The Meticulously Precise and Non-Magical Way to make Whiskey

I’m nearly finished writing another book.

This one won’t be published for the public though. It’s a technical manual.

I’d never done a technical manual before; therefore, this genre has been entirely new to me.

I was at one point reminded, Technically speaking, technical manuals do not fall into a “genre,” Shelley.

Disappointing news.

I was also at one point informed that my other skills of fiction writing were, although appreciated, inapplicable with this work.

“What do you mean?” I’d asked, halfway through the job.

Please do not allow the machinery to have any “dialogue.”

Hugely disappointing news.

In my mind, everything is conversing with anything beside it. Refrigerators hum, clocks tic, boats roar, trees creek, tea kettles whistle, grills hiss, frying pans spit, drains gurgle—I could go on.

There is conversation with their purpose, with their function, and it is our choice to tune in to hear it if we choose to do so—or maybe it’s just a special type of non-worrisome derangement those of us who practice anthropomorphizing inanimate objects experience every day.

So, okay, the mash tuns, the fermenters, the stills, and bottling equipment will not be engaged with any discourse. Fine.

Also, no need to “set the scene.”

Wait. What? No “Once upon a time”? No “In a galaxy far, far away”?

No.

No “Imagine if you can, a farm field in Virginia filled with rows of waving grain. Corn so tall, so yellow, so sweet. Wheat so soft, so feathery, so—”

No. Also, just list the manufacturer of each piece of equipment. No need to give colorful backstory that creates a uh … biography for them.

Damn.

But the still is an old copper Armagnac pot which surely, if you’d allow me to research, has the most fascinating history, connecting it to a village in Gascony, and likely to some illicit brandy making where people’s lives were at risk for defying the king’s orders and skirting around the excise men, right?

No. Louis XVI died in 1793. The still was made in 2006. Write that down.

No excise men?

*insert cold stare here

Fine. Hard facts only. It has been an arduous road to travel. It has been serial numbers, maintenance schedules, standard operating procedures, operator responsibilities, quality controls, ingredient specification sheets, safety protocol, system malfunction detection. It has been measurements, sampling data, testing methods, recording methodology, and out of the realm of tolerance identification.

No language describing the invention of any equipment, the trials and tribulations of the inventor, the recognition, the accolades, the race between rivals to patent first, to reach the market, to make a name and reap rewards.

No timeline of history, the tales of great machinery malfunction and mishaps that caused strife, or injury, or daresay … death.

Nope. Just operator files.

It’s ‘if blank, do blank.’ Or ‘when this, then this.’ It’s ‘measure now, record here.’

There’s no beginning, middle, or end.

It is not a story, not a narrative, no plot.

None of the machinery barely scrapes by, screeches to a halt, or belches out for attention.

The manual is meant to be informative. Concise. Crystal clear. It is meant to provide a “just in case” scenario for an event like a catastrophic pandemic wiping out all previous operators’ ability to fight through throngs of apocalyptic zombies to appear at the facility, allowing any stranger to eventually walk in off the street, discover the book and easily, effectively, and effortlessly pick up where we left off.

No, Shelley. It is meant to use as a teaching guide for new employees.

Yeah, that too, but my take could be plausible (I mumble quietly).

So, I study each piece of equipment. I learn its function. I define its specifications. I describe its purpose. It is thirsty work as I crawl around, beneath, above, and inside many of them. I watch them perform. I study their mechanisms. I research their optimal modes.

And I learn … they are still magical.

I learn it from listening to the operators as they describe their years of experience working with each station.

The grain will stubbornly clump and ball if you don’t chase it with the paddle in the cooker. It likes to hide right in that corner.

If you don’t clamp down the hose securely, the impellor pump turns into a raging snake that’ll spit hot mash on every square inch of the production room floor.

You see that steam rising from the strip still’s parrot spout? We call that the dragon’s breath.

I did find a story. The story of waking up the yeast before releasing it into its comforting, warm bath, of performing the tightly timed choreography between pieces of machinery as they demanded immediate attention to avoid calamity, of discovering that the general consensus for many of the processes was that you just had to feel it, smell it, taste it, gauge it. The machinery had its tells, and a good operator was sensitive to them and could anticipate results because of the accumulated years of a bonding relationship.

Making whiskey requires procedural care, yes. It’s a recipe. It’s a step by step adventure that when timed perfectly churns out a salable product.

But to me, and to others, the machinery is responsible for the alchemy, the head-spinning potions, the conjuration that leads grains to glass, this honeyed, headying elixir.

But the manual will not reveal that magic. The manual will not even hint at it. The manual conceals the story.

Except it’s there. We just don’t capture it within the pages that keep the secret safe. It is for others to read between the lines, to unearth the buried story within it.

If they find it after the zombie apocalypse.

~Shelley

For the time being, the blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

 

You Cannot Teach An Old Cat New Tricks … Or Anything Really

“What do you think you could do? For your part in the program?” I heard the voice ask.

I looked around my desk. Papers, sticky notes, a leftover bowl of quinoa the cat was extremely interested in exploring.

“Umm …” I hesitated and tried to buy some time. I glanced at my phone, hoping it would ping with some notification that I could cleverly read out.

The phone was not helping. And the person on the other side of the line was waiting for my answer.

Yes. Yes, I very much wanted to be part of an evening called Women In Whiskey, hosted by a distillery I held in the highest of esteem. And Leslie, their head of PR, was offering me just that opportunity IF … I could create a marketable angle for why I should be there—and a persuadable reason people would feel inclined to attend because I was part of it.

The cat pulled a paw out of the bowl of quinoa, now coated with the sticky red grain.

She stared at it intently. She nosed it. Then stuck a tiny pink tongue out and gave it a tentative taste.

Shaking her head to rid herself of the apparently foul flavor, I sighed and frowned.

She didn’t even really give it a try. Judged it unpalatable without truly knowing anything about it.

If only cats were teachable … and not obligate carnivores.

“Whiskey Tasting 101,” I blurted out. “I can do an introductory course.”

There was a short pause on the other end of the line. “In ten minutes?” Leslie asked.

“Fifteen. I will squish four lessons into fifteen minutes.”

“Hmm … what kind of lessons? Remember, you’re going to be working with a food and spirits critic, a mixologist, and a distiller. You’ll have to bring something different to the table.”

Leslie knew I wrote books—middle grade, YA literature, non-fiction essays, and a lot about whisky. She knew I’d apprenticed in Scotland—studied with distillers and people who were hugely passionate with their work—all because I’d eventually developed a great love for the spirit and a yearning to make it. But my main labors were simply writing about it.

How many people would want to come to an event to hear women speak about their work in the industry and find out my part was just “Lemme tell you about my books.”

Can’t imagine that would fly.

But for the past twenty-five years I had done something that morphed accidentally into a profession. I became a teacher.

Enthusiasm can do that to a person.

Or fanaticism. Samey samey.

My history was one that was both typical and atypical of a person first introduced to brown spirits.

Typical, in that I thought it was the most disgusting thing ever to touch my lips—save for Jeremy Krazinski, who, in fifth grade, tried to plant a big one on me just beneath the monkey bars when I had no idea it was coming.

Atypical, in that only a few short years later, after having traveled repeatedly to Scotland and gaining a depth and breadth of appreciation for everything falling between the barley and the bottle, I found myself determined to make it. To understand the craft, the science, and the magic of that spirit.

My longing for a deep dive found fulfillment because of a great distillery, but my love for whisky blossomed because of a great teacher—one who discovered my first handshake with the spirit had been an avoidably painful one. I’d learned incorrectly and had a good bit of erasing ahead of me. From that moment on I’d grown resolute to not allow the same “first time flop” unfold for other people. I wanted them to love whisky as much as I did.

“What will you teach?” Leslie repeated.

I recalled a series of essays I’d long ago written called Belly Up to the Bar. “Eyeing, Nosing, Tasting, and Finish,” I said with more confidence than I felt.

Indeed, the more pertinent question going through my mind was, Sure, I can write about it, but can I aptly teach it?

I thought about the most proficient instructors in my life thus far. The ones whose lessons have left the greatest indelible imprint on me had no degrees in education—nor fancy lettering following their names. They had instinct, purpose, and need.

A cat has schooled me in the necessity of paying attention to the most muted of reverberations as much as any sound engineer. You wish to catch a prey? Listen like your life depends upon it. Hunger can tutor the stupid right out of you.

An elderly Polish neighbor repeatedly walked me through the woods as a child, revealing what will taste good raw, what will taste good cooked, and what will outright kill you if you so much as lick it.

And no doubt my parents have left me with life lessons near impossible to accumulate from anyone else: Do what you love, love what you do, and please pay attention goddammit to what Mrs. Sobieski warns you not to lick.

We are surrounded by teachers. Many have a desire to give you what they already possess: comprehension of the world. And oftentimes for free—simply because of the passion they possess with the subject.

“Okay, you’re hired,” Leslie decided.

I was thrilled. Most times in life I’ve found myself as the student—the hungry pupil desperate for know-how, happy to be on the receiving end of it. But on this night, I would get to be that teacher.

That teacher who teaches what she loves, and loves what she teaches.

Likely I will start off the session with an introductory phrase such as: “Thank you all for coming, thank you for being willing to learn, but mostly I’d like to thank Mrs. Sobieski for allowing me to be here tonight.”

The Reservoir Distillery’s “Women in Whiskey” event.

(Robey Martin, Beth Dixon, Mary Allison, and Shelley Sackier)

For the time being, the blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

~Shelley

Yes, Splice and Dice, But First … Stumble and Tumble

Okay, I wrote an entirely different blog post before this one. The essay you’re reading isn’t even remotely similar to the original. This one isn’t about hiking, this one isn’t about how you can effortlessly compartmentalize mountain bicyclists onto an easy to read Game of Thrones character trait spectrum, and this one isn’t about how much the other one sucked.

It really did.

Yes, you’re right, I did just make this essay about how much the first draft was awful, but we’re not going to talk about that anymore.

Because I wasted hours writing it. All thirteen hundred words of it. Which is far more than I typically allow myself for my monthly post.

People don’t have that kind of time.

Or patience for pure drivel.

Which is exactly what it was.

Seriously, enough of the old one. My point is that editing is everything.

You have to know when to keep plowing through with some endeavor, when to cut, snip, and modify, and when to just find a large fire pit to toss it all into and watch it burn, baby. Your tears can dry by firelight. It’ll be romantic.

Photo by Mike on Pexels.com

I learned long ago the importance of an editor. I learned shortly after that the importance of a good editor and how there is a difference. And now I’m learning just how badly I am in need of a life editor.

We all need people like this. People who shape, guide, instruct, and brutally shine a light on everything we’re too close to get a real grip on. How awesome would it be to have someone silently in the background? A tiny Jiminy Cricket on your shoulder who either subtly whispers in your ear as you’re about to reach for something, “Uh yeah, I wouldn’t do that. Drop it, sweetie,” or one who shouts, “Oh my godfathers, what the hell are you thinking? Run!”

Lately, I’m falling in need of something in the middle. A helpful aid who has a bird’s eye view of thirty seconds in front of me, and who maybe has a sweet and syrupy southern accent, prefacing all my idiotic choices with a, “Aww, God bless your cotton socks, honey,” so I don’t feel such a sharp rebuke with my blunders.

I’m making a lot of mistakes recently. Misjudgments, miscalculations, moving with misdirection. Energy spent on the wrong thing and on the wrong people.

It’s a little bit like the time I decided to paint my bedroom florescent yellow to increase the cheeriness factor within it and ended up suffering a year of massive migraines. I also lost a year of sleep as I slept in a room that shined as brightly as the inside of a working nuclear fusion reactor.

It stings a bit wasting two or three hours on writing an essay that turns out to be a stinker versus wasting a week on a project or plan that falls short because you lack the vital fundamental understanding needed to see the big picture.

And no doubt there are countless people who can scoff at the above paragraph’s whiny note and kick away its relevance by revealing that they wasted twenty years on a spouse who insisted they were near a breakthrough with their milestone advances in organic tree water and anti-inflammatory conifer oils when you finally opened up the door to their backyard science lab and discovered they’d been doing nothing but perfecting the art of making balloon animals for children’s birthday parties.

Experience is expensive.

But so is any worthy education, right?

I finally learned how to write musical manuscripts for a big band swing orchestra with swift speed only after three of the guys cornered me backstage following one rehearsal. They said either I sit down with them and see why the bullpuckey bunk I was penning for them stunk or they were walking and I’d be left without a horn section. Again.

It was the hands-on guidance I needed instead of the “Music Theory 101 classes” I suffered through where reams of music returned to me from a pricey conservatory instructor with his red penned notes saying, “Review page 329.”

Okay, fine, but why??

And experience is painful.

I recently attended a fifth grade science fair where I saw a young lady, casts on both arms up to her elbows, standing in front of a white board that read How High is Too High?

No doubt all of us look back and feel our lives might benefit from some redaction. From a touch up given to us by an expert. From a reshoot, or revision, or an overdub.

But our lives are not a blog post. Our days are not essays published with an eye-catching snapshot or two of the subject. We’re not a slickly scripted podcast or a mirthful vlog nailed on the twenty-first take.

We are the humans who live the stories, who then write the stories, who then publish the stories as warnings or lessons or amusement for others.

The good ones are filled with conflict and resolution.

The real ones are riddled with mistakes.

If you want to tell a great story, you really need a great editor.

If you want to live a great life, you might want to boot kick that idea of a “life editor” to the curb.

Cuz they’re going to stop you … before you even have a chance to fall into something worth writing about.

~Shelley

For the time being, the blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; Nature’s Turducken

Photo by Mike Bird on Pexels.com

Last year, I had a gazillion bunny rabbits gather on the lawn both at sunrise and sunset every day through the three beautiful months of spring—nibbling, lounging, fattening.

This year, I have been hard-pressed to see even one dash out in front of my car as I trundle down the mountain to run a few errands in town.

Where did they go, I wondered?

This morning, I watched a brawny and brutish red fox prance along the woodland’s edge, patrolling the perimeter, his ears and swishy full tail twitching with anticipation at any movement or sound from the grassy border.

Ah. Now I know.

There were a few brief, tense moments when the world virtually paused, my breath suspended, when with lightning quick speed, the fox sprung into the air in the direction of a fat rabbit, dashing from the safety of her brushy compound, making a run for it—out in the open.

Now, I know you’re all wondering what happened to that fat little bunny, and I could be cruel and tell you that’s not the point of this essay, but for the sake of keeping friends, I’ll relieve your suspense.

She made it.

But it won’t be for long, so let’s not grow accustomed to her furry little face.

Because bunnies are accidental survivors. Countless times, I have taken walks and come across one of them on the side of the path, and their method of life management is nothing more than freeze.

If they find they’ve fooled you into believing they’re actually a painting or statue, well … bully for them. They live another day of blissful clover grazing. If you are a predator and make your raptorial move, then their only hope is to outrun you, or “under-size” you by fitting in somewhere you cannot.

Not much to be impressed by.

A fox, on the other hand, is a planner. A plotter, a schemer, and wholly opportunistic.

Unlike a bunny, his nose is not focused solely on the floral fragrance of the tender shoots from the genus Trifolium, but also notes whether or not those herbaceous patches carry the scent of lucky rabbits’ feet.

Lucky for him, anyway.

Treading the path once or twice during the gloaming hours, he notes their playground and their warren holes, then takes a quick kip till just before the time sparrows fart and the sun’s rays creep over the dewy grass.

He positions himself in their familiar Don’t mind me, I’m just a figment of your imagination style crouch when muddle-headed bunnies womble out of bed and head to the clover cafeteria, and then waits until …

Gotcha.

Breakfast and exercise all in one fell swoop.

Nothing to do but sleep off the meal.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

And possibly be surprised by a sharp wake-up call in the middle of the night, as he is now surrounded by a ring of coyote—canines recognized for their ability to utilize deception and cheekiness to their benefit.

Obviously, our fox sees little comedy in his demise, but I can certainly appreciate the turducken style gallows humor and feel compelled to view life outside my window through these optics.

To do anything less would have me lamenting about the woodland hills, the smell of death thick in my nostrils, and an overwhelming feeling of despair and fatalism cloaked about my shoulders.

I cannot live life like this, mostly because I was raised on a diet rich with despair and fatalism, but wrapped up in a puff pastry crust of Monty Python humor.

I know some of you might be wondering where I’m going with this whole essay, and it would be crystal clear if you saw the books and articles scattered across my desk:

How to Write Better Bad Guys

Six Tips to Scandalous Scoundrels

Superheroes, Supervillains

This is a time period (in between books) I designate as “The Gathering.”

The collecting of ideas, the generating of plots, the reviewing of old writing habits that no longer serve and need to be replaced.

Like that of writing antagonists.  

We are surrounded by them in our everyday lives. They are the people who we intermingle with often and repeatedly: the guy who cut you off in traffic because he saw an opening and took it, your boss, who criticizes your work in front of a roomful of your coworkers which leads to you pull an all-nighter to prove her wrong, your ex, who tells every handyman in town that you don’t pay your bills on time and sometimes not at all.

Yeah, they’re evil, heinous, and diabolically sinister people in our minds.

But … not in theirs.

In their minds, they are doing what’s right. What’s right for the flow of traffic, the result of the project, and the protection of the local business owners who don’t deserve to get burned.

In their minds, why would they choose to do anything else?

A fox is never going to pass up the bunny buffet. The coyote would be harebrained to skip out on the freshly prepared “foxbunherb.” And the only thing missing now is what follows to bring down the sharp-toothed pooch.

I vote Monty Python’s Foot of Cupid. As there is nothing more satisfying then seeing your enemy squished by an animated sketch, followed by the juvenile sound of ripping flatulence. And truly, this is the Universe’s way of saying enough is enough.

It is an effortless exercise to read about creating great villains on paper, and then see the perfect example of them right outside my window. The thing that makes them perfect is that they are all relatable. We understand them. Their motivations. And can empathize with their actions.

They are not evil for the sake of being evil.

Photo by Wendelin Jacober on Pexels.com

Some of them, in the case of a humongous, hand-drawn heel are just evil for the sake of being hilarious.

And I can live with that.

~Shelley

For the time being, the blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

When Everyone Tells You You’re a Witch, Eventually You Try on the Hat

I don’t feel well¸ I’d whispered just loudly enough for my own ears to register.

I reached out for the wall beside me, steadying quivering knees, and felt my hand slide southward until it came to touch the floor. I wrapped both arms around my bent legs. In this custodial cocoon, I closed my eyes and searched for a thread of clarity as a new anchor of support.

Another sound my ears captured—their scattershot proficiency even further impeded by the thump of my resonant heartbeat—was a half growl, half moan, also coming from me.

I spoke again in a whisper, directing my words to both recently and long-passed female relatives, If you all think this is funny, I will find a way to make you pay for your merciless amusement. Leave. Me. Alone.

I looked up and scanned the room. It was rich with excavated artifacts—urns, beakers, swords, and tools, skins, sketches, baubles, and bowls. Relics unearthed from the very ground I stood upon—or hunched over, as it were.

The Kilmartin Museum was perched atop a small ridge that ran along the edge of Kilmartin Glen—a stretch of prehistoric sites through the valley of a tiny village in western Scotland. It was here I was suddenly sinking with the feeling of lassitude—which I’m certain brought a smirk of self-congratulations to many of my female ancestors, as the words they shared with me when alive were of the variety that would bring great alarm to most, but were banal and eye roll-worthy to me during my youth:

You’re an old soul—you simply can’t recall your past lives. The tarot cards show this.

Open your ears to the goddesses, don’t put up such walls to their speech.

You are but a vessel—and willing or no, your spirit is an empath and draws the needful toward you.

I’d believed none of it. But partly wished it were true. They believed all of it. And impatiently waited my surrender to their truth.

I’d come for research—to resurrect not only the tangible details I’d need for my story, but the perceptible ones as well. One provided a sense of touch, the other, palpable only by the mind. Many storytellers find that if one can stand in the spot where the tale unfolds, and utilize all one’s senses, countless doors of creativity swing open with ease.

The problem I was encountering was not so much the onset of malaise but discovering that the long distance travel had not shaken the long buried voices of my own dead relatives—those who regularly muttered around me—and they now intermingled with the voices of those I wished to hear more clearly and singularly.

The book I was writing steeped within a warm soup of Celtic mythology and village mystics. The book I’d just finished was fraught with warring witches and fear-filled kingdoms. Death snaked its way through both narratives, just as my familial undead featherstitched their presence uninvitingly through more of my calendric cycle than I wish were true.

Their calls—which were clearly an unmistakable theme in both books—repeatedly stressed, You are one of us. Do not be deaf to the obvious and inevitable.

And although I may have purposefully shut out the opinions my more eclectic family members layered on, I have never been deaf to great books, as they speak to me with more than mere words. They leave countless overarching impressions. When you are the reader of any story, the author prays they have cannily articulated some message to you, and you leave feeling moved by the experience. When you are the author, you hunt for that affecting message. It is oftentimes a slow sweeping away of debris that reveals the structure: the bones, the skull, the spine.

And standing in a multi-roomed hut, jammed with primitive curios, or upon a battlefield, the acrid smoke charred deep into the soil, or beside a cairn, the stones heavy with the grief of thousands of tears, I can barely pick out the tone of my own long ago voiced youthful complaints as I stymie the growing sound of history’s vocal barrage.

I’m not like all of you. I’m my own person, I’d said to some auntie, eyeing me with pity through the wisps of the exotic smoke from her cigarette.

She’d shaken her head. You see it wrongly. You are not tethered to this hallowed ground with an anchor, but rather a tube. One that can act as a channel.

She is right. There is a hurricane of chronicles waiting to be heard. And countless times in my life I have been in the right place and present at the right time where the valves have twisted open. At these moments, I am usually caught unawares and overwhelmed.

Fighting off a chorus of narrators, rich with the urgency of untold tales is akin to skittering down an icy, rock-laden hill. You will not come out unscathed.

As writers in any genre will affirm, there are myriad ways to quilt the patchwork of a story together: spending months or years in a library while pouring over reference books, chronicling dream journals and cherry-picking threads of a narrative from within it, ferreting through new innovation and discovery via disrupters and thought leaders we interview. The list is endless.

But there are those that believe the stories are omnipresent, ubiquitous as the air we draw for each breath. And within our breath is the breath of others. Our task is to tap into the substance of it, the elements within it. We simply unveil that which keeps it muffled from others’ ears.

I had no inkling I would be a teller of tales one day, that I would find a snug fit of comfort stretching beyond the bounds of everyday humans and attempt to build worlds elsewhere. And for an unfathomable amount of time I stubbornly resisted seeing one of those unhuman worlds as it was repeatedly illuminated by others who believed they held access to it and wished to hand me a key.

Those experiences—the ones where I’ve been flooded with the emotions, or voices, or thrumming vibrations that did not belong to me specifically—have more often than not, not been welcome. I don’t know why they appear. Maybe those women are right. Maybe I am an empath. And welcomed or no, some unseen fingers may continue to twist open that wheeled handle despite my trying to plug the spigot. But lately … lately I have wondered why I would willfully eliminate a source of inspiration or guidance. Why would I dismiss a muse as it sits staring into my face, or whispering into my ear?

So for writing’s sake, for the enrichment of story, I will try on the hat—to see if it fits. Fits like a child’s head, warmly embraced within the arms and bosoms of women long passed, but refusing to be forgotten.

~Shelley

For the time being, the blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

 

The Strive to be Ahead of Your Time

There is nothing like the joy of bringing something new into the world—something you worked incredibly hard to produce. A baby, a book, a barrel of whisky—they’re all boxes I’ve been privileged to tick off.

The thing that brings absolutely no joy, but is also heavily represented in the realm of the world of production, is the waiting that comes with it.

I am not a waiter.

I am a pacer, a tosser and turner, a nervous finger drummer, and a clock watcher.

I wear out carpets, pound and fluff pillows, and have more scraps of paper containing chaotic time-tables than the TSA currently, as they’re scrambling to fill “no-shows” in their employee work schedules.

Yeah, a bit like that.

And whether I’ve been hauling around a growing human, chattering on social media about an emerging tale, or taking far too many samples from the barrel “just to check its progress,” there is one thing certain about all of them:

They ain’t done till they’re done.

The element of time is something I cannot alter. And altering it is the one thing I wish were at the top of the “to do” list for a few more scientist, physicists, and local crackpot sorcerers.

I’m really not fussed who it turns out to be is the person we all bow down to after he or she has discovered how we can tinker with a timeline to suit our needs, but surely someone is going to wear that sash and crown eventually, right?

For years, whenever visiting universities for my daughter’s college campus test drives, I’d manage to find a way, specifically out of earshot of my “I’m going to help conquer space” child, to have a private conversation with one or two of the professors we’d met. I’d inquire about space/time travel, they then made a wide berth of me for the remainder of the tour.

It’s only now, maybe six or seven years later, that the chatter on that subject is finally one that fills the internet with graphs, pie charts, and spreadsheets made from multi-degreed scientists and not just science fiction authors.

It’s a teensy bit ironic that I’m having to wait for time travel.

Weirdly, just as strong as the desire to leap forward to arrive into the moment of accomplishment, there is another want that travels at its side, in its shadow: the yearning to leapfrog back.

It is impossible to do, of course, but anyone who’s ever endeavored to journey through a long haul production will likely agree that at some point within the undertaking—whether halfway through or at the finish line—you will feel a desperate urge to return. To tweak, to adjust, to unclutter. To reappraise, jigger, and amend.

But again, science is moving molasses slow with their participation in giving us this option. A bit like the speed of a snail with a limp.

And thus we are left with a few paltry alternatives. First—be circumspect with your work from the get go. Second—suck it up and deal with the regrets. Third—hide, Thelma and Louise it right off a cliff, change your name and buy a food truck/mammogram van to fill the need for cancer prevention through comfort food. Call it Two Boobs for a Biscuit. I don’t know. I’m riffing here.

Anyway, the point is that we can’t go back.

We can’t unmeet that man. We can’t revise that chapter. We can’t redistill that spirit.

The results are the results.

The good, the bad, and the ugly. And in some worst case scenarios—failure.

But … what people often misunderstand is that right up until the moment of the outcome is not a colossal waste of time or effort. The result may be called failing, but the rest is called learning.

I know that’s a small measure of comfort when you’re on the precipice of seeing your results unveiled. It brings little relief to those of us in charge of a gazillion dollar mission to Mars that sees catastrophic calamity in its “all done and dusted phase” to have the ability to say, “Well, at least we know what line of code doesn’t work.”

But it’s a necessary and unavoidable part of all progress. Period.

And the concept of ‘progress’ brings us back to the whole idea of time, movement, and achievement. The text missing in this chronology is the word reflection. When our efforts are spent and we’re left with an outcome, sure, we can choose the food truck, but we can also choose the food for thought.

Mindfully revisiting and diligently muddling through a postmortem are key for advancement, for if there is one thing I feel certain of, it’s that I simply do not want to be good enough to keep my feet on the track, I want to keep my feet moving forward.

So yes, the waiting for our books or babies or booze to be complete must be reframed as not stalling out. Reflection and projection might be very capable methods to utilize at these moments. We can learn from our past—and one day, if science will finally hear my beseeching petitions, we can learn from our future. All so that we will not just survive the present, but thrive within it.

~Shelley

For the time being, the blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

 

The Need for Meedful Media

The word social is not one I would use to describe myself with. Like, ever. As a writer, I am comfortably cloistered away, far from noise, or distractions, and, most disconcerting to many … people.

Yes, I prefer to be far away from people.

Primarily because people are noisy and distracting. Of course, it’s true, they are many, many other things as well. People are generous, and interesting, helpful and creative, some of them are good at balancing silverware on their faces and can be truly entertaining. And if they could be all those wonderful things without the not so wonderful things, I’d be hooked on people. I really would.

Now the word media is one I rely upon heavily for myriad reasons. My work must be transported through the “agencies of mass communication” in order to be utilized, to provide some worth for others, to be functional and purposeful.

My goal, as a writer, is to find words, string them together into a pattern that either entertains or informs, and move a reader of those words to either act upon or experience something.

It’s pretty simple.

Yet the action of putting the words social and media together, side by side, is anything but simple.

It’s an effortful act of interaction if one wishes to be significant. And that interaction requires the bonding of human beings—to relate, and to be relatable.

Without that engagement, every author’s efforts simply sit on a library shelf, or a bookshop discount table, or in a warehouse somewhere with a bucketful of other unloved, unknown books.

The clincher is, you cannot just shout at people to, “Look over here! Hey! I’m annoyingly loud!” without them giving you an eye roll and going back to grouting their tile with a lot more enthusiasm.

I have worked with people who are slick and savvy at social media. They have studied the art probably with more intense effort than a teenaged boy, who measures and charts the growth of his biceps after each twenty reps of push-ups.

And if you’ve ever been a mother to a teenaged boy, or been a teenaged boy yourself, you may recall that I am not kidding about the “intense effort” applied.

But these clever engineers of awareness campaigns are usually paid professionals. At times, it’s best to employ them. They can be expensive, and regrettably … a little impersonal.

So here is where the paradox lies for many.

One must understand just how important it is to truly connect with someone you’re trying to get the attention of. And oftentimes, anyone marketing a product or idea goes about grasping that attention with the success of a five-year-old relentlessly tugging on the pant leg of their mother while she’s soaking up juicy neighborhood gossip from her best friend down the street.

You will be ignored.

We, as consumers, learn to turn a blind eye against the overwhelming influx of info wash that can at times feel like a fire hose of detritus. We have to. To keep our minds and moods safely intact.

Unless … and this is a big, important word … unless we get a whiff of something that brings value to our lives. Then we pay attention. Then we find some focus. Then we see the worth. Then we spread the word.

Long ago, years ago, when I first started publishing—whether a blog post online, a book in solid form, an essay, a picture, a tweet, a vid—it didn’t matter so much on the format—what I realized quickly was that if I wished to stand out within the noisy, info-saturated platform I worked within, I would have to show up with two things: something fresh, and something urgent.

Fresh, in that you can take old ideas and sharply spank them into something vibrant and sparkly—to appeal to a new set of eyes and ears, and reinvigorate some older ones.

Urgent, in that the content one produces must fill the recipient with a need to share. This is the smartest way to spread one’s work: word of mouth. Same goes for any industry.

If what you offer is something old—something people already possess—they’ll vote you straight off The Gong Show. You’re an amateur with dubious talent.

Connecting to people on both levels—both in content and campaign—requires consistent attention to crafting one’s skill, but also developing sincerity. And you can’t fake that. It’s been tried. It’s transparent. And people feel like taking a hot shower with a bucket of bleach and a wire brush after they’ve been exposed to it.

The timeless and repeated counsel I’ve been given can be summed up thusly: The years, the schooling, and effort you put into your craft should first and foremost be evident. What you write (or make) should resonate. It should amplify the meaningful not the meaningless. If you find it cannot captivate an audience, either go back to the drawing board, or find other employment where you can succeed. Don’t reconcile with offering up poor output. We need noteworthy voices that refuse to settle with generating mind-numbing content.

Then, when that content has been spat upon and polished to an absolute sheen, find one person who believes in it. Then find another. Find two. Be patient. Find ten. Be diligent. Be gracious. Reciprocate. Give back. Be social.

Yes, be social.

Not in the gossipy, drink in hand, playlist in the background kind—the kind I struggle with endlessly. Rather the kind where you contribute to society. To culture. To humanity. To the betterment of someone, somewhere else.

If you’re reading this post, then you’re part of the overwhelming majority of people who are somehow touched and involved in social media. You don’t have to be selling a widget to find this essay applicable—because, widget or not, you are selling something: yourself.

Spread your ideas, pass on your work, share your vision. Just make sure it is worthy and worthwhile to pay attention to.

~Shelley

PS–(In case you missed it!) An important update to all the Robin Gott Doodle Devotees out there! Robin has opened a new site where you can finally and officially purchase some of his finest and funniest work via a website called Society 6. To quote the champ of chuckles, “I know it sounds like some kind of low-budget South African sci-fi film, but it’s actually an online market place for all sorts of design.” Don’t miss out. Check it out here: ROBIN GOTT

For the time being, the blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

So Good to Hear Your Voice

Image result for be good and you will be lonesome mark twain free image

I’m smack dab in the middle of reading Mark Twain’s autobiography this month.

Okay, that’s not exactly true.

It feels like I should be smack dab in the middle, but in truth, I’m only stuck inside the introduction. Which, unbelievably, is nearly as long as the book part itself.

I’d say about one quarter acre’s worth of trees was sacrificed for the beginning of this book. And I’m gathering that the beginning of this book was deemed worthy of that slaughter.

Except I’m craving Twain’s words. Not some editor’s. Not some scholar’s. Not some newfound margin scribble from the guy who sat and took dictation. His words.

Mark’s. Or Sam’s. Or maybe he went by Phil on Tuesday’s and every other Sunday. It doesn’t matter. I want to hear what’s inside that man’s brain.

I want to hear his voice.

As an author, and I’ve checked with a couple of others on this bit so you can trust me, we collectively agree that the most important thing we can do for our careers is to develop a unique voice.

A voice that not only spins a good yarn, but does so with a color most folks don’t typically see in their everyday multi-hued spectrum.

Brown? Too drab. Purple? Too flamboyant.

Brurple.

That’s me.

If you’ve got something to say one must next find a way to tickle the auditory hair cells within the cochlea of the people you’re directing your words toward—or if like me and your musings are absorbed in the form of at least one effortful eyeball scanning words across a page, you need to create text that just leaps off that paper and literally spanks the reader across the forehead.

In a really loving spanking kind of a way.

But getting to the meat of your message is important. Dressing it up? Not so much.

In fact, I cannot count the number of times an agent or editor or beta reader of mine has said, “Yuck. Your writing is just dripping with purple prose.”

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it’s like taking a beautiful roast ham, packing it in a great wad of brown sugar, plastering canned pineapple all over it, wrapping it three times with maple bacon, and then pouring a large liter of Coco Cola over the top of it. Ala Paula Dean.

One ends up with something sticky, sweet, syrupy, and inedible. One also ends up searching for a large bucket of bleach and a wire brush with which to scrub one’s teeth. You’ve ruined what could have been something quite toothsome and savory.

Hiding behind unnecessary words results in confusion. I’ve been lectured repeatedly that it’s best, when trying to cultivate your true and authentic voice, to use your own. Don’t be snatching catchy phrases or snippets of impressive sounding opinions from clever pundits, worldly academics, or The Onion.

Okay, well, yes, I’ll take back that last one. The world could use a little bit more of The Onion.

The problem with this—the using others’ words in place of your own—(that I’ve most certainly discovered first hand) is that when people raise their eyebrows with interest at what you’ve just professed, they oftentimes will ask you to expound, to further enlighten the dark areas of their minds. And when you can’t …

Yeah, you better hope there’s an eagle or a squirrel close by. Maybe an errant This is not a test text that comes across everyone’s screen to save your tuchas.

I’ve become so profoundly aware of this situation because recently I’ve been purposefully surrounding myself with speeches.

Next month I’ve got a couple to give. It’s good to look at the historical soup of a million others. But I’ll quickly point out two that emerged and left me with a measurable thumbprint of thought.

I’ve just finished a book that held a selection of Kurt Vonnegut’s commencement speeches. They’re short, they’re punchy, they’re meant to occasionally have faculty members behind him draw in a sharp breath as he tells the students in front of him what the school has been glossing over for the last four years in their protective bubble.

No doubt within three sentences, you know this is pure Vonnegut.

Last month, I watched The State of the Union address. I’ve seen plenty of others. I know how these work. But these weren’t the words of the individual who was elected to office. Far from it. And I think for the people who voted him into that position, and for those waiting for the much touted promise The presidency wholly and completely changes a person, it was a lost opportunity.

It was purple prose.

Sticky, sweet, and yet altogether flavorless. No meat. No message. No memorability.

No thanks.

There is so much we people hide behind these days. Other people’s words, other people’s thoughts, other people’s ideas. It’s really not impossible to create our own.

It’s intimidating, yes, because we may be rejected or rebuffed.

It’s effortful, yes, because it requires one to formulate concrete thought and opinion, and wrestle with why you want to say these words in the first place.

And it’s humbling because there are bucketloads of moments when afterward we discover just how wrong we are.

But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Try to be authentic. Strive to be astute. Reach for earnest bona fide status.

I want people to truly seek out my words, and to have engaging enough words that they will fight through the forest of extra pages of editorial intros in order to get to them.

And like any good firewood chopping Wisconsinite, I know where the good stuff in a tree really is. And I want my books and words and sentiments to reflect that.

Otherwise, it’s all bark and no heart.

~Shelley

For the time being, the blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

Rabbit Holes: Some Call it Daydreaming, Writers Call it Work

Aristotle argued that all objects craved their “natural place,”—the geocentric center of the universe. That would be Earth. Okay, well at the time Aristotle was sucking in air Earth was considered the be all end all.

And maybe yes, there exist a few folks who still believe this and are lagging a bit behind with their history homework, not having quite caught up to where the rest of us live—aka more than two thousand years in the future. And within the world of fairly trustworthy science.

Although, to be fair, the science we all believed one hundred—or even one thousand years ago was believed to be trustworthy too.

Until it wasn’t.

Regardless, it was explained to me that ‘Aristotle believed that a dropped rock fell to the earth because rocks belonged on earth and wanted to be there.’

This is from a book currently resting on my bedside table: But What If We’re Wrong? By Chuck Klosterman.

Often, I liken myself to Aristotle’s rock. I belong at my desk, in front of my screen, with my hands hovering over my keyboard, and my eyes effortfully scanning words across a page.

Except thankfully, there are other forces of nature at play (read friends and family) that repeatedly fight Aristotle’s idea of gravity where I am concerned, shoving me out into the world where people and ideas are in mix and at play.

I am not at all a fan of going places where you have to make eye contact with others, or exchange words that add up to more than those in a haiku, or share the same oxygen molecules. This behavior comes about just before birth when whichever deity is creating your personality profile decides you’ll be a professional recluse and switches on the genetic codes for artless, awkward, blundering bore.

But ultimately these opportunities are the catalyst that make the question WHAT IF burble up from the basement of my brain. And that is not an altogether unpleasant feeling.

It starts like indigestion but then belches out with measurable relief.

Yes, regularly I collect data to support the theory that I should simply stay home and away from crowds (read anyplace another person is already occupying), but more often than not, I am wide-eyed with surprise to discover the hidden gems of history, or art, or that people have moved on from wearing elastic waist pants and eyeglass ropes.

Except no. Turtlenecks are here to stay, dammit. (And the earth is the center of the universe … Yeah, yeah, I hear you.)

The WHAT IF question is one I have pinned up on my computer screen. It is the foundation for creative thinking. And creative thinking is the foundation for creative writing. And creative writing is the foundation for paying my bills—as people will not buy books that scream, “I’m exactly like that story you just read yesterday only my characters are Latvian!”

Yeah, not gonna fly.

But how many of us practice asking WHAT IF (insert head scratching query here) in real life? Chuck Klosterman did because he had to write a book where he asked a pile of crackerjack thinkers questions about their level of confidence on subjects like physics, and time, and whether AOL would ever come back into fashion.

And I do it because the thought of copying someone else’s ideas and simply giving them a limp and an accent is about as creatively appealing to my brain as separating all of the lint from my dryer into individual color piles.

Also because I enjoy electricity and food. Again … near carbon copies of other people’s tales do not equate to financial security. And more often than not a lawsuit.

But in real life? I’m not terribly sure I engage in this examination. Not nearly often enough anyway.

And maybe not at all ever—but that would be wholly embarrassing to admit on a public platform so let’s all pretend I didn’t, okey dokey?

This is not some sort of mid-life crisis desperate attempt to fill ever widening, fathomless gaps in my life, but rather just an everyday exercise of whim and whimsy. And okay, maybe a touch of the age thing, but hush—just follow me here.

It’s a fairly effortless task in my working realm, as the sky is the limit ergo, nothing is absurd. I can confidently lean back in my chair and ponder the impossible:

WHAT IF my main character quit his job, won the lottery, or discovered he had cancer?

WHAT IF my guy slowly starts to disappear, or can now communicate with polar bears, or wakes up with knees that can bend fully backward?

WHAT IF he can think himself anywhere, or program the earth to stop spinning, or activate himself to become any element in the periodic table?

WHAT IF every fictional character ever written about comes alive? WHAT IF we discover that our laws of physics only work this way on earth because we’re stuck on some default setting of one on a scale of ten and the answer has been printed on the last page of every IKEA instruction booklet?

Yeah … rabbit holes.

But I rarely spend time going into that warren when I and my life are the subjects for consideration. And it might be fun—if not a little necessary at times.

We’re all full of certitudes in life. We’re sure our political view is wide enough, confident we think with deep consideration, positive we’re slightly above average—at least in comparison to the other yahoos we find ourselves surrounded by.

But what if we’re wrong?

What if I’m not really meant to be Aristotle’s rock?

What if I’m meant to be Aristotle?

If we’re all going to be proven wrong one hundred or one thousand years from now, where’s the risk, right?

Think the absurd. Be the absurd. Do the absurd. Accomplish the unthinkable.

Physician, heal thyself? How about writer, imagine thyself.

~Shelley

 

For the time being, the blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

Batteries, Boyfriends, and VW Bugs

This last month I learned a few new things about cars:

  • Jump starting a car battery is dark and semi-dangerous magic nearly anyone can do.
  • Wrestling out and replacing certain car batteries is a little bit like squishing a bloated elephant into a shoebox.
  • YouTube can teach you how to do both and come out mostly alive on the other end of it.

It all started around the time finals were happening for most college students in my neck of the woods with my own college student up to her earballs in textbooks, tests, and giant tubs of Ben & Jerry’s. Nothing alleviates an overheated thermogenic thought process like two pints of Hazed and Confused on a daily basis.

I received a text from said college student’s boyfriend:

When’s the last time you started Chloe’s car?

I scratched my head. Six weeks ago? Eight? It didn’t really matter because that thing was dead. Like unrevivably dead. It would be like digging up Beethoven or Mahler or Schubert and fist pounding on their chests screaming, “NONE OF YOU HAVE FINISHED YOUR SYMPHONY NO. 10!”

Yeah, that kinda dead.

I texted back an emoji shrug.

I could hear Ben’s eyes roll to the back of his head, and I don’t blame them for doing so.

He finished off: I’m coming over with a new battery. It would be nice for her to have a working car when she gets home from school.

I agreed. I also thought that it didn’t really matter if all the car parts were functioning if one did not have money enough to fill it with “go juice.” It kind of puts you in a position where you’re All Hat No Cattle.

But they’re college kids. They’ll figure it out.

I was working at my desk when Ben popped in. “I’m here. I’ve got the battery. I’ll be in the garage.”

“Need help?” I asked.

“Nah. Easy peasy.”

Super. I could keep writing. And I did.

For about sixty seconds.

“Do you have any gloves?”

Got Ben gloves. Went back to writing.

For about sixty seconds.

“Flashlight?”

You betcha.

Work … sixty seconds.

“How bout a magnet?”

Search for magnet: Old toy boxes. Drawers. Next to credit cards, computer hard drives, people resting in my living room with pacemakers.

“Nope. Sorry.”

Ben shrugged. “Never mind. I’m sure that piece will fall out of the engine block eventually.”

I looked at Ben with eyebrows that reached to my hairline.

Back to work. I counted to sixty twice.

“How small are your hands?”

Oh dear lord. I pushed back from my desk. “Let me find some shoes.”

I entered the garage and saw Chloe’s little VW bug with its hood popped. A miniature PAC-MAN of motorcars. Ben, whose height most telephone poles will nod with deference to, was almost in a downward facing dog yoga pose, hovering over the engine block.

There was a lot of grunting going on, but it might have been coming from the bug, as whatever Ben was trying to tug out of it seemed super important for that little roadster to cling to.

Apparently, it sensed the ongoing, effortful labor of disassembly and finally decided to put up a fight. It’s a little bit like going to the dentist for one defunct tooth to be removed and when you finally have a moment of anesthetic clarity, hear, “Oh, good lordy there’s another one. Well, she really doesn’t need that guy for chewing anyway.”

Yes, I think in a blind panic, but what about for maintaining social norms like speaking without sounding like I’m an eight-year-old whose face just met a tree trunk after a bike crash?

“What can I do?” I asked.

Ben explained to me that we just needed to slide the battery into place and then voilà, back to work I go and he’s outta here. Easy peasy.

Except he was finding it just a teensy bit tricky to slide this particular battery into place.

“How come?”

He gestured at the ground which held oddly shaped bits of plastic, metal, screws, caps, and hoses. It looked like the car had thrown up onto the garage floor. “A lot of stuff had to come out in order to remove the battery.”

“I assume all that stuff is essential?”

Ben shrugged. “Yeah, it all has to go back.”

I looked at the disassembled engine parts. I really really hoped he remembered where all the bits and pieces originally lived because none of them were color-coated, or Post-it note labeled, and there were no IKEA directions to be found anywhere.

If it were me, I would have labeled everything with Garanimal tags—like the clothing line my mother used to buy for us when we were little kids. Each piece of clothing had some anthropomorphic animal code attached to it so you could find something that matched to make a set. Make sure the alligator shirt is not paired with giraffe shorts and then feel confident sending that child on off to school.

Yeah, there were a lot of things on the ground that looked like they needed to be remarried to their original partners.

“You’ve done this before, right?”

Ben flashed me a smile and held up his smartphone. “YouTube.”

Oh, good heavens.

For the next three hours we battled with that little bug, trying to slide, shove, inch, hitch, and bang that new damn battery into place. It was like trying to get a cat to swallow a pill. That battery refused to go down.

We, as instructed by the warning words of the World Wide Web, did not tip the battery. Which would have made things so much easier. At one point I suggested to Ben that if we couldn’t tip the battery, maybe we should tip the bug. Seriously. It would have been so much easier.

He did not agree.

At long last, we did manage to get that SOB back into place. In fact, we managed to do it twice, because after the first time—once we’d reconnected all hoses, screws, and pulleys—we discovered a small piece we’d left out on the garage floor. Something akin to an OR nurse tapping an open-heart surgeon on the shoulder just as he’s tying off the last stitch of flesh together and pointing to the pan that still held an essential organ.

But we did it.

Easy peasy.

~Shelley

This thing ready to go??

For the time being, the blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

 

 

 

 

The Grave Danger of Being Silent

“Okay, you’ve got to choose one word. And one word only that will describe you and a representation of your life to be carved on your tombstone.”

I was at a writer’s meeting. And this was one of those wretchedly “fun” exercises we did to stimulate creativity, or imagination, or brain damage.

It was my turn. Everyone looked at me.

“Umm … whisky?

NO! was the general shout from all corners of the circle. Most of these people knew me well enough.

The host looked at me with a full measure of pity. A little bit like how I look at the dog after he’s eaten an entire stolen loaf of bread and he’s all swollen and gassy but still looking for more: pathetically.

“No, not whisky,” the host said in patient tones. “Whisky is something more of your life preference rather than your life portrayal, Shelley.”

Yup. Same look.

“Okay,” I said, determined to get this one right. “Then I choose voice.”

That answer got a woefully polite round of applause.

But the more I thought about it, the more I grew certain that it should have received a standing ovation. Because, in essence, it really has been the central theme threaded throughout my entire life—and every day, it grows more paramount.

In about two weeks, my next book will be published. (The Freemason’s Daughter) (disclaimer: Publicists and marketing departments get super cranky if you do not provide easy links to readers or refuse to say the phrase, “In my new book, The Freemason’s Daughter” as the start to every conversation. And let me tell you, it was a monumental challenge to work that one in with my seventy-four-year-old garbage man whilst handing him one more bag full of cat poop from the litter box.

“There are men in it,” I said lamely. Yeah, he was going to love my young adult novel about a sixteen-year-old Scottish girl.)

Anyway, again, in about two weeks, my next book will be published. I can hear all of you muttering the word finally.

And although this book has all the crucial motifs that appear in every coming of age story—the challenges of youth, friendship, love, relationships with six burly smuggling Scotsmen—the keynote theme that rose above all others was this: Where the hell do I fit in?

Now, granted, the voice that uttered this query at least one time in every chapter classed it up a bit with a lilting, girlish British accent, but it is, beyond a doubt, a central examination that needs answering by the end of the book.

And maybe it does get answered and maybe it doesn’t. I ain’t gonna spoil it for all of you. Especially ol’ Cooter Covington who promised he’d buy the book as long as I somehow managed to have the cat experience a fatal accident before he came back next week. But to find out … (The Freemason’s Daughter).

Funny enough, that question was present in my middle grade contemporary novel, DEAR OPL (Dear Opl – You’re welcome), about a thirteen-year-old American girl suffering from prediabetes and obesity who struggles with loss everywhere in her life except on her body.

Before that, I voiced that question as I made the transition from mandatory mother to partially needed parent to occasionally sought guidance counselor who receives messages like, “I’d like to schedule a major meltdown on Thursday evening after my class on linear algebra. Could you clear your schedule and send me a bucket of chocolate so I can have it there while you talk and I cry?”

My job status was shifting. And I needed to redefine some new position I could find fulfillment within.

And, quirkily enough, before all of that, my actual voice was the focus of my entire life. I got paid to sing. Once or twice I got paid not to sing.

The point is, “voice” has been stamped all over my forty-seven years of life.

Which brings us up to the present and the future—to my love for soothsayers and crystal ball gazers.

Because now, in recent months, voice has become a ubiquitous word. Rare is it a solitary strain, buried beneath the weight of larger, louder bodies that attempt to silence it. Rather now, it is a growing collection, a chorus, a rising refrain.

It is the sound of town hall meetings, the chant of protests, the carefully crafted question in a press corps meeting. It is the debate across the aisle, the conversations in the coffee shop, and the gossip over the garden fence posts.

It is the struggle to parse fact from fiction as myriad voices crow with what they believe to be true—or what they want you to believe as true. It is the concerted effort to eliminate the noise, to brush away the flashy and distracting so that you can uncover the naked, unvarnished reality.

Yes, it does exist.

And when we are able to do that—when we are finally able to hear inside our own heads, we will hear that sound that many of us have spent a lifetime ignoring. Our inner voice. The one that never lies to you. The one that says, Do not go out wearing those pants under any circumstances.

Yeah, that one.

The amazing thing is, is that all of those voices are asking the very same question—that one about inclusivity. Where the hell do I fit in?

We all want our voices to be heard, our words to matter, our existence to count. Whether we’re a president determined to believe we are the greatest, largest, tallest, (insert-superlative-here) guy to draw breath. Or we are the lowly chap who’s still trying to muster up the energy to clap as loudly for that president as we watch him wave from one of his golf courses and we finish the leftovers from last night’s TV dinner.

Forecasting the future is dicey work. Asking the hard questions about that future needs to be done—despite the unwelcoming off the cuff response of an extra tiny pointy finger barking at you to “Be quiet!”

Don’t. Don’t be quiet. Find your voice. Raise it. And use it.

Because I’ve kind of grown fond of the idea of having voice on my tombstone. Otherwise, I will have to resort back to the original epitaph of whisky. Although maybe I’ll spiff it up a tiny bit with that lilting, girlish British accent.

She saw the beauty and necessity of hard liquor.

~Shelley

For the time being, our blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor (NOW FOR HIRE- so do go check out his gallery!)–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

Publishing; It Takes a Village (and some groveling)

Recently I had to write an acknowledgment page for one of my books.

You know what they are, right? They’re usually found at the back of the opus—the part so many folks gloss right over as the writing is mostly filled with names and one line quips about what these names did to contribute to the publishing process, and how life, the universe, and all of mankind could not have been birthed and evolved into what it is today without these sage and wondrous mortals.

Not terribly interesting for the average Joe—unless, of course, you happen to be one of those sage and wondrous mortals.

But in writing my page of “thanks yous,” I can easily see just how out of hand one of these notes of gratitude can become.

It’s critical that one includes the upper echelon of those who ultimately gave your book bound words a chance to be seen.

For instance, you must absolutely never forget to flatten yourself to the floor with a giant thanks to your editor—el supremo persona, le meilleur, un eroe—whatever language you choose to describe one of the most erudite, patient, resourceful, and good looking people you’ve ever met. Even if you’ve never “met”.

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Without your editor you are toast.

Maybe less than toast.

You’re just one slice of bland bread among dozens stacked in front and behind you and all the way down the shelf from side to side.

Your editor lifts you out of the endless mass and puts a fire beneath your feet—or whatever body part is molded to the anchor that’s producing your fairly vapid, stale, lifeless literary efforts. They then carefully tease out the aromatic notes, the visually enticing imagery, and the tantalizing flavors of your story while expertly identifying the exact dressing you need, applying a perfect layer of topping that will make the meat of you shine.

Yes, one must thank one’s editor profusely, and all your lucky stars if you have a truly divine one. And then eat, because just writing about editors and their skills makes one unreasonably hungry.

Your agent—should you have one of those as well—is also on the list for high-priority praise. They are the sleuth who, when first presented with your writing, siphoned out the thread of ability that wove itself in and out of the tapestry of clunky words you put down on paper. They are the individual who gets a first look glance at your work before bravely putting their name to an email that is then cast widely out into the pool of editors who are fishing for something new the public is hungry to bite on.

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Or they are the one who picks up the tab at a gulp and go lunch where they pitch your work to those same bleary-eyed editors in hopes of convincing them to take on the task of giving up another night’s sleep in favor of reading one hundred thousand of your best and shiniest words.

Don’t forget the copy editors. These folks examine your one hundred thousand words, parse them, and then reconstruct them into more appropriate linguistic elements that will have true value to the reader. They will leave you dumbstruck with awe to realize that there are individuals out there in the world who truly understand all the principles and rudiments of grammar. They should be given many basketfuls of cookies for their efforts and patience.

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The marketing department, the art department, the line editors, the assistant editors, and publicists—where does one begin? Each of them, inundated with so much work and so little recognition, really should have a small shrine erected in their names.

So I have.

I’ve built a large altar in a separate room in my house—a temple where I’ve placed magic stones, a dozen candles, tiny false gods, myriad pagan symbols, and any other sorcerous talisman I can collect for my ritualistic moments of devotion and homage. It is a room filled with smoky incense and funneled in melodramatic and lamenting bagpipe music. It is the best I can come up with to replace what I believe they all probably truly deserve over my feeble prostrations: a cruise.

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I just don’t make enough money to make that happen. Sorry.

But you really should see the altar I’ve set up for you guys. It’s amazing.

And scares the hell out of the cat.

And lastly are the people who truly know you. Like—know you know you. The ones who had to read all those diabolically dreadful first drafts. The folks who see you drinking three-day old coffee and eating mac and cheese that you made for an end of school potluck last month. The family members who have had to learn to wash their own laundry, make their own lunches, write their own college essays, and attend their own parent-teacher conferences because you were “just finishing that last sentence,” or “editing that final paragraph,” or passed out on your keyboard.

Speaking on behalf of many writers, we know who you all are, and are so incredibly surprised to look up and discover that not only are you not in the house where we were certain we last spotted you, but are now living in another, entirely different city from us and have taken all of our pots and pans with you.

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We thank you too. Except for the theft of our housewares.

Lastly, as the orchestra music swells over our words, we thank our fifth-grade teachers, or librarians, or fairy godmothers. It’s that one individual who told us we had promise, we had potential, we had possibility.

It’s that one special person who started this whole domino effect of thanks and recognition: the one who gave us that first nod of acknowledgment.

So to all those sage and wondrous mortals—whether they see you as a product or a parent, family or a friend—the thanks are endless and the gratitude unfathomable.

Now it’s probably time to acknowledge the fact that there is no food in the house and the cat litter seriously needs to be addressed. Life goes on—even after The End.

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~Shelley

For the time being, our blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

Class (And Glass) Warfare

Growing up in Wisconsin, my mother’s most prolific advice, which was usually offered up at least once a day during what felt like the presence of nine months’ worth of winter per year, was this: Don’t forget to dress in layers.

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If memory serves, these words were likely uttered as much a reminder to herself, during the span of one full decade, where the poor woman tried to live with a biologically unbalanced hormonal heating and cooling unit housed within her own body, as to the rest of us, pointing to the fact that we lived on the perimeter of the frozen tundra. You were usually either outside, where one could occasionally entertain yourself by spitting icicles waiting for the morning school bus, or inside, where woodstoves were cranking out such an impressive amount of heat, most people’s homes could easily double as a sweat lodge.

But for my mom, I do believe the idea of recalibrating her settings to some sort of acceptable functional state was as elusive a finding as locating the Holy Grail—it’s mythological, tons of movies have been written about it, and some of the fight scenes still have us doubling over with laughter when recalling them.

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Back to the idea of layers.

It really had me thinking lately about how complex we, as human beings, truly are. Depending upon the situation, it’s not unlikely that we rarely show—or know—who we claim to be. And uncovering that which is camouflaged can either be as mouth-wateringly exciting as digging into that triple decker hot fudge banoffee pie parfait, or as painful as peeling back an onion, where the whole endeavor, although necessary to accomplish that life-sustaining ritual we call dinner, will have you weeping and bitter over the caustic exercise.

To illustrate, as per my usual methods, I will use examples from all that’s within arm’s (and eye’s and ear’s) reach around me.

I’m a writer.

I live in (or rather get my rations from) a town where you cannot swing a dead cat without bumping into another resident’s published book.

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You cannot order a cup of coffee at the counter without hearing someone behind you utter the phrase, “Well, with my first novel …” And the introductory expression, “My therapist says,” has long been replaced with its shinier version, “My critique group pointed out …”

I think you get my point.

We are a community of book-bosomed logophiles whose end-of-year financial ledgers reveal we’ve contributed the same number of pennies to the local coffeehouse for liquid sustenance as we have to the library for our overdue book fines.

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But there are writers and then there are writers.

I have heard my town’s writerly residents humorously described as usually belonging to one of two strata of the classic French pastry, the Napoleon, or the mille-feuille. You’re either like the puff pastry—where you’re flaky and half-cracked, and people make a wide berth of you because you’re temperamental and difficult to work with, or you’re the pastry cream custard—where you’re likely too rich for your own good, you find yourself spread out too thinly, and everyone wants a lick of you.

Together, we are the elements that make one kickass memorable mouthful, alone, we are broken down into the ingredients that most physicians warn you to stay clear of in order to maintain optimum health.

My town loves to separate itself into these definitive, identifying tiers. Do you do yoga or yoga?

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Translation: Do you attend a class where the Native American flute music is often jarringly interrupted by the high-pitched feedback loop of a plethora of hyper-sensitive hearing aids and everyone breathes a sigh of relief no one threw a hip during the hour? Or do you attend a class where the temperature on the room’s thermostat is a topic for debate for the Intergovernmental Panel as to whether it may be a contributing factor to climate change and people leave the studio utterly amazed at just how much anger they’ve been storing in their thighs?

Here’s another one. Do you eat health food or do you eat health food? Translation: Do you shop at Whole Foods, or do you buy half your food from the myriad closet-sized natural food stores in town and forage the rest of your meals from within the cracks of concrete parking lots and roadside ditches—and of course only harvest the edible, invasive species that likely deplete the earth from its over-reaped holistic nutrients because we have to feed the earth as well as ourselves?

It can be tough to be “authentic” in this community.

Of course, there’s also the level of success one has achieved that stridently separates the massive cluster of word-slingers in my village, and that was made indisputably evident the last time I hauled my empties down to the local recycling center a few days ago. It can be a sobering and illuminating realization of where exactly you stand in the accomplishment stratification when elbow to elbow with someone whose prosperous wordsmithing has them dumping out a couple of wooden crates full of bottles previously filled with Dom Perignon and Louis Roederer Cristal whilst I am unloading a cardboard box full of empty Two Buck Chuck.

It probably wouldn’t sting so badly if my neighbor’s raised eyebrow of acknowledgment didn’t also silently smirk and say, “How’s the book comin’, kid?”

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Makes me think I should probably take my mom’s sage advice and keep a few extra sweaters on hand. They may be useful to pass out along with the myriad icy stares I give in return to that unspoken question.

~Shelley

For the time being, our blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

Carved in Stone: the Joys of Choosing an Epitaph

I have uttered one phrase so many times within the last few years it has become as familiar to me as my own name, except it’s usually followed by a giant sigh or a wide-eyed look of panic. It is:

I have a deadline.

Currently, it rattles off the tongue as regularly as one might say, “I have a cold,” or “We need milk,” or “I didn’t mind giving that second TED talk, but the third one was a bit of a bear.”

You get my point.

It is mundanely routine.

I think most of us are well acquainted with the concept and, in fact, find some form of it or another weaving itself throughout myriad ordinary situations in our lives.

Whether you’ve got a fixed time to show up for work, or class, or the meeting, or you’ve got only so many minutes before the bus pulls away from the curb, or the plane pulls its wheels from the runway, deadlines surround us all.

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The homework is due, the test will begin, the doors will be locked—just a few more of the many self-imposed timed boundaries we find ourselves floating within. And I’m pretty sure most of us have experienced the star-bursting, lung exploding moments where we realize we have fallen below the waterline and are now drowning in The Great Sea of Overdue.

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My workspace is small. Purposefully so. Simply to induce that same calming feeling that miraculously occurs in newborn infants when you swaddle those suckers up like a human cannoli. There is no space for flailing, injurious arms, no room for every assignment to be on display, and not enough expanse to encourage the lying down beneath my desk for a quick mid-day kip or the body collapsing posture of giving up altogether.

In fact, much of the space beneath my desk is occupied by assignments that can be ignored until next month and will serve me better acting in the position of foot ottoman.

Paper is everywhere. Attached to the papers are brightly colored sticky notes with due dates on them.

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Calendars are taped to the walls. Deadlines are highlighted in neon colors or sometimes old stickers from when my children were much younger and thought that a decal from the bank or the grocery store was akin to finding a twenty dollar bill on the sidewalk. Most of them say things like eat your vegetables, or put a penny in your piggy bank and have nothing to do with the D-day for the copy editor of my latest manuscript. But still, I think I’d rather see a picture of a head of broccoli

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than a picture of the copy editor with a bubble coming out of her mouth saying, “There is so much wrong here I don’t know where to begin.”

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Nuff said.

Some deadlines are not hard deadlines, but usually, only the ones that do not apply to my efforts. People with a lot more heft to their job descriptions get to blur the edges of their dates, whereas mine tend to show up with blaring sirens, a photographer to witness my failure, and enough guilt to ensure my therapist will be able to upgrade his seat on his next flight for the cruise I also paid for.

One of these days, I’d like to know what it feels like to be someone like Mother Nature, who, when I hold up my calendar to the sky and reveal the thirty days of time elapsed since her agreed upon announcement of Spring, will simply blow me a raspberry and create yet another hard freeze that shrivels even the meritorious efforts of the hardiest of daffodils.

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I assume once you get a taste of that kind of power, it’s pretty impossible to imagine handing it back. Perhaps it’s best I stay on this side of the fence. For here is where I make my tiny miracles happen. And I’m serious about the fact that some divine intervention is needed, because usually finishing some deadline assignment within a manuscript does not come without some serious hours on my knees, looking skyward, and promising to give all future royalties–should there be any–to some worthy cause.

I’m guessing that will end up being the electric company, but if there’s any leftover it will go into the fund to replace my continually dwindling supply of sticky notes and neon colored highlighters.

I suppose if I’m going to be honest, I have found a couple of areas where deadlines are flexible. Booking that annual dentist appointment—because he’s expensive and visits are time-consuming, plus there’s one area in my mouth where I can still chew food and not feel pain, so things must not be that bad. Visiting my optometrist—because ditto to the first two parts, plus I can still drive just fine as long as I cover my left eye and don’t get distracted by the unpredictable arrival of tunnel vision in the right one. And the replacement of cat litter. One just simply needs to recalibrate one’s definition of breathable air.

I’m pretty sure that due dates and deadlines will be the status quo for an indefinite amount of time—at least for me, that is. If things go the way I hope they do for the remainder of my life, I will continue to pump out books that will be not only life-fulfilling but life-sustaining.

In fact, I’d probably die a happy woman and consider my life well-lived if my tombstone’s epitaph read:

Shelley Sackier

Deadline

Deadline

Deadline

Flatline

 

~Shelley

For the time being, our blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

Don’t Even Think About It

According to Eckhart Tolle—one of the world’s greatest living, spiritual philosophers—my brain has been hijacked and taken over by an all-encompassing, unbounded and unremitting dictator.

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This domineering tyrant is in charge of my mind and directs my focus and attention to whatever puzzle or curiosity it’s attracted to—like a magpie spotting a shiny piece of tinfoil on the ground and heading into a nosedive.

Or a bee getting that little zing up its tiny spine and making a straightaway for his morning shot of nectar dusted with trendy macha powder.

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Or discovering what kind of homing pigeon call four competing gas companies receive that announce a newly made cross section of road.

All that scattered focus is part of what Eckhart defines as a wretched epidemic running rampant across our globe—a dreadful affliction, an incessant enslavement, a blight of flesh-eating, biohazardous decrepitude that is pure poison.

Okay, that last part I added myself for pungent emphasis, so scratch that if you’re a stickler for purity, but his message remains:

Thinking has become a disease.

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Huh.

Apparently, the real me is buried deep within a place that requires a treasure map to locate and which is about as obtainable as nuclear warhead access codes.

But it’s there.

And from what I gather, it’s shaking its head at me and making some thoroughly annoying tsking sounds.

Super judgy, if you ask me, but that’s probably the ‘thinking’ part of me saying that, and according to Eckhart, I gotta SHUT HER DOWN.021015eckhart

Well, not entirely.

I’m thinking—er, guessing—that if I close off those roads the devilish despot situated in my brain’s bus driver seat will plow through and easily make a few detours. He’s determined and relentless. A big bulldozing control freak. And I can’t have him behind the controls, running rampant and unshackled.

Thinking about fewer things could be helpful.

Actually, thinking about fewer things is the new ordinance. It’s written in tiny, black ink letters at the bottom of the contract I just signed with my new publishers on page 79.

Thou shalt not obliterate brain cells unless in the effort to complete labor on our behalf.

I get it.

They’re Eckhart Tolling my evil overlord. He’s been too busy with fingers in more pots than those found in a Cuisinart factory. Which means when he rouses from slumber tomorrow morning, he’ll find a cup of tea in a cardboard mug and a bran muffin in a paper bag waiting for him by the front door, as well as his suitcase and passport.

Along with breakfast and the clean underwear I’m making sure the taskmaster is taking with him, he’ll also be tucking a calendar beneath his arm.

The one that contains my blog post schedule.

After nearly four years of popping out weekly essays, the winds of fate are asking I blow hot air in a different direction. So, if it’s not become easy enough to read between the lines thus far, here it is in plain speak:

I’m going into Monk Mode.

Hands have shaken all around. Publishing dates are set. Editors have been met. And sleeves have been rolled up to reveal many sets of attractively sculpted forearms.

I’ve split open a fifty-pound bag of dog chow for the hound and placed it in the middle of the kitchen floor.

I’ve allowed the mouse population to flourish in the basement for the benefit of the cat.

And I’ve filled the pantry with four season’s worth of tinned beans and tuna for my teenage son.

Everyone will be happy.

I’ll be wheeling around a rolling intravenous infusion pole that will alternate two bags filled with either French roast coffee or chamomile tea, and once a week I’ll slip in a dram of whisky for good measure.

This is the new normal. This is the new now.

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The other half of this blog posting team will be up to his earballs in new and exciting work as well. As many of you know already, Rob’s talents extend far beyond his side-splitting sketches, and during the next year he’ll be trying to get a new theater show off the ground in Sweden. As the ground is often frozen and frequently unforgiving, it will require extra effort and a massive sense of humor.

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Thank God Rob has all that in spades.

We’ve had to ponder and plan the roads in front of us.

This is not goodbye, I promise, but rather the announcement of a new schedule for Rob and me.

It’s what we’re referring to as “No Schedule,” just random, occasional posts when we both find ourselves popping up above ground for a breath of fresh air and a check to see who’s ahead in any political polls.

Change is good for all of us. It challenges, invigorates, and inspires us to see and create with fresh eyes. And just like underwear, fresh is hugely appreciated by those who take the time to sit beside you and see what new alluring and inviting art you’ve fashioned since the last time you all had a good chin wag.

We promise to keep in touch and keep you “posted.”

We’ll be thinking of you—even if Eckhart Tolle tells us not to.

~Shelley & Rob

*BONUS ROBIN GOTT CARTOON* (click) 

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

Mark My Words–Even the Confusing Ones

I promise you.

You promise me.

That is the bare basics of a contract.

We both sign on the line that’s either too short, too narrow or too good to be true, promising we’ll each do our thing and come out smelling like roses on the other end of it.

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Well, that’s what’s supposed to happen, right?

Although the Chinese Zodiac has determined that this is the year of the sheep, I, personally, would take issue with this. This is not my year of the sheep or the goat, or any other cloven foot animal. It is the year of the treaty. It is the year in which I have spent a good portion of my time, hunched over paperwork with a magnifying glass, or peering onto my monitor and growing ever closer all with the hopes that if I can move near enough to the words, they will magically make sense with the intensity of my gaze.

Wrong.

They will make sense only if we stuck to something like a common language.

Or if I backed up two decades and decided to go to law school.

Or if maybe Plato, in all his soft and flowy robed glory was sitting beside me and explaining each Latin-based line as we moseyed through them.

Some contracts are wonderfully exciting—like the one I’m scanning with a fine-toothed comb right now—the one that says, We, publishers of great stories big and small, want your book, and then a second to follow the first, and quite possibly a third one to boot.

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These pieces of paper are exactly the kind of documents that make authors realize they are actually gymnasts because of all the back flips and flying Dutchman leaps of joy that ensue. But sometimes you discover that you’re going to have to become an extraordinarily flexible gymnast—like Cirque du Soleil Chinese acrobat flexible because of the Silly Putty stretching you’ve done to come to an agreement.

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And most authors I know are so excited to get published they would be willing to exchange their bones for rubber bands if it would launch their books onto the other side of obscure.

It helps to have a clever agent who speaks contract law, or studied Latin, or can easily recall her past life when she lived in Ancient Rome and clerked for Cicero. So, thanks, Jennifer. Super glad you’ve got my back.

Other contracts will keep you awake at night with a backlit calculator under your pillow for easy access.

Refinancing a mortgage. Need I say more?

Okay, I will.

You own a home. Correction: you live in a home the bank owns. The bank has you sign a contract that states: If you want to live in this home and pretend it belongs to you, you can pay us x amount of dollars for y amount of time.

Now this would all work out fine and dandy if they’d all just leave you alone until you either run out of money, pay off the debt, or run away to open a lobster kabob food truck on the island of Saint Kitts.

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Instead, before the ink has a chance to dry, you’ve already received three offers from a few other financial institutions who announce they’ve got a slightly better deal—at least on the first page of the glossy brochure and as long as you don’t read the fine print. And I think we’ve all been in plenty of situations where because we didn’t read every word of the fine print, we realize something unpleasant is about to hit the fan and we immediately start scouting eBay for that ‘lobkabob lorry.’

A few contracts are meant to make your life considerably easier. The tax accountant who you visit once a year and beg to make sense out of your refrigerator-sized box of receipts. A box which happens to be balancing a plate of homemade cookies on top—cookies you hope will convey the depth of your appreciation.

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Or your health insurance agent who sends you a card on Christmas and your birthday with a fridge magnet and a 500 mg vitamin C tablet taped to the inside of it.

And how about your automobile insurance agency who sends you a monthly email in recognition of payment saying, “Thank you. Now don’t drink and drive. In fact, just don’t drive period. It’s a beautiful day. Go for a walk.”

There are also the everyday ordinary contracts that have become such a part of our mindless existence we don’t see them as contracts any longer.

The library—you give me a snazzy, plastic card and all the books I could possibly shove into six bags each week so that I may read them all for free and in return I will tell you: What? I’m not late with that book. What do you mean I owe twenty-five cents for an overdue book? I KNOW I handed that story in last week. I’m POSITIVE this is your clerical mistake and it’s sitting right now on your shelves—just go take a look … oh, wait. Here it is.

The garbage collector—you come every week on Thursdays to pick up my wretched refuse and do with it what you will, and once a month I’ll send you a check for thirty dollars. Fingers crossed I remember to do it and the check doesn’t bounce.

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The internet provider—I will hemorrhage money your way for the promise of magical world wide connection beyond my wildest dreams, you will occasionally come through with that promise, but not in any reliable fashion, and I will regularly scream bloody murder at those who work within the company, imagining painful, fiery deaths for you all, but in truth have absolutely no recourse.

So there we have it. A cross-section snapshot of my ink and paper maelstrom thus far this year—not a farm animal in sight.

And umm … hey, kids? Head’s up: I may or may not have just agreed to give my new publisher both of your first babies by signing this linguistic puzzle. Time will tell. But I give you my word I won’t do anything like that again.

I promise.

~Shelley

*ROBIN GOTT’s NEW POST* (click) 

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

And How Did That Make You Feel?

Writing a book involves a different recipe of elements for every author. Some folks must write down their story in a longhand format—

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handwritten on legal pads,

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printed in their super-secret diary, or even pieced together on a dry erase storyboard complete with enough 3M sticky note details to plaster a full-scale papier-mâché replica of the Empire State building.

Some of us owe trees a massive apology letter.

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Others are all about their space. They need absolute quiet—or absolute chaos. They need three screens, two dictionaries and a bottle of scotch at their elbow. Maybe they can only write on rainy days so the gloom of a gray day won’t allow the sun to reflect an enticing sparkle across their monitor and make them yearn for two hours of mowing the lawn. Or maybe the rule is that they only write on days when there’s a full moon, their desk is clean and they’ve just found a copper penny.

And some people need deadlines: a class, a critique group, an editor sending threatening daily emails asking where the damn pages are.

It’s a unique process and it’s individual to each writer.

Me?

I just need a therapist.

Seriously. That’s it. My go-to guy.

The way I see it, who knows more about the human condition and all of our frailties than someone who studies the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders for a living? Someone who can gossip at the water cooler about some miserable bloke with serious issues while legally define the gossip as “work?”

Yeah, I figure I’ve hit pay dirt.

So our conversations usually go something like this:

Him: So, what’s on your mind today?

Me: Ugh. How long have we got? An hour? Fifty minutes? Where’d you put your clock? You moved your clock. Did you paint in here?

Him: *silence*

Me: Yep. Smells like fresh paint. I wonder if paint fumes are something that kids can manipulate into drug experiences these days. Are you finding kids are coming into therapy with an addiction to paint fumes? Have you been treating anyone for that lately?

Him: Are you concerned that one of your kids may be struggling with an addiction?

Me: No. Well, who knows, right? There are a million different kinds of addictions so chances are they’ve got a few, but let’s just say they were—no wait, let’s not make it an addiction. Let’s say one of them was struggling with a transgender issue. Yeah. Much more interesting.

Him: Are one of your kids struggling with a transgender issue?

Me: No, but for the sake of this hour today, let’s just say that they are. Tell me everything about it. Wait. Let me get a pen.

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That’s my method.

It doesn’t work for everyone, but I’m not everyone. Unless you were to see the notes my therapist keeps on me, in which case, you might conclude I’ve got some multiple personality disorder. Seeing him each week and discussing “other people’s issues” might have my therapist thumbing through the back pages of his manual in an attempt to discover just how many times a brain can fracture and how many identities it can support.

Chances are, I’m adding a little zing to his day by not coming in with the same ol same ol “I’m just not feeling fulfilled and I think my kids hate me” routine.

That’s what I tell myself anyway.

But my point is—and I pray I have a point—I’m neck deep in the writing process again and it’s a time frame that usually puts me into a time warp. I bury myself so far down rabbit holes with research that I usually come out the other side and discover I’ve come up for air in the middle of a Chinese chicken coop.

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Yeah, deep.

It is incredibly easy for me to lose my “self” within the process and sharply disturbing to have phone calls like this one:

Daughter: Mom? Where have you been? Are you okay?

Me: Fine. What’s up?

Daughter: Seriously? I’ve phoned you four times in the last three hours and sent you eight texts. Did you not get any of my messages?

Me: Wait—I have a phone? Red flag. That would never happen in 18th century Scotland. Thanks for the anachronistic heads up.

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Daughter: *sigh* I need to talk to you about whether or not I can come home for Thanksgiving.

Me: Wait—hold on—I totally forgot about the beef tallow on the stove. I’ve seriously got to get cracking on those tapers. I’m turning meat scraps into Christmas candles. God, the holidays are going to be fun this year.

Daughter: Never mind. *click*

If you’re going to be a successful writer, you really have to dive into your characters. You have to live their lives, have their problems, embrace fleas.

Well, at least for this book.

You have to apologize to your friends and family for being unreachable, unpredictable and for effusing the personal odor of barn animals.

And you also need a therapist. Someone who will help you dig deeply into the problems of “others,” someone who will help you discover the backstory and motivation of your characters,

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and someone whose water cooler conversations will be highly sought after purely for the opportunity to shake their heads and mutter, “If only Freud could see us now.”

He’s my doyen, my muse, and my research assistant.

I owe him a lot.

Seriously.

He’s gotten, like, all of my royalties.

~Shelley

*ROBIN GOTT’s NEW POST* (click) 

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

 

Big Words, Clean Teeth & Jell-O for Brains: a Lovely Recipe for Life

Sue Archer: Editor, blogger, and master of not only English but nearly every science fiction and fantasy language to boot. Linguistic skills more impressive than the blinking and confusing cockpit lights of the Starship Enterprise. Have you need of a first-class editor to guide your manuscript to lofty heights of high-class quality? Sue’s your gal. Hungering for a few golden writing tips to sharpen your blog, your essays, your work-related writing skills? Look no further.

Peruse Sue’s new editorial site and her blog site too—and I do mean peruse in the truest sense of the term. DIG DEEP. There is pure gold in them there words.

And if you feel like putting your feet up for a spell, see her fine interviewing skills down below. It was a pleasure and an honor to work with this lovely, talented lady.

A woman with cosmic talent, and universal appeal.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Conversation Corner with Shelley Sackier

Today I am holding a special edition of Conversation Corner with children’s author and humour blogger Shelley Sackier on her blog Peak Perspective. You don’t want to miss my first ever illustrated interview! Please come visit and read about our conversation on using large words, writing for children, how to be funny, and the advantages of having Jell-O for brains.

 

When I first read your About page, back when I was lucky enough to have discovered your blog, I was immediately struck by two things: your wonderful sense of humour and your mastery of large words. I’d like to know who I can thank for this. Who were your influences? And how did you land upon your clear calling as a humour writer?

Well, firstly, Sue, a prodigious “thank you” for the laudatory commendation.

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Yuck. That sounded awful. And pretentious. And so not me. Except for the part in quotes. I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak with you, as I’ve learned a great deal from reading your essays and articles. But however it was you came to find me, I really should send the contact person a batch of cookies as a show of affection with my bountiful thanks.

And as far as where you can send your thank you card? My hero, Peter Mark Roget—British physician, natural theologian and lexicographer. I think I read somewhere that he liked line dancing as well.

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He wrote a little bestseller back in 1805, which unfortunately for his followers and admiring fan base was not widely published until 1852. But still, it now exists in all its glory. When I discovered there was a book To Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition I nearly had a small rapturous fit of delight. I was hooked. His thesaurus is my daily drug. Every morning I swallow my Omega 3s, glucosamine, and a page of Roget’s work.

Sadly, you may find that Peter is slow with his correspondence. I’m still waiting to hear back from him on a small addition I was hoping he might include in the next release, but you know busy authors, right?

And then there’s my dad. He was really funny whilst I was growing up. He’s still really funny. And much quicker with his exchange of letters.

The classification of a humor writer was something I just morphed into—like how incredibly fit and attractive people slowly mutate into pudgy, sagging, middle-aged folks who are exhausted, underpaid and overworked. It creeps up on you.

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And also, making my children laugh was a good way to surreptitiously see their teeth and discover whether or not they’d brushed before bedtime.

Humor and hygiene go together like Punch and Judy. Well, that might not be a fitting example as they had a fairly contentious relationship. I think you get my point though.

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I definitely get your point. I have found humour goes a long way in persuading kidlets to do all those “good for you” things. Also hugs. And maybe a stern look here or there. Did you find your experiences with persuading your children influenced how you wrote Dear Opl, which has its own “good for you” message about food?

I’m a firm believer in ‘time’ as the best teacher. I’ve always regarded the space between my children’s ears as a swampy, murky mess that was not going to fully settle into its final state until somewhere around the age of 25. It’s like Jell-O. I’ve got to keep tossing in as many parental pearls as I can right now with the hopes that later they’ll be viewed as worthy by the owner.

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That said, my mom drove home the message to me that all those bits of brilliance—the ones that immediately create the teenage phenomena of eyeball rolling, exaggerated sighing and door slamming—will be eureka moments that my children will have on their own and claim 100% ownership to. They will never—and I repeat the word never—remember that you were the one to give them the awesome info.

The best way to keep yourself sane in those moments of unacknowledged revelation is to simply chuckle at how well you worded it the first time around. Although a small part of me wants to leap up on the kitchen table, point a finger at their super smug dispositions and scream, “You’re totally plagiarizing my words from back in 2002 when you were 7!”

I’m guessing it would not go down as a bonding moment for any of us.

But yes, my “Dear Opl” messages are simply a spiffed up version of my “at home” message. And, as becomes clear in the book, not all of those messages are well-received or hit the mark, so I’m sure you can deduce the level of success I’ve had with my offspring.

Thankfully, neither one of them is close to 25 as of yet. I’ve got a ways to go before the Jell-O sets.

All power to you tossing in those pearls of wisdom, Shelley! I’ve certainly enjoyed the thoughts and observations that you’ve posted through your blog. 🙂  Could you share a little more about the message in your book, and how this message is expressed through the story?

One of the most important messages I wanted the book to convey was that there are no magic pills. Life is full of problems and we all have to handle them.

Pushing them away, ignoring them, or pretending they don’t exist creates an unruly monster that ends up taking over. The world is full of advice—both good and bad—but the filter system for determining which is which lies only within ourselves. People have stopped listening to the wisdom of their bodies and minds. It’s there. Buried beneath a boatload of advertising and social pressures to conform, but still there.

The book’s main character, Opl, does a lot of avoiding, rejecting and misguided judging. She’s in an emotionally fragile place as a result of the death of her father and living in a space that no one has been able to help her move through. So she muscles her way around on her own and continues down a path of unhealthy choices because they’re filled with instant gratification. The problem is solved and soothed for now. Kids struggle with looking more than 30 seconds in front of them, and this isn’t due to a lack of intelligence, it’s because of brain development. They don’t have all the tools yet and our job as parents and educators is to hand them those tools and explain the manual. At this point, a lot of it looks like it’s written in Klingon.

The grownups who care for Opl finally clue in to what’s happening and begin to nudge her into a place of growth—the inner kind, which is where she struggled with a deficit. Her grandfather helps her discover real food. Her yoga teacher illuminates Opl’s inner insight. And Rudy, an injured Iraqi vet who works at the food pantry, teaches her about desire and regret. These people are not there to “fix” her problems, but rather draw back the curtain so the chance for self-discovery is available.

As much as I support parents who see the need for their kids to fall down and scrape their knee, they still need the occasional Band-Aid. They are not tiny adults. It’s a fine line we walk in order to keep balance. You give them a little and you step back and watch. ‘Trial and Error’ parenting.

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 Speaking of not being tiny adults…I imagine that writing for a younger audience must have required a very different approach from writing your blog. What types of things did you have to think about when writing your book, as opposed to blogging? And do you have any tips for readers who are looking at writing for younger readers?

In my experience, blogging and book writing are two different beasts, and employ two different skill sets.

I set about blogging to work on something very specific. I wanted to create the ability to demand my muse show up for work every single day. If my butt is in my chair, there had better be some bit of sparkle hovering about in the air that I can reach up and grab by the fistful.

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It was about developing accountability for a job and not relying upon the tired trope of Ah well, writer’s block again. What can you do?

It ain’t easy. But I don’t think true accomplishment is meant to be.

Writing a novel is broken down into blissful and not so blissful sections. There is no feeling in the world to me quite like figuring out a scene, or the dialogue, or discovering the heart of a character and what they bring to the book. Writing Story is a method of therapy and psychoanalysis to me. I discover bits of ancient truth within the unfolding of this scrap of someone’s life. I’m nothing more than a translator of a highlighted piece of the human puzzle.

Okay, so that’s the purple prose flowery blissful part for me. Creativity explodes everywhere.

The not so blissful sections are the deadlines, the edits, the rejections of your edits, the people who don’t understand why you won’t just DO SOMETHING WITH YOUR LIFE. There’s a lot of that and more. You’ll know pretty soon if you’re cut out for this kind of life pursuit or not.

Advice for those looking to write for young readers? Be youthful. Be goofy. Go back in time—really try to propel yourself to those feelings, those situations, that mindset. The way you looked at life was so different. Again, kids are not just tiny adults. They’re a whole different animal, with claws and sharpened teeth, and fairy wings and magic wands. Bring back your ten-year-old self and give her a massive welcome home hug.

My ten-year-old self wanted to write fantasy novels, so I can definitely relate to the fairy wings and magic wands. 🙂 I think as adult writers we need to maintain that level of creativity and imagination if we want come up with compelling ideas and relatable characters. Like the character of G-pa from your story. How did he appear on the scene? (I must admit that G-pa was my favourite character, he kept cracking me right up.)

Every time I wrote a scene including G-pa, I just wanted to squish the guy. His gruff exterior masked a deep love for his grandkids and I loved making him struggle with the desire to show it.

He was effortless to create, and as I’ve come to discover within my books, I apparently always find the need to have a “G-pa” character in it. He’s mostly based on my dad so I’m sure it’s a Freudian thing.

As a side note, I’m a big believer in not having adults solve problems for kids in stories, but I’m also very aware of the fact that knowledgeable, loving, and encouraging adults are an absolute necessity for guidance. I believe the ability to problem solve is one of the greatest skills we can teach our kids, and G-pa felt like a character that could help contribute to that accomplishment.

Okay, now for the final and most important question. What is your favourite homemade dish? (And have your kids mastered the art of making it yet?)

Thankfully, neither of them have taken a strong liking to all those earthy Polish dishes I had to eat while growing up—the ones fortified with blood to try to cure the pastiness out of my people or all the ground up bits that got shoved into intestinal casings and called ‘links you’ll love, I promise—now eat.’

I think we all adore Fajita Nite. Whenever I picked up the vibes that someone’s day was going to hell in a handbasket, it was the one meal that never ceased to lift their spirits. Maybe it’s the fact that I line up all the ‘fill your tortilla with these options’ on the counter and to them it’s like visiting the buffet bar at Applebee’s, or that the house smells like an old Tex-Mex cantina for the next 24 hours, or it could be because I drag the mechanical bull out into the living room for after dinner entertainment—I’m not sure, but we all love it.

And no. I’m thinking it’ll be a while before they decide to make it themselves, if ever. Some recipes just don’t taste of home if you don’t make it there.

No, they don’t! Thanks for inviting me into your blogging home today, Shelley. I’ve enjoyed chatting with you. And all the best to you with your book!

*ROBIN GOTT’s NEW POST* (click)

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

Getting to Know You–er, Me

Today I’m offering up an interview I did with author/blogger/human extraordinaire, Jan Wissmar I had a marvelous time with Jan and I do hope you’ll check out her work. She’s just released her third book, Willful Avoidance and continues to impress me with being someone whose work on this earth is beyond inspirational.

I hope you enjoy.

~Shelley

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Meet Shelley Sackier, author, blogger, pilot, and whisky drinker

 

Today I’m delighted to welcome Shelley Sackier, creator of the always entertaining blog – Peak Perspective – and author of the upcoming teen novel DEAR OPL.

Shelley Sackier headshots 3 (1704x2272)JTT: Hey Shelley – thanks for being here!  First of all, how did you come up with the title Peak Perspective?

SS: The blog title and tagline (Peak Perspective: trying to climb out of the fog.) was born of both sight and wordplay. I live in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I’m surrounded by mountains, and living on top of one gives me a spectacular view, except when it doesn’t. Some days I’m fogged in, occasionally I’m above the cloud base, but most days, the scene is truly breathtaking and allows me a view of three counties. As I’m always staring out one window or another for a moment of inspiration, rare is the day when something remarkable does not flit across my field of vision. It’s a little like living on the live set of a National Geographic special filmed by the WeatherChannel. Some days are truly spectacular. Some days are scary. A couple have made me think that it might be time to start doing bladder strengthening exercises.

Bruichladdic view

JTT: Please send me a copy of those bladder strengthening exercises ’cause I need ’em.  With those spectacular views there must be a lot of artists living in your part of the world, however your illustrator, Robin Gott (who I just adore), is from England, but lives in Sweden. How did you find him?

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SS: I love the fact that Rob and I live in separate countries and have worked together for a few years but have never met. There’s something so remarkably “today’s business world” about that. We were introduced years ago and had almost worked together on a different project. The blog venture just sort of spilled out of that serendipitous past.

Robin is one of those incredibly multi-talented folks whose craft spills over into myriad dimensions. Animation, acting, drawing, writing. His work is prolific and I feel so fortunate to have this time to be creative with him. I’ve discovered what it feels like to work with someone whose brain will likely be preserved for science.

However long the blogging business keeps us artistically woven together, I can think of so many other missions I’d like the two of us to take a crack at. Time will tell. Fingers are crossed. Pencils are sharpened.

JTT:  Blogging does provide us with some interesting bedfellows doesn’t it? Well, “bedfellows” isn’t exactly the right term.  Collaborators?  Gads, that’s not much better… (Help me troops!)

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Speaking of blogging, I’ve been in awe of your blog for a long time.  I wonder if you’d mind sharing some blogging tips and tricks (or is it top secret)?  When did you start?  How did you build your incredibly supportive audience?

SS: Well, firstly, thank you for saying so. That’s the hope of so many writers. Tips and tricks? I think when searching for success, you have to be willing to stick your neck out and embrace vulnerability. And more importantly, you have to be willing to fail. I’ve gotten pretty good at kicking myself out of safe mode, skinning both knees, and then moving on. There’s so much to learn when you make mistakes. Being careful does not make a terribly exciting life. And I crave challenge.

And chocolate. I’m not sure which I devour more.

Also, it might be extraordinarily helpful to have a roadmap—a story grid of sorts. Why are you blogging? Is it to share wedding photos? A trip to Dubai? Your time in the slammer? It helps to understand what the end goal is.

My blogging exploits began strictly to develop a skill I thought I needed improvement with: churning out about 1000 words on demand. Butt in chair, holler to muse, write the damn essay, finish the laundry. When you devote attention to something every day, bit by bit the challenge begins to feel increasingly more comfortable. Welcome to the new normal.

And building the supportive audience comes from caring about what people have to say. There are so many wildly interesting people hon our planet, each with a distinctive voice, and I find it’s like a funky orchestral hot mess when I engage with everyone. It’s a huge time investment, and I’m not looking forward to the approaching day when I’ll have to back off because of other writing commitments—ones from people who rightfully require more time as they’re actually paying me to produce work for them, but I’m hoping to have at least created a community of folks who can carry on the conversation if I’m not there and who have made worthy friendships simply from having had my blog site be one of their playgrounds.

Jonathan Sackier Blue Ridge Mountains Virginia

JTT: “Butt in chair, holler to muse, write the damn essay,” AMEN!  However, you did manage to finish DEAR OPL while building your audience.  Congrats on that major accomplishment.  You deserve chocolate, lots of chocolate.  However, I know from reading DEAR OPL (and your blog) that keeping our food safe, nutritious, and delicious are important issues for you.  I don’t want to spoil the plot for potential readers but the main character, Opl, achieves some amazing things while battling a common bugaboo for many of us growing up:  a negative self-image.  At first, I have to admit I thought the mother was cruel – always making a big issue of Opl’s understandable weight gain (I mean, she had just lost her father!) but by the end you managed to make the mother sympathetic.  I think it had to do with Opl’s growing awareness that staying healthy need not be an arduous task. Was personal experience a motivation for writing DEAR OPL?

SS: I’ve had food issues for as long as I can recall, but not of the same type as Opl. Working in the entertainment industry, one gets judged every which way but Sunday. It was brutal. Costumes were measured and remeasured on a regular schedule. If you lost a pound of sweat during a show from exertion, and your waistband had a half an inch worth of give in it, it was immediately sewed shut. I survived for years believing that fat was an enemy and that tinned peas and Cream of Wheat was my culinary lot in life. This was horrifically rough for someone who grew up in a family full of caterers, butchers and chefs. I loved food, but was growing deprived of it because of the fearful sweeping top to bottom gaze of an unforgiving producer or director.

I was determined to raise kids with the idea of nutrition as the motivating factor for meal planning and food education, and didn’t want to create battles over what we put into our mouths. I knew that as my kids grew more independent I’d lose a lot of sway over what they’d choose to eat. I knew that layering information in small bite-sized chunks, and also walking the talk would be important components of whether or not they’d remember what I’d said, and did as I advised. Most importantly, indulging in food they knew I’d cringe at was a given, but I hoped that they’d pay attention to the correlation between what they ate and how they felt afterward. I know the pressures teens feel when trying to fit in with their friends, and that sometimes food issues become friendship issues. In my mind, I believed they’d make diet related decisions based on things other than what the crowd was doing. They learned to love good food, and cooking it themselves has been an ongoing joyful discovery.

Chloe & Gabe 2015

JTT: You’re absolutely right – making decisions about what to eat based on how you will feel afterwards is far wiser than going along with the crowd but it is a hard lesson for many teens to learn. On your blog you’re doing an excellent job of what marketeers call “building your platform” and so I’m fairly confident this next question will be an easy one for you to answer, please describe Dear Opl’s ideal reader?  Who are you talking to?  What do you hope your readers take away from the book?

SS: DEAR OPL’s reading base is 9 to 13 year-olds, but I’m hoping to attract kids who may be in a similar situation as Opl—those who feel like they are either losing the battle with weight, or who feel they can’t stop eating junk food, but mostly kids who are desperately looking for a bit of direction. People don’t realize how much help is available and often give up before they’ve even begun.

My hope is that Opl will be able to communicate that there is no “magic pill,” and that change can happen in small ways creating a ‘ripple effect’ result. If we expect to shift the habits of a lifetime, it requires education, support, patience and faith that you’re doing the right thing. (And a big dose of self-forgiveness when you don’t.) I feel that all too often we’re told by marketers to expect a miracle with their slick headline promises and mind-blowingly easy overnight success. I’m hoping to impart some savviness.

JTT:  You’re absolutely right – kids are bombarded by “lose weight overnight” ploys which are nothing by quackery.  It’s horrible.  Speaking of horrible, now onto the uncomfortable revelations part of the interview (just pretend I’m Barbara Walters).  You’re a pilot and whiskey drinker, is that correct?  Were you also abducted by aliens like other famous whiskey-drinking pilot drinkers, i.e., Harrison Ford? Please describe some close encounters of the third kind you’ve had while soaring through the clouds.Runway 23

SS: Really? Ford was abducted?

JTT:  Whoops, sorry.  I was actually thinking of the drunken pilot from the movie The Fourth of July who saves the world from aliens somewhat in retaliation for having been abducted by them.

SS:  Whew! Well, flying and whisky have been a significant part of my life. Although, never at the same time for obvious reasons.

When I was first learning to fly, in order to gather up the courage to do solo night flying (which is incredibly different than daytime flying — you’ve got nothing but a Lite-Brite board beneath you), I’d belt out the theme song to Raiders of the Lost Arc while doing finals and preparing to land the aircraft. You have to acquire a fair amount of knowledge to fly and land an airplane, and a teensy bit more if you’re hoping to reuse it. But you also have to have an element of faith.

Also, having an old codger for a flying examiner was a lucky thing. I think he realized as I was taking my final physical flight exam that I was still too timid with the aircraft. He took the controls and shouted, “You’ve got to manhandle this beast, lass! And you’ve got to know its limitations.” He then proceeded to pull the plane up into a stall and let her do a falling leaf pattern for about twenty seconds before recovering the aircraft. He kept shouting, “She ain’t gonna break!”

I think that was about as close to an extra-terrestrial experience as I’ve ever had, as I was fairly sure I’d not live to walk on our planet again.

JTT:  I love that story! My father was a pilot – he loved to get me into his little Cessna and do loop-de-loos! Okay, here’s your chance for revenge, what embarrassing question would you like to ask me?

SS: You see, this is where I’m struggling, Jan. I can find absolutely no dirt on you. You are one of the most impressive humans I’ve come to know. Your work with the Make a Wish foundation, your advocacy for at risk foster children, your books, your blog, your terrific writing … yeah, I got nothin’.

But maybe I’ll ask the question readers are probably wondering: how is it that you can get so much done in one lifetime?

JTT: How sweet of you but perhaps I should have given you my ex-husband’s phone number!

Whenever I hear the theme song from Raiders, I’ll think of you soaring across the skies! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me and best wishes for the release!

092314_DearOpl_HiRes (533x800)DEAR OPL is available for pre-ordering on Amazon here.  The official release date is August 4, 2015.  Here’s my review:

DEAR OPL is an honest look at a problem facing many young teens: negative self-image brought on by weight gain.  It is also the story of a family trying to move ahead after a catastrophic loss.  Young OPL (who left the “A” off her name in order to lose weight – LOL!) has a talent that surprises her classmates and gives her an outlet for the ongoing frustrations of teen life.  She can blog!  In fact, she rapidly becomes a blogging superhero as “Dear Opl” dispelling advice to her peers with an abundance of sass and wit. But she doesn’t just make a difference in her own life, she reaches out and makes a difference in the lives of others.

*ROBIN GOTT’s NEW POST* (click)

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

How Not to Make a Name for Yourself

I grew up in a family where no one was called by their real name. Unless you were in trouble, in which case your first name was crisply pronounced and your middle name was thrown in for good measure. And, of course, if you were found responsible for some irreparable damage your last name was tacked on, but you usually couldn’t hear it above the steely sounds of a long kitchen knife being sharpened.

No, instead of our real names, we were all given nicknames.

And I think this might have been fun if the names were those that described some of our perceived awesomeness. But none of them did.

I actually liked the name my folks assigned to me—my real one that is. But rare was the day when someone just called me Shelley rather than Shelley Belly. Or worse, Shelbert Bellus. Or even Shelbert Bellus the Third.

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I remained befuddled as a child as to why anyone would make the mistake of naming someone something so dreadful the first time around, and then repeat it for two further generations.

Even the cat and the dog could not opt out in my childhood home. The cat was called Die Spitten de Scratchin’

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and the dog Die Arfen Barker.

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It must be explained that these are names my dad labeled the animals whilst we, his kids, were all studying German in school, and he felt like participating in our nightly lessons so he’d not be left out.

I love the study of names—am truly fascinated by it—which is somewhat unusual in the fact that I can never remember anybody’s. I have tried all types of games and mnemonics, including word association, drilling in that one thing that is most likely to allow the person’s name to spring back into my head from the mere thought of that crucial clue. But I often forget ‘the crucial clue,’ or when seeing this person’s face again I’m at a total loss as the only thing that comes to mind is the word spatula or the phrase just like the disease.

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Not terribly helpful. And in many cases, offensive if I make the wrong guess.

As a writer of fiction, I am given the opportunity to name as many people as I want to invent. It is one of the most joyful parts of writing stories next to cashing in the abundant checks that nearly freeflow from your publisher’s bank account to your mailbox.

Or so I’m told.

I noticed recently while working on two of my books, that both my main characters take issue with their names. Here’s an excerpt from one:

Sophie—it is so not the right name for me. And it does nothing to inspire the coolness of my clan—or breed—or whatever you want to call my people. It should have been something like Zaharasta or Valentina. Something that took a couple of years to learn how to spell.

And an excerpt from the other:

My name is Opal, but I don’t spell it that way. It now looks like this: OPL. I kicked out the A. I figure if Mom wants me to lose weight, maybe she’d perk up if at least my name shrunk by twenty-five percent.

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See what I mean?

To be frank, I’m pretty sure I spent more time deliberating over the names of all the characters in my books than I did deciding on those of my children.

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But seeing as I didn’t get into novel writing until just after having my second child, it might not hold as much weight.

OR … it might indicate some latent unhappiness with my impetuous and perfunctory labeling of the two human beings I birthed.

See? This whole author thing might only be a physical manifestation of a deep, rueful regret I’ve ignored and carried around for years and have been unconsciously wrestling with until I feel I’ve sorted out the perfect name for both my kids.

I wonder how they’re going to react when in a year or two I approach them with an amended birth certificate and the announcement that I have legally changed their names to that which I find more befitting of who they truly are?

(Note to self: check with therapist to see if there exists any disorder that points toward birth name buyer’s remorse.)

Currently, I’m struggling with the title for one of my finished books. Nothing feels right. Nothing sounds right. And I think we all know how critical one’s novel title is, right? It’s the first thing you see, the first thing you read. It has to hit you right between the eyes with this come hither look.

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I emailed my agent a list of potentials from a thick notebook I’ve been carrying around and filling up. She wrote back and intimated I might have just killed a small tree for nothing—only in much nicer English.

I’m rethinking the whole title thing though. I’m thinking of pitching the publisher an idea that maybe instead of a title, we just go with a scent. I write about food and whisky and history. Why not make the books give off an aroma of chocolate and scotch and mothballs?

It might be the newest thing in publishing.

Or I may receive a curt reply back from my editor asking me to stop sending him emails and to just find a damn title we’re all happy with.

So seeing how my name is beginning to accrue more than my fair share of black marks against it, I’d best get back to work. Or soon my name is mud.

~Jane Doe

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*ROBIN GOTT’s NEW POST* (click)

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

Why I Wrote DEAR OPL

Who Writes a Prologue to a Blog Post? … Umm, Me.

A heads up to this beautiful community I have come to know and embrace. The next three posts are not ‘blog posts’—they are a polished rough draft of a speech.

I’m crowdsourcing and asking for your valuable input.

The speech isn’t about the book I’ve written for children, it’s about the messages within the book that I’m trying to highlight by spreading awareness. Years ago, these topics grabbed me by the shoulders, shook me until my teeth rattled and demanded I do something about them.

The book is a vehicle to address these topics with children. The speech is my outreach campaign to engage parents, educators, and activists who care about how food politics are aggressively influencing our health.

So, I’m asking you to read and comment. Help me make an impact. Tell me what works for you, what doesn’t, what you’d like to see more of, or what you feel detracts. Your opinions matter to me.

This is not a plea to purchase my book. This is an appeal to help me make a difference. If this isn’t your shtick, I promise your names will still be rattled off in my nightly prayers of Please let these folks win some lottery in life. The point is to take advantage of eager, willing voices and collective brain power.

Your thoughts mean a great deal to me. I want to carry them with me as I carry this message to others.

And now … Why I Wrote DEAR OPL.

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I’m usually not one for eavesdropping—okay, who am I kidding? I’m a writer. I’m always listening in on conversations all around me. It’s a fountain-like source of creativity I regularly tap into. And it’s addictive. But it’s part of my job.

On this particular occasion—while I was working—I just happened to overhear a conversation that made me cringe. We were in Australia, and my then seven-year-old son was chatting with an Australian lad who was just a little bit older than him. The boy asked my son where he was from. I heard my son answer, “America.” The other boy’s response was, “Oh. Where the fat people live.”

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I sat back and thought about that unflattering national slogan. It did not have a sexy ring to it.

I thought about a few other places that had slogans to capture the essence and beauty of what they had to offer.

Egypt: Where it all began.

Bahli: The islands of gods.

Disneyland: The happiest place on Earth.

And now …

America: Where the fat people live.

The more I thought about it, the more a few other slogans repeatedly popped into my head. Like this one:

McDonald’s: I’m lovin’ it.

It gave me a lot to chew on—excuse the pun—but it really had me thinking about how big ideas could be distilled down to a few simple words. And sometimes those words could leave a bad taste in your mouth.

But I like slogans. I am all about slogans—or catchphrases or mottos—whatever you want to call them. I surround myself with them because throughout my whole life I’ve found them to be effective.

In fact, here’s an example of just how powerful one became:

As I was growing up, studying classical music was a precise and strictly defined practice. There were rules and not much wiggle room for interpretation of any of them.

I remember as a teenager sitting at the piano with a friend of mine who had not studied classical, but was rather raised playing jazz and improv. We were very different musicians. One afternoon we tried to find a song that both of us could play together on the piano. It ended up being something I could read off sheet music and he improvised alongside.

When we’d finished the piece, he turned to me and said, “Okay, now don’t do it regular.” I didn’t know any other way but regular, and when I found out that’s what I was, I aimed to change it.

In fact, that became the slogan with which I raised my children. My children weren’t particularly thrilled with my ‘swim against the current’ motherly advice as it made them stick out in ways that would make most kids’ toes curl. Their complaining fell on deaf ears and was usually followed with that old parental pearl of It’ll build you some character!

When years ago I heard the highly acclaimed entrepreneur, Seth Godin, say, “Ordinary is boring,” I nearly leaped out of my skin. I wanted to rush to my children and point out that I wasn’t crazy, I wasn’t trying to ruin their fun, I was simply trying to enrich their lives.

That phrase of Just Don’t Do It Regular became a theme song I was determined to sing when coaching my kids through countless situations as if I were some first draft version of Maria Von Trapp or a slightly more colorfully dressed adaptation of Mary Poppins. The last thing I wanted for them was a ‘go with the flow’ predictable experience. I wanted them to counteract the narrative of their generation. If they had something to say to the world, it would take words noteworthy and uncommon in order to be heard above the fray.

And people pay attention to noteworthy and uncommon. After that trip to Australia, it seemed like I repeatedly stumbled upon the same message directed at a growing swath of our planet’s population.

We are in trouble, people. We have a big fat problem on our hands … and hips and thighs and bellies.

I couldn’t ignore the message.

After slogging through a forest full of research articles and data authored and collected by the World Health Organization, the Center for Disease Control and a compilation of all of Dave Letterman’s Top Ten lists, I realized that some of my sources were—although meticulously detailed and scientific—extremely dry and nearly impossible to swallow.

It’s as if the WHO and CDC embraced both Seth and McDonald’s mottos and made an unlikely lovechild tagline for themselves: We’re boring, and lovin’ it.

My guess is that neither of the big research and data collection agencies thought their articles could use any spicing up—with something like a massive neon lit memo—in order to hail the attention of the folks who were most desperately in need of reading it.

Extracting the main point message was easy though:

A shocking number of people are eating themselves to an early death. In particular, children.

I spent a lot of time looking around and asking the silent question, Does everyone know this? And then I spent a lot of time thinking it really shouldn’t be a silent question. And lastly I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how I could take the message about our world’s growing epidemic of obesity and spread the word in a way that wouldn’t make people fall asleep with their eyes open.

To reach children, I wrote a book.

But for all of you, I’ve broken the message into three bite-sized portions of important information that I’ve gathered from myriad experts—aka folks far more clever than me—whom I’ve hunted down from all corners of this great round ball we live on. Those three points—the meat and marrow of this talk—are thus:

  1. WHAT WE EAT
  2. WHAT WE KNOW
  3. WHAT WE NEED TO DO

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*I hope you’ll come back next week for part 2 of 3. And I hope you may consider offering your thoughts thus far.

Cheers everyone!

~Shelley

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

A Peek at What’s Coming Down the Pike

And here we are, folks. A peek into DEAR OPL–a project of mine that began probably around the same time ancient Babylonian astronomers were first discovering some of our solar system’s inner planets.

You’ll see the synopsis, the first chapter, and the first press reviews by Kirkus.

I hope you’ll enjoy.

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SYNOPSIS

There is a sinkhole deep inside thirteen-year-old Opl Oppenheimer, and for two years she’s plugged the leak with a wad of junk food. But a hole from heartbreak is tricky. And anyone who’s experienced eighth-grade science frog dissection knows a heart can’t be repaired by a bubblegum band-aid. Worse still, overweight Opl now faces diabetes and must swallow the bitter news that sugar is the problem and not the solution to filling the empty space her dad’s presence used to occupy. Even the school’s galling version of celebrity chef Alfie Adam’s Meal Madness is turning Opl’s self-prescribed soothing syrups into miserable medicine. Mock meat and healthy colon slogans plague the lunchroom walls, encouraging change. But Opl can’t see the value of changing her whole life to save her future since it’s the past she wants to retrieve.

Opl identifies a scapegoat for her growing burdens and rallies an internet attack on Alfie Adam. The plan backfires, threatening the success of her mom’s bookstore, the loss of her best friendship and an international lawsuit. To win back her friend, Opl is forced to pledge allegiance to her arch enemy–the health-crazed chef, but in doing so realizes that, just like kimchi, festering problems, if handled correctly, can produce something a whole community can savor.

 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

DEAR OPL

by Shelley Sackier

Chapter One

The dark enveloped me, squishing my lungs. Like the engulfing bear hug you get from an uncle who’s built like a lumberjack. But this black was so tarry and thick, it made me feel as if I were breathing syrup and forced my heart to thud in my chest. I blinked again and again, and squinted hard, hoping something—anything— would come into focus. I wanted to sprint for my bed, to hide beneath my quilt, where nothing but fuzzy warmth and an old licorice stick are allowed. But I needed this. I couldn’t leave because I had to get rid of the awful ache that poked at my sleep. If I fed it, like a lion at the zoo, it would circle and grow quiet. Sometimes.

Even though I wasn’t supposed to.

My hands fluttered in front of me, like a couple of blind butterflies. They bumped against a pointed edge. I jerked back, thinking I’d been bit, but I took a breath and crept forward until I touched it once more. I traced my skittish fingers along its form until I felt certain the thing wouldn’t strike at me with sharpened fangs and light up with red demonic eyes. It was a box of cereal. And it had to be Froot Loops because the pantry was a bundle of lip-smacking scents like tangy lemon, zingy orange, electric lime, and mouth-watering cherry. This meant Ollie had left the bag open and steam would shoot out of Mom’s ears because it’ll have gone stale by morning. I sighed with relief because as far as I knew, no one has ever been seriously injured by sugary, ring-shaped cereal. Then, again, maybe my younger brother would be the first.

I pushed the box aside and moved my hands higher up. I knocked another smaller carton to the floor, where it bounced off my sock-covered foot. I squatted, sweeping my hands across the floorboards until I found it. Bringing the package to my nose, I sniffed its edges. It smelled like Thanksgiving—well, not the last one, but the twelve others before that. It smelled of cinnamon and apples. It smelled of happiness.

I opened the box and felt inside, my fingers searching for more of the memory. They picked up a tiny pouch. A tea bag. It made the sound of Mom’s old flower seed envelopes, the ones she held up each spring and shook like tiny maracas. “April showers bring May flowers! Let’s go plant some future sunshine.”

That didn’t happen this spring. Or the one before it.

I fumbled about until I found an empty spot I could push the tea bags into and then let my fingers wander farther across the shelf. They collided into something crinkly. Bingo!

I pressed my hands around the package. It had the right sound—like crunching plastic—when I squeezed it. I pulled it to my nose. Yes, definitely the right smell. And not one I could attach to any other thing. It was powdery sweet. Buttery. Not quite chocolate but deep, like cocoa. It mixed with scents of sugared vanilla—a cream so luscious, it ran slickly against your tongue. This was not just a food; it was a feeling. I wanted those Oreos so badly my mouth started watering like a mini sprinkler.

I felt around for the opening, the plastic pullback tab that granted you access right to the very heart of the package and the cure-all cookies. Tonight’s remedy. But something was wrong. The pull tab was missing. I groped the front and back, skimming its sides, trying to catch the sticky edge like you do when your Scotch tape has come off the metal ridge and sealed itself back onto the roll. It wasn’t there. I couldn’t find it.

Something brushed against my cheek and I reeled back in fright, bumping into the rickety pantry steps behind me. My fingers slapped at my face, but found only my hair falling out of its messy ponytail. With a racing heartbeat, I ventured a hand along the wall, searching for the light switch. Then I pulled back. I’d better not turn on the pantry bulb, because the glow would creep down the hall and shine like a headlight through Mom’s open bedroom door. She was a super light sleeper. She could leap out of bed at the sound of a cricket passing gas on the back porch.

But I needed those cookies.

A flashlight! That’s the answer. I bent down to hunt the lower shelf beneath the microwave. In my mind I could see four of them on the ledge, lined up like eager soldiers: sentries of the dark. But I bumped into one and they tumbled like dominos. I held my breath, trying to absorb the clunking sounds. I made that lungful stay put and listened, wishing I had a third ear. At the relief of no footsteps rushing into the kitchen, I grasped one of the tipsy warriors against the dark, flipped its switch, and looked at the package in my other hand. I held the Oreos all right, but they’d been double packaged, slipped inside a Ziploc bag along with a folded piece of stationery.

I sat down on the old wine crate Mom used as a step, forgetting about how badly it creaked, and unzipped the plastic bag. I pulled out the note and tilted the beam toward the words. It said:
Dear Opal,
Please don’t eat these. Remember your diet.
I love you,
Mom

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To Pre-order DEAR OPL (Published August 4, 2015)

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KIRKUS REVIEW

In the two years since her father’s death from cancer, Opal’s life has gone awry.

Grief and her family’s altered dynamics have contributed to Opal’s struggles with food and weight. She is increasingly at odds with her mother, who is overwhelmed and distracted. When her mother encourages Opal to start a blog as a way to document her food intake, Opal decides to use it to express her thoughts instead. Soon, Opal’s sharp, humorous observations as “Opl” garner interest as people respond to her commentary. Sackier captures Opal’s emotional turmoil as she grieves for her father and resists her mother’s campaign to persuade her to diet. When a savage blog entry directed at a popular chef earns Opal criticism from her best friend, remorse—along with an alarming health diagnosis from Opal’s doctor—compels Opal to reconsider the chef’s healthful-food philosophy. Sackier conveys a message about healthy habits without lecturing. Opal’s adventures in cooking and yoga—with occasionally comical results—alter her perspective, and her changing attitudes reflect her personal and emotional transformation. As Opal endeavors to better understand who she is, she gains a greater awareness of others’ life circumstances as well. When a chance encounter leads to Opal’s acquaintance with Rudy, a regular visitor to the local soup kitchen, Opal devises a kindhearted plan to help him.

By the story’s conclusion, readers will be happy they traveled with Opal on her journey to self-acceptance. (Fiction. 10-14)

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Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Text No Evil

Here’s a scary fact:

There are two people inside of me.

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Okay, wait. That sounded much more alarming than I wanted it to. Let’s try that again.

I hear two voices.

Nope. That doesn’t really work either.

And this has nothing to do with the whole author thing where we train ourselves to get inside a character’s head and write from their perspective, which, when you really think about it could be considered a bit invasive and creepy.

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What I’m actually talking about are the conversations behind conversations. The things that come out of one’s mouth when in dialogue with another versus the things that get whispered, grumbled or screamed inside your head and nobody but the real you is there to hear.

We all do it, so there’s no need to fear I need a few week’s rest in the nearest laughing academy—although a softly padded rubber room and a nurse with a needle full of snoozing juice could be considered a worthy vacation at this point in time. I may reevaluate the idea.

It’s just that lately I’ve become more aware of how loud that inner voice is growing.

Maybe it’s the fact that I have teenagers and realize that no matter how hard I try, putting parental lessons in my best Disney Princess Voice is no longer a viable tactic, but my Nurse Ratched routine isn’t gonna fly either.

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Or it might be that I’m preparing a series of presentations to schoolchildren about food and have this desperate desire to get on my hands and knees, grab them by the shoulders and shout that “Scientists have discovered rats will work eight times harder to get sugar than they will to get cocaine!” Except this will have me escorted out classrooms and libraries faster than a gun fight in a phone booth.

The art of communication is tricky.

I think we all probably remember that well-drilled-in childhood lesson stating If you don’t have anything nice to say, maybe you’re not cut out for social media—or something like that. But I’m realizing that of late I’m growing quite desperate to allow my inner ‘best if kept caged’ thoughts to escape and run rampant.

Many of these urges happen when I’m texting. There’s the response I actually text, and then the response I actually say while typing out the text. Oftentimes they’re contradictory, or one is passable for the National Security Agency’s eyes and the other is my “air text” which is the message my fingers were itching to type.

And I’m getting pretty good at spotting the air texts written by other folks as well. Especially those of my kids. A typical conversation might go something like this:

Hey Mom?

Hi, Bud. What’s up? (read: Why are you texting me in the middle of the school day? You’d better not be in trouble. Is there a police officer standing next to you?)

I’m not feeling good. (read: I’m sick of school.)

And? (read: Ask the office for an Advil and head back to math, Mister.)

I think I need to come home. (read: I’m so not ready for the chemistry quiz.)

Sorry to hear that. (read: Suck it up, buddy.)

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I just need to get into bed. (read: I really want to watch the next five episodes of Archer.)

Are you sure you can’t stick it out? (read: If you think you’re skipping out on the rest of the afternoon to binge watch Netflix you’re about to be sorely surprised.)

No. Please call the office and get me excused. (read: Show some mercy here, Mom. I CAN’T TAKE THAT QUIZ!)

Fine. (read: Did you hear how loud my sigh was? It was deafening on my end.)

I have to stop and get gas on my way home. (read: I need snacks while I binge watch Archer.)

You’d better have a raging fever and be tossing your cookies once you open the front door. (read: There actually wasn’t any finger itching air text here. I sometimes actually write what I mean.)

I think it may be more challenging to squish a troublesome inner voice if you’re naturally a snarky individual, or determined not to be judged by the size of your brain but rather the size of a brain you’re convinced you deserve, or if you’re nearly certain there’s an 18th century sharp-tongued fisherman’s wife controlling your vocal chords—all of which are true, and do not make the task an easy one.

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On the flipside, these growing urges to speak my mind may stem from a healthy diet of female empowerment slam poetry Youtube videos or maybe just an extra large serving of Beyonce lyrics—it doesn’t matter. The point is, the older I become, the more ankle I want to show.

Or perhaps it’s simply a matter of deciphering what are the most important messages I need to get across and what’s the most precise manner in which to do so.

