30 Years

They met in the Yemen. Of all places. My mum was on holiday and my dad was working out there. I’ve heard the tale enough times that it took on an Arabian Nights quality long ago. There were years of long distance love letters to follow, a year in Greece and a life to start again. Then, on March 22nd 1984, they got married in London’s Chelsea Town Hall. They celebrated over lunch with all the friends and family that could make it and drove back to their new home that night. 3 weeks later I arrived.

I’ve always thought of us as the three musketeers, the three of us taking on the world. But today is all about the two of them. I wish I was celebrating with them but instead I’ve raided my photo albums as a toast to my two favourite people…

With parents age 5





IMG_0250Folk music always makes me think of my dad, of the toddler version of myself watching him strum his guitar strings, and there’s a Simon and Garfunkel song playing in the background this morning, “Still crazy after all these years”. Perfect timing, as always.

United by Difference

Earlier this month I explored the complexities of parenting through Andrew Solomon’s passionate and affecting book, Far From The Tree. Today I’m looking at all the ways that we can foster identity from a peer group if we inherit or acquire a trait that is foreign to our parents.

stuttering community

Growing up in England I never lacked for love or understanding, but I imagined myself as a slim minority. I knew precious few stutterers. Those I did know I kept my distance from. It was only when I moved to America to start researching Out With It, that I saw I was in, what Solomons calls, “a vast company.” Not only with the millions of other stutterers across the world, but with the multitudes of people who had some so-called flaw or strangeness that they were coming to terms with. As Solomon so gracefully puts it, I realised that “difference unites us…(that) the exceptional is ubiquitous; to be entirely typical is the rare and lonely state.”

In Far From the Tree Solomon describes the sense of pride he witnesses amid the attendees of a dwarf conference and he reflects upon about the validation many deaf children feel when they stumble upon Deaf identity in their adolescence. He talks about the complex unfurling of his own identity as a gay man amid “Gay Pride’s Technicolour fiesta”. It is a familiar sense of discovery. I remember walking into my first stuttering conference, the warm cacophony of stutters and the fiercely pride-laden conversations.

Becoming a part of the stuttering community has not mitigated all the difficulties of my speech. Neither do I spend my life inside the cosy confines of that community. There may be people who see my stutter as ugliness, but the stuttering community safeguards against any tendency I have to internalise those perceptions. It teaches me to be kinder to myself and it nourishes my hard won contentment. As Solomon writes about the Deaf community, “General culture feels that deaf children are primarily children who lack something: they lack hearing. The Deaf culture feels they have something: they have membership in a beautiful culture.”

Solomon does not trivialise disability of difficulty, he does not politely shy away from all the humiliations and hurts. He gives us both the wrenching pain of a difficult life alongside the story of Temple Grandin and her ability to make “what the world calls illness (her autism) the cornerstone of her brilliance.”

There is a certain solace amongst the pages of his book, a sense that we constitute a boundless, coherent clan of misfits. We are all flawed and strange, we all have our darkness. As Grandin proves “the trick is making something exalted of it.”

It took years for me to give up my once-endless search for normality. To realise that all I was striving for was a banal mediocrity. It took finding a community to understand that I couldn’t be someone else, but I could be a better version of myself. 

Interested to learn more? See Part 1 of my exploration of Far From the Tree in Parenting a Stranger.


I spend most of my days thinking and writing about talking. Today more than most perhaps. Today is the last day of National Stuttering Awareness Week.

stuttering awareness week

On the subway, I watch a father tell quiet stories to his daughter, her fingers twisting around his, her legs kicking her brother next to her as he leans towards them to catch every word.

As I wait for a friend to arrive for coffee I watch two women snorting with laughter, their arms gesticulating, their knees leaning in to one another, their glasses raised and lowered as they listen for the start of some new joke in a language I can’t decipher.

I see a couple sitting next to each other, reading the paper. Swapping sections, pointing at a story, passing a cup of coffee, all without a word.

In my own conversations, I feel myself relax into a laughter-filled Skype call with an old friend. I feel the way our cadence begins to morph and mirror each other, the way we slide into old jokes that take me back to house-parties and lazy dinners.

I feel the pinpricks of nerves in my fingertips as I sit on a high stool and look into the kind, open-eyes of an interviewer, the heat of the lights and the dark presence of camera lens crowding us. I feel sweat break out in miniature beads on my forehead and feel my voice break into the silence between us. In my head, I hear my friend Michelle encouraging me to make believe that the cameras aren’t there, that I’m just having a chat with this lovely woman, as you do, on a high chair, in a bookstore, with everyone watching.

