Saturday, May 30, 2009

A Handwritten Letter

Remember when you were a kid and you wrote notes to your friends? The notes started out simple in elementary school with "Do you like me? Check yes or no." Then in middle and high school, they graduated to long, gossipy letters you passed across the aisle when the teacher wasn't looking. Maybe you wrote love letters to your significant other.

Can you remember the last time you received a handwritten letter?

I came home from running errands today to find a package on my doorstep. It arrived from Iraq where my bff, Pam, is serving. Inside, I found a totally cool, blinged-out camel figurine and a five page handwritten letter. The camel cracked me up after the recent email pic she sent of two camels getting it on. The figurine now occupies a place of honor in my family room, but the real treasure was the letter.

There's something intensely personal about reading a friend's words in her own handwriting. Pam's voice came through in that letter loud and clear. The double underlines under several words, the hole she punched in the paper when dotting an exclamation point, the distinctive curl of her script...the sum total of those things made the letter a visceral experience. It was like having a little piece of her there with me.

I lost my mom six years ago to breast cancer. Every now and again I find a note or recipe written in her hand. It always makes my heart hitch just a little to find an unexpected piece of her. The birthday card in which she wrote, "I'm proud of you," is priceless. I read that handwritten note whenever I need her encouragement.

We live in an age in which it is so much easier to whip off an email message to someone than to write a note, and most of the time that really is the most practical form of communication. Pam and I email regularly...silly jokes, quick notes to share something cool that happened, catching up on gossip...but none of those notes carried the emotional punch of that handwritten letter. Maybe it was because I could physically touch it. Maybe it was because of the time she took to write it. Maybe it was because the content of the letter was more personal. You can be more open when you're not worried about something bouncing electronically through cyberspace. Probably it was all of those things.

The euphoria of my mail call lasted all day. The best thank you I can give her is to answer her handwritten letter with one of my own.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Burning Wild and Gym Candy

I read two books over the holiday weekend. The first was my usual paranormal fare. The second was a young adult novel. I enjoyed one and felt lukewarm about the other.

Strangely, it was Christine Feehan's BURNING WILD that left me feeling tepid. Feehan writes three different series: the Carpathians, the Ghostwalkers, and the Drake Sisters. I usually enjoy all three series, particularly the Drake Sisters novels. BURNING WILD isn't part of any of those series. The protagonist is a leopard person...a man who can become a leopard when he chooses. Of all the paranormal characters, shapeshifters are my least favorite, but that in itself isn't why the book didn't satisfy me. Rachel Vincent writes about cat shifters, and I love her series.

My problem with the book was the characters, particularly the hero. Jake survives his loveless, abusive childhood, but it molds him into an asshole as an adult. Flawed heroes and heroines are par for the course in romance, and that's okay. We all have to overcome our issues in order to love and be loved by someone else. Unfortunately, I never felt like Jake overcame his. He was domineering right up until the end, and Emma wasn't a strong enough character to ever be his equal. She tried, but the only place she had any power was in cooking, cleaning, and raising the kids. Jake swooped in and "handled" everything else. I never stopped being annoyed by his attitude...or hers for that matter.

Otherwise the book was okay. There were a couple of interesting plot twists, and the villains were nasty. As always with Feehan, the love scenes were hot. In fact, I was reading the book between innings at Connor's baseball game, and I had to put it down. I didn't want to have to explain to the other parents why I was blushing, and I don't blush that easily. So there you have it.

I loved GYM CANDY for the exact same reasons I had problems with BURNING WILD. Good characters make all the difference in the world. The boys in Carl Deuker's book could have stepped out of the pages and into the halls of my school. They were absolutely believable. I led a discussion group on the book with a group of boys after school today, and they all liked the book for the same reason. They initially selected it because it was about football, but the realistic characters hooked them.

Mick Johnson is a freshman on the varsity football team. Football is his whole identity. His dad was drafted in the third round by the Chargers, but never made the team, so he has his hopes pinned on Mick. Mick is a talented player, but he's not as big and strong as some of the older boys. He costs the team a playoff game when he comes up a yard short of the goal line. An unpleasant, but believable incident occurs in the weight room, isolating him from his friends and intensifying his desire to become stronger. The steroids come from an unexpected source, and some of the boys in my group found it shocking. Mick convinces himself it's only for a little while, just to get enough of an edge to keep his spot. Of course, the lies and rationalizations spiral out of control, and so does Mick. Deuker exposes the dark underbelly of steroid use in the book, and your heart breaks as this likeable, talented kid destroys himself.

