Tuesday, December 14, 2010

One Track Mind

Hello dear readers,

The blog is fairly quiet these days. Guess everyone is busy gearing up for the holidays. I'll be taking some time off in the next two weeks, with just an occasional post here and there, but I'll definitely be back in the New Year.

As for today, the red prajioud test looms large and is occupying most of my brain these days. It's on Friday, and my last trial test is tomorrow afternoon. Scary stuff, especially since I threw in the towel during the last test run.

Everyone has been telling me that I'll pass this test easily--that I'm in great shape and it's no big deal. But this encouragement is a double-edged sword, because to me this is a big deal and I am genuinely nervous about it. If I pass, I will be ecstatic and very relieved, but everyone will say, "Of course you passed. We told you that you would pass. We knew you could do it," which takes away from the fact that I wasn't sure. I've worked very hard to prepare for this. But, just like an exam, there comes a time when you have to stop studying.

My original plan was to work on the running portion of the test (one mile in eight minutes and thirty seconds) all week, but one of the issues with my last trial was that my leg muscles were exhausted and sore. They still are, so my new plan is a lot of rest, massage, and stretching. If I'm not fast enough by now, I'm not going to make up for that by fitting in two or three more sessions on the treadmill. All I can do is my best.

I just hope it's good enough.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Celebrating Simplicity

Carrie, Mary, and Laura Ingalls
Welcome back, dear readers.

It may seem like a strange time of year to talk about simplifying one's life. A good many of us are currently being bombarded with messages to "Buy, Buy, Buy!" Some may be feeling pressure or sadness that they can't buy the people they love "nicer" gifts. And even worse, some of us may go deeper into debt in order to do so, and be dreading those January credit card bills. What a way to kick off a New Year.

For every action, there's a reaction, and as Western society has become more and more driven by consumerism, a number of pundits have climbed on the "simplicity" bandwagon. Whether it's an annoying Suze Orman telling you to save all of your money or some other self-styled expert, there seems to be as much of that going around as there are holiday sales. And yet, it isn't working, and a tragic example of this is hoarding, which shows how bad things can get when we take our desire for more, more, more! too far.

I don't have much use for Orman myself. When I want to feel that my life is rich and that I have everything that I need, all I have to do is turn to the simplicity expert I first discovered as a child--Laura Ingalls Wilder.

As most of you know, Laura was an American author who wrote about her pioneer childhood in a series known affectionately as the "Little House Books". By today's standards, Laura's life would be considered primitive. As her parents were new settlers of the American west, they did not have electric or gas heat, indoor plumbing, modern health care, or any of the million things we currently take for granted. Laura's family suffered unbearable hardship, but they also experienced incredible joy. And the delight Laura took in the smallest things--from a few pieces of hard candy to a simple soup made with canned oysters and cream--is illuminating.

I'm not suggesting we give up all modern comforts and live like the pioneers. Far from it. But what if we tried to appreciate the things we have the way Laura did, even for a day? What if--instead of worrying about tracking down the latest iPad or iPhone or Trendy Toy of the Day--we took pleasure in the fact that we have warm homes to return to, lots of food in the fridge, and people who love us and who are always happy to see us? For me, a lover of long baths, I appreciate indoor plumbing and hot water heaters to no end. I'm happy that flour is something I can pick up at a store rather than have to grind by hand. I'm grateful for the little family I've created for myself.

When we appreciate the abundance of what we already have, we're more apt to give to those who don't. If you celebrate the fact that you've never gone truly hungry, and nearly starved the way Laura and her family did during The Long Winter, you may be moved to volunteer at a soup kitchen or contribute to a food bank. Both are in great need at this time of year.

I had to learn the hard way that having more stuff does not make one happy. And that the best things in life really are free (although a great sushi dinner is hard to beat). Approaching your life with a sense of wonder and appreciation for just how lucky you are may not be fashionable at this time of year, but I think it's still in keeping with the spirit of the season.

What simple things are you grateful for?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Fun Friday XIV: The Greatest Gift

Welcome dear readers! It's Friday again. Wow, time flies when you're spending your life in the dojo.

Last week I asked you to write about the greatest gift you've ever given. This time I want you to write about the greatest gift you've ever received.

I've been lucky enough to receive many thoughtful, heartfelt gifts over the years. Choosing just one to write about is very difficult, but I know I can always write about another next year.

