Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Few of My Favorite Things

Last week, we were busy counting our blessings. This week, I've made a list of some favorite things--and hope to nudge you into listing your own.

1. Performance of Maria Bello in Prime Suspect She's so tightly wound, she'll take out a city street if she snaps, but she's a dogged detective. Bello happens to resemble Older Daughter, so I like her and worry she's skipping meals. Let's hope NBC doesn't cancel the show.

2. The Soldier's Wife, Margaret LeRoy This book, set on the island of Guernsey during the German Occupation, challenged my preconceptions. At its end, I asked myself which character had lost the most. The answer surprised me.

3. Gavin & Stacy The secondary characters steal every scene in this British rom/com series. (See publicity picture at top, left.) Seasons one and two are available at Netflix, via streaming and DVD, plus episodes are up on YouTube and other sites. Tidy.

4. Cool weather Hubs and I walked together Sunday morning. He layered up. For the first time this fall, I did NOT say, "Hot! It's so hot." He checked the temp: 48 degrees. My definition of perfect.

5. Men who name stray cats When I went out of town earlier this month, Hubs reluctantly agreed to feed the stray cat I've named Lucky along with Lucky's occasional sidekick, a black and white tabby. When I returned, Hubs mentioned "Checkers." I was baffled. "What's that?" Hubs shrugged. "Lucky's friend."

6. Until There Was You, Kristan Higgins I bought this book as an airplane read, figuring it would be light-hearted and funny. It was all that and packed a sneaky emotional wallop. I wiped away tears at the end, which is embarrassing and makes flight attendants uncomfortable. It may be my favorite of Higgins' books, and she's an auto-buy for me.

7. Daughters who come to dinner and stay for six hours Hubs and I don't qualify as witty conversationalists and we're too creaky to do snark effectively, but now that the kids are launched, they don't hate hanging with us. I credit dessert, the never-fail lure.

8. Fotofest International Discoveries III Through December 22, twelve photographers from eight countries are exhibiting at Fotofest's headquarters at 1113 Vine Street, Houston, Texas 77002 (A shade north and east of the University of Houston/Downtown's main building.) The show wowed me, it's free, and the gallery space, in a renovated warehouse, is stunning. For details and a peek at some of the photos on exhibit, go here.

9. Rain Houston's November rainfall edged into the above-average category. Hooray! Although we're roughly twenty inches below normal for the year, the grass is green again, and birds don't have to drink from saucers under potted plants.

10. WANA 1011 Kristen Lamb's sixty-day online course on blogging and mastering social media is nearing an end, and I've learned a lot. More importantly, I've "met" and come to appreciate the work of dozens of writers who are balancing fiction and non-fiction writing, families, day jobs, and blogs. If you're a writer reluctant to wade into social media waters, read We Are Not Alone, the Writer's Guide to Social Media. Learn more here.

Your turn: Name one of your favorite things and tell me why it's special. (I'm not asking out of pure nosiness; I want to expand my list by trying out the things you like.)

Monday, November 28, 2011

I Can Hear You Now

Earlier this month, my flight landed at Terminal E at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, and I had to hurry to make a connecting flight in Terminal B. Signs made it easy to find the inter-terminal train stop, the wait for the train proved short, and each car featured a red, scrolling electronic message that alerted passengers to the next stop on the route. As soon as I spotted the rolling script, I relaxed-- as much as a person hanging onto a pole with one hand and clutching a carry-on bag with the other can relax.

Seconds later, a voice came over a loudspeaker announcing what the train's next stop would be. Such announcements are normal, expected even, but this one astonished me. Why? I understood it. Later, I understood a voice over a loudspeaker announce final boarding for a flight to Orlando.

Thousands of passengers hear announcements like those every day, and most wish they could block them out, so why my astonishment? Back in July, I got a cochlear implant. A CI is defined by Wikipedia as "a surgically implanted electronic device that provides a sense of sound to a person who is profoundly deaf or severely hard of hearing." Mine was activated in August, and I wrote my first impressions of hearing with it here.

I had hoped the implant would provide sound clues that made it easier for me to read lips, and my big goal was to follow conversation as well as I had, say, five years ago. (In truth, I wanted to follow conversation as well as I had ten years ago--and thought that impossible.) I didn't expect to understand voices over loudspeakers because I hadn't for fifteen or more years.
Although those voices are louder than normal, their sound quality is distorted by the medium.

