Friday, August 10, 2012

Out to Play's Moving Day

Hi! I'm happy you have found me.  Please join me at my new blog address, here.  Come on over! I hope you like what you see.

Thank you to all who have supported me in my blog endeavor.  A special thank you to my "followers."  I'd be honored if you would continue to follow me at my new venue.
Happy reading!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Prepared or Unprepared?


      My 8th grade English teacher, Mr. Williams, took attendance by barking our last names, then asking, "prepared or unprepared?"  You were to answer "prepared" if you had done last night's homework, or studied the topic at hand, or completed a project.  All others were to answer, "unprepared."


      I was 1) a nerd and 2) really afraid of Mr. Williams, so I always answered "prepared."  The kids who were brave enough to answer "unprepared" were met with his steely glare, but then he would nod and move along to the next name.  The worst was if you said prepared, but were later outed as unprepared.  He had no tolerance for that, and vengeance was swift.  No one left that class with any doubt that honesty is the best policy.


      When my kids got off the bus on the last day of school, I was excited for summer. I was prepared.  We had camps lined up, outings planned, berries to pick, and swim lessons to enjoy.  Summertime and the livin' is easy was playing in a loop in my brain.


     It took just a few days of heat, humidity, and togetherness to change that tune to Crazy Train.  One moment, the kids are bickering like cranky old men, and the next they are cheering as both sets of ears hear the ice cream truck.  Parenting in the summer can be blissful and frenetic, all in the same day.  A few weeks in, I'm finally willing to admit: I was unprepared.  Unprepared for the incredible longing I feel for a moment alone.  Unprepared to play so many games of Battleship, all in a row.  Unprepared to just let go and see where the day takes us.


      Maybe that's the best way to approach summer.  With a little less structure and a little more flow.  A little more ice cream for lunch and a little less schedule.  That way, when the natives get restless, I can get restless right along with them, and set off for an adventure that no one prepared for, just for the fun of seeing what happens.


    Sorry, Mr. Williams, but when it comes to parenthood, my answer is: unprepared!
      

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Critique Groups - a gem in the writer's arsenal

    
       I'm feeling very grateful to NESCBWI (the New England chapter of The Society of Children's Books Writers and Illustrators) for their commitment to helping new writers get plugged in to local critique groups.  It was through this channel that about a year and a half ago I walked on shaky knees into a meeting of other children's book authors.  I remember clutching my notebook like it was my mom's hand and I was headed to my first day at Kindergarten.  And just like school, I was greeted by smiling people who have turned into wonderful friends and teachers.


      One of the most important things you can do to improve your writing is to take the scary step of reading it aloud to other people, with the hope that they will tear it apart and tell you what's wrong with it!  If you have taken this step:  bravo for brave you!  A critique group is ideally friendly, as mine is, but not so friendly that they are not going to steer you away from dangerous cliffs, such as confusing dialogue or repetitive adjectives.   The most helpful comments are usually "gently ruthless."


      Author Marion Roach Smith, in her slim but powerful book The Memoir Project, A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing and Life, recommends you try to find a place between "nastiness" and "uber-kindness," as the former doesn't move you forward, and the latter "kills excellent writing."
      She also cautions against turning to family members for feedback, as "...gratuitous support begins at home, where reading your work to someone who depends on you for food, shelter, or sex can garner only one response: 'Nice,' or worst of all, 'Neat!'"



      Trust me, you really don't want people to tell you your first draft is "great!"  So, take the plunge.  Seek out some people who don't care what you made for dinner, but do care about helping you elevate your work.  If you are looking for a critique group, you often have to look no further than Google to hit on some good online support.  I prefer the face-to-face kind, because so much of what is being communicated can be picked up through someone's tone of voice or flicker in their eyes.  It's not always what you want to hear, but it usually is what you need to hear.  


     You might get as lucky as me, and a few years later, find yourself sitting around a cozy farmhouse kitchen table, surrounded by a fantastic group of talented pre-published writers (and one published author, sharing her beacon of light and hope!), swirling a glass of wine and thinking, "so this is what it feels like to realize a dream!"



Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Ethnic Stew



xenophile  (ˈzɛnəˌfaɪl) 

(n): a person who likes foreigners or all things foreign

     I've got a real thing for the people, foods, and customs of cultures different from my own.  Even though I could have been the kid sister of Beaver Cleaver, I was not sheltered from the global world.  Foreign exchange students, graduate students from other countries passing through on their way to higher study, and foreign business associates of my father's frequently stayed with us (or at least came to dinner).  
     I learned early on, thanks to my mom's adventurous cooking, to appreciate foods that delighted my tongue with unique and new tastes.  I remember her rolling her own egg rolls, and flattening and frying chapatis to serve with Indian food cooked for a birthday feast.  What a lucky child I was. 
     I'm an even luckier grown up, to have married a man who brings such rich culture to our pairing.  As I like to say to him, "you had me at samosa."   Thanks to my German mother-in-law and Indian father-in-law, our children are exposed to people and places well beyond what I saw at my dining room table, and that excites me.  
     I'm happy to say that it seems that publishers of picture books are beginning to broaden their depiction of our global world, as well.  However, there is a lot of room for growth.   In a recent article, (Diversity:  Everybody in the Pool! - SCBWI Bulletin May/June 2012), author Suzanne Morgan Williams points out that "more than 90 percent of children's/YA books published in the US in 2010 were by white authors and illustrators, and about white protagonists."
     I can name a few books with diverse voices from when I was young, including Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel, and of course the controversial Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman.  (We cringe now at the political incorrectness, and apparently Helen does too, as she has rewritten the story as The Boy and The Tigers).  All I remember was being fascinated by that pool of butter.   
     For my own children, there were many more choices.  Some of their favorite books that included diverse cultures were:


 Something Special, by Nicola Moon
and Yum, Yum Dim Sum by Amy Wilson Sanger
and Bee-Bim Bop by Linda Sue Park.

My most recent favorite is Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji, by F. Zia.  
     "Dada" is the Hindi word for grandfather, and Dadaji is the name my children call their own paternal grandfather.  It was a thrill to come across this book and to be able to give it as a gift to my young nephew, who will never know there was a time where it would have been difficult to find a title like this.  Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji tells the story of visiting grandparents and how they share their heritage through play.  It is a story of an Indian family, but it has universal appeal.  
     I'd like to see even more blending of cultures in books for young children, for kids like my 8-year-old son (1/4 Indian, 1/4 German, 1/2 Swiss/English, and a few other things...) who still struggles with his ethnic identity.  
    "Am I black?" he asked after a day at the pool when another child had commented on his skin color.
    "Is the reason I'm so good with my bow and arrow because I'm Indian?"  (Kid logic - I love it!).  
      I answer these questions imperfectly, usually starting with, "what do you think?"  Then I go into my extended rant about what a wonderful blend of loving people he is, and when we mixed it all together, look what we got!
     Suzanne Morgan Williams says, "Having a broader ethnic/racial base of published authors and illustrators as well as characters will benefit us all."
     I agree with that, and would add that the xenophile June Cleavers of this world might have something to add as well.  At least I know I have the food part of my research down pat.  In fact, I think I'll go research some Phở ([fɤ˧˩˧] right now.  Slurp!


     
     

Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Mom Network

      
        It took me about a minute after hearing my sister-in-law's phone message to take action.  I needed a moment to process what she was saying, and to get my head around the changes it would make to my day.  You see, she was experiencing the "perfect storm" of the working mom:  your child is sick on a day that both you and your husband absolutely, positively, cannot stay home.  Where do you turn?
       Some of the most stressful memories of my early parenting days revolve around this very dilemma.  We didn't live near any family; not the ones you could turn to when your child is sick.  My husband, Raj, was mired in surgical residency.  Every sick day fell on me to figure out. 
       As irony (or fate?) would have it, in the days just prior to my sister-in-law's call, I had been working on my memoir of the time Raj was a resident, and had just finished revising the chapter on balancing kids with work.  I had just been looking at these words: 

When my kids are sick, which is always, I long for that kind of family involvement [I’m referring here to having parents or siblings nearby].  I have many wonderful friends, but most of them have their own kids and don’t want to share our germs, or they work themselves.  There is no substitute for family when things get ugly.
“Thank goodness my mom could watch my son today,” says a co-worker one day.  “He has a fever, so there was no way I could leave him at daycare.”
          A big green wave of jealousy washes over me.  I wish I had that kind of back up.  I need that kind of back up... I end up taking the kids to daycare even when it would be better to keep them home.  Unless they have a fever, or pus coming out of their eye, they go.  They spend their days sharing snotty, drooled on toys with other kids whose parents need them to be there, too.  The day care rooms sound like TB wards, little babies with chronic coughs, hacking away, germs flying.   

          So when I heard the words, "I wouldn't ask you if I didn't really need your help," I was happy to spring into action.  Finally, after all those times that I was the one scrambling, I was going to be able to be the one to help!  It was a wonderful feeling.  But the Mom Network didn't stop there.  With me an hour away, I would need someone to watch my own kids at the end of the school day.  So I reached out to another mom, my neighbor and friend who understands and always says, "yes" whenever I ask for help.  We need these people in our lives.  It's what makes the Mom Network so powerful.  Then, when her own son came home sick from school, my other sister-in-law stepped in to take the post.  It was a round-robin of care, the kind of "village" pulling together that we need to have more of in this world.  
        Needless to say, my day did not go as planned.  I had to cancel and reschedule some appointments.  I didn't get any writing done.  But I did something so much more important than anything I had previously scheduled:  I spent the day with a little man I love, holding him quietly and letting his little body rest and fight the illness that he technically could have taken to daycare and shared (i.e. no fever, the daycare deal-breaker!).  It was really special to have that time with him.  The best part was, I was finally paying into the network that I've withdrawn from so many times.  
      So, today, I'm feeling grateful for the Mom Network.  Sometimes you give, sometimes you take, and I don't know where I'd be without it!  For all who need help:  hang in there - we've got your back!  For all who've helped:  THANK YOU!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Unique Voices




