Thursday, August 30, 2012

Happy Birthday, Mom!

My Mom

My mother chooses to think the best of people. In other words, she believes companies that make bad products will fix their mistakes, politicians will set aside personal agendas to work for the greater good, and doctors won't be influenced by drug companies’ pitches.

Despite her optimism, she's no fool, so she worries, reads more than one newspaper, and does an impressive amount of research for a person who doesn't know how to use a computer.  She's not above referring to politicians who disappoint as "nitwits."

Unless you happen to be a politician who's disappointed her, my mom's fun to be around. Until a couple of years ago, she line-danced and is still, hands down, the best listener on the planet.

Wouldn't you like to chat with someone who gives you undivided attention and asks the right amount of questions? She's well aware there are at least two sides to every story but can be counted on to throw her support to Team Kid/Grandkid.

I'm not saying my mom is perfect. She'd be the first to say she hates to cook and dislikes crafts. Her favorite household chore? Laundry. She claims it's because she can throw clothes in the washer and read while the machine does all the work.

Her long-ago quest for a college degree was interrupted by marriage and four children, but when my youngest sister started high school, my mother returned to college at night. My father took her to class because driving makes her jittery—the result of a decades-ago accident. My mom graduated magna cum laude. She went to work for the N.J. Commission for the Blind, an agency located close to my father's place of work so he could drop her off and pick her up every day.

Although my mother learned Braille for her job, she retired shortly before computers replaced typewriters in her workplace. Nowadays, she reads more novels in a month than I do in six but doesn't read blogs. In fact, she says "blog" as if it's a foreign word, and she's unsure of the pronunciation.

Every Friday morning, she gets her hair done. She goes to an old-school hairdresser, sits under the dryer, and emerges with a style that lasts a full week—and suits her. As my older daughter once told her, "Gram, you look better than Nancy Pelosi."

Like many mid-Atlantic state Roman Catholics of a certain age, my mother usually votes Democratic but prides herself on recognizing and rewarding merit (and punishing nitwittery) across the aisle.

Her Catholicism is tolerant and ecumenical, and she cares more about social justice than dogma.

She loves her children and grandchildren, and we/they know it. Once, an acquaintance told me she doubted I'd ever be much of a writer because I come from a happy family. I didn't have a snappy comeback then but now know a solid foundation gives children confidence rather than ego and encourages them to face down unhappiness.
My parents would chew off their fingernails before they bragged about their accomplishments. "If you're lucky, someone else will do it for you," my mother told me.

Back when she and my dad were spry enough to take Elderhostel (now Road Scholar) trips, my mom made a point of not bringing family snapshots with her. She avoided people who talked endlessly about their kids. "I love my children, but your father and I, we have a life of our own."

Soon, they'll celebrate sixty-three years of marriage.  My dad gives my mom eye drops. She reminds him to take his pills. They take exquisite care of one another.

My computer-shy mother won't read this and know I've bragged about her, and that's for the best. If she'd known I was going to write a tribute, she'd have asked me to make it about my dad. But it's not his birthday, is it?

I love you, Mom.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Defending Genre Fiction...Not that it needs it

This weekend a friend gave me a DVD of her new favorite movie, THE OTHER MAN. (Spoiler warning: if this is on your dying-to-see list, don’t read on) She told me to tell her I loved it even if I didn’t. Looks like I’m going to lie.

I love romance novels so watching a story where a wife (Laura Linney) while dying of cancer sets up her husband (Liam Neeson) to discover her infidelity after her death—well, I’ve got a problem with the b*!#$! Everything we see on screen shows a loving relationship and yet she leads him to discover she had an affair with a janitor ( Antonio Banderas, but still…) in Milan and leaves pictures on her laptop of them together. Naked. The cruelty was inconceivable to me and as a result I couldn’t believe two men could love this woman so deeply. Hey, in romance the heroine has to deserve the hero and vice versa or they don't get their happily-ever-after.

When the movie was over I realized that for my friend it was a cinematic equivalent of a literary novel. She's made it clear she thinks romance novels are trite and formulaic and yet I think she misses the point. Like all genre fiction, romance is entertainment, and yet there’s an integrity to the stories, characters and relationships that I love. No romance heroine would intentionally inflict pain on the man she loved in such a heartless, selfish and irrevocable way. Yeah, they make mistakes and hurt people they love, but never deliberately and cruelly.

