Saturday, October 30, 2010

Need Your Help!

Welcome back, dear readers.

Thanks for spending some of your precious time off giving me a helping hand. Initially, I was very confident about the tone and voice of my new novel. I loved the beginning, and thought I started in a good place--plenty of action, but still slipping enough info about the protagonist that you got to know her.

However, after my retreat in the Catskills, I began to doubt myself. I started to rewrite the book in a much darker, serious tone, but now I'm worried it's too cold.

I'd love to know what you think! Please read both excerpts, and tell me which one you like best. Both versions begin and end the same...it's the middle that makes all the difference. Please ignore the lack of formatting in the second excerpt...I believe the blog is too long, so it's acting up on me.

Excerpt One:

I never believed in ghosts.

I’d seen enough horror among the living to bother with the dead. Closets inspired no fear in me. I could walk by a bed without thinking about something seizing my ankles. Darkness was a place of dreams—not nightmares—and the only eerie whispers I’d heard were the wind.

If you’d asked me about it a few months ago, I would have told you I was the type of person who had to experience something in order to believe it.

I know better now.


I lifted my head with a gasp, heart pounding. It took me a moment to remember where I was. Posters of fossils and Egyptian pharaohs added jolts of color to bleak walls. My face felt wrong, pinched together on one cheek. Raising a shaking hand, I removed the Post-It note that had stuck there. The jumble of take-out containers that surrounded me was what finally clued me in. I’d fallen asleep at my desk again.

You are at work. No one wants to hurt you. The conflict is over.

Sweeping the paper cartons into the trash, I glanced at my watch. Ten-thirty. I’d been sleeping for at least two hours. The new exhibit was opening soon, and there was plenty I needed to get done. It would have to wait until tomorrow. After the dream I’d just had, I would be no good to anyone for a while. Rwanda. I was back in Rwanda with the little girl I couldn’t save. I’d wanted so much to save just one. The love I felt for her still hurt.

I walked through the darkened galleries before heading home, flicking off the lights as I went. There’s something peaceful about a museum at night. The aroma of old paper and wood, so many artifacts with stories to tell. You can’t hear them in the daytime hours, over the sounds of the screaming kids and their admonishing parents, but you can hear them at night, if you listen. My heels echoed on the tiles.

The mannequins in the Hall of Costumes glared at me through eyes of glass. One was a child, holding tight to her mother’s hand. It reminded me of my dream—the last time I’d seen the girl. She reached for me, arms flailing, when the Red Cross nurse pulled her out of my arms. The nurse’s name was Terry, and she’d been harried but kind. She assured me that she was the child’s best chance of survival, not an impulsive young reporter with no resources and a brutal case of malaria. Sixteen years ago. That little girl would be almost twenty now…if she were alive. Did she ever think of me? Did she wake up from the same dream? Her name had meant Hope. Maybe that had been enough.

I left my favorite gallery until the end. We called it Old Town, and it was one of the Manhattan Museum of Man and Nature’s most popular attractions—a walkthrough diorama recreating New York at the turn of the 19th century. Planks of weathered wood formed a boardwalk that wrapped around the buildings.

A cold wind caressed my neck, and I shivered. I stopped on the boardwalk for a moment, trying to detect where the breeze was coming from. There shouldn’t be a draft here. Is there a door left open somewhere? Then I heard it—footsteps on the boardwalk behind me, followed by a creak as the old planks protested.

I whirled around, expecting to see the museum’s ancient security guard behind me. I wanted to laugh with him and give him shit for scaring me. But the boardwalk was empty. No one was following me, although I was positive I’d heard someone.

Must have been my imagination. I was always spooked after a nightmare about Rwanda. Now I was hearing noises that weren’t there. Post-traumatic stress syndrome. That’s what the doctor said. I shook it off. There is nothing wrong with you. You had a bad dream and you’re jittery, that’s all. It could happen to anyone.

It wasn’t only the draft, or the sound itself, that gave me pause. The boards under my feet had shifted, as though from pressure. And then there was the smell…a girlish perfume, sickeningly sweet. I’d smelled it before—maybe I’d worn it in my younger days. Anäis Anäis? Exclamation?

Walking through the galleries no longer seemed like a good idea. I was too wired. I needed some sleep, some good sleep. Passing out at my desk hardly counted. I’ll follow the boardwalk out to the lobby. In the morning, I’ll laugh at how silly I was. I picked up the pace, hurrying through the diorama while I tried to convince myself that there was nothing to be afraid of.

I wasn’t a journalist anymore. No more jungle surrounding me or guns pointed at my face. I was a PR hack for a dying museum filled with dead things, the type of person I used to hate. I was the barrier between you and the person you want to talk to. This was my life.

This time, I felt it coming up behind me before I heard its steps. The boards shifted under my feet. My arms were gooseflesh.

I whirled around.

Nothing.

I was alone.

But as I stood, staring into the darkness, I heard it again.

Someone in hard-soled shoes was following me through the gallery.

Someone who wasn’t there.

Excerpt Two

I never believed in ghosts.


I’d seen enough horror among the living to bother with the dead. Closets inspired no fear in me. I could walk by a bed without thinking about something seizing my ankles. Darkness was a place of dreams—not nightmares—and the only eerie whispers I’d heard were the wind.


