Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Happiness Day 2

Report on yesterday's happiness initiatives: 2-for-3. I went for the walk (and even had a DEEP REALIZATION ABOUT LIFE like you'd hope for while dragging the dog around the block in a high wind & sub-zero temps) and I kept the perkiness meter dialed up to nine even when a mild case of "Wow, that wasn't the best sushi..." food poisoning hit in the late afternoon. That bathroom cabinet is still a jungle, but overall the day was a success.

Today's Happiness Focus: LOVE. Lest you click away in the fear of being overwhelmed by sweet sappiness, let me reassure you: Gretchen's take on love is decidedly practical. The bullet points at the chapter opening are things like "Quit Nagging," and "Don't Expect Praise or Appreciation." Nitty gritty stuff that you really have to work at.

She focuses mostly on her marriage, but today I'll be branching out to include my whole family. I'm heading north to meet my Mom & Dad (the ones who now have all kinds of energy because they exercise approximately five times more than I do) for lunch. Because they're my parents, there's a teeny chance their approval matters to me. Just a smidge. So "Don't Expect Praise or Appreciation" hits right at the top of my yikes list. My Mom is the Queen of Encouragement, but she's gotten a lot more candid over the years. And my Dad is at that amusing stage of life when he just says whatever he's thinking. As you can imagine, the results can be, um...interesting. They both have a fabulous sense of humor, so I love hanging out with them. But if I'm looking for someone to hand me my next Girl Scout Badge for life accomplishment, it's not going to happen here.

So I'll cull today's happiness goals right from Gretchen's playbook:

1. Enjoy my parents as people, not as gold-star distributors.
2. They celebrated 42 years of marriage yesterday--I should ask them for a piece of advice (and take it!)

How about you? How can you Live the Love?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Little Bit Happier, Day 1

It's Day 1 of my mini-Happiness Project!

It's good that the book starts out in the first chapter focusing on having more energy and vitality, because this is the time of year when I feel like a big slug. I get noticable surges of inspiration in the Spring and Fall, but January/February finds me relating a little too well with birds who fly south to drink fruity umbrella drinks in the sun, or bears who eat 10,000 calories and then curl up in a quiet place for a long, long nap.

Ah, a nap...

Confession: over Christmas, I learned that my 78 year old father (diabetic, cancer survivor) and my 69 year old mother (COPD, on 24hr/day oxygen) BOTH get more exercise on a daily basis than me. Um...embarrassing. And yet I wonder why I had to hop up and down to get my jeans on the morning after Christmas dinner?!

Chagrined, but determined to see the sunny side (look how EASY it will be for me to be more energetic, given how little I'm doing now!!!) here are the tips I'll apply for the next 12 days:

1. I will take a walk at least once a day. Around the block counts, and if THAT DOG is on her leash beside me, then I get double gold stars for multitasking greatness!

2. I will organize the cabinet in the bathroom to set myself free of the constant worry that my cough drops and/or hairbrush will land in the toilet below. Bonus points if I finally throw away the vitamins that expired in 2001.

3. I will act perky, energized, and two notches happier than whatever I feel inside. Why not?

Want to join me? What little things can you start today to be happier? In 12 days, maybe we can change the world!?

Monday, December 28, 2009

Happiness Quest: Goals, Resolutions

I just read the last chapter of Gretchen Rubin's THE HAPPINESS PROJECT, and it has me thinking about the choices we make in the last few days of the year about things we'd like to try, or do differently, or change that we hope will make the coming year even better. Before reading this, I'd never thought about the difference between goals and resolutions. But now I am, because as Gretchen so aptly points out, "You hit a goal; you keep a resolution."

We should have both going into 2010, don't you think? And they should be of different sizes, like Christmas presents. Because what if something tiny turns out to be the best gift/goal/resolution ever? What if flossing everyday really WILL change my life???

Over the next 12 or so days, my GOAL is to blog about each of the chapters in Gretchen's book and how her thoughts on the pursuit of happiness are helping mine. And my RESOLUTION is to use tips from her book to jolt myself back from the vague sort of winter malaise that can hit me when Christmas is over and the days seem sort of long, cold, and gray. I'm not sure I can resolve to be happier--that feels more like a ride I don't control. But I can resolve to do things that point me toward happiness and see where I end up at the end of a few days.

So tune in tomorrow...

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

In Lieu of Antidepressants

I have a longish drive ahead of me today, but I'm looking forward to it as a chance to indulge in one of my new favorite things. It's a bit of a guilty pleasure, truth be of those childish moments that serves no greater purpose than to make me smile a big goofy "I can't believe I'm having this much fun" sort of grin as I'm driving down the road.

It's the Indigo Girls song, Rock and Roll Heaven's Gate. I like to sing along with it, at the top of my tone-deaf lungs (can lungs be tone deaf? One wouldn't think so, until you met mine...) as I'm driving down the road. It's a fabulous song: great angry lyrics, background vocals by Pink, and even space for a drum solo on the steering wheel if I can time it right with a stop light. It makes me happy just thinking about it.

And best of's the secret (or a warning for those of you of more delicate sensibilities): my favorite part of the song is when one of the Indigo Girls (Emily? Amy?) belts out an f-bomb. It happens a few different's right there in the lyric. And while some folks might say that's unnecessary, I'd argue that this is one of those great uses of language George Carlin argued for when he said, "There are no bad words, only words used badly." This f-bomb is used perfectly, and it feels so cathartic and therapeutic when I sing along with it, it makes me wonder how many people could go off anti-depressants if they just had the opportunity to belt out this song once or twice a day?

If you're feeling brave (and you're not at work and/or around small children) here you go...try for yourself!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Happiness = Whistlin' Dixie

I'm not one for year-end lists (I love reading them but am pretty terrible at creating them), but as we round the final curve and hit the straightaway towards 2010, I thought I'd share a few random things that have been happy rays of sunshine in this rather dark year.

The gorgeous cover of Lisa Patton's Whistlin' Dixie in A Noreaster caught my attention in one of my favorite local bookstores a few months back, and wouldn't let go. I didn't buy it that first night because I was at the store doing research for another type of book (technically I shouldn't have been anywhere near the New Fiction Table, but my legs just sort of wandered over...) After that, the book was everywhere I looked, whispering, "Pick me up! Read me!"

Three weeks later, I gave in, and was so glad I did. Whistlin' Dixie is a story DETERMINED to get to a happy ending. It's about real, flawed, hilarious characters wrestling with life's twists and disappointments. It has one of the best "revenge on the cheating ex" scenes ever, playing out the fantasy of what most of us have wanted to do for vengeance (but would be arrested for in real life.) It's a great book to get lost in, and sometimes that's exactly what you need. So if you need a fun, happy read to help end your 2009 on a high note, Whistlin' Dixie is a great pick.

Now, your turn: What's one small thing that's helped YOU maintain the happy this year?

Monday, December 21, 2009

When you can't eat the whole frog

"The process of writing books is somewhat akin to a very long police interrogation in which the detective leans over the table littered with the butt ends of cigarettes and cold coffee in Styrofoam cups and says for the 87th time, 'Now let's go over this again.'" -Ann Patchett

Yep. That's exactly what it's like. I'm facing the prospect of two such long interrogations in the coming extravaganza that will be 2010, so the question becomes how to fit Patchett's spot-on assessment of this task (which I've tested & verified through two books already) alongside my determination to live a happy life via the successful clearance of daily low-bar goals?

A confession: for some things, I find that the eat that frog approach doesn't work. Some projects are just too big & daunting, and envisioning them as an amphibian to be consumed makes things worse instead of better. So I'm trying to remember back to my college days, where it seemed like a long paper on some esoteric subject was due every single week. How did I get it all done? What motivated me? Was it the reward system? A sense that life wouldn't work if I didn't keep chipping away? Fear of failure?

Do you remember what motivated you the last time you did something huge? What would YOU do on your first day of writing a book?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Starting my Scheme!

I'm delighted to report that THAT DOG survived my attempt not to kill her. Ladies and Gentlemen, we're 4/4 in the week of low goal achievement!

As I thought about today's goal, I wasn't sure what would capture the giant picture of accomplishment that has been this week. What would be the appropriate focal point to get us low-bar types across the finish line and into the weekend? I had some ideas...