In romance we create a lot of flawed characters and torture them into redemption. But redeem them, we do. One of my favorite writers, J.R. Ward, has written the Black Dagger Brotherhood series in which horribly damaged, murderous vampire warriors find redemption in order to make a life with the females they love. This is an edgy series that has limited appeal even in the paranormal romance world, and yet these characters do their best to love, protect and nurture—and any hurt they inflict is unintentional and sorely regretted. Their happily-ever-after isn’t guaranteed, we know they’ll always have to work at their relationships, and yet they try to be the best people, or vampires, they can be. Call me shallow, say I live in a fantasy world, but that’s the life I want to live—one of caring and integrity.

Expand to other genres--thriller, sci-fi, fantasy, suspense, mystery—and the moral compass still points to good, not evil. Sure, some protagonists have a dark side but they also have a moral code—think Mitch Rapp, Jack Reacher and any action hero Jason Statham plays on screen. We love them because we want good to triumph and for the hero to do the right thing. It’s human nature. Hmmm. Maybe genre fiction says more about who we are than literary fiction after all.

There are great pieces of literature that I love and cherish in my library, books I read over and over. On the other hand, I’m still on page 22 of A Confederacy of Dunces and not likely to get much further no matter what prize it won. 

What’s your guilty pleasure? What books move you and bring a smile to your face? 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Dancing Outside My Comfort Zone

A week ago, Lark wrote about taking the controls of a small airplane and soaring 2000 feet above the ground. That post drop-kicked me outside my comfort zone and propelled me to do something unexpected and daring.

I signed up for a Zumba class.

While some Zumba practitioners get airborne, this exercise/dance routine is mostly earthbound and takes place in ordinary settings like gyms and community centers. Challenge-wise, it doesn't come close to the responsibility and rush that is flying in a small airplane. Nevertheless, Zumba doubled-dared me because I'm clumsy and hate to look foolish.

Hey! I heard that. Yes, I've had had lots of practice. While I own my typos, verbal bloopers, and inability to walk in heels, the thought of showing off my lack of coordination makes me go clammy.

Nevertheless, inspired by Lark's adventure, I turned up for a half-hour Zumba session. (Some sessions last an hour, but a half-hour session's just right for a beginner.)

And loved it.

I was so busy following the instructor's moves, I didn't have time to be self-conscious. Sure I repeatedly bungled a particular dance step and got off on the wrong foot with another, but I had fun, elevated my heart rate, and burned calories.

Next time, I'll bring my own towel and water bottle. Meanwhile, I'm going to practice my hip shimmies and shoulder shakes.

At an upcoming wedding, I might pull out a couple of Zumba moves. Turns out I'd rather look foolish than be stuck in a too-small comfort zone.

What unexpected and daring-for-you thing are you going to try

Speaking of unexpected, Lark and I have changed the blogging schedule here at Reading, Writing, and Rambling. Look for a post from Lark every Tuesday, and one from me Thursdays.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Google, the verb. We all do it.

After Pat's post Friday about her Klout score, I had to find out just what this Klout thing was. To no one's amazement, mine is very low. So I Googled myself to see what came up. Surprise, surprise the first pages contained my blog posts, Amazon book reviews, RWA activities and literary agency profile mixed in with genealogy sites about someone's great-grandfather Lark Howard born in 1896. Apparently Lark is more common as a male name than female. Who knew? It wasn't until page 10 that my day job company profile appeared which was much further on than I'd expected.

I then went to Google images which turned out to be more interesting. Of the first couple dozen, 9 were actually me. Several other photos I'd posted on this blog (travel pics, Kay, Sarah, Dee) and one was Pat O'Dea Rosen. A Lark Howard who looks like George Carlin on a really bad day was busted in Arizona on several occasions and multiple mugshots of him popped up (he was wearing different clothes so I know there were several arrests).

