Friday, December 23, 2011

One kind deed after another. Yes, it's a sappy holiday post

I was bumming.
Big time.
The memorial ornament I had ordered for my aunt had finally arrived late last week, too late for me to make the hour’s drive to the mall to have it engraved. I would have to wait until Monday and then mail it Tuesday, risking that it would arrive after the holiday.
Then I remembered the local contractor who does engraving on the side.
I called him that evening and left a message, telling him how important this was to me.
I held out little hope.
Why should he care? He didn’t know me and it was almost Christmas. Most everyone is overwhelmed during the Christmas season and this guy had a contracting business to worry about as well.
So I was thrilled when he returned the call at 7 a.m. the next day, telling me to leave it in his drop box as soon as possible.
And I was stunned when the ornament was finished by 2 p.m.
But that's how this holiday season has gone.
It's been amazing really.
In this time of high unemployment, nationwide protests and political childishness and I would expect ... well ... depression. I would expect people to be less kind than usual, more bitter, less generous with their time, energy and good will.
Yet I look at my Facebook page and see links to articles about someone who paid off gifts people put on layaway. A friend posted that someone ahead of her in a drive-thru paid for her meal. She was so tickled that she planned to do the same for someone else.
Her story inspired others to follow suit.
The holiday basket drive in my kids' school raised so much money this year they were able to buy staples to fill voids in recipients' pantries. A woman ahead of me at the Post Office gave another woman the extra change she needed for postage, saving her a trip to her car.
It's just been one kind deed after another.
I first became aware of it -- really aware -- when I left a toy for my son on the bottom rack of my cart in the parking lot at Target. I didn’t remember until the next day when I was sorting gifts. I didn’t dare even dream I’d ever get it back.
Someone could easily have swiped it.
Even if it had been found, what were the chances Target employees would have held onto it for me? Why bother? It would have been easier to put it back on the shelf. Besides, I couldn't find the receipt. I wouldn't be able to prove anything without the receipt.
I called anyway.
It was waiting for me at customer service.
No hassles.
No suspicions.
Just smiles and holiday wishes.
A few days later, I finally came up with a decent gift idea for my father.
I'd been struggling for a while.
He is in a nursing home down south in the late stages of MS. His memory is failing him, especially his short-term memory. He loves literature, but novels are not easy for him these days because he can't remember what he read the day before, or even minutes before.
The editor of Short Story America had sent an email. He offered a reduced rate and free shipping to me and all other writers whose stories were part of the debut anthology. I replied, telling him I would like to get one for my father as a Christmas gift.
They are my father's kind of short stories, my kind.
The good, old traditional kind.
They are short enough that he might be able to get from beginning to end in one session, I explained.
The editor, Tim Johnson, wrote back quickly.
He told me he would mail the anthology out immediately to ensure it arrived before Christmas if I would just send him the address. He knew I was good for the money, he said.
Tim has a family -- a wife and twin girls. He was leaving soon to spend Christmas with even more family. He had other things to think about. Yet he took the time to do this favor for me, someone he knows only through a phone call, Facebook and a story.
It's affected me, all this good cheer.
I find myself leaving the packaging tape at the Post Office for others to use, being more gracious to other shoppers and drivers who seem to be in a hurry, dropping bills instead of coins into tip containers and charity boxes.
I'm itching to pay for a drive-thru meal, but there aren't many opportunities in the middle of Amish country.
It's not enough.
I know that.
I have not repaid the kindnesses that others have shown me this Christmas, not yet.
These kindnesses, this unexpected generosity, have helped me to put my writing aside, even my running aside, and most definitely my aspirations of a clean house aside as we prepare to celebrate this day of giving and sharing and loving.
This day of hope.
It has helped me to concentrate on what is important this season -- people.
The rest can wait.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Leslie Hoffman: Hollywood stuntwoman turned activist