My first Christmas with The Boy was last year. He went completely overboard in the gift department...I swear that he remembered every little off-hand comment I'd made throughout the year and nearly killed himself trying to locate whatever I'd mentioned. He went as far as tracking down a very rare soda pop that is only available in Newfoundland. It was crazy!

The most incredible gift, though--if I can pick just one--was something I'd seen on our third date. We went to an art show at a small local gallery, and while there wasn't much there, one piece caught my eye. It was a striking pencil portrait of a young Jamaican boy. There was something about the expression on the boy's face that really got to me. It was a beautiful piece of work, and so of course I told Chris that it was my favorite piece, but I certainly never expected to see it again. To me, art shows are about admiring the work and discussing it...rarely ever buying.

So I nearly cried when Chris gave me that framed original for Christmas almost a year later. I'd nearly forgotten all about it. But that wasn't what made the gift so special.

While he was wrapping it, Chris realized that the name of the artist sounded familiar. He wracked his brain, trying to remember where he'd heard that name before, and sure enough--the artist had the same name as a customer Chris was dealing with at work. The Boy emailed this customer to ask if he had created the drawing, and it turned out the customer and the artist were one and the same. Chris explained that his girlfriend had greatly loved the piece, and the artist was overwhelmed--this was his greatest work of art, and the only piece he'd ever sold.

The most precious piece of this gift, for me, was the letter from the artist saying how happy he was that his work was going to someone who loved it. He enclosed a print of the original photo he'd used to create the drawing.

It's those incredible coincidences that remind us just how amazing life is.

How about you, dear readers? What was your favorite gift?

Have an awesome weekend!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Viking Pride

Welcome dear readers,

Even though I was born and raised in Canada, my Norwegian grandfather taught me to be proud of my Scandinavian heritage (I am also Swedish). My grandfather was a great oral storyteller--my mom and I always begged him to write his stories down or record them, but he never did. I like to think my writing talent came from him.

We had other things in common, too--a love of athletics, a nuisance involuntary tremor that is more noticeable in times of stress or exertion, and wavy hair (though his was much wavier than mine). Grandpa was the only person in the family who thought I walked on water. During my all-too-infrequent visits (he lived hundreds of miles away), he filled his trailer with bowls of candy. He promised to buy me a car the second I turned sixteen. He introduced me to classical music, and to this day, I cannot see a symphony concert without thinking of him and feeling misty-eyed. Unfortunately, he passed away when I was nine years old, and I often wish I could have known him as an adult. He was a brilliant and opinionated man.

Though he anglicized his last name when he moved to Canada, Grandpa never lost his love for his home country. From the time I was a little girl, I desperately wanted to visit Scandinavia and meet the other side of my family. I became pen pals with a Swedish cousin, and she sent me gorgeous photos of fjords and the midnight sun. Scandinavia seemed like paradise, and I even loved the traditional food--pickled herring and potato crepes included.

In the past few years, the entire world has started to take notice of the creative powerhouse that is Scandinavia. Swedish writer Stieg Larsson took the world by storm with his Millennium trilogy (unfortunately, he didn't live long enough to see it). After years of Hollywood schlock that tried and failed to live up to The Sixth Sense, Norwegian and Swedish horror movies are a breath of fresh (albeit gory) air. Try Let The Right One In or Cold Prey if you want to see a good scary movie for a change.

I recently interviewed a book store owner about hot books for Christmas, and he couldn't say enough about Icelandic author Arnaldur Indriðason and Finnish writer Harri Nykänen. He raved about the high quality of their crime fiction. I can't say I was surprised.

After years of being force fed the same old crap by publishers and producers who are afraid to take risks, Scandinavian books and movies are a treasure trove of originality and creativity. I'm especially proud of my fellow Vikings, and I know my Grandpa would be, too.

I know I have some Scandinavian blog readers, so I'd love it if they'd weigh in on why there's so much creative material originating from their countries. Or--have you read a Scandi book or watched a Scandi movie lately? What's your take?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Hollilocks and the Three Stores

"Oh my God, it's a Shake Your Bon-Bon Party! Nooooo!"

Welcome to this week's rant, which begs the question: "why is it so difficult to find decent customer service these days?" It seems to be the exception, not the rule. Case in point:

Store #1: Too Hot

I won't give away the identity of this charming chain, except to say that they sell overpriced smelly things and hire way too many staff...all of whom apparently work on commission. Oh yeah, and their name rhymes with Flush.