All this Googling got me thinking about the multiple lives so many writers have. Those of us lucky enough to write full-time may write under a pen name to suit out genre. Others have more than one name for other reasons. Historical writer Eloisa James is a Shakespeare professor named Mary Bly who for years hid her author identity from her students. A wonderful paranormal author friend is an emergency room doctor who took a pen name because she shares her real name with a porn star (not a good thing when readers are looking for your website). A few months back an English teacher was outted in Pennsylvania as the author of erotic romances under a pen name, outraging some parents who called for her dismissal while students defended her. Those of us who have two professional identities under the same name can find ourselves facing some awkward questions when those online identities intersect unexpectedly.

I know a lot of people are horrified to learn how much information is online about them. Those of us who use the internet to promote ourselves as writers are often more aware of what we're putting out there and control the content more deliberately than casual social media users.  Still, I can't help but wonder what my clients might think if they search my name in the vast cyber data-dump and find this blog or my profile as a Prospect Agency author.

What's the funniest, most surprising or most shocking item you've ever turned up when you Googled yourself?

Friday, August 17, 2012

I'm Not Just a Number

It's been a summer by the numbers: record-breaking highs in the Midwest, rainfall toted inch-by-longed-for-inch in drought-stricken areas, gold, silver, and bronze medal counts from the Olympics, and poll numbers, poll numbers, poll numbers.  

I've kept tabs on all of the above but have been ignoring the monthly report of my Klout score. Update: I checked it as research for this post. Klout believes I'm influential about twenty topics, including Paris (I wish!), Reading, Pennsylvania (Hmm. I've heard of it.), and teeth (My dentist will be proud, not that I've ever, to my knowledge, tweeted about teeth.). In fairness, the system says my top topics include books, travel and tourism, and writing, and I'd like to think that's true.

What's "Klout?" It's the measure—a number between 1 and 100--of a person's influence via social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Tumbler, LinkedIn. A recent change in the algorithm Klout uses takes in Wikipedia information and finally allowed President Obama to score higher than Justin Bieber.

Patricia Redsicker wrote an even-handed article on Klout as a determiner of value for Social Media Examiner. (Thanks to Lisa Hall-Wilson for pointing it out.) Whether or not you aspire to influence others, read this piece. Why? Here's Redsicker: "While the idea of being rated by some obscure online system seems outrageous, the fact is you ARE being judged whether you like it or not. And so you need to educate yourself about this issue so you can make some important decisions of your own." 

Redsicker notes writer Seth Godin has a Klout score of zero because he refuses to use Twitter, while a joke account, @common_squirrel has a score of 64. Yet she finds value and food for thought in RETURN ON INFLUENCE, a book by Mark W. Shaefer about the power of social-media. She also provides tips for increasing influence if that's the way a reader chooses to roll. 

No doubt my interest in Klout will increase when the weather cools. At the moment, I'm as hot as I've ever wanted to be.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


Cesna 152 - The one I flew was blue!

Last Friday I took a flying lesson—as in private pilot license lesson. It was really more of an introduction but I was shown the basics and got to take the controls to climb from 1000’ to 2000’, turn, bank,fly around the countryside and descend again. Of course, I didn’t take off or land, but doing something I’ve wanted to do since I first climbed into a private plane in my late 20s was thrilling.

Getting a pilot’s license has been on my Bucket List forever. Actually doing it has always been too expensive, too time-consuming or otherwise inaccessible and yet the dream has lingered. I realized as we landed that the choice was mine—was the time, money and hard work worth the end result or not? I haven’t decided yet. I’m leaning toward yes. My DH is sure the answer is no-- the risk isn’t worth it.

Oddly enough, physical risk had never entered my mind. Perhaps all those outlandish adventures I survived in my youth have given me an unrealistic sense of immortality, or maybe focusing on the experience didn’t leave room for trepidation. Whatever it was, I’d still like to go again, learn to fly, get a plane and have adventures. Ati, my instructor, videoed a few seconds of me flying with my iPhone:

I had a ball and I’m sure I’ll never feel the pure terror in the skies that I felt the first time I pitched my novel to an agent and editor. THAT was scary—really, really scary.

What’s on your Bucket List?  Have you ever forced yourself to try something that scared the bejesus out of you?

Monday, August 13, 2012

Caution: Crank Ahead

Back when I was young and clueless, I swore I'd never turn into a cranky middle-aged woman.  Sure, I was powerless to stop the aging process, but crankiness was within my control. Right?

