Saturday, December 20, 2014

But who will make the cookies?

I come from a long line of excellent bakers. My mother's cucidati (Sicilian fig cookies) are a hit at every family party. The recipe was passed to her from her grandmother and even though I am sure mom could make the cookies by heart, she pulls out the yellowed index card with my great-grandmother's illegible writing every time. The cookie base is an incredibly basic yet somehow complicated recipe that yields the popular cucidati as well as giuggiulena (rolled in sesame seeds) and plain 'ol "white cookies". Many a Sunday afternoon has been spent rolling the dough into various shapes under my mother's watchful eye. Not too big, not too small, don't play with the dough. (She actually made my nephew cry once.)

It is obvious were my mom got her baking skills and regimented, slightly dictator-like method of instruction. My maternal grandmother made a kick ass meringue that she whipped by hand with a fork and mouth-watering, eat-them-til-you-burst sfingi (basically a small deep fried doughnut covered in powdered sugar). When I was little I would stand by with the shaker full of sugar, meticulously covering each warm sweet sfingi with a generous sprinkling after they came out of the fryer. Which I could never distribute to my grandmother's liking. Ever. Not like it should matter what the sugar looked like. But it did. A lot.

The baking style of my paternal grandmother was a bit different. She was famous for her apple pie (I dream about it every time I sink my teeth into a slice of not-grandma's apple pie) and chocolate chip cookies. Grandma C was much more laid back, letting me eat the perfectly curled apple peels as they fell onto the paper towel and baking up birds' nests out of the leftover dough. (My mother carries on this tradition - yum!) When she passed away I inherited her mixer and fell into hysterical sobs the first Christmas I pulled it out to make cookies.

My point is this: the baking gene should be strong in me. But it isn't. Despite having grandma's mixer and countless attempts, my cookies never really turn out. I'm not saying the results are inedible, they're just not that great. I struggle with the execution - the recipe following, the exact measuring - it's just not in my blood. I'm more an experimental chef who would rather cook to my own beat. That simply does not work when baking. Mom is worried that no one will take over her role as Sicilian cookie maker extraordinaire. Already the high-fat treats of my childhood are long gone (did I mention Grandma L made utterly amazing cannoli? I didn't? Well she did. A-MAZING). My sister doesn't really like to bake, although she is pretty good at making truffles. I think mom is secretly hoping that my brother's wife will carry on the tradition. She is a fantastic chef and loves to celebrate our heritage. But she doesn't like to bake either. Somehow it skipped our generation. None of my cousins seem eager to inherit the yellowed index card and responsibility for making twenty dozen cookies for every holiday, wedding, graduation, and anniversary party.

Sometimes I wish it could be me. Keeping heritage alive is important, and I want my children to be proud Korean-Italian-Americans. But it seems all I've inherited is the fussy controlling behavior of my mother and grandmother. J loves to help me bake, and I try very hard to let it go when he sloshes the batter all over the counter or ends up with more egg on his hand than in the bowl. To not nit-pick if the frosting doesn't look just right because, let's face it, my cookies are not that pretty to begin with.

At least I make a mean sauce.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Looking for the pony

My dad loves to tell this joke:
A pessimist and an optimist both wished for a pony for Christmas. When the big day arrived, the pessimist woke to find a beautiful horse under the tree. Negative person that he was, he immediately began to second guess his wish, worrying about how much work the animal would require, whether he would fall off while riding, and where he would keep his new pet. The optimist, on the other hand, was greeted on Christmas morning with a giant pile of manure. He promptly rolled up the sleeves of his pajama shirt and dove in, digging around while happily proclaiming, "There's got to be a pony in here somewhere!"

While I don't consider myself a full-on pessimist, I am certainly not an "Always look on the bright side of life" person either. I worry. A lot. And when something good happens, I have to shut up the voice in my head that's questioning when it will all fall apart. It's difficult to stay positive in an industry full of rejection, especially when you look around and see others enjoying success, and you can't help but wonder if it will ever happen to you. But I am buoyed by the support of the writing community, both locally and online. People lift each other up. And not in a "I'm only doing this in hopes that you will lift me up in return" sort of way. They are genuinely supportive. And it is hard not to let that seep into your bones and change your outlook on life.

My part time job involves helping community college students with disabilities. I often work with a small handful of adults in the nursing department, a competitive and cut-throat program that is designed to make sure you can handle the pressure of a demanding career. The group is constantly stressed out. And I know that it would be easy for them to quit, easy for them to say it's simply too difficult. But they don't. They show up every day, pour over their notes, and give every exam their all. They support each other in sweet little ways, like the guy who passes out sticks of gum or the woman who has been planning their celebration dinner after graduation. It inspires me. Just as my fellow writers inspire me.

Yesterday was my second pitmad contest. As I watched friends and strangers re-tweet my pitches from morning till night, my heart filled with joy. It wasn't a successful contest in terms of agent attention, and I'm not gonna lie - the pessimist in me was loud and clear, telling me I would never get my book published, and that I should just quit now because the road ahead is way too long and difficult. But this morning I'm listening to the optimist. Who encourages me to drive forward, insisting that eventually we will find that pony.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Journey to Tofu

I have been a vegetarian for almost 23 years. My last hamburger was consumed in 1990, when I casually mentioned to the guy I was dating, "I'm thinking about giving up red meat."

"That's the stupidest idea I've ever heard" he said.

The gauntlet was thrown.

My reasons at the time were warm and fuzzy and fueled by teenage angst. I no longer wanted to be the cause of animal suffering and death. My bedroom door was covered in animal rights quotes and the Smith's "Meat is Murder" became my personal anthem. After watching a documentary on how chickens are processed for meat, I was ready to go full veg. The parents weren't exactly thrilled, especially my mother who announced that she would not be cooking separate meals (she still makes me a meat-free sauce, so I guess she was bluffing). During the summer of 1991 we hosted two English soccer coaches, one of whom was vegetarian. He convinced me that athletes could survive without meat and gave me the confidence to go forward with my new lifestyle. That November I ate my last turkey dinner on Thanksgiving, and as part of  my New Year's resolutions vowed never to let anything past my lips that once had feet and a face. (There is still the occasional  piece of fish in my diet, technically making me a "pescetarian".)

Shortly after my commitment to go veg, my mom suffered her first of two near fatal heart attacks. Suddenly it was more about taking care of my health than protecting innocent creatures, although I like to believe that it is a little bit of both, plus a conscientious way to reduce my environmental footprint. But I won't get preachy. Everyone has a right to make their own lifestyle choices. Which leads me to the meat of this post. (Sorry, can't resist a good pun.) My husband eats meat. Not frequently - we only have it at home if he cooks it, which isn't very often. That was our compromise. And when we had children, I agreed to expose them to both diets and let them choose. P started out veg, and he's lactose intolerant so we avoid dairy. Or try to anyway. His favorite food is pizza. Slowly he's trying more and more foods and has discovered that he does want to eat meat. J is a different story. Not a huge fan of vegetables or tofu, he devours meat in all forms. Regularly proclaims his love for it and that he is a "meat-eater!" in case I wasn't paying attention. His favorite food? Hamburgers. (The irony is not lost on me.)

J loves to push my buttons, and my diet is prime for the poking - like the other day when he was sampling chicken noodle soup at the store and said, "Mom, I really wish you ate meat. This is really really yummy." But I am supremely confident in my choices. My body is healthy and my conscience is clean. Our kids make choices about food with open minds; they know where it comes from and that different people make different decisions about what to eat/not eat. And if at some point in their lives a girlfriend tells them she is thinking about giving up red meat, I will suggest they offer up more supportive advice. Unless of course that girl is like me, and the little piece of criticism could launch a life-altering decision.

Food for thought.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Feeling Naked

I have a lot of anxiety. There's the garden variety kind, like being anxious when I go on an interview or walk into a roomful of strangers (that happens to everyone else, right?), and then there's the totally irrational stuff. Like freaking out at the mere presence of bees or being terrified to make phone calls. Or the fact that I routinely go to the darkest of places whenever something is not exactly as expected. Example: hubby is ten minutes late coming home from work. He's surely in a ditch somewhere, bleeding internally, unable to call for help. The boss wants to speak to me? It's obvious she thinks I'm the worst employee in the history of ever and I should just leave my keys in the slot and walk away quietly.

