“The Question Is”

Here’s another short story that takes place in the A&P two Tuesdays before Thanksgiving a little before 6pm. Jennifer Lerner, PhD., asks herself 66 questions about competition, marriage, academia, children, sex, careers, the soul, and cake mix.

Here’s an excerpt:


Better still: who is crying? Or is that two people crying? Who cries in the A&P? Then again, isn’t the riotous excess of options, the tens of thousands of micro-decisions that constitute every expedition through this temple to consumer choice and evolutionary irrelevance enough to make anyone with even a fraction of her soul intact sob with gratitude, guilt, and despair?

Does one still believe in the soul?

That can hardly be the question right now, can it?

Does academia ruin a person for normal life might be a valid question. Another: is it better to keep reading the text of the baking aisle, or just to get on with Tuesday evening?

Still another: why won’t that child stop howling? Furthermore, if one began crying in the A&P, how would one ever stop?

Read the rest here, and let me know what you think.

(Can’t get enough stories about the A&P? Here’s another, published last year in River, River. More coming!)

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Survivalism is a collection of absurd delusions.

You have your own solar panels, your own water supply, and your own food growing and preserved on your own property?

Someone bigger, stronger, or better armed can steal them, enslave you, or kill you and your family.

Arm yourself? Sooner or later, your weapons break, you run out of ammo, or someone with better guns overwhelms you.

This species did not evolve in isolated families, but in clans and tribes. Practically speaking, there is no such thing as individual survival.

We survive together, or not at all.

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“The Schools”

Lately, I’ve been writing essays in my head instead of on paper, which has made Perfect Whole far too quiet, and my head far too noisy.

But I’m popping in to share some news.

The inaugural issue of River, River, a biannual journal of poetry, short prose, and photography, makes its debut today.  I am pleased to announce that my story, “The Schools,” adapted from my current work-in-progress, appears in its pages. This is my first publication in a literary journal, and I’m thoroughly delighted, possibly all out of proportion.

Please visit River, River and let me know what you think. The submission period for their next issue is open now, if you have work you’d like them to consider.

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“How Kind of You to Come”

In what may be the first and last sort-of ghost story of my career, I present “How Kind of You to Come,” a short story I wrote for Neil Fein’s Magnificent Nose, a tale of Halloween, art, grief, obsessive love, and selfies. Here are the first two paragraphs:

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’ve forgotten her face. It’s become a disordered collage: the slope of a nose, the curve of a lip, a glow of brown eyes. Memory no longer assembles them into a face.

So I paint everything else. Her front door. The in-between coat she wore in autumn. Her beagle. The mums that grew in her yard. The grackles that flocked around her at the bus stop. Her clarinet case. Her long, sequined prom gown. Her boyfriend’s motorcycle. The instruments of her destruction.

Read the rest here.

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Creating a Character Template

Dr. Johnson called remarriage “the triumph of hope over experience.” The same might be said of writing a second novel before selling the first. Yet here I stand at the altar again, veiled, clutching a bouquet, arrayed in the sleek second-wedding ivory suit, tuning out the tasteless wagering among the guests, sizing up the bridegroom. Wish us luck.

The project I’m working on now features a large cast of characters gathered in the A&P one early evening, two Tuesdays before Thanksgiving. At present, I will not say what they are doing there, but suffice to say, not one is having a pleasant shopping experience.

This second novel comes from a less dreamy, more artistically ambitious place in my imagination. I felt when writing my first novel that the characters existed in the universe somewhere, and my role was to get well enough acquainted with them that they would trust me and tell me their story. They did, but it took a long time.

The characters in the current story have suggested their collective existence and experiences to me, but require much more effort to sculpt as individuals. I wanted each to have a separate soul, as evidenced through her language, her longings, and her choices.