If you’d asked me about it a few months ago, I would have told you I was the type of person who had to experience something in order to believe it.
I know better now.
*  *  *  *
The reporter squeezed my arm hard enough to hurt, her long nails pinching the sensitive skin on the inside of my elbow.
    "Did you hear that?" Her eyes widened, and I bit back a smile, despite the fact that my arm was throbbing.
     This had to be the best idea I’d come up with so far—promoting the museum’s haunted reputation in time for Halloween. Plenty of people swore they’d encountered an apparition in our galleries, so why not take advantage of it? God knows we needed all the help we could get. The Manhattan Museum of Man and Nature was months away from its fiscal year end, but already I was hearing rumors of layoffs.
    “I’m sensing something,” Mildred said. Mildred was our psychic for the evening—a brainstorm inspired by the ghost-hunting reality shows currently flooding the airwaves. No team of spook hunters was complete without some medium muttering in the background about the spirits of little girls and so forth. Since I didn’t know any real psychics per se, I’d hired Mildred, an unemployed actor who was willing to do the gig for an honorarium and a free lunch. I’d asked her to camp it up a bit to ensure the cameraman came away with some interesting footage.
But not too much. I didn’t want the paranormal researcher to catch wind of this harmless prank. He would leave in a huff if he suspected anything wasn’t kosher. He followed a step behind Mildred, sweeping his probe through the air, frowning with concentration. When Mildred proclaimed that she was “sensing something”, Michael rushed to her side, sweeping his apparatus around the room, waiting to see if his sensors beeped or whirred to indicate an unworldly presence. Often as not, the machine lit up like a Jack O’ Lantern. Not only was Mildred a great actor—she appeared to be having some luck in the psychic department as well. (At least, enough to satisfy Michael, who agreed to participate only when he was assured that “the medium wasn’t a quack”. The irony of this was not lost on me.)
    “This is where many of our staff members report seeing a ghost,” I said as we neared a deserted 17th century ship. The reporter tightened her grip on my arm. Jill had been excited about our ghost hunt for weeks, but as night fell and we turned off the gallery lights, her mood changed. I could feel her trembling, and although she was known for her melodramatic tendencies on-air, I didn’t think she was mugging for the camera. Jill Watson was freaked out.
    “Rita, why don’t you tell Jill your story?” I asked. Rita had been a security guard at the museum for five and a half years, and she was a constant source of ghost stories for my press releases. When she started telling her tales of terror, even I’d believed them. With her sincere manner and guileless face, it was impossible not to, until she confided that the mannequins in the museum’s Hall of Costumes often spoke to her. I’d instructed her not to repeat that particular gem, but the others were fair game.
    Rita put on a great show for Jill and her cameraman. I envisioned how fantastic my security guard’s terrified expression would look in night vision. This was going better than I’d hoped.
    “I was doing my last walkthrough at around ten p.m. when I noticed a woman coming through the gallery…right there.” Rita pointed to a spot a few feet from where we were standing. Jill had recovered her sensibilities enough to stick a microphone into Rita’s face, and the reporter nodded encouragingly, urging her to continue. With the light of the camera illuminating the scene, the vast gallery was eerie. This would be great publicity for our Halloween programming.
    “The museum had been closed for hours, so of course I was concerned,” Rita continued. “I followed the woman, and told her the museum was closed. That’s when I saw that she…she wasn’t an ordinary woman.” Rita’s voice lowered until it was nearly inaudible.
    “What do you mean?” Jill asked, forgetting to move the mike, which was still pointed at Rita.
    “She wasn’t dressed like you or me, for one thing. She had on a long, flowered cotton dress, with a bonnet hanging down the back…it was like something from….”
    “Little House on the Prairie?” Jill suggested.
    “Yes, exactly like Little House on the Prairie. When she saw me, she started walking faster, until she turned that corner right there—” Rita pointed in the direction we came from. “And vanished.”
“Vanished?” Jill raised an immaculately groomed eyebrow.
“Yeah, she was gone. There was no trace of her. And as you see for yourself, there was no way she could have gotten past me. It’s a dead end.”
“But what about the other guards? They must have seen something…?” Jill indicated one of the many security cameras, which should have captured a full frontal of Rita’s phantom.
“Not at that time of night, uh-uh. I was here alone, and when we went over the tape the next day, there was nothing on it. It was like she didn’t exist.”
That was a tad close to home. “Quite a few other staff members have reported seeing her, too,” I said. “They call her The Pioneer.”
That eased whatever doubt the newswoman had about Rita’s veracity. “I felt something when we started walking down here,” Jill admitted. “It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and I felt like someone was watching me. I thought I heard something, too—remember, Jo?”
How could I forget? My arm burned where she’d sunk her talons in. It was a wonder she hadn’t broken the skin.
“Do you have enough, Brian?” she asked her cameraman. I’d thought his name was Brad, but each time she came to the museum it was with a different videographer. I’d given up keeping track of them.
Brian managed a grunt that must be cameraman code for “yes”, because she handed him the microphone and took my arm again. The camera’s sungun switched off, plunging us into darkness.
“What’s next?” Jill asked.
“I thought we’d go where people have heard the spirits of children crying.” I was referring to an area of the museum called Old Town, a walkthrough diorama that represented New York at the turn of the 19th century. As we entered the pitch-dark gallery, Mildred went into her spiel about the spirits who were summoning her. Michael swung his equipment in the air on cue. Brian jogged ahead to capture the action, leaving Jill and I to bring up the rear of our ragtag little group.
With only Rita’s flashlight to guide us, we concentrated on not maiming ourselves on the wooden boardwalk. I was relieved that Jill had worn sensible shoes for her midnight tour—she wouldn’t have survived the trek in her usual four-inch heels.
A cold wind brushed past my bare neck, and I shivered. There shouldn’t be a draft here...Then I heard it—the sound of footsteps on the boardwalk behind us, followed by a creak as the wooden planks protested.
The three of us whirled as one. I expected to see another security guard sneaking up on us, but no one was there. Rita raised her light so we could see farther, but the boardwalk was empty.
“Weird,” Jill said. Her laugh was shaky. “What was that? Some mass hallucination?”
“Must have been,” I agreed, but I wasn’t troubled. It wasn’t so much the breeze I’d felt, or the sound itself. The boards under my feet had shifted, exactly as they would if someone walked behind me. And then there was the sweetness of pipe tobacco.
“I don’t like this,” Rita said. It took some encouragement, but at last she swung the light forward again.
I could no longer hear Mildred musing about the spirit world, or the plaintive beep-beep-beep of the paranormal motion detector. The three of us were silent, hardly daring to breathe as we made our way along the boardwalk.
This time I felt his presence before I heard his steps. The boards shifted under my feet. My arms were gooseflesh.
“Light,” I yelled. Rita whipped her flashlight around, illuminating the path behind us.
Once again, nothing.
But as we stood, staring into the darkness, we all heard it.
The distinct sound of a man in hard-soled shoes, following us through the gallery.
Footsteps of a man who wasn’t there.

 

Friday, October 29, 2010

Fun Friday IX: Spooky Stories


This Friday is even more fun, because it's the one before Halloween. So, let's share some spooky stories! If you must delve into fiction, do so, but "based on a true story" is so much more intriguing, isn't it?

Your twisted tale of terror isn't limited to ghosts. UFOs, cryptozoology, demonology, witches, curses--it's all good!

The story I'm about to share with you is one I usually only tell those closest to me. It's so bizarre that it borders on the fantastical, but I swear that it's true. I know because it happened to me.

In the summer after my high school graduation, I moved to a small mining town where I didn't know anyone. I moved there for a boy who I thought I was in love with. It was scary, moving so far away from everyone who knew and loved me. I'd rarely been away from home before.

I lived in a one bedroom apartment furnished with some of the ugliest thrift store offerings you've ever seen. Imagine the '70s threw up and died--that's what my sofa looked like. I had a tiny galley-style kitchen, which was okay, because I didn't make enough money to cook much. With the meager earnings from my part-time waitressing job, I survived on frozen chicken burgers and Kraft Dinner.

A year earlier, my best friend had died unexpectedly in an automobile accident. I missed her terribly, but I kept thinking about how all she'd wanted was to leave our town. While where I was living was far from glamorous, at least I'd moved away. I vowed to experience all the things she'd wanted to, hoping that she'd experience them through me somehow.

Feeling especially lonely one day, I put a mixed tape she'd made me into the ghetto blaster on my kitchen counter. My boyfriend had lent me the portable stereo, and I'd never had a problem with it. I began to play the tape, and as it reached the middle, it played her favorite song.

At the end of the song, the stereo did something it had never done before. It stopped, auto-reversed, fast-forwarded by itself, and then auto-reversed again. Once more it began to play my friend's favorite song. I stopped what I was doing to listen. I had chills. The energy in the room was different, changed.

I whispered her name as a question.

Suddenly there was a furious knocking on all the kitchen cabinets, down to the end of the row and back again. It terrified me. I ran into my bedroom, threw myself on the bed, and asked my friend to go away. I told her I wasn't ready for this. The knocking stopped.