You get the idea.

So now that I am finally beginning to "go public" with my writing, anxiety is hitting an all time high. It feels a bit like one of those dreams when you're standing naked in front of a crowd and they're all laughing and pointing at you. (That happens to everyone else, right?) Sometimes the writing world is this safe cozy place where you can snuggle up with your critique partner and dream about a future when your books will graze the shelves of every store in town. People say they like your work. The encouragement is amazing. You feel fabulous, like the words that leave your fingertips are magical and will change the world.
But then the clouds roll in. You learn to don your thickest suit of armor before trudging out into the world where every person you meet has written this amazingly fabulous book that is much, much better than yours. Where everyone has a different idea about what works or doesn't work in your story. Where you feel like a goldfish swimming in a pond with millions of other goldfish hoping some cute five year old kid will bring you home and put you in a glass bowl with plastic seaweed because your colors are exactly what he's been looking for in a goldfish.

It is really hard to keep pushing forward. And I'm pretty sure if it wasn't for my rationally thinking husband and cheer-leading friends I would have given up a long time ago.

Sometimes anxiety gets the best of me. I uncover a pile of dead bees in the wall of my parents' house that sends me into a full blow panic attack. Night after night I have that dream where I need to use the bathroom but there are no doors on any of the stalls.

Sometimes, I let it fuel my passion. Channel it into crafting a scene or bringing a character's quirks to life.

Recognize it's part of who I am as a human being and that's okay.

Take a deep breath and enjoy the journey.

Sip my tea, dig into revisions, and pretend like I'm still wearing clothes.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Green Book

Do you ever have that moment where your significant other asks, "Hey - do you remember the name of that [restaurant, winery, hotel] we went to three years ago last Sunday?" And you stare blankly at them because you're lucky you remembered to eat breakfast and brush your teeth that morning?

That's me. All the time.

My short term memory is pretty poor, and my long term memory seems intent on remembering insignificant and often uncomfortable details like that time I was at a baseball game in 8th grade and spilled mustard on my shorts and my friend teased me for weeks about needing a diaper, (which may explain why I hate mustard.) while important dates, milestones, and significant events often slip through the cracks of my brain. I am thankful that:
A) My phone number has a lot of zeros in it
B) Both my children have easy to remember birthdays and KTA days
C) My husband is always there to fix my story when I recall something incorrectly

Okay, maybe not that last one. In fact, I usually just tell him that I was trying to make the story more interesting.

But I was starting to get frustrated by the fact that I could never remember which hotel we stayed in that has the good swimming pool, or which highway exit on the way to my sister-in-law's house has vegetarian options.

Enter: The Green Book

It's a handy little thing, really. Every time we travel anywhere or do a wine tasting (our region has a lot of wine trails), I log it in the book along with a silly memory or two. Of course, as I look back through it sometimes I've completely forgotten what my little comment refers to - kind of like re-reading the inside jokes in your high school yearbook. But I try to write cute things that the boys did or said, or mistakes we made like when I forgot to check the drawers in a hotel in California and left half of my husband's wardrobe behind. Or "Nice wait staff - they didn't mind when J dumped his entire glass of water all over himself, the table, the bench." I started the book in 2012, but it has already started to come in handy. My brother and sister-in-law are visiting a local wine trail, and I was able to give them recommendations based on my notes. And it makes me smile to look back and see the fun things we did, especially because I'm generally a ball of stress in the planning/executing stage. It's good to know that my stress is worth it.

I've been surprisingly good about maintaining The Green Book. Which reminds me, I need to enter in the last few details from our most recent family vacation before I forget the name of that place where we saw the thing.


Friday, July 11, 2014

Falling off the wagon

I've fallen off the writing wagon. Not completely, I still attend my weekly Wednesday night writer's group (I love those ladies!) and participate in the occasional write club sprint on Friday, but my productivity has dropped tremendously in the past month or so. Basically I started to fall off the wagon and am currently holding on to the bumper (do wagons even have bumpers?) with one hand, knees scraping the ground, dirt in my face. You get the idea. The problem is [INSERT EXCUSE HERE] that I started working for the first time in nearly a year, the kids finished school and are home full time, and it feels like a million other things landed on my plate, demanding my attention like a colicky baby. Oh, and the World Cup. A girl's gotta have her soccer.

June came and went with not a single writing goal met. Not. One. Single. Goal. Granted I am working on revisions, which makes keeping up with my intended word count a bit difficult, but the other stuff? It just didn't happen. And here we are, nearly halfway through July, and I am still trailing behind the wagon. Thankfully I have people in my life who are helping me get back on. My crit partner (whom I have woefully neglected lately) encourages me with emails and twitter posts. The Wednesday ladies help with story planning and talking me off the ledge when I'm deep in revision. But during all the times in between, my notebook sits on the counter, slowly getting covered in day to day clutter. It makes me sad. Writing takes me to a place in my mind where I can run away from reality, create a world and have complete control. Maybe that's the problem. The story is done, and now it's time to go in with scissors, cutting out the parts that don't flow, stuffing in news ones and hoping they fit. It's hard. Sure, I complained about stuff being hard before, but it feels like each step in steeper, and I know the true mountain is still ahead of me. There is no way I can hold on to the wagon bumper and make it to the top. I need to get back on. I need to climb up onto the hay covered seats, push the driver out of the way and take the reins. Get control. It is the only way to survive the ride.

We are all teamsters on our journey, whether it be writing or some other pursuit. Life tosses boulders into our path and we choose to either fall off or maneuver around them. I haven't quite figured out how to maneuver around my current situation, but I am determined to get a handle on time management and carve out time to sit and write. Like right now; it's Friday night and I am sprinting along with the write clubbers, rocking to dance music in my headphones while hubby watches TV. A large chunk of my book was written this way. Scenes started out slow, then grew as the world opened up in front of me. There is nothing that replaces that feeling.

I've made promises on this blog before, and I'm not foolish enough to believe that I won't fall off again. July goals are still quite far out of reach, and the remaining days of the month do not hold much promise. I'm heading to sleep away camp with my oldest next week, we have a family vacation coming, and I'm required to make up any hours I miss, which translates to a lot of time spent at work. But right now, in this moment, I am making progress. Both hands are gripped tightly on the wagon and I am using all my strength to pull myself up.

Watch out. Crazy writer on the road.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Third Mother

A few years ago I pitched a column idea to a local parenting magazine. One of the regular columnist was retiring and I thought the community would benefit from a different perspective - the perspective of an adoptive mom. As part of my query, I wrote a short piece about my motherhood journey and titled it "The Third Mother". I thought it would be a clever name for my column, and even though the magazine went with a stay-at-home dad instead, the moniker stuck with me. When I joined Twitter I made it my handle, and while the title may seem strange, it's one I am rather proud of and thought my new readers would want to know the story behind it.

The Third Mother

My sons each have three mothers: A biological mom who gave birth to them, a foster mom who raised them for the first several months of their lives, and me. I am their third mother. And while it may seem like I am second (or third) rate in comparison to the first two women in their lives, I am the one referred to as “Mommy”, a title I have earned with every runny nose wiped, boo-boo bandaged, and peanut butter and jelly sandwich served.

My oldest is five and thinks having three moms (and dads) is pretty cool. We have been open with him from the beginning, telling him the story of how he came into our family. He understands bits and pieces and has yet to ask any difficult questions about the identity of his birth parents and why they chose not to raise him. For now he exists happily with the understanding that no, he did not grow in my belly, but isn't it way cooler to have been born in one place and traveled halfway around the world to live in another? I am enjoying the fact that he is naive to the challenges that come with being adopted and instead chooses to fixate on the odd, fun parts of his story.

We had explained to him that he came to us on a plane when he was seven months old and had a lot of trouble sleeping during the first few weeks. In order to keep the peace and let the other person get some sleep, my husband and I took turns pacing the house with our son strapped to our chest in a baby sling. When it was my turn I sang endless rounds of “This Little Light of Mine” and “Jesus Loves Me” while walking circles around the pool table in our basement. They were the only songs I could sing in their entirety, and they have become anthems to soothe my son when he is upset as well as part of our nightly ritual. One night when it was my husband’s turn, he spotted a large black bear out our living room window. He thought it was a deer at first until it came closer to the house. The bear was by far our son’s favorite part of the story. “Tell me again what daddy saw,” he would ask over and over. The rest of the story became inconsequential.