I look down at my champagne flute and take my last sip as I look out at an audience I can barely see. I tell myself, for the hundredth time that I should wear glasses for my book signings, so I can see the people beyond the first row. I shift my weight and feel my hands begin their familiar propulsion as I tell everyone the end of my story. I look at Jeremy, at the grin on his face, as I tell the eager mass of an audience some of our love story. I lean into the warmth of their generous laughter, I feel it release something in me. I carry on speaking, and stuttering, and gratefully answering their questions. I lean against the bar and try to burn the moment on to my memory.

At home I write about stuttering, about the visceral experience of talking. I enjoy the quiet, the calming sound of the controlled voice in my head, the ability to escape into the realm of my own mind for a while. Then I feel the silence of the room weigh on me and pick up the phone, I walk outside and talk about the weather with a neighbour. I get home and I read this story. I laugh at all the familiar fears and all the familiar reactions. I feel proud to be connected to this man, if only tenuously through our speech.

We speak to others to tell them that we love them, to make ourselves heard, to learn from each other or to meet another’s mind. Each of us has a distinct voice, a unique way of reaching out and connecting with the world. Today is as good a time as any to remember how beautiful that is.

From Lost to Found: Book review

I imagine it is rare that a book brings a New York Times reviewer to tears. In my mind the reviewers from the Grey Lady are word-weary, poker-faced readers with stiff upper lips. And yet, the NYT reviewer Dwight Garner admitted to being ‘obliterated’ by Cheryl Strayed’s most recent book, WILD. In his words, ‘I was reduced, during her book’s final third, to puddle-eyed cretinism’.

In the first couple paragraphs of his review I was hooked.

I quickly found out that Garner was not the only person to be lavishing praise on the book. Strayed was receiving the sort of attention that would make a movie star blush – Oprah had resurrected her book club to tout WILD, Reese Witherspoon had signed it for a movie deal and book signings around the country were turning into mosh pits, with standing room only for her devoted fans.

Cheryl Strayed's book WILD

Having read the book, it is clear why. Strayed is someone we understand, someone we want to be, on our best days. Her book, WILD, tells the story of the months she hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, alone, following the death of her mother and the unraveling of her life at the age of 26.  She was inexperienced and under prepared for the adventure, her body throbbing and blistering in revolt against her gargantuan backpack. She was faced with rattlesnakes, bears, swarming frogs, intense heat, record snowfalls and intense loneliness, and yet she moved forward. As she puts it in the book, “the thing that was so profound to me that summer…was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the one thing I least wanted to do. How there was no escape or denial.”

Strayed is famous, and loved, for her once-anonymous Dear Sugar columns in the Rumpus. She has written endless pieces helping others by drawing on stories and metaphors from her own life. In WILD, she has pieced some of her stories together, fiercely and honestly she has remembered herself. With beautiful hard-won sentences, WILD teaches us what it means to persist and prevail, what it means to try and heal ourselves.


We have a friend who is currently solo hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. If you’ve not heard of it, the trail is a 6 month, 2,650-mile trek from the Mojave Desert to the Cascades, it is a never-ending snake trailing up the spine of the central west.

His journey is the kind of adventure that terrifies me. Yet, sitting at my desk in Brooklyn, I can see its appeal. Years ago, early on in our relationship, Jeremy and I spent months camping in the wilderness, hitch-hiking and trekking through sections of the emptier parts of America.

It was a time before we had a business and, as much as we adore the life we have now, we both miss that sense of undiluted freedom.

So, with that in mind, we decided to go hiking this weekend. Not exactly backpacking across the country, but a start at least.

We packed a few bottles of water, some granola bars, a bag of dried cherries, a couple bagels and set off for Bear Mountain. Just over an hour from the city, it offered a long drive past a smattering of mirror-smooth lakes, the promise of a few hours of lush hiking and the treat of a post-workout swim. The perfect city escape on a steamy weekend.

The car park was packed when we arrived and the lawns were strewn with families picnicking. We picked up a bare-bones map from the visitor’s centre and started out on a 6 mile loop. We were almost disappointed. We had come to escape the city crowds and yet, with all those cars, we expected that there would be only one or two trails littered with eager hikers.

We quickly realized that we were wrong. We saw 5 people in the first two hours and none after that. And there were hundreds of trails, crisscrossing each other across the lush forest, with only the occasional dollop of a paint marking to lead the way. We lost our trail and then picked it up again, or thought we did. We lost our way on the map, carried on walking for miles and then thought we found it again. Neither of us had even been lost on a hike before. Starting in New York seemed unlikely, embarrassing even.

Then we ran out of water. We had hiked for close to 10 miles and had no idea where we were. Our map only showed one trail, one trail which we had ventured far, far off. Our phones had intermittent reception. We started tripping over rocks. We told jokes, cursed when we lost the paint markers, looked at our watches and ate the last of our granola bars.

