Sunday, December 28, 2014

Two Sure-Fire Ways to Keep Your New Year's Resolutions

Resolutions are big in my family. 

We make them and mock them. We egg each other on to keep them. And break them. 

It helps that we write them down. 

Every year, for the past fourteen years, we've hosted a New Year's Eve party with the same group of friends. One of the party-goers, the most resolute of the resolution-makers, (for the purposes of this blog, we will call this person "Deb") records everyone's resolutions. She used to do this on a scrap of paper, but one year her resolution was to buy a blank book that would be used for the sole purpose of recording resolutions.

"Deb" has now become the Keeper of the Resolution Book. 

"Deb" with "the book." It's "fun" to flip through this book
and see what resolutions we made (and broke) over the years.

I know that not everyone is a fan of making resolutions. If you want to make a goal, make a goal. is what some people say. Why do you need to do it on Dec. 31? 

Also, a lot of people make resolutions and then break them like, three days later, as many gym workers will tell you. 

All true. But there is a reason why resolution-making on New Year's Eve has become a tradition. (See here on Wikipedia about how it can be traced back to the Babylonians and the Romans.) (Another fun Wiki tidbit: 88% of all resolution makers fail.

Anyway, after fourteen years, "Deb" and I consider ourselves experts on how to make--and successfully keep--resolutions. If you want to be one of the 12%, read on.

1. Say your resolutions out loud. In front of a witness. Or fifteen.

There's power in verbalizing what you plan to do. I would venture to say that it is the very first step in achieving any goal. You've got to name it. Lose ten pounds. Run a marathon. Finish a novel. Whatever. You won't do it, if you can't say it. And having witnesses adds a bit of peer pressure, people who will hold you to it. 

Last year my husband and I made a joint resolution to visit cultural sites around the city. We took pictures of the various sites and sent them to the Keeper of the Book. 

A Chihuly sculpture at the Columbus Museum of Art

Side note: Attending a Food Truck Festival does not count. According to "Deb."

Sometimes the peer pressure aspect can really spur you on. For the past four years my husband resolved to paint the trim on our house. Last summer we vacationed with "Deb" and family and they joked about how that resolution had become something of a rolling resolution for my husband. Ha ha, they said to him. Wonder what your resolution will be this year? 

We got home from vacation and my husband painted the trim on the house.  

Which brings me to number two. 

2. Set a low bar. 

Painting the house trim is hard. I do not recommend resolving to do hard things like that. Lose weight? Run a marathon? Who are we kidding? 

When my kids were little, simply getting dressed and venturing out of the house seemed like a fairly big deal. I had only one resolution:

Wash my face every day. 

I confess that I did not always achieve this lofty goal, but it was something to shoot for and most days, I did, in fact, manage to accomplish it. 

Now that I think of it, I was usually the only person who remembered and successfully kept my resolution. 

So forget everything I said. 

Make resolutions. Or not. Break resolutions. Or keep them. 

Whatever you do on New Year's Eve, I hope it is done (or not done) while surrounded by dear friends.


Last year on New Year's Eve moments before the resolutions
are shared and recorded... and forgotten.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Fun Times Juggling Carnivores and Vegans

It's just not Christmas until The Sausage Maker catalog arrives in the mail.

The Sausage Maker, as I'm sure you know, is the one-stop shopping guide for smokers, stuffers, grinders, and mixers. There are also pages of vacuum sealers, dehydrators, cheese making presses and fermenting pots. But we use it, of course, to buy our annual supply of sausage casings. My husband is Danish, and one of the Christmas traditions in his family is to make his grandmother's homemade potato and pork sausage to serve on Christmas Eve.

Making potato sausage is a complicated procedure that takes pretty much all day. It involves peeling potatoes, mixing it with the ground meat, stuffing the casings, gently boiling the sausages, and later, frying. We always have mishaps.

Example: broken casings or sausages bursting in the boiling water.

In our house, there's also always some kind of engineering involved. Since we never spring for the sausage stuffer equipment found in the catalog, we need to figure out how to hold the slippery casing open whilst stuffing it. One year we used an asthma inhaler container. Last year, an M&M canister with both ends cut out.

[I keep saying WE but there is no WE about it. I have nothing to do with the grinding or the stuffing or the engineering machinations. Although, I will help peel potatoes, and later, I'll watch the stove while the sausages gently boil--and inevitably burst.]

Potato Sausage Making is my husband's operation, with some help from our son. Christmas Eve you will find them, setting up our kitchen like it is a science lab, my husband laughing, my son saying "Ew," every few minutes.

I should mention that sausage casings are made from hog, sheep, or cow intestines. You can buy plastic inedible casings, but COME ON, PEOPLE, you may as well buy a casing shaped like a football.

(a casing shaped like a football.
Also, a baseball bat)

The sausage making tradition is always interesting, and this year it is about to become more interesting when my visiting brother from California arrives, just in time for the Christmas Eve peeling and grinding and stuffing.

Visiting brother from California is a vegan. I haven't looked this up, but I am pretty sure that vegans do not eat intestines.

Finished Homemade Non-Vegan Potato Sausages

I admit that I had been a little anxious about the menu-planning coming up over the next few days. But I turned to my trusty Sausage Maker catalog and lo and behold, on page 39, I found the solution:

Now, if I can only figure out a way to hide our annual tray of assorted cheeses...

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Don't Come Early to the Rally (and other advice for would-be protestors)

Yesterday I got metaphorically booted out of a government building.

I was sorta flabbergasted. I've never been asked to leave a place in my life.

The guy-- a security guard at the Ohio Department of Education--was totally nice about it. A few minutes before we'd been sharing a laugh, so when he told me to leave--and not just leave the building but stay off the entire property and make sure I was standing on the sidewalk, and not blocking the stairs or the street--I thought he was joking.

He wasn't.

I walked outside, stunned, and stood on the sidewalk, making sure I did not block the stairs or the street, and feeling weird and, okay, outraged.
(The building in question.)