Maybe those extra voices in my head fighting to be heard aren’t all brash and uncouth. Maybe it’s not tact I’m fighting for, but truth I’m fighting against. Maybe with each successive year I’m realizing the unbridled freedom of truly saying what I mean.

Or it could be that I forgot to take my meds this morning.

Time will tell I suppose. It will surely reveal if any of these musings are worthy and will likely determine where my next vacation will be.

~Shelley (or Sybil)

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Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

We Need to Talk

I talk to my dog a lot.

Occasionally, I’ll exchange a few lyrical syllables with my cat.

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When my teenagers are around—and if you’ve ever owned a couple, you’ll know that the frequency of those events diminish exponentially in relation to the number of Facebook friends they acquire—I remind myself to listen instead of lecture. Well, that’s the plan anyway.

But ‘talking’ is something I’m going to have to get good at—and fast. Because if you publish a book, history tells us that the success of that book reaching the hands of interested readers only happens if you actually announce it exists.

And you have to announce this A LOT.

But this is a problem. For me anyway.

Public speaking is something I used to do and got paid for it. But three things were categorically different back then. One – I was pretty young. Two – this was the music industry. And three – I knew that most of the individuals in the audience were three sheets to the wind and wouldn’t remember what I’d said in the morning if they found themselves presented with a pop quiz at breakfast.

This time, it’s a whole new kettle of fish. Or ballgame. Or can of worms if you really love clichés—which I don’t, and avoid like the plague.

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As a young mother, I got used to the idea that repetition was key to remembering. I lived by the book of layering life skills—which is just a fancy way of saying that I came to realize what all newbie parents realize: gurgling, wobbling infants have precious little recollection of you spending an inordinate about of time warning them that they should never do drugs, discover what inspires them, and always check the expiration date on a quart of milk before drinking from it.

Therefore, I got really good at repeating myself. Ad nauseum. And this is pretty much what my children have decided is my name translated into Latin.

And speaking about my upcoming book would be a helluva lot easier if that was the only book I have written and was still steeped within its plot, characters, and setting. But I’m not. I am two and a half books ahead of it, and writing a blog, and critiquing other writers’ manuscripts,

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and continually in the process of creating new untraceable identities for myself in order to keep one step ahead of the British legal system that is in pursuit of an unpaid parking ticket. Yes, the sign said ‘Diplomatic cars only.’ But after a quick conversation with my rental car, I immediately surmised it was extraordinarily tactful. It qualified.

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My point is, I can’t keep everything straight, and some things I’ve allowed to leak out of my head in order to make room for others. And not having a well-organized memory palace, I’ve forgotten in which rooms I’ve placed important people and data.

How many folks will be willing to sit in front of me at the podium and patiently wait while I attempt to recall if this was the book where I wrote about my passion for all things related to the US Postal Service, or if it was the one where I canonized the inner workings of college dormitory laundry facilities and the secrets withheld by the Dean of Sanitation? I think we can safely assume I’ll be offered a short grace period of substance summoning.

That said, my desk is becoming littered with sticky notes, wall pasted pages, and 3D models made from deli plastic spoons all meant to keep fresh in my mind the topics I will soon be rattling on about. And these desperate attempts to solidify needed data in my head are bleeding over into more areas than just my workspace.

I’ve got a chart of bullet points in the bathroom.

Opening up the fridge reveals a list of statistics that illustrates the bullet points.

Turning back the duvet on my bed uncovers the twelve most helpful and amazing memory tricks—three of which I am capable of remembering—and it also uncovers cat hair. Apparently someone else in my household is determined to ward of dementia.

Or maybe she’s got a lecture coming up and our calendars have not yet synced.

I’ve also forced myself to listen to a lot of podcasts about public speaking and body language, because apparently even if you have the most dynamic ability to recall your sparkling speech, it can be wholly disconcerting if the only things barely moving are your upper and lower lips and you’re in a death lock gripping stare with the coffee pot on the refreshment table.

I get it.

Move about. Engage in eye contact with the entire room. Make sweeping arm gestures, but not ones that will leave folks wondering if you’re signaling for help or attempting to land a Boeing 757.

And change the pitch of your voice but don’t display any vocal fry. Not too high, nor too low, don’t swallow your words, nor over pronounce them. Use the mic, try to project, speak from the diaphragm, make sure you’ve got all your teeth in—the list goes on.

Preparing to speak in front of a crowd is about as nerve-wracking as being an intern who is allowed into your first surgical experience and handed the job of holding onto the life-preserving clamped aorta just before being warned by the nurse opposite you that you should be careful because Nigel, the anesthesiologist, is quite the practical joker and loves to sneak up on first year residents and catch them off guard by tickling them under the armpits.

So I’m trying to get prepared. For all the upcoming talking.

At the rate things are going, with all the hazards, pitfalls, and potential snags, I may just talk myself right out of talking altogether.

~Shelley

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I Have A Lot To Answer For

If I were to take a whack at describing myself in one sentence, it might sound something like: I have a zest for drama, a hunger for adventure, and a thirst for knowledge.

Perhaps it’s a bit pretentious sounding, but not so much once you discover my zest for drama may be nothing more dramatic than putting four drops of sriracha sauce into my mayonnaise.

And that my hunger for adventure may equate to simply switching to a tooth whitening paste instead of just cavity fighting, and then holding up a series of paint swatches next to my teeth each night to document the exciting voyage from drab to dynamite.

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But my thirst for knowledge is an unquenchable longing. The more I feed that fire, the more outrageous and irrepressible it grows. It’s like my curiosity is a tape worm that feeds on facts and data. And I’ve always been very maternal about that critter, so I nourish its gluttonous appetite to extremes.

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I have a lot of questions. And I’m determined to have them answered.

Using my own inquiring mind as a measuring stick, I’d have to say I’m hugely impressed with the depth and breadth of curiosity my publisher has regarding me and this zesty, hungry, thirsty life of mine. They casually handed me a smattering of queries to answer, and ended the request with the cordial advice not to stress over the questionnaire.

And I wouldn’t as long as I was the type who didn’t equate the measurement of the word smattering to mean BUCKETFULL, and who did not define the term stress to translate into FREAK OUT.

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But I do.

And I have.

So every day I am chipping away like a Lilliputian lumberjack at the plethora of probing pleas for info.

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There are the easy-peasy questions whose answers roll right off my tongue, like What are you reading right now? And What are your favorite books? Or even What did you have for breakfast?

Okay, that last one was not a bonafide question, but I did let them know the answer regardless, as surely everyone knows that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, next to lunch and dinner, and that if you’re going to invest massive amounts of capital into the mind-blowingly expensive campaign launch of that fairly unknown person’s book, you’re going to want to know that they’re eating enough fiber and not just surviving on the remnants of whatever is still in the half drunk tumblers scattered about the house from last night’s regular drunken spree and a pack of Marlboros.

See? I care about this job.

Some of the more challenging questions are:

What is your education? Your professional training? Have you earned a degree?

Again, I don’t blame the company for wanting to know these tidbits of historical interest, as they have agreed to publish a book I’ve written for children that has buried subliminal messages within the text. And parents are much less apt to purchase a book for their children if they discover the author took sewing lessons from Cruela de Vil and now sports a coat made from puppies, and who for a short, but unfortunate period of time in her life, shared a cell wall with Hannibal Lecter and is still Facebook friends.

Umm … yeah. It’s best to ask about your employee’s formative past.

They ask a million little detail questions that have me unpacking my brain of the detritus clogging the path to the tiny nooks and crannies that hold the answers. Out go the bits I just learned about new tax laws and regulations. Who needs to hang on to the abominable vaccination statistics I allowed to seep in whilst listening to the news this morning? And let’s shove aside that web site address that announced a sale on rare malt whisky—wait, hold on … yeah, I’m gonna need that one front and center.

I work around it.

Tell us all the places you have lived and when. List every club and organization you’ve ever had membership with. And explain to us why you did so poorly on that book report about Native American hunting traditions and trading practices in the fifth grade?

I thought I had that last one all trussed up and buried, but these guys are good. They are thorough. It’s possible I’m being vetted for a political appointment. I’ve watched House of Cards. I understand ‘talking points.’

It appears there may be a few things I’ll want to steer clear of when doing interviews.

What I have noticed mostly while going through this laborious process, is that putting together a successful marketing campaign for a book launch is a lot more involved than simply hanging a sign out the window that is the equivalent of “Lemonade for sale. 5¢ a glass.” Some of it is far beyond my realm of understanding and I’m relieved someone else is sitting in the captain’s chair for that part.

But still, it all comes down to the hankering for learning. Learning about building this campaign. Learning about breaking down monumental tasks into small bite-sized chunks.

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And learning that apparently sending a monthly supply of brownies to my high school’s secretary in exchange for “losing” my academic record might be a plan I’ll need to beef up.

Regardless of how I phrase it—the zest, the hunger, the thirst—it all boils down to nourishing one’s spirit and satisfying one’s soul. When I get the munchies, I shall slake my appetite by feasting on the buffet of life. But apparently I will have to slide over and make room on the bench for my publisher.

Please pass the salt.

~Shelley

*BONUS CARTOON FOR THIS WEEK’S POST!* (click)

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

Related articles

 

Rockets and a lot of Red Glares (part 5)

This is it. The concluding chapter. The final phase of this fantastic tale Hopefully Not a Waste in Space. This is where our hero’s outcome and the outcome of her heroic journey are finally unveiled.

And in my attempt to liken this to a finely structured story, it’s broken down into bite-sized bits for ease of mastication.

We have had the Big Goal: This is where our protagonist—sweet child ‘o mine—launches her balloon—SkyHAB (sky high altitude balloon, carrying what I swear is nothing more than a giant cloud urinal) 100,000 feet upward, with fingers crossed, to capture space data – Episode One.

Next we came upon The Crisis: SkyHAB launched, but the GPS landlubbered. The balloon was untethered and unaccounted for. We petitioned the US Government for a reimbursement of paid taxes that went toward defective global spyware and are awaiting our refund which should arrive any day after the twelfth of Dream On – Episode Two.

Following that was the Recommitment to the Goal: WE LOCATED SKYHAB!  … sort of – Episode Three.

At last we came to The Climax: The hunt for SkyHAB was filled with deadly peril. It ended with a heart-palpitating car chase and potential capture by Lizzie Borden’s grandson. Was this the end for the balloon and our young scientist with behemothic book smarts but space cadet street smarts? – Episode Four.

And finally, The Dénouement or The Reveal: I’d spill the beans, but then you may never read further then the end of this sentence.

So much tension you could practically string this story between two toothpicks and walk across it.

Ah, the makings of a tale that falls a few levels below Dreamworks, but a notch above your average 9th grade history newsreel. And one we can wrap up tout de suite. Because I’m sure many of you are wondering whether or not my child is still alive.

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I was too.

For twenty minutes I sat staring at the phone willing it to ring, wondering and panicking at the thought that my daughter had been nabbed by a child snatcher who was following her as she attempted to recover her balloon, parachute and THE PAYLOAD in the middle of no-cell-hell. And every three minutes I phoned her with nothing but her snarky voicemail message to taunt me.

Hi, you’ve reached Chloe. Leave me your details and I’ll call you back … if I like you.

I paced. Did deep breathing exercises. Stared at Google Earth and its wretchedly slow updates. I made an award winning sculpture of the Hubble telescope with nothing more than plastic spoons and recycled tin foil.

Twenty-two minutes after loss of contact the phone rang.

“Hey,” Chloe said.

“HEY???” I echoed. “Hey? I was about to phone 911! What happened?”

“Oh, him? Yeah, he was weird. We may need a sizeable back up team. No worries. I’m on my way. What’s for dinner? I’m starvin’ Marvin.”

*face palm*

Two days later was the big senior project seminar. My daughter had to give a couple of presentations to explain her adventures and unveil her results. Well … no balloon equals no data, as all the data was in THE PAYLOAD. And THE PAYLOAD was somewhere in the Sandy River Reservoir. Camera footage, statistical calculations, motherboard bits and pieces that tell you the secrets of the universe were all gone. There go your hopes and dreams. Science shakes its head at you, tsking.

Still, the presentations were stellar. A lot of telling, but no showing–yet somehow still stellar.

THEN …

The next day I received a phone call from some wild woman screaming. I finally recognized the dulcet tones of my child and asked her to pull it down a few decibels.

Someone found the balloon!

And not just someone. She said his name was Papa Smurf.

My mind immediately envisioned a small pack of blue forest creatures that lived near the reservoir where SkyHAB went down, and somehow, purely in the interest of furthering science, they managed to break their cardinal rule of no contact with humans and phoned the Department of Natural Resources to report a spacecraft landing.

Not really.

Actually, Papa Smurf, aka, “Big Mike” is a Virginia fisherman who, in the middle of doing a little afternoon big mouth bass hunting, landed himself something a little less delicious but definitely fishy.

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The writing on the side of THE PAYLOAD was smeared, but our last name was visible. Enter Facebook.

The rest of the story goes a little like this: My daughter ignores friend request – stranger danger – and Papa Smurf/Big Mike must get creative.

Facebook says my daughter interns at the university’s aerospace research lab.

Papa/Mike hunts down a professor.

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Describes to professor the reeled in riches. Our professor texts his industrious intern. His intern explodes with exultation.

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His intern calls her mother and begs for bakery goods to reward the fisherman with multiple monikers in exchange for THE PRECIOUS PAYLOAD. The trade is made. Strawberry pie is swapped for a lunch box full of cryptic clues to the cosmos and a few bits of water weed.

We are thrilled.

It is finished.

I am exhausted.

She is planning her next mission: Definitely Not a Waste in Space! Where one young scientist attempts to discover if Silly Putty can be used as insulation on homemade sub-orbital spacecraft.

Me? I might just back out of this next one quietly. I think it’s pretty clear that I ain’t no rocket surgeon.

~Shelley Big Mike (450x800)

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

Related articles

The etiquette of working a room.

I have never been a big party person. I find being in a roomful of jubilant people about as fun as having a toenail removed with a putty knife by three-year old. Yep. A laugh a minute.

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This is ironic because long ago I worked as a social hostess for a beautiful resort, where six nights a week I hosted a cocktail party for at least one hundred people. But that was work. And I got paid handsomely for it. Plus I had nothing to do with the prep, set up, operations, or the washing of thousands of glasses smeared with freshly applied lipstick. All I had to do was glide and gush—and discourage the odd wayward hand.

The ‘speaking to folks I didn’t know’ part wasn’t so difficult because my job was simply to make my way from one end of the room to the other, butt in on conversations, ask a few questions—all totally rehearsed with practiced ad libs as answers—and make empty promises. I was instructed to be agreeable. Say you’d love to sit with them at Chef’s six course dinner (never happened), promise to have a drink with them later after the resort’s evening show (I was nineteen—couldn’t happen), consent to many a game of tennis on the clay courts the next morning (nope), and pledge to meet guests up on the championship golf course after lunch (sorry, Charlie). No one was ever fussed, because that kind of talk was as meaningful as a basketful of air kisses. Just cocktail chatter. And I got the hang of it in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.

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Well, that was then and this is now. Right now is graduation season where everyone and their uncle are celebrating the commencement of someone special.

My kid just graduated high school! Potluck at our place!

Come help us applaud Harold for his achievement at finishing first grade! Formal reception at the Four Seasons.

Your father just passed a three-year old kidney stone! We’re breaking out the good booze and getting ready to play lawn darts.

Whatever the occasion, it’s Graduation Party Season. Having a high school senior, and admiring their success at convincing the requisite number of teachers that they deserve a diploma, has morphed into recognizing the tiniest of achievements leading up to graduation day. All of them honored with a party.

– This month is the last month of school for our seniors. We’re starting it off by giving them a skip day, but come back for the BBQ in their honor.

– Let’s celebrate our seniors with one last senior appreciation day lunch in the cafeteria.

– Parent potluck with our seniors. Let’s bring in their favorite food. (I truly was expecting a table full of Ben & Jerry’s pints.)

– Senior’s, parent’s and teacher’s brunch. Let’s rehash all those stellar grades.

– Graduation rehearsal and picnic to follow.

– Breakfast before Graduation.

– Reception to follow ceremony.

– Lunch to follow reception.

– Diploma party.

– Diploma framing party.

– Slide show party of all the parties.

Ugh.

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I understand how important these life events are, and the necessity of celebrating the terrific efforts of our loved ones, but parties nearly kill me with the amount of energy I apply trying to fit in like a normal person. It probably wouldn’t be so bad if there weren’t other people at these parties. Or if there had to be other people, then the rule was you could only acknowledge them with a wave. No talking allowed.

As a writer, I work with a lot of words. Hundreds of thousands of them flow out my body in any given year. But they flow out of my DIGITS and not my MOUTH. I get little practice chatting with folks currently apart from dialoguing with my hound all day long. Except he and I have our own language. We’re like Hans Solo and Chewbacca. Or Kristoff and Sven. No one but us understands us.

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And I’m pretty sure that wonky part howl, part growl parlance is the first thing to slip out as soon as somebody sidles up, gives me a hug and asks how I’m doing.

It’s guttural, it’s primordial, it’s dysfunctional and makes people take a large step back.

But one cannot dodge these mandatory events without some sort of judgment and backlash, therefore, I plaster on a face and pull on a dress. I make my way from one end of the room to the other. I remind folks to try the chef’s newest award-winning dish of elk and sea urchin pie. I hype up the ballroom’s upcoming show and encourage people to get a seat early. I point outside the cafeteria window toward the outdoor basketball court and suggest we volley a few balls over the net in the morning. I promise a handful of fathers I’ll have a drink with them before the evening is out.

I turn back to register a sea of parental faces staring at me quizzically and note several women dragging their innocent husbands to the door. I stand in horror over my massive faux pas.

I garble something that sounds like it came from the mouth of a German Sheppard.

I fumble for my car keys and dash to the parking lot.

I am not a party person.

~Shelley

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

Related articles

 

 

 

Muscle memory; body magic

From the moment I crack an eyelid open at dawn, I am aware of my muscles. Some much more so than others. There are a couple I wish I’d never hear from again, but I’m guessing if you remove one, it’s a bit like pulling on a thread from an intricately woven blanket.

Part of the awareness has come from pain. Okay, initially much of it has come from pain. But thereafter, I found a subtle shift in regards to my cognizance—which turned into quite a seismic shift, and is now part of my every day, my every hour, and occasionally, my every minute mindfulness campaign.

Not having the money, I could not employ a parade full of PR people to follow me around and point out the miracles of muscles 24/7, so I had to go it alone and blow my own horn section.

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The effortless shift of muscle over bone, the smooth and fluid motion of movement is an occurrence I wish for, aim for, and relish. And although there are hundreds of muscles in the human body, all expertly doing their thang with little coaching from me, it’s an easy trap to fall into–barking at the one or two that are acting crankily without recognizing and praising the other bazillion that are following nature’s blueprints.

But it’s not just my muscles that I’m keenly aware of first thing in the morning, but those of my animals as well. Even before setting a toe onto the floor, I pull knees to chest and attempt to test the temperature of whatever waters my back muscles will be floating in today. As I do this, the cat joins in beside me and demonstrates what it would be like to live with a member of Cirque du Soleil. I stick out my tongue, roll out of bed and attempt to erase her morning routine from my mind. Instead I lower myself to the floor next to my hound and give his belly a good morning greeting. In sleepy response, his body elongates to three times its original form and I am in awe, again, as to somebody else’s muscular structure and granted request.

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Faces are washed—we each do our own—and a quick assessment is made in the mirror to measure soap and water’s ability to snap facial muscles back into shape. Everyone agrees it’s a bonus to have fur around your eyes and mouth. There is absolutely no need for wrinkle cream.

I’m the only one who chooses to brush the teeth I own, but while I do so, I start my morning yoga. Adding an extra mental challenge to the task, I fling a sock-covered foot onto the rim of the super-slippery porcelain tub. I attempt a few warrior poses and high lunges to open up my tightly bound hip-flexors in preparation for the day’s demanding task of sitting at my desk, or in my car.

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As I work on my canines, my feline uses the same thin, slick edge to pirouette upon, prance above, and vault from in yet another attempt to flaunt the wide gap between our talents.

She is such a braggart.

I move to an area where I feel my talents surpass hers: the keyboard.

It is here I am reminded of just how fascinating fingers can be. It goes like this:

I think.

Synapses snap.

Fingers fly.

Words are written.

I pause and look at my hands. I wiggle my fingers above the waiting jumble of plastic keys. I mentally applaud the collection of muscles in charge, as I don’t want them to have to generate the effort to praise themselves for the efforts they make.

This repeated pattern that I practice thousands of times a day is nothing compared with the bewildering curiosity that occurs when I take a brain break and slide onto the piano’s bench for a minute or two of ebony and ivory exercise. But it’s not really exercise. It’s more like a pit stop at my personal Ripley’s Believe it or not exhibition. I call it my Magical Manifestation of Muscle Memory. It is a stunt meant only to amuse me, but reminds me just how little I know about the complex world of physiology.

I crack open a dusty volume of Chopin’s Waltzes. I look at the delicate lines of nimble quick notes. I try to read, process and move my hands across the rows of keys. I stumble. I plunk. I make sour mistakes.

I close the book.

I close my eyes.

I disengage brain and let go of the handle bars.

Fingers fly. They know where to go—they need no help from me. Whether it’s a Rachmaninoff piece that requires an extra two fingers to manage a blackened page full of orchestral chords, or the slim, sylph-like melodies of delicate Debussy, if I learned it way back then, I know it still today.

It doesn’t matter if it’s walking, running, skipping, jumping, turning a page, or signing my name, stirring a pot, or stroking the dog, embracing my child or brushing my hair, all those bits that flex and extend amaze and astound me.

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The magic of muscles.

I prize them and praise them.

~Shelley

**Gotta Have a Gott**

In January, Rob and I announced that his sketches will be available toward the end of the year in the form of a 2015 calendar! And our readers would get to be the judges and voters for which doodles they’d like to see selected for each month. We’ll reveal the winners one by one, and come November, If you’ve Gotta have a GOTT, you can place your order. Click here to see the cartoons in competition and to cast your vote.

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

Related articles

 

 

Boundless talent–okay, some of it has been bound.

Today, a literary feast! I provide below a buffet of edible words and bite-sized bits of authors I highly recommend you get a taste of. (Plus, I answer four questions about my own writing endeavors.)

Facetime-erskine_2_2Participating in a blog hop is a lot more fun than getting a root canal, but not nearly as exciting as winning the National Book Award. Kathy Erskine is one of the only people I know who can speak effortlessly (and humorously) on all these topics and a bucketload more.

One of my all-time favorite authors and a squishable friend, I was more than pleased to throw off my shoes and pick up my pen at Kathy’s invitation to join her in this escapade.

Kathryn Erskine grew up mostly overseas and attended eight different schools giving an interesting twist to her writing.  She draws on her life stories and world events to write her novels including Quaking, an ALA Top Ten Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers, Mockingbird, 2010 National Book Award winner, The Absolute Value of Mike, a Crystal Kite winner, and Seeing Red, a Jane Addams Peace Award Honor Book set immediately after the Civil Rights era that questions who we were then and who we are now.

Her upcoming novel, The Badger Knight, is a Middle Ages adventure about a small, sickly teen with albinism who runs off to battle to prove he’s a man — which he succeeds in doing, but not in the way he thought. She is currently working on several more novels and picture books.

She loves travel, taking walks, being in nature, exploring places (any places), laughing, playing games, learning languages (or anything, really, just learning) and eating chocolate.  You can learn more about her at http://www.kathrynerskine.com/Kathryn_Erskine/Home.html or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/kathy.erskine and Twitter at http://twitter.com/KathyErskine.

And now we go to the interviewed portion of the program …

1) What am I working on?

