Spinning the Story


The first time I wrote about the NICU (other than in emails to family and friends), it was for the NICU Testimonial binder in the Alta Bates Family Lounge. I knew I was writing for other preemie parents and so I squeezed every silver lining out of our three-month NICU stay. The way I spun the story, you’d think we had spent that time in a hotel, not a hospital.

I emphasized the friendships we’d made with the nurses, doctors, social workers, security guards and parking attendants. When I talked about the birth of my micro-preemie twins, I gave just the facts: born at 25 weeks and four days, weighing just over a pound and a half apiece. I didn’t talk about how I tried to find strength through stoicism and its polar opposite, bad jokes.

The NICU staff had offered a lifeline of support to my husband and me, much more support than I’d received thee years earlier when my full-term daughter had been born, I insisted.

The more I wrote, the more I shared my words with others. I submitted my essays to online magazines and writing conferences. At my first writing workshop, I proudly presented an essay outlining how I coped with micro-preemie twins who needed around-the-clock care for their first months of life.

“We want to see you be emotionally vulnerable,” chorused the writers in my group. To them, my words were an essay that needed to be shaped and sculpted to fit and hit certain storytelling marks.

But for me, it was my life. I couldn’t admit that I was emotionally vulnerable. That would mean acknowledging how small and fragile my babies had been. It would mean facing the long list of ailments and disabilities that my babies could have had—or might still have. At a year-and-a-half old, my twins still had developmental delays. Just thinking about it felt like a pitch-black fist grabbing at my gut.

Listening to the comments of my colleagues brought me back to the NICU, the way I’d been 18 months earlier, standing over my twins’ isolettes, watching the numbers flicker on the monitors. Wondering if the boys would stabilize by themselves or if they’d trigger the alarm. Never sure what the long-term impact of their prematurity would be. Before I knew it, I was sobbing in front of twelve people, who, just a week earlier, had been total strangers.

“I’m sorry,” I sobbed, chewing on my lip. “I just realized that the NICU was really scary.”

“Of course it was,” said the workshop leader, a novelist who herself had had a baby in the NICU.

I spent the rest of the afternoon walking around in a daze. From time to time I would remember a certain detail—the cinnamon smell of the soap in the family lounge, the teddy bear magnets with all the babies’ names on them, the hum of the breast pump—and it would take me right back to the NICU.

And then a curious thing happened. I began to notice sounds around me. Birds chirping, crisp footsteps, the whistle of wind. It was as if to block out the gravity of the NICU, my brain had stopped listening to the world around me.

From then on, when I wrote about the NICU, I added what I saw to how I felt. Now, in addition to describing the nurses who had carefully arranged tubes and wires so I could hold my babies skin-to-skin, I also recalled my nervousness and my doubts. When I found just the right words to describe my memories, the fist in my gut would loosen. Being honest with my feeling and being authentic in my writing was actually a comfort, like those pastel blue scent dolls I used to put in the boys’ isolettes.

Seven years later I still bite my lip when I think about those early days. My stomach still flips to think about the texture of their skin, so thin and papery or their squawky cries when I had to put them back in their beds. But I also think about the moments before the cries—the warmth of their tummies, the smell of baby boy in the whorls of their hair, their tiny fingers clasping mine—and the images dance together to complete a picture of hope, fear, uncertainty, and love.

Gratitude in a Brave New World


This weekend, inspired by those who have been relentlessly calling their representatives on every issue from the ACA to the EPA, I sent 56 Valentines to government officials on behalf of my friends.

Each thank you Valentine is unique with cutout hearts on the envelope and card and a personal message on the inside. THANK YOU each one reads on the back of the envelope as well as on the front of the card.

I’ll admit I made the project more elaborate than it needed to be. Either because I harbor a nostalgia for handmade Valentines or because I really really like glue sticks.

“John McCain is never going to see this Valentine,” I thought, as I picked the perfect shade of metallic blue to address his fourth envelope, a different gel pen than the one used to address the next card I wrote to him.