The Boy and I elbowed our way into the tiny store in November, well before the holiday shopping rush began. The narrow aisles were packed with people. Customers? No, sales clerks, all hungry for blood. One zeroed in on us before we had more than a toe in the door.

"Have you heard about our soap sale?" she chirped. Of course we hadn't. We were barely in the door. She'd seen us come in.

She proceeded to rattle on and on about the many "deals" on overpriced soap. Nothing we said could dissuade her...no amount of "we're just looking" or "we'll let you know if we need something". Nothing could keep her from blathering on about the store's upcoming "Shake Your Bon-Bon" party (shudder). Finally, just when I was about to scream in frustration, she spotted another victim. But our moment of peace didn't last long.

One step was all it took to have another clerk accost us. Once again, we were treated to the same inane giggles about the infamous "Shake Your Bon-Bon" party. I know you won't believe this, but we were approached by five different people, in the same tiny store! All with the same persistent, never-ending sales pitch. It was exhausting and frustrating, like being the lone chicken in a wolf den. By the time the last person asked us if we'd heard about their bubble bar, I was getting a little snappy. You know those stickers the Salvation Army provides, so they know you've already donated? This store should consider doing the same: "Yes, I've heard about the Shake Your Bon-Bon party. (And I'd rather die.)" I found a soap that I absolutely loved, but refused to buy it after all that sales pressure. I will never be back.

Store #2: Too Cold

This store is actually a restaurant, and the service I received was so horrible that I will tell you it's a wood-fired pizza place in Winnipeg's Little Italy. And it has the word bistro in the name. Enough said.

A new friend and I went there one night for dinner. The place was far from dead, but not too busy, either. The food was pricey, but the pizza--which was the main attraction, after all--was quite reasonable and inventive, and I have to admit--easily the best pizza I'd ever had. Unfortunately, our waitress did everything she could to ruin the experience.

She ignored our table. Whenever she did come around, her tone was cold, bordering on snippy. It took us forever to order, forever to get drink refills, and when I requested that the rest of my pizza be wrapped up, she was gone so long that I'd pretty much given her up for dead. When she finally returned, 25-30 minutes later, she was empty handed! She asked if we wanted anything else, like she desperately hoped we didn't, and I said, jokingly, "just the rest of my pizza". "Yeah, it's COMING!" she snarled. I couldn't believe how rude she was. My friend and I laughed it off, and continued to chat. My friend had ordered at least two glasses of wine, and we'd both had expensive pizzas. It was our first time out together, so we were enjoying getting to know each other, when the waitress returned with my pizza (at last)...and kicked us out! She said other people needed our table. Can you believe that? I've never been ordered to leave a restaurant before. When we emerged from our No Man's Land table by the back door, we did see two couples waiting, but it certainly didn't look like they'd been there long. There was no excuse for the waitress's rudeness. I won't be back.

Store #3: Just Right

Much to the relief of Hollilocks and others like her, who prefer not to be treated like prey or pariahs when they dine and shop, there's a wonderful restaurant in downtown Winnipeg that has customer service down to a science. I have never been disappointed.

The food is always exquisite, the people who work there appear to love their jobs, and you never see a waiter until you need one--and then suddenly he or she is magically there, refilling your wine glass or bringing you another fork. Whether you're there for a pricey dinner or a much cheaper lunch, they treat you like royalty. It's no wonder you usually need a reservation.

A waitress from this lovely Italian restaurant once chased me all the way down the street because I'd left my jacket behind on a chair. Now that's service. (And according to a friend in the know, they serve the best gnocchi in the city.)

Congratulations, Tre Visi. You are a sight for sore eyes. Ahhhh...I'll definitely be back.

Other Winnipeg spots that demonstrate excellent customer service:

Le Petit France
Papa George's (sometimes. It's never bad, and sometimes it's stellar.)
Dream Weavers (doesn't exist anymore, but it was fabulous)
Silver Lotus (primarily its owner, who goes above and beyond)
Hair F/X

How about you, dear reader? Can you add to my "Just Right" list? Or do you have a rant to share about some terrible customer service? Rant away!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Conversation With Author Kathryn Casey

Welcome, dear readers. I hope you enjoy today's post--an exclusive interview with mystery and true crime author Kathryn Casey. I first met this award-winning, Houston-based author through Women In Crime Ink., a wonderful blog that she's a part of. Enjoy!