Years later, a magazine hired me to write a story about what happens after we die. One of the people I interviewed was a medium. Without knowing my history, she told me the story of a client--a woman whose teenage son had committed suicide.

"Whenever she tried to play his favorite CD, it would only play the song he'd liked the most," she said, and I instantly got the shivers.

I told her what had happened to me, and she wasn't surprised. "When teenagers die, they most commonly come back through electronics," she said. "Your friend was trying to tell you she's okay."

That's my story, and I swear every word is true. Your turn!

And, no pressure, but I really hope my dear friend CeeBee will share hers, because she has the best creepy true story I've ever heard. It's rumored my friend Rick has a good one as well. (Hint, hint.)

Happy Halloween!

PS - I need your help with my novel rewrites. Please check back for a special blog post tomorrow!

Thanks to Mystical Blaze for the awesome eerie image.

The weird white blob from Scott's entry below.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Macabre Mystery Tour

Nessie lives!

Welcome dear readers,

It's no secret that I'm a big fan of horror movies, spooky stories, and things that go bump in the night. What better place to spend a vacation than somewhere genuinely creepy?

I've already experienced a few unnerving places in my life. The museum where I work has many well-documented accounts of unearthly activity. During a media ghost tour where I expected to experience nothing, I got a pretty good scare. The retreat center at the Catskills is rumored to be haunted, and both myself and Warren the playwright saw something strange. In Mexico, my friend Niki and I visited a cenote where the water had turned lime green from the decomposition of Aztec human sacrifices, and the weird squawking noise Chichen-Itza made when people clapped in front of it was truly eerie.

Here is my vote for the macabre must-see destinations I want to visit next. Been there? Tell me all about it!

    Sedlec chandelier
  1. Sedlec Ossuary: This small Roman Catholic Chapel is located beneath the Cemetery Church of All Saints in the Czech republic. It's decorated entirely with the bones of 40,000 people, down to the chandeliers and the bells. In 1278, an abbot named Henry sprinkled dirt from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land on the cemetery. Believing it to be sacred ground, people from all over Europe rushed there to be buried when they felt the end was near. This gave rise to the creation of the ossuary. In short, the bones were removed from the graves to give more Christians the possibility to be buried on holy ground.

2. Loch Ness: I've always been inspired by Scotland--those eerie moors, the fog, The Hound of the Baskervilles. I'd love to while away some hours at this misty lake, hoping for a glimpse of its famous monster, Nessie.

3.Bran Castle: Reportedly the castle that inspired Bram Stoker's Dracula, this beautiful foreboding structure is rumoured to have been the temporary home of the "real" Dracula, Vlad Tepes (or Vlad the Impaler to his friends). Tepes (1431-1476) was a ruler revered by Romanians for standing up to the Ottoman Empire. Known as one of the most dreadful enemies of the Turks, Vlad started enforcing the law by applying the death penalty and impaling all those he considered enemies: robbers, cunning priests, treacherous noblemen, beggars, usurper Saxons. People called Tepes Count Dracula because he used to sign with his father's name, Dracul, which means "The Devil". Dracula is derived from the Romanian word for devil or dragon.  

4. Winchester House: This house in San Jose, California is a colossal construction built on a foundation of superstition. It's said that Sarah Winchester, heiress to the arms company, was told by a soothsayer that the ghosts of those killed by Winchester rifles would haunt her unless she built a house that could never be finished in her lifetime. Construction started in 1884 and kept going for 38 years until her death. Now the house's 160 rooms are rife with bizarre details: staircases go straight into the ceiling, doors open onto blank walls, spider motifs abound, and candelabras, coat hooks, and steps are arranged in multiples of 13. Reports of banging doors, footsteps in the night, moving lights, and doorknobs turning of their own accord have been occurring since the house was opened to the public. This house was the inspiration for Stephen King's film and novel Rose Red.
5. Stonehenge: There's dozens of theories about who built Stonehenge and why. It's the mystery that intrigues me. More than nine hundred stone rings exist in the British Isles, and scholars estimate that twice that number may originally have been built. One of the most common assumptions is that it was used for Druid ritual--some say a ritual for the dead, others for the living. While I imagine it's hardly creepy in bright daylight with plenty of tourists about, I'd love to visit it at twilight during the off-season. Brr.

6. Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast: "Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her parents forty whacks"...or so the saying goes--but did she? Lizzie was found innocent of the brutal hatchet murder of her father and stepmother, but people have been convicted on far less evidence today. The Borden story has it all--bloody rags, clothes stained with reddish-brown "paint" that were promptly burned by Lizzie, locked doors, and lack of motive. Regardless of what you think of Lizzie's guilt or innocence, you can now sleep in the home where the murders took place. The B&B even offers the Bordens' last meal for breakfast--johnnycakes and bananas, anyone?
7. Stephen King's house: The Master of Horror doesn't disappoint. Surrounded by a wrought-iron gate with bat, cobweb, and spider designs, this Gothic house is appropriately eerie. If you take the time to walk around King's neighborhood, you'll also see the pet cemetery that inspired (yup, you guessed it) King's Pet Sematary and the water tower featured in It. A must-see for any horror fan!

Well, that wraps up our tour. I have some writing to do!

Can you add other creepy destinations to my list?

Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Poison Tongues: The Wednesday Rant


"Do I have a story for you!"

Titillating, isn't it? However, unless the story is of the "once upon a time" variety, those words never lead to anything good. What is it about human nature that makes us love gossip?

Teenagers infiltrated my gym recently. As I listened to the girls gossip about who wasn't invited to what party, I couldn't help but smile, but it wasn't with any sense of superiority. With age may come wisdom, but in this case, experience tells me that poison tongues don't stop wagging just because you get older. If anything, the gossip gets worse because the stakes are higher.

You can't escape it. The workplace is rampant with it. Magazines are filled with it. Want a little exercise? If you join a team sport, you can expect to hear plenty. I once left a recreational soccer league because of the nasty gossip that took place over beers after the game...if you weren't able to make it to the bar, rest assured that you were the evening's topic of conversation. And at least one woman quit my former sponge hockey team due to "all that drama".

I've had to cut an entire group of friends out of my life because their idea of fun was seeing how many knives they could stick in each other's backs. These are thirty and forty-something professionals who are still wagging their tongues about who isn't invited to what party. Or who doesn't like so-and-so. Or who cheated on so-and-so. It was too much for me. I bowed out, which gave them new reasons to talk...about me.

I've heard many explanations for why we gossip. Some say it's the hobby of the insecure, but if that's the case, there's a lot of insecure people running around. Some say it happens when people have nothing better to do, but surely most things are better than spreading rumors and vitriol. It can be a way of bonding with others, but isn't there another way to connect with people? Isn't life hard enough without spreading poison?

I'm far from perfect, but I try my hardest to live by the adage "if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all". If I have a problem with you, I'll tell you in the kindest way I can. (Or if I can't tell you, The Boy may hear of it, but he'll take that stuff with him to the grave.) And if you entrust me with a secret, consider it kept.

