Monthly Archives: April 2012

My New Dog is Gone

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When I started this blog a few months ago, my intent was simply to build an audience to support the book I’m writing, so an agent could cyber-stalk me and see that people were interested in what I had to say. Or so I hoped. But as I began to post, a beautiful yet unanticipated outcome emerged…the opportunity to not only give you prose to read, but words to feel. I hadn’t expected that.

When someone tells me my work made them laugh, or cry, or change their mind, or think differently about life than they had before, or feel like they’re not alone, it’s a gift that defies value. It’s incomparable, and for me, a much more important result than my original purpose. Whatever feelings I’m able to generate are doubled, squared, and amplified when they come back. Hearing your thoughts and opinions satisfies my soul in a way I’ve never felt before, and I appreciate it. Every day. So thank you for giving me something so rare. It’s incredible to be surprised by life when you’re halfway through the journey.

People create blogs about everything on the spectrum of anything: cooking, sports, disease, motherhood, death, demons, and gods. I write about my life, and if I had to pick a word to tightly wrap the layers of emotion I’m trying to bind together and deliver, it would be a simple one. Real. Whether I aim to be funny one day or serious the next (remember, I’m a Gemini, and was gifted the right to change my mind by Zeus himself, or the rhythm method, or two x chromosomes, or all of the above), I want to be real, because life is as much about pain as pleasure, and to ignore one in pursuit of the other doesn’t work.

When my husband’s grandfather, Jim, died in February, the only world I knew the day before shifted. Not off its axis and out of control, but a critical element in the chain of my life disappeared. Just like that. Most of us swim with a fairly predictable current every day. We ebb and flow with the tide, catch our breath in shallow water, and brace ourselves when the temperature changes, and colors darken and deepen. But when you’re floating along and suddenly slammed against a rock hidden by a breaking surf? There’s no anticipation, and you’re forced into a position of picking up whatever’s left in the aftermath.

The only thing left alive in the wake of Jim’s death was his dog Brandy. We took her in, largely because we felt an obligation to do what we considered to be the right thing out of respect for someone we loved, partially because I’m an eternal optimist, or so I thought at the time, and lastly, because nobody else volunteered.

I’m a fixer by nature. I believe that if I try hard enough, feel strongly enough, and force my will and resolve, I can change the world, or more specifically, you. I often substitute the reality in front of my face for the vision I see in my head, because I draw pretty pictures up there and the sun often shines.

When we adopted Brandy, I conveniently ignored the fact that we had avoided her for the past couple of years because she bit my youngest, Essa, when she was five. In the face. Luckily the bite was sent as a warning on Brandy’s part. She broke the skin but didn’t go deep.

I also ignored Brandy’s temperament. She was testy, unpredictable, and didn’t like anyone or anything, except Jim. He came over one day last summer wearing the remnant scars of bloody claw marks all the way up his inner arm. Brandy had attacked another dog on a walk, and in trying to pull her off, he’d been caught in the crossfire.

Regardless, in the heat of emotion and the cocoon of denial, I was determined to make Brandy one of us. For Jim. For Scot. For me. Out of a painful longing for yesterday and a life that no longer included someone I desperately wanted back.

And I failed.

Brandy never assimilated into our family. She attacked another dog, tried to bite our next door neighbor, actually bit Scot, growled at my children and their friends, and frightened my mother-in-law so much that she was afraid to walk around her in the middle of the night to get a glass of water, in a multitude of occurrences, and over a succession of days and weeks. In one visit where we had to muzzle Brandy to get her out of my truck and through the door, the vet recommended we give her a huge wake, especially the kids, and a house that was filled with grief became one augmented by an undertow of fear.

With Jim gone, we slowly realized that there was no way to replicate the life she had, and we were forced to make a decision about her future. She couldn’t stay with us anymore. The risk of her hurting a child became too loud to ignore. We researched shelters, but found that her quality of life would be no life at all. Due to her temperament, she would be caged, walked once during the day, and left largely alone.

After days of discussion, debate, denial, and tears, we came to the conclusion that the only humane choice was to put Brandy down. Scot was the person who took her to the vet. I couldn’t. I didn’t have the strength. How he did is something I will forever question. Jim was the father my husband never had, and the personal sacrifices Scot had to make in doing so say more about his character than my words ever could.