I could do a load of laundry....Or I could write "Merry Christmas! Love Trish & Steve" on the single holiday card I plan to send....Or I could choreograph an interpretive dance to the tune of an Adam Lambert song to express my glee that that 2009 is almost over!

I may do all of these things. But scrolling through Facebook this morning, I found a better thing to be the BIG END OF THE WEEK GOAL. I owe this idea to Gretchen Rubin (author of my new favorite book THE HAPPINESS PROJECT) and this great link to Samuel Johnson's to-do list from the year 1760. Sam's plan?

*Rise as early as I can
*Send for books
*Put books in order
*Scheme life

That's the whole list. Is this not genius??? Think about it: every one of us has already checked off one item (I got out of bed when I woke up this morning, so I'm calling that "as early as I can.") I'll send for books! I'll put books in order! But most exciting of all...I'll SCHEME LIFE!

Want to join me? (If so, here's a link to my book and Gretchen's, to help with the sending for books.) Drop a line in the comments and let me know your scheming tips! What are you scheming? How do you scheme? Is there a special location involved, or can I just stare out any window and get started?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Didn't is the New Did

The good news is, I came way closer than expected to saving the cat yesterday. I shimmied up the metaphorical tree with a can of tuna in hand...all that's left is to say, "Here kitty, kitty, kitty..." and the cat (as well as my writing career) will live on.

The bad news is that by becoming so engrossed in the cat, I almost poisoned THAT DOG. Noting my distraction, she made a power move on the trash which included some chocolate cookies I'd thrown away in an attempt to save my jeans. Chocolate = Dog Poison. Fortunately, she was flummoxed by the seal on the top of the cookie container, which she attempted to open by rolling it around the kitchen and into the appliances with her snout. It got a rather loud, which I think was her way of suggesting that my priorities were badly misdirected with this whole cat thing. Point taken (even if I had to struggle a bit not to laugh at her protest.)

Today's goal: DON'T kill the dog! It's my first goal based on going an entire day NOT doing something, so we've raised the bar! A NOTE to those for whom this seems overwhelming: I'd never attempt this if I didn't have almost 5200 days of not killing the dog to look back on in search of tips & pointers. You can start with a plant, or even your toothbrush if that feels more doable in terms of not killing something today. We're all about success! 3-3, going for 4-4!

What can YOU not do?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Surfing to Save The Cat

I got the happiest email from a friend yesterday. She's new to writing, working on some web content for her job, and just discovering what a wild ride the highs and lows of the creative life can be. She said:

Writing is so intense! I keep thinking of you. It's like this huge creative process (okay, obvious!). I've already put in a zillion hours and things are just starting to flow which is awesome. And then things flow and it's satisfying but then you get to this point and you're exhausted but you have to keep going because the juices are flowing.'s quite a process. Okay, now i'm going back in...

My response was deep and profound: I said, "Yep. That's exactly what it's like." Writing is like surfing. It might be a long wait for the wave, but once it comes it's a fun ride.

Which brings me to Today's Goal: I've conquered flossing and lip gloss. I'm feeling confident. It's time for a bigger challenge! Today, I ONE chapter in book! I can do it! I have what it takes to succeed!

The book is called SAVE THE CAT. Every writer friend I know says it will rock my world. Today I'm stepping up to the plate, ready to be rocked. Just to be clear: I won't read the whole book. At the end of today, the cat will remain unsaved. But I will read the first chapter, and consider today a success.

Low bar goal setters of the world, unite!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Project Lip Gloss!

I flossed yesterday (Goal!!!)...and the momentum from that one act sent me flying into an entirely new stratosphere of accomplishment, in which I wrote the entire first draft of the proposal for my next book. Seventy-seven pages, to be exact.

As you can guess, I'll be flossing again this morning.

So today I need a new goal, something small and manageable I can slip in between all my other plans. What have I come up with, you ask? Okay, here it is...TODAY'S GOAL: Project Lip Gloss! (The exclamation point is key.) I'll consider today a huge success if I better manage my lip gloss application throughout the day. (Surely I can't be the first person to think that this will make a huge difference in my overall quality of life...?) I'll report back tomorrow from this important endeavor!

Want to join me down here with my low-bar goals? NOW is the time! What will YOU take credit for today that everyone else in the world is doing already???

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Goals & High Fives

I'm laying out the blueprint tonight so tomorrow will feel like an accomplished day. It doesn't take much for me to feel like I deserve a high five for my great exploits, so you'd think it would happen with some regularity. But over the past few weeks, high fives have been few and far between.

So for tomorrow, I'm making GOALS. Not intimidating goals, but rather the little ones that are easy to accomplish and (the theory goes) will set me up for a lifetime of success.

So far, I have one goal: To FLOSS.

But I need more to choose from. That's where you come in! Should I sign up for polka lessons? Learn five new words from the dictionary? Translate an article from the Sunday paper into the French/Spanish hybrid my friend Cathy and I developed in law school?

Suggestions, please!

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Happiness Project

A book saved my #$%* the other night. I'm being a touch melodramatic, but not entirely. I was hip deep in a funk I've been fighting for about two weeks now, ready to abandon hope and go down with the ship. But as anyone who's seen Titanic knows, sinking ships take awhile. So in an effort to keep myself occupied (and lacking the energy to rearrange the deck chairs) I picked up the advanced copy I'd received of Gretchen Rubin's new book THE HAPPINESS PROJECT. Forty five minutes and three chapters later, I felt like maybe--just maybe--it would be worth the effort to right the ship.

Gretchen is also a lawyer-turned-writer (although her lawyering was of a much more impressive variety than mine: she clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, I made coffee one summer for a judge newly elected to the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas...) and I think our minds run along some of the same channels, both for good (creative drive! motivation! an ability to express ourselves clearly and persuasively!) and bad (want affirmation and gold stars! quite convinced we're right! not always discrete about conveying this information!) What I love about this book is Gretchen's combination of honest self-exploration with real attempts to live a happier life. This isn't a self-help book, but rather a memoir that happens to have some ideas that you yourself could try (I've been sleeping better since I followed two of her suggestions, and that makes everything a little better...)

I'll be blogging more about this book in the future...Gretchen tackles twelve areas of life in her book and I'm thinking it might make a really fun post-Christmas series if I try to do the same. But if you're looking for a book to make the waiting part of life a little easier, pre-order this book now so you'll have a fun surprise on December 29th when it arrives.

Question: If you could feel happier in one area of life, which would it be?

Monday, December 07, 2009

What I want/what I'm afraid I'll get

Going to the eye doctor today. The super-eye doctor, an opthamologist, rather than an optometrist. (And yes, I know I spelled that first one incorrectly. But the only alternative Blogger's spell check offers is "Epidemiologist," and as lovely as folks in that line of work might be, they can't help me renew my contact lens prescription.)

Really, that's all I'm after: new contacts. The law requires a new exam every year, which is absurd; my prescription hasn't changed since law school (where my eyes were so bugged out from all that reading that they started to shut down in protest). So I hope the doctor won't be too obsessive about delving into every nook & cranny of my eyes, because medical procedures freak me out.

Help me here: on a scale of 1-5, how rude is it to say, "No thank you, I'd rather not see the 3D depiction of my eyeball on the computer...and too much discussion of how much air makes it through the contact lens makes me feel like I might hyperventilate..."?

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Need bumpers for my bowling alley

I've fallen into a rut. Not sure how it happened. Most likely some innocent combination of so much to think/do/say/be over a short period of time that I lost the plot of my life. Regardless, today, I'm climbing back out.

Two things prompted this realization:

First, my friend Brian has a blog about Advent. I've never been particularly "Adventian" in my faith (I'm not all that liturgical, so unless someone reminds me or hands me a calender filled with chocolates, I can spend most of the pre-Christmas season unaware of the bigger spiritual picture) but this year, I'm trying to pay better attention. In the first three blogs, the focus hasn't been on what I expected--Jesus, Mary, the angel with the weird news--but rather the signs we get that indicate that God is up to something big and exciting, something we're invited to be part of. I like that idea.

Then I read a post over at Writer Unboxed by literary agent Donald Maass. He was talking about what makes a novel a "big" story: things like symbolism, having many windows into the story, parallels and reversals. As I read it, I realized how for me, "big" stories have a sense of playing out over time: they evolve, unfold, progress, stall. Things aren't rushed and time feels expansive. I can trust that things will happen when they should, because it's not up to me to get to the end of the story...that's the author's job.