For there's one thing I've learned about gossips. If they're gossiping to you, they're also gossiping about you.

You can count on that.

How about you, dear readers? Ever regret gossiping? Or have you been a victim yourself? Rant away!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Big Fat Words


Welcome dear readers,

A writer's forum I belong to recently mentioned how difficult it is for writers to stay in shape. Think about it--we spend hours upon hours sitting at the computer, with little time to exercise or make healthy meals. A bag of chips can serve as a quick, convenient dinner or a nice "reward" after finally nailing that difficult chapter.

Do you find that you gain weight when you begin a new writing project? How do you manage to fit in time for exercise, if at all?

I constantly struggle to balance my writing life with my kickboxing one. There's definitely been times when I've opted to work on my book instead of going to my dojo, but there's also been periods when I've been obsessed with working out and have completely neglected my writing. That said, since I started writing novels again, I'm the heaviest weight I've ever been, so I can see some correlation. I have my kickboxing test in December to prepare for, though, so I'm not worried.

What do you think? Can the writing profession make one unhealthy?

Since Halloween is nearing and fall is in the air, I thought I'd share a recipe I made over the weekend. These cookies are delicious, but the recipe comes from Cooking Light, so it's not a bad choice to satisfy your sweet tooth, as long as you don't overindulge. Enjoy!

Caramel Apple Oatmeal Cookies

Yield: 4 dozen (serving size: 1 cookie)

Ingredients

6.75 ounces all-purpose flour (about 1 1/2 cups)

1 1/2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup granulated sugar

3/4 cup packed brown sugar

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 large egg

3/4 cup finely chopped dried apple slices

3/4 cup caramel bits or 16 small soft caramel candies, chopped

Preparation

1. Preheat oven to 350°.

2. Weigh or lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Combine flour and next 4 ingredients (through salt) in a bowl; stir well.

3. Place sugars and butter in a large bowl; beat with a mixer at medium speed until light and fluffy. Add vanilla and egg; beat well. Gradually add flour mixture; beat at low speed until just combined. Fold in apple and caramel bits.

4. Drop dough by 2 teaspoonfuls 2 inches apart onto baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Flatten balls slightly with hand. Bake at 350° for 9 minutes. Cool on pans 3 minutes. Remove cookies from pans; cool completely on wire racks.

(**Tip--I found it easiest to remove the cookies with your hands once they've cooled. Let them cool a bit longer than the recipe recommends. Carefully slide your fingers underneath to loosen any gooey caramel bits. If your cookies spread too much due to melting caramel, you can gently reshape them with a spatula once they're done baking. They're very soft and pliable at first.)

Nutritional Information

Calories:83
Fat:2g (sat 1.1g,mono 0.5g,poly 0.3g)
Protein:1.1g
Carbohydrate:15.5g
Fiber:0.5g
Cholesterol:8mg
Iron:0.4mg
Sodium:74mg
Calcium:17mg

Photo by Becky Luigart-Stayner; Styling: Melanie J. Clarke

Monday, October 25, 2010

Beyond the Comfort Zone


Welcome back dear readers.

I hope everyone had a fabulous weekend. Yesterday, amid a whirl of laundry, cooking, baking, cleaning, and writing, I suddenly remembered that I had a long overdue date with a dear friend. We had plans to have dinner and see a movie, and I had...oh, thirty minutes left to get ready. Due to my busy schedule, I was still in my pajamas and in desperate need of a shower. My shriek of remembrance echoed through the house, and The Boy raced downstairs to take over clean-up duties while I rushed off to make myself presentable.

Somehow I managed to be ready by the time my friend arrived, and we enjoyed a nice dinner (mmm, lobster clubhouse) before heading to the local cheapie theater to see Eat, Pray, Love.

This movie interested me, not only because I've read the book twice (love the Italian section, the Indian one not so much), but also because its author Elizabeth Gilbert is one of those people I admire and envy at the same time.

For those of you who don't know, Gilbert wakes up in the middle of the night with an existential crisis. She can't be married any longer. She can't continue to live the life she is living. In the midst of complete and total despair, she finds the strength to leave her comfort zone behind and spend four months each in three different countries: Italy, India, and Indonesia. Her plan is to learn to embrace life and enjoy it to its fullest with the Italians, to learn how to pray with the Indians, and to learn everything she can about the meaning of life with a medicine man in Indonesia.

It takes a lot of guts to leave everything you know behind, even when it isn't working for you anymore. I've wanted to move for years, to be closer to the water and live somewhere I'll never be cold, but I can't seem to do it without a safety net. However, as someone wise once told me, when you leap, the net appears. Or, put another way, fortune favors the bold. Things just seem to work out for people who take big risks, perhaps because they have to work out.

My friend Lisa once sold everything she owned and moved halfway across the country for love. Another friend, Kelly, gave up her home, her car, and even her beloved dogs for the chance to live a completely different kind of life in Africa. And now Brent--one of the members of our little writing group--is leaving to pursue an acting career in Vancouver. As I watch the trails they're blazing, I'm inspired and awed by their courage.

I hope I'll have the guts to follow in their footsteps one day.

How about you, dear readers? When was the last time you stepped outside your comfort zone? What was it like? Would you do it again?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Fun Friday VIII: The Change


TGIF, dear readers!

For today's writing prompt, I ask you a deceptively simply question:

If you could change one thing about your life, what would it be?

Why? What difference would this make? How would you feel if you could change this one thing?

As for me, I would change how I make my living. What I want, more than anything, is to be a published novelist.

In addition to doing what I love, novel writing equates freedom. I can do it anywhere, at anytime. I could move to a beautiful, sunny place without worrying about having to find a job. I wouldn't have to worry about workplace politics or spiteful office gossip. I would at last feel like I was doing what I've wanted to do my entire life--what I've felt I should be doing since I was five years old. I'd finally have an answer for all those people who ask me when the book's coming out, or where they can buy it.

I wouldn't have to scrounge for freelance work. I wouldn't come home from a day of being chained to a desk, feeling defeated and mentally exhausted. I wouldn't have to wear uncomfortable clothes while I work, or spend most of my time away from the person and animals I love most. Chloe would be my fuzzy co-worker. I'd like that.

I'd feel at least partly in control of my own destiny. I would be allowed to be as creative as I wanted, and it would be lauded. My thinking could wander back outside the box where it belongs, and no one would mind. It would only make the writing better.

I don't have to be rich. I don't have to be famous. I don't have to win the Pulitzer Prize, although all these things would be nice (except maybe the fame).



What about you, dear readers? What would you change?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Bear Hug


Welcome dear readers!

It's Thursday, and that means it's time to pick another item from the bucket list.

Panda bears always look so cute and cuddly, don't they? You just want to walk up to one and give it a big hug. Unfortunately, if the panda doesn't happen to be in the mood for affection that day, it can apparently turn quite nasty.

BUT...at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, you can actually hold a baby giant panda! From what I could find on the 'Net, baby pandas are quite curious about people and welcome the attention, so it's all good. The facility focuses on wildlife conservation and panda breeding. Along with the giant panda, they are trying to save other endangered species, including the South China tiger, the red panda, and the golden monkey.