To that end, and recalling the detailed character studies my acting teacher used to require us to write before speaking a word onstage,  I spent time last year crafting a character template customized to the world in which these characters live and the moment in which I’m observing them.  Answering the 100+ questions about each character before trying to sketch her arc has been extraordinarily helpful. Some questions, I answer in a few words.  Others become prompts that generate pages and pages of backstory and insight. I handwrite my initial answers, then elaborate when transcribing them onto the computer.

I’ve completed two of the twelve stories I plan to include, and have been deeply satisfied with the way the template-fueled prewriting has brought each character to life. Only a portion of the information the template draws out has made it into later drafts of these stories, but the intimate knowledge of each character’s hidden self and public presentation suffuses every moment.

I’ve found this technique so useful that I thought I would share it with a wider audience. I don’t imagine anyone else could use this specific template (unless your story also takes place in a supermarket), but it might help you write your own.

Obviously, I’m asking the questions I want my characters to answer. You might not care whether your characters can cook, but you might find it advantageous to learn whom they secretly resent, or where they wish they were. What would you like to know about your characters? You won’t know if you don’t ask. Fictional people can be as coy as real ones.

Character Template


Name, age, occupation, ethnicity, marital status, composition of her household?

Physical health.

Symptoms. Chronic conditions. Pain. Allergy. Aches. Places she hurts, if any. Sexuality? Sleep problems? What does she do while up in the night?


What is she wearing? What is she carrying? Weight? Relationship to food, her body, exercise? Height, coloring? Clothing choice today? Other times? In what does she feel most herself? What is her symbolic color?

At this moment

Why is she in the A&P? What is she buying? What will she do with it?

Where is she coming from?

What was wrong before she got to the A&P?

What word, object, sound, or sight in the A&P set her off emotionally?

How is she paying? Does she have enough money? Where does her money come from?

Where is she going after the store? Who expects her there?

What is the connection between this person and the aisle she’s in when she breaks down?

If she has kids, are they with her? If not physically, mentally? What are her kids doing?

How is she handling the return of cold and darkness this autumn?

Food and Home

What do they generally eat in her house? Who shops, cooks, cleans up? Sloppy or neat? Help with housecleaning? Can she cook? Does she like to?

Money & Career

What is her job? What is her career? How did she get into it? Is it where she expected to be, or something quite different? Where does her money come from?


Raised with religion? Still involved in it?

What is her relationship with death?

Is she into mindfulness? Gratitude?

Relationship to the divine? Spirituality? Is she praying? Meditating?

Art & Entertainment & Intellectual life


Reading: romance, genre fiction, serious fiction? Nonfiction? Magazines?

Where/how/in what was she educated? What parts of her education are incomplete?

Entertainment: Reading? Reality TV? Movies? Sports? What kind of books/movies does she like?

Musical taste?

Hobbies? Crafty? Knitting?

Relationships & Social life

Relationship to mother & father, living or dead, real or substitute? Relationships with siblings?

Friendships? What are her relationships with other women?

Judgmental or accepting?

Joiner? Clubs? Church, etc.?

Who* does she love? Married/partnered? How does she feel about her significant other, or lack of one?

Attitude toward love: Romantic? Cynical? Practical? Complex?

Does she have kids? How old? What are they like?

Who or what is she worried about?

Who does she hate? Who does she resent?

Who does she wish she could trade places with? Who/what does she aspire to be? Who does she envy?

Who is she in conflict with?

What is her use of social media?

What is she doing about Thanksgiving next week? How does she feel about it?

Inner Life, Desires, Dreams

What motivates her?

What is her secret sin?

What is her secret pleasure?

Are her fantasies those of escape or rescue?

Who or what is she grieving?

Where does she wish she were right now?

What does she aspire to be? What kind of life does she envy?

Does she believe in suppressing feelings or feeling them?

What are her inner conflicts?

Minor things that drive her crazy?

What are the quirks in her neurology?


What is her style, sentence structure, favored words, images, sayings, clichés? Accent? How do her feelings shape her language?

Story considerations

What are the characteristics of her voice?