I'm almost embarrassed to admit that this was a "Wow" moment for me: realizing that perhaps I can get out of my rut if I trust that it's not up to me to get my story to any certain point by any certain time. That I can try trusting and see how it works out.

Don't worry: I won't burden you with the awkward image of God as my author that you fear might be coming, nor will I saddle you with the pedestrian things that getting out of the gutter and back on life's bowling lane entail for me today. Instead, I'll leave you with this inspiration from writer/encourager Steven Pressfield about pushing through self doubt.

Happy bowling :)

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Faking it 'til I make it: Holiday edition

I'm feeling a bit bah-humbuggy about Christmas. I'm mourning the loss of the Christmases of my childhood, when my family gave gifts large and small that said all sorts of things about us (not the least of which was "you need new socks & underwear") but where the primary message was, "I know you enough to know how much you'll enjoy this..."

I'm not sure I know anybody that well anymore, which seems like a huge loss.

Certainly, ideas for gifts have crossed my mind. But I've lost my confidence. Perhaps it's because Steve and I moved twice in the span of four months this year, which made me aware of every item I own and what it feels like to haul them up and down several flights of stairs. Or maybe it's the ongoing refrain that's so prevelent now, where we all lament the accumulation of stuff in our lives and how hard it is to control, manage, or organize. Whatever the source, I'm left with this awful fear: if I buy you a gift, and it's not something you really, really like, haven't I just burdened you with more stuff?

I'm pretty sure that's not the spirit of the season, no matter where you fall on the Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanza continuum. So I'm fighting back. Today, I will listen to Christmas carols. I will contemplate where our decorations might fit in this new apartment and not worry that my efforts won't be worthy of the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. And most importantly (and this is the promise I'm most determined to keep) I will buy someone a present and take the risk of "burdening" them with more stuff, trusting that the idea that I was thinking of them today as I wandered around out in the world will mean something.

How are you feeling about the holidays this year?

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Secret of Joy

It's been awhile since we've done an author meet & greet here at Trish's Dishes. But when I heard about Melissa Senate's new book, THE SECRET OF JOY, a couple of months ago, I emailed her right away to see if she'd answer some questions for us.

Melissa is all sorts of things I love: a prolific author, funny, wise...AND she lives in Maine. Whenever I read her books, I want to drive north to take her out for chocolate martinis to talk about writing and life. So let's pretend that I did! Here we are:

And here's our conversation!

1. I’m curious about your characters! One of the first things I thought of when I finished THE SECRET OF JOY was how good it felt to read a book with no real bad guy. Arguably Rebecca’s father isn’t a shining example of perfection, and a couple minor characters are jerks, but overall the conflict isn’t one of good vs. evil so much as the challenge of adapting to new information (or something more subtle and profound like that!) Was that a conscious decision on your part? How did your characters evolve during the writing process?

A: I love this question because the challenge of adapting to new information is exactly what the story is truly about. You’re hit with a doozy, sometimes a few at once, and what do you do? How do you process it? How does it change you? I wasn’t conscious of having those questions in my head when I started writing; I just knew I needed to find some answers for myself about the autobiographical aspect of The Secret of Joy. Eight years ago, I received an email out of the blue that said: I think you might be my half-sister. It took me a long time to take all the questions that this email, this doozy, raised in me, and dump it on my characters to help me sort it out. Just as I had to accept the new information of a half-sibling I’d never met suddenly making contact, Joy Jayhawk had to, despite not wanting to, despite wanting to stay shut down. And Rebecca, queen of getting stuck in a rut of her own making, not even a particularly comfortable rut, suddenly wanted something that required movement and moxie. I was so happy with how they ended up, how they opened up their own lives. No spoilers by saying they both get a happy ending.

2. You write fiction for both adults (SEE JANE DATE and THE SOLOMON SISTERS WISE UP are two of my favorites) and teens (THEODORA TWIST). How did you start writing for a younger audience? Do you consciously alternate between the two markets as you’re plotting new books?

A: Oooh, thank you for that, Trish! I’d always wanted to write for teens and kept it in the back of my mind as something I’d think about one day, but then the “one day” presented itself in the form of an idea I couldn’t shake. No one would ever know it, but the inspiration of Theodora Twist, about a teen movie star with a bad image who’s forced to film a reality TV show about how she’s really just an ordinary teenager (not!) by living with one (who really is) and doing everything she does, came from my being a nervous new mother. Isn’t that crazy? I can remember seeing all these perfect looking, skinny, coiffed new mothers walking in packs with their snazzy strollers on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where I lived until my son turned two, and feeling so . . . not of them. When I feel that way, I have a tendency to make my main character “the opposition” and really delve into who they really are and if their life is really so glam and perfect. I love demystifying people for myself. Love that about writing. It’s why I made the main character of The Secret of Joy the seeking half-sibling; I wanted to put myself in the other person’s shoes. Not always easy! I think this relates back to your comment in the first question about their being no real bad guys (or girls) in the book.

My next teen novel, THE MOSTS, is coming out in June 2010, and I have a full proposal, a meaty synopsis and five chapters of a new YA, that my agent gave me great notes on for revision. I think adult fiction comes more easily, more naturally to me, but I personally love to read YA so I’m very drawn to continue writing for that market. Once I finish the adult novel I’m working on now, I’ll revise the new YA proposal. It’s a little different for me, a little edgier, so we shall see. And no, no vampires!

3. Speaking of plotting…are you a “plotter” (who outlines the whole story ahead of time) or a “pantster” (who flies by the seat of your pants to see what the characters do next)?

A: I am a serious plotter. I love long, meaty synopses in the character’s voice that I then break into chapters and then into scenes. That’s basically how I structure/format a new novel. I need to know where my characters, where my plot, are headed. And I write to an ending. Everything I do leads me to that ending.

4. Many of my blog readers are aspiring writers—can you tell us a bit about your writing routine? For example, how do you juggle writing and motherhood? Do you work on one project at a time or do you work on several simultaneously? How soon after finishing a project do you start another?

A: I’m a full-time writer and freelance copywriter/editor, and right now I’m very lucky that my seven-year-old son is at school for seven hours a day. I’m a morning person, a wake-up-at-5 a.m. morning person, and I like to hit the computer when I’m fresh out of bed without a certain little voice saying, “MOMMY!” for a good two hours. I read the previous scene, get all the threads going in my head, and then start writing. Then, when my dear Max wakes up, I turn my attention to him. Once the school bus pulls away, I always do my freelance work (I typically write one back-cover per day or have a freelance line-edit to work on) and then I’ll be itching to get back to my manuscript, which I’ll work on till the bus pulls back up. I only work on one novel at a time. For example, before I started the women’s fiction manuscript I’m writing now, I wrote a proposal for my next YA. I need to revise that one, but I won’t do that until I finish the women’s fiction manuscript. I think I’d have too hard a time keeping both stories in my head, all the trials and tribulations of the characters. Because I’m not a night owl, it’s very difficult for me to write at night, after my son goes to bed. That’s when I do most of my reading or watch some fun TV. But when I’m very close to deadline (like now), I work till midnight every night and eat whatever want. Like the half-gone chocolate Santa on my coffee table.

I start a new project immediately after finishing one, mostly because I’m a single mother and write full time! If I don’t produce, there’s no second income to lean on. My next novel is due to my editor on January 1st, so the day after I’ll start working on the proposal for the next one. I already have the idea and wrote up a page-long pitch that I’ll send my agent; if she green-lights, then I’ll work it into a full proposal. I love the whole process. The dreaming up the idea, the figuring out the meat and bones, the submitting, the waiting and nail biting, the writing, the submitting. I find all of it very exciting. The part that makes my stomach flip is the two months or so before the book comes out, when I’m anxiously awaiting reviews.

5. What is your favorite scene from THE SECRET OF JOY?

A: My very favorite scene is when Joy’s female clients on the love bus (except Victoria, who found instant love with Victor) are exploring the beautiful lighthouse in Cape Elizabeth (Maine), and they’re all staring out at the water and just start opening up, the way staring out at an endless expanse of ocean can have you do, and Joy asks which is worse: to lose the father you’ve loved your entire life, or to have never known him at all. That scene starts all the characters on an honesty-path that gets kinda bumpy for everyone.