When they got to the office, Brandy was serene. There was no stress. There was no muzzle. There was no fight. Scot laid out her blanket, Brandy jumped on, and he carried her in. As he describes it, she was at peace, having curled up into herself and fallen asleep as he stroked her back and whispered that everything was going to be alright.

Often, in life, everything isn’t alright. It’s ugly, raw, and real. So I have a new definition of optimism. Optimism isn’t waking up to a bright, sunny day where the birds chirp through an open window. Optimism is facing darkness everywhere you turn, choosing the best of equally shitty paths, and believing that the road you took was somehow the right one.

I Am Not A Farmer (Part I)

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After creating two posts a week since the inception of this blog, I’ve written nothing for the last three. Zero. Nada. Zilch. I’ve been on vacation mode, and I can’t bring myself to do anything that doesn’t involve self-tanning, a cocktail, and my DVR.

For the Type A, sometimes over-achieving, often napping Gemini that I am, this form of being is both thrilling and mortifying, but mostly mortifying since it’s 2:23 a.m. and I’m in a pseudo-manic state when I should be asleep.

Self Portrait taken April 18, 2012 at 2:45 a.m. Image via insanity.

How bloggers like Sweet Mother and A Clown On Fire manage to post brilliant material every day is beyond me. I think they might be bionic, but don’t tell them I said so or they’ll flex their witty, razor-sharp biceps even more often than now, forcing me onto the floor and into Jane Fonda donkey kick mode in a lame attempt to keep up.

Image via filmbug.com

When it comes to blogging, I’ve been in a bit of a stupor lately. Call it writer’s block, spring fever, or general disdain, but anything I’ve considered producing comes out in a blah, blah, blekity blah kind of way in my head. So instead of turning the bleck into something anyone might care to read, I rub on some Jergens Revitalizing Glow Daily Moisturizer, mix a fairly strong Maker’s Mark and ginger ale, flip through back episodes of Jersey Shore, and cry.

Image via nydailynews.com

But all of this, and by this I mean the writing void I’ve existed in for the past few weeks, is about to change because tomorrow I’m headed to The Farm. No, not that farm where they siphon off every last peso you’ve ever earned, commandeer all sharp objects including your mind, and pad you up in a nice white suit for your stay.

I’m gonna visit my seventy year-old dad’s fancy, new, working farm (sort of, whatever that means) in Varnville, SC…population 2,032.

The great thing about this trip is that I’m not a farmer. Not even close. Neither is my dad, which makes the whole thing doubly exciting.

That's not me. Image via wikipedia.com

Even better? I’m going sans-kids, although anyone who has children understands that it’s taken me approximately seventeen days to set up a three-day trip. Yes, I’ve invested 408 hours to get away for 72, which is voodoo math, but after a few drinks, who’s really counting? I’ve set up carpools, babysitters, video surveillance cameras and booby traps to ensure that my offspring get safely from Point A to Point B while I’m gone and don’t kill each other in the process, or eat too many leftover peeps from Easter and orbit the house in Matrix-like fight mode as they…kill each other in the process.

Dead Peeps. Image via flickr.com.

And last? There’s absolutely nothing to do. Check out Varnville on Google Earth. There isn’t anything there. Except my dad’s farm. And a pack of wild dogs. And some dude in a squirrel hat riding up and down the wrong side of the road on an electric scooter. O.K. I made those last two things up, but still.

So I’m going to Varnville to tap my creativity again and get out from under the spell of this evil-brain-witch-slacker-zombie who’s taken over my body. Because I miss writing. And I miss you. And I would like to be asleep right now. So maybe we can all join hands and sing Kumbaya together. Or not. But either way I’m for sure finding that dude on the scooter and catching a ride. I don’t know where we’ll end up, but the real fun is in the journey anyway, right?

American Girl: Give Those Dolls Some Balls!

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Let me start by inserting a spoiler alert. I’m no big fan of the multi-zillion dollar American Girl (AG) franchise.

