Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Rut

Sometimes it happens. You're going along with your creative life, producing and writing (or painting or  whatevs) and all of a sudden, the rut happens. Creativity screeches to a halt. Production stops. You're in the swamp.

My rut was caused by a loooonnnnnngggggg chain of Peculiar Events, but the point is: I've got to get out of it. So, here's what I'm going to do to pull myself out of my own little nasty slump:

1. Go and see Dark Shadows with my friend. Because I watched that stuff back in the 60's as a soap opera. Vampires + drama = good stuff in my book.
Quentin Collins, from the original show. That was good stuff back in the day.

2. Grill out a lot more. I'm talking burgers and dogs, of course, but also chicken, fish, veggies, and corn.

3. Make homemade icecream. I'm on a diet, so all I see when I look in my bowl is green. At some point this summer, that green will be Mint Chocolate Chip icecream.
Ooh, I like the tea cup idea! Cause then I have a little handle as I  inhale.

4. Go boogie boarding. So I'm in my fifties, right? A fine sport for a middle-aged lady is boogie boarding. I just picked it up two years ago. If you catch the wave right, it's a serious rush and I mean it.

5. Read a bunch of books, and I've mentioned them before, here and here. I've also added Gideon the Cutpurse for my YA book club, plus Gary Hoover just came out with the sequel to Land of Nod so you bet I'm going to be buying that sucker.
The cover reminds me of the books I used to get from Scholastic in fifth grade.

6. Do more Just Dance II. It's a great way to work out, and I'm getting really good at "Katti Kalandal." Bollywood, here I come!

7. Swim with my kid - and play Mermaids while we're at it. (I love how she accepts the idea that the pool vacuum is our pet baby dolphin; that concept makes perfect sense to her.)

8. Finally, finally, finally find a hummingbird feeder that works. If you have an idea of a good one, let me know.

9. Crochet a lavender sachet pillow .... nah, I'll never do that. Scratch that one.

10. Ignore all the drama and work on The South Sea Bubble and The Gramophone Society. Now, that I will do.

Friday, May 25, 2012

My Middle Name

My middle name is Agnes. AGNES. You know, the name that shortens to Aggie. It's one of those old fashioned names, like Dot or Ida, that don't get used any more.

For decades I avoided any discussion of my middle name. When people found out, a lot of laughter and teasing would ensue, and can I blame them? No.

A dear friend once tried to console me by giving me a copy of The Eve of St. Agnes by Keats. It is a lovely poem, but it didn't help.
The Eve of Saint Agnes

My mum and dad named me after my great-grandmother. I didn't know that much about her, except that she died in the Blitz in London. A bomb was dropped on the house, and she perished. And that's all I knew.
Blitz aftermath

This year, however, I got to read my aunt's transcription of what happened that night the bomb fell.

My great-grandmother, Agnes, was in the house with my grandmother and my aunt, who was a little girl at the time. When the bomb dropped the roof caved in, trapping the family in their bedrooms.

They had to lie there under the debris for hours. At last the rescue team lifted the roof off the house (my aunt remembers a "feeling of freedom" as the roof was taken off.) 

Still, the rescue team didn't know if there were any survivors. They dug through the rubble and discovered Agnes, my great-grandmother. Although she was terribly hurt, she was able to tell the search officers, all volunteers themselves, where to find the others in the house. 

And so, with her guidance, my grandmother and my aunt were found, and they survived. Because of her. Because of Agnes.

My name is Alison Agnes. And I'm damn proud of it.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Mean Mommy

At a certain point in some conversations, Mean Mommy kicks in. Allow me to illustrate:

Child: Will you take me to the carnival all four nights?
Me: Nope.
Child: Will you take me two nights? or three?
Me: Nope. We are going one night and that is it.
Child: (aghast) We can't just go one night!!!!
Me: Yup.
Child: That's so mean! I want to go every night! etc, etc
Me: You're lucky to be going at all.
Child: That's so unfair!