6. What are you working on next?

A: I’m scary-close to deadline (1/1/10) for my next novel, THE LOVE GODDESS'S COOKING SCHOOL, about the unlikely teacher of an Italian cooking class and her four unlikely students. There’s a teensy bit of magic, a little romance, lots of delicious Italian food. That’ll be out next November. I’m definitely not ready to think about next November, but it’s wonderful to know that a new book will be making its fun production journey all through the coming year.

(*And this is where, in our imaginary martini-time, we'd turn off the cameras, order another round of chocolate martinis, and talk about all sorts of super-secret girl stuff regarding our next books, cute boys, and where to get cute shoes in Maine*)

Bloggies...don't you love her? I seriously recommend THE SECRET OF JOY as a holiday giving idea. It will bring entertainment, hope, and happiness to readers everywhere...what more could one ask for in a gift?

Friday, November 27, 2009

Rembrandt: More than a toothpaste!

Six years ago today, Steve and I went on our first date. He took me to the Museum of Fine Arts to see a Rembrandt exhibit that was making it's way through town. I was nervous and excited and hopeful--all the typical feelings that collide inside of you on a first date, the ones that either grow or die as you get to know each other. I'd been burned so many times before I met Steve...I'd be lying if I didn't admit that throughout that afternoon, I kept looking inside my heart and mind for little deaths. But that's not how it worked out. Rather than the beginning of the end for us, that afternoon of looking at intimidating oil paintings together was the beginning of a surprising happily ever after...and a series of adventures both large & small.

That day changed my expectations for what's possible in life. It's a memory that's warm and wonderful for all the obvious reasons, but also because it represents something so much bigger to me: that EVERYTHING about life as you know it can change in a single day. That seems like something worth keeping in mind :)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Out with the old, thankful

I'm cleaning my office. Or, to be more precise, trying to finish unpacking and create some new sort of order so that the end of my desk is not where the extra bathmat lives (buried beneath a pile of bank forms for an account we closed and a giant flashlight).

When we moved into this apartment a few weeks back, we were pretty fried. We got the main rooms up and running, and the other rooms caught the overflow. I finally made good on my 2 year old goal to buy a new file cabinet, but once I got it home, the piles of files were so overwhelming (and I'd forgotten to buy hanging folders: FAIL) that I just dumped everything into the bottom drawer and slammed it shut, mentally labeling it "Things I'll never look at again."

This week, I'll attempt to pick up the pieces and put Humpty Dumpty back together again. I've lost track of which old bills can be shredded and what documents must be saved, but I'll try to figure it out. I'll take a wild chance that because THAT DOG turns 14 next month, I can probably stop worrying that anyone will demand to see the certificate proving she completed puppy training school. I'll throw away the antique-ish clock that eats batteries but never tells the correct time, and every single highlighter without ink. There will be Hefty Trash Bags, lots of shredding, and no stone left unturned in my quest for simplicity and order.

Then I'll start work on (God willing) two new books I'm thinking about, and trash the place in a whole new way :)

This week, as I sort and clean, I'm extra, uber-thankful to be back here in Cambridge. I'm glad 2009 is almost over and that I have some time to ponder everything that happened and try to put it into the larger context of my life. I'm thankful for people--in my family, in my neighborhood, in my blogsphere--who make each new day fun and challenging and full of unexpected little laughs. I'm thankful for THAT DOG, this long gorgeous autumn, new ideas, and coffee.

And I'm thankful for you, blog readers! Helpful comments, votes of confidence, book recommendations...It's cool to have this part of life that feels so personal, and yet connects so many of us who wouldn't have met any other way. :)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Big Question

Blog Friends:

What ONE book would you give a friend who was moving away to a new city and an exciting adventure? It could be fiction or non, practical or mystical, heartfelt or tough love. Imagine yourself browsing through the bookstore, gift card from me in hand, selecting the PERFECT send off for my friend...

What do you buy?

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Divining Wand

My niece once had a wand. It was pink & purple (of course) with a big plastic star on the top, blinking lights, and a button which made the wand emit an eerie, high pitched sound. I speak of the wand in the past tense because I suspect that it is gone now, it's magic powers no match for determined grown ups who could not stand to hear that weird sound one more time.

Here's the thing: that plastic wand was a sham. But the idea behind it, of girl power--and our longing for something sparkly and wonderful to connect us to things that are good and true and right--is valid, and deserves more that purple plastic and a noise that could call dogs back from the woods.

That's a long way of saying that I've found a better "wand." It's not a thing, so much as a place, a website called The Divining Wand started by one of my favorite book bloggers, Larramie. She is an amazing friend to authors, and has both a gigantic heart and an inspired imagination that spill out all over her website as she dreams up creative ways to consider the companion arts of writing and reading.

I've been honored to have some of my thoughts on writing appear on The Diving Wand, and it's been so helpful for me to read other authors' responses to the same questions. It reminds me that there's no "right" way to do this--writing, life. We're all intricate and unique, and I believe that finding the frequency God wired us for is part of the adventure. I'm grateful to have a site like this where I can remember that just because someone else writes 35 pages every single day or always does 100 pushups before bedtime doesn't mean I'm off track if I my productivity chart has wild highs and lows rather than a straight & steady line. Somehow, things get done. Well, not so much with the pushups, but at least with the pages...

Check out the Divining Wand. Check out the books by the authors you meet there. Think about dialing down from the pressure to do things a certain way, and see if a little breathing room doesn't open up new possibilities. Or just look around and bookmark the site as a fabulous place to hang out :)

Friday, November 13, 2009

Chicks Write On :)

As you may have heard, Publishers Weekly recently announced their "Best Novels of 2009"... a list which included exactly no books by female authors. So sad. And, frankly, bizarre.

Over at Twitter, we do this cool thing called #FridayReads, where we share what we're reading going into the weekend. Today, we're focusing on books by women. I thought I'd do the same thing here at the blog.

And over at SheWrites, they've put out a Call to Action. (I love calls to action!) Kamy, the CEO, caused quite a stir at her local Barnes & Noble when she walked in and bought thirty-nine books by female authors. 39!!! Kamy is my hero (and I can just imagine the excitement of having that many amazing books just waiting to be opened!)

We can do this too! We can buy a book--for ourselves, for someone we'll be exchanging with for the holidays--today, one that is written by a female author. As a female author myself, I thank you (in advance!) Together, our pile will go even higher than 39.

Because here's the truth: what authors really want isn't so much accolades and getting our names on's readers.

So do tell: what are some of the best books you've read this year by women authors? Which titles are you excited to read? Which one will you buy today?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Deep thoughts on the cow couch

It took some doing, but I finally made my way through all the doom & gloom on the front page of today's New York Times (we executed somebody last night, healthcare is doomed, and there's not enough of anything we all want to go around) to find something truly blog worthy.

Check out this woman, and her "create a cow from a cow" inspired furnishings. Go ahead. Read it. I'll wait.

At first, looking at those hippopotamus-like benches (not to mention the picture of the guys pouring the plaster cast of the cow's stomach...) I thought, "This woman is nuts...why would anyone call that art?" But then this quote, describing how she got to this place, caught my attention: "She was baffled by the social psychology of a reputed animal-loving nation that felt it had to transform chicken into dinosaur-shaped nuggets to feed to its children."

Hmm...that's an interesting point. Suddenly, I was contemplating the true meaning of the cow couch. Okay, not really. But it got me thinking about the things I don't really think about. It reminded me of a day I had lunch with my mom, where we ordered some sort of fish & chips combo and the fish came in 3 inch triangles. My mom picked up a piece and asked (being from Maine and married to a lobsterman and all) "I wonder what kind of fish is shaped like this?" Then, realizing that the answer was "No fish ever comes in that particular dimention..." we both burst out laughing.

I'm just now starting to give serious consideration to the food I eat. Not so much as a dietary question (I've tried that, and the only motivation that really works is when I need to eat less to fit into my jeans) but as a spiritual one. It sounds kind of hoaky, but if part of a spiritual life is having some sort of awareness of the things God created (and the shape he created them in) it seems like my blind consumption of diosaur-shaped chicken bits might be a missed opportunity. Don't get me wrong--I'm not against dino-themed kids meals or even triangular fish. But before I eat something (or buy something, or make fun of something like a giant hippo-esque cow couch) I can ask, "Um, God...what's going on here?" and see if he has anything to say.