What will be the tone of her story?

What is the arc of her story, both within the chapter and within the book?

In what ways are her work/public/cerebral self crashing into her home/private/emotional self? Or is that not how she would view it?

Yeah, yeah. Whom. I know. This is from my notebook, not my master’s thesis.

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Rejecting the Gratitude Challenge

The Gratitude Challenge has been making the rounds on Facebook, and several people have invited me to participate. The object of the game is to list three things you are grateful for every day for a week, then challenge others to do the same.

I hear it can change your life.

But I overthink and overfeel everything, they tell me, and something about the Gratitude Challenge feels wrong every time I try to construct a simple list of the things in my life for which I’m thankful.

Today, I finally figured out why:

1) The subtext of many of the items on my gratitude list is: “Isn’t it lucky I was born to parents who weren’t poor in a stable Western democracy near the end of the twentieth century? Being raised a few miles outside of New York City didn’t hurt, either.”

2) The constant messages about gratitude, particularly directed at women, but not exclusively, contain an implied threat: Don’t complain. Things could worse. How dare you want things? You don’t deserve what you have. Be grateful for that gruel, Oliver Twist! And no, you can’t have some more.

3) I don’t want to express gratitude for something that my friends don’t have. I don’t want anyone to feel hurt or excluded by what I may have that they don’t. Regardless of intention, that can sound like nothing more than boasting. “I am so, so grateful for my five houses, luxury yacht, and round-the-clock domestic staff! I just feel SO lucky, you guys!”

4) Gratitude is both an emotion and a practice. Counting one’s blessings can be great for mental health. Directing attention to what is going right in your life for a moment, instead of what’s going wrong, counters our natural negativity bias. But gratitude is also an emotion, and since it is one of my core principles never to tell anyone else what to feel (since I hate being told what to feel myself), I don’t want to challenge anyone else to feel something. Few people have ever been commanded into feeling something other than what they feel.

Julie Goldberg’s Relationship Status With Gratitude: It’s complicated.

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“Mom, What’s the Right Age to Start Having Sex?”

“Mom, what’s the right age to start having sex?”

That was exactly the question I wasn’t expecting, sitting with my 13-year-old son and my husband in a restaurant overlooking the Hudson, sipping a cocktail, waiting for our food to arrive. I didn’t have a statement prepared. But the boy wanted an answer, and he wanted it in numerical form. Immediately.

The lapsed Catholic deep within me yelled, “When you’re married!”

The Jewish mother closer to the surface had a more practical idea. “When you finish medical school!”

“What do you think?” I asked him.

He said his girlfriend thought 17 was the right age, but that one of the neighborhood boys had done it at 14. I cringed. “That’s too young!” I said. He agreed.

“But why is it too young? And what is the right age?”

I looked to my husband for help, but he was as caught off guard as I was.

A response was expected. Now.

“There is no right age,” I told him. “It’s not a question of age. It’s about being ready.”

Did I really think I was going to get away with that? Maybe for three seconds.

“So how are you supposed to know when you’re ready?”

“I have no idea” was honest, but unsatisfying. “Let me think about it” would have sounded suspicious in this case, as if I needed time to invent some arbitrary, adult reasons why fourteen-year-olds were too young for sex. I took a long drink and a deep breath, and by the grace of God, or maybe the cocktail, the answer came to me fully formed, in three parts, all at once.

“You’re ready to have sex when you can do the three following things,” I pronounced.

Three? Did I have three? Was three enough? Maybe I could only think of two? Never say no in an improv. Go with three.

“One. You’re ready to have sex when you can look your girlfriend straight in the eye and have an honest conversation about birth control. Ummm…you know what that is right?”

Eyeroll. Yes, he knew.

“Two,” I continued. “You’re ready to have sex when you understand that consent doesn’t mean your girlfriend saying, ‘Well, I guess so…’ or ‘If you really want to…’ or ‘I don’t care…’ or ‘Whatever.’ Consent means you’re not having sex until your girlfriend says, ‘Oh, HELL yes!’” Here, I banged both fists on the table. My husband cringed and glanced apologetically at nearby diners.