Leslie Hoffman
When I was a kid growing up in the small Adirondack village of Saranac Lake, I was enthralled by the story of Leslie Hoffman. The fact that her parents owned the local pharmacy already gave her elevated status in town, but she’d made it big.
Really big in my eyes.
Leslie was a Hollywood stuntwoman.
I first heard of her fame at about 11 years old when I was watching Charlie’s Angels, a favorite television series of my childhood. My oldest brother David commented that Leslie had done stunts for the series and the fascination began.
A year or two later, Leslie took a 78-foot leap off the Love Boat. Then she appeared in M*A*S*H, Fantasy Island, Remington Steele, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and dozens upon dozens of other movies and television shows, sparing other actors from the dangers involved in successfully suspending disbelief.
The latter part of her career was spent coordinating stunts in movies and television, including the Star Trek New Voyages series.
She was the first stuntwoman elected to the Board of Directors of Screen Actors Guild, the country's largest entertainment union. She was also the first woman in her line of work elected to the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists Los Angeles Local Board and AFTRA National Boards in the 1980s.
I had imagined her life and her future as one full of red carpets, celebrity dinners and hand prints impressed in famous sidewalks.
Not so.
Leslie's stint with SAG didn't go well.
She advocated for all kinds of members -- women, people of color, children -- and, she says, some colleagues didn't like that. Leslie says she became the victim of vicious rumors and bullying tactics in which SAG and certain stuntmen tried to have her removed from the board and blacklisted her from working stunt jobs. The blacklisting hit her hard, making it impossible for Leslie to find work in Hollywood.
She paid a price for her advocacy and, later, she paid a price for all those stunts.
Leslie suffers from post-concussion syndrome -- the result of a career full of hits, bashes and bangs to her head -- along with chronic back pain. The syndrome resulted in depression and other mental health issues and led to a devastating breakdown in 2003.
The federal government awarded her Social Security Disability Insurance in 2004, and included the previous two years. SAG gave Leslie her pension retroactive to 2002. But when she applied for its Disability Health Plan, a well-hidden clause in the Producer-SAG Health Pamphlet that stipulates that SAG members who suffer a career-ending injuries while working on the set are entitled to health benefits, she was denied.
Despite the federal ruling, the SAG board denied her again during a 2010 appeal, this time saying her injuries didn't happen on the sets. In the meantime, she has been paying for her own health, prescriptions and dental insurance, which we all know costs a bundle these days.
But that wasn't enough to bring Leslie down.
With so many troubles of her own, Leslie still found the energy to fight for others in similar situations, helping them win the benefits and reimbursements she has been denied. She also complained to the U.S. Department of Labor, claiming that SAG has a 30-year history of bullying and blacklisting for financial gain.
Leslie says she received word last week that the Department of Labor will take her complaints to the next level of investigation.
Her claims are not far-fetched. The Labor Department has been investigating allegations of embezzlement by SAG administrators for months, including charges that the CEO of the Producers Health and Pension Plan embezzled funds.
It has been a rough road for Leslie. She will never fully recover from her injuries and it pains her to see that stunt persons still perform without, in her opinion, the appropriate safety precautions. Her fears and her advocacy for head trauma victims have extended to other occupations, such as professional sports, and to other sufferers.
Leslie's head injuries make it difficult to communicate as fluidly as she would like. That sometimes drives away people who don't understand continuous head trauma and its permanent effects. It can be hard for her to tell her story in a way that makes sense -- hard for her to convince anyone to write about it, to get the word out and create change.
Something good has come out of this though.
For me anyway.
I am no longer a full-time journalist. My focus is fiction, so I won’t be digging into files, interviewing actors, producers, SAG members, investigators and doctors to verify the details of her story and get myself a page-one byline. I derive no financial or career benefit from getting to know Leslie or blogging about her battle.
I get something better.
Gone is my fascination for Leslie’s talent and her star-studded career.
Instead, her battle has helped me to become familiar with Leslie, the person, and the selfless advocate she has become. I am proud to know Leslie and I am sure that she has made our shared hometown even prouder.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A holiday confession

I used to apologize for it, but no more.
I AM one of those people.
I am thrilled when Christmas decorations appear in the store two weeks before Halloween, toy catalogs arrive in September, and magazines with holiday craft ideas on the cover (projects that I must admit I lack any talent for) fill the grocery store racks while we are still shopping in short-sleeved t-shirts.
Santa and his train appeared on our front lawn last night. They would have been there sooner if I could have convinced my husband and the kids to forgo Halloween.
All the kids have Christmas lights in their rooms and our twins have a miniature tree on their train table.
So don't complain to me about any of it.
I love Christmas.
I love the build-up.
I love that cozy feeling.
Bring it on.
But for God's sake, take it down when it's over!
There is a trade-off for the early infusion of Christmas spirit.
When the day is over -- we've been to Christmas service, the gifts are unwrapped, dinner has been eaten and my husband and I have had our nightcaps of calorie-packed Bailey's Irish Cream -- I am so ready to tear it all down.
I try.
I try to keep it up until New Year's, but I usually fail.
One year, the stress was too much.
My husband came home from work on Dec. 27 to find the tree in the bushes behind our house and all the ornaments packed in their boxes. The lights were coiled, the rug was vacuumed and the furniture was back in place.
It was such a relief.
So let's do this:
Let me have my pre-Halloween Christmas giddies.
In return, I will lock all our doors in hopes that I will not sleepwalk through town on Dec. 26, ripping lights off trees, tossing ornaments into boxes and stuffing the greenery into recycling bins.
I'll try if everyone else does.
Happy holidays!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Running, running, running, running, running ...

It was cool and raining.
Water seeped through my windbreaker and dripped from the rim of my hat as I ran down Main Street in our little town last night.
In the darkness, it was a bit like trail running.
I jumped around puddles that I didn't see until I was upon them, I leaped over broken chunks of sidewalk. I strained to balance as I slipped on wet leaves. While passing under a street light, I glanced at the Garmin watch my husband had lent me.
I'd run almost 3 miles and I hadn't even thought about running.
I had been lost in thought and in the challenge of keeping my footing.
I was running like I used to run more than five years ago before I became pregnant with the twins.
My body was straining, but my mind was free of it.
I had finally regained enough fitness to disconnect the physical from the mental.
I fell in love again ... with running.
I am heavier than I was in my marathoning days and I certainly won't be setting personal records in 5Ks any time soon. My pace was slow, more of a jog than a run. But I felt it again -- that release that hooked the first time back in my teenage years.
I've regained that part of me.
I am back.
I am really back.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Author Patrick Gabridge on the decision to go digital

In the old days, authors had two reasonable choices when their publishers quit printing their books and the rights reverted back to the writers.
They could hold onto the books, hoping for second printings when fame and fortune created high demand for all their previous works, or they could buy out the warehouses and line their shelves with copies they could sell on EBay or give away to new-found friends (Any family members who were too cheap to buy it in the first place, don't deserve a free copy.).
But times have changed and so have the choices.
Nowadays, anyone can publish books electronically, reaching unprecedented numbers of potential readers with no financial investment.That includes previously published authors whose books have outgrown their publishers and become homeless.