Finding books for boys is hard, especially if they're not into fantasy. This book will grab boys who like sports and realistic fiction. The football scenes are vivid, the characters are three-dimensional, and Deuker assumes his readers are smart. Connor loved the book so much that he read three others by Deuker. For the first time in his life, he's become a recreational reader. As an author, I can't imagine a better endorsement than that.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Inside Outside Upside Down

Who are you?

Are you the person everyone thinks you are? Are any of us? I've had occasion recently to reflect on that question. I believe all of us have two lives, the outer life we move about in everyday...the one the world sees...and the inner life we live in our heads. Our inner lives consist of our hopes and dreams, our fantasies, our fears and insecurities, our true opinions and beliefs about the world around us.

Finding the courage to share our inner life is hard. It requires trust. We know if we give a piece of our inner life away we become vulnerable. We give that person ammunition to hurt us.

In the world of my novel, my hero and heroine can each walk in the other's dreams. They each hear the other's thoughts even across long distances. Of course, this isn't an original idea in paranormal romance, and there's a reason it shows up as often as it does. The idea of having a true soul mate is powerful. It's the driving force behind all romance. Yeah, the sexy alpha males are fun, as is the chase and the overcoming of obstacles, but the real fantasy is finding that one person to whom you can reveal your inner life. All of it. Every wonderful, horrible, embarrassing truth. To know and to be known.

If you have a relationship like that, then you are well and truly blessed. Whether it's your significant other or a trusted friend, a person who accepts the pieces of your heart and soul without judgment is a treasure. The longer you live, the more you appreciate it. Sometimes in youth we are cavalier in giving those pieces away, and we are inevitably hurt. We learn to be cautious.

When a friend trusts you with a piece of themselves, guard it with your life. Don't carelessly toss it out as grist for the gossip mill. If you do, then your relationships will quickly become nothing but a glossy veneer. I can't imagine anything more lonely.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

My Electronic Refrigerator

When my boys were small I posted their artwork on the refrigerator along with photos, magnetic poetry, and various and sundry notes. My grandmother crocheted butterfly magnets when I was a kid, and I still used them to post our treasures. When we moved several years ago, we bought a new side-by-side fridge. It's lovely, and I wouldn't trade it, but the front isn't magnetized. That means no artwork, pics, or strange magnetic poetry messages left by my boys. (We left the beautifully poetic "The cat cracks smelly wind" up for years at the old house.)

It occurred to me when Sean showed me his sketch of Michelangelo's PIETA last night that I had an electronic fridge of sorts. Sean has always been an artist, but he draws in spurts. He goes a while without doing anything, and then draws for hours straight. I'm proud of him. You'll have to imagine the butterfly magnets, but welcome to my electronic fridge.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Weddings, Romance, and Influence

Bruce and I went to a wedding last night. One of his former players married a lovely girl in a beautiful old catholic church in Cincinnati's Mt. Adams. Everything about the wedding was breathtaking, starting with the view from the front of the church. Mt. Adams is a neighborhood built on one of Cincinnati's famed seven hills. The church sits at the top of the hill, overlooking the river with an incredible view of the city.

The view inside the church was no less spectacular. The soaring arches, art, and stained glass windows created an atmosphere meant to evoke a sense of wonder at the glory of God. And for the more devout among us, it was effective. My friend, Ellen, pointed out the marble communion rail, an apparent oddity in more modern catholic churches. On the other hand, I had to resist an urge to twitter before the ceremony about what I noticed. I thought the palm leaves in the stained glass looked like marijuana leaves, and Bruce (a lapsed catholic) breathed a sigh of relief when the priest walked by him, and he didn't burst into flames. The beauty of the place left both of us with a strong desire to go see Angels and Demons.

In spite of the grandeur of the church, the priest was very down to earth in his comments to the bride and groom. Weddings always make me reflect on my own marriage which will have achieved 20 years on June 3rd of this year. I thought about how you don't really understand what it means to love someone for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, in good times and bad when you first agree to it. It's a lot harder than the words themselves suggest. The wedding is all about romance, and lord knows I love romance. Emily looked like a fairy tale princess in her dress, and Sean couldn't peel his eyes off of her. When Emily got teary-eyed in the service, so did I. The idea of two people finding each other is powerful, and even though there will be days that test their relationship, the wedding day is about hope and love.