Likewise, Congressman Jason Chaffetz will probably never see his purple-and-green hearts and with gold lettering thanking him for suggesting that a commander-in-chief who is mentally sound is a really good thing. If the DOJ doesn’t forward Sally Yates’ mail, those pink-and-silver hearts will probably just end up in the trash.

But with each card I wrote, I thought of all the people who would see them—from the mail carrier in Oakland, to the mailroom in Washington. Whether the envelope has been discarded or not, THANK YOU and a heart from handmade paper is sure to be visible.

So if you’re assigned to open mail for Rep. Beth Fukumoto or Rep. Barbara Lee you might feel a twinge of pride that you work for someone who stood up for what’s right and was acknowledged for it. Or perhaps you’re an aide for Senator Graham and you walk into the office of an aide of Senator McCain to work out the agenda for that investigation on Russian interference. The paper heart catches your eye and reminds you of the one you saw on your boss’s desk. You are making a difference. People are noticing.

Maybe you’re part of the custodial team and you see glittered envelopes in the recycling. THANK YOU. And it reminds you that you are a part of something bigger. Something that is changing. Whether that change is positive or not, that’s up to the people taking action.

Moreover, the ripple effect of thank-you card goes beyond expressing gratitude. These cards were a group effort. Chiara wrote “THANK YOU” on all the envelopes. My friend Fionnuala looked up addresses and wrote them on the all the envelopes (with the appropriately colored metallic gel pen, of course.) On top of all that, she donated all the stamps, too.

It was an opportunity to talk about the marches we’d both participated in and how empowering it was to take action. It was a chance to explain to Chiara why Senator Collins’ speech on Wednesday, coupled with Senator Murkowski, was so important.

This is how you become the change you seek. This is how a drop in the bucket becomes a splash.

Thank you to Leslie Ayers, who gave me the idea in the first place and thank you to all the Facebook friends who sent me suggestions.

Writing Prompt: You Remember


not this bus but one just like it

You remember the time in Ferrara, a town you only know because it’s the last stop in Veneto and because it has a theatre but no ballet company. If it did, you’d have auditioned here on your way to look for more stable work. Now it’s just a stop on the tour. The bus to Reggio Emilia is parked right outside the piazza and you know that in the daytime, it’s a pretty average piazza. If this were a smaller company, the poorly-managed kind without a lot of money, you’d mingle outside the stage doors waiting for the rest of the cast, smoking a cigarette under the “No Fumare” sign and then the group would wobble into town and eat at some local trattoria.

But this time you are with a more prestigious company and so there is no time to explore the town you’ve just performed in. The bus leaves 30 minutes after the last curtain call, the only vehicle in the whole boot of Italy that is punctual. You won’t eat until you get back to Reggio Emilia, and then not you make the final trek back to your tiny apartment. Not only will all the restaurants and trattorias be closed when the bus arrives, but you don’t earn enough to eat out after every performance. (Part of the reason that poorly-managed company never has any money is because they always treat the dancers to dinner.) But here at your new job, you’ll have to eat something at home, and with all the touring this week, there’s scarcely been time to go to the grocery store. There’s probably a bit of proscuitto and there’s always pasta and olive oil, if nothing else.

In a way, it’s no different than the bus that waited to take you from Uvalde, Texas back to El Paso when you were in 8th grade. Except perhaps, that you weren’t smoking then.

My Eulogy (rough draft)


I’m getting on a plane tomorrow. In the past, before I had children, and if that plane were flying over the ocean, I would send my brother a list of the bills I still needed to pay that month and their account numbers. In retrospect, I suppose I could have just paid the bills before I left but somehow that never occurred to me.


These days I figure that if someone needs to find out what I owe and to whom, they could just google it (I think adsense has a cookie for that). But I’m still worried about what my loved ones will do if I die tomorrow. Do the kids know where their Social Security cards are? (Probably not. I don’t even think they know what they are) Do they know we still have one outstanding library book?


And most importantly, do they know what they’d say at my funeral? I mean, if I go down tomorrow, they’ll have to come up with something by Sunday and who can write under that kind of pressure? I know I can’t.