Now, this is when Mean Mommy kicks in

Me: Another word, and we will not go to the carnival. We will stay home every night.
(Child opens mouth to retort)
Me: I said not another word. 
(Child closes mouth.)

Now, I'm not so naive to think that this ends the matter. I know the subject will arise again, and with more scowls and grumps on her side, I can just picture the boo lip now, and more threats and Meanness on my side.
Who teaches them to do this?

The facts remain. That carnival is bloody expensive, and it is loud, and rude teenagers arrive after 8 PM, and I have to pawn my jewelry to buy food, and the rides make weird creaking sounds as the kids go on them. But I understand that it is the most important social event of the kid year, a sort of 7-year-old version of the prom, so I will take her.


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Kindness O'Clock

I'm still waiting for new covers for all three of my books in my Crown Phoenix series. The change of three books at one time requires a great deal of work, so I am going to cheat today and recycle some words from writers with much more talent than I'll ever have.

We like to be green here at Fresh Pot of Tea!


Guard well within yourself that treasure, kindness. Know how to give without hesitation, how to lose without regret, how to acquire without meanness.
George Sand

Happiness exists on earth, and it is won through prudent exercise of reason, knowledge of the harmony of the universe, and constant practice of generosity.
Jose Marti

I am imagination. I can see what the eyes cannot see. I can hear what the ears cannot hear. I can feel what the heart cannot feel.
Peter Nivio Zarlenga

In taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior.

Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

A good writer possesses not only his own spirit but also the spirit of his friends.
Friedrich Nietzsche

Be courteous to all, but intimate with few, and let those few be well tried before you give them your confidence.
George Washington

I don't need a friend who changes when I change and who nods when I nod; my shadow does that much better.

The gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.
Albert Einstein

I have found that among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver.
Maya Angelou

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Unbearable Lightness of Bad Reviews

Into every life and Amazon account, some bad reviews will come along. Not every reader will like or even get the point of what you're doing. It's a very difficult and humbling thing to read criticism, especially when you have a little niggling voice in the back of your skull that says, "They could be right, you know."

From my point of view, a thoughtful bad review is a blessing. It's the gift of a different perspective from a person who won't tell you that your creation is amazing, wonderful, beautiful...

Those superlatives are nice to hear, but where do they get you in your journey as an artist? 

Erich Kastner, the author of Lottie and Lisa (later that book became famous under the name of The Parent Trap)  wrote, "Develop a good, thick skin!"
If only she could have stayed this age forever!

Those authors and artists should listen to Kastner's advice. And he was a good authority; he lived in Dresden during WWI and Berlin during WWII.

It's very hard to do. After all, a book or a painting is a piece of someone, a part of their soul that they sawed off over a period of time and offered up for sacrifice. 

I have found that my own thick skin is like Mithril armor. It helps me negotiate the lances and spears of bad reviews. And when I don't allow something to hurt me, it really helps me fly outside of my skin and see my books from inside another head. Now THAT is an amazing trip.

Some of my best writing advice has come from reviewers who took the time to say what they didn't like. Let's face it; it's easy to say, "Oh, this book was wonderful!" To write instead, "I didn't enjoy the story, and here is exactly why...." is a much more involved, difficult thing. 

The battle against a bad review is the act of hacking off a Hydra's head; the monster grows two in its place. If we, as authors, can see that a thoughtfully written, bad review is a thing of wonder and a true gift, then we can tame the monster and let it live in the shed outside. 
Who's a nice monster then?

My Hydra likes to eat present participles, -Ly adverbs, and the word "then."

 *This advice came from his book, The Flying Classroom. If you never read it, you absolutely must. And have Kleenex at hand.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Geek Luxury

You know those reality programs where everyone on the show is shown to their new luxury suite? There's a lot of heavy ooh-ing and aah-ing as the models or batchelorettes take in the stripper pole, the hot tub, the fireplace, the wet bar...
Ooh, a dining room table!
I don't know. I mean, it's all the  same, really, isn't it?