The reception hall was more incredible than the church. The old St. Paul's Church in downtown Cincinnati has been renovated in to an event hall called the Bell Event Centre. Wow. The ceiling soared higher than the church in which they were married, and I spent a lot of time looking up at the artwork. Jesus and the angels watched us eat, drink, and be merry. Bruce was certain there were at least a thousand candles in the place, and he might have been right.

The reception was my favorite part of the night. The food was delicious, the band was great, and the bar was open. But the real reason I loved the reception was the communion with Sean and Emily's family and friends. Like my husband, Sean is a college football coach. He married a coach's daughter. Many of the guests were part of the coaching community, and interestingly, many of their spouses were teachers. The word that kept coming up in conversations was influence.

Bruce was Sean's college coach. We played for three national titles and won two while he was a player. They had a close relationship, and when Sean graduated, he decided he wanted to be a coach. Bruce helped him get his first coaching job, and provided references and counseling as he worked his way to bigger schools. Sean finally landed at Florida. Emily is the Asst. Head Coach's daughter. Anyone who follows college football knows the Gators are the 400 lb gorilla on the block. Bruce and I actually had the good fortune to take Connor to the National Championship game in Miami this past January. Sean got us seats three rows up on the 15 yard line. Coach Heater made a point of seeking Bruce out at the reception, and shaking his hand. He thanked him for being such a positive influence on Sean, for teaching him the game, and fostering his growth as a man.

Several of Bruce's former players attended the wedding. All of them embraced my husband, genuinely happy to see their former coach and mentor. We talked about it on the way home. We were reminded why we chose our professions in the first place. In tough economic times it's easy to question those choices. Watching Sean and Emily glowing with happiness at the beginning of their life together, it felt good to know my husband played a role in the series of events that got them there.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Crazy Fangirl review of LOVER AVENGED and my Chronic Book Addiction

Last Friday night my younger son took me for an early Mother's Day dinner to Old Chicago Pizza. He's recently taken a shine to the piano, and Barnes & Noble is right next door, so we stopped in to see what kind of sheet music they had. Let me interject here by saying that any bookstore, but especially a big, shiny one like B&N, is like a crackhouse to me. I have no business going into one if I don't have extra money to spend. But see...I had just grabbed a new Christine Feehan in paperback at WalMart, and I thought I'd be okay...straight to the music section and straight out.


The moment I walked through the door, the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee (which I don't even drink, but associate with bookstores) and brand new books assaulted me. A brief glance at the new releases and this book junkie fell completely off the wagon. JR WARD'S NEW BOOK IS OUT!! How did I not know that? My life has been extremely busy, and I knew it was soon, but it completely escaped me that LOVER AVENGED had been released. I literally snatched the book off the shelf and did a dance of joy in the front of the store.

Connor was mortified. His embarrassment was compounded when I looked to the left and saw the display for Charlaine Harris' new Sookie Stackhouse book. I grabbed a copy of that as well, bemoaning the fact that both new releases were in hardcover. Even in the fog of new release euphoria, I knew I had to choose. Connor would have left me standing there, but he needed my help in the music section. He said something to the effect of, "Oh my gosh Mom, they're just books," and "You're really loud."

I tamped down my excitement, sadly put down the Charlaine Harris (at least until payday), and trudged to the back of the store behind my thoroughly put-out son. I heard Bruce snickering behind me as I grabbed Karen Chance's new Cassie Palmer paperback on the way. My husband finds my addiction amusing...that is when he's not complaining about the stack of books by the bed. I did manage to get out of the store with only the JR Ward and the Karen Chance, but I'm going back for Charlaine as soon as possible.

So about LOVER AVENGED... I finished it last night with that same happy-sad feeling I always get when I come to the end of a long anticipated book.

JR Ward's characters are larger-than-life, in-your-face, alpha males that would probably scare the hell out of me in real life even without the vampire powers. But OMG, I love her books, and this was no exception. I have always thought Ward has big brass ones because she gives her heroes character flaws that are hard to overcome. Phury was a drug addict, Zsadist was the victim of chronic abuse, and Vishous...just wow, but she topped herself with Revhenge. (Don't you love those names?) Revhenge is a pimp and a drug lord. He was Phury's dealer for heaven's sake. How do you rehabilitate someone like that and make him a romantic hero? By giving him a heroine that's up to the job of course.