Tornado Siren
Patrick Gabridge is among those authors who decided to take advantage of the digital age. Pat's first novel, Tornado Siren, was originally released by Behler Publications in 2006.  Pat is a Boston-based playwright and novelist, who has also written screenplays and radio plays. He is married, with two kids. When he's not writing or in a theatre, he can often be found in one of his three gardens.
I recently talked to Pat, an old high school friend, about his decision to e-publish:

Tell me a bit about your novel, Tornado Siren.
Pat: Tornado Siren is about a meteorologist who studies tornadoes, who meets up with a man who claims to have an odd, mystical connection to tornadoes. According to Ben, he’s been wandering the earth for centuries, from twister to twister. As a scientist, Victoria finds his claims completely unbelievable, but she sees something that shakes her certainty. She ends up walking across Kansas with him to find out if his story is true. In the process, they fall for each other. In terms of genre, I’d label it as a paranormal love story, though it’s also partly a road trip story and disaster novel.

Under the terms of your contract, how long did Behler Publications have the rights to your book?
Pat: Five years.

When you signed the contract, had you thought about what you might do with the novel after the rights reverted back to you?
Pat: I just hoped the book would be a huge success and that the relationship would continue for years, as the book continually found more readers and sold more copies. It sold some copies over two years, but after that, like most books, it disappeared from view. I had talked to them about the possibility of Behler putting out an e-book of Tornado Siren when they first started coming out, but they weren’t interested at the time.

What made you decided to publish electronically?
Pat: I’d been reading a lot of blogs where writers were giving it a try and having some success, especially Joe Konrath. I didn’t think I’d achieve his kind of numbers, but he made some good arguments for giving it a try. Especially for a book that had been published already — so it had reviews and had been professionally edited — but had fallen out of the print. The risk seemed very low. It would take some time to format it and come up with a new cover but, otherwise, the cost was minimal.

How did you settle on an e-publishing company? What were you looking for? Was the reach of the electronic distribution a consideration?
Pat: In this case, I just went directly to the online distributors. So I uploaded a version to Amazon for the Kindle to Barnes & Noble for the Nook, and to Smashwords for everything else. They make it easy. For them, the more books out there, the better. Each one needed some slight tweaks to the manuscript formatting, but it was really pretty simple.

What are the terms? Do you get all the profit or a percentage? Did you find a lot of variety in the terms in your research?
Pat: The terms vary a bit, but not by a huge amount. For Amazon, the amount I get depends on the price of the book. On books priced between $2.99 and $9.99, the author gets 70 percent of the sales price. Above or below that, the author gets 35 percent. So basically, on $2.99 books, I get about $2. (More than 90 percent of the e-books I’ve sold have been for the Kindle, through Amazon.)

Contrast that to when the book was selling in paper for $14.99. My publisher was paying me 10 percent of the net sales price (Small publishers often pay on the net rather than cover price. Larger publishers pay on the cover price.), and I earned about an average of about $0.68 per book.

The other big plus is that authors get paid more frequently for e-books. With my print publisher, I was supposed to get a royalty statement a couple times a year. Many only pay annually. Amazon puts money directly into my bank account, every month. Smashwords and Barnes & Noble work the same way.

Can you pull Tornado Siren at any time?
Pat: Yes. Any of the sites will allow you to pull the book, or to update it. It’s a remarkably flexible system for authors. I can also experiment with price, but I haven’t tried going the $0.99 route yet.

How has the e-version of the novel fared?
Pat: I’m not about to retire on it. I will say that since it first came out in March, I’ve already earned more money from the e-book that I ever received from my print publisher. I think genre fiction has better potential to really take off as an e-book, because there are highly focused communities of readers out there. Amanda Hocking is an example of a genre writer who’s had some astounding e-book success, but she also worked really hard for it and wrote a bunch of books. I just have the one e-book right now.

I love that I’m reaching new readers every month and I can easily track how many copies I’m selling, which is good for a numbers guy like me.

What have you done for publicity?
Pat: I’ve done the basic online work. I’ve posted about it on my blog, on Facebook, on Twitter. Some of my friends blogged about me and my e-book early on. I have an e-mail list of about 600 people, so I sent out e-mails to all of them. I got more active on Good Reads. There’s a link on my e-mail signature. Lots of little things, here and there. There’s more I could do, but time is always an issue.

Has publicity cost you anything?
Pat: Not yet. It’s unclear how much paid online ads or other marketing outreach is likely to do for an e-book that’s self-published and not within a specific genre. I have pretty big doubts whether the return would be there. It’s a tricky having a book that was already published in print, too, in terms of getting reviews.

Are you happy with this decision? Please explain.
Pat: Definitely. It’s earned me a little money and found me a whole bunch of new readers, all for minimal effort and expense on my part.

If you were submitting Tornado Siren to publishers for the first time now, what would you do?
Pat: I’d still pursue traditional publishers first. They have the ability to bring a book to a much broader audience than a self-published e-book. They can land you reviews and interviews that most people can’t get on their own. I think it’d possibly be a little easier to get published now, because there’s a more established niche for paranormal romance/love stories than there was when I was taking this out initially.