I'm not brave enough to ask that question when reading the front page of the Times. It's too overwhelming. But I can ask it about the little things, and trust that that's enough to start a conversation. Right now, I have a page of "extra smooth" tofu in the fridge. If that doesn't inspire a "what's going on here?" conversation, I don't know what will.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Trying new things, some successfully

I know blog posts about weather aren't at all exciting, but I'm soooo loving all these amazing sunny days in November! Which is funny, because most of the memorable moments from the weekend involved being indoors. I....

1. Finished reading COMMENCEMENT by J. Courtney Sullivan. Loved it. Really well written friendships, and I love how she captures that way you can let months go by without calling each other without meaning to, and then reconnect.

2. Went to a party where I ate tofu that billed itself as "steak." I'm not a huge fan of soy anything (well, sauce maybe...because that's just liquid salt). But I'm particularly skeptical when something white and slimy claims to be a viable stand-in for beef. But my friend Pascha kept saying, "Try's so amazing." As usual, Pas was right. So yummy! I've now concluded that you could serve me shoelaces and dog treats, and if it was all covered in a sauce of some sort, I'd happily chow it down.

3. Learned that I lack the skill set to manage large numbers of small children. Sigh. I now understand that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who have, somewhere in the recesses of their mind, a handy grab bag of entertaining games to keep kids from climbing the walls and killing each other, and those who don't. Steve and I are in the latter catagory. What's truly sad was that had it been a room full of dogs, I'd have known exactly what to do...

Wednesday, November 04, 2009


I watched the new show "V" last night. Wow. Totally creepy gross, and with reptiles to boot. I'm officially sucked in. I never saw the original 80s version, so all the big plot reveals are new to me. But I did catch on that the main creepy guy on the reptile ship was wearing a lizard skin blazer...that was a nice touch.

When the show was over, I ended up with TV whiplash, as our DVR switched over to the next show in line to be recorded: 18 Kids and Counting. (Yes, I watch this show. They're happy people. I like that) I couldn't help but imagine the Duggar family, and how they'd respond if the reptile ship of false hope & promises hovered over their abode in Arkansas? Somehow, I don't think they'd be all that impressed.

And that, my friends, is the big news here. Today at lunch I'll watch the latest installment of So You Think You Can Dance. No spoilers, please!!!

Monday, November 02, 2009

Can I get a happy ending!?

I'm on a reading kick, devouring novels like a ravenous literature beast. I go through phases like this sometimes, where I'm "All memoir, all the time!" or I crash through bookstores and libraries searching out every book on "Meaning & symbolism in professional sports." This month, it's fiction.

In my novel kick, I've been reading today's heavy hitters--modern authors who've churned out five, six, even ten major works over the course of their careers so far. I'm looking to see how they structure things, how they develop characters, move the plot along. Essentially, I'm getting a tutorial in 21st Century American literature.

Know what I'm discovering? That it's GRIM. Not the writing. That's poignant and beautiful and filled with the usual assortment of artful metaphors you'd expect from writers who have been at this awhile. But it's a rare moment indeed when something truly delightful happens to any of the characters in these books. By and large, these stories are populated with unenviable people leading unenviable lives, to whom something particularly unfortunate is about to happen. They're not given tools to deal creatively with either their lives or the unfortunate event. There's very little humor, or passion, or deep belief in something that might help them transcend. They're just left to struggle like fish in a barrel, waiting for the end.

What is that about? Why are these the books being lauded for their literary merit?

Here's my thought: it is MORE difficult to write a compelling story filled with believable characters that ends on an up note. As readers, we're suspicious of happiness. We search for signs of pat endings or authors taking the easy way out. Which means that the well done happy ending is one of the most elusive goals in writing today.

In one of my favorite songs, the band Sugarland points out that, From the beginning, we're all looking for a happy ending. I think they're onto something.

For those of you diving into NaNoWriMo, consider taking this up as your challenge! And for the rest of us readers, writers & thinkers about life...let's celebrate--and reach for--happy endings. I think they deserve some attention.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Life Management & Surprises

I'm having lunch today with my awesome friend Biology Girl! I thought we'd made plans for yesterday, so there I was sitting outside the restaurant for half an hour, playing with my iPhone, trying to look cool (because in Harvard Square there's a lot of attempted cool) and wondering what had happened.

Turns out, I'd written down the wrong date (see all my attempted cool evaporating into the atmosphere...) I'm still a little out of it in terms of knowing if it's Monday or Wednesday...part of diving into a novel all day and creating this whole alternative world. But if the only downside to my scheduling snafu was soaking up some quality sunshine on what might have been the most beautiful fall day ever (seriously--the sky was that shade of blue they use in travel posters to try and get you to fly to Greece) and four quarters spent on parking, I'm okay with that.

Today, we'll try again.

Part of what I love about hanging out with Biology Girl is that it reminds me that friendship isn't like doesn't always come from having the most in common. She and I are totally different: she's a PhD in science; I took bio pass/fail in college so it wouldn't mess up my GPA. She's a locavore/chef who loves being thrown in the kitchen with an hour to make a meal out of figs, sweet potato, and a leftover onion; the best meal I cooked last week was Saltines & Campbell's chicken noodle soup when I thought Steve & I might be getting a cold. We both love books but read different genres. We both love clothes but wear different styles. In truth, there's no outwardly discernible reason why we love hanging out together. We just do.

I like it when people surprise me and things can't be sorted out and neatly catagorized. Life is more interesting when it's a little unpredictable and messy.

There you have it, my philosophical musings for the day. Now, into the shower!

Friday, October 23, 2009

A book fest!

Attention Boston-area writers/readers: The Boston Book Fest is this weekend!!! You'll want to go. I want to go. So let's meet there! I have the whole itinerary mapped out and highlighted with the authors I'm excited to see: Richard Russo, Tom Perrotta, Elinor Lipman, the Anitas (Diamant & Shreve), Andre Dubus III, Amy MacKinnon... My plan is to tote my piggy bank downtown, dump it open on the Porter Square Books table, and see how many books those pennies will buy.

And after that, since I'll be way too awed to know which book to read first, the plan is to finally go see Julie & Julia. With movies, I can't even pretend to be on the cutting edge. But eventually, I get there.

Finally...a fashion lesson. Learned today, the hard way: If you new shoes at Marshalls/TJMaxx, check the soles before you leave the house. Otherwise the entire world will know you got your new clogs for $39.99.

Happy weekend!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

In happier news...

Mary Kay has a new lip gloss named after my new favorite fictional character, Fancy Nancy! (Because any girl knows that the right lip gloss is a key component to any extraordinary adventure!). And...

The Snuggie has competition! Behold: The Slanket! My nominee for second-worst product name ever (see below for #1) but the options make this site worth checking out. Sofa Safari leopard print? Walk The Slank skull & crossbones? I so want a job where I'd get to make stuff like this up, because you know the branding department at Slanket, Inc. is among the world's funnest places to work.

And finally, in terms of terribly named pleasant surprises, The Nook! I'm not in the market for an e-reader, but in terms of gadgets, this one captured my attention in the way none of the others have. I dig the touch screen, and the design, and the blatant way they've copied all that is good from Apple. (I've always thought the Kindle looked like a diagnostic tool my dentist would use to determine new ways to hurt me). But I'm not jumping in just yet.

When I was in the fourth grade and wanted to get my ears pierced, my mom wanted me to think it over carefully. So she made me name some incredibly high number of people who had pierced ears (and this was before cable TV, so my exposure to celebrities was limited to her hour of One Life To Live, the local news, and whoever was wrestling wildlife into submission on Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom). It took me several weeks of staring obsessively at women's ears, but eventually I hit my number, and mom took me to adorn my lobes with tiny gold stars (see: Fancy Nancy, above).

My mom is a wise woman. So I'll apply her approach to The Nook: If I can come up with twenty five books I want to own, but wouldn't care that I didn't have them on the shelf...AND I sell another book that I've written that others to load onto their Nooks (now you see, that just sounds terrible. What were they thinking with this name?) then perhaps I'll become a Nook owner myself.

How about you? If you had a Nook, what books would make the cut?
And what new, bizarre product options have I missed that are stirring your imagination?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Grim research, new strategy

As I mentioned a few days ago, I've been doing research for my novel. Not my favorite part of the process, but necessary. (It could be worse: my friend Amy's book Tethered had her researching how bodies are embalmed...)

