Friday, January 23, 2015

A business revived; a passion reignited

Life was crazy when we made the decision to move from a Cincinnati suburb to rural and mountainous North Central Pennsylvania.
It got even crazier after we moved.
The older kids were nine and ten, and starting a new school for the first time.
We did our best to make it extra challenging.
We live in Pennsylvania, but we placed them in a neighboring New York State district. We pulled them away from the Museums Center, The Cincinnati Zoo, Kings Island and Newport on the Levee, relocating them to a place where the nearest mall was fifty miles away.
Then we gave them tiny rooms in a house with bats, a furnace that struggled and no air conditioning.
They needed me.
The twins were less bothered by such aspects of the move.
They loved the house, their rooms and the neighbors.
But they were three and, as adorable as they were, they were trouble.
They darted outside and in different directions whenever they got the chance. They used their fists, teeth and feet to relieve their frustrations with each other. They were impossible to discipline, yanking each other out of time-outs, tipping over high chairs when I tried confining them with the chair's buckles, and screaming in unison when they didn't get their way.
They were (and are) loving and good-natured, but they had caught the independence bug and they were on the move.
Constantly.
I'd left all my babysitters behind, so there was no one to take charge of the kids while I slipped away to Panera or Starbucks or a charming cafe to work on the next novel. In reality, there was no place to go anyway, no place with wifi, coffee and a corner table.
Only a deli that closed as night fell.
My husband did his best to help, but he was frequently on the road for work.
Something had to give.
That something was my online retail business, Exclusive Writer Gifts.
Financially, it was a minor blow, not even a scratch, really.
The business didn't net much, probably because I didn't advertise much. It was something I started, with my husband's help and encouragement, out of love and kept fueling out of love. It helped me keep a foot in the grown-up world, and it distracted me from the sometimes-depressing realities of my quest for traditional publication.
Money was not the object (though it was, most definitely, appreciated).
But there was no room in the house anyway for the note cards designed by my sister-in-law and printed by my brother-in-law, or the mugs and pens I had made especially for the business by Cincinnati businesses, or the scale or boxes or biodegradable packing peanuts.
We packed it all away and trucked it to the storage unit and my mother-in-law's barn, where we kept our overflow.
In time, the older kids adjusted and flourished, declaring they never wanted to go back, except maybe for a visit. They learned to appreciate their surroundings and their small-school atmosphere. They started to feel at ease in my husband's hometown, where, they learned, they are related to more people than they can count.
Every year, the twins became easier and easier to handle. They started to grasp consequences and they became eager to please, an excellent combination. They also started school, which gave me more time for my writing.
But last year was the big year.
Last year, we realized a dream.
We built what will be our final house, a timber-frame hybrid with air conditioning, a new furnace and no bats. All the kids' rooms are the same size: big enough. My husband and I each have an office and, we even have room for guests.
We no longer needed a storage unit or space in the barn, so we started moving the boxes we hadn't opened in nearly five years.
Just before Christmas, my husband lugged a case of coffee mugs inside.
Then he brought the boxes and the note cards and the envelopes.
We dug more until we found the scale and everything else I had packed away, all the remnants of Exclusive Writer Gifts, and that was when it hit me. The craziness had evolved into calm. We had plenty of room in the house.
I could bring the business back to life.
So I did (Well, WE did. I couldn't have done it without my techie husband who designs websites for fun, keeps inventory on Excel sheets, and creates templates for shipping labels, receipts and all sorts of other things.).
Exclusive Writer Gifts is reborn, and so is my enthusiasm.
My goal is to offer moderately priced gifts for writers that givers can't get anywhere else, gifts writers can actually use and enjoy. I've started with a small inventory, but I plan to add another item or two each year.
I still won't earn much.
Writers don't earn much and, often, neither do the people who love them (many of whom happen to be writers themselves).
But that doesn't worry me.
I have two novels under submission with publishers, another novel under review by my agent and a fourth entered into a contest. This writing and publishing thing is a game of patience, and sometimes we writers need a distraction beyond the next novel.
This, for me, is it.
I'm distracted, I'm excited and I'm having fun.