If you followed the link I posted yesterday to the article about romance and social justice, then you know that the old "bodice-ripper" stereotype of romance is just that...a stereotype. The women in romance novels are strong. They have to be to keep up with the alpha males they are matched with. Seriously, who wants to read a book with a doormat, passive heroine. Not me. I disagreed with her assessment of paranormal romance, though. She said there was an inherent imbalance of power in the relationship because the men often have supernatural abilities. In all the best paranormals, these same men need the women they are matched with because of their strength of character.

Anyway, I digress. Revhenge needs his Ehlena to save him. Yes, I know, classic beauty and the beast plot, but holy crap Ward writes it well. She also handles multiple plot lines incredibly well. Each book has the romance that is resolved by then end, but each book also includes long story arcs that set up future books. John Matthew (who might be Darius reincarnated) and Xhex are going to be the focus of the next book I hope. Ward has been teasing readers with bits and pieces of this story for three books now. Tohrment's story is intriguing. How is the angel, Lassiter, going to play a role? What about Qhuinn and Blaylock? And Wrath and Beth's story continues to unfold, proving that real life happens after the happily ever after.

Some new characters were introduced in this book that I hope are here to stay. Sexton, the lawyer, made a brief, but memorable appearance. Trez and iAm need a story, and my favorite new character? George. I can't say anything about George without giving away a major spoiler, but George is great.

I highly recommend the book, but if you haven't read the earlier books in the series you will be lost. The first book is DARK LOVER. I am aware that this blog reads more like the worshipping of a crazy fangirl than a serious review, but if the shoe fits...

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Romance as Social Justice

I just read an incredible article on the romance genre, why it is so reviled among certain segments of the population, and why the genre in general can promote more progressive thinking in society.

A whole lot of us read romance novels. The evidence lies in the gains romance made in sales last year as most genres declined. Many of us read them quietly, embarrassed when asked what we are reading. I always have a book with me, and when it is romance (as it often is), I always make some mitigating comment. Why? Maybe because as an English teacher I'm supposed to have more sophisticated tastes? This article explains why society is prejudiced against the genre and why those attitudes should change.

Enjoy. The Eroticization of Equality and Social Justice

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Confessions of a Sore Loser

Hi. My name is Kathy, and I'm a sore loser.

They say the first step to overcoming a problem is admitting you have one, so consider this my confessional. My problem goes back as far as I can remember, farther even if the video evidence is to be believed. On my 5th birthday (a VERY long time ago), I was put in time-out when I had a hissy fit over losing at musical chairs. I don't really remember the dinosaur ages, but Mom loved to tell the story, and there is the matter of the 8mm video evidence my brother converted to DVD a few years back.

When I was in high school and we lost to our cross-town rival, which incidentally was my dad's alma mater, he would torment me until I cried or said something ugly that got me in trouble. That's how I like to characterize it anyway. The truth is he simply smiled and said "Go Red Devils" or something equally innocuous, and I went off the deep end.

I'm the mom in the stands at youth or school sports that has to bite her tongue to keep from saying something decidedly unsportsman-like when the game is close. I actually do a pretty good job of keeping my mouth shut because I'm trying to set a good example for my kids and being a teacher means that every kid there knows me, but man oh man do I grind my teeth. My eldest son played in the parks and rec league championship baseball game a couple of years ago and lost a heart breaker in the last inning. I'm positive he got over it faster than I did.

All of which brings me to today. I blogged a couple of months ago about the competition our principal set up to promote team-building. I poked fun at my friend Linda's cutthroat nature and glossed over my own. Our team led almost all year in the points standing. Some poor timing involving a bottle of Sam Adams in the chili cook-off accounted for the only brief period we were down. We even led after Red team totally cheated in the Halloween display competition by bribing the judges (FMD students) with candy.

Can you see where this is going?

Like a Derby horse that runs out of gas in the stretch, we lost the final competition (a Jeopardy-style quiz) today. It was a stunning defeat. I spelled "chihuahua" wrong. Me...the writer...the English teacher. I goaded my team into making higher wagers on each question than we should have. I don't even want to discuss the Indiana-Illinois debacle in the "50 states" category. Suffice it to say that wrong answer was my fault too. And when it was over...I was truly and completely pissed. I did not drop the F-bomb as another member of my group it took me a bit to get over it. Really. And it wasn't even about the prize (a half a day off). It was about winning. My need to win is apparently pathological. Time with my family has calmed me down, given me perspective, and I'm trying to engage in a little self-improvement. So...