Oh me of little faith. The loudspeaker breakthrough that astonished me had followed others, so I should have anticipated it, but hearing loss is a long, drawn-out lesson in diminishing expectations. For the first time in years, I had heard the beep of the microwave, and my husband playing the guitar two rooms away. Still, I didn't get my hopes up. While I was greedy for more, I'd learned to live with disappointment.

So far, the disappointments have been few. Not all sounds are beautiful. The bleat of a grackle qualifies as Mother Nature's version of a fingernail against the blackboard. Voices that sounded Mickey- and Minnie Mouse-like three months ago are less cartoonish but still not true-to-life. Learning to re-hear via a CI is an ongoing process. Luckily, my husband gets a kick out of "testing" me by standing in another room and asking me questions. He and I are both amazed when I answer. (If anyone cares to talk about me behind my back, I'd appreciate it. Remember to quiz me afterwards.)

This past Thanksgiving, I gave thanks for the implant, for the three writing friends who convinced me to consider surgery (I'm looking at you, Janice Martin, Pat Kay, and Linda Barrett), and for my family's encouragement and support. I also gave thanks for surgeon Dr. G. Walter McReynolds, the Houston Ear Research Foundation, Sherri Taxman, my audiologist for the implant, Joan Furstenberg, my longtime audiologist, and those amazingly clear loudspeakers at that Atlanta airport.

What limits or limited you, and how do you/did you cope?

Friday, November 25, 2011


My Golden Heart entry is due at RWA headquarters in 5 days and I'm not finished with the the ending of the story. The first 50 pages are polished and ready to go, the synopsis is nearly done but the contest requires a completed manuscript. Ugh. I wish I was one of those people who can write 20 or 30 pages a day. Unfortuantely, I'm not sure I can type 30 pages in a day. What was I thinking when I signed up and paid my $50 in early November? Now I'm down to the wire and madly rushing to finish...or will be again after I post this.

So why not blow it off? Because I commited to finish and finish I will. I don't dare to hope to win like Pat O'Dea Rosen and JoAnne Banker did, or even final like Kay Hudson and Sarah Andre. These talented women have a je ne sais quoi that I truly admire. But I can wrap up this damn thing, print it, deliver it and hope for the best. And promise myself never be so follish again!!

What crazy dealines have you set for yourself? Did you meet them, miss them, or blow them off?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Woman Versus Turkey. Avert Your Eyes, Please.

Today's home buyers gravitate toward kitchens that are open to the living area. Bless their hearts. Clearly they've never gone mano a mano with a Thanksgiving turkey. It's not an audience-friendly sight.

Years ago, as a clueless bride, I invited my in-laws for Thanksgiving dinner. How hard could it be?

The first sign the day wouldn't go as planned came when I couldn't wrestle the metal pincer-thingamabob out of the thawed bird. In a panic, I phoned my mom, who put my dad on the line. He talked me through the pinch-and-pull process. Too bad he didn't warn me about the neck and giblets stuffed inside the turkey. I baked them—and their paper wrappings--with the bird.

Are you wondering where Hubs was that first holiday? I'd probably sent him out to buy heavy cream or another can of pumpkin puree. Poor guy. Back then, most grocers were closed on Thanksgiving, so he would have wandered from one convenience store to another in search of the needed ingredient.

By my second year on turkey duty, I knew to fish out the neck, giblet package, and chunks of ice from the cavities and rinse and pat dry the bird. I'd also learned to slather the bird with butter, olive oil, or a mix of both. Slathered turkeys are slippery. Am I the only person who's dropped one? I'm grateful the guests watching N.F. L. football in the next room have missed my fumbles.

Because salmonella's a guest I don't want at the feast, I swipe countertops and cutting boards with diluted bleach. The blessed wall between my kitchen and family room keeps guests from passing out from the fumes.

Open-plan living requires extreme tidiness and strict organization—traits I lack. One hour into food prep, I have vegetable peelings on the counter, a trail of sugar on the floor, and cranberry-bright stains on the stovetop. Worse, chaos is catnip to pets.

The cooking smells tempt them, but my attempts to shoo them away are more alluring. Ooh! A game! Once, I lifted a cobbler from the oven and turned in time to catch a cat on the countertop, licking my last stick of butter.

I cut away the top part of the stick and rinsed the rest of it. Before you judge, let me repeat: my last stick of butter.

Tomorrow, my kitchen will be a disaster zone, but the food coming out of it should be tasty. (I've learned from my mistakes over the years. What's more, I rarely drop a turkey now that I've perfected the football hold.) Best of all, friends and family will gather in the dining room in celebration and fellowship—and the dirty pots and pans will be out of sight.

Are you a clean-as-you-go cook or a mess-maker? What's your home-design preference: open-plan or kitchen as bunker?

