Monday, August 30, 2010

"Live Free or Die" and Ta-Da Lists

Since I'm still trying to recover from an 11.5-hour drive back home from DC last night, I'm delighted to have my writing friend Jessie Crockett paying a visit today to talk about the joys of "Ta-Da" instead of "To-Do" lists.

Jessie's debut novel "Live Free or Die" has just been published (and available at Amazon by clicking the title link) and although I haven't yet had the opportunity to read it, I adore the title because it's also New Hampshire's motto -- and one we all very much take to heart, though not always in a good way: no mandatory motorcycle helmets, no seatbelt law over 18, and local government splintered among 234 fiefdoms, er, municipalities. But I digress.

Here's what Jessie has to say about making lists:
Are you a list maker? You either are or you aren’t. I adore lists, from Grocery to Christmas to Bucket. Every time I throw a party I revel in them: to cook, to buy, to make, to clean.

In keeping with a theme of New Beginnings, I decided to share an approach I use to list making. A lot of beginnings get started with a list and most of those seem to be the classic To Do variety. Despite my life-long love of lists there is one type that comes out on top for me every time. And even if you aren’t typically a fan of lists perhaps you will consider giving this sort a try. It’s a Ta-Da list.

Each morning I make a two column list. In the left column I make a list of emotions I would like to experience that day. In the right column I mark down activities that will help me to reach that goal. For example, a few days ago my list looked like this:

Joyful--------- read new fiction novel I picked up at the library
Creative-------reach daily word count quota for my work-in-progress
Productive------respond to unanswered emails and phone messages
Organized------conquer laundry backlog
Healthy--------drink 8 glasses of water; get to bed at a decent time

Ta-Da lists consider the journey rather than simply the destination. They help me to enjoy the things I’ve included on the list because the activities help me to reach for things I really want to experience in my life.

For me, this approach also works for my writing. When I am working on a project I ask which feelings I would like the reader to experience as he or she reads my work. Then I add dialogue, action and settings that I hope will produce the kind of emotional journey for the reader I had in mind. If I want the book to make people experience surprise I had better include some unexpected twists. If sorrow is what I am after, I need to add some kind of loss or disappointment. My manuscript Ta-Da list helps me to evaluate ideas from the perspective of the emotional journey and I think they have improved my writing.

Here’s hoping all of your back-to-school beginnings are more Ta-Da than To Do!

And here's some info about Jessie's book -- and about her:

Life in tiny Winslow Falls, New Hampshire is pretty darn good until an arsonist
decides to ruin everyone’s Christmas.

The way volunteer Fire Chief Gwen Fifield sees it, her life in rural New Hampshire is as good as it can be. Sure, she’s gained 20 pounds and her property taxes have skyrocketed, but her basement didn’t flood this year and the general store started delivering pizza.

All things considered, Gwen’s got no complaints….that is until she finds a body sizzled like a sausage in the smoldering remains of the Winslow Falls museum. When an artifact from the museum is traced to an immigrant family, most local residents are quick to blame the outsiders. But clues from the past convince Gwen that the town she’s always trusted is harboring a home-grown murderer.

About Jessie Crockett: A nearly life-long resident of the Granite State, Jessie naturally adores black flies, 98% humidity, killing frosts in August and snow banks taller than the average grandmother. When not working on her next murderous adventure she enthusiastically putters in her greenhouse, designs bento lunches and throws parties. She delights in mentoring young writers at the local elementary school. Jessie lives with her dark and mysterious husband and exuberant children in a village so small most other New Hampshire residents have never heard of it. Hearing from readers makes her day so please drop by for a visit at

Anyone want to guess the name of Jessie's village?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

A Gift from the Past

Since we had not seen each other in well over three decades, the experience of sharing coffee with my high school boyfriend this past weekend was somewhat surreal. But the biggest surprise came when he handed me a packet of long-forgotten stories and poems I had composed during our youthful romance.

The pieces would, he assured me, provide an interesting insight into my thoughts and aspirations all those years ago. Although I was stunned to learn such products of my high school persona survived, I thanked him and put them aside as we continued a delightful conversation about where life has taken us since we last saw one another.

It was with some trepidation that I later examined his gift from the past. Oddly, my first reaction was how much better my penmanship was then. (Click here to see a previous blog entry on the problems it causes today). I was amused that some of the pieces bore grades from my high school English teacher (A's of course) while others were poems written outside of class. Although I do still possess some examples of my anonymous "Mary Muckraker" columns for the high school newspaper, I thought my more creative efforts from that time period were discarded long ago.

