July 28, 2008

All Booked Up . . .

My husband pointed out that in the past six months, I've had three books come out that were either written by me or contained something written by me. I hadn't thought about it, but hey, he's right.

Here are the three books . . .

1) Editor, Alice Pope, just sent a copy of the brand new Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market. I've purchased this annual market book every year for the past decade, so it's quite a thrill to be included among such professionals as Lisa Wheeler, Kathleen Duey, Cecil Castellucci, Kirby Larson, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Kelly Milner Halls and others.

The article I contributed is titled: "Six Reasons to Quit Writing (& One Reason You Shouldn't)." What's with me and long titles? I presented a short speech on this topic at the Florida SCBWI Conference last January.

2) How to Fit a Car Seat on a Camel and Other Misadventures Traveling with Kids edited by Sarah Franklin, is a must for any parent preparing to travel with children. It's filled with funny and not-so-funny essays about the unexpected things that occur when travelling with children.

My contribution is an essay, "Road Trip Through Adolescence," about the adventures I had with my (then) eleven-year-old son. We slept on a boat in the Boston Harbor and hiked crazy, scary rock formations at Acadia National Park in Maine. It was one of the best road trips I've ever taken.

3) Finally, I managed to write nearly all the words in this book:

I can barely believe nearly six months have passed since the release date. I'm still smitten with Kenneth Holcomb's cover. Thanks, Kenny! And I continue to be happily surprised when I read reviews, like this one by Barbara and Gary Bleeker in the Topeka Capital-Journal. Thanks, Barbara and Gary.

4) Why stop there? While awaiting revision requests from my editor for my second novel, I'm hardly, um, hard at work on Novel #3. I'm aiming for two things with this novel -- a fun/funny main character and a really, really long title. So, if you have any ideas, send them my way. I assure you they'll be promptly considered and disregarded. (Did I say that out loud?)

Hope you're all booked up with the things you love best,

July 21, 2008

How to be Happy

Happiness. Everyone wants it, but isn’t sure how to achieve it.

Sometimes it’s plain hard to get your happy on. Once in awhile we need a nudge from a friend. Thanks, Linda. And an article from a magazine, like the one I read this weekend.

Yup, there are three things you can do today to get your happy on. I don’t recall the author, but here’s the gist of the article:

How to be happy by U. R. Smart . . .

1. Have someone to love. (This does not have to be a romantic love.)

2. Have something to do. (Cleaning bathrooms doesn’t count.)

3. Have something to look forward to. (Again. Bathroom cleaning is out.)

So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to pet my dog, work on my new novel and look forward to an evening of Scrabble with this guy . . .

How are YOU going to get your happy on today?

July 18, 2008

Friday's Five

Sometimes a book draws you in and wraps you in a hug. Sometimes a book invites repeated reads.

Here are five middle grade novels I think are darn near perfect:

1) Charlotte's Web by E. B. White.

2) Rules by Cynthia Lord

3) Granny Torrelli Makes Soup by Sharon Creech

4) Swear to Howdy by Wendelin Van Draanen

5) A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban

Care to add to the list?

July 16, 2008

The Best Kind of Surprise Party

Sometimes being a writer comes in handy.

This afternoon, I was at my desk pretending to work, when our dog, Lady, barked because someone was at the door.

“Good dog, Lady. Keep us safe from big, scary, dangerous . . .”

"Oh, hi, Amy and Megan. What's up?"

"Um, we're making a surprise party for our mom. Can you come over at three?"


"Yup. That's when she gets home from picking our brother up from baseball camp."

It was 2:57.

I thought about the work on my desk and said, “Give me a minute. I'll be right over.”

This is the part where being a writer comes in handy.

I grabbed a birthday card from my closet (a published sample I'd gotten from Blue Mountain Arts) and a gorgeous autographed fish puzzle created by my talented friend, Janeen Mason.

Ta Dah! A gift!

I hustled across the street, gift in hand, to find a couple neighbors helping the girls tear construction paper into confetti for the big event.

When my neighbor, Donna, walked in, she was greeted by shouts of “Surprise” and handfuls of confetti thrown at her.

She showed her surprise and appreciation by saying, "Oh my, no one cleaned the house."

I stayed a few minutes and chatted before heading back to my home office, really happy that two little girls love their mom enough to create an impromptu surprise party for her -- clean house or not.

Way to go, Megan and Amy!

July 14, 2008

Vegetarian Cheeseburger in Paradise

“I feel like I’m on vacation,” I say to Hubby, who is munching on a vegetarian cheeseburger, a Jimmy Buffett song playing in the background.

Hubby delicately points out, “You’re raising two teenage boys, caring for two pets, me, you work – a lot – cook, clean, volunteer, and--”

“Oh, yeah. I forgot.”

Despite that dose of reality, I still feel like I’m on vacation in sunny South Florida. Opening your door every day to palm trees, exotic birds and interesting geckos will do that to you.

In winter months, we “natives” are overrun by tourists and Snowbirds. (Yes, this means you, Grandma!) Our roads are jammed with people in competition to drive below the speed limit, we can’t get a seat at our favorite breakfast spot and there’s rarely a square inch (or yard) of beach for me to fit my fanny in.