Q: Tell me about your new book, The Killing Storm.

KC: I’m truly excited about the book, the third in the Sarah Armstrong mystery series. It was just named one of the best books of 2010 by Library Journal, and the reviews are outstanding. The book catches up with Sarah as she’s thrown into two intense investigations--the abduction of a four-year-old from a Houston park, and the slaughtering of longhorns with cryptic symbols scrawled on their hides, symbols dating back to the days of sugar plantations and slavery. Before long, the investigations converge, just as a powerful hurricane moves into the city. Kirkus called the book "pulse pounding", a great compliment. For me, it was incredibly fun to write.

Q: You started out writing true crime books. How has this influenced your fiction?

KC: I’ve had a couple decades of what I’d call homicide school: going to sensational trials, hanging out with prosecutors, cops, defense attorneys, forensic experts, medical examiners, murderers, victims and their families. I’ve seen more than my share of crime scene photos and read countless autopsies. So when I decided to write fiction, I had all those experiences to draw on, situations to use, and friends I could ask for insight. The true crime writing has been invaluable.

Q: What’s it like to write true crime?

KC: Pretty interesting. As I mentioned, I go to the trials, interview everyone involved. A book usually takes me about a year. When I sit down to write, I have crates full of information to work with, which is important to give the books depth. I usually start on my research at the trials. That works for me because I get to hear what the jury hears, and from there I work my way out, looking for others involved in the case. Right now, I’m working on the Matt Baker case in Waco, Texas. I’m at the stage where I’m beginning to write.

Q: How did you become a crime author?

KC: It just kind of happened. I started covering criminal cases back in the mid-eighties, for Houston City Magazine. When I started writing for national magazines, including Reader’s Digest, Rolling Stone, TV Guide, Ladies’ Home Journal, More, etc, the editors knew that I had experience and the assignments rolled in. In the nineties, I turned a magazine story into my first book, The Rapist’s Wife, now called Evil Beside Her. From that point on, I began writing the books. It seemed a natural progression to go from true crime to crime fiction.

The truth is that I never intended to be a crime author. After a couple of decades as a fly on the wall in this world, it simply happened, because it’s what I know best.

Q: What are some of the challenges of writing about real cases?

KC: Finding people to interview and convincing them that they should talk is a big one. There are some bad true crime books out there, so some folks don’t understand that there are also good ones. I work hard on my books, and I’m proud of them. They serve a good purpose. Sure, they entertain, but they also enlighten folks on how these tragedies happen. They connect all the dots. And I do believe that they warn people about the types of behaviors that lead to violence. I get letters all the time from people, usually women, who write that they saw their significant other reflected in my book and realized that it was time to leave an abusive mate. We tend to make excuses for people we love, but when violence enters a relationship--when we fear we’re in danger--we need to take action and reach out for help. My books illustrate that by showing what’s possible.

Q: Have you ever been afraid or threatened because of what you write?

KC: I’ve been threatened but never really afraid. For the most part, the people I write about are in prison. Some have gotten out, but my guess is that they realize that if they come after me, they’ll be on a short-list of suspects and will undoubtedly end up quickly back in prison. I hope that they’ve learned their lessons and are ready to become valuable members of society.

There is one person I am trying to keep behind bars, however, not for my own safety but the safety of others--James Bergstrom, the psychopath in my first book. Bergstrom got four 99-year sentences because the jurors NEVER wanted him to walk free. He admitted to raping five women and attacking 35 over a two-year period. He’s obsessed, a true sexual predator. He’s been eligible for parole for the past few years. When his parole hearings come up, I protest and urge others to as well. The instructions for how to protest are on my Web site, kathryncasey.com, on the update page. If Bergstrom ever gets out, there will be more victims.

In addition to the fiction being exciting and fun to write, one of the great things about it is that the bad guys aren’t real. No one actually gets hurt. After all these years, that’s incredibly refreshing. I put my main character, Texas Ranger Sarah Armstrong, in harrowing situations, it’s true, but it’s all for fun.

Q: Any advice for upcoming and/or new writers?