“Why?” you ask, as you throw down exactly $173.00 plus shipping for a doll that looks like the tattletale who rats everyone out at school, forgettable plaid dress, pair of patent pleather saddle shoes, and an overpriced miniature Goldendoodle you can pick up at Target for $4.99?

Molly McIntire is sad yet cute.

Molly McIntire needs to tell her mom to stop shopping in the school uniform department. Image via Wikipedia.

That’s why. Well, that and a lack of compelling role models for my daughters.

My seven and nine year-old girls feel differently, however, thanks in no small part to the monthly catalogues that arrive in the mail with more regularity than my period. So in an effort to better understand their fascination, I conducted a non-scientific study of the American Girl world. Curious to see if I could find a doll to fit either of their dispositions, I trolled the website for hours in an attempt to identify a match (not the Bitty Babies though…those things freak me out).

This bitty baby is creepy. Image via strollerfreak.itgo.com

To be fair, I can see why my daughters, along with millions of other girls across the country, are attracted to American Girl dolls. They perfectly fit the profile of what our conventional “girl next door” culture defines as attractive, and are pretty and bright-eyed, with flawless skin and thick, glossy hair. The original dolls each tell a personal story, and their narrative is filled with positive traits including honesty, kindness, creativity, and optimism.

These are great qualities, but in the modern-day world my daughters are learning to maneuver, they aren’t enough.

AG’s first line of dolls is based on historical periods, and each comes with a background story attached. Take Addy Walker, a doll who’s “escaping slavery to find her father and brother.” I’m all for acknowledging the past, but slavery?  Couldn’t the executives at Mattel have come up with something a little more inspirational for a ten year-old African American, or any young girl for that matter, to embrace other than one of the most oppressive facets of American History? What about a doll made in the spirit of Rosa Parks or a mini-Coretta Scott King?

In the same vein, historical character Josefina is “from her family’s New Mexican rancho.” With a serape over her shoulders and a cross hanging from her neck, is she getting ready to make tortillas to stuff into a piñata for a neighborhood fiesta? Josefina looks like she just stepped off an Old El Paso taco dinner kit, and with similar profiles built on stereotypes, these dolls simply don’t inspire in a world where I expect my daughters to push beyond the boundaries that two-dimensional labels create.

Yo quiero Taco Bell. Image via inmamariquita.galeon.com.

In addition to these offerings, American Girl pitches a more modern doll, cleverly allowing ‘tweens to choose their likeness in skin tone, eye color, and hair (well, sort of…the more “ethnic” options don’t exactly slice in tandem with our nation’s current demographic pie). Because each mini-me comes clothed in a forgettable pair of lavender pants and shirt, your style-savvy daughter is sure to sprint directly to the overpriced unsale rack as soon as she’s created her doll.

And here’s where I have another problem.

While there’s nothing implicitly wrong with cheerleaders and ski bunnies, that’s not how my girls roll. Where’s the snow boarder shredding it down the mountain? The hockey center who just scored a goal? How about a surfer struggling to catch a massive wave?

A lacrosse player and skate boarder move the gender-biased dolls in the right direction, but why not push a decades-old envelope a little and add hip-hop to compliment ballet, and a girl who races a motorcycle instead of a horse?

In other words, give those dolls some balls!

Original drawing by Danny Manion

Avery Williams is a ten year-old AP student who lives in the city and loves photography, snowboarding, and hanging out with friends. She’s an amazing woman-in-the-making, and deserves a doll with balls.

Moms like me (and there are a lot of us) are raising daughters who focus not on what it means to be an “American Girl,” but something with much more depth. We’re working from a global platform as we teach them to be open-minded, multi-cultural, fearless, unbiased, and strong. It’s our hope that they’ll push beyond the superficial borders of pretty and perfect on a fast track toward fierce and outspoken. They may be biracial, adopted, or from fractured families, and they’re all learning to handle life’s ups and downs.

Our daughters are the world’s future leaders, innovators, and pioneers because we’re helping them challenge stereotypes and redefine the meaning of status quo. They are thoughtful, intelligent, risk-takers who aren’t afraid to ask questions, speak their minds, and take a stand.

As mothers, we long to lock eyes with that confident little girl in your line-up of dolls who will grow up to be a scientist, Pulitzer Prize winning author, or President of the United States…a role model whose inspiration reaches well beyond clichés, matching outfits and perfect hair.