The downside of research is that it doesn't always turn out to be helpful. Over the weekend, I read (okay, skimmed) three books on various psychological disorders, trying to figure out how to craft an evil--but interesting--bad guy. I read about sociopaths and narcissists, mostly, but dabbled a bit in disassociative identity disorder and something else I can't remember the name of. At the end of the day, here's what I'd learned:

1. Sociopaths/psychopaths aren't all like Ted Bundy. Mostly they're normal people who lack a conscience, and so go through life without thinking about how their actions or behavior could affect other people. They won't ever notice your feelings, because it doesn't occur to them. Life is all about them, all the time.

2. Narcissists are like sociopath-lites...but not by much. They know their actions affect others, but they're so self involved (and filled with shame) that they don't/can't care. They spend their entire lives manipulating others, insisting that everything go their way, isolating themselves from anyone or anything who might stand up to them or get too close to who they really are inside. They're loaners who see other people as pawns in their game.

3. Grim realization #1: Sociopaths/narcissists don't change. Ever. I didn't know there were any diagnostic catagories of people psychologists had just given up on, but the overall message of these books was that if you're involved in any way with someone like this, run. It's not ever going to change, it won't get any better. Your only hope is to get away.

4. Grim realization #2 (the author perspective): Unless your sociopath/narcissist does something specular with his/her life (Picasso, Frank Lloyd Wright) or truly depraved (Ted Bundy)...they're REALLY boring to read about. They're simply mean, dull people that most healthy folks try to get away from. They manipulate, they have control issues, they throw fits and make unreasonable demands. But unless they're brilliant (and most aren't) they're not interesting in a way that will keep a reader turning pages.

So... it's back to the drawing board for me with my bad guy. I'm mulling over something Donald Miller just quoted from Robert McKee on Twitter:

"A character is revealed by the decisions they make under pressure."

I think this is true in real life as well as fiction. So today as I write, I'm going to turn up the heat on my bad guy, to see how he reacts.

Navigating these uncharted territories is a stretch, but a good one. And it's certainly never dull :)

Monday, October 19, 2009

I am ecstatic!

Ridiculously fun weekend. We had two delicious dinners with friends, each of which had a special entertaining highlight:

At A&J's, we read the most fabulous children's book to their two adorable kids. How is it possible that I'm just now learning of Fancy Nancy and the Posh Pup??? I'm a fan of any book where the first line is, "I am ecstatic!" But this entire story is filled with two of my favorite things: wonderful words and SPARKLES. So much fun, even before we had the great dinner with the grownups. What's not to love about a sparkly girl who loves dogs? I'm asking for the entire Fancy Nancy oeuvre for Christmas.

Then, the next night, at D&J's...D convinced us to play Rock Band. Now I have to say, I am (and have always been) terrible at video games. From Tetris to Pac-Man right on through to Wii Archery last month at my sister's house. Terrible. And Rock Band was no exception. But holy guacamole, playing the drums along with the faux Foo-Fighters? SO. MUCH. FUN. It had me wondering if I could just get the drum set and a pair of ear phones to use as a reward/de-stressor for when I'm writing (and if so, whether it would count as a business expense...)

Sunday morning we helped out with the kids program at church for the first time. Twenty 6 year olds, learning about Daniel from the Old Testament, and how he fasted from certain foods for a season because he wanted to honor and grow closer to God. When asked to think of things they might fast from to honor and grow closer to God, the wee one's ideas were quite creative:
"My brother!"

Made me wonder what Fancy Nancy would say... :)

Happy Monday all!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Currently Reading...and Writing

I'm working on the novel (just hit 50 pages) and doing research...which means I have the CRAZIEST pile of books on my desk right now. I could be wrong, but I'd venture a guess that I'm the only person in America reading The Sociopath Next Door and Catechism of the Catholic Church at the same time.

I'm reading the books for separate characters, but because I'm writing both at the same time, I'm jumping back and forth. In both areas, I'm finding all sorts of things I didn't expect, almost bonus information: explanations for things I'd wondered about, and answers to questions I'd been afraid to ask. Fascinating stuff.

And in the midst of this, I'm loving these thoughts from Junot Diaz on his attitude towards writing after five years of struggle:

"Five years of my life and the dream that I had of myself, all down the tubes....I wasn't even interested in a Great American Novel. I would have been elated with the eminently forgettable NJ novel.... It took two more years of heartbreak, of being utterly, dismayingly lost before the novel I had dreamed about for all those years finally started revealing itself. And another three years after that before I could look up from my desk and say the word I'd wanted to say for more than a decade: done."

Here's to the eminently forgettable NJ novel! It seems like that's working out pretty well for him :)

On that note, I'm going to get back to work. I'll leave you with this hard-won tip: If you feel the urge to research sociopathic behavior for any reason (curiousity; your own eminently forgettable name-your-state novel), check it out; it's interesting stuff...Just don't do so right before bed!!!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Making A Bad Guy Bearable

In my novel, one of the main characters is bad. Not in a nuanced, complex, a-few-nice-traits-that-are-difficult-to-reconcile-with-the-rest-of-his-life kind of way. He's just a monster, who happens to look like the rest of us (think Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley). No matter how I try I can't find any softer qualities that might make him multi-faceted or interesting. He just goes after what he wants and won't stop for anything or anyone.

He's only part of the story, but I'm wrestling with how to write him so that he's at least interesting enough to keep the story moving. I'm realizing that this is one of the challenges of writing fiction: As the author, I know that the characters around him either don't know he's a dangerously self-centered creep, or are choosing for their own reasons not to notice. But they don't know. I feel like a spectator, wondering how the story will unfold, even though I've already laid out the major plot points. And every word I write about this guy gives me the shivers.

This is where you come in: I need inspiration for how to do this well! Can you think of books or movies you really love where one character is just awful? Where even the seemingly good things s/he might say or do are tinged with ulterior motive?

Monday, October 12, 2009

What's the Question?

You guys are amazing with the great ideas for my character! I never know what will make it through to a book's final draft, but I suspect that many of you will flip to a page and read something and think, "Hey--I thought of that!" Thank you!

In this spirit, I need more help. I have a couple of cool authors to interview in the next few weeks, and I must confess that I'm not always the best at dreaming up questions. (I wonder things like "What do you wear when you work at home? Have you convinced yourself (as I have) that if you're walking the dog in sweatpants at 3:00 in the afternoon, the neighbors think it's because you're SUCH a diligent worker, as opposed to a total couch potato?") But I hope we all have more interesting things to share with one another...

So here's my request: Think of someone in your life you'd love to know more about...if you could ask them ANYTHING, what would it be?

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Character building

I'm making up a character. She's a newlywed, and she's Italian. That's all I know so far.

Want to help me dream her up? Tell me something about her:

What's her favorite food, dream job, hobby, most embarrassing memory?
Where was she born?
Does she have siblings?
What does she want most in life?
What is she afraid of?

I think her name is Juliana, if that helps.

Thanks in advance :)

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Focus on the three

Three things I'm excited about today:

1. I went running and did not keel over or throw up. This felt like such HUGE progress towards a newer, fitter me that I came home and asked my husband to hide the salt shakers from me once again. He rolled his eyes, sent me upstairs, and (I'm guessing) tucked them behind THAT DOG's toy stash in the corner.

2. We have Red Sox playoff tickets!!! This is extra exciting because we missed most of the season due to the move, and because in our group ticket split, we usually only get one ticket to big games. Fenway Park, I've missed you!!!

3. Most of our clothing is unpacked and it's now possible for me to put together a complete outfit from garments found in one room of the house. (Unless there's a wedding...fancy dresses are still in a bin somewhere...) Of course, as I'm typing this, I realize that in all my unpacking, I never saw my Red Sox t-shirt, which I'll need long before the fancy dresses. ARGH. Progress, not perfection...

And in a bonus bit of excitement (to make up for the quasi-fail of #3): I went for both a walk with THAT DOG and a run today. It rained hard before and after each excursion...but not during. Love Indian Summer :)

What are your big three for the day? Do your shoes match? Did you brush your teeth this morning? Let's celebrate!

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Gospel, Coen Brothers Style

(The Twitterverse is aflutter with tweets about the implications of the FTC ruling regarding blog giveaways. But I have a $975,000 law degree that rarely gets put to use, so I figure I'll dust it off and persevere...But just so you know, the book below was FREE. A publicist sent it to me. But I'm blogging about it because I adore the author and think she's one of the most creatively interesting people I know. And because the book will help me hold my own in movie-based cocktail party conversation for years to come...)