Apparently not.

The day started in an ordinary-enough way.  I went to my exercise place for a workout. There, a robot voice orders exercisers to move from one station to the next. I progressed along until I came up to a woman who ignored the robot.  Head down, she pumped her arms in a way that signaled she wasn't about to quit her machine. Fine. Rather than stand behind her and tap my foot, I moved to the station beyond her. Half a minute later, she got off her machine, saw I was where she wanted to go, and turned flustered and fluttery. "Oh!" she said, dismayed. "I guess I'll have to move this way," thus casting me as The Villain and herself as Miss Adaptable.

Really, lady? I thought. What the hell?!

Did I say the above? No. Those of us raised in the offer-it-up-to-God school of accepting slings and arrows, sigh a lot.

Next I went to a new grocery store to buy its baked-in-house, whole-wheat pita bread.  The bakery department was out of whole-wheat, so I picked up a package of the regular. Did I sigh? Reader, you would have thought I had an upper respiratory-tract infection.

At the register, the clerk rattled off the standard, "Did you find everything you were looking for," and that innocent if rote remark unleashed my inner crank.

"I came here for your whole-wheat pita bread, but you didn't have any. I had to take regular." The sawmill-like whine in my voice registered, and I huffed at the injustice of a store without whole-wheat pita.

The young man's eyes widened, and he took a step backward. Supermarkets train clerks to ask customers if they found but what were looking for but fail to teach them to handle any response that isn't "Yes."

The clerk's surprise was laced with something that looked like fear. What's more, his teenage, clueless self probably hated whole wheat and thought I'd lucked out to get the regular.

Did I make the clerk pay for the store's failure to train him? Please! I'm not completely unreasonable. Yet.

Once home, I discovered one of my daughters had used a white, lace trimmed guest towel to remove eye make-up. (I'm aware lace-trimmed guest towels scream middle-aged. So?) Said daughter had already departed for her own house and didn't see me stomp around for five minutes. (The stomping made up for the machine I had to skip at the exercise place but I didn't appreciate that fact at the time.) After much stomping and soaking of the towel in OxiClean, I composed a thoughtful email that may have mentioned respect for things bought with parents' hard-earned cash. I may have signed off with, "Why can't I have anything nice for myself?" Yeah, yeah, cue the violins.

My inner crank is resting now, but she's ready to emerge when needed.

This post is a cautionary tale. If you don't hog exercise machines, keep whole grains close at hand, and remember guest towels exist only to dry the tips of spanking-clean fingers, you'll never have to encounter my crankyboots self.  Then again, I'm open to being irked in other ways.

Tell me I'm not alone in scaring the kid at the register. What brings out your inner crank?

Friday, August 10, 2012

Bacon and Chocolate – “TWINS” separated at birth.

Today my darling husband, Steve Howard, is guesting with his homage to bacon...uncensored and unedited. 

I am always amazed at the reverence everyone gives to Chocolate.  I do not find it sooo special.  I think that Bacon is just as important but it doesn't seem to attract the same respect that chocolate does. 

Today my goal is to give BACON the respect it has EARNED through longevity and hard work!!!!!!

Bacon and chocolate have many of the same qualities but from some reason if chocolate is involved it becomes glamorous.  If bacon is involved it is ordinary.  Today I want to stand up for the underdog (or PIG).

Bacon is used for cooking just like chocolate.  You can bake with bacon.  You can bake with chocolate.  You can melt chocolate.  You can use bacon grease to season.  You can shave chocolate.  Bacon bits!!!!!  See the similarities are endless.  Truly twins separated by birth.  Chocolate was definitely adopted by the wealthier family while bacon was adopted by an ordinary humble household. 

Bacon is currently trying to recapture its birthright by branching out of its typical role.  It is not just for eggs and breakfast anymore.  It is now being used in deserts and drinks.  Bacon Milk shakes, which I predict will remove the chocolate milkshake from the menu and your memory.  You now have bacon enhanced bourbon, which will also remove things from your memory.  This will soon eliminate chocolate vodka.  The battle of sibling rivalry is underway.

But bacon doesn't want you to forget that it has a compassionate side.  Bacon also plays well with others, even chocolate.  To show its solidarity, bacon is even willing to allow itself to be dipped in chocolate to show that there are no hard feelings.