I wanna be her!
I can't imagine what it would be like to cuddle one of these extraordinary, rare animals, if only for a photo op. For an animal lover like me, it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, well worth the reported $145 US per panda cuddle. Sign me up!

Fun Facts About Pandas

  • A panda's pupils are slit-shaped like a cat's to help them see better in the dark
  • Female pandas bark to say hello
  • Pandas are carnivores, but 99% of their diet is bamboo
  • Recent DNA  / serological studies have determined that the panda is more closely related to bears than to raccoons. The panda's closest relative is the spectacled bear of South America.
  • Pandas are considered "living fossils" because many of the species they co-existed with are now extinct.
Click here to see the most ridiculously cute footage of baby panda bears.

And, ultimately, I want to be this guy.

How about you, dear readers? Ever held a panda? I wonder if they're as soft as they look....

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Color Purple


I'm wearing purple today.

I'm hoping the world is a sea of orchid, aubergine, magenta, violet, and mauve today.

In case you haven't heard, people are wearing purple today as a symbol--a statement--that homophobic abuse must stop. This demonstration was triggered by a recent rash of teen suicides.

  • Asher Brown,13 years old 
  • Tyler Clementi,18 years old
  • Seth Walsh, 13 years old
  • Billy Lucas, 15 years old
  • Justin Asberg, 15 years old
These talented young men saw no way out. Their lives had become a living hell, and all they could think about was escape. They were tormented and bullied--either for being gay, or because their peers suspected they were gay. It's enough to break your heart.

While no one deserves to suffer because of their sexual orientation, I don't think anyone should be bullied. It's time for us as a nation to stop turning a blind eye and saying "kids will be kids". Is this progress?

Some say that we're raising a generation of bullies. Since today's kids are weaned on the Internet, video games, computers, and television, they've lost the ability to connect with people in the real world, or so the theory goes.

As for me, I don't think bullying is worse now than it was years ago. Granted, the tools of the trade have become more sophisticated, and a bully can spread his poison much farther over the Internet than he could over the telephone.

Back in the '80s, I witnessed kids being trampled, spit on, called names, and ostracized. Gangs of "mean girls" would wait outside a diner for hours until their victim finally emerged. I saw one girl run down the street, pursued by a pack of bullies--male and female--who took her bike apart and threw the pieces at her. My friend and I were beaten by a guy with a hockey stick until we were bruised and battered. A concerned woman stopped and offered us a ride home, but--afraid to accept a ride from a stranger--we said no. The guy continued to beat us after she drove away. None of these victims were gay, or even suspected of being gay. I shudder to think what would have happened to the poor kid who dared to come out of the closet in that town. Fitting in was a matter of survival.

Bullies have always existed, kids have always been cruel, and parents and teachers have always turned a blind eye or given useless advice. (Remember 'sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me'? Exactly what good was that supposed to do?) It's great that people are paying more attention to this issue now, but these bursts of attention come and go in waves (as they did after the Columbine shooting). It is time to take action--consistently--until something actually changes.



Let's begin by wearing purple as a silent but poignant message.

The bullying must stop.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Those That Hurt Most

I bet this guy's mom feels even worse.

Welcome dear readers,

When people see a fighter take a beating, it's often the fighter they feel sorry for. Not me. I know it's much worse for the family and friends.

If you're the one in the ring, at least you have some control over the outcome. You may be outclassed, but most wounds heal. To watch in anguish--in pure helplessness--as someone you love takes a beating? That's a special kind of hell.

The guy who ran my first dojo got tired of paying a big commission to a convention centre, so he starting hosting fights in our gym. Never the most conscientious when choosing the right opponent for his fighters, he became even more lax. At these "fight nights", almost anything could happen...and usually did.

My best friend was one of the fighters at his first event. Her technical skills have always been impeccable, and she's incredibly strong. She also had years of training under her belt, and great flexibility. But our coach put her up against a monster. The chick had legs like tree trunks! Still, I had faith in my friend and hoped that she would prevail.

Every time the monster connected with a brutal kick, my friend's leg buckled. It had no choice--the girl was that powerful. Each grimace of pain on my friend's face was an arrow to my own heart. Someone was hurting one of my dearest friends, and I was helpless to do anything about it. You're enraged; you're desperate; you're ready to jump in and kick some serious monster butt--but you have to keep sitting in your chair, a passive observer. That's the most difficult thing about loving a fighter.

My friend's wounds healed (sure enough, her leg was fractured). She went on to fight again. But I still get sick even thinking about how it felt to watch that fight. And the evening got worse....

A guy from our club was up next. We teased him about his unfashionably long, wavy hair (his nickname was Fabio, if that tells you anything), but he was a nice guy, a single dad who used his chiropractic skills to help anyone in need. He was in no way ready to fight, but we figured this little exhibition at the gym was safe enough. Think again.

We smiled as Fabio performed his signature move (a spinning kick, executed in the corner of the ring, far out of reach of his opponent), but the experienced fighter paired with him wasn't amused. That little spin in the corner was the last move our friend managed before he was deluged with rapid-fire combinations. Stunned from a series of punches, he staggered and began to fall...and as he fell, his opponent hauled back and kicked him in the face.

Our colleague's nose exploded with a sickening crunch. There was blood everywhere. I don't know if he had family there that day, but for their sake, I hope not.

As strange as it sounds to those who don't train, kickboxing can be a lot of fun. You make new friends, get in great shape, even have some laughs along the way. But it gets serious pretty damn fast when you step in that ring.

Like Billy Joel said, you have to walk in that ring alone. But your loved ones are with you, feeling your every gasp of pain, every drop of blood, every defeat, every victory. They live through it with you. I'm not sure it ever gets easier.

So, this one goes out to everyone who loves a fighter. I definitely feel your pain.

Monday, October 18, 2010

You Are What You Eat


Welcome back, dear readers. I'm sorry about the lack of a Fun Friday post last week...I've been fighting off a nasty cold (it appears to be a variation of what plagued me in the Catskills) and wasn't up to much of anything.

This reoccurring cold (or flu with cold-like symptoms) could be due in part to my own behavior. I've been up to my old bad habits lately--staying up too late, eating too much crap and not enough of the good stuff, and trying to do too much at once. My battered immune system can't compete.

So I'm turning over a new leaf this week. Out with the old, and in with the new, and that means taking the time to make healthy meals again. This is doubly important if I expect to have the energy I need to prepare for the red prajioud test. Luckily, I enjoy cooking. I love trying new recipes, and I know food doesn't have to be deep fried or coated in butter to be tasty. But when I'm super-busy and stressed, cooking dinner and packing a healthy lunch are some of the first things to fall by the wayside. Popcorn suddenly seems like a perfectly acceptable dinner (it's a whole grain, after all). Yeah. Right.

In spite of my sluggish energy, sniffling, and sneezing, I took the time to make up a meal plan this weekend that should last me for at least two weeks. Annie from Annie's Eats has a great post on making meal plans that you can read by clicking here. Even though I'll be eating healthy, I won't suffer from boredom with dinners like Caribbean-spiced pork tenderloin and buffalo chicken sandwiches. Since this blog is all about living your best life, I'm going to share my all-time favorite quick supper with you. It's super healthy, the leftovers (should you be fortunate enough to have any) reheat well, and it's a great way to use up any vegetables in your fridge. The vegetables listed below are just a guideline--use anything that you have on hand that you think would be good. I can't see broccoli or cauliflower being great in this, but you never know!