So I thought I’d write a draft my eulogy here that my husband can use as a template.

this came up when I googled “Death Bouquet”

(Note to my husband: just think of it as a working draft and please feel free to add your own thoughts and comments)

(Oh, and note to my mom: I don’t think Matt knows I have a blog, so if you read this and the plane goes down, could you let him know this is here? Thanks.)

Janine Noelle Kovac, known to friends and family as “Zippy” (I wasn’t, but who’s gonna know? And besides, this is my last chance to embellish the truth) was a loving wife and doting mother nearly all of the time.

Oh, man. This is harder than I thought.

Janine would have celebrated her 30th birthday this month (technically true. Not technically true: that I would have celebrated my 30th birthday this year.)

I could give a list of things I liked: classical music, raw almonds, my kids. And a list of things I didn’t like: cockroaches. FOX News. Dexy’s Midnight Runners.

Maybe I could list some of my favorite quotes. I can’t remember what they are, but I know they’re in my goodreads feed.

(Note to Matt: to make everything easier for you I have changed all our passwords to “pencil.” Except for my goodreads password, which is “snowbird1882”)

I’m sorry Matt. I just can’t think of anything interesting to say about myself. But I do have the latest bio I submitted my last Write On Mamas post:

Janine Kovac works for Litquake, San Francisco’s literary festival. She lives in Oakland with her husband and three small children. She spends her free time wondering if it’s really free time or if she’s just forgotten to do something.

Mom, will you tell Matt it’s the best I could come up with?

The Rodney Dangerfield of Junior High


Billy Crystal in This is Spinal Tap

It’s 7th grade. I’m twelve years old. Our drama class is going to compete in a citywide speech tournament; all the middle schools are participating. And competing in the tournament will be part of our final grade. The individual categories range from oratorical recitations to prose and poetry readings. I would have recited a poem, (all the girls are reciting poems) but I also want to win. I’ll never stand out in the poetry category. Besides, I know my mom will try to pick out my poem, the way other mothers pick out their daughters clothes. And I know that as a former speech and debate coach, she’ll give me some geeked-out poem to read, like Vachel Lindsey’s “The Congo” when everybody else will be reading Shel Silverstein and Lewis Carroll’s “Jabbywocky.”

So instead I sign up for the pantomime category. It’s not the sexiest of categories at a school district speech tournament; it’s more like an afterthought. But no one else in my school signs up for pantomime; so at least I’ll stand out. I like that. And if few enough kids sign up across the district, maybe I even have a chance at winning.

My prescience pays off. It’s just me and five other junior mimes in the whole tournament. We have two rounds of competition before the final round, but it’s just a formality. We all advance to finals.

The first rounds test our fundamentals. We pick a scene out of a hat and have three minutes to prepare our gestures: pouring a glass of something to drink, raking leaves, walking a dog. Always looking for an edge, my beverage is something hot and on my mimed sips, I burn my tongue. It impresses the judges. I get a perfect score. But what I’m really trying to do with my pretend coffee cup that’s too hot to touch is hide the fact that I’m a terrible mime. I look nothing like the Shields and Yarnell shows I watched on T.V. as a little kid. When I lift the cup to my mouth I’m not sure how tall the cup is supposed to be or if I’m dipping my head right into the lip of the mug. So I pretend that the cup is too hot to pick up in the first place. I lean down and blow. It’s funny. I know I’m good at funny. And I know I’m good in front of an audience. This much I’m confident of after years of daily ballet classes and rehearsals.

My act is so funny and so original to the judges they don’t even notice that I haven’t actually mimed anything.

The final round is an act choreographed to a five-minute piece of music. During the weeks before the competition, I shut myself upstairs in my bedroom, choreographing to 70’s instrumentals (elevator music hadn’t been invented yet, but that’s what these albums would become). I was painfully aware of how little I could pantomime anything. So I choreographed a magic act. My hat turned into a bird. I rolled a ball that suddenly started bouncing off the ceiling. I perfected my facial reactions to reflect something mysterious or unexpected, but again, there was very little pantomime.