Let me start with a confession: I like movies. Some quite a lot. But I don't retain lines from movies in the way that some folks do. No matter how hard I laugh or cry, the words characters say at those pivotal moments rarely sear themselves into my memory. This might be my husband's single biggest disappointment in me as a wife. I try, but it just doesn't happen.

So when I learned that Cathleen Falsani was writing a fun book about the deep spiritual message in the Coen brothers' movies, I knew this book would be gold for me. My only recollection of Raising Arizona is Nicholas Cage standing in front of a mobile home looking forlorn. From O Brother Where Art Thou? I've retained only an unfortunate mental picture of George Clooney in what looked like striped pajamas. And I am mortified to admit that I've never even seen The Big Lebowski. So in addition to its deep insights of significant spiritual insight, Cathleen's new book, The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers is a veritable movie culture Cliff's Notes for me.

And because Cathleen and I share a publicist, I have a copy to give to you! Here's all you have to do: Email trishryanonline AT gmail DOT com and answer this question: What movie that I probably haven't seen/don't remember should I double back and commit to memory?

You too can be part of my cinematic education :)

Addendum: Check out this cool article/interview with Cathleen in today's Boston Globe.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Win my favorite CD! (An FTC compliant contest!)

I saw Ryanhood in concert yesterday...I'd forgotten how inspiring live music is.

Their show has the distinction of being both less embarrassing than my first concert (Shaun Cassidy), and less revealing than the last big show I went to (Janet Jackson--I had an odd seat on the side of the stadium and could see backstage, where Usher--her opening act--did a, um...complete costume change). The Ryanhood guys managed to keep their clothes on AND give us one of the best live shows I've seen in a long time. They talked about all the things I wanted to ask exactly what I want to know about the musical life on the road: the creative process behind their songs, what it's like to wake up in Idaho and go to bed in CA, how they keep grounded in the middle of such an unusual was like that show Behind The Music, only live & interactive.

Ryan and Cameron are friends of ours, so I was able to score some swag to give away here on the blog :) I have an autographed picture AND their new CD. To win, email trishryanonline AT and tell me: What question have you always wanted to ask your favorite musician?

Just read this bizarre ruling by the Federal Trade Commission, and their plan to regulate these sorts of blogger giveaways. So, in the spirit of full compliance, here goes:

The CD you could win was not a freebie. I paid for it (due to a fantastic up-sell by the lovely girl running the merch table, who pointed out that if I got a CD with my T-shirt, I wouldn't need to paw through my wallet in the hopes of finding smaller bills. I want her to work for me!)

But yes, the picture was free, and I shamelessly worked my connections to get it autographed. But given that I'm pretty sure Ryan and Cameron would have signed the picture for anyone, I'm not sure this counts as "special treatment given as payment for endorsement" per the FTC.

And finally the enjoyment and inspiration I promised will come from listening to their music? It has not been substantiated by any official study, organization, or governmental oversight group.
(It could be. It just hasn't been yet...)

There. Now you know!

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Life in the Circus

Around this time every year, I post my "I Love Autumn" blog. I can't help it. This time of year feels like an extended birthday party to me--all my favorite colors on the leaves outside, I get to pull out cute jeans & sweaters after months spent trying to hide some body part or another from the public eye, the urge to walk briskly down the street because this time of year is when new things start and I don't want to be late... Love it.

I really dig new beginnings, truth be told. My parents have a basement full of furniture and high quality hand-me-downs they've been saving for most of my adulthood, waiting for me to land somewhere permanent (like a house with more than 900 square feet). I've been at this grownup thing for awhile now, and it doesn't look like my life is going to be of the "4 bedroom colonial on 3 acres where they lived for 25 years" variety. And on days like today, when new things are starting and I'm excited about it all, I'm okay with that.

I've been thinking a lot lately about how life doesn't turn out the way we think it will. Or for some folks (and I'm thinking of the big brother character in Jonathan Tropper's novels: super jock in college, marries the prettiest cheerleader, goes into the family business...and then wakes up sometime in his mid-30s to realize he hates his life) everything turns out exactly as planned, only it feels unsatisfying. What do we do with this?

I have to admit that I kind of dig the adventure of things changing every few years, so long as the people in my life are constant. I can handle a high degree of circumstantial uncertainty around jobs and living spaces so long as I'm connected with people. In all my ups and downs, I've seen how human connection builds a safety net underneath you, so that no matter how fast you might be falling, you won't crash. It's terrifying when it's you in the free-fall, but when it catches you, it's an amazing thing to behold. And now I feel like a more seasoned trapeze artist, I guess: what we're trying is still pretty risky, but I have confidence that even if I mess up, something will catch me.

How do you deal with life not turning out the way you expected? Do you like it that way, or does it freak you out?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Art/Craft of Persona development

I read an article last night about a fashion designer. The author made an interesting comment, saying that this man was "more of a craftsman than an artist" in his approach to creating new fashions. I've been wondering what that might mean ever since.

As near as I guess, a craftsman takes things that already exist and makes them into something different, whereas an artist puts words or color or shape onto something that was blank or formless? I'm not sure.

I'm a little uncomfortable with words like this, to be honest. Of course, I'd be delighted to be called either an artist or a craftsman at pretty much anything; it they're terms of honor. But maybe that's why the words make me squirm: they carry so much heft in terms of expectation. Doesn't it feel like artists and craftsmen should have more of a persona than the rest of us? That they should know or have access to hidden realms of creative power or something?

Most of the writers I know don't orbit in this rare air. We're more like worker bees, putting word after word on a page, trusting that over time it will amount to something. I guess that can become a persona of sorts, but not in quite the same way. It's not a fun persona...

I love to read about folks with big, fun personas (personii?)...I think I'd like to have one. As I read this article (it was in the New Yorker, about the creative director of Burberry) and another one about the genius/lunatic designer who is decorating Gwen Stefani's new house, they both had this ambiance about them that set them apart from the rest of the world, like little kids playing dress up or something. It looked fun. I mean, who wouldn't want to go through the whole day being melodramatic and demanding that bold splashes of color be tossed across the room?

I'm not sure if I buy it, though. I wonder if maybe they really ARE like little kids playing dress up when they're interviewed, when they're in public...but when no one is watching, they're just gifted people who work really, really hard at what they do?

Okay, I'm rambling a bit here. Let me get to my question: If YOU could have a persona (and I'm pretty sure that you can) what would it be? If someone from the New Yorker showed up today and asked you where you were taking your inspiration from in this season of your artistic development, what would you say?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

History: The Musical

I wrote ten pages yesterday to Paul Simon's Graceland. I was vaguely aware of this album when it first came out back in the late 80s--I spent as much time as anyone else back then bopping along to the radio as he sang, "You can call...meeee...Al..." But it wasn't a pivotal landmark of time and place for me, the way it was for some folks.

My pivotal landmarks are far more embarrassing, but it's all coming out now that I'm writing a novel and need to imagine characters in earlier parts of their lives. And I'm finding an eclectic playlist as I take this little jaunt down memory lane.

I started listening to romantic music with themes of love & loss as soon as I was old enough to spin the dial on my Dad's beat up old radio. So far before I had any idea what I was singing or what it meant to be "lost in love," lyrics by Styx, Air Supply, and Journey filled the room as I belted them out into my hairbrush. They mixed in with the tunes from the Grateful Dead and Crosby, Stills & Nash drifting out from under my brothers' bedroom door, and my parents' steady rotation of The Captain & Tennille, Tony Orlando & Dawn, and the Mamas & The Papas. (To this day, I equate having an ampersand in your name with musical success of a certain sort...)

Eventually, I moved on to REM and INXS...even an embarrassing phase with A Flock of Seagulls. And I'm not sure how it happened, but I know every word to every song on at least two different albums by The Who.

When I read Jancee Dunn's novel, Don't You Forget About Me, I realized how powerful songs can be in acclimating a reader to a certain time and place. So that's what I'm trying to do. It's fun, and embarrassing, and dredging up all sorts of random memories I'm not sure what to do with. So I'm trying to capture it on paper, seeing what sort of scenes result that I probably wouldn't have come up with except for this infusion of musical memory.