I understand you have a few other novels in the works. Will this experience affect the way you seek publication for those novels?
Pat: I’m still trying to find a traditional publisher, using an agent, for both of my two new books. One is a middle-grade book, and the other is adult literary fiction. If my agent can’t sell them, I’ll probably look at smaller publishers, but I’ll also consider publishing them myself as e-books. I want my material to be read, and it’s clear that e-books are one way to help that happen.

Do you have any advice for unpublished authors trying to navigating this ever-changing publishing world?
Pat: Don’t underestimate how hard it is to find a large audience for a self-published book, whether it’s in print or an e-book. There are more books out there than ever before, and fewer people reading them. It’s fun to read stories about people like Joe Konrath or Amanda Hocking, but most people only find a few readers for their books. If you want to find a broad audience, the traditional route of agent-to-publisher still has some big advantages. Whichever way you go, you need to write a great book. If you publish it yourself, you’re going to need a good cover and also make sure it’s well-edited, by someone who knows what they’re doing (i.e., you might have to pay them).

No matter which way your book gets published, there’s a lot of work involved for the author when it comes to marketing. And even then, there’s no guarantee it’ll find a large audience.

That said, it’s amazingly cool to have a book published and have people read it and love it. I hope lots more people find their way to Tornado Siren. Without having it available as an e-book, that wouldn’t be possible.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Hunting, hunting, hunting for my ticket to artistic freedom

I was so excited to sit down at my computer when all four kids started school this fall and write.
Just write.
It's been six months since I've had regularly scheduled work hours and I had all kind of visions in my head of fully immersing myself in novel number three, taking running breaks whenever I suffered a bout of writer's block, and maybe having a clean kitchen now and then.
Almost two weeks into the school year and I have yet to write more than a blog post.
I've gone running twice.
Dishes fill the sink.
It's my own doing.
A few months ago, after the completion of my second novel, I amicably parted ways with my agent.
So now I am on my own again.
With my agent went the luxury of writing without a care.
I once again have to worry about the business of writing.
And I'm not happy about it.
The innocence that inspired me in the agent hunt the first time around is gone.
I no longer get giddy when I find an agent I want to query. I am well aware that the agent is receiving about 50 other queries on that same day and that my query might not get more than a glance, regardless of how hard I try to get that agent's attention.
I no longer get my hopes up when I get a request for a full manuscript.
It's affirming, but it's just another step in the process.
A rejection is still more likely than a contract offer.
I no longer query any old agent with a web page.
I am pickier now, seeking only agents with proven sales records in my genre and carefully researching their reputations as human beings (No refection on my previous agent. He is a wonderful guy with a great sense of humor.). I want this agent to be my last agent.
I don't ever want to go through this process again.
But I know I have to grin and bear this.
A good agent, in my opinion, is a godsend.
My fingers are itching to write, my mind is racing with plots and characters, but they will have to wait just a little bit longer.
The right agent will set me free.
Free to write.
And that freedom, I know, will be well worth it.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

No college reunions for me

My college alumni magazine arrived in the mail today with big headlines about the university's 150th birthday. The issue featured photos of a recent reunion where people who had graduated before me locked arms for photos, grinned and looked genuinely thrilled to be there.
All those years and they still feel so connected.
Why don't I?
I loved college.
I had lots of friends in college, some of whom remain my friends even now.
I was always involved on campus as student supervisor for the college catering service, an editor on the student newspaper, a participant in intramural basketball, a sound person (whatever that is) for the college television station and in various other activities.
I even double-majored.
I was part of the community as well, more so than most students. I became a year-round resident the summer after my sophomore year, working in local restaurants and taking summer courses. I interned in the local bureau for The Post-Standard in Syracuse, where I eventually landed a full-time job.
I would love to go back and visit someday, stroll around the campus, see how it's changed and soak in that atmosphere one more time. I have great memories there. I love college campuses in general and, if not for my fear that it would distract me too much from my family and my writing, I would probably be teaching on one right now.
But why don't I feel that pull toward a reunion, the pull that those people in that photo clearly felt?
It had been bothering me all day, but I think I've finally found the answer.
For most people, college is the first taste of independence. It's the first time they've ever lived away from home and that experience in itself is thrilling. Yet, they still know they can afford to make mistakes. Even if they are paying for it themselves, they can always go home again should they fail.
College becomes a place of firsts, firsts without fear.
It becomes romanticized, and that romantic feeling remains even 30 or 40 years later.
For me, college was the most financially and psychologically stressful time of my life.
For reasons I won't go into, I'd been on my own since my senior year of high school, sharing an apartment with one of my best friends. I'd been working full time as a waitress since my junior year and in part-time jobs for years before that.
I'm pretty sure I was the only person in my dorm who arrived with boxes full of baking pans, spatulas and frying pans. I didn't want independence when I got it and I didn't want it in college. I just wanted to survive and get a job, a good job that would pay plenty of money and ease my stress for good,
Of course, that didn't happen.
Those crazy people at SUNY-Oswego persuaded me to pursue my dreams, which didn't pay a heck of a lot. They convinced me to follow my heart and soul instead, and find something called real happiness.
Those people.
So I think now I understand now how it's possible to think fondly of my days at SUNY-Oswego, to treasure my friends, my experiences and my memories, but to still have no desire to attend a formal reunion. For me, everything about college was real.
Nothing is romanticized.
The faraway smiles in that photo bring back memories I would rather not drag up. They bring with it that tightness in my chest, that feeling of barely keeping my head above water, that fear of drowning in debt and stress with no one to throw me a rope. The feeling that I was somehow different from everyone else even though I was good at pretending that I was the same.
I am sure now, so many years later, that plenty of other almuni struggle with those same feelings, that I wasn't alone even though I thought I was. And I know now, with certainty, that even people who barely knew me would have thrown me a rope anyway if only I had told them I needed it.
Maybe even some of those people in that photo.
I will probably go back someday.
But I will return quietly.
Maybe on my own, maybe for a conference or another kind of celebration.
But not for a reunion.
Not me.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The long summer