   
     Two of my favorite recent middle grade reads feature main characters with unique outlooks on life.  
     In Wonder, by RJ Palachio, we meet August Pullman, who is navigating life from behind the mask of severe cranio-facial abnormalities.
     In Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine, we're introduced to a Caitlin, a fiesty young girl with Asperger's Syndrome who is dealing with a tragic loss.  
     I appreciate both of these characters for their unique voices, and for bringing awareness and sensitivity to people living with conditions that are challenging, but enriching at the same time.
     Immediately after I finished Mockingbird, I began asking my friends who are parenting children with Asperger's Syndrome if they had read the book (none have yet).  I'm always so curious to know, did the author get this right?  The stories resonated with me, but I'm not there, on the front lines, entrenched in the day-to-day world of Apserger's Syndrome.  In fact, one of my friends had to point out (and has been so patient in trying to explain this to me) that her son actually has PDD-NOS, which is on the same "end" of the Autism Spectrum as Asperger's, but is in fact a different diagnosis altogether. 
     I would love to explore a character with unique challenges, but I have a great fear that I would "get it wrong" and offend the very people I was trying to illuminate.  In fact, I often feel like I'm "getting it wrong" in my everyday life as well.  
     That is why I really appreciated a recent article by Maria Lin:  7 Things You Don't Know about a Special Needs Parent.  I'm always trying to "know better and do better" by my friends who are parenting kids with special needs.  Even as write these words I'm thinking, "is that the way I'm supposed to say it?" I want to be helpful and encouraging, but a lot of the time I feel like a bumbling idiot. 
     "Your daughter didn't want to do the swim lesson?" I asked a woman sitting next to me on the pool sidelines.  Her daughter, playing nearby, looked close to my son's age, and there was plenty of room in the class.  
     "She'd love to," was the answer, "but they don't have the capacity to deal with her specifically."
     Blank stare; I'm not getting it.
     "She's blind."
     Panic-panic-panic- don't say anything stupid!
    I'm not exactly sure what my response was (I think I asked something like, "Are there other opportunities for her to swim if she wants to?").  I must not have screwed it up too badly, as I'm still friends with that woman today.  
     If I ever do write a main character with a disorder, syndrome, challenge, or special need, (again, wondering, which one is the 'right' word?) I hope I do them justice, highlighting the person they are and the uniqueness of their gifts.  It would be devastating to take on a job like that and screw it up.  
     I also hope I can do better in my everyday life.   In fact, in response to Ms.  Lin, here are:

9 Things Parents of Special Needs Kids Should Know About Me:
     
1.  I am ignorant.  I don't mean to be, I just am!  From the minute you got your child's diagnosis, you have probably spent hours reading everything ever written about their particular condition.  You have become an expert, while I have maybe heard of, or read a few magazine articles on, the topic.  I want to learn - please be patient and tell me what I need to know.  In the meantime....

2.  I am sorry!  I do not mean to offend you, ever.  But it happens.  I know first hand that it does. I say things that are insensitive, I stumble over my words, I stare too long, or I don't look closely enough.  Even when I'm honestly trying to be sensitive, I don't always do my best (see #1).  So, for the record, I'd like to say, "I'm sorry!"

3.  I am honored when you let me help with your child.  This is a big deal.  It means you trust me to do a really important and difficult thing.  I want to give you a break, and spending time with your child is probably the best education I can get.  So, thank you for sharing; it means a lot!

4.  I'm an idiot. (See #1 and #2).  Sometimes I complain about my typically developing kids in front of you, because as a mom, that's what I do.  You are my mom friend, and I forget that what I'm complaining about could be the very behavior you wish your child was able to exhibit.  (#2!)

5.  I think about you.  Even when I don't have the courage or time to call, please know I am thinking about you.  I am sending you prayers, good wishes, and positive vibes.  You're on my mind when I'm having bad days, and when I'm having good days.  I don't forget about your daily struggles, but I could definitely do a better job expressing it.

6.  I am impressed by you.  You are a dedicated, passionate advocate!  I admire your strength and determination.  I watch you going the extra mile for your child, again and again, and I learn how to be a better parent myself.  You rock!