“Mom!” the boy whispered. “Keep it down!”

(To the best of my knowledge, no one asked to have what I was having.)

when harry met sally 300x159 Ill Have What Shes Having (but only if shes good looking)

“Three,” I concluded, when Item #3 sauntered into my brain at the last possible second. “You’re ready to have sex when you’re willing to learn everything you can to make the experience as good for her as it for you.” The horrified lapsed Catholic began tabulating the number of mortal sins contained in this one impromptu speech. “And that’s why fourteen is too young and why you’ll still be too young for many years. Because most teenage boys are so interested in their own pleasure that they don’t even consider the pleasure of the girl. They have no idea how to make it good for her. All they want is to get off.  And as long as that’s why someone wants to have sex, he’s still too young.”

I finished my drink, spent and terrified. What had I said? Was I right? Was he too young for all that? What had I forgotten? Too late, I realized that I had said nothing about love or commitment. Those are fuzzy terms for a 13-year-old, and if I wasn’t going to give him an age, I had to be as concrete as possible. Still, how could I have failed to mention love?



By the time dinner arrived, I was unsure whether I had just won “Most Embarrassing Parent in History,” “Least Appropriate Hudson Valley Restaurant Guest, Spring of 2014,” or just, and not for the first time, “Worst Mother Ever.”


But I’ve had a few months to think about it, and now I believe I said, miraculously, all the right things. When I told this story to a few friends at work, a long-married father of two said, “Damn! Does that mean I’m still not ready for sex?” That made me wonder, and not just about his wife. Maybe a lot of men hadn’t heard the right messages when they were young.

What made me sure, though, is thinking about my daughter. If I knew that every boy and man she will ever date had an embarrassing parent who taught him that responsibility for birth control is not just for girls, that consent must be enthusiastic or it isn’t consent, and that mutual pleasure, not just his, is the aim of any intimate encounter, then I would worry a lot less about her and her friends than I do.

It was rough question. I hope I’m ready for the next one.

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Don’t Pray for Peace

Lately, we’ve all been hearing many prayers for peace, but it’s not prayer or the lack of it that is our problem.

There are limited resources in this world–land, water, oil, food, money, power. People fight over them, as they always have, and refuse to recognize that another group’s claim to those resources might be every bit as valid as theirs.

Political peace, unlike inner peace, doesn’t come from prayer. It comes from excruciating compromise, the kind that forces one group or another to let go of something they’re sure they need to survive. Ironically, that kind of compromise is the only way anyone will survive.

If a liturgy includes prayers for peace, but the leaders speak as if only one side of a conflict has legitimate claims, legitimate desires, legitimate suffering–in essence, as if only one side is legitimately human–then you may as well spare Heaven and everyone else your prayers for “peace.”

Peace isn’t manna. Peace isn’t grace. Peace is what’s left after human beings do the hard, sacrificial, painful work of real compromise. The alternative is war, and we already know how that ends. It never does.

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Alligators and Flash Fiction

Flash fiction is a strange beast, isn’t it? It’s compressed like a poem or a joke. It tries to do many things in a tight space: create a tiny narrative arc, suggest fully-formed characters in a gesture or two, allude to vast underground currents of backstory and theme.

But because it’s short and goes down easy, I think readers don’t give it the attention they would another form, if they read it at all, which the site stats indicate they don’t. Good flash fiction, like any literature worthy of the name, rewards deep reading. But the name and the length invite people just to flash their eyes over it.

If no one reads it, or if they read it carelessly, what’s the point? Well, it’s a great exercise. I’ve learned something from every flash fiction Neil has wrestled me to the floor and forced me to write. And I was thinking this morning that maybe it is a fundamentally religious exercise anyway, a private devotion, shared with few, if any. A small sacrifice of time, craft, and imagination to the Mad Novelist.