Summer, though, is a different story. Something about heat exhaustion, alligators and wild hurricanes scare people off. Can't imagine why.

Yesterday morning, I dropped my flip-flops in the sand and took a long walk along the water’s edge. The only others on the beach were a few guys fishing, a large dead fish (yuck!), a couple carrying thirty pounds of toddler and ninety pounds of buckets, plastic shovels, folding chairs, an umbrella, a cooler and a bevy of sunscreen. There were also folks poking at shells and walking just like me. Locals. We nodded as we passed each other, grateful to have our little corner of paradise to ourselves.

While I was admiring the view on a jetty, an older gentleman nodded at my Penn State T-shirt and told me he used to teach there. A long time ago.

We reminisced about how grand Happy Valley is with its mountains, lakes and fine university. Not to mention the grilled sticky buns at midnight at Ye Olde College Diner. Yowza!

Doing my best Vanna White imitation, I pointed to the intracoastal waterway leading into the ocean with the Jupiter Lighthouse in the background and said, “Of course, this isn’t half bad.”

The man nodded. “Best place in the world to live.”

As I headed back along the beach (not caught in a violent thunderstorm this time), the ocean rushing over my feet, clouds overhead, I couldn’t have agreed more.

For our family, the only thing missing from our little corner of paradise are family and friends from home.

So, to them I say, “Pack up the sun screen, a bathing suit or two and come on down. The water’s fine.

To you, I say, what makes your corner of the world a little piece of paradise?

Hope you’re having a delightful summer,

July 6, 2008

Big Birthday Blog-O-Rama

Today is my blog’s one year birthday and my, um, slightly more than one-year-birthday. (I’m 43.) As a child, a July 5th birthday meant no one showed up at my birthday party except the one kid whose family wasn't away on vacation. As an adult, though, having a birthday around a major holiday is a lot of fun because no one is working and everyone is in the mood to celebrate. (Just read that Jordan Sonnenblick's birthday was July 4th. Happy Birthday, Jordan. Loved Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie. And really loved the letter you wrote in School Library Journal about the state of education.)

Today's Birthday-O-Rama went something like this:

Oldest son began the day by making me pudding. Doesn’t everyone crave pudding for breakfast on her birthday?

Youngest son created Jake Bucks. I can trade them for anything in the Jake Land Catalog – reading together, him taking the dog for a walk, him preparing a meal, playing a game of Yahtzee together, etc. (And I can earn more Jake Bucks by having good parental behavior.)

Hubby got me great nerd gifts – a funny book about language, a funny political book on CD and magazines (about books).

Then hubby took the boys and me out to Vic & Angelo’s for lunch. Personable waiter. Delicous food. Fun times.

I don’t know what it is with my side of the family, but my sisters and father called and sang “Happy Birthday.” Badly. It was wonderful.

Friends and family called and sent e-mails. One friend gave me a book lover’s Scrabble mug -- perfect! I think the main character of my novel would have loved it. She also would have loved the mug with purple flowers given by another friend. (Yes, I drink lots of herbal tea while I write.) Another bud sent fun, funky jewelry from Maine. My writing pals showered me with flowers, gifts, strawberry shortcake and lots of love.

If you want to do something bookish to celebrate this holiday weekend, the Cedar Rapids Public Library was damaged by flooding. They desperately needs monetary donations to restock and repair. You can read about it at Meg Cabot's diary. (Scroll down to the June 30th entry.)

It’s been such a grand and glorious birthday. Thanks so much for the good wishes and thoughtful gifts and for reading this blog. My very first blog was about beginnings.

Today feels very much like a new beginning . . .

July 2, 2008

Celebrating Life

This is my friend, Cary Garcia . . .

On October 7, 2002, Cary was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

Four days later, so was I.

We’d been acquaintances before. But the moment we discovered this terrible connection, we became fast friends, sharing information, sympathy and laughter. Yes, laughter. What a great antidote to fear, guilt and worry! There were flurries of e-mails between us, comparing symptoms and new realities.

And there were visits. Our families got together whenever we could. Cary and I occasionally met halfway between our homes for lunch as well.

I wondered what the waiter thought of the two bald women at his table when Cary and I met for lunch at the Cheesecake Factory. Bold and wild, Cary proudly wore her bald head with big earrings and bright make-up. I covered my head in a simple scarf.

After three months of intense chemotherapy that required several hospitalizations, I was deemed cancer-free. Not fear-free, but cancer-free.

Cary celebrated my victory, but was never able to enjoy similar news. She’s never enjoyed a single remission. “Stop with the survivor guilt!” she wrote in one e-mail after I’d told her how badly I felt that we’re not both celebrating good news together.

I stopped with the guilt. And I helped Cary do exactly what she wanted – enjoy life as much as she could.

Together, we flew on three planes to get to an ovarian cancer survivor’s retreat in Montana in 2005. What an amazing time. We women got to forget our troubles for a little while and have fun with kindred spirits. That retreat is a very special memory for me.