I was too early, is what the problem boiled down to, and when you're participating in a rally, apparently, you need to be on time and not expect to sit in the lobby of the Ohio Dept. of Education while you wait.

It all worked out in the end. As rallies go, this one was pretty mild. A few protest signs. Speeches and chants. All of us crammed in on the sidewalk clear of the stairs. Moms. Dads. Kids. Teachers. A cool group of nurses.

(the cool group of nurses)
I guess I should tell you what this raucous protest rally was all about. This week the Ohio Board of Ed is voting on a measure that could potentially put discretionary positions such as P.E. teachers, art and music teachers, librarians, nurses, and guidance counselors on the chopping block. The way things stand currently in Ohio, schools must have 5 out of 8 of these positions per 1000 students. 

Money's tight in Ohio. The state's cut money to the schools, and the schools are doing what they can to deal with the loss of state support, which includes raising taxes and cutting jobs. But their hands are (fortunately) tied by the 5 of 8 Rule. 

Now some school board members, in the guise of giving local school districts "freedom," propose doing away with the 5 of 8 standard. They say it won't lead to the loss of discretionary positions (which some have called luxuries), but, come on. Who are we kidding here? 

The sad truth is that wealthier districts will find a way to keep art and music and librarians in their schools, while other districts--and children in those districts--are going to lose out. 

People gave impassioned speeches.

A mom talking about how the arts helped her child. A child talking about her ADD and how much being in the theater made a difference. A guidance counselor speaking about kids in crisis. A college student describing how music made him what he is. 

My friend Susan Yutzey, a retired librarian and president of the Ohio school librarians, spoke about how kids need help more than ever in analyzing and understanding the vast amount of information they are bombarded with each day. I spoke about how librarians saved my life and about how I've seen first hand what districts look like without librarians--

(hint. It's not pretty)

--and places where the libraries are the heart and safe haven in the schools and what a difference that makes to children (and, okay, if you're concerned about fff-ing test scores, I'll tell you a secret: a librarian in your school will help ya' out there too.) 

The speaker that made me cry was one of the school nurses, when she talked about saving a child's life. Literally.

The news came. The little kids held the protest signs-- tombstones. We all chanted "Keep 5 of 8."

No one got arrested or burned anything down. 

But then again, no one really pushed us-- a group of mostly white middle aged middle class parents and little kids. Our outrage is of the white middle aged middle class parent variety-- frustration and sadness to think that our elected representatives are making poor decisions that will have real effects on what happens in our children's lives-- Will they be able to play sports? Will they have a librarian in their school who knows their names and what books they like to read? Will they have a guidance counselor to help them cope with bullying? Will they be able to play in an orchestra or act in a play?  

--and not the kind of outrage that I can only imagine you'd feel when, say, for example, your child is shot to death by someone in a position of authority. 

Once upon a time, I was a child growing up in poverty in a single-parent home. One year we did not have a car. One summer we lived in a tent at a campground. There was a death in my family. And violence. The course of my life was set on a certain trajectory.

But I went to good schools filled with "luxuries," schools where there were teachers who cared about me, librarians who knew my name and put books into my hands. I was exposed to music and art and (even though I didn't like it much) P.E. I had a great guidance counselor who walked me through the college application process. 

And I was nudged onto a different path from the one seemingly set in the beginning. 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Interview with Jenny Torres Sanchez

One of my favorite books this year is a little book with a long title: Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia. Last post I talked about why I pick up books-- and the result of the not very scientific survey is that they are books written by authors I know, either virtually or in real life. But that doesn't explain why certain books resonate with me.

I picked up Frenchie Garcia to read on a trip to Orlando for a Florida librarian conference. The book had been on my radar for a while. It was released around the same time as my book, and I was keeping up with the competition. I knew it had received a starred review from Kirkus, for example. And that it had made it onto their Best Of list at the end of the year. Jenny had been a member of the same group blog YA Outside the Lines. And a few weeks before, I'd bumped into her agent, the lovely Kerry Sparks, at another conference, and saw Jenny's book at the conference bookstore.

When I found out that Jenny lived in Orlando and would be coming to one of my events, it seemed like one of those serendipity things. Why the hell hadn't I read her book?

I read the entire thing on the plane down and was blown away. Jenny was sitting in the audience of my shared book signing with Jessica Martinez, (they are friends. The YA writing world, if you haven't guessed it by now, is small and tight) but all I wanted to do was switch places and sit in the audience myself and pepper Jenny with questions about her brilliant book.

So, I didn't get to do that, but after the event, I cornered her and requested an interview.

Which begins now...

Jenny: Are we having coffee?

Jody: Why not? I love coffee.

Jenny: Good. Let’s have coffee as we talk and sit on plushy chairs….oh, or let’s be on a Ferris wheel. With coffee (the carnival just came to town and I see the Ferris wheel every day as I drive to the bookstore where I write.)

Jody: All right. We're on a Ferris wheel and drinking our coffee. I hope we are turning very slowly...

(Jenny Torres Sanchez possibly sitting on a virtual Ferris wheel) 

Okay, Jenny, you know I loved loved loved Frenchie so much and am recommending it to everyone I know. I must ask the question that every writer is asked--but I don't care!! I want to know!!-- where do you get your ideas?

Jenny: I don’t know. Great answer, huh? Okay, let me talk through this, because I’m serious about not knowing. Usually it starts with a character. They sort of show up and I know they’re going through something rough, but I don’t immediately know. So they hang out in my brain for a while as I figure out what has happened to them. I don’t remember coming up with the ideas for books at all, actually, at least not with The Downside of Being Charlie or Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia.

I just peeled back layers of my characters and wondered, “Okay, why is he/she this way? What has he been through? What is she dealing with or covering up?” And then the stories just started forming. With the piece I’m working on now, believe it or not, it started out with a line from a story I wrote years ago while in high school? Maybe college? An image actually, that has stayed in my brain and has become a kind of a little string I pulled and keeps getting longer and longer and more tangled and I’m like, “Wait, there’s a whole story here!”