The judges loved it. My whole class came to watch my round, since I was the only person who made it to the final round of anything.

I won first place and snagged a big trophy, back in the days when they were just for winners. I was the best tween mime in all of El Paso—maybe even all of West Texas—an early brush with fame.

The trophy went straight to the trash.

Maybe because I didn’t think I’d earned it. Maybe because I was twelve and mortified easily. Or maybe because—hello? A mime. Ain’t no respect to be had for mimes. They are the lowest of the silent stage performers.

I wish I could say that I never performed as a mime again. But alas, the taste of success was sweet, even if its fruits made me want to hide under a rock. It’s hard to say “no” to the easy win. Especially when your grade is riding on it.

Too bad I didn’t stick with it. I coulda had a career.

Post Script: I’m not sure what I danced to, but it was something like this:

R is for Raccoon


RA little story from back when I’d use writing prompts  to write about a gang of raccoons. Prompts are in bold.

What are we going to do about all this noise?” said Mama Raccoon.

“Who cares?” said Papa Raccoon. “I hope the crash woke up those pricks. Who leaves rotting wood around just waiting to break under the weight of a guest?”

“Ow,” said Baby Raccoon.

“Well, at least let’s call for backup,” said Mama Raccoon.

And Papa Raccoon tweeted to the Raccoon Hooligans of the Outer Sunset. “Come help us stir things up.” He tried to add the address and cross street, but it went over 140 characters. He switched it to “place with the old poodles.”

The Hooligans must have been in the neighborhood because they tumbled into the yard within the half hour.

“Holy shit!” said Rocky Raccoon.

“Criminittly!” said Ricky Raccoon.

“Duuuuuuude,” said Icky Raccoon, who was stoned from eating some leftover pot brownies he’d found in a composting bin on 48th and Ochoa.

Rocky shook his head.

“What happened?” he asked, looking at the clutter of driftwood on the back porch.

“Well, we was crossin’ over this doorway here when Baby Raccoon plum crashed down to the ground. We thinks these shit heads rigged something up on purpose.”

“Honey, don’t swear.” Mama Raccoon nudged her husband, who returned her look with a hard gaze that said, “Dear, these are the Hooligans. We must speak their language if we are to earn their respect.”

Mama Raccoon must have understood Papa Raccoon’s telepathic message because she fell silent.

“Let’s get even!” shouted Ricky. He was the hothead of the group. “Where’s that old dog?”

“Not so fast, Ricky,” said Rocky. “Don’t underestimate that dog. He may be old, but he’s got bad air, that fellow. Blind you with his farts, he will.”

Sometimes Rocky spoke like Yoda when he was trying to manage the Hooligans.

“Well we gotta do something quick like. I just got a tweet from the Ass Kicker Raccoons of Richmond.”

What were you doing in the 80’s?” Icky had shared some of the pot brownies with the rest of the gang. They were reminiscing in the shadow of the silvery moon. It had been a productive night. They had knocked over a table on 48th, grabbed some grub from some trashcans on Lawton, and frightened some lost tourists who’d ridden the N Judah to the end of the line.

Now they sat around the cinders of a beach bonfire. The Ass Kickers had joined them and Delilah, the meanest she-raccoon this side of Virginia, had put some weed on what was left of the fire. Not bad for a Thursday night.

“In the 80’s…” Rocky leaned back on his haunches. His voice grew nostalgic. “My grandpappy worked this neighborhood in the Inner Richmond. Near Lake and 9th. There was this one house with a German shepherd and a pit bull. The German shepherd was mean. She’d guard her territory. But the pit bull—they called her ‘Pinky’—was kind of sweet. She was one of those confused domesticated dogs. Those were the days when there was a Zim’s every twenty blocks. Great fried zucchini sticks. And Super Subs. Remember Super Subs on 20th and Geary? They mispainted the sign and it read ‘Suba’ instead of ‘Subs?’ That was a great place, too. The Alexandria was kickin’. Always popcorn out back and the kids who worked the sanitation shift were always too stoned to close the dumpsters outside. That was a great time.”