This was the view from our cabin . . .

And here’s a photo with Cary holding up a t-shirt she’d just bought in a nearby town.

Camp Mak-a-Dream is an amazing place. Besides the ovarian cancer retreat, they have another retreat for women with cancer, but mostly retreats for children who need a break from the sadness of cancer. If you want to relieve yourself of a few bucks, you could find worse places to donate.

Five years after our diagnoses, Cary made a “Celebrating Life” party. She invited our family and her doctor and his family because she credits her doctor with keeping her alive this long and has come to love him and his family.

Here we all are, having a great time together . . .

Cary persevered through a rough summer last year that included a series of hospitalizations. Then, six months ago, when she wrapped Christmas ornaments for storage, she wondered if she’d see them again the following Christmas.

She won’t.

This summer is bad. Cary’s stomach has stopped working. And for a self-admitted lover of food, this is pure torture. Besides that, she’s sick most of the time. As I write this, Cary has suffered through 76 chemotherapy treatments. 76!

She’s ready to be done.

I visited her at home last week. She hardly looked like herself, lying on the living room sofa, under the Christmas quilt someone had made for her. Her voice was a hoarse whisper.

It was hard to be there, to say good-bye to my friend, but I felt honored to spend time with her during these last days. Cary told me about the most important parts of her life – Rey, her husband of 28 years and Lauren, her precious 16-year-old daughter. Of course, Cary would love to stay around and celebrate her hubby’s 50th birthday this December and watch her daughter grow up, get married and have children. But she's come to peace with the fact that she can’t.

When Cary was too tired to talk anymore during our visit, we hugged each other. Her frail arms wrapped around my neck and she whispered, “I love you.”

Well, friend, “I love you, too.” You’ve helped me sail through some rough waters.

Life is hard sometimes. It just is.

Last night, I read The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow. It made me cry, but it was full of life and love and lessons I wanted to impart to our sons. When I’d seen Randy Pausch’s lecture on the Internet, his wife, Jai, hugged him at the end and whispered something into his ear.

“I wonder what she’d whispered,” I said to my husband.

At the end of Mr. Pausch’s book, I found out. Jai held onto him and said into his ear, “Please don’t die.”

All he could do was hug her more tightly.

This morning, feeling sad, I took myself to the beach, a place that always makes me feel centered and serene and grateful.

I looked out at the calm water and thought of Cary and of two other dear friends who are currently fighting cancer. I took note of some dark clouds in the distance, reminding myself not to wander too far.

Then I walked along the water’s edge, small fish darting near my feet.

I passed men fishing, families splashing in the smooth water, couples strolling along the beach, a woman checking a sea turtle nest. Everyone was friendly when we passed each other. And there was a glorious breeze off the water as I walked, but those dark clouds grew larger. And darker.

Lost in my thoughts, I kept walking until I came to a jetty.

While appreciating the landscape, an older woman, Dolores, came over and told me about her husband and two sons, ten grandchildren, four great-grandchildren and a sister who didn’t marry until she was in her 70’s. What a life! I touched Dolores’ hand, told her how nice it was to meet her and said I’d better head back because those dark clouds were getting closer. Dolores headed off to her car.

As I walked back along the water’s edge, I felt drops plink onto my skin. It was a long way back. I picked up my pace.

When the raindrops got fatter and fell faster, I jogged. Then ran. I don’t mind getting soaked, I told myself, as long as there is no lightning. South Florida storms can be ferocious.

With that, the sky opened up with a sharp crack of thunder. As long as there is no lightning. Lightning sizzled in a jagged line into the ocean.

Rain fell in fat pellets from dark clouds. Thunder boomed so loud, I huddled against the noise. And lightning continued to sizzle.

I noticed a woman standing under an overhang at a small bathroom and chugged up a hill of sand toward her. Another crack of thunder. I leapt off the sand, intending to go into the bathroom until the storm passed, but saw a car pulling out of a spot in the parking lot. Forget the bathroom! I charged toward that car, waving my arms.

The driver stopped, rolled down the window, and before I could say, “Could you drive me to my car?” he yelled, “Get in! Get in!”

“Thanks so much,” I said, water dripping down my face. “I was going to take cover in the bathroom, but—“

“It’s a good thing you didn’t,” the man said. “The bathrooms are locked. Where’s your car?”

I told him.

The woman turned toward me. “I’m Connie and this is Gary.” We talked about their sons at the University of Florida and my boys at summer camp.

When I got out of the car, before I could get into mine, a bolt of lightning sizzled nearby and thunder crashed. I dove into my car, took a deep breath and drove home, grateful for Connie and Gary. Grateful for the kindness of strangers.

Connie and Gary reminded me how much I have to be grateful for.

One of the things for which I’m profoundly grateful is Cary’s friendship.

Life is precious. All we can do is embrace it by living well, being kind to strangers, kinder to those we love and kindest to ourselves, hugging our kids (even though they drive us crazy sometimes), working hard and being profoundly grateful for blessings, like friends who are true and honest until the end.

Celebrating life,