I want to see a luxury suite with a working time machine. Now that would be new and different.

Or a real railway that circled the rooms, so I could ride from place to place in my suite.

Also a transporter, duh.

Take out the flatscreen  in every room, it just seems weird to watch the news in the toilet, and replace it with a working Smellovision. 

Also, I'd like dress-up closets everywhere, complete with Renaissance outfits. And armor for the lads.

I want a trampoline room, a bubble room, and a zero grav room. (I guess I really want Tom Hanks's apartment in Big.)

Be off with your silly mini bar! And wheel in the Dr. Pepper fountain, please. 

To go with, we'll need a cotton candy machine, a butterfly fries dispenser, hot air popper, and one of those rolly hot dog makers. I like carnival food, so judge me.

Need I say it? An entire wall of books, with comfy reading chairs.

Bowling Lanes are so 2011; my hotel luxury suite comes with an ice rink and a ski slope.

The turn down service should be preformed by Neo, or Katniss. 
"Would madam prefer a mint?"
Dr. Who shows on a continuous feed, so I can finally watch those bad boys. I think I'm missing out.

And, when I get tired, The Avengers can come in and give massages to me and my entourage.
"We'll start with some deep-tissue, to really relax your muscles...."

That should do it. Maybe even Teresa would refrain from flipping tables with those amenities.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

So Many books, So Little Time

In the comment section of my Avatar post, someone suggested the Allie's War series. Dedicated reader that I am, I dashed right over and checked out the series. Yup, it looks fantastic. And there are loads of books by the author. And I want them all.

Here's my reading list, should I win a zillion dollars and get to buy all the Kindle copies I want:

1. That Allie's War series. "Twenty-eight-year-old San Francisco native, Allie Taylor, at least thought she was human. Against a gritty and original backdrop of a modern-day Earth populated by a second race of beings, Allie finds out she's a member of an enslaved yet deeply powerful race, whose members believe her to be their most venerated leader, come to end the reign of humanity." Interesting!

2. Anything by Neil Stephenson. I'm deep into Quicksilver right now, with Cryptonomicon on deck. Quicksilver is  about "an explosive scientific battle of preeminence between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz over the development of calculus." Calculus? A battle between mathematicians? I'm there. (I can read about it, just can't understand it.)

3. Gideon the Cutpurse series. I love the cover and I've had a few friends tell me the books are incredible. "Gideon Seymour, cutpurse and gentleman, hides from the villainous Tar Man. Suddenly the sky peels away like fabric and from the gaping hole fall two curious-looking children. Peter Schock and Kate Dyer have fallen straight from the twenty-first century, thanks to an experiment with an antigravity machine. Before Gideon and the children have a chance to gather their wits, the Tar Man takes off with the machine -- and Kate and Peter's only chance of getting home. Soon Gideon, Kate, and Peter are swept into a journey through eighteenth-century London and form a bond that, they hope, will stand strong in the face of unfathomable treachery." Yeah, that's what I'm talking about!
Love that cover.

4. For my epic fantasy side, Darkness Rising by Ross Kitson. He  got me right from the start with his description of the heroine, Emelia. Plus, his world building is incredible. I'm a fool for maps, and that book has great maps. "Emelia is trapped in servitude to uncaring and haughty masters. When tragedy strikes, strange powers emerge within her - powers of the Wild-magic, sorcery reviled by the elemental orders. Escaping from her masters, Emelia embarks upon an epic adventure to find the Prisms and defeat the lord of the ghasts. Only she holds the key to their location but the Wild-magic comes at a dire cost...that of her mind."

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Avatar and My Left Foot

So, I've been watching Avatar. It's a great movie, with the signature Cameron touches - a dramatic romance that is threatened on all sides, a desperate fight for survival, and nonstop action and bravery. 

The scenery is lush and lovingly detailed, and the small touches are gorgeous. I particularly love the phosphorescent plants and water and face paint. 