Friday, September 26, 2014

Earn the Pink: A Breast Cancer Awareness Month Challenge

I find myself dreading October 1, the day the world turns pink.
The month-long campaign for breast cancer research and education is an astounding success in terms of raising awareness and money. That I will admit. But it has become an event. A celebration. Pink, pink pink.
Everywhere I look, I see pink.
It’s hard to witness when my sister is on her third battle with breast cancer, which has now invaded most every part of body. Cancer will be her constant companion. She will spend the rest of her life beating it back whenever it threatens to establish primary residency.
I cringe at the constant reminders.
I wish I could turn off the lights for just one month so I wouldn’t have to see it.
 The pink.
But I can’t do that. I have to experience this month, regardless.
So I started thinking about what I can do to ease the stress, what all of us can do.
How about this?
Instead of posting ribbons to our Facebook profiles, crying over survivor stories and wearing pink t-shirts, sneakers and hats, why don’t we do something about it? Do something to help save ourselves, our relatives and our friends?
Why don’t we each make a positive change and become an example?
It doesn’t have to be a huge change. It can be as small as doing a few crunches in the morning to tighten those abs, or switching out a morning bagel for a bowl of oatmeal, or promising to start each day with one positive thought.
It’s that easy.
Those are the little things that can make a big difference. They can make us healthier – less likely to become victims, and stronger in battle should it break through our defenses. These are changes we can talk about with others, encouraging them to follow our leads.
Post it on Facebook, chat about it in the office, tweet it.
We don’t know what caused my sister’s cancer.
She’s always taken good care of herself. I suspect environment played a role. She lives in Southern Jersey in an area where cancer rates are unusually high. But even as she holds her head to stop the pounding, or clenches her stomach to ease the nausea, she’s trying harder. She’s working to improve her way of living – her diet, her attitude and her fitness.
She is fighting with everything she can.
So go ahead and cheer her on with pink flags, pom-poms and ribbons.
We all want to know someone is thinking of us, and I’m certain that helps.
But jump in and fight, too. Prepare for battle and arm yourselves well. Don’t let breast cancer have it easy. Wear the pink glow that comes with a brisk walk, or after a good night’s sleep or when you look in the mirror and tell yourself life is good.
Make pink the color of your battle uniform, not just your d├ęcor.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Bye-bye Kindle Fire; Hello Kindle Paperlight: In search of a mentally healthier diet

I thought I was done with e-books, that for me, they were a passing fad.
My Kindle Fire often lost its charge due to lack of use. I found myself attracted to it only when I had writer's block and, even then, I ignored the books I'd bought, seeking something more mindless. I played Angry Birds, determined to get three stars on each level.
Then, one day, one of our seven-year-olds burst into tears. His refurbished Kindle Fire has lost its ability to take a charge. He'd been playing Minecraft with his twin. I let him use mine, figuring I didn't really need it.
And that got me thinking.
My sweet husband had bought me a Kindle nearly seven years ago, soon after they were first introduced. He wanted me to have something I could throw in my diaper bag and take anywhere when the twins were babies. I was starving for mental stimulation at the time. I devoured book after book.
The end came when he replaced my simple reader with a Kindle Fire.
Suddenly, I had all kinds of distractions at my fingertips. Yes, I could read, but I could also play games, check my email and surf the Web. Each time I picked it up, I had to make a decision and, when my brain was exhausted from writing, I chose mental junk food.
I chose Angry Birds.
I fully returned to physical books for reading, but I read only when I consciously made the time, when I knew it was safe to pull myself out of reality and let my mind drift in another universe. With four children and a traveling husband, I found it harder and harder to give myself permission. I read less and less.
My Kindle Fire, I realized, had become a bad habit, much like the handfuls of semi-sweet chocolate chip morsels I would grab from the pantry when I was tired. Angry Birds was junk food for my mind, the temporary boost that left me mentally malnourished.
What would happen, I thought, if I eliminated the temptation?
I took the plunge.
Without allowing myself time to think, I gave my Kindle Fire to my son and ordered the Kindle Paperlight, a lightweight version of the device that does nothing but allow owners to read. With it, I ordered a cover that turns the Kindle on instantly when it is opened.
From the moment I first held it in my hands, I was in love.
This devices calls me. With nothing else to do, it begs for an unread book, forcing me to buy a new one when the last one is complete. I can't help but to comply. It reloads in an instant, and then sits there within reach, begging me to read that book, the only thing it has to offer, even as I sit at my laptop and write.
It's a trick of the mind.
I know that.
But it's gotten me reading again.
I'm floored by the time I wasted on other distractions. With the new Kindle, I worry less that I will become too immersed to read just a few pages at a time because it saves my place when I close the cover and reopens to the very same spot, shouting, "Read me! You have no choice!"
No finding my place when a bookmark slips out. No finding a bookmark when I want to stop. No waiting until bedtime to read because I don't want to be bothered. And, most important, no "home" button that offers a plethora of other choices.
Simple.
I've read three full novels since I received it two weeks ago and I'm also reading a physical book that I keep on my treadmill. The balance between physical books and e-books is back as is the joy of escape.
Perhaps my battle with chocolate chip morsels inspired me. That habit was born with the twins, a product of exhaustion. A few weeks before I ordered the new Kindle, my sister Kathy persuaded me to add two ounces daily of eighty-six percent cocoa bars to help prevent cancer (She is on her third battle and determined to beat it.).
After just a week of healthier chocolate, I realized I hadn't touched the morsels. The craving was gone. I ran out of dark chocolate two weeks ago, forgetting to replace it, but I still have no craving. Nor do I have a craving for Angry Birds.
I have a healthier body and a healthier mind.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Why I will not participate in the Ice Bucket Challenge