I know that if the great cooking GOD Julia Childs were alive today, this  humble blog post would receive a hardy HERE! HERE!  I know that she was also a true lover of BACON.

The glamorous chocolate has received enough attention over the years.  It is now time to stand up for Bacon and give it the attention that is deserves.  Let’s hear from all of the Bacon lovers around the world. 


Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Who You Calling Cat Lady?

Cat on Top of the Fridge

A friend is downsizing from a home to an apartment, and her family members, workout buddies, writer pals, neighbors, and other longtime amigos/amigas flocked to help. As each person introduced him/herself, the rest of us scoured our memory banks for the connection—the work, church, travel tie, identifying anecdote, whatever.

When I introduced myself to my friend's youngest sister, she said. "Oh, the Cat Lady."

Ack! The ground never opens and swallows us when we most want to disappear.

Cat hair clings to my clothes despite multiple passes with a lint roller, but I don't talk baby talk to my pets. I don't make kissy-poo noises at them.  I don't serve them kibble in cut-crystal bowls. I am not eccentric.

Am I?

It's just as well the ground didn't open and swallow me because who would have fed the five cats at my house?

Five cats?

Don't cough up a hairball. Two are on loan—my downsizing friend's pets are staying with me until her move's complete.  (Readers of this blog may remember I had only two cats until a bully creature beat up the stray I was feeding. The stray's now a member of the household because nothing says "You're mine" like a vet bill.) Hey, I get that a woman sheltering five tabbies brings the Cat Lady moniker upon herself.

If it were only my burden to bear, I'd cope, but now Hubs is involved. Last night, I overheard him scold a cat in the friendly-but-firm Mr. Rogers voice he used to use with our kids when they were toddlers. Hubs went on to explain the importance of sharing. The cat stalked away. Teenagers!

What have I done?

I just wanted to help out a friend. Sure, the week-long playdate for my cats was a collateral benefit. (Doesn't everbody think in terms of a playdates for pets?) Now I've turned into a walking, talking, treat-distributing cliché. What's next? In the supermarket, will I hand-pick cans of Little Friskies with the care I normally lavish on Texas peaches?

At Fear No Weebles, Madame Weebles (That's the name of a human blogger, NOT a cat. Sheesh, I've read blogs about cats, but I know they can't write.) wrote a post that delineates the differences between Catwoman and Cat Lady. I'd stick around while you read it, but I have to five mouths to feed.

Now where is my snookums? Yoo hoo, sweetie, darling boy, dear one, lovey.

Monday, August 6, 2012


At the 2012 RWA National Conference I attended a workshop called "Have a Ball with Your Blog: Fostering an Online Community for Readers" where six fabulous historical romance writers (Sarah MacLean, Tessa Dare, Miranda Neville, Sabrina Darby, Lauren Willig and Kate Noble) talked about their blog, The Ballroom

 All of these authors write Regency Romances, stories set in England in the early 19th century and the most popular of historical genres. In these romances, much of the action is likely to take place in ballrooms where lovely young women and dashing aristocratic men meet under the scrutiny of the ton. By a stroke of creative genius, these authors have created a blog ballroom supervised by an ever-gracious hostess, Lady B, and visited by authors and the characters in their books in a fun mash-up of time and cultures.
Each author has adopted a Ballroom personality while remaining herself. Occasionally the hero of a book scandalizes Lady B or or a heroine enlists help in catching the eye of a handsome young lord. There are polls,quizzes, parlor games, holiday parties and guest posts by visiting authors. Last week, Sophie Jordan and Cleo Hadley (the heroine of LESSONS FROM A SCANDALOUS BRIDE) joined Sarah MacLean and Lady B to find Cleo a match. 

Each post is a story in itself--interaction between author, characters and Ballroom regulars that anyone can join in. I was delighted by the wit, not only of the poster, but also in the comments as authors and visitors get into the spirit of Regency romance.
There are thousands of blogs out there with all kinds of purposes and themes. The Ballroom stands out for me as a place to enjoy the whimsy and creativity of a brilliant group of writers who invite us to hang out with them in the imaginary world of their books and an era that has inspired an entire genre of romance. If you enjoy historicals, check it out!