But for me, she doesn’t exist.

So, until American Girl offers a reasonably priced, balls-up doll for my girls to cherish, I’ll take my $173.00 plus tax somewhere else. Now if I could just get the grandparents to back their quest to buy plane tickets for a holiday brunch and trunk show at the flagship store in Chicago, everything will be O.K.

Danny Manion is my friend Carrie’s super-talented eighteen year-old son. He’s on his way to Academy of Art in San Francisco next fall. If you’d like to see more of his work, go to http://zerewin.tumblr.com.

 


Twenty-Oneish Questions With YA Superstar Author, Sarah Ockler

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I’m beyond excited and honored to interview YA writer extraordinaire and all-around incredible person, Sarah Ockler, for my post today. Sarah is the author of Twenty Boy Summer, Fixing Delilah, and most recently, Bittersweet, and on top of being a talented and successful novelist, she’s really, really nice. So if you’re an aspiring writer, you’re not allowed to hate her for picking up an über-agent immediately after finishing her first novel, selling it within weeks, and polishing novel number four as this blog posts. She’s the living, breathing, hormone-channeling, textbook case of how to do everything right in young adult fiction, plus she’ll actually answer any non-creepy questions you ask below!

Speaking of questions, the great thing about pretending to be an interviewer is that I can ask the most ridiculous ones imaginable and pass them off as real. Technically, they don’t even have to make sense, so that’s pretty fun. The amazing thing about being Sarah Ockler, YALSA Teens’ Top Teen Nominee, Girls’ Life Top 100 Must Reads pick, and a New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association Book Award nominee, is that she’s Sarah Ockler. Plus she has the option of ignoring all of my stupid questions and chatting via Skype with impressively famous literary people instead. Or watching Toddlers and Tiaras. The choice is hers, which in my world is the definition of P-O-W-E-R.

Anyway, the fantastic thing about following my blog is that I’m only on the hook for twenty questions, and you get the chance to ask number twenty-one in the comments section. Not only will Sarah pick her favorite and answer it, she’ll sign a copy of Bittersweet and send it to you for being so smart, creative, witty, reflective, or weird.

So here goes.

SC: In Bittersweet, you open each chapter with irresistible, carb-loaded descriptions of super-yummy cupcakes. Women my age like to smell cupcakes, but not necessarily eat them. Unless we’re stalking them in a serious battle with PMS, and then we inhale them by the baker’s dozen, but only in the dark. Did you ever consider using another hook, like organic vegetables, to better connect with the fortyish, lactose-free, lululemon, YA mom market?

SO: Of course! But my buttercream-frosted beets were kind of a bust. The chocolate cherry Brussels sprouts faired only slightly better, but carrot cake aside, organic veggie desserts garnered meh reviews across the cutting board.

Confession: I had to Google lululemon. But I did not have to Google cupcake or carb-loaded. Draw your own conclusions!

SC: Speaking of baking, what non-writing activities, like music, inspire your writing? The entirety of Muse would be waiting tables at an overpriced restaurant in Brentwood and running from OJ Simpson right now if it wasn’t for Stephanie Meyer, so I’m just curious.

SO: Crying. Really. Tragedy is the best muse. Sometimes I listen to Pandora in search of music to help me reconnect with my inner emo. I also like to go outside. But it’s harder to get your emo on when you’re panting for oxygen on a high-altitude hike, so, you know, it’s all about balance.

By the way, I love Muse. But not so much for writing.

SC: Now that we’re on the topic of L.A., as a YA insider, you’re connected to agents, publishers, and Hollywood Royalty in ways that people like me can only dream of, and often do. Do you have any super-secret tips on querying that you’ve never shared before and are guaranteed to get my book published?