Jody: You talk about these characters or ideas sort of simmering in your head for a while-- what do you do at that point? Do you plan? Or do you just start writing and see where the story goes?

Jenny: I make up as I go. I’m terrible any other way. Planning never works for me because I can’t stick to the outline. My characters end up making all these other decisions and the story takes different turns. I know outlining works for a lot of writers, but when I plan, my writing tends to sound forced and just doesn’t really ring true. So, I let the story go where it wants to go and worry about editing later.

Jody: I haven't read your first book --The Downside of Being Charlie (it's on my TBR!). Was it the first book you wrote or do you have a few novels stuffed in a drawer?

Jenny: I started a couple of middle grade books when I was in college but I never finished them. Before writing novels, I mostly wrote short stories and I got a lot of rejections from those. But The Downside of Being Charlie was the first book I really set my mind to finish, and when I did, I started querying agents (I got a lot of rejections during this process too). Lucky for me, my now agent

Jody: Kerry Sparks--

Jenny: Yes, Kerry. She saw something in it and took a chance on me.

Jody: Is she hands-on when it comes to revision?

Jenny: Yeah, definitely. My stories can get lost, sort of wander around in circles, or sometimes they keep trying to get through a brick wall by running into it repeatedly. And I think of Kerry as this guide who points out little paths I missed and need to explore. And someone who reminds me to walk around the brick wall or climb over it. She’s fantastic.

Jody:  Speaking of revision, do you have a process for that?

Jenny: (Insert laugh track) Ahahahahaha…ha…ha…ha…sigh. Yeah, so I’m all over the map with that. I mean, I definitely revise, but it’s not a very disciplined approach I guess. Sometimes I go back to what I wrote the day before and spend forever getting that paragraph, just that one paragraph, right.

Jody: OMG I do that too. It's a sickness.

Jenny: I know. Right? Other times, I’ll do a whole chapter. Or I’ll revise starting from the end of the manuscript and work my way to the beginning. It’s a bit chaotic, my process, but it works for me. Mostly. I think. I hope.

Jody: Switching gears a bit, what kind of work schedule do you have every day?

Jenny: Wake up. Do the school drop off thing w/ my two oldest kids and then drop off the smallest w/ my mom so I can write for a couple of hours. That’s it. Those couple of hours is all I have to actually sit and work, so I make sure I use every second of it. I’m pretty protective of that writing time, but I think you have to be.

Jody: I'm impressed. I had the hardest time writing when my kids were younger. There were so many things going on and writing kept falling further and further down the list. How do you balance your writing time with your other obligations?

Jenny: I guess what works for me is keeping it all separate. When it’s writing time, it’s writing time. That’s all I’m focused on. I don’t worry about other things I have to do, I don’t use that time for anything else, I just sit and write. Likewise, when it’s family time, I make sure not to even attempt to write.

Jody: Writing time, family time, and then there's a whole other big chunk of promotional time, which these days, means being on social media. What's your take on that?

Jenny: Hmm, I should probably talk more about my books on social media. But what I actually do is tweet a bit about them when they come out and give a few away. And then I tweet a lot about other things like music and art and things I love like other authors and essays that I find interesting. I guess I tend to use social media as more of a “hey look, isn’t this cool!” kind of thing than a promotional tool.

Jody: People are tired with the whole "BUY MY BOOK" kind of thing anyway.

Jenny: And that's good because I’m not great at constantly promoting myself on social media, so I do what makes me comfortable and I’m okay with that.

Jody: You mentioned before that you're working on something inspired by story you wrote in high school. Can you share a bit more about that?

Jenny: It's a weird story. There’s no other way to explain it. It’s weird, but it’s been a lot of fun working on it so far. It’s still in that fun stage where I don’t want to kill it yet. It’s in the early stages, so I’m still hush hush about it. But basically it came from that short story I wrote (and actually never finished).  But sometimes stories do that, don’t they?

They stay with you for years and then suddenly surface again. In a weird way, I think they’re kind of writing themselves a little in the back of your mind, just waiting for the right time to come out. Anyway, I’ll share the image that inspired it too. It’s of a woman’s bloody pinky dangling from her hand, the tip of her finger gleaming with shell pink nail polish.

Jody: I'm getting chills.

Jenny: That’s about all I’ll say, but it’s interesting what happened to her. And how it affects the main character. ;)

Jody: Well, I now I've got a future book of yours to add to my TBR. Jenny, thank you so much for chatting with me.

And dear readers, if you'd like to more about Jenny and her books, check out the links below.

Jenny Torres Sanchez
Twitter: @jetchez  
on Amazon

Sunday, November 30, 2014

What Makes You Pick up a Book? (Also, a warning about sociopaths)

As a compulsive reader I am interested in the answer to this question because I have a crazy number of books teetering in stacks around my house and sometimes I am paralyzed by the choices.

As a writer I am curious about the answer too, because what I am really thinking is: what is going to make a person-- a stranger somewhere out in the world-- pick up MY book? -- especially when there are so many other books and entertainment options (in addition to books) competing for his or her attention.
(example: Binge-watching a TV show
as my husband and I are presently doing
with the compelling series House of Cards)

Yeah, I know. There is an entire industry built around the question of what makes a person buy/read a book.


I've learned quite a bit about marketing over the past few years as I attempted to promote my book Thin Space. I had a publishing house behind me doing their Thing. Stuff like designing a book cover and ensuring that the book made it into the hands of professional reviewers, setting up blog interviews and author tours, figuring out bookstore placement.

Not being an expert in marketing, but wanting to do everything I possibly could to help, I helped. But I never knew if what I was doing was working. I had a Throw the Spaghetti on the Wall and Let's See If It Sticks approach to marketing and promotion. If someone asked me to do something, 99% of the time (because of the lessons I learned from my writer friend Mike Mullin), I said Yes. 

Interviews, guest blog posts, school and library visits, book festivals, bookstore signings? YES

TV and radio programs? Gulp. Okay. Yes.