To that end, then, here is today’s offering: The Interpretation of an Alligator

I wasn’t as surprised as I should have been when I read that Bobbie Baker had come home from work one afternoon to find a five-foot alligator on her doorstep. I should have been as shocked as she was when she poked it with a broomstick, and it flicked one ancient eye open to glare at her. Bobbie’s doorstep is in New Jersey, a thousand miles north of alligator territory.

“I bet I know who did this,” I said…

(Read the rest!)

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What Are We Preparing Our Students For?

Today on Perfect Whole we have a guest post by my colleague, Richard Smith. A longer version of this essay was published in our school newspaper.

Rich and I work in an extremely high-achieving school district in which nearly all the students go on to four-year colleges. We have seen many of our students and graduates achieve extraordinary success, but we have also seen the terrible toll competition and pressure take on some students. While no one can say for certain why anyone commits suicide, this year we lost two Class of 2013 graduates to suicide, and we have lost several graduates to drug addiction over the past few years.

All of us are engaged in a conversation now about how to reduce stress on our students and help them cope with the stress they experience. We don’t all agree about how best to proceed, and we know that the admissions process for the most exclusive colleges is not going to get easier or kinder, nor is the job market. But we all sense that a line has been crossed–there is a difference between encouraging students to do their best and requiring students to do the impossible.

Here is Rich’s wise, thoughtful take on the problem.


What Are We Preparing Our Students For?

“Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them. A few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact.”― Carl Sagan

I consider myself incredibly lucky. I teach math in a school with great colleagues, hardworking students, and a community that supports what I do wholeheartedly. My school creates successful people, no matter how one defines success, including some very influential and prosperous citizens. But often over the past few years, I’ve wondered about the costs of this success. I read the quotation above from Carl Sagan recently, and it reminded me how much our shared values about education are producing students with an unrealistic view of how the world works.

Over the nineteen years I’ve taught high school, I’ve seen competition in all areas of student life intensify, and  I’m increasingly angry about it lately because it isn’t fair to our kids. Competition raises the bar for success, and the hurdles students are expected to jump become more and more unrealistic by the year. The adolescent mind is not equipped to deal with the stress of having to succeed on so many fronts.

I have seen students over-enrolling in AP and honors classes, hoping to make a positive impression on the colleges they are applying to. In athletics, many kids play on club teams or get private lessons so that they can be the best in their sport. In the performing arts, students work for hours and hours on their musical prowess or their acting ability. All of these pursuits come at the expense of socializing with friends, family time, or the exploration of a hobby. Very little time is given for the brain (or the child) to relax. The mantra of work, work, work is rewarded and heeded as if its payoff were unquestionable.

Many adults perpetuate the idea that extreme competition and pressure are beneficial. The implicit message is that by outworking everyone ad absurdum, you can achieve your goals. When that becomes the unspoken mission for a school of 1350 students, it creates a huge bottleneck for competition at the top. Kids try to do more and more to stand out to prospective colleges. The enormous effort of these endeavors makes living a normal life nearly impossible. And the scope of this competition is getting wider by the year.

I routinely see students in my class who have been up until 2 AM studying, or even all night. They can barely keep their eyes open or their heads up. I have seen stacks upon stacks of index cards, lined with terms, facts, dates, and definitions, all made in the hope of retaining information. It makes me anxious. While I’m trying to teach math, my students are often poring over PowerPoint slides, notes, or essay questions for other classes. It takes them completely out of the discussion, out of whatever is going on in the present. I observe students coming into my classroom on the day of a quiz buzzing with nervousness, a fever pitch overcoming the room at the prospect that the students haven’t memorized everything that they were supposed to for the day. The hours of homework, the summer assignments, the AP packets given over the vacation break—how much information can we expect to cram into the teenage brain? It’s turning our kids into zombies.  They learn to absorb facts in the short term, but they don’t develop enough reasoning or knowledge to be educated for the long term.