7.  I want your child to succeed.  When you celebrate your child's milestones, I am cheering right alongside you!  I hope the best for your child, and I want to live in a world where they are accepted and cherished for who they are.  

8.  I want my kids to be friends with your kid.  Your child enriches my child's life.  Period.  Thank you for spending time with us, so my children won't be as (#1) as me when they grow up.

9.  I need to do better by you.  Thank you for informing me, educating me, and being patient with me.  I will try to be less boneheaded and more sensitive.  I need to be better about helping you on this journey:  you and your child deserve my best efforts!

Friends, please feel free to comment here or in person if I ever need to be "set right."  I want to learn!


Thursday, May 17, 2012

Book Bravo: One For the Murphys

                             
       We've all been there.  You can tell the moment you answer the door that this person is there to sell you something.  Usually magazines.  Sometimes new windows.  Or the deal of a lifetime on a lawn care system.  Almost always, I'm pretty militant about sending them on their way.  I don't even open the door, just shout a hearty, "NOT INTERESTED, THANK YOU!" and watch them fumble with their pamphlets as I move back into the safety of my house.
        But today was different.  For one thing, I was outside, weeding.  Nowhere to hide.  For another thing, the woman who approached me (for the record, yes - she was selling magazines) started with her life story instead of her sales pitch.  Or maybe that was her sales pitch.  Who knows.  But whatever it was, today was different.


        "I never thought I'd be going door to door," she told me, after introducing herself.  She said she was in a job training program through a nationwide organization (that much, I later confirmed, was legit).  
        "I'm working hard to finish this program and prove to the state that I am stable enough to get my kids back."  Uh-huh, okay, what are you selling, and how much is it going to cost me? Still, there was something in her eyes.  She looked so tired.  I stood up, brushed off my knees, and moved toward her.  Maybe her story was real, maybe not.  Without a door to shut between us, I figured the least I could do was make eye contact with her.
     
        Then she seemed to deviate from her script.  She told me she had recently been hospitalized after being beaten by her long-time boyfriend.  She kicks herself for not listening to her 12-year-old daughter who begged her to leave him.  And she was working hard to get her life in order so that she could get her kids out of the foster care system, where they'd been ever since the beating.

        This is where the hairs on my arms and neck stood up.  Sadly, I know this is not an uncommon story. However, the particular familiarity of it was freaking me out.  I felt like one of the characters in Lynda Mulally Hunt's newly published One For the Murphys (Penguin/Nancy Paulsen Books) was standing in my driveway and talking to me.  
         Here is an overview of the story (From Barnes and Noble, One For the Murphys):
        "A moving debut novel about a foster child learning to open her heart to a family's love.  Carley uses humor and street smarts to keep her emotional walls high and thick. But the day she becomes a foster child, and moves in with the Murphys, she's blindsided. This loving, bustling family shows Carley the stable family life she never thought existed, and she feels like an alien in their cookie-cutter-perfect household. Despite her resistance, the Murphys eventually show her what it feels like to belong—until her mother wants her back and Carley has to decide where and how to live. She's not really a Murphy, but the gifts they've given her have opened up a new future."
        So yeah, my hair stood on end.  The book moved me, and I haven't stopped thinking about it's story and message.  In the story, Carley learns that you can lean on good people to help you in a bad situation.  Something about the similarity between Mullaly Hunt's tale and the one this woman was sharing with me made me listen to her, instead of brushing her off.  Maybe I'm a schmuck.  But just in case, when I went inside for my checkbook, I also picked up a signed copy of the book I had gotten at a recent Wellesley Books event.  I gave it to the woman, and wrote her daughter's name inside.  When I explained the premise of the book, the woman said she couldn't imagine how her daughter would feel reading it, knowing she is not alone.  
        Then she said, "I wish I had had a book like this, when I was young.  My brothers went to Gramma's, but I was too little, and went to foster care."  How would her life have been different if she'd had Gilly Hopkins (from Katherine Paterson's The Great Gilly Hopkins) as a childhood companion?  
        So maybe I'm a shmuck.  Or maybe there is a little girl out there who is hurting, scared, and confused, and will be able to read One for the Murphys and know she is not alone, and that good, caring people do exist, and sometimes they are all you need to get by.  
        Well done to Lynda Mulally Hunt for the perfectly paced writing in this fantastic novel.  The characters are real, flawed, and quirky, just like you and me.  I highly recommend this book for girls age 9-13, or anyone who loves a good hero story.  You will be enlightened and enriched.  


Monday, May 14, 2012

The Oatmeal Diaries


     Navigating mornings can be difficult when you have children.   This I knew.  For years, my mom friends and I have shared morning battle stories.  Parenting magazines love to publish "smooth our your morning routine" articles, with names like:  Ten tips to get organized and get going! 