Are there any blogs you find especially fun to visit? Please share!

Friday, August 3, 2012

Thanks, Maeve

Irish writer Maeve Binchy died last Monday at the age of 72.

She'll live on through her books and the memorable characters she created like Benny Hogan (Circle of Friends), the awkward small-town girl who makes a place for herself at university and in the city; Signora Nora O'Donoghue (Evening Class), who left her heart in Italy but builds a new life for herself in her native Ireland; and Ania (Heart and Soul), the Polish immigrant whose broken heart is healed in a most unlikely place: a Dublin heart clinic. Binchy's heroes and heroines are everyday people who tap into reserves of strength and character they didn't know they possessed.

Her rogues are everyday people, too, and their sins tend to be selfishness and self-absorption. Those failings might not appear dramatic, but they're more than enough to crush spirits and destroy families.

Binchy's novels and short stories showed the effects of the diaspora, urbanization, the boom and bust cycle, and the changes wrought by immigration into Ireland. She was neither twee nor nostalgic.

From Binchy, I learned we cab survive our disappointments, mistakes, and even our upbringing. We can reinvent ourselves.

Read S. J. Driscoll's tribute to Binchy. Then, click on the video below to hear Binchy talk about writing.

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Finally, re-read your favorite Binchy novel ,or, if you're not familiar with Binchy's work, order one of her collections of short stories such as Whitethorn Woods. If we read and re-read Binchy, we won't really have lost her.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


Romance Writers of American National Conference in Anaheim ended Saturday night and most of us flew home on Sunday--exhausted, energized, inspired, and in some rare cases a little hungover. For me, this was a time to get away from my day-job identity and be a full time writer.

My two wonderful roommates, historical author Shana Galen and YA author Tera Lynn Childs, both had book deadlines looming (okay, Tera’s was stalking and ready to pounce) and needed to spend time working during the conference. Nevertheless, they took the time to attend workshops, greet readers, participate in signings and meet with their agents and editors. And we all did a bit of partying, especially at the Saturday night awards ceremony where we cheered on our friends and favorite authors.

What impresses me most about RWA is the generosity of published authors in helping those of us still on the journey to publication. These women—for almost all of them are women—share their knowledge through workshops on craft, career and the business of publishing. No other group in this industry or any other I know of offers the kind of in depth support and education for a newcomer who wants to learn the ropes. Seeing the hopeful faces of the people in line for agent and editor appointments, I remembered the nervous terror of my first pitch several years ago (a semi-disaster kindly endured by an agent who sent my partial a gentle pass letter) and was grateful to have passed that milestone in signing with my wonderful agent, Becca.

There’s always gossip, of course--who signed with whom, new imprints and e-publishers, what editors have moved/retired/been promoted, movie deals and encounters of the fangirl variety. There’s always some book buzz—this year’s star seemed to be the suspenseful GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn so I downloaded it in the airport. The first few pages grabbed me but since I couldn’t read on my Kindle during takeoff, I opened THE TAKER by Alma Katsu  (it was in our goodie bag) and have been engrossed in it since. Alma presented a workshop I attended on making unlikable characters sympathetic—she did exactly what she was talking about in her book and I was hooked.

Kay Hudson, Sarah Andre & Dee Gist
As for the awards fete—once again it was a sparkling evening. Imagine a room full of a couple thousand women dressed to the nines in formal and cocktail attire waiting to hear whether they or their friends would go home with a Golden Heart or Rita. (According to Keiran Kramer's FB posts, five woman wore the exact same dress!!) Even the yummy desserts were overlooked in the excitement.

There were plenty of nominees and finalists from West Houston to cheer as their names were announced. Tera (previous Rita winner) presented the Best First Book Rita to one of my favorite authors, Darynda Jones for her debut FIRST GRAVE ON THE RIGHT. And nobody was surprised when J. D. Robb took the suspense Rita.  Here’s a list of all the winners…check it out!

It was an inspiring, fun-filled week--seeing old friends and making new. And now it’s time to apply what I learned, get back to finishing my almost complete WIP and get it to my agent to send out in the world, knowing I’m not on this journey alone.

Anyone want to share you conference experiences, remark on past conferences or just comment about anything writing related in general?