My name is Kathy, and I'm a sore loser, but I'm trying really hard to get over it.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Long Shots

If you watched the Derby yesterday, you saw that amazing finish by Mine that Bird, a 53-1 long shot. He was in last place 3/4 0f a mile in. He was in 12th place a mile into the race. He won by more than 6 lengths. Simply incredible. ESPN reporter, Bill Finley called it "the most inconceivable result in the 135-year history of the race. An impossibility." In a field of million dollar thoroughbreds, Mine that Bird was originally sold at auction for $9,500. He won a purse yesterday that exceeds $1 million.

Mine that Bird was too small, boasted less than impressive parentage, and had never won a race prior to the Derby. Yesterday was his trainer's debut appearance in the big race. In the sport of kings, he beat the kings...literally. (A couple of horses in the race were owned by Dubai royalty.) Mine that Bird threaded the gaps in the final stretch because he was small. No pre-race hype meant no distractions. All the factors that could have been considered deficits worked in favor of horse and trainer.

For anyone with a dream, Mine that Bird's improbable win should provide ample inspiration. Keep plugging away. Figure out how to make what you have work for you. Ignore the naysayers. Don't allow rejections, losses, or other bumps in the road to deter you.

Sometimes the long shot wins.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

A Day at the Races

Bruce and I spent Thursday at Churchill Downs for pre-Derby festivities with college friends. Neither of us are horse-racing aficionados, but the Derby is a big deal around these parts whether you're into horses or not. For one day, all Kentuckians become horse-racing aficionados. Truthfully, in spite of being a lifelong Kentuckian (minus brief stints in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh), I had never been to Churchill Downs before Thursday, and yes, that means I've never actually attended the Derby. (I have been to some rockin' Derby parties, though.) So Thursday was an interesting day on many levels.

From a purely personal standpoint, it was wonderful to see old friends again. We are all accomplished adults now with families and professional lives, but for an afternoon and evening, we were 20 years old again. The years melted away, and we weren't teachers and lawyers, engineers or corporate bigwigs. We were sorority sisters and teammates. We reverted easily to those roles we played all those years ago. Three of the couples, myself included, are still married to our college sweethearts.

Churchill Downs is a great place to people-watch. I immediately went into writer-mode, inventing characters to fit the interesting array of folks enjoying the races. The ladies in dresses and big hats fell into one of two categories...moneyed and tasteful, or wannabes who missed the mark and looked more like streetwalkers in derby hats. I was particularly intrigued by the lady in the wide-brimmed feathered hat, spilling out of the top of her form-fitting animal print dress. She was accompanied by a much younger man in a seersucker jacket that resembled one of my grandmother's handmade quilts. I mentally wrote a whole vignette for her. On the other end of the spectrum was the man in the shirt with a giant rooster on it. The slogan underneath said rooster was "Does this shirt make my cock look big." I snorted part of my $9 drink through my nose when Bruce pointed him out. For the record, my girlfriends and I were all dressed in simple spring dresses or skirts, no hats, although Jennifer's shoes were borderline CFM's.

Oh yeah, and there were horses. They are magnificent animals, and we saw several races up close. We had tickets to the corporate village courtesy of our friend, Mike, but the weather turned nice, and we spent most of the afternoon with the unwashed masses right down by the rail. While I still contend Keeneland in Lexington is much prettier, the place is steeped in history, and we wanted to soak in the atmosphere.

The pageantry is impressive. The bugler comes out 10 minutes before each race and plays the familiar call to race, then the horses parade around the front stretch of the track, their huge muscles twitching. They hear the crowd and know it's showtime. Anticipation builds as the handlers load the horses into the gate. The excitement in the air is palpable. Then the bell rings, the gates open and those huge, twitching muscles are set free. Even the roar of the crowd doesn't cover the thunder of hooves as they pass. The roar builds as the racers make their way around the first turn and is sustained while they fly down the back stretch. On the final turn the eventual winner makes his or her move, and sprints past the leader into the stretch. The crowd noise at the finish rivals anything I've heard at a major league baseball or NFL game.

Folks in the know told us attendance was down for Thursday before the Derby. Speculation as to why included swine flu fear and the sluggish economy. Who has money to gamble on horses when it's hard to pay the bills? Bruce and I didn't bet. My method is to pick the horse with the coolest name, hence my pick for today's Derby, Chocolate Candy. We might have gotten lucky, but we decided, instead, to eat and drink our budget for the day, guaranteeing a return on our investment.

Derby week at Churchill Downs is something I can now check off my list. I highly recommend the experience. While this isn't her only face, it is the one Kentucky shows to the world every year, and one in which Kentuckians can take pride.