I suppose it is not unexpected that I would view them as the writer and person I am now. It was as if I were reading the work of a stranger. For example, I cringed where the author used the same word twice in a paragraph --- something I assiduously attempt to avoid in my writing today. Then I reread the pieces in the hope of recalling what prompted me to create them, especially the free-form poems. However, given that I can't remember where I left my purse most days, you can understand why it might be impossible to recollect the impetus for verse composed when I was 17 and 18. On the third read-through, I could feel the angst and emotions of those teenage years that I often struggled to make sense of with my pen. Then I wondered when I stopped writing poetry and why.

As I study these papers now, I feel fortunate that my high school boyfriend kept my writing for sentimental reasons -- and not for blackmail or in the hope that he would be able to profit from it when I became rich and famous (obviously he's given up on that hope, if it ever existed).

And I will remain forever grateful that he has now returned these pieces of me.

Have you ever unexpectedly discovered something you wrote long ago, or something else you kept from your past? Did it bring back wonderful memories or did you struggle to try to recall why you kept it?

For your reading pleasure, here's a poem entitled "Oceans and Roses' that earned me an A. (And no, I don't remember the reason for the reference to the yellow rose, but it was obviously important at the time. I wonder what a high school English class would interpret this poem to mean today...)

I love.
They're blue
and gray
and green.
Chameleon color change
Ever-changing --
(like me).
Sparkling water
Reflections of the world
Except me...
It sees me
But, does not reveal --
It's better
That way,
Maybe --
The key was
A yellow rose.
I wonder --
For if a token
Isn't genuine,
It becomes
A feeble attempt --
You'll give
What I like.
Almost everything ...
But, all the while
I seek
Roses wilt
And die...
Oceans rise
And fall...
Leaving me
Washed up
Upon the beach
Of dreams.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

High School Reunion

My recent high school reunion and the related social activities were a blast, but I was a little surprised by some of the things people I hadn’t seen in decades chose to share.

And, as always, it was all novel material.

It also was a delight to see classmates from that intense, hormone-ridden four-year period known as high school and walk away believing that for the most part, they now lead decent and happy lives. (The few who’ve done jail time – including our class president – didn’t show and another classmate is currently serving a life sentence for murder.) At my age, it's also a comfort to know so many people from my past are still alive.

Without a doubt, the women looked better than the men at this reunion. Maybe it’s because woman will take advantage of generally accepted options to fight the appearances of aging – like hair dye, cosmetics and plastic surgery. Many of the men looked old – lots of hair lost and pounds gained – and some were recognizable only by nametags or voices. Hard to believe these old guys were in the same high school class as me.

I was fortunate to experience the weekend with two women who have been my very close friends since high school even though each lives in Texas now. Since Husband No. 1 refuses to attend reunions, these women make great dates. Between the three of us, we can cover a lot of ground and collect a lot of news/gossip to rehash later over wine.

But I always seem to collect the juiciest items, possibly due to my years of practice asking questions as a journalist. And while we all self-edit the information we choose to relay to others, I was surprised by some of the revelations – and how quickly they were shared.

Why would people I haven’t seen in decades suddenly announce they are in unhappy relationships? Or reveal within minutes that they’re gay? One classmate made sure folks knew she had invested in her breasts. Another made clear her income was higher than most. More than a few took mere seconds to brag about themselves or the accomplishments of their children. We even had a classmate who didn’t care that others knew she was smoking a joint during a break in the festivities.

Then there were the undercurrents – like the classmate who reportedly has been stalking another one, off and on, for decades. There also were those who seemed to think the high school castes still should exist after all these years. Others appeared reluctant to consider that people might change or mature since high school. And some believed boyfriends or girlfriends from that era still carried a torch for them -- or they, themselves, confessed to crushes on fellow classmates.

Yes, it's the stuff novels are made of, isn't it?

But when you really think about it, isn’t it odd that we have high school reunions every five or 10 years to see people we might have spent just four years – or less – with during our teenage years? True, some of my high school classmates go back to elementary school days, but I’ve rarely seen most of them since high school graduation, either.

Yet, there is a connection. And it continues to link us in some way through the years as we move in our different directions and worlds. But exactly what is that connection?

Is it because seeing our classmates again takes us back to more innocent times when our whole lives lay ahead? All things seemed seemed possible then. Or is it because high school is where many of us first truly became aware of the dynamics of friendship and formed relationships we thought would last forever? Or perhaps we experienced the thrill of first love that set the standard for every relationship that followed?

