrets teaching my name.

Sadly, by Memorial Day weekend my bipolar baby had broken up with me the first of what would be three times, and as they say, third time’s the charm. He had many inarguable points: I didn’t have enough time for him, we live an hour apart, my friends were nice but my children standoffish, and as he would put it, summarizing the demands of my career: Marion Winik blah blah blah. Also, though I did put up lots of happy-couple photos, I was unwilling to post an “in a relationship” status on Facebook. I might just be too old for that or something.

Apparently it is not to be. Though he defriended me on Facebook, I miss him a lot, and I hope he enjoys his two-year subscription to Bipolar Magazine.

2. The Robbery

On vacation in Peru with my daughter and her classmates, I had my purse stolen for the second time in a few months — this time, along with my passport, my journal and Jane’s iPhone. Already whined about at length here. Speaking of too old, it was during this trip I first noticed that I have somehow metamorphosed from a ready-for-anything adventuress into a cranky geezer with a laundry list of unreasonable prejudices. I hate mountains, I hate forests, I hate ancient ruins, I hate Pinot Grigio, I hate dance performances and half-hour sitcoms… but I do love talking about my health!

3. Adventures in Oncology

The lumps I first found beneath my jaw and collarbone in February grew to the point where I had a triple chin. Sonograms, biopsies, and finally a PET scan revealed that I had marginal zone B-cell lymphoma, caused by my hepatitis C, which was cured by last year’s treatment but left me this farewell present. At first, I kept this news from everyone because I was tired of people feeling sorry for me and I didn’t want to worry my kids.

Now it turns out that lymphoma is actually the best thing that happened to me this summer because a) the kind I had turned out to be a cosmetic problem more than a life-threatening one, b) I have already finished the treatment and the lumps are gone, and c) I enjoyed sitting for hours in a big lounge chair with my book, everybody getting their IV drips and the kind nurses hugging us and passing out pretzels.

4. The Humble Pie Tour

My attempts to promote my new book this summer had mixed results. There were good moments — the launch party here in Baltimore at The Ivy, a heartwarming turn-out in my old hometown of Austin, Texas, decent events in Asbury Park, NJ and Woodstock, NY. And then there was the rest of it.

“This wasn’t your worst reading ever, I hope,” said my friend in Martha’s Vineyard as she dropped us off at the ferry. She had tried to help me by setting up a benefit reading for a local charity at a beautiful arts center. Tickets were $50, and honestly I could not imagine anyone would pay this. Hopefully the charity was really popular.

As it turned out, with both Michael Pollan and Linda Fairstein reading the same day and the Obamas arriving the next, the people of Martha’s Vineyard had other things to do. I read to a group of eight, most of whom were in my entourage.

“Well…” I told my friend, “You might as well be the worst and not the second or third worst, right? Go for the gusto.” As the veteran of many preceding book tours, one of which was plagued by the identical itinerary of Isabel Allende, I had plenty to compare it to.

By this time I had been to Long Island and Boston: crowds of 40 or 50, two books sold each night. In Washington, DC, I appeared with the stand-up comedian Ophira Eisenbereg. A couple hundred people, again I sold two books. In Mystic, Connecticut, we had only three in the audience, but they all ponied up, so it was a smash.

Other serious contenders for worst would be York, Pennsylvania and Westborough, Massachusetts. York was supposed to be a big party at a bar with my son’s band, who had schlepped their equipment and their vocalist from Baltimore to indulge me. Unexpected old friends from faraway parts of Pennsylvania and fans of the band showed up. A local bookstore was right on time with piles of books. All my plans were working out. Until I introduced the band’s first set and the weirdly uptight bar owner rushed up and cut them off after one song, asserting that they were “too loud for the customers to order drinks,” a claim rarely advanced in the history of alcohol service. The band stomped out to smoke on the sidewalk, leaving me to take the stage in an unfortunate bowling-alley style set-up, no one facing me and those music- and literature-hating regulars carrying on loudly in the back of the room.

The New England portion of the book tour was undertaken as a road trip with my best friend Sandye and our two daughters. It was like road trips of yesteryear, except with iPhone apps instead of AAA TripTiks. Also, our friends have nicer houses now and where we didn’t have friends, we stayed in hotels rather than the car. The first stop was at a strip mall in the exurbs of Boston, where I was surprised but pleased to have been invited. The huge store, which was like a giant Claire’s with books, was deserted except for two employees. They said they had no idea why the reading had been set up, usually they only host local authors.