When he learned he was going to become a big brother, our oldest believed that all babies arrived on a plane from South Korea. You could not convince him otherwise, despite evidence of seeing my pregnant cousin before and after the birth of her baby. He insisted that babies arrive on a plane in New York City and mommies and daddies have to go to the airport to pick them up. Clear evidence that our reality is shaped by our experiences. His current favorite is the idea that God said, “BINGO!” when trying to find the perfect child to join our family. I tossed the phrase in one night while recounting his adoption story, and after explaining what the expression “BINGO!” meant, his face lit up at the thought of some higher power proudly announcing that He had won the big prize when forming our family.

I want it to stay this simple. But I know the questions will come soon, things he will want to know that are difficult for me to answer and things that other people will want to know that are difficult for him to answer. Perhaps they will start next year when he enters Kindergarten. An innocent classmate will inquire as to why my son doesn't look like his mommy and daddy. Or ask him what happened to his “real” mother. Hopefully he will tell them he has three mothers. All real, and all with a special place in his heart. As for me, I am happy being the third mother. While I do feel sadness for not carrying my beautiful boys in my womb for nine months and seeing them open their eyes and smile for the first time, I carried them in my heart for many years waiting for that BINGO! moment.

And that is way cooler.

Thursday, May 15, 2014


Yesterday I uttered the words, "You are going to thank me for this someday" to my eight year old. I have officially become a curmudgeon.

Seriously though, I am hoping to teach the boy a little responsibility so that he can take the next necessary step toward adulthood. He is becoming increasingly independent, and while the thought of him not being my sweet baby boy and actually becoming a (gulp) grown man someday scares me gray, I know it is inevitable. And I need to do my best to facilitate the transition. Starting with school. He is generally pretty good about getting his daily homework done, but things start to get hairy when it comes to longer assignments. Each month the students are required to do a book report. Reading is not the issue, but choosing an appropriate book and finishing it with enough time to complete the report is. Last month he decided, with a week before the due date, that he would read a rather lengthy book for the report. Okay, I told him, then you need to set a reading schedule for yourself. Translation: Mom is going to nag you every day until you finish reading the book. He's also required to do outside reading for his enrichment class. The teacher assigns large chunks to read over a seven day period. The reading is challenging and not something you can complete the night before it is due. Especially not when that night is the busiest one of the week. Again, I helped him set up a reading schedule. And then I nagged. Believe me, I don't want to nag, but I worry that if I don't the work won't get done. Do I leave him to his own devices and let him experience the natural consequences of procrastination? I tell myself, yes, yes, he should learn the hard way. But then I give one more gentle reminder. Maybe two. Or three.

Then there's the homework folder. He has a daily behavior/assignment sheet that needs to be signed. On the back is a chart, and he is required to keep track of the minutes he reads each day (which must also be signed). He does his reading at night, which is fine, and then fills out the chart in the morning. Then I sign it and stick his homework folder into his backpack. Yesterday I asked him three times if he filled out his chart. He ignored me and was prepared to walk out the door with no homework folder (a relatively serious offense in the classroom). I reminded him, then told him it was the last time I was going to make sure he had his sheet signed and folder in backpack - that he needed to be more responsible. Gave him this whole speech (see opening quote) that probably sounded like the teacher in Peanuts . This morning, he remembered to fill out the sheet, but neglected to put the folder in his backpack. I cleared the counter and placed the folder in the dead middle. Impossible to miss. Asked, "You sure you have everything?" Kicked myself for being a softy.

In less than two months, second grade will be over. Each school year the work gets more difficult and I know he will be expected to read more, manage larger assignments, and study for tests. I want him to be successful, to be a good student, to be independent and responsible. But it's hard to know when to push and when to let go. When to allow the pain of forgetfulness, laziness, or plain 'ol something-else-was-more-interesting-ness to sink in. Hopefully we'll figure it all out and he really will thank me someday.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Setting It Aside

Last Friday I finished the first draft of my novel. It was a momentous occasion on several fronts. First of all, it is not very often that I actually finish something as evidenced by my half-completed cross-stitch projects and other adventures that I dive into but then quickly set aside. Secondly, and probably most important: I WROTE A BOOK. How many people out there say, "I think I'll write a book someday" or "I have this great idea for a book"? Hint: LOTS. I was one of them. Writing has always been a passion and while I never imagined I would have the attention span to complete an actual novel (see above) it was always in the back of my mind as something I wanted to accomplish. Several years ago when I was teaching seventh graders, the students had to create a timeline of their lives that extended into the future. My co-teacher and I each made our own timeline as well to serve as a model. "Wrote a Book" was on there (although I should have sold it and be touring morning talk shows by now) and it feels good to think that I have actually accomplished a life goal. No, it doesn't feel good. It feels AWESOME.

Which brings me to the topic of this post. Several writing books instruct that upon completion of draft one, the author should set the story aside and let it stew for a while before beginning revisions. It makes sense in theory - that way when you approach draft two your mind is fresh and clear. That was totally my plan. But after two days I started re-reading. It wasn't as if I hadn't already done some major revisions thus far - the introductory chapters have been re-written several times - but it was the first time I would be reading the whole thing from start to finish. I couldn't help myself. I wanted to hear how everything flowed and do a quick proofread before sending it off to critique partners. When I finished reading, the cat nearly jumped out of her fur at my loud proclamation. "THE WORLD NEEDS THIS BOOK!"

After that first read-through, I am ready to follow directions and let my book rest for a week or two, maybe three and work on something else. Partly because I want to wait and see what my first round of readers think, but mostly because I want to revel in the glow of my current emotional state. I'm beginning to see why writing gurus recommend waiting. The feeling is hard to describe, but it is pretty darn incredible. As of this moment, I am the only person who has read my book, and I happen to think it is good. Really good. The fact that it all came out of my brain makes it even better. Maybe it is actually crap and I am being totally delusional. It may be my friends and family that burst my bubble, it may be the long string of rejection that are sure to pepper my future. My book could be downright terrible. (Hopefully it's not.) But I had an idea two years ago, then life got tired of me saying, "I'm writing a book" without actually writing it and yanked away my proverbial rug, forcing me to write it for real. I did. And I am going to enjoy this feeling of accomplishment for as long as I can.

Perhaps the same concept can apply to other things. How often do we beat ourselves up for bad things that have happened, mistakes made or friendships destroyed? When something good happens, when we do something right, something incredible, we should set it aside and dance around it. Blast the music. Toss confetti into the air. Celebrate it fully.

Please excuse me while I crank the stereo.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Adoption Connection

Last summer was my twentieth high school reunion. The husband and I had a surprisingly good time at the party on Saturday night reconnecting with a few old friends and chatting up people who I never would have remembered if it wasn't for their handy yearbook photo name tag. Sunday there was a family friendly picnic that I went to with the boys (hubby was working). I spent the afternoon talking with a classmate who was a casual acquaintance in high school. We had similar friends, but other than a handful of random cafeteria conversations we didn't have much history. Twenty years later we discovered a different bond. My classmate was planning to adopt, and she and her husband had recently started the grueling, often heart-wrenching process. Being a veteran myself I was happy to lend an ear and share advice. They were taking the domestic route, which is an entirely different set of experiences, but one that shares a few common threads with international adoption: the homestudy - which everyone must endure, and the wait. A few months for some, years for others. We were lucky that our wait for P one was only a year from our first meeting to when he came home (almost to the day). J took a bit longer because of changing regulations in Korea; around two years. I have friends who have waited much, much longer.