Plus, it's very cool that the hero is a quadriplegic who overcomes adversity with his own determination, heart, and intelligence. Of course, for the most part he does so in a borrowed body.

(OK, that's why I watched the movie. Jake Sully's blue buns are sexy, yo.)
A scene where a 12 foot tall blue guy wrestles a dragon? I'm so in.

There's another movie about a man who also achieves great things with his own challenged physique. My Left Foot was filmed in 1989, and it is the story of Christy Brown. He was an Irish artist born with cerebral palsy. Christy, who is played by Daniel Day-Lewis, could only control his left foot.
From one of my favorite scenes, set in one of my favorite places: the Obelix at Killiney Hill.

He first used it to "make contact" as a child when he was able to write a letter A with a piece of chalk. His mother, who had been told that her son was "an idiot," was vindicated for believing in his intelligence.

The film itself is gorgeous and set around Dublin. It stars the luminous Brenda Fricker as Brown's mother, and of course Daniel Day-Lewis is always incredible.
Brenda Fricker
I love that the movie doesn't sugar-coat Christy Brown as a sort of saint. He was a hard drinker and a pain in the ass at times; in other words, he was a real human who happened to be a talented novelist and artist.
Yellow Face by Christy Brown

I am a big fan of both Avatar and My Left Foot, but I think that showing the human spirit soar without escaping the cage of the body is amazing. So, I'll keep checking out the world of the Na'vi, but I also salute my fellow Irishman.

PS - If, like me, you enjoy stories about the human spirit succeeding over physical challenges, you should also read The Butterfly and the Diving Bell. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Home Ec Class

I was one of the last grades to be part of a dying tradition : the "Girls take Home Ec, boys take Shop" system. (Also, the principal still had a wooden paddle, which he used on Bad Kids.)

The class was divided on Home Ec day. The boys trooped off to make a wooden lamp, and we went to the sewing room to make smock tops with heart-shaped pockets. SO attractive; I think mine was done in purple and pink, reflecting my already heightened fashion sense.
There it is, on the left. I didn't look quite as good in mine.
We also learned to crochet, a vital Home Economy skill, and we made hexagons that were eventually sewed together to make a ball. Because, how can that not come in handy!
This kind of deal, except in more violent, 70's-ish colors. I'm talking avocado.
Our teacher was a slender, pretty shy gal. I was fascinated by her, since it came out during the year that she was dating the very single, very dashing geography teacher. His first name was Rod. He looked like the casino owner from The Flying Nun. I wonder how that all worked out?
Dude from The Flying Nun. God, I'm old.

One day in spring, the pretty, slender teacher took us outside to crochet our balls (and, yes, the boys did snicker when we reported that sentence later.) The sky was a radiant blue. We sang "You are My Sunshine" in three-part harmony. Rod "just happened" to come walking by, and he and the lovely Home Ec teacher giggled together for a bit. 

It was old-fashioned, it was hokey, and the class was about to be axed for something more politically correct, but that day was a good day. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

Cool Puzzles

I'm all about brainsteasers, ever since my dad gave me an old book of puzzles in fifth grade. Then I never looked back; I was all about getting the fox and the geese and the corn over the river safely, or moving the rings from one post to another.

So when the Grabarchuk family offered me their new Puzzlebook to try out, I jumped at the chance. I was interested to see if their book, which only costs 99 cents, would run on my 1st generation iPad. I downloaded the book and opened it. Ta Da! It ran perfectly.

The book, called Puzzlebook: 103 Puzzle Quizzes, runs on a quiz format. You are given the puzzle and 2 - 4 possible answers. If you select the right answer, you get to move on to the next puzzle. If not, you are sent back to try again. (You can also cheat and move ahead if you aren't feeling the current one.)

There are different types of puzzles, such as typitoon, where type characters represent everyday objects, to divide the shape equally, to a cool Zoo puzzle that my 7 year old loved.

Make no mistake - these start out nice and easy and they get quite challenging. I'm still working my way through the book, and I've been playing it for a week. That's a great bargain.