     This is all old news to me.  I've done the organizing, I've got the routine down pat.  I thought I'd planned for every morning contingency, and that I could control the temperament of my home by having snacks and water packed the night before.  
     But that was before the oatmeal wars.

     Pre-teen angst has seeped into my well-laid plans.  Gulping, sobbing tears, and angry words over the status of a bowl of oatmeal have ambushed me and left me dazed and wounded.  After the school bus pulls away ("All hail the big yellow bus!")  I return to the kitchen to assess the damage. It looks like 5 grown men have just blown through the house, not two small children.  

     In desperation, I decide I need to go up the ranks for reinforcements.  I turn to my wise, name-sake aunt, who gives me this sage advice:

...don't change the oatmeal, as you can't win!  And mainly looking at it all these years later, I'd say, "relax and chuckle to yourself - and be glad you are not still that age! 

...All the old adages probably apply - like: pick your battles carefully - think before you act - do express your honest emotion - let her know you love HER, just NOT that behavior - beauty is as beauty does - etc.  

 She even shared some advice from the General, my gramma:

...I still remember Elvie saying to me - "Nancy, we are your family, the ones that love you more than anybody.  You are nice to all your friends, but we are the ones you should be nicest to!"  

     So, the oatmeal war rages on.  And every time I'm about to lose my temper, I say to myself, "It's not about the oatmeal!"

     Funny, I find myself saying that not just in the morning, but all. day. long.

     Best of  luck to all you out there battling your own morning wars.  Remember:  "It's not about the oatmeal!"
     

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Letting Go

     Letting go is not my strong suit.  For example, I'm still driving the first car I bought with my own money.  Now, I'm not a car person.  I never have been.  The main thing I like about my current car is that it starts every time, and fills up for about $30 a gallon, (something I do every three weeks or so). So, we've got a low-maintenance synergy thing going on, and it's been working.




     But lately...I've been wondering.  What do heated leather seats feel like?  How would it be to not fret every time it snows?  Is it time to sign the Do Not Resuscitate order?
     "Mom, your car smells funny," says my daughter one day (as she was eating and dropping popcorn in equal amounts in the back seat).  
     "I know," I say, "but it's the car I brought you home from the hospital in!"




     "Mom, your car is so small," says my son, complaining that I cannot take his friend home with us from a birthday party.
     "I know," I say, "but we can fit into almost any parking spot!"


     The fact that money does not grow on trees aside, I wonder why I'm so attached to this little, smelly vehicle.  
     I wonder the same thing about a little picture book manuscript that has been traveling around with me for two years.  After it's 12th revision and 5th rejection, it's starting to get a little smelly.  


     "Not everything gets published," says one of my critique group members.
     I know, but it's the story that started me on this path, I think.
     "Maybe you could re-work this for a parent's magazine," says an editor.
     I know, but if I could just (grunt) make it (grunt) fit (grunt) here, I think.


     I know there is a difference between giving up and letting go.  But I worry: if I let go of this manuscript, am I giving up on my dream?  And if I let go of this old car, am I giving up my link to the younger me, that part of my life that could still be called 'new' (new job, new mother, new wife)...?  


     Maybe I'll take that manuscript out for just one more spin before I admit to myself that the silence I'm hearing is the "click" of an ignition failure.  If I can get past this, I bet I'll love those leather seats!






    
     

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Idea Machine


       It's National Picture Book Writing Week!  NaPiBoWriWee was created by Paula Yoo four years ago as a way to motivate herself and to help market a new book she had coming out.  The concept is to challenge yourself to write 7 picture books in 7 days.  You "sign up" by visiting Paula's blog and sharing comments with others who have committed to being productive this week.  This is NOT about writing a polished, publishable manuscript.  That would be impossible.  What's encouraged is to try to get seven manuscripts down onto the page; ideas you can then spend the rest of the year revising and polishing.  So far I'm "one for one," and am looking forward to seeing what happens on days 2-7!
       I met a woman a few years ago who had an idea for a picture book but never wrote it down.  When I asked her why, she said frankly that it was because she was afraid this was her one and only idea, and she was nervous that once she let this one idea go, (by writing it down), she'd be lost.




       What I have found, however, is the more time I allow myself to be creative, the more my brain gets 'in that mode' and starts cranking things out.  Sometimes I'd actually like to shut the idea machine off, so I can get a good night's rest, for example, or drive from point A to point B without having to speak into my voice recorder.  My nightstand used to be littered with scraps of paper, until I finally had the bright idea to just leave a notebook there.  Sometimes jotting down a few words will quiet the machine, sometimes I have to fully wake up and write for awhile before the brain settles down.  