It's been a long summer.
A very long summer.
With early sunrises and late sunsets, no one sleeps in our household.
And no one wants to stay home.
That means no writing at night or early in the morning, and no sneaking in a few words here and there during the day.
I can't even jot down notes at the pool or the lake because our youngest two are still swimmers-on-the-verge. Both have taken their first independent strokes. One even started swimming a little distance the other day. But at 4 years old, they still have no judgment and they certainly don't have enough endurance.
My eyes must remain focused on them even when lifeguards are present.
I know.
I could make it a priority.
I could squeeze a few words in here and there.
But we have four kids and they tire me out.
What I really want at the end of the day is a glass of wine.
What I really want in the morning is a cup of coffee.
But my mind won't rest.
Even without a laptop or a pencil and paper, I find that I am writing. I am writing in my head constantly, focusing on my characters when I should be focusing on the road, blurting out plot dilemmas during conversations about minnows and tadpoles, revising while I'm loading the dishwasher and scrubbing pots and pans.
When September comes around and the kids return to school, I know that I will have trouble doing anything but writing. I will obsess. I will forget my vow to exercise more. I will procrastinate on those home remodeling projects. I will be surprised to realize that it's time to get the twins from preschool and nearly time for my husband to bring the older kids home.
I will have my hands on the keyboard, banging out those words -- those characters, plots and settings -- that are fighting for space in my head. The experience will be freeing just like it was last fall. I will be productive. Very productive.
I am excited.
But ...
why then do I still dread the fall?
Why do I find that I am reluctant to send the kids off to their classrooms, where they will be challenged daily, where they socialize with their friends, where someone else will feed them lunch?  Maybe even saddened? Maybe even a wee bit depressed?
I love to write, but the reality is that I love my kids more.
And it's healthy to be pulled away from my keyboard, to get a little color on my arms, legs and face, to have lunch on a picnic table that is situated between the beach and the playground.
It's good for me to converse with other moms while the kids swing or climb on the monkey bars. And it certainly doesn't hurt to sit into a chair at night with stars bright above me and fire crackling in front of me and my husband beside me, watching the older kids instruct the younger ones on the qualities of a perfect s'more.
The things is that every September brings us closer to ages when the kids won't be interested in hanging out with mom in the summer anymore. Every September, I realize that they've grown just a little bit more. Grown a little more independent of me.
That makes me proud, but it also makes me appreciate the time I have with them.
I will always be able to write provided my mind remains sharp and my hands can still navigate a keyboard, but I will not always be able to a push swing or coming running to see a captured crayfish in a net or catch a child jumping off the edge of a pool.
Because the kids won't need me that way.
So for now, the words in my head will just have to move over, cram closer together and make room for more.
They are not going anywhere.
But I am.
The pool, the deli, Darien Lake, the library, the playground, the beach, up and down the street in front of our house, grandma's, Aunt Karen's, cousin Amy's, maybe Aunt Angie's one more time, the mall, Market Street, a hike, and who knows where else.
Who knows.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Freedom at the fireworks: a small-town advantage

It's been years since I've taken the older kids to a fireworks display.
I don't like crowds and our oldest son panics when people box him in.
My husband, who towers above most folks at 6-foot-5, lives in constant fear of knocking heads and shoulders with his elbows. Events that attract thousands to tiny plots of land do not generally merit his consideration.
So we weren't even tempted to attend fireworks displays in our previous home cities of  Phoenix and Cincinnati, where people are crammed body against body at most of the official fireworks sites, sometimes even camping overnight to claim the best spots.
But when I heard that Troupsburg, NY, a small (really small) town just across the border from our equally small (really small) Pennsylvania borough, was hosting a display July 3, I gave into the pleas of the older kids and decided it was time to give it a try.
My husband stayed home with our 4-year-old twins while the older two kids and I met up with friends and headed about nine miles north to the hay field just beyond the elementary school, where we were told to park.
We passed a small gathering of vehicles here, a large group of chairs on the side of the rural road there, more vehicles and more chairs until, finally, we found a spot of our own  on the edge of the mowed field with no one close enough to even hear us talk.
Those who settled somewhat nearby seemed to be facing the center of the field, but all we saw before us was a van parked about 100 yards away. It was too dark in this place with no houses or street lights to see more.
We chatted and waited, figuring the fireworks must be set elsewhere and that those who directed us believed this was the best observation point.
We were wrong.
Were we ever wrong.
Our conversation was disrupted by a blast so close that my daughter flew into my lap. We leaned back in our chairs, our faces parellel to the stars, as the flames burst into thousands of colorful sparks in our own piece of sky, surrounding us and engulfing us.
Dancing, it seemed, just for us.
Only us.
The performance was every bit as breathtaking as the displays I enjoyed in my journalism days in Syracuse, NY, with a grand finalle that brought my 11-year-old son to his feet. It was only then, when cheering errputed from all directions, that I remembered how many other people were there.
In the field, on the side of the road, in the park down the road, in town on their front lawns or in their back yards.
Experiencing this with us.
It was, as my friend Gail put it, "like our own personal show."
I had to smile.
I immediately knew that next year, I will bring my husband and the twins. There is no reason to fear infliction of injury at this fireworks display, no need to worry that the twins will take over someone else's blanket, no need to feel claustrophobic or panicked. No one will try to sell us $5 glow sticks or light-up twirly things or drinks or snacks.
No one will step on our fingers or toes or jump over legs as we try to enjoy the show.
We will all find a place in this field, our own space, where we can relax and stretch our legs without sacrificing the view. And I will remember, as I did on this night, all those well-meaning people who warned me when we moved here exactly one year ago that I would find small-town life (really small-town life) "inconvient."
Convenience is, I was reminded once again, most certainly relative.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Tornado sirens: a new appreciation