Did I mention it costs 99 CENTS? Cents. As in pennies.

This is the 7th volume out by the Grabarchuk family. They also have holiday editions out, and their book prices range from 99 cents to 4.99. You can check out the rest of them, here.

We're driving to the beach tomorrow, so I'm going to throw my iPad into my beach bag. Bub can play the puzzles on the way down, to cut down on incidents of "Are we there yet?" and I'll finish the book on the beach.


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The First Sleepover

She'd had a few of them before, but those sleepovers didn't count. Those sleepovers were held after our huge Midsummer Party and we were all up until 3 AM (and the kids woke the next morning at 7, but that is another story.) 

In any case, last weekend Bub begged and begged to have a real sleepover with her friend from school, and we said yes. 
I know, let's call funny numbers! Oh, Mrs. Wood...

The friend arrived. Friend brought a huge bag of Beanie Balls (fuzzy balls made to look like animals,) her American Girl Doll, books, papers, and oh yes - pjs and a toothbrush. 

The girls had mini pizza bagels for dinner. We made cupcakes and they spread on the icing and the sprinkles. They ate three of the cupcakes, each. They wrote books about their Beanie Balls on the paper and we all played Apples to Apples, which is the greatest game in the world to play with your kids.

I suddenly realized it was way past everyone's bedtime. I'm a responsible adult, but I suggested roasting marshmallows instead of getting some rack. We grabbed a bag and sticks and headed out to the gas firepit. The girls managed to avoid serious burns. We all ate charred marshmallows, although I couldn't convince Bub that the black part is the yummy part, and you don't have to throw it away. No, she would carefully peel it off, toss it somewhere - one landed in my lap - and then she ate the rest. I'm not certain why she bothered to roast them at all.

We hustled them up to bed. I gave the girls ten minutes to read; when I came back to turn off the light, they gave each other The Look. Sure enough, when Hub and I went down to clean up and put away Beanie Balls, Apples, and Marshmallows, we heard the whispering and giggling start.

They slept, finally, and woke at 7. That must be the regulation time to get up on a sleep over. Bub's more self-sufficient though, now, so she and Friend crept down and made their own breakfast. Probably it was a few more cupcakes, but what do I care? I got to sleep in longer. 

As Friend drove off with her parents, Bub said, "This is the worst time of a sleepover, when they have to leave. Still," she added, "I guess that meant we had a really good time."

Parents retire to the kitchen and the teapot, to high five each other and grab the last of the cupcakes.

Monday, May 7, 2012


I'm such a sucker for them, those little, catchy sing song tunes warbled by a crew of sweet voices for Ovaltine and Winston and Campbell's on the radio and TV. 

First there are classics, like the Meow Mix commercial,(meow meow meow etc. etc.) "I am stuck on Band Aid brands cause Band Aids are stuck on me," "Give me a break of that Kit Kat Bar, " "Wouldn't You like to be a Pepper Too?" and of course, The New Seekers and "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke."

Tell me you never sang along to this:

And my kid still sings along with them. Whenever that Kars4Kids commercial comes on, she starts warbling along, in the kid's voice for the first verse and the man's for the section that sounds like Johnny Cash. I just YouTubed it, and I see that she is not the only one:

I don't know why I'm so fascinated by jingles. Maybe they are such a product of their times, that they are like a little window into a lost era, such as the twenties:

or the fifties:

or the seventies:

It must be hard to create, a little mind worm that everyone will whistle along too while their coworkers curse them for "putting that song in my head."

Which I have just done to you.

Friday, May 4, 2012

One Thing a Kindle Can't Do

The other day I had an online chat with a few of my favorite moms. We bemoaned the fact that our kids didn't read as much as we used to when we were kids, thus proving that yes, I am really old now.

I notice that my daughter does tend to read if - and this is very important - if I myself pick up a book in her presence. At the moment that book is Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson, so it is a damn heavy book to pick up.