       In preparation for NaPiBoWriWee, you can take notes, make outlines, and otherwise prepare for the task.  Last week, I sat down with a long thin piece of scrap paper and before I even had a chance to filter them, four topics spilled onto the page.  I've been so focused on revision lately that I didn't realize how anxious my brain was to get those ideas out.  This week is like a little mini-vacation from what I consider the hardest work of writing (revision).  I'll enjoy allowing myself time to focus on the fun part - starting a story and letting the fingers fly!
       If you are reading this and you've always had an idea for a picture book, or any book, this is your time!  Use NaPiBoWriWee as an excuse to stop making excuses! Write it down! But be careful - you may wake up the idea machine.  Don't say I didn't warn you. 
     

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Mother-Daughter Battles





The Prickly Barnacle


You prickly, tickly barnacle
Clinging to me as you push away
Tearing my flesh as you flail about
Sending me on a windswept wave
Of confusion and frustration


You prickly, tickly barnacle
Let's rest here in this cove
You can hide in your crusty cave
And I'll protect your softness


You prickly, tickly barnacle
Scrape me all you want
We both know you couldn't live 
Without me


Relax, you little barnacle
Nature's strongest adhesive
A mother's love
Will never let you go

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Road to Publication


     For years,  I was that person at the cocktail party (or in my case, backyard barbecue), saying "I'm going to write a book someday."  I let that dream percolate on the back burner so long, it almost got lost among the diapers and therapy reports and tax documents of life.  It sat and sat and sat, patiently waiting.
    How ironic, then, that as soon as I turned my attention to my dream in full, I expected it to come true pretty much immediately.   Actually, I thought I had a fairly good idea of the hard work it would take.  I wasn't completely naive, but in hindsight my thought process was as simple as:  Poof!  Book written.  Poof! Book published. 
     After an initial period of discouragement, I began to embrace the process of educating myself.   The more I learn, the more I realize how unrealistic my expectations were.  However, far from being a "dead end,"  the journey of finding my way has become a very fun and pleasant walk down "Hope Lane."  
     One of the best things I've done, and encourage all others who aspire to write books for children to do, is join the Society of Children's Books Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).  This is a group of people, led by industry professionals, that exists to help educate, encourage, and celebrate children's authors.  Through my membership, I was able to connect with a local critique group.  Once a month, I make a happy stop on "Hope Ln." and get together with other children's writers and enjoy getting and giving feedback on our work. 
     The SCBWI also runs fantastic conferences.  In two days, I'll be heading to the NE (New England) SCBWI Spring conference in Springfield, MA.  Being together in one place with like-minded people can be inspiring.  It also reminds me how much I have to learn.  The encouragement/discouragement roller coaster is at it's most dramatic when I prepare for a conference.  Reading the "faculty" bios is like reading  a "who's who" in children's literature.  Doubt:  I will never have a list of book titles and publication dates after my name!  Hope:  Going to this conference is a positive step towards my goal.  
     I don't know how long Hope Lane is.  However, as long as I don't fall off the roller coaster, and I keep putting one word in front of the other,  I know it won't be a Dead End.
     
     

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Doing It All Wrong

 
     I've been noticing a lot of parallels between being a mom and being a writer.  First, you create these characters.  You get to pick out their names.  You have high hopes for them,  and you know pretty much the path you want them to go down.  You think they are perfect!  Then, kids (and characters) start having their own opinions.  Wait, what are you doing?  I often want to say, to both sets - my real 'characters', and the ones on the page.
    Before I gave myself permission to sit down and begin writing in earnest, I read over and over about authors who commented that their characters were 'in charge'.  Honestly, that never made sense to me.  Aren't you the one writing the words? I'd wonder.  However, as I spend increasingly more time in the land of character development, I realize that this generalization exists for a reason.  When I'm writing, I like to stare out the window while I think.  Sure enough, in those thoughtful moments, characters will change on me.  For example, it will occur to me that the guy who I thought was going to detest the new kid has a lot in common with her and might even kind of like her.  A lot of these ideas actually do "surprise" me.
     So, I'm sort of in control, but not really.  I find it's startlingly the same with my kids.  I set up parameters for food choices, amount of TV watching, and bedtimes.  I encourage (or discourage) friendships.  I think I'm doing most of the things I should be doing, then BAM! they lead themselves, and me, down a different path.
     I make a lot of mistakes in both writing and parenting.  Both jobs are fraught with the potential for error.  In the past three weeks I've gotten another rejection from an editor, and have (on separate occasions) made both of my kids cry.  The rejection was totally warranted; I had sent out a manuscript that was several revisions away from having any right to see the light of day.  With the kids, it was painful to know that something I said had hurt their little feelings.   Sometimes I feel so discouraged and wonder, am I doing any of this right?  
     Obviously, I'm not doing all of it right, but I do know I'm trying.  I model for my kids what it is to give a sincere apology.  I help them learn that no one is perfect (this lesson seems to be on auto repeat) and that everyone has room for growth.  On the writing side, I read, I talk to other writers, I go to conferences, and I work and work and work to shape the best stories I can. 
     I hope that once they leave my care, I'll have given my kids and my characters enough.  I want all of my "babies" to go out into the world and make it just a little bit better, on whatever level they can.  I want them to be 'good stories', ones that encourage others, or somehow lighten their loads.  I hope that all who meet them will accept their flaws.  Most of all, I hope they never forget that while it wasn't always perfect, they were born from a place of love and hope.


~~~~


P.S.  It helps to have a life partner who lifts you up when you're feeling that all you are doing is making mistakes. Here is an excerpt from my currently-being-revised memoir, S.O.S.:  Help! My Significant Other is a Surgeon!


     "I was such a bad mom today," I tell Raj later that night.
     "Why?" he asks, not believing me.
     "Well, for one thing, I left my sick kid with a sitter, then I fed her fast food for dinner, and I also let her watch way too much TV."  All three seemed like major transgressions to me, so far from where I thought I would be when I had previously imagined myself as a parent.
     "Look," Raj says to me, "did you smoke crack today?"
     "No! Of course not!"
     "Did you get drunk and pass out so that when your baby fell off the bed and hit the baseboard heater, you never woke up, and only realized hours later that the baby was screaming and had third degree burns?" he says, describing a scenario he had dealt with at work just that day.
     "No...."
     "Honey, you are not a bad mother."