For most of the six years we lived in Cincinnati, we dutifully ran to the basement whenever the tornado sirens sounded.
But toward the end, in that final year, we took the warnings less and less seriously.
Every thunderstorm seemed to set the sirens off during tornado season and rarely had there been actual danger. Did we really want to wake all four kids and drag them down two flights of stairs in the middle of the night because of a little thunder and lightning?
So on a few of those nights, we remained snug in our beds, listening for changes in the storms and honestly believing that if one hit, we'd have plenty of time to react. Friends and some of our neighbors did the same. Those sirens became "wolf" cries to our ears.
We were stupid.
At about 2 in the morning on Memorial Day, my husband and I were sleeping in an upstairs bedroom in our new community of Knoxville, PA, when a storm came out of nowhere. Violent thunder and lightning rocked the house. The twins and our daughter climbed into our bed.
Our oldest remained in his room.
I stood and reached to close our bedroom window and was shocked to find that my arms were being tugged outward by the wind. I slammed it shut, knowing at that moment that this was no ordinary storm, that we should be in the basement and that our oldest son should not be alone.
But it was too late.
The tornado was already upon us and very quickly made its exit.
The winds quieted.
I was reassured by the fact that I heard no ambulances, no fire signals or sirens.
Then the buzzing of chain saws began.
We awoke to find a community in ruin. The majestic trees that once lined Main Street lie across the road or rested in the middle of houses. The community center that serves this borough of about 700 people had lost its roof. Several homes were damaged or destroyed.
No one had power.
Amazingly, no one was hurt.
Our house was undamaged.
A few days later, the National Weather Service confirmed we'd been hit by an F1 tornado.
No sirens had sounded to rouse us from our beds. No tornado watches or warnings had been issued. A severe storm warning from earlier that night had already expired. We had no way of knowing that it was coming.
The tornado passed too quickly for true terror or panic to set in. In fact, I was oddly calm in the hours that followed. Instead, the panic comes in bits and pieces when I realize what could have happened, what we should have done, how we should have reacted.
I've been hearing the same sentiments from others.
I never thought I'd feel this way.
But I miss those Cincinnati sirens and I promise that if ever I hear one again, I will heed it fully.
The kids will always fall back to sleep and if they don't, so what?
I lose a little sleep.
For one day.
A minor inconvenience.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

What happened to "indivisible"?

Maybe I'm just forgetting.
But I seem to remember that the horrors of September 11, 2001 united our country, that partisan politics were set aside, at least for a day or two while even the worst of political enemies locked arms to show Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida that even such a sickening, unthinkable act of terrorism could not divide us.
We are strong, we said.
We believe in our country
We believe our leaders will protect us.
So I find it ironic (and sad) that the death of bin Laden has had the opposite effect. Osama bin Laden is dead and his death should have been another such unifying moment in our history. But instead of displaying a united front, instead of standing behind our leaders and telling the world that democracy works, that democracy is worth protecting and defending, we have exposed our worst weaknesses.
And doing so, we have offered fuel to anti-American fire.
A loud segment of our population immediately declared to the world an intense distrust for the president we elected to office. They told the world they believe he lied about bin Laden's death, that they think he's hiding something. They could give no reasonable explanation for this distrust, leaving the rest of us to assume the worst, that they distrust him because he is black and because his parents gave him a traditionally Middle Eastern name.
Then, it got worse.
These same people demanded a photo of the dead body, declaring that the photo would provide proof (Would it, really?). Even more Americans joined in this rally, not because they wanted proof, but because they have a grotesque and base need to see the dead man.
They feel so strongly that they are willing to suspend common sense and risk our national security for its sake.
Those who deny or belittle the security risk are naive.
We are a capitalist society. Within a day, we would have t-shirts, banners and mugs bearing bin Laden's face in death. We'd probably even have a video game or two. Al-Qaida supporters who might have been on the fence about participating in further attacks would be incensed enough to throw themselves into the cause full force.
Bin Laden would most certainly achieve martyrdom in the eyes of his followers.
Even our allies would cringe at our nation's behavior.
Regardless of whether the photo is released, the damage has been done. The event that was supposed to bring closure, to bring us full-circle from the horrors of September 11, 2001 and provide the world the ultimate proof that democracy works, has backfired.
We have shown the world our weaknesses.
We have shown al-Qaida that we are not as strong as we pretend to be, that perhaps we can be divided and defeated. We have show our enemies and our allies that our melting pot is broken. Certain differences cannot be dissolved within it because there are those who are unnecessarily and unjustifiably frightened by some of its ingredients.
I hope we can overcome this.
I hope President Obama remains strong in his decision to keep the photos secure.
I hope those loud voices fade and are forgotten, within and without of our nation.
I hope that when my children are adults, they will not experience anything like this.
That their hearts will never be as heavy as mine is today.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Parents magazine and the bipolar disaster