After the picnic, I connected with my classmate on Facebook (honestly, what DID we do before social media?) and checked in on her every once and a while. This past week I noticed that she and her husband were traveling and wondered if it was THE trip. Sure enough, just moments ago they posted a picture of their new baby girl. There have been a handful of other baby arrivals on Facebook in the past few months - all with their own stories of excitement. My old boss recently remarried and welcomed a new baby boy to her blended family. A former colleague had a baby after years of struggling with infertility. I am happy for both of them, and for all the new moms in my social media circles. The constant cycle of ultrasound pictures and hospital bed posts have stopped stinging as much as they used to. But as an adoptive mom, nothing warms my heart more than seeing someone become, as we call it in the adoption world, part of a forever family. To become a mom through a series of amazing circumstances that lead you to the little person who will be your child. Not someone you created and can immediately fall in love with because they are a small piece of you. Someone who you waited for, who grew in your heart instead of your body. That is an amazing thing to celebrate.

Cheers to my classmate and her new baby. And cheers to all those who have adopted or are waiting to adopt.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Levels of Rejection

Big news! My most recent submission got rejected! With a personal letter!! It was a pretty big deal really. It means that I am close. That someone out there who isn't a friend or family member obligated to like my work likes my work! The letter said that my piece was good but it needed a bit more development. That I should continue to submit as they were interested to read more of my stuff. WIN!!

Sometimes it's the little things, really. The baby steps.

I actually got rejected three times in one week. The first was for a flash fiction piece that I am really proud of but haven't found the right audience yet. The email came when we were visiting my sister-in-law, and I'll be honest here, it made me cry a little. But my husband, my sister-in-law and my best friend (via text) all told me I needed to keep pushing forward, that it took a lot of courage to get this far and I should be proud of that. The second rejection was the personal letter. It was for a short story I wrote back when I was teaching - as a model for the students. I've been tweaking it here and there and it is slowly taking on a more publishable shape. My writing group friends and critique partner agreed that the letter was good news, and I was reminded of Stephen King's advice in On Writing (if you haven't read the book - it's a great one!) that you need to take these sort of letters to heart. People in the publishing world know things. Listen to them. The third rejection was one I was already expecting, but came officially via form letter. Last fall I submitted a piece about our first adoption and how it changed my life. It was a real tear-jerker. Got both my parents to cry. But it didn't make the cut. It is a good piece, and I am hoping to find a home for it someplace else. The bottom line is that my writing will come across the desk of someone and if it doesn't speak to them, they will pass on it. But someday soon (and it has happened before - so I am hopeful) it will come across the desk of someone and it WILL speak to them.

My novel is nearly done. Once the first draft is finished I'll need to go back and revise, and I hope to get the opinions of some trusted readers (if you are interested - let me know!) along the way. Then the querying will begin. The sending out of my baby into the world to see if the professionals think it has a chance. I am both excited and terrified about this step. People are always posting good news online - securing an agent, getting a book deal, successfully self-publishing. Of course they don't post the bad news. The piles of rejections. The heartbreak. It's there. And I guess my advice for today is to look for the levels of rejection and try to find the positive. Advice from someone who generally sees the glass as half-empty, but who is trying to shift her perspective ever so slightly.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Kate's New Book!!

Back in December, thanks to my PTA partner in crime, Dee, I hooked up with a great group of writers. We meet weekly to write and chat, and they have been a wonderful addition to my life. One of the members, Kate, has a new book coming out in June. She writes YA with a paranormal feel and names her books after famous songs (her first one was called Another Little Piece). My review is below - check out the book when it comes out in June. Or go to Goodreads  for a chance to win an advance copy!

(Don't You) Forget About Me(Don't You) Forget About Me by Kate Karyus Quinn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(Don't You) Forget About Me will be officially released in June, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good story slightly outside the realms of reality. The town of Gardnerville exists as a sort of sanctuary for those who are sick and looking to improve their health and extend their life. Of course there is a flip-side - those coming of age have powers that turn typical teenage moodiness into destructive behavior and force a large part of the population into a soul-sucking reformatory. The story follows Skylar on a quest to find her sister Piper after a particularly disastrous event, alternating between the present and the past. Quinn does a wonderful job developing character relationships, building tension and making you desperate to find out what happens next.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Simpler Life

My eight year old and I are making our way through the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I never read the books as a child but grew up watching The Little House on the Prairie on TV and thought it would be a fun series to read and discuss with the boy. Wilder's writing is sweet and memorable. She makes you feel like you are right there with the family, experiencing their joys and hardships. We are currently reading Farmer Boy, which tells the story of Almanzo Wilder (Laura's husband) as a young boy living in Northern New York. Both the Ingalls family and the Wilder family are incredibly hard working, and I love sharing these stories with my son as a way of demonstrating how easy life is now compared to then. Last night we read how Mrs. Wilder used beef tallow to make candles. It was a day long process, and they needed to make enough to last the entire year. Everything they did took time, a tremendous amount of energy, and careful planning. There was no running to the grocery store in the middle of winter to replenish the pantry with food and supplies. 

The other thing I love about the stories is the cyclical nature of everything. Each book (well, the three we've read so far) journeys through the seasons, explaining in detail how the families took advantage of what was available and learned how to preserve what they needed for the upcoming months. Barbara Kingsolver wrote a book called Animal, Vegetable, Miracle that describes how her family spent a year buying only locally grown or manufactured products. There is this wonderful part where they are gathered in the kitchen cleaning, cooking and pickling a mountain of produce, and I was reminded of it as we read through the harvest section of Farmer Boy. Both books serve as a metaphor for life. Be prepared. Seasons change, life becomes difficult. We need to preserve the good things to last us through the short, cold days.

I am amazed at how the stories are affecting me. While I don't envy Mrs. Ingalls and Mrs. Wilder their long hours cleaning, preparing food, and making clothing, I do wish things could be simpler. Simpler food, simpler living space, simpler responsibilities. As a mom, it can get tiresome doing the same activities over and over. Activities that often go completely unappreciated. But I am trying to shift my attitude to one of mindfulness - finding joy in things otherwise taken for granted.

If, like me, you only watched Laura Ingalls on television (the book is much, much different) or even if you read some or all of the books as a kid, I recommend [re]reading the series by yourself or with a member of the younger generation. We could all benefit from the lessons in those pages.

And go out and enjoy the springtime. We've earned it this year!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

How Things End

WARNING: This post contains How I Met Your Mother (HIMYM) finale spoilers.

Last night was the series finale of a fantastic show, How I Met Your Mother. My husband is a die hard fan, faithfully watching every season and then watching it again on DVD and again on Netflix. He prides himself on besting our friends in HIMYM trivia and picking out the little inconsistencies on the show. I have enjoyed the series over the years, although I have certainly had moments of shaking my fist at the television or walking away to get a snack when the story line just wasn't holding my attention, and I could write full length essays on theme, characterization and symbolism. But that isn't what this post is about. It's about endings. And last night's finale has created a social media storm worse than the ending of LOST.

To break things down: The show is supposed to be about how Ted meets the love of his life, the mother of his children, whose name we learned last night is Tracy (although those of you paying attention during season one already knew that). After they finally meet, fall in love, and take an uncharacteristically long time to get married (Ted is a hopeless romantic), we learn that Tracy dies and their children want dad to move on (after six years) and hook up with Aunt Robin. The woman he spent most of the series pining over and then dramatically let go. The woman who married one of his best friends. Was the love of Ted's life really Robin? After his big "I don't love you like that anymore" speech in last week's episode, why would the writers end with Ted going back to her? If this was the plan all along, shouldn't they have called the show something different? I felt unsatisfied. The moments where he first sees Tracy, first speaks to her, gave me stone cold chills. It reminded me of the first moment I saw my husband. We were in high school at the time, but I knew when we met that he was the love of my life. After dating for a while, then going our separate ways and ultimately finding each other again, you would think I would applaud a story line that brings two people back together. But it just felt wrong to me, and I feel like it would have been better to leave things hanging in the unknown. End the show with Ted and Tracy under the umbrella. I don't want to think about her dying. I don't want to think about Robin and Barney breaking up or Marshall and Lilly traveling through their lives together and growing apart from everyone else. I don't want to think about how sad it is that you have amazing friendships that become more and more difficult to maintain when life gets in the way.