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 21, 2011


Last night I finished THE LAST LETTER FROM YOUR LOVER by Jojo  Moyes and knew I needed to recommend it to anyone looking for a lovely read over the upcoming holiday weekend.

The story follows two “heroines” forty years apart. Jennifer is the wife of a wealthy London businessman in 1960 who falls in love with a journalist while summering on the French Riviera. Ellie is a high-powered journalist in 2003’s London who is having an affair with a famous and very married author. Their paths intersect when Ellie finds a heart-breaking love letter and sets out to discover the story behind it.

The contrast between Jennifer’s world and its oppressive restrictions on women and Ellie’s world where her social freedom creates its own emotional barriers is one of the themes that lifts this story beyond the typical love story and makes it memorable. And the writing is good! Go to your nearest independent bookstore today (plug for the indies who support us!) and get a copy!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Links for Writers

Got linky-links? Why, yes, I do.

This set is targeted toward writers, and the links point to essays or sites that mostly interest or entertain, but one of them nudge us into dropping a bad habit or two. (All right, already! I'll drink more water.)

First up, romantic comedy/mystery writer Anne R. Allen points out the flaws in nine frequently repeated pieces of writing advice. Here's how she counters the chestnut that all protagonists must be admirable: "Saints are boring in fiction, unless they liberate France and get burned at the stake, and that’s been done." Read her full post here.

Chuck Wendig, whose debut novel, DOUBLE DEAD, comes out this month, shares the twenty-five qualities a book must have to keep him (and the rest of us) reading. The following is from trait #16: "A story that becomes something other than it seems — that pivots hard and shows you a whole new face — is a powerful thing, and compelling enough to drag me into its turbulent waters." Wendig's full post is here.

Jenny Hansen, the writer behind the More Cowbell blog, offers three rules for success in writing and in life.

Social-media expert Kristen Lamb reminds writers that health comes before wealth and is essential to maintaining page counts. Here, she offers tips for getting and staying in tip-top shape.

Blogger Coleen Patrick takes a look at some novels' memorable first lines. What's your favorite?

Having trouble maintaining your NaNo word count? This site is all kibble, no stick.

Finally, Kristan Hoffman offers writers two quizzes to test our understanding of what really matters to readers. Hint: it's not the number of our Twitter followers. Test yourself here.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Wonking in Memphis

Yesterday, a flight layover in Tennessee stretched from seventy-five minutes to two-and a half hours but proved almost enjoyable for my daughters and me. Memphis barbecue deserves some of the credit, and words did the rest.

My kids are word wonks and come by it honestly. Apparently, fascination with language is as genetic as eye color and ear-lobe shape. That's not to say me and mine are word perfect. Far from it. We inadvertently misuse, mispronounce, and garble phrases in our struggle to do right by our mother tongue.

Because my girls had updated themselves on the Kardashians, Duchess Catherine, Jen, Suri, and Sandra on the first leg of the trip and couldn't bear to look at another magazine, I emailed them "Ten Phrases to Purge from your Writing," a guest post written by Nancy Ragno for Jane Friedman's blog, Being Human at Electric Speed. Read the post here. (Go on. I'll wait.)

After reading the post, Older Daughter mopped up barbecue sauce with French fries and moaned that she'd misused hone in on for the correct home in on.

I've misused heart-wrenching for heartrending hundreds of time. What's more, rending doesn't have the visceral flavor of wrenching, so I foresee gut-wrenching in my future.

Younger daughter revealed she has a co-worker who promises to nip scheduling problems "in the butt." Her sister and I advised her not to turn her back on the guy.

Card shark or card sharp? asks Older Daughter.

She's not happy with our mealy-mouthed responses so pulls out her phone and Googles the term—only to find compelling etymological support for both expressions.

"If I'm a good sport and hard worker, am I trouper or trooper?'" asks Younger Daughter.

"You're a trouper and the show must go on," I say.

"You're a soldier-like trooper," says Older Daughter.

Again, there's etymological support for both expressions.

Harebrained gets the nod from dictionaries today, but hair brained loped onto the scene because the animal that acts scattered during mating season was written as hair early on.

Oxymorons might have kept us entertained for another half hour, but our flight was called.


How do you cope with airport delays, long waits in doctors' offices, and lines that stretch out the door and around the block?

Monday, November 14, 2011


It’s mid-November and Christmas decorations went up in at least two upscale Houston shopping areas over a month ago. My reaction was something between disappointment and disgust. Really, people? You had to push the season forward two months? Why? Is it greed or did they just want to get on the lighting contractor’s schedule? Having little respect for the motives of shopping centers, I assume the former.