An article in the May isssue of Parents magazine caught my eye the other day.
It was written by a woman whose ex-husband has bipolar disorder and it promised to focus on the difficulties of shared parenting when mental illness is involved.
I am very close with several people who have bipolar disorder, so I was excited and interested to read what the author had to say. This is Parents magazine. Certainly, it would take a fair and well-balanced look at the affects of mental illness on parenthood.
Then I read it and was terribly disappointed.
The woman's ex-husband goes off and on his medications. Once, when he was on his medications, she thought that having a baby would make their marriage stronger, so she got pregnant. Then he went off his meds again and their marriage disintegrated.
He never did anything dangerous to himself or others, but he was often manic and unpredictable. He spent money wildly, rarely slept and once decided that when her parents came to visit, they should sleep in the backyard.
Like many people who experience mania, but not depression, he apparently didn't see the need for medication. Mania feels good. Manics feel smart and invincible. Convincing them that they are sick is next to impossible.
So she took their child and left him.
Can't blame her for that.
The rest of the article is about her attempts at visitation and her struggle with whether her daughter should have contact with her father at all. It's sad and it's probably true, but it's also misleading and will likely take us a few more steps backward toward the days when people with mental illness were locked up forever "for their own good."
The article fails to mention that bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive disorder, is common. According to the National Institutes of Health, about 2.6 percent of adults have it and most cases are considered severe.
It's also highly manageable.
It takes time and patience to find the right medications, particularly since the disorder presents differently in everyone. But anyone can find that balance. Look at Jim Carey, Robin Williams and Rosemary Clooney. How about Alvin Alley, Francis Ford Coppola and Vincent Van Gogh? Or Ted Turner, Buzz Aldrin and Winston Churchill?
Those are just a few of the more high-profile people for whom bipolar disorder is or was part of every day life.
A very few.
The people with bipolar disorder who are close to me have families who love them. They are successful in the careers and they are people I want to be around. They care for their children, they love their spouses, they excel in most everything they do.
I am often humbled around them because, like many bipolars, they are so unbelievably bright and creative.
They struggled before they were diagnosed, they struggled to accept their diagnosis and to get on the right medications, they struggled with the fact that they would have to live with it the rest of their lives.
But they survived and thrived.
As with any illness or disorder, there are people like the ex-husband in the article who will not accept their medical conditions. We can't help people who won't help themselves, so many people go untreated. Too many people. Unfortunately, a small percentage of those people, in states of psychosis, do things that are highly dangerous or so ridiculous that they make the headlines.
Those sensational acts are what average person knows of bipolar disorder.
They are what publicly defines it, the false image that so many of us have fought to change.
And this article doesn't help.
There are far worse dads (and moms) than the writer's ex-husband.
There are abusers, abandoners, and people who are just too selfish to love anyone more than themselves. There are thieves and killers and cheaters. There are far, far worse parents than a bipolar dad who forgets birthdays, talks nonsense and overwhelms his daughter with voice mails and letters about subjects that are beyond her maturity level.
How harmful is he?
How much does it really affect her daughter?
I guess I was naive. I thought the media was working a little harder to give a more accurate portrayal of mental illness, to help people understand that in most cases, it's no different than having diabetes or heart disease or any other chronic illness.
It's incurable, but it's treatable.
People live with it every day and do quite well.
Shame on you Parents magazine for not providing more balance, for not putting this article and this woman's experience into perspective.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Time to smoulder

So close.
I am so close to finishing my second novel.
The first draft is complete.
The second is underway.
But writing will have to wait.
A line has formed in recent months that includes painting the newly re-walled living room, painting our oldest son's room, baking a tent-shaped cake for the Cub Scouts cake auction and tilling a garden plot. All things that have to be worked around kids, kids and kids.
Something is always waiting.
But, when it comes to writing, waiting can be a good thing.
The longer writing waits, the more it smoulders.
As it smoulders, it builds strength.
Plot inconsistencies become clearer with each stroke of the paint brush. Characterization problems are resolved with a few dozen turns of the soil. Novels restructure themselves in a bowl full of cocoa powder, sugar, flour, eggs and vanilla.
When I return to the keyboard, I will have plenty of creative energy to burn.
And the novel won't have to wait long.
I've decided to take a break for a few months from freelance work with the exception of one book editing job that I am excited to tackle. That will give me a few extra hours a week to devote to the novel. I should also be able to sneak some time in at night when all the kids are asleep after the painting is done.
I'm still hoping to be finished, really finished by summer,and the time spent thinking without the distraction of writing might just enable that.
Fewer wasted keystrokes.
Fewer wasted words.
More intense focus.
It's so hard to be patient.
But it's so important to wait.