~~~~






     

Friday, April 6, 2012

Mom, is the Easter Bunny Real?




      As a mom, I am faced with numerous questions every day.  Many are innocuous, such as the kind that start with "do you know where my...?"
     Then there is the easy to answer variety:


 "Can I have an air rifle?"
"No." 
"Can I watch Terminator?"
"No."
"Are you ever going to be normal like the other moms?" 
"No.  Wait - what do you mean by that?"
"You know, let us say words that only you think are bad, like stupid?"
"Oh, okay.  NO."


    Every once in awhile you get the big questions; the ones you wish you had a better answer to, or the ones you wish you would never have to answer at all:


"What's so good about Good Friday?"
"Why is that man smoking when you told us smoking can kill you?"
"When I'm a dad, will Grampy be able to play with my kids?"


     Even harder than these tough questions, for many parents, is the ultimate, unavoidable, inevitable line of questioning that sparks the beginning of the end of the wonder years:


     "Mom, are you the tooth fairy?"
     "Is the Easter Bunny real?"
     (and, panic rising in voice):  "Is Santa real?"


     My friend Holly recently dodged the tooth fairy bullet and wrote about it for Mamalode.com: A Fairy Weak Link. I wish, wish, wish I had read her article before I got the same question from my daughter, Kate.  About a month ago, I made the classic mistake of falling asleep before switching tooth for coin under Kate's pillow.  In the morning, Kate came into my room and said with indignation, "The tooth fairy never came last night!"
    In that dazed state of partial wakefulness, I took a full 30 seconds of plead-the-fifth silence, grasping at any plausible answer. I found none.  "Ummmm...." was all I could muster before Kate pressed on.  
     "I've been wondering for awhile now.  I mean, how come all the spoiled kids get $10 and $20 when all I ever get is a dollar coin? So, are the parents doing that?  It seems like it's you..." she let her voice fade off. 
     In that moment, she seemed so mature, so ready for what I was about to say.  The morning sun was glinting off her long hair, and the curve of her face just looked so, well, grown up, that I forgot the golden rule of parenting in the wonder years (DENY!) and said, "Okay.  Yes. It's me.  I fell asleep and forgot to do it last night. I'm sorry."
     The reaction wasn't pretty.
     "MOM!" Kate said, horrified, "I said I was WONDERING!" Then came the tears.  "Why did you tell me that??"
     So, for at least the 12th time this year, I rescinded my application for Mom of the Year.  I was able to do some backpedalling, based on notes the tooth fairy had written her that were not (NOT) in my handwriting, "Well...I don't know about those....maybe that part of her is real?" It was weak, but she seemed to buy it, and I realized she wanted to buy it. She wanted to still believe. I owed her these last days (months? years?) of believing.
      That is why I was primed and ready when Kate sat down with me on the couch a few days ago with a serious look on her face, and questions at the ready.  
     "Mom, I need to talk to you.   Do Jewish people celebrate Easter and Christmas?"
     "No, they have other holidays," I started, ready to make this into a mini lesson on world religions.
     "I know, I know, Passover, Hannukah," she said.  "What I need to know is, well, Haley (name changed to protect the not-so-innocent) just told me there is no Easter Bunny and no Santa Claus.  But Haley is Jewish, right?"
     I feel the knot in my stomach. Will this end in tears, like our last conversation, where I had dashed her beliefs and squashed her fairy wonder?  
    "Yes," I answered, carefully answering only what I was asked, "Haley is Jewish."
    "Well, good. Because how would she know the truth about the Easter Bunny and Santa?  She's never had them visit.  She doesn't know, but I know, they are real.  Santa and the Easter Bunny are real.  They're real, aren't they, mom?"
     The air hung between us for a split second, the wonder, the joy, the desire to believe practically visible as colors swirling around her like a thought bubble.
     I was not about to kill those two beautiful creatures, as I had the tooth fairy, so I said the thing I knew she wanted, and needed, to hear.
    "Yes," I said, without any doubt in my mind, "they are."  