After the episode ended, I started thinking about other books and shows that take me into the future of the characters and their lives post-novel/series. This may not be a very popular opinion, but I DON'T WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS AFTER IT ENDS. To me the fantasy begins with Chapter One and ends with The End. I want to close the book and imagine how things went after that. But cliffhangers make people mad. They want closure. Why? We often go through life without it. When I broke up with the last guy I dated before getting back together with my husband, it was ugly. We went on a road trip, got in a fight in a parking lot at three am, and then I drove him to the bus station. The end. Never saw him again. I've had friendships fizzle out and leave me confused and hurt. No closure. It stinks. But it's life! Should television and literature reflect that? Or help us to escape from it?

As I approach the last chapters of my book, I am conflicted. I have always known how I wanted it to end, but what if the characters have other plans? And do I have to resolve everything? It is meant to be a snapshot, not an epic tale. But I want people to read the story and enjoy it. What makes us love or hate an ending?

No amount of shaking my fist at the television is going to change how the writers ended HIMYM. They obviously had that ending in mind during the early days of the series, because Ted's children look the same. Was it done to create an internet buzz? The show is trending everywhere today. Is a controversial ending a surefire way to gain popularity?

My husband just sent me a text message: "I liked the finale. I actually thought it made a lot of sense." He's the expert, not me. And maybe it appealed to his inner romantic. The one who came back to me after almost marrying someone else. Perhaps I need to loosen up, but I know I am not the only person who struggled with last night's ending. People were angry. But it is time to move on, and hope that 70's hair is not going to make a comeback in 2016.

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Making of a Minion

P's birthday cake was a screaming success! And seeing as it was completed with no drama this year, I have decided instead to post a how-to and share some of my divine secrets. (Also, someone asked.) 

J and I have been doing cooking lessons on Fridays, and we used last week's time to bake the cakes. He enjoyed helping with the measuring, timing the mixing, and of course licking the spatula at the end. To ensure a clean removal, I lined the bottom of the pans with waxed paper and gave the sides a quick grease with cooking spray. I used an 8 inch circle pan (purchased for the famous drum set cake) and an 8 inch square pan, and used the leftover batter for cupcakes. Once the cakes were cooled, I cut the circle one in half and gouged out two places for the eyes.

The eyes were two cupcakes, frosted and decorated with silver sprinkles around the edge. I frosted first, then placed into the head, which was a little tricky, but I was worried about getting the sprinkles all over. Two generic M&Ms were placed in the center. The square cake was used for the minion's body, and I used wafer cookies for arms and legs. He looked a little freaky, but here's the assembly pre-frosting.

 The round cake had risen a bit in the center, causing it to be uneven with the square cake. (Anyone who knows how to fix this in the future, please comment!) I used the pieces from the eye sockets to fill in the gaps and covered everything with what I like to call "miracle frosting". It is made from cool whip and kept in the freezer until a few hours before you are ready to use it. In the past I made my own with confectioner's sugar, but it always made a mess if there were any loose crumbs. The cool whip frosting just covers it all up. Amazing. And delicious too! You have to keep it in the fridge, and it does harden a bit, but that's fine by me! Here's the minion, mid-frost. I used thick black licorice for the gloves.
 Once he was frosted, I used thin black licorice for the hair, goggle straps, and smile. I wanted to do the overalls in blue fruit roll ups, but couldn't find any. Discouraged and mumbling to myself in the cereal aisle last week, I turned around and spotted a display with Rip Rolls. They are thin strips of fruit roll candy covered in sugar and taste a bit like sour patch kids. The color was perfect, but they made an enormous sticky sugary mess all over the counter. The buttons on his overalls are M&Ms and his feet are ho-hos. Which I sampled while building and was disappointed to discover that they just don't taste as good as they did when I was a kid. The "G" is done in black icing.
 Overall, I was very pleased with how the cake turned out. I decorated it on Friday night for an early party on Saturday. The only fix needed was extra frosting on the arms because the top layer of wafer cookie had separated. The boy was happy, and his friends and their parents were impressed. One dad said he thought it was professionally done. (*Blush*) And of course everyone wanted to eat the sticky "blue stuff".

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


It is that time of year. Cake time. P's birthday is next week, and he is having his friend party this weekend. We have decided on a minion cake this year; Dave the minion to be exact. For those readers who are new to my world of cake insanity, welcome. Prepare to be amazed. But please, please don't ask me if I use pinterest. Or tell me to "Just go buy a cake." Or use fondant. Because those things are ALL AGAINST THE RULES. Here's a little story to get the newbies up to date.

Once upon a time there was an ordinary mom whose son was turning two. The adorable little boy was obsessed with one red, fuzzy Sesame Street character, and his mother wanted to make him a cake in that character's likeness. The ordinary mom had a snarky older sister who said, "You? Make a cake? It can't be done!" (Cue evil cackling.) (Insert heartfelt apology to big sister - it's for dramatic effect, okay sissy?) Ordinary mom thought, "How hard can it be?" and set off to make a wonderful and amazing Elmo cake. It awed. It impressed. It gave ordinary mom a warm fuzzy feeling inside.

And started a revolution.

The next year, a team of experts  were flown in to consult on the bulldozer cake (okay, it was just my friend Amy and she drove, but she had some amazing ideas). When the boy turned four, and asked for a drum set, the seemingly insurmountable task was accomplished in record breaking temperatures with several frosting related disasters. Really, it was. Then there were two boys and twice the fun with cake planning, weeks of obsessive behavior that isolated ordinary mom from the rest of the family, and of course the warm, fuzzy accolades and "Thank you mom"s that made it all worth while. (Check the April and June sections of my blog if you wish to read the specific story of each cake.)

Each year, the ordinary mom laughs in the face of those who tell her to buy a cake or wander through the evil site where other people's ideas make one feel inferior. Then she marches to the bulk food aisle in the grocery store and lets her imagination travel to a world filled with candied confections that will become THE CAKE. Here are some of this year's chosen treats.

Stay tuned to find out the exciting conclusion!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Saying goodbye to winter?

The calendar says that today is the first day of spring, yet when I look outside it appears that the end of the world is coming instead. The sky is gloomy gray and the pretty white snow has been reduced to piles of filthy black muck. Despite the handful of 50 degree days we have enjoyed in the past week or so, the thermometer is having a hard time budging away from the freezing range.

In a word: Bluck

This winter has been downright miserable, with not one but two blizzards that kept me and the kids indoors for large chunks of time. Days spent below zero were too many to count. Snow I can handle. But wind chills that knock the air out of your lungs and freeze the snot to your scarf are definitely not for me. The hubby and I grew up in this snowy town, and we knew what we were getting into when we moved back. He loves winter. Loves the snow, loves winter sports, and is the only person I know who doesn't mind shoveling.

Even he has started to complain.

Here's the thing about growing up in a town made famous by its plow to people ratio. You have to love something about winter or you won't survive. As children, we both remember dragging our sleds to nearby hills and spending hours digging forts into the giant snowplow drifts. The elementary school across from my childhood home was famous for the massive mounds that my friends and I would ride down time and time again, smacking our bottoms on the concrete as we'd ricochet off the giant plow curves. It was awesome. Hubby had a similar experience on the court across from his house. Then at some point the town decided it was unsafe to create such massive hills and started spreading out the snow. It was a sad day. We live on a court and I could just imagine how fun it would be if the plow made a giant sledding hill right outside our front door. Thankfully we have a park not too far from the house and were able to get out there a few times this year when the wind wasn't blindingly strong.