“Dude. You’re only six years old. You don’t know nothin’ ‘bout the 80’s. You don’t even remember Web 1.0,” said Delilah.

“Well, neither do you,” Rocky said, a little too defensively.

Q is for Questionnaire


The idea to have a questionnaire in the anthology came indirectly from my sister-in-law.Q

Ten years ago my parents retired as teachers. Between the two of them they had taught high school English for about seventy years. My sister-in-law sought to contact as many former students as possible (no small feat, as Facebook had not been invented yet) and asked them to write letters to their former teacher. We put the letters into a binder for my parents and presented it to them at their retirement party.

I thought I knew this side of our parents—nurturing teachers whose students would visit after graduation, even coming to the house for dinner. But I didn’t know the scope, the breadth and depth of the effect my parents had on their students that was so clearly remembered so many years later. Some former students had gone on to be English teachers themselves. A few even became writers like my father—citing him as their initial inspiration.

Later that summer, Matt and I were getting married and since everyone offers wedding advice to young, unmarried couples whether solicited or not, I thought I’d give our guests an official forum through which to dispense their wisdom. Our questionnaire asked married couples simple information such as where and when they’d gotten married as well as asking them to reflect on the best parts of the ceremony, reception, and honeymoon.

We learned that one aunt and uncle were married in Chicago the day after Kennedy’s assassination and that another had been married for 47 years—nonconsecutive. We learned that my brother was not the only groom to loose his wedding band on his honeymoon.

The responses were arranged into a reading for the ceremony. Totally recommend it for the next time you get married.

So picture this—the Editorial Group is at Bittersweet and we’re looking through our manuscript. It’s good. We like it. It’s a little short but more than short it feels incomplete. We’ve got a great thing going with the group. It’s special, but in a way that should be ordinary. So many of us shared similar struggles when we sat down to write or as we sent our writing into the world. Similar, yet unique.

We thought, why not ask our contributors, “What keeps you in the chair? What makes it difficult to prioritize writing? What’s the biggest surprise you’ve had?”

I can’t tell you the answers, of course, that would be cheating. You’ll just have to buy the book to find out for yourself.

(Plug, plug, shameless plug.)

H is for Hidden Treasures


HLast Thursday the boys and I went to Napa to pick up the postcards for our book launches. You’ve seen them—the gorgeous cover with the witty subtitle. The postcards are fab (you might see them at a bookstore near you! If you are near Diesel in Oakland, Book Passage in Corte Madera or Bookmine in Napa.)

“You know,” my friend Teri said. (Teri is our PR magician. She also has twins. And she wrote this killer essay for the anthology that is featured in the North Bay Bohemian this week.) “Down the block and across the street is a firefighters museum.”

This is the part where I talk about how great this firefighters museum is—the old fire trucks they had, all from the Napa fleet. How there are two trucks that kids can climb on. That they have the old fashioned bell on a rope.

Then this should be the paragraph where I talk about the nice curator who let us use the bathroom (or maybe that paragraph should be cut) and gave the boys coloring sheets of fire trucks.

The final paragraph might wax nostalgic about the smell of the museum, the yellowed papers that were type-written. The old-fashioned fire extinguishers. The way the notices reminded you of a time when fires ate entire towns, when water was not so easily transported.

Or maybe I end with the boys in the car on the drive home, Wagner carefully holding his coloring sheet with his thumb and forefinger, and with his other hand, tracing the outline of the fire chief’s car before the rumble of the engine coaxes him to sleep.

Giselle in Three Acts of Life


“And then the Willis make him dance

(thank you wikipedia)

until he’s really tired and then they throw him in the lake.”

This was Chiara explaining the story of Giselle to four young boys under the age of four.

I was sixteen the first time I saw Giselle. American Ballet Theatre had come to San Francisco and Eddie Ellison (whom I was so sure had stolen my Walkman but to whom I said nothing because Eddie Ellison was really hot) snuck us into the Opera House and we watched from the standing-room-only area. Baryshnikov and Alessandra Ferri were dancing the leads. I was so star-struck by Alessandra Ferri that I waited at the artists’ entrance and got my first-ever autograph. Duncan Cooper snuck into the dressing rooms and stole what he claimed was Baryshnikov’s shoe.