SO: People are always looking for the magic bullet here, but really, it’s not a one-stop shopping kind of deal. Most people aren’t willing to put in the work. It’s really a combination of strategies, including but not limited to:

  • Letting them know how much your mother and Aunt Bea adored your book, and how they’ve already signed up to buy at least 25 copies for their bridge club.
  • Reminding them that you’re the next Suzanne Collins, J.K. Rowling, or Stephenie Meyer, and that if they pass up on this once in a lifetime opportunity to represent you, they’ll be sorry when those big bucks start rolling in.
  • Enclosing chocolates, wine, gift cards, and other bribes.
  • Enclosing nude photos of yourself*
  • See also **

* This is the tricky one, because people’s tastes in nude photos are sooooo subjective! Seriously. One agent’s Lindsay Lohan is another’s Anthony Weiner. Do you really want to take that chance?

** Okay, in all seriousness, don’t do any of those things. There is actually a magic bullet, and here it is: write a kickass book. Query agents who represent your genre and subject matter. Don’t give up. That’s all there is to it! Much easier than posing for those tricky photos! ;-)

SC: Another important question since you’re so in the loop. Any chance of resurrecting Friday Night Lights for a sixth season? Either way, is it totally inappropriate for me to be crushing on Taylor Kitsch? If so, do I need to see a therapist? I realize these last questions may qualify as more “personal” than “interview-oriented,” but I’m new at this, so please don’t judge me.

SO: As someone who owns a pink Dillon Panthers t-shirt, and as someone who just dropped a few Tim Riggins references in her latest manuscript, and as someone who refused to see the John Carter movie because I never want my image of Tim Riggins to stray from that last moment in Friday Night Lights… I forgot the question. Oh! What I meant to say was, I really am not qualified to answer this question. Texas Forever, Stacie. Texas Forever.

Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose.

SC: Since your first novel, you’ve maintained the amazing pace of producing a book a year. How do you do this? Do you have poor personal hygiene? I ask because I haven’t even finished the first draft of my first novel, and sometimes pick at the dirt that’s now shellacked under my fingernails and just cry.

SO: Stacie, I do have separate “sleeping pajamas” and “working pajamas,” for your information. And really, how many showers does a person need in a year? You say poor personal hygiene, I say… an eco-friendly personal care policy.

I won’t sugar coat it—the pace is insane, and sometimes I do wish I had a bit more time between deadlines. But I’ve been writing full time for about four years now, and I’ve gotten much better at discipline. Writing every day (even if it’s just for a few minutes), outlining first, cutting down on television time—all of that helps. When writing is how you pay your bills, it becomes both an art and a business. If I don’t find ways to stay on track, I can’t afford cupcakes. It’s really that simple. 

SC: Now that we’re on the subject of pain, what’s the biggest obstacle you had to overcome in getting your first novel finished, I mean, did you have to fight real zombies or anything?

SO: I did, actually! Corporate zombies! That was my biggest challenge—spending all day in gray, windowless cubicleland, desperately trying to protect my creative soul from utter annihilation. Committee meetings, Blackberries, the office cafeteria, the shared refrigerator, team building activities, gah! It was all I could do not to fwump on the couch in a pile of boneless nothing when I got home at night. But still, I knew I wanted to write, and I had to find a way. Once I got through it, the opportunities opened up like paths lit by the angels. And by angels I mean the company that acquired mine and laid me off two months after I sold my first novel. Sweet, sweet serendipity!

Sarah's Former House of Pain

SC: How do you deal with writer’s block? You know, that feeling that no matter what you write it will suck and that you are doomed to live in the stifling confines of Suckville dressed in a sucky, white, linen clown suit that’s impossible to iron for the rest of your life?

SO: Writer’s block is not the same thing as that feeling about sucking and clown suit-wearing. I deal with writer’s block by working on other stuff—free writes, blog posts, journal entries, anything to keep those words flowing on the page, even if they’re not part of my current manuscript.

The sucking feeling, on the other hand? That actually doesn’t go away. You just learn to live with it, to accept it as part of the package that comes with putting your work out there for public consumption and review. Even the most traditionally successful authors (what we’d consider traditionally successful—big book sales, making the bestseller lists, movie deals, rabid fan base, “Team whatever” t-shirts, SNL skits based on the characters) struggle with that fear, that little voice inside that tells us we’re frauds, that this is all just temporary success, that eventually everyone will figure out how much we suck. That feeling can be crippling, and it can derail an otherwise promising writing career before it even gets of the ground. It’s still with me, but now I just try to see it, accept it, and move on without giving it too much attention. Like, yeah, I see you, you useless little imp. Why don’t you just go on over there in the corner and play with your little Sauron action figure and leave me the hell alone!