One of the other memories I have from childhood is something that I never got to do. Skiing. Our family never went, and I can remember feeling jealous of the kids who would come into school Monday morning, proudly displaying the lift ticket clipped on their jacket, regaling the class with stories of near misses and broken bones. My husband tried to take me when we were first married, but his philosophy is much like Charles Del Mar's advice in Better Off Dead.
He took me up the ski lift. I was a nervous wreck. Fell off the lift when it got to the end. The easy hills were all closed, so he took me down a medium hill. Tried to ski backwards while I went forward. I fell several more times and ended up going down the hill on my bottom. Spent the afternoon in the lodge feeling like a giant failure. My sister-in-law finally offered to help me on the bunny hill (something we should have done FIRST) and I felt a bit more confident. Actually went skiing one more time with some friends when we lived on the west coast. But it's just not for me. And now the boys want to learn, and hubby insists that I try again. I am just too old at this point and would rather keep all my limbs in one piece. We went out to the slopes this past weekend for a final winter hurrah. I took J to a nearby sledding hill while DH took P skiing and tried to keep him on his feet. It is important to my husband that the boys have a winter sport to look forward to, and I completely understand. It is part of your identity growing up in this town, and I proudly sent him off to school on Monday with the lift ticket attached to his jacket. Hopefully he will feel a sense of confidence and belonging that I always missed. And no one will make fun of him when he falls off the ski lift and has to schooch down the hill on his bum.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Snakes, snails, and puppy dog tails

That's what little boys are made of, right? Although around my house it might be more like: Guns, rocks, and smelly socks. Or burps, farts, and styrofoam darts? My family is full of boys. I have two sons and nine nephews, and when I get together with my cousins they add six more boys to the mix. Being the people watcher that I am, I have observed some interesting "boy" behavior. (WARNING: if you are easily offended by this sort of thing, don't keep reading. I am not trying to stereotype or pigeon hole the genders. I am simply making observations based on my own experiences.)
1. Boys like to get naked. Whenever my children are running around and playing, clothing comes off. They yank off their socks in a ball, rip off their shirts and are happy to strip down to underwear (or less). This happened a few Christmas' ago when the cousins were all together. All of the boys starting chasing each other around the house and quickly became shirtless. Then we tried to take a group picture. Here are my boys. When I took the kids to visit my brother and his four boys out in California, the first thing they did when we arrived was strip naked and skinny dip in the pool. P and I have an unusually large number of conversations about when it is okay and not okay to take your clothes off. I'm not saying I wouldn't be having a similar conversation with a girl. I've seen my share of little girls who are happy to be in the buff, but at some point they hear the voice in their head (society?) telling them to put their clothes on. Do boys ever hear that? So far my sons have not.
2. Boys like guns. Try to stop them. My neighbor has four girls and one boy, and she once told me, "He's not allowed to play with guns." Moments later her son wandered over to our house, picked up the nearest stick, and walked around shooting with it. I don't understand this phenomenon. But everything in our house - fingers, blocks, chopsticks, forks, pieces of toast - has become a gun at one point or another.
3. Boys are physical. They love to wrestle with each other, beat on each other, chase each other. School is often a challenge because they are required to sit still and keep their hands to themselves. Do you know how difficult that can be for some kids (mine included)? With the disappearance of recess and increased demands in early education, elementary school has become a struggle for many boys. They need to MOVE. It's plain and simple. But I have also observed that boys can be still and focused if there is something holding their interest. For my children, they are often focused by books, Legos and battles. They can plan an elaborate battle scene for hours, setting up the blocks, positioning the characters, and planning the attack. And then they battle it out, creating complete chaos. It is crazy but appears intensely satisfying.

I am torn. While it is clear to me that each gender shares unique characteristics, do I believe that society should label things as "boy" or "girl" appropriate? Should there be separate toy aisles? Should certain books be design to appeal to a specific gender? When Lego first came out with their Friends line, where you can build little houses in pink and purple, I was appalled. As a little girl I played with Legos. Blue and red ones. I built whatever I wanted. But a friend of mine with two girls pointed out that Legos are geared toward boys, with sets like Ninjago and Super heroes. It was nice to have sets her children wanted to build. What about books? My youngest likes books about trucks, but he also likes books about princesses. Do I tell him no, that's a girl's book? No way. When P was in first grade, his teacher placed the highest leveled books in pink and purple baskets. Was that to suggest that only girls could read them? He certainly thought so, and after pressure from home to choose more challenging books he was forced to quickly squash the inevitable teasing when his friends saw him picking from the pink basket.

Children are all different, and while they may possess certain characteristics based on their number of X chromosomes, they should be allowed to surround themselves in whatever makes them happy. One of P's best friends is a girl, and she loves to come over and dig in the dirt with my boys. And that's okay. She may be composed of "Sugar and spice, and everything nice" but that doesn't mean she can't search for snails.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Winning isn't everything. Is it?

I have a confession to make: I like winning. A lot. And in the early parts of my life, winning came very easy to me. Contests, athletic events, even boys. If I set my sight on something (or someone) and focused all of my energy on achieving it, it almost always happened. My father says it is because I am lucky. My sister says it is because I am ultra-competitive. Me, well, I think it is because I just don't like to lose. It hurts to not get what you want, and if it is something you have been pushing and pushing for, the hurt is even more intense. Trust me. I have become very familiar with the feeling over the past few years as my career path took a careening drive off the side of a cliff. Then foolishly landed me in an industry ripe with rejection. One of my goals this year is to submit a piece of writing at least once each month, hoping in part that something will be published, but mostly so that I can start getting used to certain words and phrases. NO. Unfortunately. Sorry. It wasn't right for us. YOU LOSE. No matter how the rejection is sugar coated, that is what I hear in my head every time: YOU  LOSE. And it hurts. (See above.) My husband has said comforting things like, "You just need to stand up one time more than you get knocked down." Our pastor suggested wallpapering my den with rejection letters. I recently read that Steven King hung his on a nail until the weight became too much and he had to switch to a spike. It is part of the industry. Everyone knows that. But how do we toughen ourselves up for it? And how do we teach that skill to our children?

Things come easy to my oldest son. He is smart, cute and full of charisma. And thankfully, he has a very thick skin. Two years ago he entered a contest to win lunch with a visiting author. The students got raffle tickets for reading a certain number of minutes. Every ticket P earned went into the lunch with the author basket. Every day he came home telling me how excited he was to meet the author and ask him questions. Then he lost the raffle. Sadly, I was more devastated about it than he was. It was one of those moments when I am thankful he does not share any of my DNA. I would have moped for days, but P, he just shrugged it off and went on to tell me about the other fun activities they did during the author's visit. This past year he entered the cub scout's annual pinewood derby with a firm intent on winning first place in design (he already won fastest car in the 2013 race). His car was designed to look like a hammerhead shark, and sadly it was destroyed on the first run due to a weak spot near the wheels. In my husband's defense, he had tried to warn P about the possibility of instant destruction, but our son insisted it would be fine. There were no trophies this year. Last place for speed, and 4th place for design. P was disappointed, but again, not crushed. Just more determined to win next year.

There is a bit of controversy in the parenting world today about nurturing a child's self-esteem by giving everyone a "trophy of participation". I don't agree with that philosophy because in life no one is going to give you a reward for just showing up. You have to be the best, or at least better than other people trying to accomplish the same goal. Therefore, we celebrate winning at our house. Winning feels good, and there is nothing wrong with acknowledging that rush of adreniline you get when the thing you hoped for finally comes true. But we also try to work on losing gracefully. Whether it is a contest, a friendly game of Skip-Bo, or a life altering moment. That is what I work on daily. Losing gracefully, and not moping about or drowning in self-pity after each and every letter that starts with, "Unfortunately". For whatever reason, winning was not meant to be at that moment. And hopefully (says the trying-to-be-more-of-an-optimist), a better opportunity is waiting around the corner.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Gold Stars