Book tours? HELL YES.

Do some of this stuff for free? Um, yeah. okay.

Let us pay you? SURE

Did any of these translate into book sales? Yeah, but how many and which ones were most effective? Uh. No idea.

Or I guess I should say, Some idea. But it's not something you can control or count on. Someone likes the book and tells someone else. That's at the heart of it.

And the key seems to be if that Someone is in a position to tell MANY others. Example: a bookstore owner. A librarian who happens to be the president of a librarian association. A librarian who sits on a committee to choose books for a state's reading list.

It's Word of Mouth many times over and it all comes down to what makes a person pick up a book in the first place. What makes her READ it. Like it. Like it so much she wants to tell another person. 

Which brings me back to my teetering stacks of books.

For the sake of analysis, here are the last few books I picked up and why I read them:
1. (Reading now) The Outlander, Diana Galbadon. Why? My book club chose it.

2. Perfectly Good White Boy, Carrie Mesrobian. Why? I read her book Sex & Violence and loved it. Plus, I was interviewing her for a group blog.

3. Gone Too Far, Natalie D. Richards. Why? Natalie is my friend and I loved her other book.

4. The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt. Why? Book club chose the book.

5. Behind the Scenes, Dahlia Adler. Why? I know the author from online interactions.

6. Kiss, Kill, Vanish, Jessica Martinez. Why? Did a joint book-talk/signing with the author.

7. The Walls Around Us, Nova Ren Suma. Why? I know the author, read and loved all of her other books.

8. The Living, Matt de la Pena. Why? The book is on the Florida Teens Read list and I heard the author speak at a conference.

9. Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia, Jenny Torres Sanchez. Why? I knew I was going to meet the author at a book event.

10. Burning Blue, Paul Griffin. Why? The book is on the Florida Teens Read list and I knew I would meet the author at a conference.

11. The Killing Woods, Lucy Christopher. Why? Natalie Richards told me to read it.

12. The Sociopath Next Door, Martha Stout. Why? Someone was tweeting about the book and it seemed like it would be interesting. (it was)
13. Wicked Lovely, Marissa Marr. Why? Another author suggested it because she thought it sounded like a comparable for a book I am working on. (it's not)

14. The Journey that Saved Curious George, Louis Borden. Why? Met the author at a conference and the book sounded interesting. (it was)

15. Ghosting, Edith Pattou. Why? The author is a new friend.

16. David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell. Why? The book was a gift from my brother, plus I've read several other books by the author.

17. The Likeness, Tana French. Why? I read the author's other books and liked them.

Hmm. So, some of this is "work-related." I know I am going to be on a panel with a particular author or I am going to meet him or her at an event.

Some is friend-related. Over the past few years I've gotten to know other authors-- writers who live in the area, writers I've met on the road, as well as writers I've interacted with online. I want to read their books, and I take their book suggestions seriously.

(Books by Ohio authors featured at Cover to Cover Bookstore
for a Support Local Writers' Display.
I've read many of these books
and the ones I haven't yet, are on my TBR list.) 

The others on the list are books that are written by authors I've read before and/or books selected by my book club.

The only outlier is The Sociopath Next Door, which was a book I'd never heard of, by an author I'd never read, and suggested by a person I do not know, on social media.

The book was fascinating.

It's non-fiction, written by a psychiatrist who started noticing a pattern in her patients' experiences--many of whom had been hurt (sometimes had their lives ruined) by sociopaths. Turns out 1 in 25 people are sociopaths and they're not the people you'd expect. ie Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, but often a seemingly normal person-- who happens to lack a conscience. I could not put the book down and the idea of it-- that we might interact with and be manipulated by sociopaths without realizing what's happening, is truly creepy.

It's also made me look at House of Cards through a whole other lens.

Take it from me--writer, reader, blogger, friend-- pick it up and read it.

PS: What makes YOU pick up a book?

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Story of a Couch: Fun Times Paying College Tuition (with guest appearances by Rick Grimes and the zombies from The Walking Dead)

Next week our son's mind-blowingly large second term college bill is due. And just as mind-blowingly, my husband and I will scrounge up the funds to pay it.

Say wah??

Younger daughter is a high school senior, and next year, we will be paying TWO bills. I know!! It freaks me out too!!

No. No. No. There is NO way you will be able to do this. 

But we ARE, Rick Grimes. Somehow, we are.

But how, Jody? It's INSANE. 

This is true too, Mr. Grimes. College costs are crazy high. I could do some online research and give you actual numbers but I don't feel like doing that. So you're going to have to take my Anecdotal/I Remember Reading About This Stuff word for it.

It costs a lot to go to college these days.

(A college parent, upon receiving a bill)
Kids are taking out insane loans that cripple them the moment they throw their caps up in the air. I've heard some people in the, ahem, somewhat older generation, kinda mocking this phenomenon, saying crap like: In my day, I worked two jobs and put myself through college, yadda ya.

blah di blah blah
Right, Gramps. I'm sure you did. But college costs more today.

For comparison purposes (OKAY, I did the research) If you went to Ohio State University in 1970, you would pay $1,550-1,700 per year. If you went to Yale, you'd paid $3,900. 

Today: that's $21,703 at OSU and $63,250 at Yale.

Old Zombie Man: But isn't that sorta the same when you factor in the cost of living blah blah, etc?

Author of this blog: No.

OZM: I don't believe you.

Author of this blog: Oh my Lord, please don't make me do math.

OZM: Then I don't believe you. Meh bluh gripey gripe.

All right, I will do math. Damn it.


FYI -- minimum wage in 1970 was $1.45
Today it is $7.25 (really. I just looked it up) 

Example 1: 1970 college-age guy works 40 hours per week for ten weeks during the summer, at $1.45 an hour and earns $580 by the end of the summer. He works part-time (20 hrs) during the school year and earns 1,218. Wah lah! He can afford OSU totally on his own with no help from his parents or loans or the government.*

Example 2: 2014 college student works the summer at $7.25 per hour and earns $2,900. She works the rest of the year part-time and earns $6090. She is still short $12,713 for OSU** But no need to stress: Yale will give her a decent financial package.***

*The government used to invest more in public education, which is why it was more affordable. I know. It's crazy! Our country used to care about stuff like that. Now, Old Zombie Men defund higher education and at the same time complain about how lazy kids are.  