Basil-Roasted Vegetables Over Couscous (adapted from Cooking Light)

Ingredients


1 heaping teaspoon dried basil (or 2 tablespoons minced fresh)

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 garlic cloves, crushed

Several Roma tomatoes, chopped into large pieces

1 medium red bell pepper, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 medium yellow bell pepper, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 (8-ounce) package mushrooms

3 cups hot cooked couscous (I use whole-wheat)

Feta to taste or 1 (3-ounce) package basil-flavored chèvre (goat cheese), crumbled

1/8 teaspoon pepper

Fresh basil sprigs (optional)

Preparation

Preheat oven to 425°.

Combine first five ingredients in a large bowl; stir well. Add tomato, bell peppers, and mushrooms; toss well to coat. Arrange vegetables in a single layer in a shallow roasting pan. Bake at 425° for 35 minutes or until tender and browned, stirring occasionally.

Spoon roasted vegetables over couscous, and top with cheese. Sprinkle with pepper. Garnish with fresh basil sprigs, if desired.

***
So yummy! What's your favorite quick healthy recipe?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Sushi: A Love Story


Hello dear readers,

Happy Thursday! Only one more day until you-know-what. I have to work on my novel rewrites and journalism articles all weekend, but I'm still psyched.

You know the expression "dress for the job you want"? Well, each Thursday I'm going to be writing for the life I want. This day of the week will be a thrilling adventure into amazing places, unique experiences, and one-of-a-kind moments...everything I'm dreaming about as I strive to live a life less ordinary. And if you've been lucky enough to have first-hand knowledge of anything I write about, please chime in! I'm counting on my New York readers to help me live vicariously today.

Those who know me know I love sushi. I'm crazy about the stuff. It's a serious addiction...I get actual cravings for it. As much as I want to move to a nice little island, there had better be a place to get sushi, even if I have to catch it myself.

Falling in love with sushi was a gradual process. The first time I tried sashimi, I found it bland--its mild flavor overwhelmed by the pickled ginger and wasabi people were erroneously slapping on it back then. (If you're still doing this--stop! Mix the wasabi into your soy sauce for flavor. The ginger is a palate cleanser between rolls.) I stuck with the "safe" options for awhile...those ubiquitous teriyaki dinners, which were quite good, but unsatisfying compared to the rainbow of tastes and textures my dinner companions were enjoying. I kept going to sushi restaurants with aficionados who offered me samples of everything they ordered. It was in this way I learned what I liked, and before I knew it, I was hooked. Big time.

Strangely enough, my prairie town has its share of great sushi restaurants. But if you want the very best sushi outside of Japan, you go to Kurumazushi.

I first learned of this mythical place from Ruth Reichl, former restaurant critic for the New York Times and former editor of Gourmet magazine. Reichl has eaten her way through most countries in the world, and she knows her stuff. In her memoir Garlic and Sapphires, she writes:

Mr. Uezu
Raw shrimp as soft as strawberries was followed by marinated herring roe, which popped eerily beneath our teeth. Gently smoked salmon gleamed like coral. Then Mr. Uezu pillowed some sea urchin on pads of rice. (It was)...the sexiest thing I've ever eaten. But after eating at Kurumazushi it is very hard to go back to ordinary fish.
She goes on for pages, describing a meal that can only be appreciated by those who really love the edible art of sushi. There is no teriyaki, no tempura, and no noodles at Kurumazushi--just the perfection of flavors from the sea. The Mr. Uezu Reichl writes of is widely considered to be one of the best sushi chefs in the world, and he is still there, working his magic, consistently achieving umami, the Japanese word describing the taste that occurs when everything is exactly right for the moment.

One day I will visit New York, my reservation for two at Kurumazushi already secure. I will take The Boy, who I know will appreciate the experience. We will walk in together and proudly say one of the most beautiful words in existence:

"Omakase."
Putting ourselves in the chef's hands for the evening. This will cost approximately $250 per person, and it will be oh.so.worth.it. Mmm....

Have any of my wonderful readers been lucky enough to experience Kurumazushi? If so, please please PLEASE share your story! And for the rest of us mere mortals, any great sushi story will do.
Kurumazushi's sushi bar

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Isolation


Hello dear readers,

Do you ever feel isolated? One of the hardest things about writing is the isolation it requires. Unfortunately, I'm not one of those writers who can create a masterpiece in the middle of a busy coffeehouse. I can't even play music (too distracting). When it comes time to write, I have no choice but to retreat to my home office, shut the door, and completely isolate myself from the world. No phone calls, no cats, no disruptions, no Facebook. (Facebook is the ultimate distraction.)

Once I'm in the zone, I don't feel lonely. The characters that inhabit my books fill my world with color. I'm so immersed in their story that time flies. But getting there is hell.

As much as I need my alone time, I'm a people person. Being around other people makes me happy. I thought I loved living alone, but when my friend Niki came to stay with me a couple of years ago, we had so much fun that I considered getting a roommate afterwards. The house was empty without her.

And this is why I've been a little down since the writing retreat. To spend a week living with people who get you--who respect what you do, and who are doing the same thing--creating art through the magic of words--is priceless. I had plenty of alone time in my own room, but if I wanted to talk about something or just say hello, there was always someone around. And there was a lot of enforced social time--lunches, dinners, and most evenings were spent together as a group. There's a camaraderie that occurs between a group of writers that is so wonderful and uplifting. The downside is that I miss it a lot once it's over.

As I write this, I'm looking forward to my writer's meeting tonight. While it won't be the same as living in an artistic retreat, I'm hoping to recapture that feeling of community...if only for a few hours.

How about you? Have you ever encountered that feeling of community with people who really "get" you? Was it difficult to leave? How do you keep that community spirit strong in your life?

In the meantime, I leave you with Iggy Pop's Isolation.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Famous First Words


Hello dear readers,

I'm facing a daunting challenge. Dragonfly Summer needs a new beginning--a stronger start--and, even though I've been thinking about this since the retreat, I haven't come up with a solution yet. Part of the reason for this stalemate is that I'm a fan of the great opening line.

Most modern books suck you right into the story without any preamble, which is fine enough, but a knockout opening line? The kind of phrase that makes you wish you had written it, that makes you want to give up and never write again? Wow. To my mind, there's nothing better.

My all-time favorite first line is, has been, and will always be, the one written by Charles Dickens in A Tale Of Two Cities.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
(At least, that's the way I like to remember it. The actual first line of that book drags on too much for my contemporary tastes: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way--in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.)

Whew! So, in the interest of comparison and procrastination, I decided to study other books by favorite authors and see how they measured up. Did I love them--at least in part--because of an extraordinary beginning?