It's innocent, right?
This whole Ice Bucket Challenge thing?
The Ice Bucket Challenge is all the rage right now on social media. It's raised more than $70 million for the ALS Association in the past year, and the effort, which started with a couple of well-meaning average folks, has all kinds of celebrities and politicians posting videos of their sopped and freezing heads.
The level of awareness it has created for the disease is phenomenal. Just about everybody knows what ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) is right now, and lots of people are feeling good about the contributions they've made toward finding a cure.
That's a positive thing.
A very positive thing.
But there is a dark side to the Ice Bucket Challenge that few people seem willing to acknowledge.
It's yet another form of cyber-bullying, a tactic I can't condone, not even for a good cause.
For those who are unfamiliar with the challenge, here's how it works:
You become involved when someone who has completed the challenge tags you on a social media venue like Facebook. Your name is now out there for everyone to see -- all of your Facebook friends and all of your friend's friends.
The expectation is set.
Now you must perform.
The least expensive option is to pour a bucket of ice water over your head and post the video for all your Facebook friends to see. Then you donate a small amount of money to the ALS Association and tag some of your other friends, challenging them to do the same.
The other option is to forgo the chilly water and simply donate a larger amount of money -- usually about $100. That option gives those who are camera shy, suffer social anxiety or who just don't want to pour buckets of ice water over their heads a way out.
All good, right?
But what if -- for whatever reason -- you decide to ignore the challenge?
What kind of person are you then in the eyes of your social media friends?
Your excuse is irrelevant.
If you suffer a level of anxiety that prevents you from posting a video, you have some kind of water phobia and/or you're too broke to make the larger donation, you're not likely to explain that situation to the entire virtual world.
If you get on Facebook and announce that you donate to a zillion other charities or that you have donated plenty to the ALS Foundation in the past and decline to give more at the moment, who is really going to care? You're simply boasting, making excuses.
No matter your reason, you're still a jerk for not accepting the challenge.
That's where the bullying comes in.
The challenge is designed to embarrass or shame those who refuse.
We can shake our heads and deny it, pretend that it's all is fun, that no one is hurt.
But I know that's not true.
I know that because I've had those discussions (in person) with those who have been hurt, people who have good reasons for not participating, but do not feel comfortable publicizing those reasons.
They feel bullied.
They feel stuck.
They feel embarrassed.
They feel ashamed.
The money and the awareness raised for ASL research is a good thing.
But I cannot condone the method.
It is for this reason that I will not accept the challenge if I am tagged nor will I indicate whether I donate or plan to donate to the foundation. The Ice Bucket Challenge has had a good run, but it's time it dried up because bullying is bullying even if it's for a good cause.