This unprecedented level of stress is becoming the norm, and overloading is perceived as desirable. Students are led to believe that the more they do, the better chance they will have to get into their dream college, which will inevitably lead to the best possible career and life.  It is all done with the best of intentions, but look at our economy–a college degree is no longer a guarantee of skilled work after graduation.  Of course, a college education is valuable, but students should not need to go to such extreme lengths to get one. There is a college for everyone. We may just have to adjust our sights a bit to determine what is realistic for each student.

As educators, counselors, administrators, and coaches, we should not be standing idly by and witnessing what is happening to our kids. We are not preparing them for the life that they will eventually lead. And we are certainly not educating them to love learning.

Life is not about constant pressure. Other than for the few who want enter professional sports or entertainment, or those aiming for a career that will pay tens of millions of dollars over a lifetime, life is not a competition in which the stakes get higher and higher. We don’t need to expose all kids to so much pressure so early in their lives, leaving them no time to be teenagers anymore. Adults who care about kids should not rob them of their youth.

Of course, it is rewarding to compete to be the best at something. But it is a fool’s errand to try to be the best at everything. The insane competition is causing many students in high-achieving schools to believe that they must be experts not only in the finer points of integral calculus, but also in the underlying causes of the Peloponnesian War, the gross domestic product of Zaire, the conjugation of irregular verbs, the atomic weight of Cesium, Erikson’s seventh stage of development, and what Hamlet was thinking in Act II, Scene ii. All are noble pursuits on their own, but I submit that it is impossible to develop mastery of all of these subjects in the 1000 or so instructional hours of a school year. Yet, unbelievably, excellence in every pursuit is becoming the basic expectation for all our students.

I believe that two changes are necessary: first, curricula must be weeded to promote greater depth and less breadth; and second, students need to be realistic about what courses they want to take. Are they choosing classes that interest them, or are they just trying to impress a college? A cultural shift in the way we approach education and success needs to happen, and it needs to happen soon.

If you are an adult reading this, think about the people you know who are successful and well-balanced. Chances are that they are hard workers who set and achieve goals, and that they are experts at one thing, not everything. They have good people skills. They have hobbies, or  interests in the arts, athletics, other pursuits. Our kids need reassurance that life will be accommodative for the vast majority of them. They are not growing up into a world in which  only the strong survive. Few positions that our kids will endeavor to pursue will ever involve the type of cutthroat competition that is presently encouraged by many of the adults in their lives.

As parents, teachers, and coaches, we need to get our priorities in order. Kids are not equipped to deal with so much pressure on their young brains. The constant need to do better than they did last time, outwork everyone else, or, worst of all, struggle to be perfect, creates an impossible situation. Kids stoically cast aside their mental anguish to deal with the challenge at hand. Many don’t know how to cope with failure, or even the prospect of not doing as well as they hoped.  But failure is one of our best teachers, and many of our kids are terrified of the very idea of it, leaving them ill-prepared for the life we believe we are preparing them to lead.

We need to understand that kids are kids. They need time to be social. We should not be inundating them with copious work outside of school. Give kids less to do outside the classroom and they will give you more inside the classroom. High school is meant to give kids a sampling of all of the subjects that are available for study and pursuit once they reach college, should they decide to go. As adults charged with their care, we should encourage an appropriate balance of competition and appreciation of the pursuits that make life worth living.

Richard Smith is a mathematics teacher at Northern Highlands Regional High School in Allendale, NJ, where has has taught since 2002. Mr. Smith began his career in 1995 at Westwood Regional High School. He has also been a successful coach of high school athletes in multiple sports. He received his Master of Education in Instruction at The College of New Jersey and is presently a graduate student as Montclair State University pursuing a Master’s Degree in Mathematics Education. An avid technologist and information junkie, Mr. Smith loves to read when time allows. You can follow him on Twitter @SmithNHRHS.




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