**tuition only (no room and board) is 10,010, and she almost has enough. But she'll still need to cough up living expenses if her parents won't/can't support her. Note that the 1970 guy earns enough money for tuition AND room and board, with money left over for pizza.****

*** If she can get in. 

****a slice of pizza in 1970 was 35 cents.

So, yes, it really does cost a lot to go to college these days, but my husband and I are in a position to take care of it.

I know we are lucky, and I am grateful for the rays of the Universe shining down upon us.  


Which doesn't make the mind-blowingly large bill any easier to look at and/or pay.

Sacrifices must be made.

And all of this brings me back to the point of this blog. A couch. Specifically, two couches.

A few weeks ago my husband was downstairs in our den watching TV, and he called me down to watch something with him and we both realized that I rarely sit in the den anymore. For a variety of reasons. One, I have a hard time sitting. See: cyst in my back. But also, because I really don't like the couches in our den.

Once upon a time, I thought the couches were nice. Comfy and bright and modern-looking and pretty much perfect for a young happy family.

Lately, (like, maybe for the past two or three years?) the couches aren't comfy. Or bright. Or modern-looking. They're faded and flattened and also randomly lumpy. There are wires poking out in hazardous places. We lost a remote control for a couple of years and didn't realize we'd been sitting on it because it had slipped into a hole in the material and found its way to some other part of the couch underneath that we couldn't see.

The dog sleeps on the pillows and has smushed them out of shape.

Years of kids jumping on the couches and eating cinnamon toast and spilling sodas and chocolate milks, sweat and dirt and people's shoes have all taken a toll.

The couches are ugly.

To be honest, they reek.

I don't want to watch TV and flop out on one of the couches anymore. I don't even want to look at the couches anymore.

Last week I was ranting about our disgusting couches to one of my friends, and she asked the obvious question: Why don't you buy new couches?

Hmm. Why don't we buy new couches?

Read the first sentences of this blog again for the answer.

Reeking couch  circa 2014

(The same couch in 1970. Nah. Just joking.
The same couch in 2004--
when these two future college-going cuteys were in elementary school)

PS. Conclusion: college is for the rich and blessed and now I feel like I'm almost as bad as Old Zombie Man for even griping about it if the biggest sacrifice my husband and I have to make in order for our kids to go to school is to park our butts on stinky couches for five more years.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Librarians Saved My Life, and now, damn it, I am going to try to save theirs

My love affair with librarians goes way back.

The romance began in my childhood, when a librarian saved my life. Our first date was a lovely one. She was young and beautiful and kind. She saw me--a sad shy little girl -- scoping out the shelves in the children's section of the New Britain Public Library in New Britain, Connecticut, and she struck up a conversation. One thing led to another and she was selecting books for me, even going so far as to place books in my hands. 

After a few weeks, she knew what I liked. Sweet quiet stories. Mysteries, but nothing too dark. Fantasies. I think she guessed something about me: I wanted--needed--to escape.

Our break-up was tearful. One day I came into the children's section and she was waiting for me, as always, with a stack of books. It was her last day, she said.

(Me, age 10 or so, at the library)
I cried.

She took me out to a nearby restaurant. Things would be okay, she said. I would be okay. Books would always be my friends.

From that point on, I've loved libraries.  The buildings themselvesthe books that fill those buildings. And I've never gotten over my love for librarians.

They still help me choose books. When my kids were little, librarians helped them. The librarian at their elementary school knew them by name, of course, and she knew what kinds of books they liked. My son was a big non-fiction guy. My daughter liked mysteries.

As a writer of children's books, I spend a lot of time in libraries. I enjoy chatting with the librarians in the children's section of my local library. I am friends with the librarian (just retired) from my kids' high school and with several of the librarians at other high schools in the area.

The librarians in Ohio invited me to speak at their annual conference. They've brought me to their schools and book clubs. They put my book on their Battle of the Books lists. Librarians at the New Britain Public library, the same library where my love affair began, invited me back to give a talk. They searched for the kind librarian of my childhood by looking up old employment records. They wrote me emails with the subject line "The Case of the Missing Librarian."

They did not find her, but they told me they will keep looking.

A few librarians in Florida put my book Thin Space on the list of books teens should read, and I went to their conference. Those librarians set me up in a gorgeous hotel in Orlando and treated me like I was a rock star.

I still cry around librarians. I know what a powerful and potentially life changing effect they can have on individual children. I know that some people don't recognize what librarians do. Librarians never toot their own horns.

That librarian in my children's school --the one who knew their names and what books they liked to read-- she was let go. The short-sighted well-meaning principal decided that her position wasn't important. A better use of tax dollars would be a reading specialist to analyze reading test scores. Maybe a parent volunteer could sit in the library and check out books and straighten the shelves.

I visited a school in Florida with 3600 students and one librarian. She was lovely but frazzled, telling me that when she teaches lessons on research or technology, she must visit 75 classes. But she felt lucky. She has a job. There are entire districts in Florida with no librarians at all.

A few weeks ago, when I spoke at the Ohio state librarians' conference, I noticed a stark difference between the number of attendees from the year before. The president told me that they've lost many people. Many districts no longer reimburse librarians for conference expenses. Anyone who was there, most likely paid for the attendance themselves.

They were upbeat though. Talking about their love of books and of students. Sharing information about how best to reach and help and support their kids, as they call them. I gave a talk about my book and my evolution as a writer and I was shocked to see that I had made some of the librarians cry.

Last week I bumped into several of librarians I know. They were anxious and upset.

