Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Fighter

If there's one question I'm always asked once people find out how long I've been studying muay thai, it's "why haven't you fought?"

The truth is, I've come close to competing several times. Why it hasn't happened yet is a complicated, convoluted, somewhat unbelievable (but completely true!) story that I'll share with you today.

In the beginning, all I really cared about was learning this martial art. I wasn't concerned with fighting, but since some of the top fighters in the country trained at my club, it was only natural that I'd start thinking along those lines. However, fate had other plans....

Coach #1: Carlos. My training really started to take shape with Carlos, who taught me how to box. Just when I was thinking that I could be ready to fight in the foreseeable future, Carlos disappeared. He just wasn't at the dojo anymore. Rumor has it that he got into a dispute with the owner--whatever the reason, he was gone.

Coach #2: Robert. Robert was a top-ranked kickboxer. And he was an incredible coach. My first month of one-on-one lessons with him was fantastic. The second month, not so good. He showed up late, or didn't come to the gym at all. Turns out Robert got involved with the wrong crowd and had to escape into the witness protection program. Haven't heard from him since.

Coach #3: Mario. Mario had his own coaching techniques, which involved dropping his pants in the middle of practice and other lewd and lascivious behaviour. I still learned a lot from him, especially when he was banned from my club and had to be my only sparring partner. Eventually, though, the sexual harassment was too much to deal with. I didn't want to fight that badly.

Coach #4: JT. By this time, the owner of my first dojo was in jail, and his greatest fighter was in the witness protection program. So I switched gears completely and trained at a boxing gym. JT was more than willing to beat me to a pulp to prepare me for fighting. Then one day, he was gone...another (rumoured) casualty of a fight with a club owner. And soon after, I shattered my left wrist on a compacted uppercut bag.

My wrist took a long time to heal. During this period, I became pretty disillusioned with the idea of fighting. There were some horror stories of women having one fight in the ring and becoming permanently brain-damaged as a result. It didn't seem worth it. I still took some kickboxing and boxing classes at my health club, but only for conditioning. I'd given up hope of ever belonging to a real dojo again.

Enter KWest. I knew the club owner from my first dojo, where we'd both been students. I decided to give his gym a try, and I really liked how he prepared his students for fighting. I began to consider the possibility again...maybe I should fight, if only to have something to show for all this training.

Then I broke my wrist. Again. The left one for the second time in 2008, and the right one in 2010. Neither injury was the result of kickboxing or boxing.

Now I'm back, I'm healed, and ready to give it one more shot. Since I'm pretty sure my current kru doesn't have the witness protection program in his future, I'm cautiously optimistic....

Happy Canada Day!

I'll be taking a few days off from the blog for a well-earned rest, and to hopefully catch up on my novel. I wish all my readers a wonderful holiday. See you on the 6th!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Decisions, decisions

As some of you know, I've been taking a fairly brutal online course called The Gatekeepers: All About Agents and Editors—Getting them, working with them, and growing as a career author. The instructor has published twelve non-fiction books on subjects as diverse as throwing the perfect party, raising a helping hands monkey, and criminal law. She's been around the publishing industry long enough to know what's what, and whenever I mention an author I love, she's invariably a close personal friend or at least an acquaintance of that person.

Every week I get hit with about forty pages of material that I must read, followed by a lengthy assignment. Last week's was the most time consuming. I had to write three versions of my query letter and a synopsis, among other things. Almost all of Saturday (day and evening) and Sunday morning were taken up with homework, but hopefully I'll have a brilliant query letter when the dust settles. That would make it all worth it.

Still, here I am, in the last week of the course, and I'm no closer to deciding which approach to take with my new novel. Author Dean Wesley Smith has some very convincing arguments about why a new author should submit directly to publishers and only approach agents once an offer is in hand. Another author, J.A. Konrath, is a huge believer in the potential of e-publishing--so much so that he recently turned down a traditional print deal to go with Amazon e-books. He also has a convincing argument that e-publishing is putting the control and money back where it belongs--in the hands of the author.

My instructor, however, will have none of this. She strongly believes that traditional publishing--that is, finding an agent and hoping the agent will be able to sell my book--is the right way for me to go.

As I draw nearer to the end of my novel, I'm approaching a fork in the road. A three-pronged fork: editor, agent, or e-publisher? Anyone out there have any opinions on the subject? Or any experience?

I'm considering a radical approach where I try a little of each, but perhaps that will dilute my efforts too much. I guess only time will tell.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Write What You Want

There's an old adage that says that writers should write what they read. In other words, those who read fantasy novels should be creating their own worlds. And those who love a good chilling horror tale should breathe life into their own creepy-crawlies.

I don't necessarily agree with this. I've certainly met plenty of successful authors who do exactly the opposite. At one conference, legendary horror writer John Saul was asked which horror writers he liked to read. He laughed and said, "Oh God, I couldn't read horror! It would scare me to death!"

That said, I do understand the logic behind the adage. Those who read mystery novels voraciously should have a better idea of the mechanics of a good mystery than those who have never strayed from the world of science fiction. But maybe not. Maybe a die hard reader of literary period fiction will wake up one day with the makings of a perfect mystery running round her never know.

I tend to write the type of books that I'd love to read--if I could find them. I adore a good eerie tale, but one where the spooky stuff is at least partly left up to the imagination. Was it a ghost, or was it just a bad guy messing with her mind? Those are the books I love, but they're very hard to find.

< Warning: Spoilers for the move "Sixth Sense" below!>

I'm always looking for something--be it book or movie--that will scare me. That will genuinely unnerve me, or make a shiver cross my spine days later. The Sixth Sense was that type of movie. Yes, the ghosts in that flick were very much in-your-face, but the fact that Malcolm Crowe was dead and would never have a chance to patch things up with his wife haunted me for days. Even though the thrill of the twist ending is over, I still enjoy watching that movie. It is character-driven, and it is brilliant. Sadly, in my humble opinion, M. Night Shyamalan hasn't been able to replicate that success ever since. He churns out another "scary" movie almost every year, and each one is a pale imitation of his first big hit.

As for books, I love Stephen King's Bag of Bones. While not exactly terrifying, King managed to slowly build this great feeling of foreboding. "There's something not right in this town," you think, and you are right. Few can pull off this mood-setting like King--he's the master.

Are there books out there you'd like to see but can't find? Do they inspire your writing?

