June 28, 2010

A Neighborhood...or a World...Away

"I owe the success of AAR to the hard work of a highly talented, intelligent, funny, and creative group of volunteers...Blythe, Sandy, Rachel, and Lynn will be splitting the publishing and managerial responsibilities, with the able support of the incredibly talented and hard-working AAR reviewers and staff."

"I have no doubt whatsoever that these terrific women will continue this site's commitment to quality. Indeed, my guess is that the changes they make over time will improve All About Romance, and I look forward to watchintg them do so. And I will watch...from entirely on the outside. I can't imagine anything more difficult than moving into a house and having the old owner constantly peeking through the windows."

~At the Back Fence, my final issue, October 2008

The strong management team I left in place at AAR in 2008 has taken the site in some terrific new directions. Thanks to Rachel the site has an RSS feed, something I couldn't figure out how to do throughout my last several months. New reviewers brought renewed vigor, and existing staffers felt rejuvenated and brought new ideas into fruition. TPTB re-started the advertising program I'd cancelled early in 2008 (in an attempt to regain joy from the site by returning to reviewing), which allowed for further possibilities, including the purchase of a dedicated server, and apparently, a site re-design. In other words, what I'd hoped would happen - an improved AAR - did happen, and for that I am proud.

Many websites simply cease to exist when it's time for the owner to move on. The thought of that happening when I'd decided I needed to leave distressed me to such an extent that I actually remained on board longer than I'd have liked because my need to leave actually preceded my final decision to do so by months. By the time I'd discussed my unhappiness with my AAR colleagues, I seriously considered either pulling the plug or simply abandoning the site so that all the content would remain online like a virtual ghost-museum of romance novels.

Because of the expense and effort involved in owning AAR, I wasn't sure what would happen with the third option of transferring ownership to one or more existing staff. It didn't take long for Blythe, Rachel, Sandy, and Lynn to develop a plan, and within two months I quietly left.

Although AAR had long since ceased to bring me joy, the thought of letting it go after more than a decade was excruciating. It required me to face hard truths and make a tremendous change in my daily life, but the changes I saw my daughter willing to commit to in a castle in the Berkshires gave me the strength to give up what I'd struggled to build for so long.

The last day I owned AAR was a horrendous one. The owner of AAR's host had recently died and the new host company was a large one located states away. Everything went wrong that day, and because I was determined not to leave the new owners a broken site, I stayed up almost all night, in constant phone contact, nagging and nudging tech support along so that when it came time for me to turn over the virtual keys, I could do so with a clear mind. And then, the night of the first day of my new, un-encumbered life, my husband took me to a celebratory dinner, after which we walked to a Barnes and Noble nearby and I picked up a job application. Several days later I'd applied to every Barnes and Noble and Borders in the area, and a week and a half later, the sole store that called me in for an interview offered me a job.

* * * * *

Last night my husband and I went to Toy Story 3 - great movie, btw - with a small group of B&N friends. Allie, who works solely in the music department, drove with us from the store to the theater. Because of a naturally reticent sensibility, I only slowly allowed my personal life to mix with my working life. I think I shocked Allie when I told her I'm not the extroverted person in real life that I am at the bookstore.

In real life I am happy to be on my own, or with my husband or daughter for company. Though I imagine I'll pay for it at some point down the line, and recognize that I am not the poster child for emotional health, I simply am not a person "who needs people" beyond my very small circle. Which means when I walk into the bookstore to work, I consciously press an internal "on" switch that allows me to easily engage with customers, shrug off being yelled at unreasonably by people having a bad day, and actually try and improve the mood of the people I serve.

All of this has been good for me. Unlike Michael Gates Gill, author of How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else, I hadn't lost it all before getting an entry-level retail/service job, but B&N did allow me to re-join the human race after being stuck in my study for a decade. Because people who work at bookstores tend to love books or music to an almost uncomfortable extent, almost none are "regular folk," and given my own "offness," the self-confidence to become more open built as self-consciousness faded. Still, working tires me easily because that "on" switch expends a lot of energy; on the other hand I now can attend a party without feeling the sense of dread that once accompanied invitations to large gatherings.