The state board of education in Ohio is seriously considering passing a law that would make it easy for districts to cut the arts, music, guidance, PE, and librarians from the schools. At the last meeting, several school board members walked out in protest of the proposed law.

I never get political on this blog, but today I am going to.

If you live in Ohio, please take a moment to show support for school librarians. Write a thank you note to one (or all) of the following board members who care about school libraries and librarians and understand the true insidious ramifications of the proposed law--or at the very least, seem to be open to supporting the librarian profession:

Stephanie Dodd     
Sarah Fowler         
Kathleen McGervey
Ann Jacobs            
Michael Collins    
Deborah Cain        
A.J. Wagner          
Mary Rose Oakar 

Here's a link to one of the articles in The Columbus Dispatch about the crisis.

If you're on Twitter, you can support and follow along --using the hashtag #Ohio5of8

Thank you.

One of these schools is next to Hogwarts. One is next to a power plant.
What do they both have in common?
A dedicated, professional librarian 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Don't Step on the Seal. And other stuff I learned on the college tour circuit

I've visited a lot of college campuses over the past few years.

It was fun at first. (Side note: I was looking at these colleges with my teenaged son as part of his college search process, so once I got past the shocking/horrifying fact that I was the parent of a teenaged son going through the college search process, I kinda got into the whole thing.)

While my kid was slouching in the back of the parent info session, I was the perky helicopter mom jotting down notes about the application process and average SAT scores (that my equally helicoptery husband would later input into an Excel spreadsheet).

I loved the student led campus tours where a gushing model specimen of collegiate-ness walks backward and spouts off fun facts about college life while at the same time pointing out interesting aspects of the architecture. Look at the ivy crawling up the side of that building! Did you know that 25% of our students study abroad? See that stained glass window?-- that was once Einstein's office.

Maybe four or five visits in, some of the fun facts and interesting architectural aspects started to bleed together.

Did you know, for example, that pretty much every college campus has a nearby ice cream parlor/pizza place/bbq joint where THE BEST ICE CREAM/PIZZA/BBQ EVER is served and you simply must stop there on your way out of town?

Every college cafeteria has a pasta bar.

Every place has some kind of elaborate etched into the brick walkway college seal or special archway that you must not walk across/step through or you won't graduate.

Every place is gung ho sustainability and yoga and 25,000 intramural sports and clubs.

The tour guides lie to you. About the ice cream parlors. And Einstein's office. 

After the blurry whirlwind of touring, a couple of tidbits stand out:

Most original dorm option (can't remember which school this was. Oberlin? Swarthmore?): You can apply to live with a handful of other kids in a Thoreau-like cabin way off campus, with no running water or electricity.

Fun fact that probably should NOT have been said by a tour guide: We were passing by a beautiful pond, and someone (Me) mentioned how nice the pond was, and the tour guide said, Yeah, but we can't swim in it because it has like, 30 strains of e-coli bacteria.

By the time kid number two came along, I was jaded and cynical about the college search process but trying to be joyful and rah rah about it for the sake of my child --who was looking at totally different schools from the ones we looked at with her older brother.

The first place we visited with kid #2, my husband and I were rolling our eyes and whisper-mocking the newby parents. (Did they not get the memo about letting your kid be the one to ask if there is a study abroad program at this school?

Answer: Of course there's a study abroad program at this school. There's a study abroad program at EVERY SCHOOL.

On the tours: more lies about not stepping across supposedly magical seals. More strolls through libraries and campus bookstores and chemistry labs and chapels and state of the art gyms.

RE: the cafeterias. Pasta bars are so 2011. Now the In thing is a panini press station.

Yesterday, my husband and daughter and I were sitting in the parlor of a yet another lovely admissions office awaiting yet another official college tour. Outside it was gray and cold. When we started out the door following after the student guide, the wind picked up. Even so, the campus was gorgeous, with its old brick buildings and crisscrossing walkways, and a stunning panoramic view of rolling hills and woods and fields.

The student tour guide was appropriately hip and peppy. He walked backward like a pro, spouting off the admission stats and waving at points of interest. Two minutes into the tour, we stopped and looked down at the school seal.

"You know," said our student guide, "Students can't ever step across that or they won't graduate." He went on to say something about the number of kids who participate in Greek life or who volunteer to do community service.

I had stopped listening to him. I was looking at my daughter, her hair flicking up in the breeze, her arms crossed, either because she was freezing or anxious or both.

I looked over at my husband, who had his hands thrust in the pockets of his not weather-appropriate hoodie, and wondered if he was freezing or anxious or both. Was he thinking about our older child in college and how the second semester's horrifyingly high bill would be due soon and how the hell were we going to pay for the next kid on top of it and maybe it was time to pull out the Excel Spreadsheet where we have our college savings plan charted out for the next 5 years and doublecheck it?

A few years ago, at a college info session--(Williams?), the speaker talked about the school's 4-week Winter Term. Because I was a newby at that point, I'd never heard of such a thing, but apparently, you can do an internship or study abroad or stay on campus and ski. Or you could take a class. Or make up your own class, based on your interests. Teach yourself Morse Code or read all  of the poems by Emily Dickinson.

My mind was wandering, imagining that. How cool that my kids would get to Do those things. Eat paninis and live in Thoreau-like cabins and study in France. What would it be like to take four weeks and just read Emily Dickinson?

And then it hit me, I COULD take four weeks and read Emily Dickinson poems if I wanted to. What was stopping me? And damn it, if I want to eat paninis or pitch a tent in the back yard and pretend I'm Thoreau or throw caution to the wind and put a trip to France on the credit card, I could do that too.

Back in the gray windy day at the lovely college on the hill, the tour guide was gesturing to the library.

"This is our seventeenth college tour," my husband whispered to me.

We hung back further from the tour. The wind picked up and everyone was relieved when we got to go inside a dorm and see a sample dorm room.

"Are these dorms coed?" asked a parent.

YES!!! I wanted to tell him.

"Yes," said the tour guide.