And, most importantly, do you have a good spooky story you can recommend? Book or movie--it doesn't matter. I'm always looking for my next fix.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Query Letter Blues

Dear Author,

We regret to inform you that we must reject your submission on the basis that your query letter sucks.

Honest Agent

I've often boasted that I can write anything well. At least, that's what I tell prospective freelance clients. But I have yet another confession (seems like it's a week for confessing). My query letters suck. (If this wasn't a PG-rated blog, I would be more descriptive and say they suck *ss.)

If you wrote a 500 page novel, some multi-genre epic about man's inhumanity to man, I'm sure I could craft you a brilliant query letter. I've written cover letters for people that have actually resulted in them landing their dream job. But my own work? Forgetaboutit.

I'm a big fan of cliffhangers. My former editor used to call them "dun-dun-duh!" moments, and would make the appropriate sound whenever I read out one of my chapters. Turns out, cliffhangers don't work so well in query letters. If you're all mysterious about your book when describing it to an agent, you don't peak his interest. He just figures you don't have a clue what you're talking about.

Thankfully, I'm well aware of this short coming, so I signed up for an online course about agents & editors that's taught by a woman who really gets the publishing industry. The current recession ended up being a lucky break for me, because I'm her only student for this session. I need all the help I can get.

I sailed through Lesson One with ease, and maybe I was feeling cocky. No more. Part of Lesson Two was pitching my book in a quick sentence or two, and then in a paragraph meant to entice. This is just a small sample of my feedback:

You say she was “forced to go back”? Really? Does someone take her by the collar and make her move? Do the police come to her door? You can’t say that without explanation because it doesn’t seem plausible. Now you could say “compelled” but even that stinks. We have to know what drives her. Then this bleeds into the next question: if she is thirty why does she have to address a teenage or high school disappearance? Seems like everyone moved on. See what I mean? Two questions, the agent isn’t convinced. You planted some holes and the reader doesn’t have time to wonder because they don’t feel compelled to read more. And then this is followed by another question, really two questions: “…someone or something is determined that she figure it out.” Huh? that doesn’t make sense. When you send something to an editor, intriguing them is different from leaving holes open.

Yikes. I'm glad to know it, but I have even more work to do than I thought. And guess what this week's assignment is? Yep, writing the query letter. I had an online chat with my instructor for over an hour, and she still wasn't able to fix everything that needs fixing.

I definitely have the query letter blues.

Anyone else out there been through this? Or better yet, survived it and learned how to write the ultimate query letter? Share your secrets!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Following Your Own Path

My dear readers,

I have a confession to make. I'm not part of the local literary scene. The closest I've ever come is being part of a writers' critique group, but even then, I was the odd one out.

I understand being crazy about books. I always have a stack of books waiting to be read. If you turned me loose in a decent-sized bookstore with unlimited funds, I'm sure I could spend a million dollars inside of an hour. But all my fellow writers seemed to be crazy about other writers. It didn't seem to matter who they were, or what they'd written. They could be published by a little university press at a rate of twenty copies a year. They could write high-minded academic slop that everyone in the group privately agreed was crap--it didn't matter. Every reading or lecture or event was well-attended.

I guess it's nice to support other writers. I certainly hope that my work is supported, and you can be sure that if a writer I'm truly interested in or like personally has a reading, I'll be first in line. But to turn up at every single event in the city that features a writer? I just don't get it.

In an earlier post, I discussed the dubious benefits of critique groups. I haven't been to mine in a long, long time, so I was really flattered when my group's leader invited me to a lunch featuring a published author. I've been thinking I should be putting myself out there more, become an active member of the scene. So I went.

Now, a small disclaimer in case someone from my writing group reads this--I'm still happy I went, and I still am really flattered and humbled that I was invited in the first place. But I have to be honest and say that this lunch reminded me why I've always opted out of these things.

I think some benefit can come from learning about how other writers approach their craft. It's interesting, for example, to learn that Stephen King never takes a day off, even for his birthday or Christmas. Hearing the stories of other writers can make us feel less alone in an art form that can really only be accomplished in complete isolation. If we love a book, it can be enlightening to learn where the author got the idea from. But that's it. It's a "hmmm..." moment, and that's all. King never tells us that if we each write every single day, even on our birthdays and Christmas, we will be as successful as him. Most of us know that it's silly to assume that what has worked so brilliantly for King will work in exactly the same way for us.

Then why is it that, every time I go to one of these things--no matter who the author is (and in this case, it's a man who has enjoyed moderate success with small Canadian publishers)--people are writing down every single word as if it's the holy grail? "This guy gets his ideas by taking long showers with running shoes on, so I should, too!" I even watched writers present some pretty great stories to the author on a silver platter (mind you, this is after he told us that all of his "fiction" comes from real-life experiences, either his own or stories others share with him). They honestly seemed to need this guy's approval to appreciate what they had. I was flabbergasted. We're all supposed to be writers. Shouldn't we know when we have a good idea without another writer telling us so?

Every writer has their own voice, their own sense of style. You can adore the work of King, Grisham, or Moloney, but if you try to mimic their success, you'll just be a pale, pathetic copy. I know that writing is a business, and that there is some value in knowing who our closest competitors are, and where our novels fit in the marketplace. There may even be some merit to learning how a successful author first landed that agent or that publishing deal...maybe. In the end, just because it worked for some published author, doesn't mean it's going to work for you. In writing above all things, I believe it's so important to find your own path.

Back in college, one of my first internships was at a hardscrabble paper. This paper was constantly in competition with the bigger daily in town, but it didn't have nearly the same resources. Still, it managed to continually kick butt with its breaking news coverage by hiring dedicated people who were willing to stay up all night, listening to their scanners, long after the established, well-paid staff at the other paper had gone home to bed. At this time in my career, I was desperate to land a job in the industry, and I wanted nothing more than to work for the underdog. I shared my internship with another student from my journalism class.

One day, the city editor sent us both out on the same story. A woman was walking her baby in a neighborhood not far from the paper's offices when a man ran up and snatched the tot right from its stroller. Thankfully, the mother screamed loudly enough that the would-be kidnapper tossed the baby and took off running. The baby, while no doubt terrified, was none the worse for wear.