In other words, I've moved on. I work part-time at Barnes and Noble. I belong to the National Book Critics Circle, review for Publishers Weekly and Amazon Vine, and over the weekend was asked to take part in a new reviewing venture. In less than a month we'll be taking our first family vacation in years, after which we'll settle our daughter at college. Now seems to be the perfect time to let go of the last tentacles of the past.

* * * * *

When my husband and I sold our first house, the man who bought it was an asshole. Rather than working through a realtor, he simply rang the door one day to have a look. He barged in. He made rude comments. He was unreasonable throughout closing - so much so that my husband wanted to back out of the deal just because he was such an ass - but we needed to move on, which Harold understood after we talked about it. Although the sale left a bad taste in our mouth, we moved out of our old neighborhood and into our new house in a different neighborhood.

Our daughter met her first "friends" at local parks, and one in particular lived in the old neighborhood, so I frequently drove by the old house. First the shutters changed color, then they were removed entirely. Landscaping in the front yard changed drastically and the driveway, which need it, was re-paved. While we lived there for the first several years of our marriage and loved our little starter home, as it changed and we changed and the years passed, I felt less of a need to periodically re-visit, and I can't remember when I last drove by.

* * * * *

Blythe and I "met" a long time ago, way back when Prodigy and AOL were how most people experienced the Internet. Rachel I've known less long, but still...a long time. Sandy came to AAR a couple of years after Rachel after having spent time at another romance novel website, one which folded. It was not one that I held in very high esteem because of its cheerleader attitude, but her writing skills were strong and she adapted easily into our anything-but-cheerleader style of review. And a year and a half after that, Lynn joined.

Though Blythe and I don't talk often, there is a closeness there that I've often relied upon. And while Rachel's religious and political views are a world away from my own, we share some struggles and have enough in common emotionally that when she left AAR earlier this year, I felt it deep in my bones. It wasn't until last week, though, that I thought to check into a feature she edited for many years at AAR, the Special Title Listings - the second oldest feature at AAR and one of the reasons for its existence - when it hit me, hard, that with her retirement the lists either went on hiatus or were cancelled.

Aside from my connections with Blythe and Rachel, my strongest AAR relationships over the years have been with Robin and Marianne. Just last night I learned that Marianne's eldest daughter, a Marine decorated for her courage and bravery under fire in Afghanistan, is pregnant. Robin's son, also a Marine, just returned from his deployment, also in Afghanistan. Apropos of nothing, really, other than that I'm incredibly thankful that both are safe and sound, at least for now.

Robin and I talk in fits and spurts, not as much now as when we were co-writing At the Back Fence, but ever since I made my decision to leave AAR and she learned At the Back Fence (the raison d'ĂȘtre for the site way back when) would be no more, our conversations always include an AAR component...mostly our disconnect with it that has everything to do with us and little to do with the capable people writing there. That's not to say AAR's culture never changed; over a decade we experienced several upheavals that served to bring many of us closer while pushing others apart. Through it all I appreciated everybody's talent and believe I respected it, but I can honestly say that some of us mixed like oil and water. In other words, we didn't.

I started this rambling blog entry with a quote from my final ATBF column, including the metaphor that I saw AAR as a house, and when I left the site, vowed not to peek through the windows to make the new owners uncomfortable.

Over the past nearly-twenty months, I've maintained that distance. I visited the site a few times a week to see what's new, but by keeping that necessary distance I hastened my disconnect. I thought I could come back as just another reader and earlier in the year posted a few times, but quickly gave up - it just didn't feel right. And with the site re-design that officially debuted a week ago, it's as though I've not only moved out of the old house and into a new neighborhood, but then the old house was moved, foundation and all, across country, so that it's too far away even to drive by.

I will continue to wish nothing but success for AAR and its owners, but it's time for me to finish the process of letting go.



Blythe said...

Laurie, I wanted to let you know that I appreciate your good wishes - and everything you've done. None of us would be doing what we're doing if you hadn't been doing it first. When I started working for you, I was a stay at home mom with three kids under six. I was about five years out of grad school and had done little to feed my literary interests or talent (beyond reading and interacting on those old prodigy message boards). I started reviewing because you asked me to - I don't know that I would have had the nerve otherwise. It completely changed my life.

The STLs are on hiatus, but not gone. We've had a lot going on, and had to do some learning to fill in the gaps when Rachel resigned.

Laurie Gold said...

Thanks, Blythe. You have been a part of my life for a long time and mean a great deal to me.