Finally, we ran into a guide, one of those efficient types with iodine tablets at the ready and a GPS unit strapped to his backpack. He shook his head at us, told us off for being so foolish. Then he feed and watered us and sent us on our way again, with the warning, “Take the red and white makers down this trail and then, when you see a blue maker, follow it to the right. The blue is hard to see but don’t miss it. If you miss it, you’ll go even further into the woods and then, you’ll be shit out of luck.”

Shit out of luck, is not the kind of phrase that you ignore. It is the kind of phrase that makes you certain to scour every tree for a goddamn blue marker. Luckily, 6 hours after we had set off, we got back to our car, sweaty, scratched and aching after an unexpectedly grueling 15 mile hike.

I’ll admit that it was a tad scary, and we were more than a tad foolish, but it was good to know that we could get lost an hour from the city. It was comforting to remember that nature still makes the rules, and that, for all the urban chaos of the city, there is still wilderness on our doorstep.

How do you get a book published?

There is no easy process from start to finish. Learning how to write well, practicing every day and then coming up with a great story is an amazing start but the rest of the journey gets a bit more murky and uncertain from there. The statistics aren’t cheery. Approximately 2% of books that are written every year get commercially published. The true figure may be even lower. Self-publishing is now a much more viable alternative but many people still want to go down the traditional path. And the traditional path generally means a shocking amount of rejection and false starts.

book writing

Have I scared you off? Hopefully not. 2% of people are published and there are definitely ways to make sure that you have the best chance possible. For the purposes of this piece I’m going to be speaking about non-fiction (from what I have heard about fiction it involves writing a brilliant novel and then going out and convincing an agent and editor that it would be worth their while to publish it).

Non-fiction requires more planning and strategy up front. It requires you to think like a marketer, to try and answer all the questions that some future editor might ask.

Sound like fun? Perhaps not, but writing is a job, and, just like anything else, there will always be parts that aren’t as wonderful as others. You need to create a professional looking proposal that tells agents and editors that you are serious, that you will help them to sell your book, that you are not sitting around waiting for them to do all the hard work. There are lots of things you should do and no ‘right’ way or going about this but your proposal should probably include:

  1. Cover Page
  2. Table of contents
  3. About the book (1 page summary)
  4. About the author
  5. About the market
  6. About the competition
  7. Production details
  8. About promotion
  9. Table of contents (title for each chapter of your book)
  10. Short summaries for each chapter
  11. 2 or 3 sample chapters

Your finished book may end up nothing like your proposal but it is a good start, a good path to start going down. Once you have a proposal you can create a succinct, polished query letter to send out to agents. Take your time over this – in many ways the query letter is the most important few paragraphs you have written so far. It has to grab their attention and get them hooked enough to ask for your entire proposal.

Give yourself an outrageous goal. For instance, I told myself that I wouldn’t stop sending my query out until 100 agents said no to me. Hopefully you won’t get anywhere close to that number but it is good to prepare yourself, to grow a carapace of sorts. Lots of agents will not be interested. Don’t let that stop you. Keep sending out your query letter, keep networking, keep telling everyone about your book. Be shameless at trying to get an agent because, as difficult as it is to land an agent, your chances are far better than going directly to the editor and having your work end up on the dreaded slush pile….the graveyard of unsolicited manuscripts.

Once you have a good agent you have someone who can take your manuscript to the ‘right’ publishing house and steer you through the pitfalls of the whole process. At the end of it all, once you have signed a contract with your agent and a publishing house, you can breath easy for a few hours. But only a few hours, because now you have to write the book that you sold to them so well. The fun is just beginning…

Creating your Dream Life: What are you willing to give up?

Do you have a dream? Maybe you want to open a restaurant, or start a business, or become a painter, or start a family, or write a great novel. Whatever your dream might be, I suspect that it may take a bit of sacrifice to get there. Maybe sacrifice is too serious a word. If not sacrifice, then a few decisions. What are you willing to say no to in order to say yes to your dreams?

I remember a conversation that Jeremy and I had, early on, when we were sitting in our first Brooklyn sublet, eating soft boiled eggs on the floor. We had no furniture, no jobs, no money and we were two weeks away from being homeless. It was all a bit Withnail and I and a tad depressing. We had big plans but we had yet to sell a book or launch a business.