KC: First, hang in there. It’s a journey. Second: You have to take that first step. Many people write but never attempt to publish. If you’re writing for personal reasons and don’t care about seeing your work in print, that’s fine. But if you want to be published, you have to pull together your courage and submit your work to an agent or an editor. To determine how to proceed, I recommend Writer’s Market, a great publication that’s updated, I believe, annually. There are books listing agents and explaining how to get one. For a good book on writing, read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to say?

KC: I’d like to thank everyone who reads my books and recommends them to others. I can’t thank you enough. It truly means the world to me.

And I'd like to thank Kathryn for taking the time to be here and answer some questions! If you're looking for a great Christmas gift for that avid reader on your list (or maybe yourself), please consider The Killing Storm.

If you have questions for Kathryn, feel free to post them in the comment section. She may agree to answer a few.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Movement is a Gift

"You should prepare yourself for the fact that you'll most likely be in a wheelchair by the age of twenty-three."
I was nineteen years old when a doctor said those words to me. Nineteen years old, but life as I knew it was already over.

An abusive ex-boyfriend decided to vent his rage by slamming his mother's station wagon into the vehicle I was a passenger in...seven times. While we were moving. The result: two badly fractured vertebrae, whiplash, and constant debilitating pain.

As strange as it sounds, I'd had no idea my back was broken. My pain began a day after the "accident", but I blamed my waitressing job. Once the connection was made, I started seeing a chiropractor. But it wasn't until I was back home in BC eight months later that I found out the awful truth...I had a broken back.

Thankfully, that doctor was not a psychic. Over a decade past her deadline, and I'm still not in a wheelchair, nor do I have any plans to be. I will always have issues with my back going out of place and with chronic headaches, but my pain is a lot better than it was. I am lucky, but sometimes it's a challenge not to lose sight of that.

Last week I was on the bus, no doubt feeling sorry for myself because I was off to a double kickboxing class again, and I was tired. I just didn't feel like working out. Then a woman in a wheelchair got on the bus, and I remembered how easily her story could have been my own.

A lot of people whine about exercising. They say they don't like it, or they're too tired, or they don't have the time. Sometimes I feel tired, too, and that couch seems pretty tempting. But what if we looked at it another way? Instead of viewing exercise as a chore, why not look at it as a privilege? That we're fortunate to be able to move our bodies. That life...and movement...is a gift.

The next time I'm too "tired" to go to kickboxing, I'm going to remember what the alternative could have been. And how lucky I am to still have legs that can run, jump, and kick.

It's something I won't take for granted. I hope that you don't, either.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Fun Friday XIV: Tis Better To Give...

Hello again dear readers,

Sorry for my unexpected absence. I've been under the weather, but I'm back in time for Friday.

For today's topic, let's write about the best gift you've ever given someone. Doesn't have to have been for Christmas, and it doesn't have to be something that money can buy. Let's get creative!

I've always prided myself on trying to give the very best gifts I can. Often they end up coming from a store, but in one case, I was able to give something truly from the heart.

I used to date a guy who suffered from clinical depression. While he appeared happy-go-lucky to the outside world, he was often convinced that no one loved him and that his life mattered to nobody.

One Christmas, I came upon the perfect idea to cheer him up whenever those dark moods struck. I used my journalism skills to track down and interview everyone who loved him--family members I'd never met, friends who were working in Malaysia--the works. Since I had so much experience doing interviews, I was able to get these people to really open up and tell me how they felt about the man in question--which was as moving an experience for me as it was for them.

I printed the quotes--which included a favorite memory from each person--on separate pieces of paper in different fonts, and then wrote my own message of love and encouragement. The Bombay Company had a beautiful memory box which resembled a mahogany book, and it was the perfect receptacle for my gift. On the brass plaque on the cover I had the words "Open when you're feeling blue" engraved.

My ex cried as he read each message. He couldn't believe how open people had been with me, and that I'd managed to reach so many people I'd never met. His reaction was just as I'd hoped, and even though we haven't spoken for years, I hope he still uses that gift whenever he needs it.

In a way I never expected, that present ended up being a gift for me as well. I got to know my boyfriend better through the people who love him, and I also got to share something incredible with the amazing people in his life. It's rare that you have the opportunity to give a gift like that--it simply wouldn't have had the same impact for anyone else, but when you do have the chance, it's well worth the trouble.

Happy Friday, everyone!