Some great ones:

"There would be death at its beginning as there would be death again at its end." - Nicholas Evans, The Horse Whisperer

"You know before you know, of course." - Elizabeth Berg, Open House

"Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened." - Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible

"The scent of slaughter, some believe, can linger in a place for years." - Nicholas Evans, The Loop

"The first time my husband hit me I was nineteen years old." - Anna Quindlen, Black and Blue

"I had meant to start with something more glamorous than potato salad." - Molly Wizenberg, A Homemade Life

"I should have known." - Torey L. Hayden, One Child

"Pistachio nuts, the red ones, cure any problem." - Paula Danziger, The Pistachio Prescription

"I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills." - Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa

"Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs." - Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House in the Big Woods

"The most important things are the hardest things to say." - Stephen King, Different Seasons, The Body

"There's a guy like me in every state and federal prison in America, I guess--I'm the guy who can get it for you." - Stephen King, Different Seasons, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption

"The only good thing I can say about my childhood is that I survived it." - Rubin Carter, The 16th Round

"It is so appropriate to color hope yellow, like that sun we seldom saw." - V.C. Andrews, Flowers in the Attic

"My wound is geography." - Pat Conroy, The Prince of Tides

"The important things in life always happen by accident." - Nicholas Evans, Master of the First Line!, The Smoke Jumper

An honorable mention, if one uses the second paragraph instead of the first: "When I look back on my childhood, I wonder how I survived it at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood." - Frank McCourt, Angela's Ashes

***
Has an opening line resonated with you? Struck you with awe? What are your favorites? What constitutes a great opening line to you?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Thankful


Happy Thanksgiving to all my Canadian readers!

I have to admit that Thanksgiving is not one of my favorite holidays. It's one of those days that makes me feel like an orphan. I always end up spending it with someone's family--usually my significant other's--and that's very generous and appreciated. But, as those of you who are far from your own families can understand, it's not the same. As close as you can get to another family, they're still not your family. So you always feel like a bit of an outsider.

Still, on a day like Thanksgiving, it's beneficial to remember all the things we have to be thankful for. I've been down in the dumps since the retreat, so it's even more important for me to count my blessings.

This Thanksgiving, I'm thankful for:

  1. My loving relationship with a man who is supportive, loyal, and dependable. I can't take that for granted.
  2. My two cats--an unending supply of unconditional love.
  3. The fact that I was finally able to finish a new novel after five years of rewriting and inertia.
  4. My friends, who are always there for me.
  5. My health. Can't ever take that for granted, either.
  6. I have a roof over my head and my debt will be gone by the end of next year...light at the end of the tunnel.
  7. The success of this blog and the new friends I have made.
  8. I was finally able to travel again this year--to Mexico and the Catskills.
  9. That my relationship with my family has healed to the point where I can spend time with them without nastiness. It still isn't perfect, but it's a lot better than I ever thought it would be.
  10. Good food shared with good company, and lots of great books to read.
What are you most grateful for this Thanksgiving? (And if it's not Thanksgiving where you are, feel free to add your gratitude list, too. Being thankful doesn't have to be reserved for a specific day.)

Friday, October 8, 2010

Fun Friday VII: Toy With Me


TGIF, dear readers!

Time for another Fun Friday writing exercise. If you haven't participated yet, today is your day, because this topic should resonate with everyone.

What was your favorite toy as a child? What made it your favorite toy? Does it have any connection to who you are--or what you love--today? Where did it come from? Do you still have it?

My favorite toy was a wooden dollhouse. Mom made it from a kit, painstakingly punching out the pieces, sanding them, painting them, and gluing them together. All the furniture in the house was made from wooden kits. Mom had a heck of a time hiding this gift from me that Christmas--she must have worked long into the night after I went to bed. (The image above is not my dollhouse--I couldn't find a photo that remotely resembled mine.)


Queen Mary's dollhouse.
I would have DIED to see this thing!
 It's unusual that I loved the dollhouse so much, because I wasn't a girly-girl. Far from it. I was always making mud pies and playing a game called "Stinkbomb" with the boys (it basically involved taking something rotten from the garden and throwing it at each other while yelling "Stinkbomb!" at the top of our lungs). I hated dolls. Someone once made the mistake of getting me a Holly Hobby doll, and let's just say that poor thing suffered.

I was charmed by the sight of a world in miniature, but I think it was the toy's capacity for imaginative play that lured me in. My little doll family loved, laughed, and fought in that house--sometimes I'd get  carried away by the story I was acting out. I'd yell so loudly Mom would run to find out what was wrong.

That little house inspired plenty of envy among my girlfriends. One friend begged for her own dollhouse, and we then debated the merits of wood versus plastic. It's laughable now, but it was all too important then. I was scared to let other kids play with my dollhouse, because I was terrified of it breaking. Later on, Mom bought me much fancier, factory-made furniture that was stained to look like the real thing, but as I grew up I realized how much love and work went into the original tiny toilets and beds. I'm not sure what happened to the old dollhouse, but I do have most of the second set of furniture (although much of it is in disrepair).

I'm still captivated by miniatures, and hope to have a dollhouse again one day. I have a shoebox full of miniature food, china, and household items, just waiting for a place of its own. To me, a dollhouse is all about stories, because it encouraged me to start telling them.

Your turn! What was your favorite toy?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Words of Wisdom From An Unexpected Place


Happy Thursday, dear readers,

One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard came from Oprah Winfrey. Oprah inspires a peculiarly strong reaction in people--either they love her or they hate her. I haven't watched her show in years, but I still found her words inspiring, and so true. Even if you dislike her, I think wisdom can be gleaned from her advice. After all, she's obviously doing something (okay, many things) right.

She said (loosely paraphrased)

"Discipline does not result from doing something you want to do. Discipline comes from forcing yourself to do something when you don't want to."
It's simple advice, but that quote has dragged me to many a kickboxing class in the middle of winter. As much as I love kickboxing, it's so much easier to go home and sit on the couch, especially when I'm feeling ill or stressed out.

As much as I love writing, it's much easier to read a book. Or watch a movie. Or do something fun with The Boy or my friends.

I am striving to improve my life, and change is never easy. My goals can seem overwhelming, and occasionally I want to give up. But then I think of Oprah's take on discipline, and sometimes--not always, but sometimes--it's enough to get me to the gym, or to that computer one more time.

And the best part about following Oprah's advice? If you're very lucky, eventually you don't have to force yourself anymore. It doesn't take as much discipline to run that mile or finish that chapter. You do it because you want to.

That's the best result.

What is your favorite motivational quote or piece of advice? Let's make this an inspirational Thursday!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Wednesday Rant: Just Teasing


Hello dear readers,

It's Wednesday, and that means it's time for a rant. There's been a lot about bullying in the news lately. My friend Cat Connor raised the subject in her blog this week, and she mentioned teasing as one of the forms of bullying.

I've always had a problem with teasing. Any man I've dated has found this out, sooner or later. Has anyone ever felt good about being the subject of teasing? Probably not. As far as I'm concerned, "teasing" is just a way of saying mean things about another person under the guise of being playful or funny.