Last week I saw a notice from Nordstrom that said they weren’t decorating until after Thanksgiving. I’ve never shopped much in the store, but their restraint has earned my respect. They’re treating the holidays as a special time, a limited season to be celebrated as a lead-up to a the main events—Christmas or Chanukah—not a three month promotional opportunity followed by the January sales. Result—I’m applauding their decision and have decided to shop there in the future, when possible.

Don’t get me wrong, I love all the holiday lights and things that sparkle. As a child I was enchanted by the magic of the Christmas displays in the windows of New York department stores--elaborate fantasy lands which materialized right after Santa wound up the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  December was the special time of the year when the world seemed to don its storybook attire—decorations of silver and gold, bright red bows, twinkling lights, glittering snow and magical creatures. Maybe Nordstorm’s decision is the first in a trend to bring back a true holiday season. Wouldn’t that be grand!
Am I alone here? Speak up. I'd love to hear what you think.

Friday, November 11, 2011


This morning I heard a moving broadcast on NPR's StoryCorps. Pearl Harbor survivor Frank Curre talked about the horrible day of the attack. He was eighteen at the time. He says:
"I still have the nightmares, never got over the nightmares. And with God as my witness, I read my paper this morning — and right now, I can't tell you what I read. I can't remember.
But what happened on that day is tattooed on your soul. There's no way I can forget that. I wish to God I could."
Today on Veterans Day we honor all the men and women who have served our country in the armed forces. May we never forget the price they paid to defend our freedom.

Read the entire Story Corps transcript or listen to the broadcast. It's well worth it:

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Nesting Instinct Turned Nasty

Periodically, Hubs and I talk about putting our house on the market and downsizing to a two-bedroom place near downtown. The thought of shoveling out the garage stops us, but what's scarier is the prospect of house shoppers bad-mouthing the home in which we raised our kids.

If you've watched House Hunters or My First Place on HGTV, you've seen two types of prospective buyers: the first sees something good in every dwelling visited, but the second expects Veuve Cliquot on a Budweiser budget and heaps scorn on houses that lack granite countertops, stainless-steel appliances, and double sinks in the master bath.

Conflict makes for good television, and the shows' producers may handpick persnickety shoppers and encourage them to insult shag carpet, flocked wallpaper, and shell pink bathroom tile.

But my sympathy's with the sellers.

"The eighties called, and they want their kitchen back," mocks one shopper. "I'm stuck in the nineties and can't get out," says another.

Those remarks sting. My bathrooms are of this decade, but the kitchen gives off a nineties vibe, and the family room boasts seventies paneling painted white.

Then again, a lot of these home shoppers claim they're looking for fixer-uppers. "I need a project I can sink my teeth into," says one lookie-loo. "I want to put my mark on a house," declares another. Yet, when faced with a kitchen painted yellow, these buyers act disbelieving and helpless. "Who can live with this color?"

"You wanted a project," says the Realtor.

"But the whole room has to be repainted."

A recent jab at a wall oven made me freeze in recognition. "Oh my God!," shrieked a house shopper. "This thing's from the Soviet era."

The oven in question was located in a U.S. suburb and appeared younger than my twenty-year-old black-glass Maytag. Mine (pictured above) was born in 1991, the year the Soviet Union dissolved. Most importantly, it works.

Given that house shopper's shock, Hubs and I are reconciled to replacing the oven before we put our house on the market. In the meantime, I've got my fingers crossed that the National Association of Realtors, HGTV, or NATO will declare a period of rapprochement (That's сближение in Russian ) between buyers and sellers. The house hunt should be a mockery-free zone.

My advice for home buyers? Look for good bones. Everything else can be changed.

Monday, November 7, 2011


I spent the last three days in Story Masters Workshop listening to the wisdom of Donald Maass, James Scott Bell and Chris Vogler. So many of their ideas and observations resonated with me, it will take a thorough review of my notes and a lot of thinking to process what I learned.

On Friday one point especially hit home. Bell talked about what he calls Heart Heat and quoted Robert Frost: "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader." He said the writer has to "see it, feel it, trust it." Sometimes I think we work so much on craft, we forget that the purpose of craft is to employ the best tools to evoke an emotional response in the reader--love, hate, caring, disgust, indignation, empathy, fear. But first, we must make ourselves vulnerable and feel those emotions without filters or reserve. And that's a very scary thing to do.