Currently I’m teaming up with Neil Degrasse Tyson in an effort to prove that “black holes are the cosmic mothers of new universes,” but I tell you, it’s tough going. The fact that Neil is wholly unaware of my participation is irrelevant, but I am on that team 100%. The research is arduous; the backlash from some of the world’s persuadably arthritic scientists is a wall of resistance we’re trying to push through. But Neil and I are optimistic.

On a smaller scale of the cosmos, my writing projects are zipping along at what feels like light speed, but is likely clocked at effortful chugging.

DEAR OPL, my middle grade humorous novel about a pre-diabetic thirteen-year old struggling with food and grief, signed with Sourcebooks and will be published June 2015. Currently, the focus is all about pesky edits, but then begins the many month long process of countless photo shoots in order to capture a superb author photo. Again I use the term arduous because nothing else seems capable of describing the lengths this team of editors, marketers, and publishers will go to in order to create the final product. I’m really hoping we don’t end up going with a selfie.

Any leftover time that hasn’t been allocated to either Neil or Opl is directed toward rewrites of two other novels which are dueling in battle to secure the first place position of next in line to publish. The clash is bloody and deafening, and I am nearly at the point where I tell them that I’m either going to flip a coin or mash them both together into one story. It’ll end up being a manuscript about the reclaiming of Scotland’s independence led by a band of mythological fairies. I’m not getting a lot of positive vibes from that choice though.

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2) How does my work differ from others of this genre?

Not everyone makes the decision to mix NASA with obesity and diabetes—and I’ve had my fair share of criticism—but I’m a risk taker. Keeping the two separate is what we’ll likely end up going with, but I’m sure somewhere there’s a Venn diagram that will support my theory that some crossover data exits.

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Still, if we’re strictly speaking of my middle grade novel, I’d have to say that writing about regrettable and distressing topics such as those that are plaguing our children today may flag my work with labels that indentify necessary issues. Adolescent or adult, many of us have elevated levels of stress and anxiety we’re battling. Sadly, we’re using Twizzlers and Moon Pies as our swords and shields.

3) Why do I write what I do?

Writing is what keeps my spirits afloat until I can finish the blueprints of the small moonshine still I’m designing for the backyard. As my rotgut enterprise would be an illegal one, I have been advised to continue championing attention to less illicit endeavors like campaigns for adolescent healthy eating, self-confidence, and encouraging kids to make the impossible dream of scoring perfectly on all standardized tests a reality simply by giving up all fun and sleep. Although I might drop the last one.

4) How does your writing process work?

Wait … there’s a process?

Alright then, my process is this: I wake up and do my morning ablutions, throw in a load of laundry, feed anyone staring longingly at the fridge or pantry shelves, clean the kitchen counter of teenage detritus—bowls, glasses, calculus notes, Ben & Jerry tubs, highlighters, iPhone cords, physics books, socks, glue, receipts from the last six months stored in the glove compartment of someone’s car that were finally brought inside to be filed, tea cups, and a thank you note from NASA, do the dishes, clean out the cat litter—I could go on, but I’ve got to stop because I’ve just heard gunfire outside.

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… Everything’s fine. It was a small scuffle between the two fellows who are digging out the spiritus frumenti foundation. We talked it out, I confiscated their muskets—and the jug of hooch they were arguing over, and gave them each a granola bar. What can I say? They’re cousins. And each other’s uncle. Welcome to Virginia.

So writing then, yes? At some point, in between a few rounds of all the above, I find my desk and start thinking about just how funny diabetes and obesity are. And this is the hard part, because they aren’t. But that’s the beauty of humor. You have to work to make the painful and the prickly into knee-slapping subjects to occasionally attract the desired eyeballs away from YouTube or Xbox or computer science how-to-hack manuals. It involves a lot of bathroom breaks, and I try everything out on the hound before I write it down.

It’s not a process for everyone, but it is a process, and I am all about action. Just ask Neil. He knows.

No wait … he actually doesn’t.

~~~~~~~~~~

And now, may I introduce three fantastic writers who should start showing up on your radar. Firstly, let’s meet Deborah Prum.DebCropped_2_copy (761x800)

Deborah M. Prum has a heart for reluctant readers and those who struggle with learning disabilities.  Her YA novel, FATTY IN THE BACK SEAT, is about 15 year-old Cuss, who is challenged by undiagnosed learning disabilities. Fatty_in_the_Back_SeatTold with humor and sensitivity, the book does not sugarcoat issues yet offers hope to readers. An audio book version will soon be available.

Her interactive, multi-touch iBook, CZARS AND CZARINAS, is designed to engage reluctant readers. TINYThe book is a humorous and anecdotal account of the first nine centuries of Russian history.  It includes: an introductory song, slide shows, charts, portraits that speak to you, various sound effects for artwork (bells ringing, horses whinnying, thunder, etc.)    You can visit Deb at:  www.deborahprum.com

Next up is none other than my extraordinary partner in crime (or cartoon), Robin Gott.

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Robin ( Rob) Gott grew up in North London, England, in the house once inhabited by the boy who would grow up to become Boris Karloff. Scared away by the ghost of the famous horror film actor, the family moved to a house in Stansted in Essex, previously owned by Douglas Fairbank’s Junior’s daughter, and the venue of a Rat Pack party or two.

Whether all this show business history had any effect on the youthful Robin is food for thought, but he did drift into working in the film and TV animation in London, as an artist, and later working with story development. In 1994 he packed his bags, moved to Malmoe in Sweden, fell in love with the lovely Karin, and there he’s been ever since.

He draws cartoons, acts and writes. He’s written songs, poetry, scripts for graphic novels, two screenplays (one commissioned by Per Holst, a Danish producer) and is now being encouraged by his two boisterous sons, aged 8 and 10, to write a children’s novel. This is very much in the early stages, and at the moment he’s gathering all the ingredients for a hopefully wondrous concoction inspired by Anthony Horowitz, Roald Dahl and of course – Boris Karloff!

Rob loves being with his family, especially at their lakeside cabin nestled cozily in a Swedish forest, fishing, running, cooking, playing guitar and flopping about on sofas, drinking English ale and watching old black and white films.

You can learn more about him at www.robingott.com or on Facebook.

Last, but nowhere near least, is a writing friend I owe a great deal of thanks to for getting my ‘out of shape’ manuscripts fit for publication: Abby Murphy. I will always be grateful for her keen eye and willingness to slog through that which I dump on her desk. She’s just about as good as it gets.

profile_1Abby Murphy is a self-proclaimed history nerd who lives in Providence, RI. She has donned 19th-century clothing to work at a living history museum, pored over manuscripts at a literary agency, and she now teaches middle school students to read, write, and think. She writes YA historical fiction and recently finished a novel based on her great-great-grandmother, who traveled to Europe in the 1890s. You can learn more about her at http://keepthehearthfiresburning.net.

~Shelley

Three days left for the “Help A Teen Do Experiments in Space I Don’t Understand”  fundraising campaign on Indiegogo. If you think space is cool, give it looksee! And a massive thanks to all of you who have already contributed to science. You guys are awesome. 😀

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

 

 

 

 

 

A matter of life and death!

Kill your Darlings.

This is probably one of the most wretched phrases a writer ever has to grapple with. I’m guessing it settles itself just beneath Thank you, but no thank you, we’re going to pass.

Maybe it ties with Well, I’ve read some of your writing … You sure you want to be a writer? How about farming—what do you think of farming? Or trucking. Can you drive a big rig?

I say let’s find the old curmudgeon who came up with the satanic slogan and string him up by his toes. I could use some practice with dismemberment before I start hacking away at my manuscript. That’s what it’s about essentially: the death of all you love.

For those of you who’ve never come across this sinful suggestion in your line of work, you may consider yourselves lucky. You also may consider yourselves confused as to what I’m going on about.

A quick catchup: a long dead author—accurately identifying the name of said author can lather up writers into an unholy fractious state, so apart from classifying him as an English killjoy, we shall leave his name out of this—mistakenly believed the best way to win friends and influence people in the writing world was to inform them that the bits they loved most about their text were ALL GARBAGE and to basically take a hatchet to it.

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Okay, maybe I’m a little uptight at the moment and I’m unfairly criticizing what has become a sage rule of thumb to most authors, but only because it’s such a gleeful phrase for any editor to write. Take out all the fluff. Get rid of your purple prose. Find a sentence and ask yourself, Do I like this? If the answer is yes, then slash it. Delete it. Dump it. Kill your darlings.

Yes. I’m in the middle of editing right now, but perhaps you guessed that from my cheerful tone.

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This dreadful phrase is nothing more than a literary expression. Fairly innocuous to express. But putting it into action is akin to stripping away a layer of skin that you actually found attractive, warm, and cushioning. It also keeps several quarts of blood from oozing out of your flesh, but editors aren’t fussed about that. It’s the bare bones of beauty that we’re after, they say. We want only what’s relevant, only what moves the story forward, no frilly ornamentation.

I think my skin is fairly relevant.

And it allows me to move forward, as without my ‘ornamental’ skin I’d certainly never leave the house.

Putting oneself in a murderous state of mind seems easy at first. You read the advice from your agent or your editor or your critique group to simply “cut out about thirty pages.”

Thirty pages? At about 275 words per page? We’re talking more than 8000 words! That’s a huge amount of work. I don’t even say 8000 words in one week, so imagine how long it takes me to think up 8000 acceptable words to place in the manuscript?

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I pace a lot during this process. I slide down a lot of walls. I drape myself across the dog for comfort. I cry. I bargain. I bake cookies. I eat cookies.

Occasionally I find a word to delete.

It’s usually because I’ve combined two words into a contraction.

It is a miserable process.

I have just finished weeks of working—rewriting a 400 page manuscript that needed thirty pages sliced. I only sawed off twenty. I must begin the entire process again. And then again if needed. I’m thinking about removing one entire page for every forty that I read. Fingers crossed nothing dramatic happens on each of those pages, but perhaps I could sell them separately. We could offer the Editor’s Edition (370 pages), or the Author’s Edition (380 pages) and see which one shows better sales from the marketing department. Clearly we’d have to label the Editor’s Edition as a mystery because the reader will have to fill in the missing bits of nearly three percent of the book.

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And don’t forget, publishers always add those extra blank pages at the front and back of every book. Surely that should count for something, right?

(One can clearly see I’ve morphed back into the bargaining phase.)

(And now I’ve just fired up the oven.)

Regardless of how many cookies I shove into my gob, the work must happen. As long as I’m in my kitchen I shall sharpen my knives, hone their edges, make them gleam.

And now I am prepared. Prepared to continue killing my darlings.

As scared to death of this contemptible process as I am, I shall knock on death’s door, dance with death, deal a death blow, fight to the death and sound the death knell.

Egads, this murdering business will surely be the death of me.

~Shelley

BONUS MATERIAL!

HI MOM’S CULT BLOGOSPHERE AUDIENCE! I’m Chloe, her daughter, I guest-blogged here once. You might know me from all the complaining she regularly does about my high school life. ANYWAY. I am attempting to launch a weather balloon with cool science on it for the fun of it/to learn stuff/to save the world from its inevitable demise at the hands of muons. If you like science/space/me/my mom/being a generally cool person, please check out my fundraising campaign on Indiegogo! 
I’d greatly appreciate any support, as my parents are pretty sick and tired of my failed bottle rocket experiments and have refused to fund any more adventures into the great beyond.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

May Gotta Have a Gott winner

In January, Rob and I announced that his sketches will be available toward the end of the year in the form of a 2015 calendar! And our readers would get to be the judges and voters for which doodles they’d like to see selected for each month. We’ll reveal the winners one by one, and come November, If you’ve Gotta have a GOTT, you can place your order. Jump on over to see the cartoon winner for May!

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

Related articles

And I quote …

“Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”

~ Oscar Wilde

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I pay attention to words. As a writer, I am encouraged to scrutinize my words — and everyone else’s.

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And I have been known to give voice to animals, insects and inanimate objects purely because I am convinced they are trying to communicate. I will be their translator.

Oftentimes, it’s like converting African Khoisan clicking into Klingon and sprinkling it with a bit of Dothraki and Pig Latin. Yeah, that hodgepodge is probably not going to catch on.

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Even though I have a nerdish penchant for individual words, and when asked for the title of my favorite book, I awkwardly admit it is Roget’s International Thesaurus, the next level up on my scale of linguistic admiration is that of the quote.

I am addicted to adages, transfixed by truisms and wild about witticisms. In my opinion, reading the words that express other people’s wisdom in bite-sized format is an appealing approach to acquiring needed knowledge. The quotes I’m drawn to are powerful pearls of astute insight that have experienced countless retweets in the grand scope of the overall twittering universe we inhabit. Some have taken off like wildfire, a quick strike of a match that hungrily spreads from one combustible source to another, and others are smoldering embers—words that have been around like the coals of a dampened fire in the hearth—ready to be repeatedly brought back to heat-giving life in the morning, yet will continue a slow, hourly seep through the house of many minds.

Look through any bathroom in my house. You’ll find most of the reading material is short and quippy. I don’t encourage anyone to hunker down in there, but if you find it unavoidable, I hope the words invite you to ponder.

I’ve even taken to painting quotes on the walls of bathrooms and bedrooms because they’ve moved me to feel they deserve permanence within my humble abode.

Three quotes I feel worthy of daily reflection are:

Anyone can count the seeds in an apple. ~  No one can count the apples in a seed.

Do not follow where the path may lead … go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.

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And most importantly,

If you didn’t see it with your own eyes, or hear it with your own ears, don’t invent it with your small mind and share it with your big mouth.

Okay, that last one is just another version of what was drilled in to me as a kid only in the less graceful form—You keep your nose out of other people’s business and they’ll keep their fist of your nose.

It worked for me.

As it is, everywhere I turn seems to sprout yet another worldly proverb or sagacious aphorism. Desperate to memorize these slick and savvy sayings, I’ve taken to writing them with a pen on my skin with the hopes that they’ll remain there long enough for the philosophy to penetrate before the ink departs.

If I went with the more indelible route–and tattooed myself with these many mottoes–I’d be a side show attraction at one of the county fairs. Plus, I’d rather not have small children run from me if I’m filled to the brim with all this wordy wisdom and no one to share it with.

I could start a Bookmobile that could rival my massive library system strictly with the number of volumes I possess that are only filled with the blunt, but brilliant quotes of others. They are everywhere around me: in my car, by my bedside, scattered across my desk, strapped to the belly of the dog for when we go take a walk and I’m in the mood to chew on a mouthful of metaphysics.

Everywhere.

These quotes are at the bottom of people’s emailed notes, on the first pages of great novels, spray-painted across the arch of a bridge, on the tear sheets of all my calendars, etched onto my bars of soap—that one isn’t the most cunning use of marketing dollars, but oh well, I suppose the point is that the shower is a reflective place.

And of course, I find laudable quotations from the world’s greatest source for anonymous pithiness with a pen: the public bathroom stall.

I’m not fussed where all this acumen comes from, or indignant from Oscar Wilde’s slight that the majority of us will never realize an original idea and only spout those from the cool kids of the past.

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I am prepared to receive the world’s collective enlightenment as it comes and from whichever direction it blows. There are an inordinate number of clever folks out there, adept at stringing together a sentence or two that have touched me to the very core.

I leave you with two last quotes and hope you might have one to share with me. The first I’m guessing might have been the rough draft of a speech somebody in Congress was about to deliver, but then ditched. The second is simply one I would have loved to have penned myself.

We, the unwilling,

led by the unknowing,

are doing the impossible

for the ungrateful.

We have done so much,

for so long,

with so little,

we are now qualified to do anything

with nothing.

And lastly,

Some people are like a slinky … not really good for anything, but you still can’t help but smile when you shove them down the stairs.

~Shelley

 Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

Related articles

O Tannenbaum!

Tis the season to eat, drink, be merry and … murder trees???

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Ugh, it nearly pains me to write that—especially since I merrily participate—but I figure, if you’re going to be one of the crowd, at least you should be an educated member of said crowd.

So … for all of you celebrating the holidays with some sort of festively decked out tree this year, I shall provide you with a little bit of trivia to entertain your fellow lumberjacks, tinsel strewers and gold star toppers. Pay attention, memorize and amaze.

You’re welcome.

Holiday Tree Trivia Twaddle

  • Christmas trees remove dust and pollen from the air. This year I’m training mine to use the vacuum cleaner so it can remove dirt from the carpet.
  • Christmas trees take an average of 7-10 years to mature. Christmas trees would make wonderful children.
  • To be more specific: It takes 7-10 years of fighting heavy rain, wind, hail and drought to grow a mature tree. It takes 18-20 years of fighting heavy rants, whining, howling and delinquency to grow a mature child. (numbers will vary)

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  • Since 1966, the National Christmas Tree Association has annually given a Christmas tree to the President and first family. The National Christmas Tree Association is still waiting for a thank you note.
  • Recycled trees have been used to make sand and soil erosion barriers and been placed in ponds for fish shelter. I simply preserve mine by brining it in pickle juice at the end of the holiday season, and then bring it out again come December 1st. I serve a lot of corned beef on rye for dinner during the month so no one is suspicious of the stench.
  • The best selling trees are Scotch pine, Douglas fir, Noble fir, Fraser fir, Virginia pine, Balsam fir and white pine. At one point there was a national push toward the Giant Sequoia because Americans never like to be outdone, but the wait time for them didn’t quite match up to our appetite for instant gratification.

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  • 100,000 people are employed in the Christmas tree industry. For about 4 weeks. The remaining 48 weeks of the year they’re just tree stump grinders.
  • In 1900, large stores started to erect big illuminated Christmas trees. In 2013, all stores erected big illuminated Christmas trees, kept them erected all year long, but took a break by switching them off for the month of April.
  • 98 percent of all Christmas trees are grown on farms. The other 2 percent wouldn’t know one end of a cow from the other.

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  • Christmas trees are grown in all 50 states including Hawaii and Alaska. Christmas trees are sold only in Alabama and Oklahoma. Everywhere else sells “Holiday” trees.
  • Tinsel was once banned by the government because it contained lead. Now it’s made of plastic. And it has to be said, landfills have never looked so festive.
  • The use of evergreen trees to celebrate the winter season occurred before the birth of Christ. After the birth of Christ, we learned to start celebrating the winter season by putting away any sparklers and fireworks leftover from the 4th of July.
  • In 1856 Franklin Pierce, the 14th President of the United States, was the first President to place a Christmas tree in the White House. He was then promptly shouted at by staff for tracking in mud and pine pitch.

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  • You should never burn your Christmas tree in your fireplace because it can contribute to creosote buildup. You should only ever burn your Christmas tree in somebody else’s fireplace.
  • President Coolidge started the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony on the White House lawn in 1923. Taxpayers nearly ended the ritual after being presented with the White House electricity bill come January.
  • From 1948 to 1951, President Truman spent Christmas at his home in Independence, Missouri, and lit the National Community Christmas Tree by remote control. I’m guessing that President Truman was a bit of a Grinch.
  • Nineteenth century Americans cut their holiday trees in nearby forests. Twenty-first century Americans have somebody else cut their holiday trees in forests not even remotely close to where they live.
  • In the first week, a tree in your home will consume as much as a quart of water per day. After that, the tree will have located your liquor cabinet and will consume as much as a fifth of scotch until New Year’s.

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  • Helicopters help to lift harvested Christmas trees from farms. But this is strictly for the wealthy, whereas most folks simply drive their tree home strapped to the roof of their car.
  • An acre of Christmas trees provides for the daily oxygen requirements of 18 people. Sadly, 3 people use up that oxygen within about 60 seconds when visiting one of the many trendy Oxygen bars around the world. *gasp*
  • Real Christmas trees are involved in less than one-tenth of one percent of residential fires and only when ignited by some external ignition sources. This came to pass after many years of officials believing the sworn oath statements of homeowners who promised they did not pass out drunk beneath the tree with a lit cigarette dangling from their hands and that trees in their neighborhood have a tendency to self combust.

So, all this goofy fun aside, I wanted to insert a sentence or two about taking care of this beloved planet we all share and enjoy (read occasionally abuse). I’ve come to believe that if we are capable of making this earth just a teensy bit better for our having been here, then we should feel pretty good about ourselves when we draw our last breath. Recognizing that even this blog has its own carbon footprint (the Internet and related technology industries produce over 830 million tons of CO2 in greenhouse gases each year, and is projected to double by 2020), I feel it necessary to take responsibility for my work’s contribution to that figure.

I have instructed my blog to plant a tree to offset its negative impact on our environment. There was a bit of a tussle between the two of us as to who should do the actual digging, but in the end we agreed to flip a coin. Mercifully, the great folks at the Arbor Day Foundation have paired up with Green Gestures—a large-scale reforestation initiative in the US (by bloggers, for bloggers)—and will, on behalf of your blog, plant a tree FOR YOU.

My blog and I have decided to name it CLYDE.

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I’m incredibly grateful to the folks at both institutions for all their efforts, and encourage the rest of the blogosphere to participate and spread the word.

Write a post. Plant a tree. Breathe a little easier.

~Shelley

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery (here) and what we all talked about down in the pub (here). And to see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone–click here.

Armchair traveling

This week we interrupt our weekly blogcast with a little Q & A. Why? Because I was recently invited to participate in an international event called THE NEXT BIG THING blog tour by a very talented and keen-eyed manuscript critique-er, Abby Murphy.

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I learned two important things from Abby. #1—She’s finishing work on a new YA historical fiction tale (Drawing from Life) that I can’t wait to get my hands on. #2—I will not have to move from my swivel chair in order to participate in this whirlwind tour. No packing, no passports and no postponed flights. My job? Just fill in the blanks. Walk with me.

1) What is the working title of your next book?

I’ve had several. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was my first. Anne of Green Gables was another. Obviously, I found out there was a serious leak in my writers’ group. After ferreting out the blabbermouth, I’ve remained reticent to unveil my latest, but for the sake of the interview … DEAR OPL.

I’m trusting you folks will keep schtum.

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2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

The Sydney Zoo in Australia. Specifically, the polar bear tank. It was here—after a couple of weeks into a family vacation—that I finally had enough mind-boggling questions about life, the universe and everything in between from my elementary-aged son to fill a Biblically-sized notebook. The questions were thought-provoking, befuddling, and on the whole unanswerable. I kept track of them though, as it was his insatiable curiosity that fleshed out a secondary character in a story that was beginning to take shape. (It also revealed just how little I knew and how much I depended upon Google.)

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The main focus of the story came as a result of my addiction to all things Jamie Oliver. Watching him traverse America, desperately attempting to help folks make the important connection between school lunches and impending doom, had me itching to participate in a way unique to my skills. I could secretly hound children about making good food choices by disguising it beneath humor. It’s how I get most of my important parental messages across. With snark. But organic cane sugar coated snark.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

As defined by the industry, it would be classified as Middle Grade humor. As defined by the (not yet attained) blurbs that will eventually fill the backside of the dust jacket, it will be “Groundbreaking,” or “Revolutionary,” or “Impossible to define, you just have to read it.” Yep, I’m shootin’ big.

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

That’s a toughie, as I’m guessing that some actors I’d find appropriate may not have been birthed yet, and by the time this gets optioned for film, a few others I’d put in my top five may have shuffled off this mortal coil. Suffice it to say, Johnny Depp should make an appearance. Maybe as a pirate, maybe as a Native American. It remains to be seen. And I’m guessing if it requires a few screenplay rewrites to make his character necessary, so be it.

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5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

In a post-America sci-fi world called Panem, a common teenage girl finds herself fighting for her life in the cruel and deadly Hunger Games held yearly and enforced by the oppressive—

No. Wait. That’s the Hunger Games. Yet another previous working title for my book.

The synopsis for DEAR OPL is:

After two years of hiding beneath a sugar-laden junk food diet meant to soothe the bitter loss of her dad, thirteen-year-old Opl Oppenheimer is told she’s gained so much weight she’s pre-diabetic and now must start weighing more than she bargained for. 

A laugh a minute. I promise.

6) Who is publishing your book?

Ah, the six million dollar question. I’m going to go with, a publishing house with impeccable taste and the desire to spread goodwill onto all of mankind. If you think you fall into that category, there is still time to apply for consideration. But please, if querying me when submitting your request, I ask that you do your homework and personalize your letter. There is a plethora of information about me out there on the web, and there is nothing worse than seeing a publisher write a “request to purchase your manuscript” email and seeing that I was part of a mass mailing. Be specific. Flatter me.

And if you can’t do that, call and flatter my new agent, the clever, talented, not to mention incredibly good looking Jennefier Unter from the Unter Agency.

7) How long did it take you to create the illustrations?

As this question doesn’t apply to me specifically, with my book, I think it might be nice to ask my partner in blog crime about his weekly labors. Rob?

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8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

This is a troublesome question to answer as I’ve found it challenging to locate books that encourage kids to handle their pie share of the growing epidemic of obesity using methods other than quick fixes and magic formulas. Diet is a word that confuses a lot of teens—and I think it’s necessary for us to make a global effort at redefining it. This is no Maggie Goes on a Diet, or Eddie Shapes Up kind of a tale. The story addresses so much more than body image. It speaks of unearthing and responding to more of the core issues of what it is we truly hunger for.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Again, I’d have to go with Johnny Depp. I’m absolutely positive I will always find a way to weave a scene into the manuscript where either Captain Jack Sparrow or Tonto makes an appearance. The rest of the plot is simply supporting material. With a very important message.

English: Johnny Depp during the Paris premiere...

English: Johnny Depp during the Paris premiere of Public Enemies at the cinema UGC Normandie. Français : Johnny Depp lors de la première parisienne du film Public Enemies au cinéma UGC Normandie. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

Within the story, Opl discovers a series of ten minute videos that teach her incredibly easy and straightforward recipes by the celebrity chef she once abhorred. Mastering them is an adventure she undertakes and finds success with. I want the reader to have access to the same videos, which are real. They’re a series created by Jamie Oliver called Jamie’s Ministry of Food. I think having an element of interaction with the book engages the reader and gives them a tangible participation, allowing them to share Opl’s experiences in the kitchen.

As this tour is supposed to bring awareness to authors & illustrators and the projects they’re currently working on, my only other contractual obligation is to make you aware of two others who likely set the bar higher than I do.Seeing Red (392x600)

The first is Katherine Erskine, a lawyer turned author who writes about tough topics with respect and humor. Her newest book is GLORIOUS AND FREE. When Shannon is dragged on a road trip to Canada with her annoying brother and even more annoying gravely ill grandfather, she begins to see that life cannot be planned and controlled the way she’d always thought, but it can still be a wild and wonderful ride.  

Katherine’s latest book is Seeing Red.

FattyintheBackSeat (109x145)Also, make sure you check out Deborah Prum, whose career started at age seven when she wrote stories about children whose parents met catastrophic ends (plane crash, plague, etc.) after which the sturdy little orphans create blissful utopias on deserted islands.  Someone should have called a child psychiatrist, but they didn’t, so Deb continued writing.  Most recently, she’s released a young adult novel, FATTY IN THE BACK SEAT, about a boy who can’t seem to keep himself away from the long arm of the law.

Make sure to check out both Katherine and Deborah’s posts next week!

~Shelley

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery (here) and what we all talked about down in the pub (here). And to see more of Robin Gott’s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone–click here.

Unconventional conventions

Convention in session, Chicago  (LOC)

Convention in session, Chicago (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

I would assume that many of you have, at some point in your life, attended a conference. Most of us have visited more than one. Some of us have registered at several each year. And there’s a chunk of the population who make it a weekly habit to show up at the gathering of any crowd bringing in more than a dozen people—whether it’s the opening of a seminar, a movie, or even a paper bag. Something exciting must be happening, right? Except I’m not entirely sure how they make a living in order to financially skip around from place to place and meeting to meeting. I’m guessing it has something to do with the ability to subsist on free coffee from Starbucks, ample soap in the washrooms and the talent to sleep beneath one of the long, cloth-draped banquet tables in Ballroom C.

As a little kid, I was dragged to countless music conferences. These were meetings where, in place of your regular instructor telling you that you were holding the violin bow incorrectly, someone roughly the same size, but with a different hairstyle and an accent did it instead. We paid a lot of money to hear those assessments.

Bart Simpson oversized statue

Bart Simpson oversized statue (Photo credit: Gage Skidmore)

Following that, there were a few times when I realized I had to make money to pay rent and would agree to work with a couple of friends at the convention centers. We never got the fun jobs of Hopsitality Hero Ambassadors, handing out bumper stickers, wrist bands and key chains—the stuff everybody truly wanted–but instead were pressed into service dressing up as mascots for whatever “themed” group booked the convention center for the weekend. Our jobs—mine in particular—usually involved wearing a multi-layered, polyester costume with a giant head that required several extra pairs of hands using excessive force to shove it through a doorway. Why folks from auto shows or handicraft fairs wanted to have their photos taken with Simpson characters was a total mystery to me. Nickelodeon was like fairy dust. Everyone wanted a handful.

Hannibal1 (800x672)For a while, I’d occasionally tag along with my husband to medical conventions, but those symposiums were dry and serious. None of the booths offered any interesting toys. Pharmaceutical companies refused to hand out samples. Medical device companies had big slogans that involved words like insert, slice, and strip away.Hannibal2 (800x738) And all the lectures showed slides of pink organs, green organs or spurting wounds. I usually fought the urge to raise my hand and ask the presenter to repeat the last fifteen minutes because he lost me somewhere around the phrase uncontrolled colonic cell growth.

Still with me? *snap*snap* Yeah, let’s move on.

Having  just attended a multi-day book festival in my town for the umpteenth year in a row, there is one thing I’ve come to realize that holds true as a sort of “golden rule:”

As diverse as the vast population is in the “outside” world, there is a fistful of personalities that exists only within a convention center.

1. The person who stakes out a seat—front and center—and shows up to do so 45 minutes before a speaker’s presentation. Apparently, they believe the lecture might involve magic—some sort of sleight of hand rather than the usual umm … I don’t know … lecturing.First (800x678)

2. The person in the back of the room who, without fail, and within the first ten seconds of a session, will stand up and shout, “WE CAN’T HEAR YOU!” I bet there’s an audio/visual guy who’s sitting three chairs down from that fellow who’d love to clock him one and scream back, “GIVE ME A FRICKIN’ CHANCE, DUDE!”

3. The person presenting who has never seen a microphone, never talked to a crowd and believes she’s just sitting up on a platform, sharing a glass of cold water with a few colleagues entirely bemused as to why there’s a guy in the back of the room who keeps shouting at her.

4. The person who, when Q & A time comes, and after being politely asked not to by the moderator, stands and asks a three point question with follow-ups. Who are you? Helen Thomas? Did I walk into a presidential press conference?

5. The person who, after receiving the nod from the moderator to ask a question, flips to the front of their notepad and begins to strip away all credibility of our panelists by throwing in head-spinning phrases like statistics illustrate that, and in consonance with Google analytics, and according to four out of five dentists surveyed. I think you get my point. No one likes you. Please sit down. You’re way too important to be here anyway.Statistics (643x800)

And finally:

6. The person who is obviously following you around. And sitting next to you. And wants to share. And do lunch. And decided to come to the conference because she simply had to “get out of the house.” Huh? Coming to a lecture about writing for technology and publishing digitally was really a better option for you than laundry? I would have chosen laundry. It’s a good thing she was there, though, because she let me copy all her notes after I fell asleep on her shoulder ten minutes into the talk.

Yes, there’s a lot out there in the world to discover. And going to a convention is a great way to get out of your office chair and learn something that hasn’t been turned into a TED Talk yet. Plus, it’s probably a heck of a lot better for your social life than simply conversing with like-minded folks on Twitter.

Let’s not forget the biggest perk. There’s a good chance you may get a photo op with Bart Simpson.

~Shelley

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery (here) and what we all talked about down in the pub (here). And to see more of Robin Gott’s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone–click here.

SILENCE!

Writer'sRock_240113 (800x684)I … can’t concentrate.

Everywhere I go there’s too much noise. A plethora of distractions. An abundance of chatter. Multiple—what? No, you may not make a pizza. We just finished dinner.

I need a space where no one is allowed. An opaque bubble unpoppable by anything apart from spurting blood, ravaging flames, or—I’m not sure. Ask Dad, but I think it’s your turn to feed the sheep.

 My space is not sacred to anyone but ME.

A propaganda cartoon of the arrest of Governor...

The act of writing does not come easily to me. In fact, it’s much like hiding under the bed and trying to gather dust bunnies. Suddenly, I’m holding my breath, desperately hoping not to be discovered by the serial killer who’s broken into the house and is hunting me down. If I don’t move, if I’m very still and shut my eyes to the scariness around me, I just may make it to the other side. If I let a squeak of surprise escape my lips at seeing the shoes of my killer slip through the door and bonk my head on the bed frame, he then drags me by my feet out from under the bed and poof–that’s the end of that.

Okay, let me try and explain. I am me. Under the bed is my dark, safe, quiet haven. It’s full of ideas in the form of gossamer, almost intangible substances. And the rest of the world’s occupants are the killers of my creativity. Bam! It’s over.

I don’t know how people do it–how to think through noise.

English: "Discussing the War in a Paris C...

I’ve had to alter my schedule this week and have been forced out of my dark cocoon. I’m set up in a coffee shop. I hate it.

First of all, I’m forced to buy something I don’t even want in order to justify taking up space and bandwidth. I could make five or six cups of tea at home for the price of one that I had to purchase here. And it’s not my kind. It’s not my anti-stress/full-of-zen/conquer-the-keyboard kind of tea.

Secondly, the chairs are horrible. Like sitting on rocks. I miss my chair. It swivels. It has padding. It’s got wheels. And I’ve changed my mind. These chairs should take lessons from rocks. They aspire to be as comfortable as rocks.

Next, I can’t even keep track of the number of conversations taking place around me—none of them interesting. I’ve eavesdropped on them all. Wendy is having another baby. Pranav doesn’t think this semester’s anatomy class is moving along fast enough. Jared is finally quitting his job because his boss, Alicia, keeps cornering him in the men’s bathroom demanding—shhh … wait … that one is interesting.

 Someone’s cell phone twinkles with silvery, sparkly twiddly bits every twenty-two seconds, which is what I’m guessing is the exact amount of time it takes two teenagers to text a conversation that involves words like:

Texting on a qwerty keypad phone

Texting on a qwerty keypad phone (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

‘Sup?

Dude

Heya, Bro

WUU2

Nothin ATM U?

i hate my life

Lol

JK

LMAO

OMG

T2UL

k

Riveting, right? WRONG.

It’s distracting.

But only for me, apparently. Everyone else is still able to focus on reading their emails, memorizing great swaths of soon-to-be tested-on material in their textbooks and most importantly, following Jared as he struggled to politely pull his tie out of the sharply filed, dragon lady red fingernailed fingers attached to the breathy and threatening Alicia.

The espresso machine hisses and sputters. The earphoned man next to me watches The Office on Netflix and laughs like he’s sitting in his boxers on his apartment couch. He even belches impressively and doesn’t take notice of the fact that three people around him recoil in disgust. Okay, it was just me, but I did it twice in case he didn’t see me the first time. It doesn’t matter. Steve Carell rules.Rock_solid_240113 (800x612)

I put my earbuds in. Should have done this a long time ago. I tune into Pandora—Native American flute music. But it’s too close. The flautist’s breath is right in my ear, making my hair flutter. The earbuds are massive, built for someone with an ear canal the size of an elephant. It’s painful. On top of everything else, every two minutes an announcer reminds me I’m too cheap to spring for the full paid version and maybe I should consider this for the sake of uninterrupted sanity.Zen_tea_240113 (800x566) (347x323)

I know what will save my mental health, and it ain’t forking out more moola. It’s just me. Back home. In my chair. With my tea. And no earbuds. And no one else.

Okay, except for Jared, but just until I find out if he finally gave in.

~Shelley

 Don’t forget to check out what was cookin’ in the Scullery (here) and what we all talked about down in the pub (here)!

*And another big thanks to Robin Gott for his perfectly accurate penned depictions of  how my words look in pictures. To see more of his humor, click here and here.

The modest virgin, the prudent wife and the careful matron

With the whole Mother’s Day variety show behind us, I find it uncanny that both coincidence and example have blossomed before me almost repeatedly this week. The message is simple: household management is a must.

Maybe I’ve spent too much time watching the bustling wren nest over the last four weeks. It could be the catastrophic laundry room I’ve walked past a thousand times, but refuse to look into. Or perhaps that seventeen minute nap I took on Mother’s Day finally put us all behind schedule until the Fourth of July. Whatever the reason, I imagine these recurring illustrations are much like when a woman is pregnant; all she sees are the faceless masses of other pregnant women.

I see a mess in need of sorting.

I doubt I can be accused of running the tight and somewhat unforgiving household I did when my children were still of the age where I could easily demand their cooperation, or strike an element of fear in them with nothing more than a narrowing of the eye.

In fact, I’ve done that trick so often my eyes now remain in that fixed position, constantly suspicious, and puffy with lack of sleep. There is little expression left in them now, and having consulted the latest manual on the care and maintenance of women, I am told I should not cling to expectation for any return in the future.

Yes, surgery is an option for some, but it will reveal nothing in me apart from the wary demeanor buried deep within (a plague no scalpel can nip and tuck away, and only grain alcohol can temporarily blur).

Before I stray too far with my customary refusal to stick to the point, I’ll pull us back to management issues, the topic at hand.

Rijkmuseum Library, Amsterdam

Rijkmuseum Library, Amsterdam (Photo credit: leafar.)

I usually bite off far more than I can chew when it comes to my reading list, and because the literary world is analogous to an endless buffet of food (in turns savory, necessary and poisonous), I tend to keep about eight or nine books going at a time.

No, I don’t mix up characters or plots, authors or ideology, mainly because they all differ vastly from one another. Good writing is good writing, and I’ll inhale it whether it smells of curry, sabotage, or cheap wine and cigarettes.

At my bedside table is The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman, the last few pages waiting to be read and returned to the library. Within the 350 previous pages were references to old cookbooks that had me scouring Google Books in search of more than the title, author and a passing reference to the odd recipe here and there.

Title Page of "Beeton's Book of Household...

Title Page of “Beeton’s Book of Household Management” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the titles was a book I’d come across in past research but had never had the opportunity to fully appreciate until now. Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management is part recipe book, part advice column, but most importantly, a strict guideline for how things ought to be done if you wanted them done properly in 1861.

There is no way to paraphrase Isabella Beeton’s words. To fully appreciate her tone and message, I’ve pasted an excerpt of what I feel best sums up the woman, her opinion, and her ‘there are no excuses’ attitude.

As with The Commander of an Army, or the leader of any enterprise, so is it with the mistress of a house. Her spirit will be seen through the whole establishment; and just in proportion as she performs her duties intelligently and thoroughly, so will her domestics follow in her path. Of all those acquirements, which more particularly belong to the feminine character, there are none which take a higher rank, in our estimation, than such as enter into a knowledge of household duties; for on these are perpetually dependent the happiness, comfort, and well being of a family. In this opinion, we are borne out by the author of “The Vicar of Wakefield,” who says: “The modest virgin, the prudent wife, and the careful matron, are much more serviceable in life than petticoated philosophers, blustering heroines, or virago queens. She who makes her husband and her children happy, who reclaims the one from vice and trains up the other to virtue, is a much greater character than ladies described in romances, whose whole occupation is to murder mankind with shafts from their quiver, or their eyes.

Isabella Beeton (1836-65). Hand-tinted albumen...

Isabella Beeton (1836-65).

Whew. I get the feeling she walks about with a well-oiled whip at her side.

I love that part about her domestics following in her path. My dog and cat are the only domestics that follow me anywhere in our house, and that’s usually just to the bathroom for a change of scenery.

And as far as classifying ‘a knowledge of household duties’ to be topmost on the list of high ranking feminine qualities, I would assume after quizzing my family they would likely replace that with not making eye contact with them when their friends are within a five mile radius. Second might be volunteering to take over their household duties.

Fashion plate from The Englishwoman's Domestic...

Fashion plate from The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine of an 1869 issue

Yes, I greatly admire Mrs. Beeton, but I think, given the opportunity and permission not to judge herself too harshly afterward, she might have concluded that being a petticoated philosopher, a blustering heroine, or virago queen would have brought a hell of a lot more spice to her cooking and redefined her ‘careful matron’ strive-to-be status.

In the end, I find myself thumbing through her recipes, gauging whether I’d risk making dishes like barley gruel, cold tongue, or calves’ foot broth. At the risk of losing points in the prudent wife department, and possibly having to hand back my ‘Mother of the Year’ award, I’d best not.

But I’d bet the domestics would love it.

~Shelley

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery this week (here) and what we’re all talkin’ about down in the pub (here)!

 

A Most Willing Bird

Pencils

Any wordsmith will wax lyrical on the importance of capturing the perfect text to convey meaning. When creating a story, penning poetry or adding snarky opinions online, we’re usually advised to read aloud that which we have written before it goes into print—a cardinal rule from any editor who critiques your manuscript.

It makes a big difference.

Rare is the time you pull away from your pages and pat yourself on the back for a job well done. Usually, you re-sharpen your pencil and pour another glass of whatever is at your elbow.

Reading things aloud allows you another dimension of sensory input and opinion. Words have specific meaning in our heads when we rush over them with our eyes, but they have another element of breadth and measurement when pronounced.

Take for instance, the whippoorwill. This bird, I am convinced, was a writer in another lifetime. And one who needs a good long acupuncture session to get its qi flowing because it is stuck in a relentless repetition of clarification and examination.

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(Photo credit: jerryoldenettel)

Is this how I should sound?

Wait, I’ll try again.

Was that one clear?

Hold on, I’ll give it another go.

Practice makes perfect?

I’m so up for the challenge.

Writing is rewriting. And whippoorwilling is being willing.

Headstone A very old and unusual headstone in ...

Most of us would applaud the ‘try hard’ attitude, the ‘won’t give up’ mental muscle. Sadly, one member of my household is plotting against the breed, no longer shouting for an encore. In fact, he is planning …

a eulogy.

The Eastern Whippoorwill comes to visit us in early spring, takes off for cooler climates come mid-summer and returns with renewed vigor when it no longer fears the possibility of cooking to death while slumbering.

The call of the whippoorwill begins around dusk, after the bird snoozes all day. His ‘first out of bed’ routine varies slightly from ours. We do a few sun salutations, squats or jumping jacks to get the blood flowing, and he does scales and arpeggios.

The first time we heard him, I remember leaping out of my patio rocking chair, nearly spilling the first tangy gin and tonic of the season.

“Did you hear that?” I’d asked my husband.

He was looking at his Blackberry. “Yep. Bird.”

“No, not just a bird. I think that was a whippoorwill.”

“A whipper-what?”

“A whippoorwill. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a live one.”

One of his eyebrows rose. “As opposed to hearing a dead one?”

I tsked at him, sat down on the edge of the porch and sipped my drink, willing the sweet sunset concert to continue. And continue it did.

rooster Magyar: kakas

Every night.

And every morning.

For the next five years.

He was there for the setting of the sun, reminding us the day was coming to an end and to take note of it, and he was there well before the sun rose again, reminding us to prepare for it. It’s very romantic at 8 pm while you’re reminiscing over the day’s events that knocked the stuffing out of you, but goes a bit beyond the call of duty when showing up at 4 am while you’re still recovering from those same events.

The bird was auditioning for the role of an eager beaver rooster.

We experienced two weeks of this charming songbird’s pre-sunrise serenade. And for fourteen mornings my husband popped up in bed alarmed, confused and quickly transitioning to irate, as each night the bird found a perch closer to where we slept. I wasn’t surprised when our sleep roused conversations took a turn for the worse. In the beginning, it was something like:

Bugel player line art drawing

My husband: “Wha? What was that?”

Me: “Just the whippoorwill. No worries.”

My husband: “Grrrr …” Zzzz …

Shortly thereafter it was:

My husband: “Huh? What was that?”

Me: “The whippoorwill. Go to sleep.”

My husband: “Fat chance …” Zzzz …

And finally:

My husband: “What the bloody hell was that?!”

Me: “It’s the whippoorwill.”

My husband: “Oh no it whippoor-won’t!”

At this point, covers were thrown back, concrete shoes were donned (I swear he has a pair,) and the hunt for the happy alarm clock ensued.

I sat in bed with the lights out, eyes open, ears open even wider, listening for one of two sounds: a gunshot, or a lecture on civility and social convention. He’s an Englishman; it could go either way.

Five minutes later, the concrete shoes made their way back toward the bedroom with a flashlight guiding the way.

Macro shot of a box of clementines, Citrus ret...

My husband: “Did you know that a clementine fits into the mouth of an Eastern Whippoorwill? It acts as a very nice cork.”

Me: “You didn’t!”

My husband: “Wish I could say I did, but the son of a gun got away—not before I told him about the Al Capone Walk I’ve got planned for him next time he visits though, so I think we’re good to go.”

Me: “You tell ‘em, honey.”

Well, each year we go through this routine. We’ve got it so well rehearsed it’s beginning to feel like an old episode of I Love Lucy, only I get to play Ricky. And each year my husband thinks he gets closer to adjusting the manners of this bird or throttling his golden pipes.

So I hardly took notice when yesterday, as we sat outside to watch our first spring sunset, our willing warbler greeted us enthusiastically. The only difference was this time … he wasn’t alone.

My husband leapt from his chair. “Good God, he’s brought reinforcements!” He stormed off, probably in search of more clementines.

Personally, I think the whippoorwill is just teaching the next batch of trainees. Or maybe he truly is a writer and is simply getting his manuscript critiqued.

~Shelley

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery this week (here) and what we’re all talkin’ about down in the pub (here).

A countdown of sorts

Mayan Exhibit

Mayan Exhibit (Photo credit: Chasqui (Luis Tamayo))

According to my daughter, and several dead Mayas, this may be my last chance to get a year’s worth of blogging in before it all ends. Apparently, 2012 is either going to finish with a spiritual transformation or the apocalypse. This makes it a teensy bit difficult to plan as I am steadfastly against most forms of change to begin with. Both require an element of preparation, and truth be told, I cannot fit one more thing into my schedule as it is. If some sort of sacred conversion is about to take place, it’ll probably have to manage without my knowing or assistance. And if it ends up that our planet has been slated for destruction because of some hyperspatial express route, then who cares if I’m wearing clean underwear or not, or any underwear for that matter.

What does matter are the number of single malt scotches I have within reach on my pantry shelves when the end is nigh. As the sickle of Death makes a clean slice through my veins, the only prayer in my head is one that beseeches all deities to grant my last request: the one that appeals for a full dram or two to be coursing through said veins at the moment He cleaves. I’ll leave in peace—or in pieces as it may be, but content nonetheless.

One year, I agreed. I’ll blog for a year. How painful can it be to conjure up words to describe weekly life a thousand feet up in a verdant Virginia? Except that it is. The excruciating parts are the ones where you reread about your life and the many asinine adventures you throw yourself into. Therapeutic, you say? Hogwash, I answer. I’m private. I’m truculent. And defiantly deaf. Except … I’ll do anything for a bottle not already present in my pantry. A good old fashioned bribe. Okay, and maybe the children. For the good of the children. And don’t forget world peace. I suppose I’d feel obligated.

Yes, to accept that for the small price of one measly year I’ll see an increase in my stock, adolescent utopia and a little world peace, I say … welcome to a piece of my world.

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery this week (here) and what we’re all talkin’ about down in the pub (here).