When the tour was over, we ate lunch in the cafeteria. Salad bar. Build Your Own Omelet Station. Create our own sandwich. Paninis.

We ate pizza.

Before we left town, we stopped for ice cream at the best ice cream place ever.

At home, my husband pulled up the Excel Spreadsheet of College Costs. I got online and ordered a panini press.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Interview with Jessica Martinez

Jessica Martinez is my new hero.

I met her a few weeks ago in Orlando at a joint book event. I was talking about my first book Thin Space and still feeling a tad anxious about speaking in front of a crowd. She was launching her fourth book Kiss Kill Vanish and looking as relaxed as can be. Releasing a fourth book into the world apparently isn't a big deal--not when you're about to have a fourth child. Yes. You read that right. Jessica talked up her book and settled down her three young children all while handing out celebratory cupcakes. (Not homemade. Thank goodness. She's got to draw the line somewhere.)

Two words about Kiss Kill Vanish. It's good. I stayed up way past my bedtime reading and my tired mind is still spinning with the story today. It's a thriller with characters who aren't what they seem. The book has secrets. Danger. Adventure. But because this is Jessica Martinez, author of the acclaimed novel Virtuosity, there's much more to it. Music and art. Multi-layered characters. The very cool (and freezing cold) setting of Montreal. And thought provoking themes of identity and family loyalty. It's labeled a young adult novel but I definitely can see it crossing over to old adults too. (I just wrote that sentence and realized how dumb it sounds. This is a book, people. For anyone who likes good books!! Okay. Off my soap box.)

Jessica graciously consented to an interview and without anymore blather from me, here we go:

Jody: Here's a question every writer gets but I am going to ask you anyway, because I am dying to know: Where do you get your ideas?

Jessica: I wish I knew! I’m so inconsistent. Sometimes I can look back and trace where they came from, but it’s different every time. Music, news stories, movies, family and friends (sorry, family and friends)—pretty much everything is fair game.

Jody: Once you've got a spark of an idea, what's your next step? Do you outline? Or do you let the story go where it wants to and outline later?

Jessica: I make stuff up as I go. I have tried outlining. At best, I find it ineffective, because my characters end up taking the plot in a different direction than I planned. And at worst, it totally stifles my process. I don’t even try anymore.

Jody: Okay, this is me, being totally nosy, but-- how many books did you write before you got your first book deal? And how many rejections did you get along the way?

Jessica: Virtuosity is the first book I wrote and the first to be published. I got about ten rejections from agents before I signed with the agent I still have and adore, Mandy Hubbard. She sold it pretty quickly for me. Sorry, I do know that’s unfairly lucky.

Jody: Nah, that's really cool.

Jessica: If it makes anybody feel any better, I’ve written three half-books in the last year (and no whole books) and thrown all three out. Because they sucked. The possibility of rejection and failure is there with every book, not just the first.

Jody: Another nosy question. I know you have three young children, how do you manage working in time to write?

Jessica: I write during the baby’s nap time, and then again when all my kids are in bed at night. This means I have a thrilling social life. When my baby stops napping, I’m in deep, deep trouble. Also, I’m having another baby due in April (does that make my older baby not a baby anymore? Eeeep!) so I fully expect my schedule to be thrown in the blender.

Jody: I'm bowing down to you. I've got grown children and only a dog to care for, so I can't even imagine how you're doing this.

Jessica: I'm actually not too worried. Things have been crazy before, and I always find time to write. Showering, however…that gets put in the optional category.

Jody: Sometimes showering, caring for little ones, writing... now I'm wondering how you balance it all.

Jessica: Family and church come first. But that’s not easy for me, even though they’re decisions I’m absolutely sure about. It seems like I have to remind myself daily, because it’s always painful to put writing off when the ideas are screaming. Yeah, I can't sugar coat it—it’s tough, because writing is the thing I always want to be doing. I guess that’s why I have to force it down on the list of priorities, so my life isn’t horribly imbalanced.

Jody: We haven't even talked about book promotion yet. I had no idea what was expected when my first book came out--things I'd have to do from my end, especially on social media. How do you deal with social media on top of all of your other obligations?

Jessica: Um, poorly? Actually, as soon as I gave up on being effective with social media, I started having a good time with it. Twitter is pretty much all I do, and about 90% of my tweets are just me being an idiot. I don’t feel like it’s a waste of time though, because I’ve made a lot of friends in the industry, and I’d like to think that goes further than book promotion. Or maybe I’m just telling myself that because I’m uncomfortable with promoting my books—in person or online. I love writing. The business of marketing makes me cringe.

Jody: We met on social media. So, I guess it's working. Last question, I promise. Can you share something about your latest project?

Jessica: I’m working on my first adult novel! I’m moving at a snail’s pace (as usual) but eventually I’ll get there. Cross your fingers this one doesn’t end up in the trash!

Jody: I am sure it is going to be awesome. Thanks, so much, Jessica, for chatting with me today. And readers, if you want to find out more about Jessica Martinez and her books --or witness her act like an idiot on Twitter : )  see below.

Bio: "I was born and raised in Calgary, Canada. As a child I played the violin, read books, and climbed trees incessantly. I went on to study English and music at Brigham Young University, and since then I’ve been an English teacher, a symphony violinist, and a mother. I currently live in Orlando, Florida with my husband and three children.

My young adult novels are Virtuosity, The Space Between Us, The Vow, and Kiss Kill Vanish. I’m represented by Mandy Hubbard of D4EO Literary Agency."

website: Jessica Martinez
Twitter: @Jlmarti1

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

In Which I Confess My Love for Emily Dickinson. Plus: a Shout Out to a Great New Book

I'm ashamed to admit that once upon a time I didn't think much of Emily Dickinson.

When I was in high school, I may have glanced at a poem or two. They seemed like sappy things about nature or unrequited love. Bluh is what I thought. And that mousy author photo, the one they always stick in English textbooks-- bluh to that too.

Poor Emily. What a sad little mousy waif.