With no other leads than the location (the cops refused to release the woman's name), my classmate and I dashed to the scene. He immediately began knocking on doors, asking if anyone had seen the incident. I tried a few myself, but it felt so silly and invasive to me that I hung back a bit, waiting on the sidewalk. A man crossed my path, so I felt obligated to hit him with the same spiel about the botched kidnapping. To my surprise, instead of the typical, "no, didn't see anything, sorry," the man became hostile. "It was my son, and I don't want to talk about it!" he snapped. Talk about dumb luck! I tried again, explaining that it was very important that his story be told. I got a similar, if more adamant response, so I let the man go. When my colleague joined me, I told him about the incident.

"Which way did he go?" my classmate asked eagerly.

"You don't understand," I said. "He really doesn't want to talk about it. He made that quite clear." (At one point, the guy was so furious, I thought he might hit me.)

My colleague kept insisting, so I reluctantly pointed out the man's house. My friend didn't give it a second thought before rushing to the door in the hopes of somehow convincing the man to talk. He didn't get the story, but he did get that coveted job at the paper. The city editor obviously saw something in him that wasn't evident in me. And it was a smart decision on the editor's part. This fellow did very well for that little paper before being scooped up by the competition. Today he's a well-respected crime reporter.

It was obvious to me that day that I didn't want to be that type of reporter. Even if I'd desired to turn myself into a clone of my classmate, it wouldn't have worked, because that wasn't my personality. When I did make my mark in journalism, it was with feature stories. Delving into the story behind the story, and building the kind of mutual trust it takes to get people to really open up. I'll always be the kind of person to take no for an answer if someone tells me they really don't want to talk. I can't help it...anything else would make me so uncomfortable, it wouldn't be worth it. So I had to go with what worked for me.

It's great to support other writers, especially if you love their work. It's smart to learn all you can about the industry. But how someone labels their computer files and conducts their research works for them...make sure you take the time to figure out what works for you.

Cause when it comes down to it, there's only one thing that can make someone a writer. And that's writing.

What's your opinion? Are you a big part of the writing (or other creative pursuit) scene in your area? If so, what do you get from it? Am I missing something? If so, please enlighten me!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Exceeding Your Own Expectations

Dear readers,

Well, I did it! I returned to my dojo after a three month+ hiatus, taken to recover from a broken wrist. It rained all day, but I refused to let the weather dampen my intentions. (As I take the bus, the weather quite often provides a handy excuse for missing's too rainy/cold/nice out, etc.)

I was a little nervous about being able to keep up with my classmates. Yes, I've been fairly faithful to the Jillian Michaels Making the Cut workout, but let's face it--doing exercises in your basement by yourself is nothing compared to having an instructor yell at you (not that my kru, Kelly Westerlund, yells--he's actually very kind. The above photo is of him training in Thailand--he's on the right). There's quite a bit of pressure during a class, because you're always paired off with another student for pad work. If you can't complete the drills, you're basically failing in front of another person--one you may not even know. And if you don't have the strength or stamina to hold pads for their drills, you're slowing someone else down and affecting his workout. So you can see how it can be a tad intimidating!

For the first few minutes, I didn't see anyone I knew, save my instructor and his partner Kara, who helps run the gym. But soon enough, I was able to reconnect with old kickboxing friends, and that felt great! It's that feeling of camaraderie that can only form when you've survived something really intense with another person.

My fear kicked up a notch when Kelly said those dreaded words....

"Welcome to Stamina Mondays!"

Stamina Mondays? Stamina Mondays? I've been off for over three months, and for my first class back, I choose the toughest day? Great....

The class began with a three minute skipping drill, followed by a short break, and six more minutes of skipping. I wasn't that worried about the skipping. At my first dojo, we used to skip for twenty minutes every class, so I'm pretty accustomed to it. But my own rope had been left behind in the basement, with everything else I use for the Jillian workout. No problem--I'll just grab one of the club's. One minute into the skipping, I realize my mistake. I'd grabbed a weighted rope, one used for building arm and shoulder strength. Imagine skipping with five pound dumbbells. Groan....but somehow, I manage to finish the drill without too much of a problem.

I asked Kelly to give me a "gentle" partner so I can test the wrist before throwing myself into the fray again. Holding Thai pads is what I'm most concerned about, as your arms absorb the shock of your partner's kicks. If my wrist isn't fully healed, this is where I'm going to find out.

My partner for the evening is a sweet-faced girl named Nicole. She said she recently returned to Kwest after a year's hiatus, so we're both just getting back into it. But if this is Kelly's idea of gentle, I don't want to know what tough is...her kicks are quite strong. Go, Nicole! First drill is three two-minute rounds of four straight (which means four punches--jab, cross, jab, cross) or a double kick on either side, pad holder's choice. Nicole opts to go first, which gives me a chance to catch my breath. After we've both finished those rounds, it's time for the most challenging part of the evening. 50 hooks followed by roundkicks; 50 high kicks while looking down (a traditional Muay Thai fake out--"I'm looking down, so I'm going to kick low! Whoops--fooled ya!"); and tens up on the cross side. Tens, for those lucky people who aren't familiar with this drill, go something like this: one punch, one kick. Two punches, two kicks. Three punches, three kicks, and so on, up to ten. There are variations--sometimes you do tens with both legs, sometimes with punches, sometimes without, and sometimes both up to ten and then down again. (Tens up equals 55 kicks in total, tens up and down equals 110.) I think we each had four minutes to finish all three drills, which isn't a ton of time.

But I did it! I actually had time to spare...I was one of the first ones finished. I was so proud of myself, because I exceeded my own expectations and then some. And, for a special surprise, The Boy was there waiting for me after class! He took me out for celebratory sushi. Mmm, sushi....

I'm so glad to be back!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Death, Dismemberment, and Adipoceric Goo!

A Forensic Anthropologist Answers Your Questions

You asked, and Finch answered! Here, at long last, are the answers to your gory questions. I don't recommend reading them while eating lunch.

1. Elspeth Cross:

Is there a point where DNA can no longer be taken from bones? ('Cause, on the ever-accurate television, after a certain point, they seem to need teeth).

Yes. DNA degrades over time at a rate that varies depending upon local conditions. Negative factors may include microbial action, heat, radiation, dessication, and chemical activity. Generally speaking, warm wet conditions are detrimental for DNA preservation, just as they are for soft tissue, and this degradation can occur in a short period of time. Teeth are preferable for DNA extraction because dental tissues effectively seal in the good stuff. This is a case where television is right.