SC: Speaking of clowns, how do you feel about mimes? Have you ever considered using a mime as a protagonist? Do you miss the era of silent film?

SO: I’m ambivalent on mimes. I think it’s the suspenders. I don’t know, I always picture mimes with suspenders, and that reminds me of these Mork and Mindy rainbow suspenders I had as a kid, and that reminds me of all the ways in which my mother let me mortify myself during the awkward middle school years, like when she let me Sun-In my hair without supervision and it turned orange, and that reminds me why I know have to write YA to deal with my own traumatic adolescence, and… can you pass the gin? Wait, what was the question?

SC: Are you comfortable in your role as teen (and fortyish, lactose-free, lululemon, YA mom) romance Goddess, or do you see yourself branching out? If so, where do you want to go (another BOGO question!)?

SO: YA Forever, Stacie. YA Forever.

SC: As an avid Sarah Ockler reader and carnivore of all three (soon to be four!) of your novels, I would like to paraphrase your definition of true love. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not….wait a second. That’s the bible reading my dad recited at my wedding. Let me try again. Love is a slow burn. It’s something that teases and taunts and tests and tantalizes all the while growing, often against incredible odds, to become the most intensely gorgeous feeling in the ROYGBIV range of emotions.  Right? Do I so get you? Can we be BFFs?

SO: Wait… are we talking about Tim Riggins again?

SC: Have you personally felt the beautifully portrayed Sarah Ockler definition of love, and if so, how does it manifest itself in your work? In other words, who is your muse (ignore this question if, like Stephanie Meyer, your muse is Muse)?

SO: You’ll have to read the book(s) to find out. No, seriously. The acknowledgements say it all! ;-)

SC: You’ve alluded to the difference between writing as a hobby with no external expectations and writing as a profession with very clear expectations from your publisher and agent. Can you expand on the differences? Do you ever feel like George Foreman now that you have deadlines?

SO: I just spent seven minutes trying to figure out the George Foreman reference. I mean, I don’t have kids, I don’t eat meat, I’ve never been TKOd, so… is it because I’m an adorably bald black man? Wait, that’s not it either. Stacie, this question is hard!

The difference is that once you sell your novel to a traditional publisher (and eventually, to bookstores and libraries, and then ultimately to readers), your “art” becomes a “commodity.” It’s still your story, but you give up certain creative control, like the packaging (title, cover, jacket copy) and how it’s marketed and positioned. Then, once you start getting reviewed, your baby gets kicked around by total strangers, and that’s harder to deal with than when you’re meeting with your friendly (and hopefully supportive) critique group. There’s a lot of pressure to be “on” and “out there,” particularly with social media.

And I still don’t get the Foreman thing, but yeah, you’ve got deadlines to meet, and you don’t have the luxury of letting ideas marinate between revisions. You can’t just sit around and wait for inspiration anymore. You have to stalk it and hunt it down and stake it to a tree, and then you have to skin it and gut it and make something out of the bones. Not a cupcake or anything. A story.

And I’m a vegetarian, so that’s saying a lot.

But it’s still writing. It’s still telling stories. And I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

SC: Thank you, Sarah Ockler, for agreeing to answer my take on twenty questions. I have every expectation that the twenty-first will be much tighter, with proper pacing, amazing tension, and an immediate hook, and I’ll be out of a job. But that’s O.K., Toddlers and Tiaras comes on in about twenty minutes, and even though I should take a shower, I have a little time to spare.

SO: But… I want my ni-ni!

Bittersweet features hockey boys.

If you’re in Denver, Sarah will be signing and reading from her latest novel, Bittersweet, on Monday, April 2 at the Castle Pines library, at 6:00 p.m. Rumor has it that super-yummy cupcakes will be served.

You can find more great information about Sarah Ockler on her blog www.sarahockler.com, including some amazing, witty writing advice from posts such as Just Make the Bed: Overcoming the Problem of Writers’ Resolutions and How To Query Lit Agents: 6 Overlooked Steps.