The second time I saw Giselle, I was in it. As Giselle’s double in the second Act. The night before I’d boarded an overnight train that left Verona at midnight and arrived in Graz, Austria at 8 in the morning. I made my way from the train station to the ballet studio, took company class and afterwards the director said, “What are you doing today?”

Uh, going to Vienna to see what their ballet company is like?

“Because we need a dancer with brown hair for tonight’s performance of Giselle.”

So I stayed for rehearsal, “danced” in the performance, (which really meant being strung up in a harness and being floated across the stage), stayed in a B&B paid for the ballet company. I stayed a week (included one return trip to Verona to get fresh clothes, also paid for by the company), and sat in on a boatload of boring Act I rehearsals. I actually still have a small Austrian pension since ballet dancers are government employees.

The third time I saw Giselle was today sitting next to Chiara in the balcony of the San Francisco Opera House.

When Daddy Dances


I danced my last Nutcracker in 1996, but my husband is still performing, year after year, as the Sugarplum Fairy cavalier. He has known some of the ballet students since they were soldiers in the Battle Scene.

Every Saturday from September to December, my husband rehearses and coaches the girls he will dance with. As an extra bonus for me, he takes our children with him. Our daughter Chiara has been attending Nutcracker rehearsals since she was seven months old. She loves it. For the past three years she’s been right beside him onstage.

Her first Nutcracker as a spectator at just under two years old, however, was a little different. By the time she was a year and ten months, she was sitting through two-hour dress rehearsals without incident. So I thought nothing of taking her to an actual performance to see Daddy dance.

As soon as she saw him jete’ onstage at the beginning of the second act she yelled out, “Dadd-deeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!!!” Not in a “bravo” kind of voice, but with the voice you use to warn someone that they’re about to be hit by a bus. All the dancers onstage smiled a little harder. One of the candy canes suppressed a giggle.

When Matt made his first exit into the wings, Chiara burst into tears.


I think she thought he fell off the face of the earth.

“Where Daddy? Where Daddy?” she kept asking. I’d tell her: first there’s the Spanish variation, then Arabian, Chinese, Russian, Merlitons, Mother Ginger, Waltz of the Flowers, and then Daddy.

After the last flower waltzed away, the lights lowered and the soft music of the Sugarplum Fairy pas de deux began to twinkle.

“Dadd-deeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!!!” Chiara yelled when she saw her father escort the Sugarplum onto the stage.

“Shhhhhh. . .” from the row in front of us. They were the ushers.


An usher hissed at us again.

I scooped my daughter up in my arms made a hasty exit. With the secret toddler ninja wiggle that makes kids both slippery and brick-like, Chiara broke free and ran to the doors leading back into the theatre.

“Da-dddddddeeeeeee!!!!” She pounded her tiny fists on the door, doing her best Brando from Streetcar.

She was even more hysterical there in the foyer, so we went back in.

Even in the dark I could feel the ushers’ steel glares. Would we be asked to leave? It is a kid’s ballet, after all.

Chiara stopped sobbing, but she continued to call out from time to time. On stage my husband gracefully promenaded his lovely partner. He was beaming. He’s dancing for his little girl. Why should we leave?

Every time Chiara called for him, Matt and the Sugarplum smiled a little broader, sharing this inside joke with everyone else in the theatre who had seen our daughter at the front of the rehearsal studio next to the mirrors eating her morning snack and watching her Daddy dance.

Chiara is a fixture at these Saturday rehearsals in the ballet studio, but the real fixture is my husband. If you are a parent of a kid in this show, you know him. He entertained your daughter backstage when she was an angel in the prologue. He taught her how to do finger turns and supported lifts during pas de deux class. And if your kid is a boy, my husband taught him fart jokes. If you are remotely involved with your child’s pre-professional ballet career, you adore my husband. And you probably know Chiara as well.

So if a little girl crying for her daddy is ruining the show for you, maybe you should lighten up.

Which is more or less what I told those ushers.