There are two types of DNA testing used in forensic work: RFLP and PCR. RFLP uses larger amounts of DNA and it must be undegraded. It cuts the DNA with enzymes and sorts it, comparing it to known sequences; the results are precise but material-intensive. PCR is faster and less fussy but it is susceptible to contamination by microbes and other people present at the scene. Effectively, PCR amplifies the amount of DNA present regardless if it is from the person or not. PCR has tended to replace RFLP-based analysis in a medicolegal context.

DNA has been successfully recovered from Neanderthal remains dated to 38,000 years ago. This was the starting point of the Neanderthal genome project headed by the Max Plank Institute. The problem is that DNA of that age is degraded to the point where it must be reassembled --- think of a jigsaw puzzle, except someone has cut the pieces in half.

Also, do bones smell? Untreated or treated?

Bones do have a smell, although that of dry bone is very faint, like dust (unless burned or cut, so sawing through bone smells very much like sawing through antler). Treated bone may smell like bleach (if someone was silly enough to use it --- it will make bone crumble over time by removing collagen). It depends on whether or not the bone has been degreased. Bone with a higher organic content, often called green bone, will have a fatty scent and feel. I don’t think that there is a considerable difference in smell between animal and human bone.

I’d say that much of the smell would come from surrounding conditions: a catacomb or reliquary full of bone will smell dusty; a charnel house would smell foul; a lab would smell like a lab; etc. As you are aware, scent is a primal sensation: it is very powerful in triggering memories but it is very difficult to describe. My advice is to collect some bone and find out for yourself.

Will the skeleton of a body that has not been moved stick together? Does cartilage rot like skin and muscles? Would you have an intact skeleton or just a pile of bones? (Bonus question: would a Manitoba winter interfere with determining how long a body has been dead?)

Connective tissue such as cartilage and ligaments will decay unless dessicated or otherwise preserved. As a result, skeletons become disarticulated. Tougher tissues will take more time to decay than softer ones, so a body left exposed above ground for six weeks in a Manitoba summer may have a few sinews on its spine and joints. Unless disturbed, the remains will retain their original articulations; in the above example animals would probably disturb the remains by gnawing or dragging bones away from the scene. Disturbances can also be human-caused (anthropogenic) or due to natural (taphonomic) factors such as soil movement, frost heaves, erosion, animal burrows, tree roots, etc.

Determining time of death is tricky. Once a set of remains have been reduced to bone, the time of death must be inferred by contextual evidence. The longer the remains have been exposed, the less contextual information you will have. Trace evidence will disappear or degrade, witnesses will forget, and so forth.

2. Richard Lewis:

Can you tell me anything about bones of fetus & mother, mother murdered near term and buried in shallow tropical sea-side grave and uncovered forty years later. Will fetus bones survive? Is it possible to distinguish between bones of unborn fetus and that of infant in mother's arms?

Fetal remains will preserve if the conditions are right. If the soil is particularly acidic, there may few or no elements present. Tropical soils tend to be shallow and leached of organics, so the resulting bone will probably be in poor condition unless the soil is protected (i.e. in a dry spot).

Fetal remains are distinguishable from infant bones based on dental eruption and fusion of the growth plates (epiphyses) in the long bones. Generally speaking, the younger the remains, the easier it is to determine their age but the harder they are to recover intact. There may be some fuzziness around the time of birth, as a perinatal fetus is essentially indistinguishable from a perinatal infant. However, the bones of a fetus at the 7 month mark are clearly distinguishable from those of a newborn, infant or toddler.

If you have questions on specific timing, check out an osteology manual. I’d recommend ones by William Bass, D. Gentry Steele or Tim White.

3. D. Dionne:

Here's my scenario. A soldier dies in a futuristic suit of powered armor and the military never recovers the body. The suit is completely moisture-sealed and has not been breached. There is airflow into the suit, but it passes through nuclear-biological-chemical filtration. The soldier himself is wearing synthetic cloth fatigues.

Thirty years later, someone finds and opens the suit. The suit has been in a standing position the whole time. What is the soldier's state of decay? What does the body look and smell like? Is there residue left inside the suit?

The more exposure that remains receive to the outside environment, the less remains that will, er, remain. However, you have to remember that the human body is itself an environment for all sorts of interesting flora. This situation is analogous to exhuming Victorian caskets that were lead-lined and rubber-sealed. In other words: you got soup.

The soldier’s body likely contains bacteria, primarily in the gut, so the body will be affected normally by post mortem decomposition. If the environmental seal is something like a nano barrier, a molecular membrane that keeps water in but allows gases to escape, then the post mortem environment within the suit will likely be ghastly. The remains might be skeletonized but surrounded by liquefied tissue and perhaps adipocere if ambient oxygen levels were low. Adipocere is a saponified lipid --- essentially the body fat turns to soap, though it smells less like Irish Spring and more like ammonia and rotten underwear. If the external environment were poor in oxygen then you would likely see more adipocere formation and thus more solid goo adhering to the bones. Decomposition tends to create a fair bit of gas so the internal pressure of the suit may be higher than standard; not enough to make the suit burst but enough to hiss and spray a bit when the seal is cracked. The synthetic cloth will be intact but may be degraded somewhat; still, I would not recommend shaking it out and trying it on.

The boots would be particularly full.

The smell of putrefaction will penetrate materials, including metal. There are countless cases of cars going to the junkyard because the smell won’t get out where Uncle Ted died that hot weekend. I once heard of a recovery of a drowning victim who went through the ice in a snowmobile accident. In spring someone snagged the body in a net. The RCMP took their boat out, hauled the body out, and grabbed it by the sleeve of the snowsuit. The snowsuit was all that was keeping the body together and when it hit the deck, the suit spilt like a bag of stew. The boat was a write-off and could not be sold at auction. You might avoid this fate through using perfect materials --- crystalline metals with few airspaces --- but I’d replace the suit liner before using it.

So… if the moisture could be vented from the suit, then someone else could use it after a good hosing out. If the pilot had to wear a catheter (like in some spacesuits) it might continue to function after death and reduce the quantity of body liquor. Or, if conditions promoted dessication of the remains --- low humidity, perhaps high radiation --- you could just move the dead guy out and climb in the cockpit.

4. Jane Walker:

I have forgotten how long it takes for the blow flies and maggots to show up, is it three days?

Maggots will colonize the remains almost immediately but really get going once putrefaction sets in, i.e. after three or four days (depending on climate). I hate to use Wikipedia as an academic reference but the following link should be useful not only for describing the timing of insect activity but for defining the phases of decomposition:

Also how long will it take for a body to decompose if packed in dry ice?