We tried on barrettes and took selfies in the deserted event room until, at last, two people arrived. This was a high school friend of ours and his wife, who kindly purchased the single book that was sold that day. Then we went back to their house to swim and have dinner with their teenage daughters.

It went pretty well, considering that I had had an obsessive crush on this guy back in high school and he was only interested in someone else, who happened to be Sandye, whose attention was in turn focused elsewhere. Underage drinking, teen pregnancy, and a bad scene involving a taxidermy bear head ensued, all of which I wrote about in a misguided, thinly-disguised essay early in my career, without consulting anyone involved. The poor guy was first shown the published piece by his aunt, and the fact that his wife had also seen it was clear to me at our 20-year high school reunion. But now, another twenty years had gone by…Facebook had been invented … and these things resulted in our invitation to  dinner.

I just wish I had not seen the bear head in the living room, since the book tour almost had to be cut short so I could be dropped off at rehab the next day.

With only a few lapses like this, I tried to model for my daughter grace under pressure and  disappointment. Every night I put on a pretty dress, gave the best show I could, sold two books, and posted happy pictures on Facebook. Of course I did.

Thank god the City of Baltimore started school in August because as of now, summer is over. Let’s see what we can do with autumn, shall we?

University of Baltimore Professor Marion Winik is the author of "The Big Book of the Dead,” “First Comes Love,” and several other books, and the host of The Weekly Reader on WYPR. Sign up for her...

20 replies on “What I Did On My Summer Vacation”

  1. Marion may have been wasted on the few of us which had the priveledge to hear her read and tell a few stories, but I hope she knows the next time she graces our Island shores word will have spread about having missed a great evening and we’ll just share her truth and humor with the natives.

  2. First, you were here in DC? With Ophira Eisenberg, who I also love? HOW DID I MISS IT? I’m totally bummed out.
    Second, your boyfriend’s excuse that you have to break up because you live an hour apart: lame. Totally wouldn’t fly here in DC and surrounding suburbia. Here, you can live in the same county as someone and it still takes an hour to get there. At least from York to Baltimore there’s no traffic.
    Third, glad your lumps are gone. Here’s to continuing good health.

  3. One night at a reading I had an audience of one, and the next night two people showed, and that was for FREE.

    1. Oh yes, dear Poe, I am all too familiar with the one, the two and the zero. We should just do these things together so we can keep each other company. Will you come to Baltimore on the Howling Plains of Nowhere tour?

  4. Well, it was better than your Oprah hair!

    I can’t believe you were here in Austin and I missed it. Curse the lack of information in this age! You should have done some twerking. Then I would have known. 🙂

  5. Well, your posts on Facebook really faked me out. I am so sorry to get the backstory but that is your special power- to turn bad realities into a great anecdotes. Jane has a heck of a role model as her mother. Don’t forget that

  6. Hi Marion, I just reread First Comes Love, followed by The Lunchbox Chronicles. I bought High in the Low Fifties as soon as it came out and enjoyed it , too. I admire your tenacity, optimism and of course, humor. Here’s to a much better autumn for you!

  7. OK. That was funny and glad we could be a part of it. Debating whether I can share this with the kids 🙂 – AG

  8. Marian, I like you better than Isabel Allende; she started off well, then turned weird in later books. You, for as long as I’ve been reading you, which is a very long time, have been consistently and hilariously weird. And I’m going out tomorrow to buy your latest book. Thanks for writing.

  9. risking blowing my well disguised cover—i had a great time, as one can only do around the endlessly entertaining, generous, hysterical, brilliant and all powerful Mar.

  10. I didn’t get to hear you read this time, and would have thrilled to have been one of the select few – your style of reading aloud brings added life to your writing. So glad the B-cell b gone, and that you continue to keep going, with grace, and humor, and an open heart. I miss you!

    PS- BFF, I know who you are! I miss you too!

  11. mom, i know you think you are my role model but honestly, my real inspiration in life is miley cyrus.

  12. Your candor is, as always, refreshing, Marion. My summer’s tour echoed yours in many ways. Your example is the professional’s ideal: put on the show, do your damnedest, and move on. What else can we do? I happily follow your lead.

  13. I always knew Baltimore had good taste. You ROCKED the reading at the Ivy and Jane stole the show!

  14. I am starting to think that summer has been what high school used to be: a much heralded event that frequently mystifies and dissapoints. But I am glad to hear the nurses were nice (since I used to be one) and I am sorry I missed your book signing.

  15. Marion, only you can make almost any catastrophe something for us to chuckle about, for you to suck it up, and for all of us to keep on keepin’ on. Feilcitations, encore, Cherie.

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