As with swimming, and I bet with riding her bike at last, if Mom does it then Kid will, too. So I just have to learn to step away from the laptop and the iPad and the iPhone and the iPod and read, read, read. Those flipping pages seems to waft some magical gas in Kid's direction and before you know it, she is reading Missy, An Abandoned Kitten. She goes for books about cute animals, and yes, diabetics are not allowed to read that story. Or even look at the cover.

Here's the thing. If I were reading Quicksilver on my Kindle, which would be much more convenient and lighter, and I think it would relieve my back pain too, then my kid would not KNOW that I was reading. It would look like I was on just another device.

And, let's face it, a Kindle does more than showcase books. You can surf the Internet, play games... I had someone tell me that they use their Kindle for everything except books. I'm not judging, just saying.

As I and countless others have said, Kindles are great, but print rocks too. A print book does nothing but lie there and be a book. You can't text from it, set up a soundtrack or play Temple Run. And isn't that fantastic, in a minimalist sort of way? 

I love my Kindle (which I host on my iPad) but it can't smell like parchment and old leather. It can't make that riffling sound as I look for my place. It's techie and cool, but it's not magic. 


Thursday, May 3, 2012

Cougar Town

This is one of my favorite TV shows, and why is that? Terrific writing, that's why, as well as a talented cast. I haven't always been a Courteney Cox fan, because I should have been the one pulled up on stage with Bruce Springsteen, but she has won me over.

The show begins with the inside joke of the title. There aren't any cougars in the show, especially now that Barb has married the mayor .... but I'm getting ahead of myself.

The show is set in a suburb of Miami, in a small cul-de-sac. The characters who live there have become an extended, dysfunctional-yet-supportive family. Jules, played by Courteney Cox, is a recently divorced woman. She still hangs out with her ex-husband, Bobby Cobb, who lives in a boat that is permanently parked in a lot (I love that the boat is called Jealous Much?)
The glorious scruffiness that is Bobby Cobb

And there are the neighbors, Ellie (Jules' best friend) and her husband, Andy. There's Jules's son, Travis, and the cute neighbor, Grayson. Yes, Grayson is very cute, except they all pick on him; Ellie's name for him is "Tiny Eyes." 
She also calls him "Dime Eyes."

Fans of the show know all about the Penny Can and how you now have to sing "Penny Can!" as you flip a penny into the can. Go figure. They also know that the characters drink wine, all the time. Jules, in fact, had  a large wine glass called Big Joe (RIP) that was replaced by Big Carl when Big Joe was shattered. 
Jules, holding Big Carl. She doesn't understand why she never gets four glasses out of each bottle.

I believe you can buy your own Big Carl glass now.

One of my favorite episodes, indicative of the sharp wit of the writers, showed Jules with her friends. She had stopped drinking so much wine, and they staged an intervention to get her to drink more. 

And then there's free-wheeling, attractive Laurie, now dating a soldier in Afghanistan that she met on Twitter. She's one of my favorite characters, for her coffee order monologue alone.

(Anyone who orders a coffee called a Sauron's Eye is okay with me. Plus, I love how her lipstick grows more neon with each episode.)

In fact, every character in the show is so alive and so unique, that they keep me coming back for more. Barb, the one cougar, who travels with a thong bikini in her purse and an eye for Jules's ex boyfriends, Tom, the sad sack neighbor who would do anything to fit in, Travis, who has nailed intelligent, caustic, young college wit perfectly, and Sig, Travis's roommate, are original and funny. The interactions between them and the main cast are spot on.
Barb, with Jules: "Oh, there isn't a woman in the world who can resist the scent of wounded boy."

Like Friends, Cougar Town creates its own little universe. With the inside jokes, the show pulls the audience in to become part of that world for thirty minutes. There is a connection there. It's a great contrast to the disconnect which makes a lot of TV cold and distant, and which I wrote about earlier, here. 

If you're just jumping in, do go and see some of the first two seasons. It's all fabulously written, frivolous fun.