If the remains are packed in dry ice, you will be dealing with a frozen corpse. It will store indefinitely though over time it will suffer the changes associated with freezerburn. If the dry ice sublimes entirely, the body will begin to decompose once it warms up.

Gods, that was some morbid business. You folks need to get some fresh air.

Hope that helps!


Friday, June 18, 2010

Brushes With Greatness

Something interesting happened to me today. After the heaviness of some of this week's posts, I decided that today's would be about something lighter...namely, the books I'm reading in my (very limited) spare time.

One of my all-time favorite authors is John Douglas. Ever heard of him? If not, he's a most interesting man. Mr. Douglas was one of the FBI's very first profilers, responsible for setting up their Behavioral Science Unit. This is back in the day when profiling was still viewed as "voodoo" by the majority of law enforcement, so Douglas' road wasn't easy. He's worked on many high profile cases, including the Atlanta child murders, and had the initial idea to interview serial killers and other multiple offenders to learn what makes them tick. If you've seen Silence of the Lambs or read the book, Clarice's interviews with Hannibal Lector were inspired by Douglas' work. Clarice's boss/advisor Jack Crawford was also based on Douglas, although from what I can tell, John Douglas is a much nicer man than his counterpart in the movie. Since retiring from the FBI, Douglas works as a guest speaker and a consultant, in addition to writing some fascinating non-fiction. He was hired by the Ramsey family to consult on their daughter's death, and was one of the first people to publicly state that the Ramseys did not kill their daughter JonBenet (unfortunately, Patsy died before they were officially exonerated).

I became Facebook friends with Douglas not that long ago, so Facebook, that lovely little networking tool, informed me that it is his birthday today. One cannot disappoint Facebook, of course, so I obediently went to Douglas' page to leave him a message of good cheer. And you'll never guess what I found!

Amid the other messages was one that was clearly posted by a personal connection. A man (whom I correctly guessed to be Douglas' son) had responded to this person, to the effect of, "He'd love to hear from you! Here is his cell phone number, and here is his home phone!"

Whoops. Now, Douglas is a man who's responsible for putting multiple serial killers and other baddies behind bars. Not to mention all those crazy rabid writers out there who would die to have a blurb from him for their books, etc. I'm guessing his private numbers should never be out there for Joe Public to see, especially on Facebook. I also guessed that his son was a Facebook newbie who didn't know that all of Douglas' "friends" could see this very personal message. So, doing my good deed for the day, I sent Douglas' son a Facebook message to alert him.

He wrote back immediately, to the effect of "Oh my God! How do I delete it?" I told him, and we exchanged a few more messages. I got to find out how one of my favorite authors will be spending his birthday, and what kind of dad he is ("the best ever!"). Pretty cool.

I especially find it interesting that this happened on the very day I was going to write about Douglas' books. And to that end, The Cases That Haunt Us and Anatomy of Motive are must-reads.

What are you reading? TGIF!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Privilege

I used to hate writing speeches, which is one of the responsibilities of my day job. Done well, speeches can be a powerful call to action that can change the course of history. Who doesn't know at least part of Martin Luther King Jr's epic I have a dream? Or JFK's famous line "ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country"?

The kind of speeches I'm writing won't change anyone's life. They're more of the "thank you for coming" and "thank you for funding us" variety. But things have changed since I've had to write my CEO's speech for the nation's first Truth and Reconciliation Commission event. She'll be speaking to over a hundred people, most of whom will be residential school survivors and their families. Some of the audience will no doubt be angry. Others will have deep emotional wounds. Some will be indifferent. It is a great understatement to say that it will be a tough crowd, and that every word must be chosen very carefully.

This challenge made me realize that the ability to write--to reach an audience with our words--is a privilege. I have this little blog which--if I'm lucky--a few people read each day. But what a privilege it is for me to be able to share my words and thoughts with you. It is not something one should ever take lightly.

I used to complain that I didn't have a more substantial talent. I'm not a brilliant physicist, or a nimble-fingered surgeon, or a phenomenal singer. "All I can do is write," I whined, time and time again, instead of being grateful for everything I get to do with my small talent. Part of the problem with writing is that nearly everyone thinks they can do it well--except for the people who hire writers like me to craft their speeches, newsletters, and annual reports. Even so, we all can breathe and we all have hearts that beat--does that make the human body any less miraculous? I don't think so.

The best compliment a writer can hope for is to know that he or she evoked an emotion in her audience. How incredible is it that mere words on a page or screen can make a person angry or sad, cheered or moved to tears? I find it amazing.

I don't know what reaction my speech will have at the TRC Call to Gather tonight, but I hope it's a positive one. I hope our words mean something to the people who have suffered so much. At the very least, I hope the audience gets the message that someone else cares, very much, about what they've been through.

What do you think? Is writing a privilege or a right? What has made you feel the most privileged to be a writer, or an artist, or a teacher, or a fighter...pick a talent, any talent!


I Have A Dream

Martin Luther King Jr.

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

We cannot walk alone.

And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.

We cannot turn back.

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: "For Whites Only." We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."¹

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest -- quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

And this will be the day -- this will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning:

My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.

Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim's pride,

From every mountainside, let freedom ring!

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

But not only that:

Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.

From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last!

Thank God Almighty, we are free at last

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Power of Story

I had to work late for my day job tonight, and the last thing I ever expected to receive in return was an important lesson on storytelling.

My city is holding the first ever national event of reconciliation for the survivors of residential schools. I'm very proud and honored that my CEO has been asked to speak at this event, and we went today to get a sense of the environment and what other people had to say. (My CEO speaks tomorrow.)

There were many speakers. Some had messages of apology and hope for the future. Some had anger and recriminations that wandered more than slightly off topic. But the last man took my breath away. Unlike the others, who had started their speeches with greetings and salutations, he began

"I remember the day the planes came and took me away from my family. My parents have told me how silent the village was when all the children were gone, when you could no longer hear them playing. The only thing you could hear was the sound of the parents crying."

The huge tent full of people quieted. It was hot and humid and uncomfortable, but for once, no one fidgeted on their chairs. This man embodied the power of story, and he was using it to hold all of us spellbound.

I'm not doing his story justice--I don't think anyone else could hope to tell it the way he did. He spoke of how his parents walked for three days from their trap line, and then took an expensive taxi--using all of the money they had in the world--just to see their son again for a few short hours.

If there was a single person in that tent unmoved, that person must have been made of stone. Unfortunately, as with most of these events, this man was using his power on the converted. Those of us in the gathering--both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal--were there because we already get it. Because we already care. How I wish this man's voice could be carried to those who don't! How the impact would be magnified!

It was a simple, emotional lesson on the power of story. We can hide our message behind fancy words or lofty academia. We can try to dazzle with rapier wit or alluring alliteration. But when it comes down to it, nothing has the impact of a good tale well told. For years, I will remember this man's story of being forcibly taken from his parents and confined in a residential school. I will remember it, and I will pass it on.

And that, my friends, was the point.

Well done, Matthew.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Losing It

Dear readers,

I really need to get back to the gym. Although I'll be a little nervous and hesitant when Monday afternoon rolls around, I'll be so happy to return to kickboxing.

For those of you who struggle with weight, with motivation to exercise, or with your overall physical fitness, I have to say: the secret to success with all of the above is to find a form of exercise that you love. An hour of kickboxing is the hardest workout I've ever experienced, but it's over so fast. And it's fun. Even when I'm not feeling up to it after a draining day at work, I feel so much better afterwards. My energy and positivity return, and I'm happy that I made the effort to do something great for myself. Over the years, I've come to realize that Muay Thai keeps me sane. When I'm not working my body hard, depression and anxiety are soon to follow.

I don't expect Muay Thai to be a lifelong activity, like golf or tai chi. It's too hard on the body. But I'm sure I'll be at it until my weary bones can't hack it anymore, because Muay Thai itself will never get old. It's too challenging for that. You can study it for thirty, forty years and never once feel like you've perfected it. (Although if I was up to Tony Jaa's standards, I wouldn't complain.)

Growing up in an isolated northern community, I was a one-person welcome wagon, the girl who made friends with all the new kids. Comfortable with my roles of "writer" and "funny girl" in town, I got along with pretty much everyone. It's not an exaggeration to say that I never experienced shyness until I moved to the city.

My college program was full of talented people who were the writers in their communities. Suddenly, my skills were not unique. I was one of many. At the beginning of the year, my journalism instructor called on me and I actually blushed! Blushed! I had no idea what was wrong with me, until I finally figured out that--for the first time in my life--I was shy. And it sucked. Big time.

My new home was a small city by global standards, but it was still a city. I'd never taken public transit before, so I nearly fell over when the bus driver took off while I was still walking to a seat. I'd never shared a room with someone before, let alone someone I'd never met. Everything was strange. I was terrified of being downtown during the day, certain I'd be mugged. The city seemed enormous, impossible to navigate, and my college wasn't much better. It seems funny to me now, but that anxiety was my reality for the first couple of years.

Kickboxing gave me my confidence back. I'm not sure if it was the fact that I was learning a brutally effective form of self-defense, or that I felt accepted somewhere again. As I've continued to train, each gym has become my community. I'm very lucky to be a member at KWest, where almost all of my fellow students are friendly, cheerful, and welcoming. Like the theme song for that old sitcom, sometimes you just want to go where everybody knows your name.

When it comes to exercise, what's your poison?

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Good Book

Dear Readers,

This question goes out to all of you...whether you consider yourself a writer or not. What book changed your life?

Is there a volume that you refer to again and again, until it's dogeared?

For me, the answer to this question is easy. (As you might suspect, since I picked it.) Stephen King's On Writing made a significant difference in my life. I've been a huge fan of King's since I first discovered a worn paperback copy of Different Seasons in the basement when I was a kid, but although I love his fiction, On Writing had an impact on me that a tall tale couldn't hope to match.

For those of you unlucky enough to not have read this book, it's a combination memoir/writing guide. I don't think you have to be a writer to get a lot out of it, but it doesn't hurt.

I first read On Writing when I was a freelance journalist. I was very busy with journalism clients, and I was doing some really cool stuff--covering the Pan Am games, traveling to Africa on the trip of a lifetime, interviewing Kiefer Sutherland. What I wasn't doing, however, was writing fiction. No matter how successful I was as a journalist, I was always painfully aware that I was failing myself.

What On Writing did for me can be summed up simply: it got me writing for myself again. I'm not sure how, since I'd tried everything from writers' groups to acquiring an editor, with no results. I've had some stops and starts along the way, but whenever I need inspiration, I can always get it from the dogeared pages of that wonderful book. I owe so much to Stephen King, and I thank him from the bottom of my heart for writing it.

How about you, dear readers? What book means the most?

If I get TWENTY comments, I'll send one lucky random winner a copy of my personal bible, On Writing by Stephen King.

Happy weekend! TGIF!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

So Angry I Could Cry

Dear Readers,

As the majority of you know, this is a new blog. It's still finding its way in the world, and it was created to celebrate one woman's journey, yes--but also a journey I hope that everyone can relate to in their own way. However, if there's one underlying theme, it all goes back to the title--A Life Less Ordinary. This blog is about living your best life, however one seems fit to do that.

It is not a place for political rants, or a breakdown of the top headlines (there's enough blogs like that out there). Most of the time, I strive for an upbeat, positive tone, because I believe we all have enough depressing stuff to deal with.


It is not my nature to keep my mouth shut when something is really bothering me. And even though I want each and every one of you to be happy, I hope it's been bothering you, too. Today's post may not be about writing or kickboxing, but I don't have to stretch at all to say it's definitely about living our best life.

I'm sick and (insert expletive of choice here) tired of what we're doing to the planet.

Call me a bleeding heart, I don't care. BP's oil spill makes me sick. I literally feel physically sick whenever I think about it, and I want to weep whenever I see another poor creature covered with oil. CNN's Anderson Cooper is churning out story after story about how corrupt this company is, how they could have seen this coming a million miles away, and one has stopped the disaster.

If you're tired of hearing about how human beings are a virus that is destroying everything, I understand. I get exhausted by that, too. I'm especially frustrated by environmental nightmare stories that don't give us the faintest indication of what we can do to help.

The literal slimeballs at BP are one thing. It makes me so angry and helpless, but that's exactly what I am...helpless. Short of going down there and washing off ducks myself, what can I do? I already don't own a car, so there's no risk of inadvertently supporting BP or their products. But then I saw an article that my writer friend Perry posted on his Facebook wall: If you're not in the mood for more happy reading, I'll break it down for you. This year, mines are going to start dumping their toxic waste into SIXTEEN Canadian lakes. And even worse, they have the permission of Canada's Fisheries Minister. Get this quote, from a spokesperson of the mining industry:

Lakes are often the best way for mine tailings to be contained, said Elizabeth Gardiner, vice-president for technical affairs for the Mining Association of Canada.

“In some cases, particularly in Canada, with this kind of topography and this number of natural lakes and depressions and ponds … in the end it's really the safest option for human health and for the environment," she said.

Safest option for the environment? As opposed to what? Nuclear waste? My friend Perry's post of this article only resulted in one comment: "Boo!" That's the best we can do, people? Sixteen of our beautiful lakes, including all the fish, fauna, and fowl that live there, are about to be poisoned, and all we can say is "boo"?

I was also astounded at the response to an article in the local paper that said Manitoba will lose its polar bears by 2035. Most of the people who bothered to comment did so simply to say that they didn't believe in this "climate change" and that species have always gone extinct, so why should they care? It flabbergasted me. Even better were the ones who pointed out the environmental mistakes of other countries, justifying their lack of action with "well, Nigeria is worse than us, so there's no point in us doing anything." Excuse me?

The majority of Canadians and Americans aren't rich. We aren't really profiting from this rape of our natural resources, but we're definitely going to pay the price in the end. There has to be something we can do. We may be the most destructive species on the face of the planet, but we're also the only species who can realize the extent of our destruction and do something about it. Do we really have to sit quietly by and watch some big mining corporation poison our lakes? Do we really have to accept that our polar bears are going to die? Or that in some American cities, there already seem to be no songbirds at all?

I'm looking for answers. I'm looking desperately for a silver lining. But I'm sorry--I just can't justify writing a feel-good post about writing or kickboxing when all this stuff is going on. If you have ideas of what one can do to help, please comment! (Julius, I'm hoping you may have suggestions about the marine issues.) Or if you're mad as hell, too, feel free to rant away.

I'll end with this. It is a mistake--a huge, irreversible mistake--to feel that one person can't make a difference. We all have the power to make our voices heard by the fools who keep destroying our homes.
Maybe I'll feel better tomorrow. Then again, maybe not.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Life Imitates Art

I find it a wonderful coincidence that--just as I'm writing a book about a woman searching for a long-lost childhood friend--I suddenly find my own.

Carla and I were only seven when she moved to Vancouver...too little to really understand that we should exchange addresses and phone numbers and vow to keep in touch. All I knew at the time was that one minute this little girl was my friend, and the next minute she was gone. I never knew what happened to her, but as I grew up in a small northern community with little fluctuation, her absence was very strongly felt.

When I first joined Facebook, I viewed it as an opportunity to reconnect with all the "missing" friends from my childhood. From time to time, I would type Carla's name into the search box, but I always came up with nothing. Finally, a high school friend had a friend on his list that had the same last name as Carla. I contacted this girl, thinking she must be a sister, and it turns out that she was a friend of Carla's family! Not only did she know what Carla was up to, she could put me in touch with her! She took my email address and I waited.

About a week later, I received an email from this girl I'd been looking for, off and on, for over two decades. I wasn't even sure she'd remember me, but I was thrilled that she did. I was so happy to hear that she is doing well, a career woman living in a beautiful place with a loving husband and brand new baby. She is smart and she is funny. When she sent me photos and I finally saw what she looks like after all these years, I'm not ashamed to admit I got a bit teary. "Just think," she wrote, "if I hadn't moved away, we might have ended up best friends." That would have been wonderful, but I am still thrilled to reconnect with her now.

Unfortunately, my poor protagonist won't fare as well as I did, I suspect. There is no rational explanation for her friend's sudden disappearance. But we'll see...I'm only on page 260. Things could still turn out as well for my protagonist as they did for me.

Ever have a time when life imitated art for you? Or have you ever reconnected with a long-lost friend? How did the reunion go? Share!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The First Time

Dear Readers,

Do you remember the first time you succeeded in something? Most of us do, and subsequent successes never quite produce the euphoria of that first, perfect moment when you realize, "Hey, I'm good at this!".

One thing that will probably surprise people who've met me as an adult (but definitely won't surprise those who knew me growing up) is that I wasn't an athletic child. I was born with little to no eye-hand coordination, and my small town's physical education programming was strongly geared towards children who were already gifted athletes. No time or consideration was given to teach the kids who were struggling, and as a result, team sports were hell for me. During baseball season, I was terrified of the humiliation I'd receive from my fellow students when I struck out, so instead of taking my turn at bat, I'd continually cycle to the end of the line. I'll never forget when my male instructor caught me out, and announced to the entire class that the game would not proceed until I stepped up to the plate. I had to take my first swipes at a baseball amid the jeering of all the athletically-inclined boys. No one had ever taught me proper stance or how to hit, because the kids who loved baseball already knew those things. I can't even remember how I did, but I do remember the deep level of shame and embarrassment I felt.

When I first started kickboxing in my early twenties, I was convinced that I'd never be able to move as well as my fellow students without some very specific, in-depth tutelage. There, in the corner of my little dojo, was a boxing ring that was ruled by a gruff, hard-as-nails man named Carlos. I saw his boxers and the way they moved, and was convinced that this man could teach me how to dance. So I became one of his students, and suddenly, through this one-on-one, intensive training, I acquired a passion for athletics I'd never had before. I was determined to perfect the skills needed to be a great boxer. I didn't care how much time it took. I didn't care how beat up I got, or how much my muscles ached. All that mattered was proving to Carlos that the time he was spending on me wasn't wasted.

Let me tell you, Carlos had his work cut out for him. I believed then, and still do, that boxing takes more coordination and grace than most other sports combined. You have to be strong, mentally and physically. You have to be fast. You have to have flexibility, agility, and a remarkable sense of balance. And most of all, you have to keep your cool and not lose heart when you're punched in the face.

Carlos still had a bit of that old-world mentality. He wasn't anywhere near the level of Clint Eastwood's character in Million Dollar Baby, but I don't think it's unfair to say he was a tad sexist. That said, if you worked hard and proved yourself, you could earn his respect, no matter what your gender.

I'll never forget the moment that came after months of training. He was holding pads for me, and after a particularly brutal series of combinations, he stopped and looked at me in admiration.

"You know," he said, "your right cross could knock anyone out."

That was the first time I thought, "hey, I'm good at this," about boxing. And I'll never forget that moment. Or Carlos. Even when he realized what he'd said and hastily modified it with, "I mean, any woman!", it was too late. He'd created a monster. Or, at the very least, another woman who would harbor a lifelong love of boxing. Too bad my elementary school gym teachers couldn't have figured that out.

Any memorable "firsts" you'd like to share?

Special thanks to Dangerous Dave Zuniga for the fifteen year old photos of Carlos in action.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Dirty Dancing in the Catskills

Dear readers,

I have some exciting news! I just found out that my application for Susie Moloney's writing retreat was successful! So, come September, I'll be heading to the the very same place Dirty Dancing was filmed. Perhaps the ghost of Patrick Swayze will show up to inspire me.

This will be the very first time in my entire life when I will have an entire week to focus on my writing. No email, no phone calls, no laundry, no crying cats, no social obligations, no housework...just me, a cabin, a laptop, a few like-minded souls, and my novel.

If all goes as it should, I will be working on the second draft of Dragonfly Summer while I'm at the retreat, and I can't think of a better time to get some input from a famous novelist (Ms. Moloney herself). The first draft will be finished, which means the basic characters, plot, and setting will be in place, so I'm not bound to get discouraged or off-track with the story.

While I'm sure my time at the Catskills won't be quite as exciting as that had by Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze, a peaceful week of writing sounds heavenly to me. I'm sure I'll be saying that I had the time of my life, too.

Ever been on a retreat of any kind? Please tell me about your experience!

And if you'd like to see the first chapter of the novel I'm working on, click here.

One of the best quotes about writing EVER, overheard at a party on Saturday. My playwright friend Rick talked about the ideal how-to book for writers that he plans to produce one day.

"You'd open it, and the front page would say 'put down the damn book and write!' The rest of the book would be blank."

I had to laugh. It's so true! So much of the tools writers use just end up taking our time away from the most important aspect of being a writer...that is, actually writing.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Long Journey

Dear Readers,

I may be doomed. Here I am, a most impatient person, struggling to succeed in a field that requires an infinite amount of patience.

Laila Ali posted a timely quote today that got me thinking about this.

Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out.

The road ahead of me may be long. It may be filled with setbacks and discouragement. But somehow, if I want to succeed, I have to keep putting one foot in front of the other. It's astounding how this simple act is sometimes the most difficult thing to do.

When I finished my first publisher-ready novel, I knew acquiring an agent would be difficult. I steeled myself against all the rejection slips to come, remembering that Stephen King, my favorite writer of all time, once needed a railroad spike to hold all of his rejections to the wall. I sent out query letters, and the form replies started to come in. At first, I handled it well. I reminded myself that it was all part of the process. But slowly, over time, the rejections chipped away at my self-confidence, planting a seed of self-doubt. What if I'm wrong? What if I'm not meant to be a writer? What if no one ever asks to see my work? A wonderful friend saw what I was going through, and hired a professional book doctor to look over my manuscript and give it an objective appraisal without my knowledge. My Christmas gift that year was a letter from the book doctor, gushing over how incredible my novel was. At first, I didn't understand what the letter was, or what it meant. But once I did, I burst into tears. That gift was more than a simple appraisal--my dear friend had given my confidence back to me. And to date, that is one of the best gifts I've ever received.

The problem is, though, that confidence--this unwavering belief that we're on the right path--really has to come from within. As much as that gift was a beautiful thing, as soon as the initial thrill wore off I started doubting the credentials of the book doctor. Was she just saying my novel was fantastic so I'd hire her to edit it? What does she know, anyway?

It's like that beautiful girl who thinks she's ugly. Everyone can tell her she's not. A big shot modeling agency can discover her, and put her face up on hundreds of magazine covers. When she's interviewed, she tells people that she was an ugly duckling as a child, and everyone laughs, "yeah, sure!" You know what? I believe her.

Staying positive in the face of adversity is tough. Holding the course when you have countless obstacles in your way is an ongoing battle. It takes confidence, it takes guts, but most of all, it takes friends. I don't care how big your ego is, or how high your self-esteem. All of us need someone to be our biggest fan. Even if we're not published yet. Even if we haven't won that title fight, or wrote that award-winning song, or painted that house.

Please share something (or someone) that inspired you when things were tough. Maybe it will help us all through the next dark time.

And in the meantime, thanks for being my "fans"!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Fan Club

Dear Readers,

I recently enrolled in an online course to learn how to better promote myself through social networks: Facebook, Twitter, and the like. One of the first assignments is to create a Facebook Fan Page for our writing, whether or not we're published. I'm struggling with this.

Maybe it's that good ol' humility Canadians are so famous for, but won't it seem conceited of me to start up a Fan Page before my novel gets published? Fan Pages are for celebrities, aren't they? (Well, celebrities and ridiculous causes like 'become of a fan of I Hate It When I Wake Up in the Morning and Can't Remember My Own Name.) In that case, maybe the idea isn't quite so ridiculous after all.

I have published thousands of articles, but so have many journalists, and I don't see them starting up Fan Pages. I have this blog, but there are millions of bloggers without Fan Pages. However, as my instructor says, "it's never too early to start promoting your own work".

Do you agree? What's your stance on this? Would you sign up to be a Fan of mine, or would you think I've gotten a little too big for my britches, so to speak? I'm a bit afraid of backlash, especially from the local writing community. I can imagine a lot of "who does she think she is?" sniping going on. That said, I do have a few exciting projects coming up, and it would be nice to have one central point to let my friends know about them.

I'm eager for your opinion. What's your view of the Fan Page?

Watched the first episode of Jillian Michaels' new show, Losing It, last night and was a little disappointed. It was just too short, and the pressure on her to change a family's life in one week is a bit much. Still, there was one thing she said on the show that really inspired me--I think it's so true. Jillian kept pushing one woman to work out harder, and the woman whined "I'm trying!" Jillian replied

"Trying is just planning to fail."

So true! Are there any areas in your life where you're trying when you should be kicking butt?

Exercise: Did the Jillian Making the Cut workout, ate healthfully
To bed at: 11:30 p.m.
Awake at: 6:30 a.m.
Novel pages written: Four. I have now written over fifty pages since I began this blog project!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Last Chance for "Ask a Forensic Anthropologist"!

Hello Dear Readers,

I will be sending everyone's questions to Finch tomorrow, so today is your last chance to sneak one under the wire. Post your questions of death, dismemberment, and decay, and I will make sure they get to the Great Finch. Let's give this man a challenge, people!

There's been some wonderful questions so far! Keep 'em coming. To view my original post, click here.