Thursday, September 27, 2012

Food for Thought

I've made a lot of mistakes as a parent. The one thing I know I did right, I get no credit for as I merely recreated a ritual I'd learned in childhood: the family dinner.

Years of meals with my parents, sisters and brother blur together, but I know I laughed so hard I snorted milk from my nose, my mother threatened us with no dessert unless all vegetables, including hated lima beans, were consumed, and my father imposed one rule: "What we say at the table, stays at the table." My sibs and I followed that rule, mostly because we thought our friends would be bored silly with reports that someone had spilled milk three times in a row and someone else had tattled about me slipping a grocery-sack book cover around a mystery so I could read while pretending to do homework.

When I became a mom, I had definite opinions about cloth diapers (pro) and anesthesia during childbirth (con). Over time, I'd change my mind about those issues and many more. Raising kids is a lifelong lesson in humility, in figuring out what works and what doesn't, and in staying flexible.

Oddly enough, my new-parent self didn't have an opinion about family dinners because I didn't know there was an alternative. When some friends admitted they fed their children at five and ate dinner with their husbands at seven (with wine!), I didn't copy them because I couldn't face preparing and cleaning up after two meals. Besides, I returned to work when my second child was nine months old, and there were days when the four of us were lucky to sit down to eat at eight p.m.

Dinner became our time to decompress and talk. That's not to say meal times at my house were marked by deep, thoughtful conversation. Often, one or all of us couldn't wait to be excused from the table. We had stand-offs about food, and I'm not talking about vegetables a lot of kids are reluctant to try, like eggplant and Brussels sprouts. My daughters refused to eat pasta and, bless their hearts, recognized it even when it arrived in the shape of wagon wheels or shells.

Our dinner conversations sometimes ended in tears or with a kid stomping off to her room and slamming a door. Nevertheless, we ate together as a family most evenings, even when sports and school activities meant the meal didn't happen until nine or nine-thirty. The food wasn't always prepared by me. Hubs cooked one night a week, and when the kids got bigger, they played chef one evening out of seven. For many years, Friday meant take-out pizza.

One daughter qualified as a picky eater, and only one chicken dish pleased her. In the interest of peace and filled bellies, I made it a stand-by: chicken thighs marinated in salad dressing, coated in ground-up Triscuits, and baked. Foodies we weren't.

By the time my kids were in middle school, they knew not all their friends ate dinner en famille, and when my oldest daughter was in high school, she made it clear she wished we'd ditch regular meal time. During their college years, however, my kids' attitude toward mealtime morphed. They'd come home on break and ask me to make "my" King Ranch chicken or "my" stew. Now that they're grown with responsible jobs and places of their own, they tell me they miss our nightly meals and appear to look forward to our Sunday dinners together. They still don't eat pasta, though, the brats.

Parents tote plenty of guilt, and, God knows, I'm the last person to heap another burden on the over-worked and over-scheduled. As one whose kids are grown, though, I look back and know the family dinner was our best, most-enduring ritual and bonding experience.

Is a shared meal the only way to achieve such togetherness? Of course not. Didn't I say raising kids is a lifelong lesson in staying flexible? I have friends who insist the best bonding time happens in the car when ferrying kids from one school event to another. My brother-in-law swears he got to know his kids by coaching their soccer and ice hockey teams.

I have trouble keeping my eyes on the road when chatting with kids and am meh at sports. For me, dinner was doable and turned out to be the glue that held us together.

A national Reclaim Dinner challenge began Monday, September 23, but it's not too late to join the effort. (Thanks to Jonathan Fields for the link.) By the way, this is not an all-or-nothing deal. If you eat together at home two nights a week now, the challenge encourages you to bump it up to three. Baby steps.

That's not all, folks. If you'd like a month's worth of dinner recipes plus ideas for conversation starters, go here. (The Tuesday recipe was for a ratatouille-like dish and the conversation starter was the movie Ratatouille. Isn't that a smart and sneaky way of keeping the family together for three hours? And there could be popcorn!

Your turn: what family ritual/bonding experience meant/means the most to you? Is it dinner, talking in the car, sports, travel, a week at the shore, or something completely different?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Hooked on Homeland

Last Friday I bought the DVD of the first season of the TV series HOMELAND having heard about it several months ago on NPR but totally unaware of all its Emmy nominations. Since we don’t have TV, the only way we watch shows is on DVD and usually view the episodes back to back--so far I’ve seen the pilot through 8 and am hooked.

The elevator pitch? Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody is rescued from captivity in Iraq and  returns home eight years after going missing. Carrie Mathison, a driven CIA officer, suspects he might have been “turned” by a notorious terrorist leader and is plotting an attack on America.

An intriguing premise, huh? What’s fascinated me about this series is the writing—more specifically the characters. As writers we’re told “If the reader believes the motivation, they’ll believe anything the character does.” We’re also taught that the reader needs to empathize in some way with the protagonists or they’ll put the book down. The writers of Homeland have created seriously flawed and ambiguous characters—not just Carrie and Brody, but most of the cast—and given them motivations that make even some crazy behavior believable if not acceptable. For example, Carrie has an undefined mental illness that she’s self-treating with meds she gets from her sister. Her sister pleads with her to go for medical help and she refuses because the diagnosis would end her career as a CIA agent. Not a good reason, but an understandable motivation.

Nick is a fascinating character because it’s nearly impossible to get a valid read on him. Clearly he’s not a good guy, but is he a terrorist? Would he destroy his family, his country in the name of Islam? As the story progresses, it takes turns and twists that startle the viewer and mislead Carrie, maintaining suspense and tension with character shifts and revelation rather than the heart-stopping action of a series like 24.

Even the secondary characters are three-dimensional. Brody’s best friend and wife had fallen in love a couple of years before Brody’s return and the friend was the only father figure his children knew. This makes the family dynamics and relationships very complicated. Carrie’s boss is struggling with the disintegration of his marriage because of his career and yet can’t let go of his involvement in national security. There are no heroes in this series—only all too flawed human beings who are either trying to do good or bent on destruction. The fun is we aren’t quite sure which is which until the writers show their hand.

Has anyone else seen HOMELAND? Is there a series you especially like or find fascinating that you would recommend? 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

If You Don't Know Me by Now

Amazon recommends books it thinks I'd enjoy based on my previous purchases, and its algorithms are pretty much on target. Netflix's film recommendations are usually in ballpark. Even the grocery store knows me well enough (Thank you/curse you, courtesy card!) to send coupons for items I buy regularly and new products I might like. I use a lot of those coupons, so the approach has merit.

Sadly, Amazon, Netflix, and the grocery store understand us better than some of the people we love.

Yesterday, Hubs handed me a nifty level that has a ruler on one side and a magnet on the other. He was sure I'd want it. Wrong. I admire its utility, but it speaks to me of DIY projects I'd like to leave on the back burner for another decade. Luckily, he found my rejection of his gift funny, and we laughed about it.

A not-so-happy memory centers around a former co-worker-- she of the great shoes, sleek pencil skirts, and chunky jewelry in silver and bronze. My co-worker showed me the gift her husband gave her for their anniversary. It was a necklace of tiny stones fashioned into delicate forget-me-knots—the flower that had decorated their long-ago wedding invitation.  "He took the invitation to a jeweler. It was thoughtful, I know, but does this necklace look like me?"

It may have looked like her twenty-two-year-old self, but did it resemble her at forty-two? Not even close. I didn't say that, but she knew what I was thinking.

Eventually, my co-worker and her husband divorced for many reasons. The catalyst for their break-up wasn't a gift she didn't like but one that convinced her the giver didn't understand that her taste, confidence level, and way of presenting herself had shifted 180 degrees.

An Amazon-like algorithm would have tracked those changes. A husband better attuned to her would have too, but we all know good, thoughtful men who need help keeping tabs on the interests and enthusiasms of the women in their lives.

A guy friend was so sure of his place in his new love's world, he dropped off his birthday present to her at an after-work drinks party thrown by her girlfriends.

"She didn't like the gift," he told me the next day.

I was afraid to ask. "What was it?"

"A Mister Coffee."

One look at my face and he got defensive. "The top-of-the-line Mister Coffee!"

"It's not about the money!" I took the side of the unknown-to-me woman who'd undoubtedly told her girlfriends about the hot but sensitive new guy in her life--and then, in front of them, opened his present of a small kitchen appliance.

Is there an algorithm that would have forced a man who'd been married twenty years to see his wife for the woman she'd become? Is there one for a guy who wants to show a woman he's fallen for her in a way that earns the approval of her girlfriends? If such an algorithm exists, could it be surgically implanted?

Does your significant other choose gifts that delight you and prove he/she gets you, or are you considering an algorithm implant?

While you're thinking, I give you Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes:

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Stranger in My Homeland

I just got back from a few days visiting my family in Pennsylvania and Delaware. I've lived in Houston for a long time--longer than I lived up north--and yet I always believed I was "bi-cultural." The rolling hills of the countryside of my childhood home still enchant me and the weather--sunny and cool--couldn't have been more perfect. I did, however, find myself a duck-out-of-water when I stopped by a country celebration on Sunday afternoon.

My sister lives in the township of Pocopson outside of Philadelphia. It's a small country community between the much more famous Chadds Ford (home of the Wyeth family) and and the world renown Longwood Gardens. Pocopson has no town, only a post office, and yet some of the farms date back to the 1700s. Sunday was the annual Founders' Day Celebration complete with music, pony rides, food, petting zoo, contests, booths selling local items, get the drift. This is the kind of slice-of-life event I love.

I stopped by on my way to visit my parents hoping to find some fun things to take to my mother. Sure enough, a local farm wife was selling little pumpkins and colorful gourds, and another booth offered honey and honey candy. I had my camera and as I moved from booth to booth purchasing their wares, donating to animal rescue organizations and admiring community projects, I took pictures. It wasn't until I got to the last table lined with raffle baskets and tried to engaged the young woman in conversation that I realized I was no longer a Yankee. My friendly questions made her uncomfortable and she wanted me to buy my tickets and go my way. I couldn't help but be disappointed.

Unlike a Texas town fair, nobody asked me where I was from or how I found my way to their little bit of heaven. No one suggested I check out the petting zoo, try the hamburgers or told me the history of the township or its Founders. The few words required to accomplish a transaction ("I don't have any bags.") or a curt "Thanks" for a donation weren't meant to be rude, but I sorely missed the invitation to adopt one of the  puppies playing in a pen or just a "Hi, how are you?" that's the standard greeting everywhere in the South. It was a lovely celebration, I'm sure, and the locals certainly had a grand time. But I was an outsider, however, and sorely missed the warm and cheery welcome of the small towns of Texas.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Reading through Good Times and Bad

This post is about the authors whose books accompanied me through turning points, pulled me out of down times, and waltzed with me when things went well.

A post that promises to be long and winding deserves a soundtrack, don't you think? I give you the people of Open Books, a non-profit that promotes literacy and runs a bookstore in Chicago. They want to encourage those of us who've grown overfond of our e-readers to get out, browse the shelves, and pick up a print book. 

(Feel free to bust a move as you read on.) Earlier this month, Patricia Rickrode, who writes as Jansen Schmidt, gave me the Booker Award (not to be confused with the Man Booker Prize, ha!). Patricia also threw down a challenge: name my five favorite books and nominate three other bloggers for the award.

No way could I narrow down my favorite books to five, so I'm doing what Patricia did: naming influential authors. Each of my five taught me something/gave me something I needed at a particular point in my life. Just as a certain scarf, scent, or piece of jewelry evokes a particular time and place for me, so do these writers.

Mary Stewart – I must have been fourteen or fifteen when I discovered Mary Stewart and THE MOON SPINNERS. The windmill on the cover and exotic setting of Crete hooked me. Most of all, I remember a scene in which the hero and heroine drag themselves from the water. The heroine was wearing a bathing suit, but when she and the hero embraced, she thinks, "We might as well have been naked." That sentence switched on my sexuality. One minute I was a kid, and the next, I wasn't. While I loved THIS ROUGH MAGIC and AIRS ABOVE THE GROUND, and MY BROTHER MICHAEL, THE MOON SPINNERS was my first Stewart and is unforgettable because it opened me to possibility. An ordinary (although lovely and plucky) woman could stumble into and get herself out of danger--while falling in love. Stewart's settings also gave me a permanent hunger for travel.

Maeve Binchy – I'd been an English major in college, which meant I read so much literary fiction, I forgot why I liked to read. My mother passed along Maeve Binchy's first book, LIGHT A PENNY CANDLE, published thirty-two years ago. Binchy pulled me out of my mired-in-first-job funk and reminded me why I enjoy slipping into the lives of others and experiencing their problems, adventures, and triumphs. Binchy's books would accompany me through motherhood, two careers, and inspire me to write fiction.

Nora Roberts – I was a mom, working at a job that valued repartee, cynicism, and zeal for working long hours. Alas, I'm lousy at repartee, passed skepticism but failed at cynicism, and was wracked with guilt over the hours spent away from my family. Enter Nora Roberts. The first novel I read might have been SACRED SINS in 1987. Her stories offered escape, a fast pace, and lean prose—all appreciated by a working mom with little free time.

Susan Elizabeth Phillips – HEAVEN, TEXAS wasn't Susan Elizabeth Phillips' first book but was the first of hers I read. It was released in paperback in April, 1995, the month and year my then-employer, The Houston Post, printed its last newspaper. If one finds herself in unemployment hell, a feel-good story is as necessary as food and water. SEP came through for me again eleven years ago this week. After the Twin Towers fell, I turned to THIS HEART OF MINE. The story's heroine is a children's book author, and I clung to Daphne the Bunny and Benny the Badger as much as I leaned on the church-camp-turned-B&B setting with its pastel cottages and water views. This book was an emotional refuge for me, and I'm not exaggerating when I say I'd finish it one evening and re-start it the next.

My choice for writer number five is many writers. During Houston's hot, humid summers, I count on British and Irish writers for relief. Why? Cool, rainy settings refresh me when my front lawn is so dry it crackles. When the temps are in the nineties, I want books from Marian Keyes, Lucy Dillon, Maggie O'Farrell, Jojo Moyes, Marcia Willett, and the list goes on and on.

I haven't singled out favorite Houston-based writers, favorite writers I know personally, or favorite writers I've taken classes from because it's so hard to pick and choose from those groups, I didn't try.

The Booker Award  goes to the following bloggers: Lark Haward of THIS blog, Kay Hudson, and Karen McFarland. It never expires, so there's no pressure to post about it anytime soon.

Readers, your turn. What writer or book provided inpiration, comfort, or a kick in the pants at a particular point in your life?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


Last evening I drove with three writer friends, Sarah Andre, Jo Anne Banker and Kay Hudson to the release party for Shana Galen’s WHEN YOU GIVE A DUKE A DIAMOND. Hosted by Katy Budget Books, it was a wonderful event with champagne, cake, chocolate dipped strawberries and goodie bags filled with signed historical paperbacks, booksmarks, “real” diamond rings, body jewels and chocolate. 

I wish I could say we arrived promptly at 6:00 when Shana began her talk, but we didn’t get there until well into the Q&A. Given we’d driven an hour and a half in rush hour traffic, our tardiness was forgiven. Why, you may ask, did we drive that far and that long on a Monday night for a book signing? Because that’s what friends do. And many of the writers I’ve met through my local RWA chapters are indeed my friends.

And we weren’t the only chapter members to show up. Sophie Jordan, Ana Walker and Nicole Flockton were also there. After the signing, Sarah, Jo Anne and I took Kay out to dinner for her birthday. Sometime in the evening we remarked that if it wasn’t for writing and RWA, the four of us would never have crossed paths, and yet we’re sharing a journey non-writers find it hard to understand. Who in her right mind spends thousands of hours, years of her life in front of a keyboard pouring her heart and soul into a stories that may never be published? Yup, we do. Who subjects themselves to harsh criticism by contest judges, agents, editors and, if we’re lucky enough to get published, reviewers in pursuit of a career? We do.

Family and civilian friends support us, but after a couple of years with no books out on the shelves, they wonder if we’re crazy, lazy or delusional about our writing ability. Our writer friends understand the piles of rejections, the early manuscripts tucked under beds, the disappointment when our agent can’t sell a story we both love. They also share the triumphs of a contest win, a “full” request, an offer of representation from an agent, a book contract, and the release of a new book and a new series. One writer friend, Pat O'Dea Rosen, even agreed to be a part of this blog! 

My writer friends and I would never have met in our real lives for a thousand different reasons (age, geography, work, lifestyle, just to name a few) and yet they have become some of the most meaningful relationships in my life. In no other profession have I experienced the generosity, the willingness to help a newcomer along, the encouragement and empathy I have with these women. To all my writer friends I say—Thank you! You’re the best!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Life Lessons Learned from Reality Cooking Shows

1. Certain cooked meats have to "rest" before being carved so they retain their juices and complete the cooking process away from the heat. Many projects--writing among them--need time to cool before they're sent out into the world,

2. Mise en place saves steps and eliminates a lot of cursing. Pro cooks and smart amateurs gather all the ingredients they'll use before they start to prepare a dish. Wouldn't we all cut our frustration levels if we made sure we had what we needed before we started something? Don't you hate running to the supermarket/office-supply store/hardware store in the middle of a task. (Remind me to make sure I've got a spare ink cartridge.)

3. A good chef's knife eliminates the need for lots of fancy gadgets. When my garlic press fell apart, I learned to smash a peeled clove with the side of the knife. With a decent knife, I'm a human mini-chopper—and don't have to take apart a device to clean it. The life lesson? Instead of pining for the latest software and a lightning fast laptop, let's remember that basic tools, brainpower, and effort are all we need.

4. Successful and confident chefs are less likely to sabotage their competitors. So it is in the workplace. The colleague who claims credit for your ideas, damns you with faint praise, and is quick to throw you under the bus is your inferior, not your equal.

5. The best chefs take risks. They innovate instead of always relying on tried-and-true recipes and techniques. That lesson is tailor-made for writers, teachers, carpenters, and others.

6.  No matter how skilled the chef, eventually, s&!+ will hit the kitchen fan. The oven will conk out, fish will spoil ahead of schedule, and someone won't watch the grill. The best chefs (writers, teachers, carpenters, and others) adapt and keep going.

Have you learned any lessons from reality TV?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


I’m very excited that two of my favorite authors have releases this week.

Shana Galen’s historical romance WHEN YOU GIVE A DUKE A DIAMOND,  the first in her new Jewels of the Ton series. Shana’s books are always face-paced and original, and her characters never fail to be compelling. I also find her subtle wit especially entertaining. Can’t wait to read this one. Here’s the cover blurb:

William, the sixth Duke of Pelham, enjoys his punctual. securely structured life. Orderly and predictable—that's the way he likes it. But he's in the public eye, and the scandal sheets will make up anything to sell papers. When the gossips link him to Juliette, one of the most beautiful and celebrated courtesans in London, chaos doesn't begin to describe what happens next...

Juliette is nicknamed the Duchess of Dalliance, and has the cream of the nobility at her beck and call. It's seriously disruptive to have the duke who's the biggest catch on the Marriage Mart scaring her other suitors away. Then she discovers William's darkest secret and decides what he needs in his life is the kind of excitement only she can provide...


The second book is RELENTLESS PROTECTOR by master of romantic suspense, Colleen Thompson.  Colleen’s books take the writing advice “Torture your hero early and often” to a whole new level. Her books always keep me on the edge of my seat until the very end. Here’s the blurb:

Former army ranger Cole Sawyer reacts on instinct when he sees beautiful young widow Lisa Meador pull a gun at the bank. He foils the robbery, but when Lisa screams as the real robbers take off with her son, he realizes that things aren't what they seem. Driven by a painful secret, Cole makes the split-second decision to join forces with Lisa and trail the criminals across Texas.

Haunted by his failure to save Lisa's husband in Afghanistan, Cole is determined to help her rescue her son. But he's even more determined not to give in to his growing attraction to her. As they untangle clues and face the potentially devastating loss of their quarry, they soon realize that the kidnappers' motives run deeper—and darker—than they ever expected.…

Both of these authors will be signing at West Houston RWA this Saturday and Katy Budget Books is throwing a huge release party for Shana's new series! 

Can't wait to dive into these stories! Are there any new releases you want to recommend?