I come from a long line of teasers. Many people in my extended family--especially my beloved grandmother, who had a wicked tongue--would rib others about their weight, hairstyles, figures, significant others, driving ability--you name it. If you were the target, you were expected to laugh it off. Suppose it struck too painful a nerve, and you got defensive? Well, you could expect the usual response:

I was just teasing.
In other words, it's your fault that you can't take a joke. But is teasing ever really a joke? To my way of thinking, it's a get-out-of-jail-free card for anyone who feels like being nasty.

A lot of bullying starts with "teasing". I'm sure my friend in high school didn't find it too funny when the boys mooed at her, but they were just teasing. I didn't like it when my father made disparaging comments about my legs when I was a teenager, but he was just teasing. And teasing definitely made Seth Walsh's life a living hell.

What do you think, dear readers? Have you been the target of teasing? Is there ever a case when you think teasing is okay?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Do Beautiful People Really Have It Easier?


Hello dear readers,

There have been plenty of studies done on the subject of beauty. It's been proven that infants react more favorably to beautiful people--that those who are attractive enjoy unfair advantages in the workplace and pretty much everywhere else. But is it true?


Would YOU cheat on this woman? Tiger did.
 Beautiful women certainly can't count on their looks to keep their partners faithful, if you consider the experiences of Uma Thurman, Elin Nordegren, Sandra Bullock, and Jennifer Aniston. (Yes, those are all celebrity examples, but I've  experienced this much closer to home.) Beauty also doesn't equate happiness. Just look at Marilyn Monroe, Kurt Cobain, Heath Ledger, and Michael Hutchence. You may envy the self-confidence of the beautiful, but often it's the lovely among us who are the most insecure about their appearance. Ask all the frustrated men who have tried to compliment an attractive woman. And this isn't limited to women, either...I've known beautiful men who hide their perfectly-honed physiques and who have even suffered from eating disorders.

Handsome men are often called "pretty boys" by their peers, as if their attractiveness somehow makes them less masculine. Women assume they will be unfaithful, or not as good in bed, because they "don't have to be".

And beautiful women? Wow, the deck is really stacked against them. Read almost any interview of a supermodel and the same themes reappear: they were tormented by their peers as children; they have trouble making female friends. In your average, everyday corporate workplace, where competition among women can escalate to a fever pitch, the attractive woman may be sabotaged or even shunned. Of course, no one will admit the woman's looks are the problem. A good friend recently told me that if a beautiful woman is genuinely nice and friendly to her co-workers, she will be viewed with suspicion because "why would anyone that beautiful be nice?"

I did experience the Beautiful Mean Girl once, in college. There was a girl who clearly outshone the rest of us in the genetic jackpot. But she was often cruel, going so far as to mock people with disabilities. I remember her complaining that when she went to her hometown for a visit, the phone rang off the hook, but none of the calls were for her. "The boys are calling my sister now; they used to call for me," she pouted. Oh, brother. We all rolled our eyes. But aside from that experience, I've found beautiful people are no less likely to be kind than anyone else.

Kurt intentionally downplayed his looks.
It used to be that no one cared what a writer looked like. Before the addition of the book jacket photo, no one even knew. The Internet and increasing pressure on authors to market themselves has changed all that. Some authors have become true celebrities and are now facing the same pressure, as the nasty gossip about Stephenie Meyers' weight clearly demonstrates.

What's your opinion, dear readers? Are you more likely to reach for a book if you find the author attractive? Have you ever judged someone by their looks alone, and then found out you were wrong about them? Do attractive people make you jealous or nervous? Are you a beautiful person who's found your looks have made a difference in your life, for good or ill? Do tell!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Stalemate


Welcome back, dear readers.

I feel like I'm in a stalemate these days. I have so much that I have to accomplish in the next two months that I'm...well, frankly, terrified.

Dragonfly Summer needs a major rewrite, or at least the first one hundred and fifty pages do. The edited manuscript has to be in my editor's hands at the end of October (in this case, my editor is one of my beta readers, not an editor at a publishing house). I'm thrilled that he agreed to look at the manuscript, and as he's a very busy man, there's no way I'm going to risk losing this opportunity by handing the book in late.

Another novel, Lost, has to be on its way to a contest judge by the end of November. It, too, needs a polish, but probably just a quick copy edit. Well, as "quick" as anyone can edit over 350 pages.

In other writing news, eleven freelance journalism articles need to be finished in the next three weeks.

Several projects at work are due at the end of November.

My red prajoud test for kickboxing is on December 17th, and I'm nowhere near ready. I need to work on my running speed, double kicks, push-outs, and push-ups. Argh.

I feel like a deer in the headlights right now. Part of the reason for this may be that I was sick last week, all weekend, and still not 100% today. I see all these deadlines coming at me like a freight train, and how am I feeling? Unmotivated. Definitely uninspired. I'm terrified that train is going to run me over.

Have you ever felt like this? How do you break yourself out of a rut and get moving when faced with the seemingly impossible?

My greatest fear is that not writing can quickly become a bad habit. I didn't write anything new for years before beginning this blog and finishing Dragonfly Summer. I don't want it to happen again, but I've been highly unproductive since the retreat. Not to mention that I'm still suffering from end-of-retreat hangover.

Any advice for me? Help!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Fun Friday VI: Life Altering Event


Happy Friday, dear readers!

In the movie Sliding Doors, the shape of Gwyneth Paltrow's life is hinged on one simple event: whether or not she catches the train home. Most of us will never know how many minuscule incidents are altering our existence, but the big life-changers are easier to spot.

For this week's writing exercise, tell me about an event or incident that changed your life in some way. It can be anything, big or small. Did you realize it was life-changing at the time? Did it change your life for better or worse? Would you go back in time and handle things differently if you could?

As for me, the event that changed my life in an insurmountable way was entering a writing contest when I was in Grade 11. The Canada Safety Council wanted essays, stories, or artwork with an anti-drunk driving message, and my class was required to enter a piece of writing. Everyone else wrote a statistical essay, but I went with fiction and wrote the story of a teenage boy reeling after a house party. He let his friend leave the party impaired and drive home, and when the story opens, the boy has just learned that his friend died in a car accident as a result. Pretty powerful stuff. This is the story I received the applause for.

When I won the contest, I was excited, but I had no idea how much it was going to change my life. The winning writers and artists were flown to Ottawa to receive an award and attend a special conference. I met my first serious boyfriend at this conference--a moody artiste from the small town of Thompson, Manitoba.

Until I met him, I fully expected to attend university in Calgary, Alberta, the home of my extended family. Our relationship changed everything. He convinced me to move to Manitoba, and for some reason, I felt drawn to Winnipeg. Whenever I visited this city, I felt like I was supposed to be here. I couldn't explain it.

Journalism was my only option in Calgary, but in Winnipeg they had a program that taught advertising, journalism, and public relations, so that's where I enrolled. I liked that it gave me more options, and my schooling certainly came in handy when journalism became unstable and I had to switch to public relations.

The guy I met in Ottawa also drastically effected my health and well-being, which in an odd way led me to kickboxing, but that's a whole 'nother story.

It's incredible to think that--if not for writing that one little story--I wouldn't know any of the people who have become my friends and family in Manitoba. I would never have worked at the Museum, or The Winnipeg Free Press. I wouldn't own the same home, or even have the same cats. Talk about a life-changer!

Your turn! What changed your life?