In cinema there are great scenes that no matter how many times you see them, they never lose their emotional power. CASABLANCA has so many of these, but the ending always chokes me up.

What books or movies have evoked powerful emotions for you? What makes you connect with a character or a story?

Friday, November 4, 2011

Do as I Don't

New parents think they'll teach by good example how to be responsible members of society. They don't know kids learn as well or better from parents' stumbles.

One Saturday long ago, as I was ferrying my children from one activity to another, Older Daughter asked about the registration sticker at the top left side of my car's front window. Pleased and proud to introduce her to the responsibilities of car ownership, I answered in my teacher voice. (Picture me puffed up with self-importance. Picture my kids rolling their eyes.)

"The price of the sticker helps the state build and maintain the roads we ride on," I probably said. (Unlike memoir writers, I don't have total recall.)

"What do the numbers mean?"

(Picture me thrilled at the prospect of show and tell.) "The sticker's good through the month and year printed on it." I must have pointed to the numbers representing the year. "And this number represents the renewal month." I probably circled the renewal month with my finger.

"Three stands for March, but it's May," Older Daughter said. "May's five."

I'm sure I shrieked. I probably cursed, too, and hope the words that came out were G-rated like drat, darn, and shoot. Why oh why did I squirrel away important mail for safekeeping--and then forget about it?

"Are you going to jail?" asked Younger Daughter.

Looking back, I see the prospect interested her. At the time, I rushed to reassure her mommy wasn't going away. "Jail? No way. I made a mistake, and I'll make it right."

For the next half hour, I drove as if taking a road test with the strictest DMV examiner on the planet.

Older Daughter noticed the number of cars passing us. "Why are you going so slow? I'll be late for the party."

"I'm driving within the speed limit." I didn't point to the road sign and then make Vanna White flourishes at my speedometer, because why give my darlings a reason to scold if I ever exceeded the limit by five freaking miles?

Before the end of the day, I got the car inspected. On Monday, I went to the tax assessor's office and paid my registration fee. The clerk tried to dish out shame, but she was an amateur compared to me—and to my then-boss. Yeah, I told him where I was going on my lunch hour because I wouldn't make it back within sixty minutes unless I ran every red light and rolled through every stop sign on the way.

Were the Daughters impressed when I scraped off the old registration sticker and slapped on the new? Not that I could tell. They did, however, learn car stickers have the power to make adults scream and swear. That gives me hope they won't repeat my mistake.

Let's hear it for teaching by bad example.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

TRADE-OFFS or Why Am I Inside Editing on a Gorgeous Fall Day?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about trade-offs. Part of this is the economy. It doesn’t take a CPA to understand that I can’t buy a new fall designer wardrobe and still pay my mortgage through the winter. Not that that’s a new situation. It isn’t. What’s floating around my head are lifestyle trade-offs that have little to do with money.
Two years ago my husband had an epiphany after spending time with some overweight male relatives. Unless he did something soon, he was destined for obesity and all the physical limitations and health issues that went with it. He quit eating starches, sweets and processed food. He also started cooking to assure he followed his new healthy eating style. He never called it a diet and still doesn’t. He lost sixty pounds and has kept it off because he thinks of food as fuel now. Once he got the mind-set, the trade-off of health versus margaritas and enchiladas was an easy choice. It took me a while to get with the program, but I finally saw the light and feel much better for the change in habits.
There are so many trade-offs that we make all the time, and those adjust as our priorities shift. All the hours per day spent on sports and exercise in my youth were worthwhile at the time, but now an hour at noon in the gym is all I want to spend. When I was young and single, wearing great clothes and traveling were important and I was happy to live in a rented townhouse or apartment—so unlike the wonderful home my designer husband has created for us. I have fewer acquaintances now but closer friends, and no longer tolerate relationships that wear me down. I'm more aware of the preciousness of time and deliberately choose how I want to spend it. 
As writers we are constantly negotiating trade-offs. Pulled between family, friends, work and chores, setting writing as a priority means something else has to go. For authors lucky enough to be under contract, writing and work are the same thing. For those of us who have yet to publish, justifying the time and energy we put in can seem like a selfish trade-off to anyone who doesn’t share our passion. Staying inside on a lovely fall day to revise a manuscript that has already been rejected by 20 agents sounds crazy, and yet we do it because of our love of writing and determination to sell . A lot of people give up and who can blame them. Others of us keep working year after year, improving our craft while writing and rewriting--living half in the world and half in our heads. Perhaps that’s why writers need each other—to make our obsessions seem a little bit normal. Our writer friends understand the trade-offs—the price we pay and rich life we buy with it in return.