   

Friday, March 30, 2012

Judge Dread

                              Judge me by my size, do you?


     Judging others.  We all know we're not supposed to do it.  I try, with varying degrees of success, not to judge other people; but have you ever gone a week without passing a judgement?  It's tricky!  So, imagine my delight when twice in the past year I have been asked to judge other people, on purpose, and in public!  Woo-hoo, I thought - this is going to be FUN!
     My first foray into the world of judging was delicious, literally.  I was at a church-sponsored blueberry festival in Blue Hill, ME.  This setting was as quaint as you are picturing.  Kids frolicking in a bounce house, blueberry crafts, blueberry smoothies, blueberry muffins, music, sunshine...and of course, a contest for "Best Blueberry Pie."  But there was a big problem.  The committee was short a person to judge the pies.  They had already asked several people, all of whom had politely declined. This is a very small town.  People are serious about their alliances, and about their blueberry pie.  No one wanted to get caught up in that kind of trouble.  However, being "from away," I was targeted and eagerly agreed to participate.
     I sat down with my co-judge and winked conspiratorially.  This was just for fun, right?  How hard could it be?  We eat some pie, and pick the one we like the best. Not quite. My co-judge leaned in and said, "this is how I do it," and he pulled out a spreadsheet of sorts.  It was a small scrap of paper with a numeric rubric, and I got a quick lesson in how to dissect and judge the proper pie:  Crust - dense or flaky?  Filling - runny or firm?  Taste - nutmeg or citrus?  I started to shift in my seat.  Oh, we're taking this seriously?  You betcha.  A small crowd formed as we took careful, small bites of several pieces of pie.  We ate, we rated, we revised, we re-tasted.  Since each one was delicious, how could I ever choose?  But slowly, with the rubric to guide us, a winner rose to the top.  I took several more bites, (you know, just to be fair. I wanted to be completely sure of my vote, after all).
      I came away unscathed from that experience, and was even thanked for taking my time and  judging so thoroughly. To that, I flashed a blue smile and piped, "anytime!"
     The winner of that pie contest walked away with bragging rights and a small ribbon, I recall.  But what about when there is money involved?  My second experience with being a judge is happening right now.  In the small(ish) town of Windsor, CT, there is a long-standing tradition called the Shad Derby.  What started as a fishing derby has grown into a months-long celebration, culminating in a parade and festival, and a coronation ball, where the "Shad Derby Queen" is named.  (I'm not making this up).
    Girls age 18-21 can compete for the coveted title, and accompanying scholarship money.  When a good friend asked if I would participate as a judge, I willingly agreed.  I knew there wouldn't be pie, but I'm always up for something new.  Why not? I thought.
     The first event was a very nice gala, with a cocktail hour followed by a program where each young woman competing gave a one minute introductory speech.  The other three judges and myself sat at a panel-style table facing them. "Like American Idol?" asked my daughter the next morning.  Yes, like that, but without the singing.  I was in awe of the poise of these young women as they took turns at the microphone, and realized with dread that judging people is nothing like judging pie.  This was going to be really hard.
     Things only got worse for me during the "interview night" where the young women again faced the panel of four judges, one at a time, to answer questions.  The more I got to know each person, the harder it was for me to judge them.  They are all darling, all active in their community, all stars in their respective school sports and activities.  All have good hearts and big, bright smiles.  I'm sure to some of them, the accompanying scholarship money would make a big impact on their plans for college.  Judge them?  How??
     Luckily, as with the blueberry pie, there is a scoring rubric.  As judges, at each event, we've entered numbers relating to various aspects of the candidate's performances as diligently as we could.  I'm told that somehow, when all the scores are tallied, it will all work out.  The right person will be named Shad Derby Queen, and her court of Princess Royale, First Princess, and Second Princess will be rightly named in turn.  I do not know who will "rise to the top", but two things I do know for sure:

1) She will be deserving, because in my mind, I think all of these bright young women are.
2) I am so glad my 18-year-old self isn't competing against them!

     What is amazing to me is how hard it has been to be an official judge, when it is equally difficult for me to not judge people in my everyday life.  This experience has taught me a valuable lesson:  even when you look down under the bottom crust, most pies, and people, are good and deserving of love.