Maybe it's the teacher in me. The endless hours of college classes, new teacher trainings, and inservices. The parenting books and magazines I've devoured over the past eight years. Perhaps it is rooted in my own desire to figure out how to change myself and be a better person. Whatever the reason, one thing is clear. I am obsessed with motivation. What motivates my students to learn something new? What motivates my children to behave? What motivates my husband to help with housework? What motivates me to stop procrastinating and get things done?
I've always been fascinated by internal motivation (I want to do this because there is a desire within me) versus external motivation (I want to do this because there is a shiny thing waiting for me) and the role they play in our journey to becoming happy and productive members of society. Many of my students would scoff at a challenge, asking, "What will you give me?" or "Will we be graded on this?" and I worry that the same thing may happen to my boys. It seems like every little action is rewarded these days, and I want them to learn that sometimes you do something simply because it makes you feel good. Click. Internal motivation.
But that doesn't always work. The truth is, we are way more motivated by external forces, especially when it comes to doing things that we don't like, or pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone. Things that make us happy, that make us feel good, we do them. No problem. I love to read. Put a book in my hands and I will retreat to my favorite chair and read it. No rewards necessary. But take a student or child who hates books (gasp) or has difficulty reading, and external motivation may be required. At my son's school a local amusement park is offering a free ticket for any student who reads seven hours in two weeks. That's 30 minutes a day. For my child, who reads in the car, the bathroom, his bedroom, at breakfast (you get the idea) that is no problem. We log the minutes and collect the ticket. Easy peasy. But I can imagine in other households, where daily reading is a challenge, the dangling reward may be a strong external motivator. Is it wrong to use these types of motivators?
While reading is not a challenge in our family, there are definitely areas where my boys need an extra push. They are often described by their teachers as having "high-energy" which is the polite way to say they never. Stop. Moving. Or talking. Fine by me, really. My education background gave me a bag full of tricks to pull from when trying to reign in my rowdy children. P responded really well to time-outs as a toddler and learned quickly that no means no and Mommy really means it when she threatens to take something away if you don't pick it up. When he entered school, the negative consequences for poor choices started to pile up and he spent more and more time in punishment (especially in first grade). Then I started thinking about my many inservices and how positive reinforcement is really the only way to change behavior. Enter external motivation. This year P has the opportunity to earn weekday video game privileges (we have a no screen policy Monday-Thursday) for staying on task and getting a positive report at school, and I recently started up a similar program for our youngest. It isn't a perfect system. Slip ups happen. But overall things are getting better.
That brings me to adult motivation. How many of us set resolutions at the beginning of the year, or at some point when we feel like we JUST HAVE TO CHANGE? Change is hard. Yesterday I stumbled upon a home repair to-do list from our previous house stuffed into an old notebook. On the back was a chart of household chores, how often they needed to be done and who would do them. "How many times have we tried that?" I asked my husband. He laughed. "They never work," he said. He's right, they don't. I had to chuckle, pointing at yet another chart I recently made for myself and hung on our cluttered fridge. In my Christmas letter I emphatically promised to follow through with my resolutions and goals for the year. And so far, (pats self on back) I am doing well. My writing goals are straight forward and achievable. In both January and February I met my goals and promptly gave myself a gold star. Seeing the stickers and the little checked boxes makes me feel good. It seems to me that no matter how old we are, it feels good to be rewarded for something you've accomplished. My husband is right, there is no perfect chore chart. But the house looks better than it has and we haven't fought about who cleans what. He lives by the philosophy: if it annoys me, I'll clean it (his words) and I am just trying to make sure the house isn't swallowed up by cat hair, the bathrooms don't smell like pee and everyone has clean underwear.
At the end of the day, we will ultimately be accountable to ourselves. Are my boys behaving well in school simply because they like playing video games during the week, while some other kids are only reading because they want to ride the roller coasters for free this summer? Maybe. Am I only writing this blog entry to earn my gold star at the end of the month? Maybe. But if what you need is that little external push to get the wheels moving, does it really matter?

Monday, February 24, 2014

A Quick Thaw

The boys and I had a wonderful time thawing out in Florida last week. My parents are spending their third winter down there, and it is the second time we have traveled down to see them. They found a great place to rent during the three worst months of northern wintery unhappiness and are having a lot of fun jet-setting all over the state visiting other retired types at their warm weather getaways. The boys were great little travelers. We had no problems getting there or coming home (many flights were canceled due to the huge east coast storm). During our stay we explored several beautiful beaches and collected an insane amount of shells and shark teeth. Okay, really just a few sandwich bags worth, but it seemed like a lot when they were being stuffed into pockets during every beach outing. The boys worked on their swimming skills at the neighborhood pool, and I worked on my social skills by making small talk with other temporary residents and their visitors. We opted to skip Disney this year as it is over two hours away from where my parents are staying, and CJ is hoping to take a full fledged Disney resort vacation when the boys get a little older. Instead we ventured to Legoland. It is a great park for little kids, and the boys had a blast building with Legos and riding the rides. Sadly, I couldn't convince P to ride a roller coaster, even though he was tall enough to ride with me on all of them. He said he "didn't want to get sick going upside down" which was silly because none of the rides went upside down. CJ was disappointed to hear about the lack of roller coaster riding (he stayed home due to no accumulated vacation days at the new job) and has promised to force P onto every roller coaster once he hits the magical height of 48". Which probably won't be for another two summers at his current rate of growth. Facing one's fear of roller coasters is a bit of a rite of passage with my husband. He forced me to do it, laughing hysterically at my high-pitched screams. He forced our nephew to do it, and we were all rewarded with his enthusiastic shout of "THIS IS AWESOME!!!!!" on the most feared coaster. When the day comes, hopefully P will be thankful his father made him face his fear rather than filing away the experience as yet another thing he will discuss in therapy someday.
Back home, we immediately began to re-freeze, with temperatures plummeting into the single digits again later this week. I know I am not alone when I say that this winter has been brutal. But the small dose of sun helped me gain back some energy, and I am very much looking forward to the warm happiness of spring.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Positive Effects of Wallpaper Removal

While my parents are down in Florida soaking up the sun, I have been fixing up their living and dining rooms. They decided to get the hardwood floors professionally redone and offered to pay me if I stripped wallpaper and painted both rooms first. The wallpaper stripping was a lot of work and took me several days, but it did something rather amazing. My creative juices had been stuck at a slow drip, but once I started spending my afternoons scraping and peeling, peeling and scraping, my mind cleared and opened up a steady flow of creative goodness. I cranked on my WIP (work in progress - a young adult novel), making more progress in a handful of weeks than I had in months. After the wallpaper was down and the walls fixed and washed, I started painting. The creativity is still flowing, but it has slowed from the original gush. Maybe it's because painting is slightly more creative and takes extra concentration. Maybe it's because I am at the halfway point in my book and am starting to feel the pressure that my characters are feeling. Maybe the paint fumes are killing my brain cells. Yeah, that's probably it.
As of this morning, the job is nearly done. We need to go back tomorrow and do some cleanup work, but the walls are painted and the room is cleared for the floor guy. Hopefully my parents will like the color and not want me to paint it again when they return. Although that could be a good thing if the juices get clogged. In the meantime, I need to keep plugging away at my book and seek out other forms of manual labor. Perhaps a closet clean-out project will do the trick.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Voice in Our Head

As part of the requirements for this year's cub scout badge, P needed to talk with a parent about courage and the challenge of doing the "right thing" when it wasn't easy. There were multiple scenarios in his handbook, but we only had to pick four and write his response to each. I handed the book over, let him read each one and decide on the four we would discuss. They were mostly about peer pressure; your friends want you to steal candy from the store/whistle at a blind person's guide dog/pick on the new kid/etc., and I was curious to see what he would say. My boy is a born leader. I see it on the playground and at school. People follow him, not usually the other way around. I would hope that given any of the above situations, he would rise above. His answers were textbook "I wouldn't do it", thanks in part to all of the anti-bullying messages at school and (hopefully) our modeling at home. But I wanted to dig a little deeper. When I asked him why he wouldn't steal the candy, he answered that he didn't want to get arrested. When I asked what he could do instead of picking on the new kid (who, in this situation also had a physical disability), it took a lot of prompting before he said he would ask the kid to sit near him and strike up a conversation. I started thinking. Are we hard-wired to be compassionate toward others, or is that something we learn through observation and living? We talk a lot about following the rules and doing the right thing, but will my boy only follow through with that message when he is worried about the consequences? As a child, I was always afraid to do anything wrong because my parents had put the fear of God in me. Sin and you will be punished. To this day mom will say things like, "See. That's what happens." when I stub my toe after mouthing off. (On the flip side, she also believes that the key to success and the prevention of illness is thinking positively.) So what drives us to "do the right thing" and be compassionate? Is it God? The law? Some sort of internal compass? Your mother? Whenever P gets in trouble for making bad choices, I tell him to imagine me on his shoulder saying, "Do you think this is a good idea?" I hope that as he gets older and the choices go from picking on the new kid to experimenting with drugs and alcohol or other teenage stuff I'm completely not ready for, that he will find that voice inside his head. And it is loud and screechy, just like mine.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Art and the 2nd grader