Monday, February 14, 2011

No ice for tourists in Saranac Lake

Saranac Lake was beyond crowded this past weekend when the annual Winter Carnival activities culminated with the downtown parade.
The skies had dumped more than three feet of snow on my hometown, which is nestled in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State, and that made it even harder to maneuver the sidewalks and streets.
The natives had every right to blast car horns, shout expletives and raise their middle fingers in anger at the tourists who crossed streets in front of moving cars, stood in the middle of the road (in the dark) shooting photos of the lit-up ice palace and stopped them constantly to request that they take photos of themselves with their significant others.
But they didn't.
Sure, I heard the word "tourist" coupled with the word "idiot" breathed once and a while, but it was usually breathed lightly with a giggle or a hearty laugh and a beer in hand. Instead, native Adirondackers (and those who have lived there long enough to earn an honorary title), stopped their cars and waved on people were waiting to cross the streets.
They paused to let other drivers pull out in front of them. They paid their police force to set up a crosswalk in front of the ice palace along with reflective barricades that created a safe area in the middle of the roadway for photo opportunities.
Of course, they are smart people.
They realize that without tourists their economy would suffer.
That requires a certain level of tolerance.
But in Saranac Lake this past weekend, I saw more than tolerance. I saw a community that embraces its identity and prides itself in all that makes the Adirondacks so valuable in so many ways, and that has an intense desire to share that.
(Well, there were a few exceptions, like the owner of the upscale pizza place who berated his employees in front of his waiting customers. He doesn't count though. He's not from there and clearly has not acclimated. No honorary "native" title for him.)
My hometown is even stronger than it was when I left it 27 years ago and the only people who can take credit for that are those who stayed or moved back to uphold and strengthen its foundation, and those who fell in love upon visiting and made Saranac Lake their new home.
I don't want to move back. I am happy raising a family here in northern Pennsylvania (and much warmer). Saranac Lake is for a hardier and more durable sort than I have become (In other words, I am wimp now.). But I am proud --and always will be -- of where I am from.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The value of distraction

For the past two months, I've been so distracted by Christmas, that social networking job and freelancing, that I've no time -- none whatsoever -- to even glance at my novel in progress.
It was discouraging.
I had devoted all of November to writing the novel after dabbling with it for at least a year. By the month's end, I had reached 52,000 good, solid words and had set a goal of completing the first draft by the end of February. I was excited.
Then nothing.
Two months and not a single word.
But, as the moment neared when someone else would take over my social networking job, my mind turned back to the novel. When I had stopped writing on Nov. 30, I was stuck. I'd reached the climax of the book too soon and I wasn't sure how to make the novel longer.
Something was missing.
Something serious.
So I thought and I thought and I thought for two weeks.
I didn't look at what I'd already written. I still didn't have time. I simply played it over in my mind again and again and again while I was showering, while I was cooking dinner, while I was driving -- whenever I was physically busy, but my mind was free.
And then it hit me.
I had been entirely avoiding the exploration of the mother-daughter relationship. The daughter, who is highly important to the main character's motivation, was nothing more than a place holder. And I know why I did it, even if I did it subconsciously.
Parent-child relationships are tough. They are a lot of work in real life and I was avoiding that same kind of work in my novel. I had to address it.
Monday was the first day since Dec. 1 when I had an entirely clear schedule. No more social networking. No articles due. Nothing. The twins were in preschool for five hours. After errands, exercise and a bit of cleaning, that still left me 2.5 hours.
So I wrote.
I finished a chapter and wrote another the next day.
I am now up to 57,500 words with no fear that I will reach my goal of 80,000 words.
If anything, I'll need to be careful that I don't write too long.
I am excited again. I feel like I've found my story back.
My new goal? The end of April.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Who needs money, right?

For the second time in a year, I let guilt over the lack of a steady paycheck get to me.
It's not like I've been lazy. I've written one novel and I'm nearly done with another. I've published a few short stories and I've started freelancing again.
Oh yeah, and then there are those four kids who need my love and attention.
But my novel hasn't sold yet, I got paid for only one of those short stories and I can handle only one or two freelance assignments a month while still working on my fiction. The twins are in school 16 hours a week and the older kids go full-time.
I wanted to make a greater financial contribution.
I wanted validation.
The first time I felt this way, I took a job moderating for a national online moms forum. It was great in the beginning. I was on the site often anyway, so why not get paid for it, I figured. I was the lead moderator only two shifts a week and simply had to help out during other times.
What I had not realized was that good moderators must be fully immersed, especially with this particular site, where the moms could get down and dirty, mean and nasty often. I was cooking dinners with my laptop on the counter, trying to ignore the personal attacks that came my way whenever I intervened.
The hours were long. The pay wasn't great and my stress levels were high.
Worse, I had no time to write.
I finally gave it up after a few months.
That was in the spring.
I'd forgotten the lessons I'd learned this December when a magazine/publisher I write for asked whether I'd be interested in social networking. I jumped at the chance, but I should have exercised restraint. I should have sat down and thought.
The job is a good one for someone who is interested in a career in social networking or who simply wants to earn a few bucks. It involves creating and posting nearly 50 tweets a day on 14 different blogs. Easily done with tools like
But doing it right, especially in the beginning, took me away from everything else.
Within a week, I realize that the job was far more involved than I had first believed. If I continued, in the limited work time that I have, everything else would have to end.
Little or no freelancing.
No fiction.
Less time for my kids.
I gave notice today, but said I'd hang in there until they find someone else.
I hope that next time this type of opportunity comes up, I think a little harder and I look back on what I've written here because I need to remember a few things:
I am not a moderator.
I am not a professional social networker.
I am not worthless simply because I don't produce a steady flow of cash.
None of things describe me.
I am a writer.
I am sometimes a teacher.
I am a mother and a wife, who needs to balance all those things to be there when the people she loves need her.
That's what I am.
And that's perfectly valid.