With egg dripping off his toast soldiers, Jeremy asked me to list all the things that I really wanted (or wanted to do) that I was willing to give up:

  • Long stints of travel
  • A predictable life
  • A safe, healthy bank account
  • Saving for a house
  • Some beautiful possessions
  • A good work, life balance
  • An apartment with doors
  • Plenty of time outdoors

On another sheet of paper we wrote down the things that we refused to give up:

  • Each other
  • Seeing our friends
  • Closeness to our family
  • Good food
  • Writing and the success of the business

Our list has changed since then, it has grown and evolved with us. But it was helpful to have to keep us on track early on.

So what do you want and, perhaps more importantly, what will you give up to have it?

dream life quote

Best of January list

Last January, Jeremy and I had just moved to New York. We were wading our way through snowdrifts and watching Brooklynites cross-country skiing through Prospect Park. Snowmageddon was upon us and we were hibernating in our very small sublet contemplating why on earth we were putting ourselves through it.

This year, the weather is far less frightful and we are exploring the hidden nooks of the city that we have come to love. Looking at this list of highlights, it seems like January means red wine, lots of food, dreaming of escapes and some resolution-induced mayhem. At least it does for me. What does it mean for you?

Starting off the year on a high note with these guys.

Eating fondue and drinking spicy red wine by the fire here.

Celebrating with friends and some ‘energetic’ dance moves here.

Starting my days off virtuously with the muesli from these guys.

Slurping for a steaming bowl of amazing ramen here after long city walks.

Tearing into these delicious pizzas.

Exploring Koreatown and ending up at this hidden place for lunch.

Tucking into this chili at home while watching movies.

Throwing out the resolutions and making these outrageously good pancakes.

Thawing out in this futuristic coffee spot on Orchard.

Dreaming of escaping here.

What’s on your list?

Writing Group: In praise of the collective

Writing is a largely lonely occupation. It is something you do hunched over a desk, possibly with breaks for communal lunches and phone calls with friends at night and, hopefully, with the final comments of thoughtful editors and agents. But the creative process is done alone.

writingYet, when we are alone, it can be difficult to get perspective. We can go quietly crazy in our introspection.

A few months ago I joined a writing group. That makes it sound very formal. It is not at all. There are three of us, were friends, the other two just happen to be great writers. We are all working on books. I’m the only one doing non-fiction, the others are working on fiction novels. They know far more than I do about plot and character creation and literary illusions and language and imagery, and all the other fascinating stuff that you learn if you do an MFA in Creative Writing.

When we first started meeting I was a tad nervous, it was the first time I was showing my very personal memoir to people who knew me. I was also horribly intimidated.

Luckily, they stepped softly on my manuscript. They also showed me their work and listened as I gave them my feedback. They asked questions, they pushed me to do better.

We started over sensible afternoon tea, then less-sensible cocktails and, finally, supper. We have kept our other-halves up till midnight wondering where we were, and how talking about writing could possibly keep us out so late.

I wrote the book thanks to the amazing support of my parents, Jeremy and my friends and because of the honesty of the hundreds of people I interviewed. But my writer’s group made sure that I handed in my manuscript, on time and in a respectable fashion, to the publisher two days ago.

I hope that I would have created a reasonable book if I had never met them, but I’m not sure. They shaped my thoughts and kept me writing. I suspect the book would have been very different and I know, for certain, that the writing would have been a lot less fun without them.

It turns out that I’m a communal creature after all. I suspect that most of us are.  I’d love to hear about any groups that you are in that keep you on track, sane and motivated?

Stay hungry and don’t be afraid to be different

Steve Jobs - think differentLate last night I learnt that Steve Jobs had died. At the age of 56. The man who told students at Stanford University that “you’re time is limited so don’t waste it living someone’s else life” finally met the one destination that none of us can out run.

Jobs himself said that “death is the best invention of life.” He argued that death was life’s change agent, that it cleared out the old to make way for the new. I doubt that I’m alone in believing that his death was an exception to his own rule. He was a man that lived his life as if each day were his last and he was always new, always inventing, always recreating. He never got old and nor did his ideas.

I co-run a cell phone recycling startup so I am a tech junkie. I am also a Mac advocate. My first ever computer was a bondi blue iMac back in 1999. It was beautiful. Something I wanted to have in my life even before I knew I wanted it. It made school work less boring, with Apple everything seemed just that little bit more fun and creative.

Apple products have followed me, marking the stages of my school, college and career. More importantly, Steve Jobs has inspired me. He taught me to be bold, to trust in my gut and to take the risk to do something that I love. Steve, and people like him, made me feel just a little less crazy about giving up everything to start anew. About deciding to write, deciding to launch a business, deciding to move to New York with no job and just my dreams to pay the rent. In Steve’s words I learnt to embrace “the lightness of being a beginner.”

Steve Jobs thought in a different way than everyone else. He was crazy enough to believe that he could change the world. And he did.