Whatever it is, something prompts many of us to keep going back to these events. At the same time, I can understand why others avoid them. What about you? Have you attended your high school reunions? Why or why not? Do you enjoy them? Did people share intimate details of their lives with you or others?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

My kids think I'm "nuts"

(Warning: Intimate body parts will be discussed in this week's edition)

In my never-ending quest to continue being a good mother beyond the time my children apparently need me to do so, I apparently stepped over the line recently and I'm now worried that it could lead to years of therapy for each of them.

It all began when I recently attended a health fair and spotted some nifty little placards to hang in the shower that illustrate how to check for testicular cancer -- and keep track of the monthly examination. As one who never passes up an opportunity to send helpful information to my children, either through the mail or via Internet -- and whether they need it or not -- I snagged two of the cards and mailed one off to each son with a note that said "I know you think I'm 'nuts,' but I care about your health."

To my surprise, there was no acknowledgement of this latest Mom effort. Finally I asked No. 2 son if he had received the item as it was included in the same envelope as a check he needed to take to the college financial affairs office and a grocery store gift certificate.

"Oh my God," he spluttered. "Yes, I got it. Did you forget I share a bathroom with seven other people?"

Whoops. This had not occurred to me. "Oh, I'm so sorry, did I embarrass you?"

"Yes, you embarrassed me. But then I thought, it's just my crazy mother again," he said. "But how would you like it, Mom, if I sent you something that told you how to check for breast cancer and wrote a note that said, 'maybe you think I'm being a boob...'?"

I considered the best way to answer. Finally I said, "I would think that you loved me very much -- and cared about my health."

"GRRRRR....." was his response.

A few days later I asked No. 1 son, who works an 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. shift, if he had read the article I sent about avoiding drowsy driving in the same envelope as his placard. "No, because when I opened the envelope and saw the cancer of the testicles thing, I stopped reading and threw it away."

"You didn't even look at it?" I whined. "I was only thinking of your health."

"Not only did I not read it," he said in an abrupt tone of voice. "We will never speak of this again."

Whoops again, I guess I just did.

It occurs to me that this incident might make a good addition to ongoing list of ways I've embarrassed my children. So all you parents out there, I'd certainly appreciate it if you'd let me know I'm not alone.....

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Gun... Control?

I am giving serious thought to buying a gun. As a woman who has marched for gun control and who does her best to live in the Land of Denial about the piece of metal her son carries to work every night, this is a radical shift in attitude.

OK, it won't be a really bad gun. Maybe just an airgun or a squirt gun. But desperate times call for desperate measures. And what is made me so desperate? This little varmint who keeps raiding my "squirrel-proof" bird feeder (notice how full his pouches are). In order to be able to view the feeder from the house, we attached it to the deck, which also has become home to the first tomato and sunflower plants ever owned by Husband No. 1, now known as Farmer Frank.

I think my neighbors are beginning to question my sanity after hearing me repeatedly yell "Get off of there!" and seeing me run out onto the deck waving a broom. This seems to have little effect on the chipmunks and squirrels, however. So I did some research on the Internet and although adding lots of red pepper to the birdseed has seemed to keep away most of the squirrels, I just learned that the pepper that keeps me sneezing for days apparently doesn't bother chipmunks due to their fur-lined pouches.

I was complaining about this wildlife development during a weekend telephone conversation with No. 1 son when he asked: "How do you know it's the same chipmunk?"

"Because he's taunting me," I replied. "I fill the bird feeder and the damn thing keeps jumping on it and draining it before the day is over."

"How can you be sure it's just one chipmunk?" he persisted.

"Stop talking like a cop. I've got evidence," I grumbled as I continued my surveillance of the deck through the glass doors. "Dammit," I suddenly yelled. "There ARE two of them."

No. 1 son then wondered why Buddy the dog wasn't enough to frighten the creatures away from the bird feeder so close to the house. "Are you kidding? That dog barely even woofs at them anymore," I said. "No one would ever mistake Buddy for an attack dog. But he does seem to bark if the wind changes direction," I added.

No. 1 son then allowed as how a BB shot or an air pellet in a chipmunk's butt might do the trick. As I considered this option, I saw the little critters scurrying toward the "crops" and alerted Husband No. 1, who was on the extension. "They're stealing your tomatoes!" I yelled.

Husband No. 1, normally so laid-back that some people think he must be from California instead of Kansas, erupted. "That's it. We're getting a .357 Magnum."

No. 1 son exploded in laughter. "The gun will be bigger than the chipmunk," he wisely noted.

"I don't care," proclaimed the man who once led peace marches. "We're talking tomatoes now. This is war."

So, does anyone have any ideas on how we can at least win the battle of the chipmunks -- short of purchasing heavy artillery?