I love words. My husband loves words. Our oldest son loves words. Words are magical for me; I would be perfectly content to hang out on a deserted island for all of eternity as long as there were books to keep me company. (And potatoes. I decided a while back that if I had to live with only one food it would be potatoes. They make me happy.) My husband first won me over with a poem he wrote that secretly hid my name within the lines. *swoon* When the boy came along, I knew it was love when he picked up a board book and backed into my lap on his first night home (in between bouts of hysterical crying of course). He sleeps with books, takes them everywhere he goes, and even reads the cereal box and milk carton at breakfast. Which makes me grin because I used to do THE EXACT SAME THING when I was a kid. So you get the picture. We love words.
Art is a different story. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate beautiful paintings and photographs, and we have several wonderful pieces in our house. Hubby and I enjoy art galleries and were hugely disappointed when we tried to see a van Gogh exhibit in DC several years ago and didn't join the entrance line in time (there were a limited number of tickets). But a general feeling of, "I like this one" or "I don't like that one" is the extent of my art knowledge. When my son's teacher asked me to chaperone their class trip to the art gallery, I knew I wouldn't be much help with the explaining parts, but I went anyway. We had a stern, soft-spoken woman as our docent. She was the kind of person who would not hesitate to rap the knuckles of any child caught too close to the artwork, were she allowed to do that sort of thing. Our group would look at a piece of art, I would try to figure out what the artist was trying to say, and then our docent would explain the meaning of the piece. I was wrong EVERY TIME. Now, I know art, like words, is subject to interpretation. But I was just so completely off it was laughable.
Then it got worse. The students began giggling at the nudity in paintings, and a little girl passed by a Jackson Pollack and said to  me, "That looks messy. How come that's art?"  The docent showed us a painting that was an orange rectangle and a yellow rectangle and my son started making this weird noise, like he was a cartoon character who swallowed sleeping pills. Embarrassed, I reprimanded him, which put him in a bad mood for the rest of the trip. He wouldn't talk to me or any of his friends on the bus ride home, and later he told me it was "the worst field trip ever" and that "some of those paintings were really inappropriate." I tried to explain how nudity in art is okay and that sometimes we like a painting and sometimes we don't. But that's all I had. I looked at him and thought, give me some poetry and I can explain what it means and why it is great, but art...
Is it wrong to have a kid that's just not into art? He likes to draw comic strips and read graphic novels, but his artwork is never chosen to hang in the hallways at school and the bottom line is: he's a word kid. Our youngest has always loved to draw and will spend hours molding play dough and creating elaborate collages at home and school. Hopefully when it is his turn to go to the art gallery he will be inspired and not bored. And he won't ask me to explain what it all means.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

A Sweet Memory

Yesterday was day 10 of the writing challenge. I got a little stuck last week on the querying, but yesterday's assignment was to write your sweetest memory, and I knew immediately that I wanted to write about Grandma. Many of my favorite childhood memories revolve around time spent with my grandparents, and my paternal grandma was the kindest, most loving person I have ever known. She had extraordinary patience and always appreciated my creative and foolish endeavors.

She sat in the squishy white chair, glasses perched on the edge of her nose, the click click of knitting needles pulsing out a steady cadence. I looked up from my coloring book and watched her hands move expertly in perfect rhythm. Her eyes met mine. She smiled, never missing a beat. Click click. I spotted the ball of green yarn resting on the arm of her chair. It was perfect and round, and I watched in awe as it gradually unraveled with each sweeping motion of the needles. I inched closer to the chair. Reaching up, I clasped my little fingers around the ball of yarn, feeling its fuzzy softness. Grandma just smiled. I pulled the ball of yarn into my lap and tried to resist each tug. Suddenly I had a wonderful idea. Holding the yarn in my hands, I began to slowly crawl across the floor of the living room. A green trail appeared behind me, inching along the floor like a tiny snake. When I reached the end of the living room, I turned down the hallway. The ball of yarn became smaller and smaller as the snake grew longer and longer. I grinned at my brilliance. Through the hallways and around each bedroom I crawled, careful not to overlap my path. Finally I made my way back into the living room. All that remained of the ball was a tiny clump. The clicking stopped. Grandma looked down at the floor with alarm, suddenly realizing what I had done. She took a deep breath and let it out gently. Her eyes softened and the sides of her mouth formed the slightest smile. Her head shook from side to side. “Thank you dear,” she said sweetly. Pride swelled in my chest. I placed the clump of yarn on her chair and turned to look at my masterpiece. I heard the familiar click click and watched as the green snake slithered slowly along the floor, creeping its way closer and closer.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Kitchen is Complete!

After many months of hard labor (mostly my husband's, although I did help a little), we are declaring the kitchen remodel officially DONE. When we first moved here back in 2008, the kitchen was a disaster. There were three different floors, all of which were outdated and filthy. The main foyer was paved with ugly, gray, chipped ceramic tile that we re-purposed in the garden as stepping stones. The main area of the kitchen had yellow-stained linoleum that curled up at the edges, and the hallway leading to the garage was a lovely brown shag carpet. It was all ripped out within the first few hours of owning the home and replaced with snap-together laminate that looks like ceramic tile but does not freeze our feet in the winter and does a wonderful job of hiding the messes of a family with two boys and no dogs. (Translation: They spill stuff. No one licks it off the floor.) Hubby also did a bit of reconstruction, moving our refrigerator out of the eating area, where it had been nestled in a flow-cramping alcove, and closer to the main kitchen area. We replaced all of the broken appliances and added a cookbook nook under the microwave. All of this was done within the first few months of moving in. Nearly six years ago. Fast forward to the spring of 2013. After saving our pennies, we were able to replace the pink counters with stone and then stare at the damaged walls for several months before finally deciding on and putting in a back splash. Hubby did most of the work, but I did get my hands dirty and help wash the grout. It was no fun, no fun at all, but we are very pleased with the result! To make my prep area more user friendly, hubby installed new track lighting and gave the fan a thorough scrubbing. The brightness makes it much easier to cook all of my wonderful veggie concoctions!! Here are a few before and after pics:

 As you can see, the tile was rather dull and dingy and it didn't really match the cool brick arch.
Working on the back splash
 Ta-da! Bright and beautiful!
Hard work and patience pays off!

Friday, January 3, 2014

Happiest Memory

One of my resolutions this year is to write more, and to help accomplish that I am participating in a daily writing challenge. Today's challenge was to write your happiest memory. There were a good handful of memories to pick from, including my wedding day and the moment I became a mom (which I have written about many times), but I wanted to try something a little different. Please comment; I would love to know what you think!

The sun was just beginning to make its appearance over the harbor and already the day was hotter than any I had ever experienced. My thin cotton sundress was stuck to my skin, and I could feel the sweat pooling in every imaginable place on my body. Moments earlier I had stared in the mirror, fixing my hair just so and now it sat angrily on my shoulders in damp, frizzy strands. My feet were swollen and sore, and my hands were white from wringing in anticipation.

None of it really mattered. The heat, the pain, the unkempt appearance. All that mattered was the horizon. I kept my eyes peeled and waited, as patiently as was possible for a moment like this. Minutes felt like years as men and women piled off the small boat and onto the dock. Each boat carried a full load of passengers, but it was a mere fraction of the 5,000 people who were waiting to come ashore. Thankfully there were several boats travelling at once, making the journey back and forth, back and forth, but I knew it could take hours before he would arrive. I settled in for the long wait, my heart steadily pounding in my chest.

The aircraft carrier sat still in the distance, firmly grounded to the sea. The sailors were tiny dots, growing larger with each wave. My heart leapt and sunk with each small boat’s arrival. Finally he arrived. Dressed in his khaki uniform, with a bag slung over his right shoulder, my love emerged from the boat and stepped steadily onto the dock. I locked my knees to keep from swooning, and when he approached the waiting area I ran into his arms. Our embrace was sweaty and tight, his lips salty and sweet. I looked into his eyes for the first time since that cold, dark January morning when he had left for what was scheduled to be a three week underway. Then bombs were dropped in Iraq and everything changed. Now here we were, eight months later, embracing in the heat of summer in a foreign land where I never thought I would have the courage to journey. The long separation had forced me to exit my comfort zone and travel halfway around the world alone. It was worth the fear to see his smiling face, to feel his palm in mine.

The happiness of that moment was pure and deep. We only had a few short days together before I would journey home to wait out the final month of deployment. But we had made it this far, and I knew in that moment that we could survive anything.