How about you--what are your musical landmarks?

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Trees in the Forest

We're settling in: we've found most of our underwear, acquired internet access and groceries, and THAT DOG is in a standing feud with the pigeons on our next door neighbors' roof, daring them to land on our windowsill one more time. So far, it's the start of a good life :)

I'm reading Donald Miller's long-awaited new book, A Million Miles In A Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life, where he talks about thinking of our lives in terms of story: are we living a good story or a bad one? Are our lives dull, or filled with fake drama, or stuck in some other predictable rut that keeps us from really living? It's making me laugh and think at the same time (no small feat; I'm not really a multitasker...)

I've been blessed with enough wild ups and downs in my life that I've rarely been bored or felt like things weren't interesting. But I'm not always sure what to make of what happens--it's only in hindsight that I can see how things have fallen together to propel me towards something (or away from others). In the meantime, I just try to notice what's going on.

Reading this book reminded me of a conversation I had with my editor as we worked on my first book, as we considered a chapter about why I quit my career in law. It was a longish tale that included a partner in another firm jumping from his 37th floor office window, two associates running away in the night and stealing a bunch of clients, and even a murder-suicide. "It's quite a story," my editor said. "But it has nothing to do with you finding the right guy, or the right God." She was right, and we pulled the chapter. I thought it might fit into my second book, but it didn't make the cut there, either. But someday, somewhere, the story will fit perfectly and I'll be glad I waited, and glad I wrote it all down.

I'm working on a novel now, and slightly overwhelmed by the task of creating lives for characters, rather than just recording my thoughts on how real life events unfolded and what happened as a result. It's a huge responsibility, creating people and lives and actions that have consequences no one imagined or intended! I'll confess that I'm cowed by the magnitude of it. But still, I'll write ten pages of SOMETHING, knowing that it may end up in this book or it might get filed away for another project. One thing I've learned about writing is that if you get an idea down on paper, it becomes part of your story you can go back to at any time.

Before The Enormous Debacle (which I will hereinafter refer to as "TED") and our resultant move, I was thinking a lot about how in the arts, discipline gives us freedom. Hard work produces options and flexibility later on down the line. I want that. So today, I'm going after it. Not just saying, "Hey, I saw this forest!" but doing the hard work of remembering and writing out each important tree.

How are you feeling about your story today?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Grateful Girl

It's been a week of packing, goodbyes, awkward conversations, and running off to Target at least three times every day for more bins and boxes. I'm exhausted.

And yet in the heart of my exhaustion is a little beam of excitement. I'm not sure where it comes from--it could be having my sister fly out for 36 hours to pack our entire house and share glasses of wine as we chatted late into the night. Or receiving emails from friends in Cambridge (and friends coming to visit Cambridge this fall) who don't even care what happened to us here, but are just glad we're coming back. Or having a few key friends here tell us that our relationships are worth the effort of continuing. All those feel like so much more than we could ever hope to deserve. And yet they're ours--they're real and they've happened. I'm awed, and grateful.

It makes me think of a passage in the Bible that talks about how when you've received a lot, a lot is expected of you; that all of this love is in our lives for a reason: so we can love other people even better because of what we've received.

I'm excited to start.

Tomorrow: a long drive, a new home, and a fresh new chapter of our lives. I've had a line from the Grateful Dead circling through my mind all week:

Sometimes the light's all shining on me
Other times I can barely see
Lately it occurs to me...what a long, strange trip it's been.

I think that about sums it up.
Yay for new beginnings in familiar places :)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A.J. Jacobs is back!

The awesome A.J. Jacobs has a new book out! It's called The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life As An Experiment. You should buy it, both because he's one of the best writers I know (in his last book he somehow managed to make pithy, funny, heartfelt observations about everything from ritual bird sacrifice to the challenge of stoning adulterers in this modern age) and because he's one of the best all-around people I've ever met.

Last year when my book came out, A.J. was on the list of authors I contacted in the hopes that he might write an endorsement (or "blurb" as they're known in the biz). His book about obeying every rule in the Bible for a year hit stores at about the same time, and even though he was in the throws of his own publicity push, he was astoundingly helpful and encouraging to me, the newbie author. He wrote an amazing blurb. We had coffee after his appearance in Boston, and did an event together in New York. He could not have been more supportive, or generous. I kept saying to my husband Steve, "I know he seems like a normal guy, but trust me, he's a BIG deal!"

So it's with great delight that I say: Run, don't walk, to your nearest bookstore and pick up The Guinea Pig Diaries. You'll get both entertainment AND the great feeling of knowing you've done something to cheer on one of the coolest author/husband/dad/writers out there.

Just this morning I had a conversation with a friend about how great it is to have a book to escape into when life seems overwhelming. This, my friends, is that book :)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Keeping your eye on the ball

I'm still thinking about the U.S. Open. About Kim Clijsters, to be specific, and something she said about how she managed to hang in there against some pretty tough competition to with the tournament. I can't quote her exactly, but it was something to the effect of, "I just focused on each individual point--putting whatever just happened behind me." She described how even though the goal of winning is always on her mind when she plays, she had to focus on each point, one at a time, to get there.

That's a great description of where I am now.

As I mentioned, we've taken a little vacation to catch our breath--so far we've gone to the beach, enjoyed lots of hugs and long talks...and taught my niece to jog! (She and I determined that the secret to running a long way is making sure you have a swingy ponytail and relaxed thumbs...)

Today I got the cool news that my editor loves my new book (!!!) which is a great way to kick-start a new chapter in life. We've found a new apartment back in the Boston area, and have been welcomed home most enthusiastically. We're starting to feel like ourselves again, which is good. We just keep focusing on the next point.

How about you? How do you put the past behind you and keep your eye on the future?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Our new life, so far

We're catching our breath. We've spent two days at the beach, watching THAT DOG dig giant holes in the sand and watching waves crash around our feet, and three evenings introducing my nephew and niece to U.S. Open Tennis (the niece: "I just LOVE Melanie Oudin, Aunt Trish!...wait...which one is Melanie again?") I read THE HELP which provided an unexpected reminder that sometimes you do the unpopular thing because it's the right thing to do, and AFTER YOU which was a great escape into another world (and had me thinking of my potato chips as "crisps" as I munched away yesterday). I'll be grateful to both authors when I see those books on my bookshelves in the days to remember the things that get you through life's complicated patches.

And what's helping the most are the waves of supportive emails and phone messages from friends near and far, along with our families who are rallying around us like champions. It's hard to express gratitude for all the little bits of support that keep us propped up, and yet it feels extra-necessary to try. So THANK YOU, everyone.

We'll have a family lobster dinner with my parents tomorrow, and then head down to Cambridge to reunite with our church family and give a lot of people some big, heartfelt hugs. Life is, as I mentioned, complicated...but there are silver linings and patches of sunshine everywhere. I hope they're shining through in your world, too :)

Monday, September 07, 2009

Putting "Believe" to the test

So last week I mentioned that I had to eat a frog. I've been silent all week trying to figure out how to explain everything that happened without crossing the crazy tangle of invisible boundaries that have popped up all around me. Life gets messy sometimes.

The frog was actually a meeting I had to go to. Steve and I had some concerns about some things where we worked, and I sensed that perhaps it wouldn't go all that well--that there would be conflict, rather than conversation. I'm not a big fan of conflict, so I was dreading what I feared would be an awful meeting.

It turns out I had no sense of what awful could look like before that meeting. But now it's been quite well defined.

To make a short story even quicker (and there is something to be said to ripping the whole band aid off at once rather than dragging things out) Steve resigned from his job, and I resigned from the odd assortment of responsibilities I'd been given to go along with it. We'll be moving back to New England in time for football season, which is good because I can't even imagine Sunday afternoons in winter when all that is on the TV is the Jets and the Giants.

We're a little banged up emotionally, and it might take some time before we get back to the place where we can believe people when they tell us things. Hopefully not too long, though. As my sister reminded me yesterday, I have quite a history of bouncing out of awful situations and landing in good places. We're excited about how that will unfold here. Let's just say there's lots of room for God to do cool things.

I've been watching the U.S. Open this week, a welcome diversion. The announcers talk again and again about the difference between the players who have a positive attitude and the ones who get down on themselves. It's good to hear. Unexpected breakout Michelle Oudin has the word "BELIEVE" on her sneakers. I think she's onto something :)