Fun fact about that photo: Emily hated it. It was taken when she was seventeen and she'd been sick for a few months when she posed for it. She didn't think it represented what she looked like at all. Which is cruddy because that picture was THE only verified photo of her in existence until a second one was rediscovered in 2012:

Look at how healthy and wise ED looks here!

When I was in college I won a creative writing award and was thrilled to accept the prize money--100 bucks, which could buy a lot of Bacardi and cokes back then, but less than thrilled to accept the other prize the English Dept. gave me. A book. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. 

Shameful confession: I complained to my writing professor about this present. Yes. My face is red as I write this. Jeez. I said. Or something along these lines. I get that the stodgy old white male department head wanted to give me something authored by a woman, but did it have to be barfy Emily Dickinson? I mean, come on. Get with the 20th century. Hello. Ever hear of Sylvia Plath?

I thought my cool writing prof would agree. Instead he shocked me by chewing me out. He was one who'd chosen the book, he said. And nothing against Sylvia Plath, but maybe it was time for me to take another look at Emily Dickinson. She was not barfy. In fact he viewed her as one of the two poets, along with Walt Whitman, who'd ushered in the modern poetry era, and if I didn't know that, then maybe he'd failed me as a teacher. 


I read The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. I fell in love. 

Did you know that ED wrote nearly two thousand poems, scrawling them out on bits of paper or including them in letters to friends and family? She never married and in the final twenty years of her life, she dressed only in white and secluded herself in her bedroom, rarely coming downstairs; although she is rumored to have shared gingerbread with neighborhood children by lowering it in a basket from her window...

Sure, her poems on the surface might be about nature or unrequited love, but there's a lot more to those seemingly dashed off lines. Take another look and you'll find stuff that's philosophical and achingly curious and even funny. 

When I taught high school English, I loved talking ED with my students. One thing I held back until the very end of the Emily Dickinson unit is that most of her poems are written in hymn meter, which means that the lines alternate between eight and six syllables. Yeah yeah, whatever, Ms. Casella, my students would say, until I told them that the poems could be sung to the tune of any song written in that meter. 

Example: "Amazing Grace" or the "I Like to Teach the World to Sing" Coca Cola song. 

For extra credit I let the students sing and they always had a grand old time.

Here. Try it for yourselves. 

Because I could not stop for Death--
He kindly stopped for me--
The Carriage held but just Ourselves--
And Immortality...

Or how about this? 

I heard a fly buzz--when I died
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air
Between the Heaves of Storm--

Okay. That is enough playtime, class.

Maybe you are wondering why I am thinking about Emily Dickinson today. 

Because I just finished reading the most brilliant and beautiful book, Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia by Jenny Torres Sanchez. 

Main Character Frenchie Garcia has recently graduated from high school and she's lost and depressed. She didn't get into the art college of her choice. Her best friend has a new girlfriend and isn't paying Frenchie much attention. She has a morbid hobby: watching funeral processions drive by her house on the way to a nearby cemetery. Sometimes she follows them inside the cemetery and sits by the grave of Emily Dickinson. (This is Orlando, so it's not the real Emily Dickinson's grave, but Frenchie kinda likes the idea that someone named Emily Dickinson is buried there.) 

Frenchie's real problem, though, isn't revealed immediately. It turns out that a few months earlier Andy Cooper, a guy Frenchie secretly crushed on for years, had singled her out to have a "night of adventure," and the next morning he killed himself. 

Now Frenchie's trying to come to grips with what really happened that night, and she's doing it by recreating the adventure with someone else.

There are Emily Dickinson poems sprinkled throughout, but whether you love Emily Dickinson or not, you will surely love this book. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Time Keeps on Ticking. (Otherwise Known As: Why I Like to Live Inside My Head)

Yesterday I looked out the window and realized it was October. 

Confession: I am not the most observant person in the world. Do you hear that guffaw of laughter? That was my husband, reading this over my shoulder. He knows, after 24 years of living with me, how true that statement is. 

Example, we will be sitting on the couch together watching TV and my eyes will be fixed on the TV screen and my husband will turn to me and remark upon something that we have both presumably watched, and I will blink at him and have no idea what the heck he is talking about. 

I live inside my head, is what I am trying to say. For someone who makes a living being a writer (And I use the term "makes a living" metaphorically), it's a good thing that I live inside my head. Inside my head, I'm imagining stuff. Running through scenes. Relaying a conversation between make-believe people. It's kinda cool to be able to disappear into other worlds while at the SAME TIME sitting in a room and "watching TV." 

My kids have another way of describing this phenomenon. 

Distracted (when they are being nice)

Crazy (when they are not)

But I digress.

My point is that I looked out the window and realized that fall had come without my being aware of it. 

Digression number 2. See that graphic above? I MADE that with this App called WordSwag. I discovered WordSwag this past weekend and have been having a ball making things like this:

And this:

And, okay, one more:

WordSwag, I am here to tell you, provides the PERFECT blend of procrastination and creativity for the distracted writer in your life. Also, it is easy to use--a quality I appreciate as someone who does not know how to operate my phone. 

I know. I keep digressing all over the place.

My eyes have glazed over and I have disappeared into other worlds. 

Meanwhile, in this world, it is October. 

The leaves are blowing around the yard and it seems like just yesterday they were on the trees, blooming and golden. The tomatoes--that I planted YESTERDAY!!--are rotting on the vines. 

Time is passing before my eyes, or rather it is NOT passing before my eyes, since I don't seem to be able to notice it passing. 

Just yesterday, it seems, I threw a party. 

I baked a cake. I pushed a yellow Number One candle into the chocolaty frosting. The cake was for a little boy who had never tasted cake before, so I wanted that first slice to be special. 

The moment is frozen. The little boy has the most serious expression on his sweet little face. Someone--probably my husband, since he was the only one who knew how to work the camera--snapped the picture. 


That happened yesterday.

In a few days, the little boy will be celebrating his 21st birthday. 

Yeah. So. 

Sue me if I like to live inside my head.

Or distract myself with this: