Saturday, December 28, 2013

More Korean Spa Fun: King Spa in Palisades Park, NJ

Kind of looks like some sort of occult ritual, doesn't it? But it's all in good health!

[This is adapted from my Yelp review-- the most popular Yelp review I have written to date!]

I'm going to tell you the whole story. Pop some popcorn, have a seat.

Despite being a waegukin (read: white chick), I have been to Korean saunas many times. Here in DC, I go to Spa World about five times a year, and I've also been to Juvenex in NYC, though that one is tiny. On my recent trip to NYC I had a decision to make between King Sauna and Spa Castle, and I decided on this one because it has a reputation for being more authentic-- no swimsuits. I devoted a whole day of my two-day trip to this experience, and showed up at the shuttle pickup spot in Manhattan an hour ahead of the 9:30 AM pickup time.

It was a Monday. As the hour approached, a couple other people showed up: a shy young Korean woman (around 20-22) and a gregarious Korean man (53, as I found out later). Once the bus was ten minutes late, the guy used the girl's phone to call them and demand to know where the shuttle was. Long story short, he ended up talking to/yelling at them three times-- all in Korean-- and finally announced to me, "Come on, they said they'd pay for a taxi to take us there. Follow me."

I'm a 37-year-old mom of four from the suburbs. I have a college degree and two teenagers whom I harp on about safety. Thankfully, none of this prevented me from getting in a hired car with these two strangers and the Korean driver and hightailing it to New Jersey. With ALL my stuff, I might add, since I'd be going straight to Penn Station after my spa day-- laptop, clothes, fancy camera, you name it. As we drove along the guy asked me where I was from, and I said DC. The guy and the driver then resumed their conversation in Korean, and I began hearing the words "Chesapeake" and "Jamestown" interspersed into their sentences. I texted my husband and let him know where they might want to look for my body.

About half an hour later we arrived at the spa. Suddenly the staff seemed very unhappy with this deal they had supposedly struck with my buddy, and about five minutes of energetic arguing ensued in Korean. At last someone at the desk handed him a pile of money with great annoyance, and he went off to pay the driver, and I paid my entrance fee.

So all of that is to say, beware the wiles of the shuttle service. You may want to find yourself a confident Korean businessman to handle the situation in the event they don't show up.

The gold-lined sauna. Fit for a very sweaty king.

Here are my overall impressions of King Sauna itself:

- The sauna facilities are excellent, though a couple are repetitive. There are two Mineral Salt igloos and two Mud ones (sadly, the mud is on the walls, not in the form of a fun mud bath). But the Amethyst, Gold Pyramid, and Cold ones are unique and very nicely designed. The Infrared one is wonderful-- cooler than the others, with a fake fireplace inside-- just like cuddling up by the coziest hearth you can imagine. I have read reviews where people complain that they are all basically the same, just with different surroundings, and to that I say, WHO CARES. The different rooms keep things interesting as you sweat out the city filth from your pores. There are baskets and large teabags of mugwort (or something) in almost all of them, and I liked that. Interesting, distinctive smell.

- Unlike at Spa World, where the saunas are unisex, at King Sauna they're single-sex (or at least appear to be). If you come here with someone of the opposite sex, call ahead and make sure you will be able to hang out with them for SOME amount of time.

If you want to pull off an amethyst heist, bring a crowbar. Of course, it will be difficult to get very far in the pink prison-like scrubs they assign you.

- The water areas are similar to a Roman bath. I am used to Spa World, which has a huge "bade pool" with tons of different jacuzzi jets, and smaller pools and steam/dry saunas all around it. That is not how King Sauna works at all. At this place, in the women's area, there are NO JETTED TUBS. Instead there is one tepid-warm tub, one tepid-cool tub, one cold tub, one gorgeous ice-cold tub with a rainfall shower dispensing frigid water, and one tub that is so hot that I felt I was being prepared for canning. Let me tell you, I am a hot water junkie; the main reason I could never go on "Survivor" is not because I wouldn't eat bugs, but because I wouldn't give up my hot showers. And this tub was too hot for ME. I mean seriously, that's some hot hotness.

- Water areas are, of course, naked. Again a comparison with Spa World: there are plenty of "foreigners" at my home spa-- lots of white people and black people, people of all shapes and sizes, tattoos on display everywhere. Not quite so at King Sauna, at least not the day I was there. It was about 85% Korean, which meant I had more ink and more body fat than the vast majority of naked bathers. *I* didn't care, but if you're a self-conscious person, heads up.

- Beautiful decor, lots of game tables with games awaiting, and space to just hang out. Super relaxing and beautiful environment, but confusing floor plan (prob due to additions over time).

Pardon the blurriness, but I had to be sneaky with my photography. Though this area was clothed, there's a general no-photos policy in a facility catering to naked people.

- Shuttle trip back was smooth/uneventful. ~30 mins back to Manhattan.

Now here's the part I didn't have room to mention in my Yelp review (I ran out of characters). While in one of the gemstone saunas, I saw a Korean woman, about the same age as me, looking at me anxiously. We were the only two in the sauna, so I struck up a conversation with her. She told me she lived in New Jersey but was native-born Korean-- a fact I had discerned from her accent and real struggle to speak English. Her English was competent, but slow, and she was clearly self-conscious about it. She told me this was only the second time she had been to a Korean spa herself, despite being native-born, and her teenage daughter was utterly horrified by the fact that you have to take your clothes off in the pool section. It was interesting to me that I was more experienced with spa-going than she, and she seemed put off by aspects of it, asking me questions about whether I was comfortable with this or that.

Finally she asked me if I was feeling all right. Puzzled, I told her I felt fine-- why did she ask? Haltingly, she explained to me that "Asians are made to sweat," while "people like [me]" are not, and she was concerned that it might be dangerous for me to be in such a hot room. Now, of course I realize how racist this sounds, but the lady meant no harm, and her obvious concern for me was kind of charming. I assured her that I felt perfectly fine and was drinking plenty of water. She seemed vaguely reassured. And then she bailed out of the room before I did.

The cold room. Like being in the beer fridge from the '70s your parents kept in the garage. Smells the same, too.

The King Sauna experience was dramatically different from that of Spa World... and I'd be happy to go back. Overall I have to say I prefer my "local" (one hour away) Korean spa, but they're both pretty great, and I can't wait to return to NYC so I can try Spa Castle. The fact that you have to wear a swimsuit there is disappointing, but I suppose it will make for a different kind of Korean spa experience. And when I get there, I'll be sure to share all the details!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Giving Your Characters their ABNA Makeover

For the past two years I've been a judge in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition-- a contest in which my novel, The Kingdom of Childhood, semifinaled in 2010. I'm very aware of how powerful this contest can be in helping an author vault up to the next level of publishing, and, having judged it as well, what can make or break a manuscript. With the submission period just about two months away, I'm here to offer an inside look at how you can get your novel in top form for ABNA.

Whether you've written sci-fi, romance, literary fiction, or any other genre, your characters are key to the judge's-- and readers'!-- level of engagement in your book, right from the beginning. A prevalent myth out there is that a main character needs to be sympathetic. Not true! Some of the best protagonists in fiction are downright unlikable. My favorite example is Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind, who starts out unsympathetic and grows into someone detestable. But here's the trick: if your main character isn't going to be likable, he or she needs to be interesting. A judge may feel skeptical about following the story of an off-putting character, but if that character promises to pull me along on a hell of a ride, I'll give them the chance.

My favorite characters in the stories I've judged have been those with a spirit of mischief and a sense of irony or humor about their circumstances-- even just a hint of it. This doesn't mean that's what I'm looking for-- just that I tend to like it when I find it. Last year I judged a wonderful book about a woman who was working as a soap opera writer as her own life turned into a soap opera around her. Usually I don't go in for chick lit or romance, but I couldn't resist this tale of an exasperated writer navigating the slapstick comedy of her life. She was well-defined and funny, and if she had been real, I would have loved to meet her for coffee.

Lots of stories aren't suited for a character with these qualities, and that's just fine. But he or she-- let's go with she for now-- can often benefit from something that gives her an edge. Even a character who is a victim might have a sense of opposition or inner rebellion against her circumstances; a character who is profoundly confident may be hiding a particular insecurity. These opposing qualities give a personality dimension. And that's always a good thing.

What attributes should you avoid? What kinds of characters are turnoffs for your judge or reader? Here's a list of ideas-- not rules.

The Thinly-Veiled Antagonist. We've all heard of the thinly veiled protagonist-- a character who is a little too autobiographical. Just as common is the "antagonist" version-- a fictional version of a real-life person the author "has it in for." But how would the judge know this is the case? It's easy-- the antagonist has qualities and quirks that don't serve the plot at all. Let's face it-- we all have that person in our lives that we'd love to kill off in a novel. But if you take the leap and cram her in there, you won't be able to resist giving her the same haircut and patterns of speech, and mention some awful thing she's done-- even if these details are extraneous or, more commonly, even conflict with what's ideal for the plot. A skilled author will create the antagonist the story needs, and resist the urge to grab that real-life boss or PTA president by the scruff of her neck and drop her in the volcano.

The Girl With the Short Skirt and Long Jacket. Remember the song by Cake? It's about a girl with fingernails that "shine like justice," who "uses a machete to cut through red tape." Listen, I am all for a positive, feminist narrative. I would delight in receiving a manuscript in which a female protagonist kicks ass and takes names. What I'm tired of reading about are one-dimensional females with unlimited sex appeal-- which they're always using to render men into whimpering, helpless lumps-- and a snappy comeback in every verbal exchange, always delivered with a cocked hip. Can a woman show sexual power? Yes, but for a truly interesting female protagonist it will be only one of many tools in her toolbox.

The Dime-Store Humbert Humbert. I have bad news for you. You're not Vladimir Nabokov, and neither am I. That is why, when I wrote a statutory rapist into my novel, I included the victim's perspective and didn't attempt to write the book entirely from the point of view of a ghastly, morally corrupt and delusional individual. Believe it or not, one of the most common-- and most frustrating-- characterization mistakes I see in ABNA is an author writing a story from the bad guy's first-person point of view, start to finish. Yes, this can be done, but it's like choosing "Dream On" for karaoke. Sure, some people can sing it-- but if you can't hit all those high notes, it's going to feel like an aural assault to everyone else in the room with you. Few people seem to notice that, in Lolita, Nabokov managed to pull this off only because child-molesting Humbert Humbert addresses the novel to the "gentlewomen of the jury"-- putting the reader in the role of moral judge right from the beginning. This is crucial. With first-person point of view, the reader typically feels like she is supposed to be a sympathizer with the protagonist, which can be unbearable if the protagonist is someone who makes her squirm. I have been asked to critique and judge way too many novels that feel like I just sat down to coffee with a child molester.

The Protest Marcher. This one is less common, but still bears mentioning. Now and then I run into a main character who feels like she is quietly carrying a protest sign for a cause that matters to the author. I'm kind of sympathetic to this, because we all want to write books that convey ideas that are important to us. Still, this needs to be done organically within a story, and the reader shouldn't feel manipulated; for a judge it's even more of a turnoff, because if we "vote up" selections like that, it can feel like bias. For example, one year I received a manuscript that appeared to have a thinly-concealed agenda against a particular social group. Characters in the story frequently made comments that were critical of this group, factoids were cited about problems with it, and characters engaged in discussions about why they wanted no part of it. Ostensibly it was the characters discussing this, but I felt like if I voted up this manuscript-- which I wouldn't have done anyway because of its many other problems-- I would be tacitly promoting the author's bias against this group. This is not to say that if you have written a book to promote a view, you shouldn't enter it in the contest. But I do recommend that you write a damn good story that compellingly engages that view, so the end product feels story-driven and not agenda-driven.

Before you submit your manuscript, spend some time mulling over your characters and consider whether a tweak here or there would make them a bit more compelling or even sympathetic-- often it doesn't take much. And if you have questions about characterization, I would be glad to try to answer them in the comments below.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Out With It: On Being the Daughter of a Bad Guy

Two years ago I published a book called "The Kingdom of Childhood"-- the dark tale of a middle-aged teacher named Judy who engages a teenage boy in a sexual affair, then manipulates him deeper and deeper into her web. At the time, every radio interviewer I spoke with asked the same question: "How could you get inside the head of someone so twisted and morally corrupt?" So I talked about Research-- research on female sex offenders, child predators, narcissists, teachers-gone-bad. What I didn't talk about was the only thing that really mattered: that I understood Judy's nature because I am the daughter of a man who is, in many ways, very much like her. And it has taken me this long to realize that protecting him from the shame of that helps no one but others like him.

So here, for the first time, I give you that story. (Warning: it's not pretty.)

Most people who met my father saw a pretty darned funny, highly intelligent, respectable guy. In our upper-middle-class suburb-- a college town-- he was the Welcome Wagon leader, active and enthusiastic at every community event, always out walking his dogs and waving to the neighbors. He was an associate professor at the university and a onetime candidate for local government office. Nearly everybody knew that tragedy had struck our family; my younger sister Heidi suffered a long battle with a brain tumor, dying at the age of 11 in 1991. That event, and my father's strange personality changes that seemed to follow it, tore apart my parents' marriage and left them living for years in their landmark, historic home as hostile adversaries. This was the environment in which I came of age, living from the ages of 11 to 14 as the big sister of a child with terminal cancer, and the next six years in a house in which the emotional weather fluctuated between icy and explosive. Our house was 4,200 square feet in size, and between the three of us who had survived we had enough rage to fill every square inch of it with tension, virtually all the time.

Fact #1 about Bad Guys: They really, really like looking like the Great Guy to everyone on the Outside. The only people who see the Bad Guy are the ones living on the Inside.

Right around the same time my sister was diagnosed with her brain tumor, when I was 11 years old, I stumbled into the evidence that my father collected magazines filled with pictures of naked children. Still vivid in my mind to this day is my sense of heart-squeezing fear when I opened the box in which he kept it, and came across not only all the photos (stuffed in alongside porn videos), but also books with titles like "Incest Interlude." This wasn't that "Barely Legal" stuff I would later see jokes about on the Internet-- this was the "Nowhere Near Legal" variety, and not only were these kids my own age, but the fiction selections made it impossible to ignore an even more disgusting context for those images. Suddenly the puzzling memories of my father's creepy behavior over the years made more sense, and I was so petrified by what might be in store for me that, for the next year, I slept with a dinner knife under my pillow.

These were my middle school years. The environment through which I navigated adolescence.

Fact #2 about Bad Guys: Unlike good-guys-gone-bad, they feel no remorse about their behavior, no matter how corrupt or twisted it is. And if confronted about it, they will feel wounded at the accusation rather than ashamed of the behavior.

The thing that distinguishes an ordinary person with moral failings from the type of Bad Guy I'm talking about-- and the type I wrote about-- is narcissism. If you haven't had the unique experience of living with someone who is a pathological narcissist, it can be difficult to understand just how miserable and suffocating that type of person can be. Here is a list of symptoms, courtesy of Psych Central:
  • Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
  • Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
  • Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
  • Requires excessive admiration
  • Has a very strong sense of entitlement, e.g., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
  • Is exploitative of others, e.g., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
  • Lacks empathy, e.g., is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
  • Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
  • Regularly shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
If you have read The Kingdom of Childhood, you probably recognize most of these as being traits of Judy McFarland. At one point her husband, Russ, gently points out that her behavior seems a little narcissistic, and she snorts with disdain at the ridiculousness of the accusation. Although my father displayed these traits for many years, I didn't receive the full brunt of it until 2005, when he inexplicably told me he wanted to take my kids out on little unsupervised, one-on-one-with-Grandpa outings. My resounding "Hell no" enraged him, and I finally confronted him with what I knew. He responded that of course he knew that I knew, but how dare I extend my knowledge of his secret activity to believe he would ever harm a child! He demanded that I apologize to him, and then-- despite the actual, physical evidence-- accused me of fantasizing that he was that type of father. Yes, that's right-- it was his porn, but I must have been the one with the fantasy.

Fact #3 about Bad Guys: Because they are the center of their own universe, they perceive that their thoughts and feelings must also apply to others-- and if you don't have the same thoughts and feelings, it is YOU who is deviating from the standard.

In my novel, this trait comes out in Judy's assumption that Zach always wants her as much as she wants him, and is deeply, intolerably offended when he brushes her off or rejects her advances. In real life, after this bizarre exchange with my father in which he berated me for telling him I had been frightened by what I saw-- I told him to stop contacting me or the kids. He persisted. I warned him I'd get a restraining order. He told me to go to hell, and sent a package to my son. I went to court and got a temporary restraining order against him, but the court would not grant a permanent one because-- get this-- even if the other party openly acknowledges their possession of photographs of naked children in a box of pornography, in the state of Maryland they cannot be restrained from contacting you or your children unless there is a specific threat of violence. (If you think that's as crazy as I do, come sit right by me.)

For the next six years my contact with him was all by email and sporadic-- always me urging him to get therapy so we could reconcile somehow, to which he would always reply with vitriolic screeds. Because here's the really crazy part: even though he was a very Bad Guy, he was still my father, and I wanted my father's love. I wanted to protect my children, make him honor my boundaries, refuse to be spoken to in a demeaning, malicious way-- but I also remembered the father he had been when I was a little kid, before my sister got sick, and I could not believe that Great Guy wasn't still in there, deep down. I was a writer, and so I held to the belief that if I said the right words, triggered the right memories, evoked the right feelings, it would be like a magic spell that would bring back the father who had taken such good care of me when I was very young.

Well, it didn't work.

Fact #4 about Bad Guys: they probably have people who love them, not because those people are insane or stupid, but because they believe there must be a way to break through the narcissism and get the loved one to "come around." It's very hard for normal people to comprehend that to a pathological narcissist, love is a manipulative tool, not an emotion they feel.

In The Kingdom of Childhood, Judy's children, Scott and Maggie, act like selfish twerps most of the time. Perhaps they are selfish twerps, but I think there's another layer that is only easily visible to those who have had parents like Judy. The kids sense that something is off, and feel guarded toward the parent because of it. They interact with Judy the way they do because they have learned the cardinal rule of interpersonal disagreement with a narcissist: unlike in interactions with normal humans, with a pathological narcissist there will be no mutually agreeable solution. The non-narcissist will be constantly manipulated and disadvantaged by their desire for cooperation, until at last they dig in their heels and demand their own, "selfish" solution.

Fact #5 about Bad Guys: The only resolution to a story in which the Bad Guy is also a narcissist is to turn around and walk away. There will be no reconciliation, no moment of clarity, no rebuilding the relationship carefully in new and better ways. Our spiritual worldview tends to tell us that this is always possible, but that rule doesn't work with Bad Guys.

At the end of The Kingdom of Childhood, Zach at last figures this out, facing the fact that Judy isn't going to agree to an understated, mutually amenable parting. In my case, after a well-intentioned but fruitless attempt at reconciliation, I at last realized that my father was not going to get therapy; he was not going to act nice; he was never, no matter how I appealed to him with humor or logic, going to respect my boundaries. I needed to stop tormenting myself by trying to meet him halfway, and wash my hands of the relationship. To those who do not have a family relationship with a narcissist, this looks hopelessly cruel. Those who have been there know it is the only route to peace, because if there's one thing a narcissist doesn't want you to have, it's peace. Peace means you won't feel the need to pander to them.

Most novels about family life reflect the socially accepted belief that love can motivate even the darkest soul, and love has the power to create triumph where hopelessness had once ruled. It's hard for most of us to fathom that there are certain people in the world who are not motivated by love. I hate to sound so bleak about this, because I do believe that for the vast majority of people and the vast majority of families, love is a powerful and conquering force. I recently finished watching the amazing TV series Breaking Bad-- note, I'll keep this mild, but to some of you it may be a spoiler. At the very end of the series, even though Walter White is utterly corrupt and wretched, the one flame of humanity that remains in him is that he still loves his children. For those of us who have had a different type of parent, Judy-- who at the end of the novel loves no one except the idealistic image of a man she knew in the past, who is mainly a creation of her own psyche-- is, unfortunately, the kind of devil we know.

So there you have it. No, Judy is not a deep, dark version of me. But she's awfully familiar.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

I'm Trapping the Damn Leprechaun and You Can't Stop Me

In the past few days, quite a few of my Facebook friends have posted Kristen Howerton's blog post from Rage Against the Minivan-- a mini-screed entitled Can We Take the Holidays Down a Notch? She opens with an anecdote about her children's desire for a "leprechaun trap," to which she responds (to her readership), "Are you serious?" She goes on to cite children's increasingly amped-up expectations for holidays, and to call for a general drawdown of the celebratory craziness surrounding them.

With all due respect to Ms. Howerton (and much is due, because on some level I feel her pain)-- I must object.

Above is a photo of my children a couple of years ago, constructing a rather elaborate leprechaun trap. We have made them every year for-- well, I don't even know how long, but since long before "Pinterest" was a word. We still haven't caught the little twerp, but every year he drops his gold before he escapes, leaving my kids with a respectable stash of Rolos, chocolate coins, and Werther's caramels. We also celebrate Pi Day, and have an Easter egg hunt in our backyard complete with a Golden Egg that involves extra shopping and (inevitably) some losing child's tears, and have a watermelon seed-spitting contest in our driveway on the Fourth of July. With respect to the holiday stories my kids tell their friends, if you want to take it down a notch, I am the enemy.

Plus, not only do we celebrate Christmas with all suitable shock and awe, but we also celebrate St. Nicholas Day, which is where the kids put out their boots by the fireplace on December 5 and awaken to find them filled with candy, little Santa-themed toys, and new hats and gloves. We've done that for more than a decade-- since my 15-year-old, James, was a preschooler. Their friends think it's awesome, and beg their parents to do the same.

It wasn't like this when I was a kid, that's for sure. For one thing, my family was Jewish, and although I enjoyed Passover, I spent the month of March paging longingly through the J.C. Penney circulars in the Sunday Washington Post, cutting out pictures of girls in Easter dresses with little gloves and hats and playing with them like paper dolls. You can imagine the near-fatal case of Christmas envy I suffered every year. While I don't defend my covetousness, it wouldn't take a degree in psychiatry to figure out why I grew up to be a mom who cranks every once-forbidden holiday to Eleven.

But this isn't just about me and my unruly inner child. There are other, perfectly valid reasons why I think it is a perfectly fantastic idea to celebrate every special day in epic style.

This is my 15-year-old, James. He's the healthiest kid in the world. Last Fall he woke up one morning feeling dizzy. The next day I took him to the pediatrician, who sent us straight to the ER. By the time the neurologist assessed him an hour or so later, he couldn't walk anymore, or turn over in bed without vomiting from dizziness. His eyes jumped around when the neurologist pointed a light at them. She told us it was probably a brain tumor. If not, it was likely a meningitis-like swelling in his cerebellum, and he would be admitted to the ICU. The sentence she used was, "I believe we are witnessing a significant event."

I didn't want a significant event. Not this kind.

In a matter of hours, our life had swung from happiness and predictability to the absolute and terrifying unknown. My baby, my firstborn, had transformed from the sibling-wrestling, pancake-making, "Burn Notice"-obsessed kid I knew to a rapidly deteriorating, profoundly ill neurological patient. Because my sister had passed away at age 11 from a brain stem tumor, I knew all too well what James was likely facing, and what his siblings would be facing as well from the upheaval this would cause. My husband and I were beside ourselves. It was the worst day, and somehow it felt like a day I had always feared would come: when my wonderful child, who I had always suspected I didn't deserve, would be taken back. 

Over the next two days they expedited his MRI, and then his second, contrast MRI, and then his spinal tap. He got sicker and sicker, but one by one they kept eliminating the possibilities: first, it wasn't a brain tumor, and then it wasn't meningitis either. They decided it was probably viral, and started talking about eventually discharging him to a nursing home, where he would re-learn how to walk. Then his headache got really bad, and they put him on a bunch of IV drugs, and a few hours later he stood up and walked to the bathroom, then asked if they could send in the video game cart.

Discharge diagnosis: one major MF-er of a migraine.

His four days in the hospital were, in the end, the most incredible gift. My husband and I had stared down the barrel of what it would look like if our lives were turned absolutely upside-down by something terrible happening to one of our children, and as a result saw the fragility and precious beauty of ordinary life. During that time I realized: we are not promised a single day. Every single day we wake up and things are ordinary, and fine, and normal, is an act of grace.

Since then, when I have a lousy day-- checks not arriving, fights on the internet, dogs creating more messes than my toddlers ever did, obnoxious relatives making trouble-- I'll step back and think, "James doesn't have a brain tumor. Today is a GREAT day." Maybe it's a little bit Pollyanna of me, but it puts it in perspective to think about what March 21, 2013 might have been like, if the universe hadn't grabbed us by the collar and then slowly lowered us to the ground.


Catch the damn leprechaun. Because inevitably, no matter how carefully you arrange your life and how thoughtfully you raise your kids, there are going to be days where there's not one thing worthy of celebration. There are going to be days that suck. An ordinary day is a fantastic day. But a day that gives you an excuse to hand out the sugar, have fun as a family, and take a break that leaves everyone exhilarated and smiling?

Kick it up a notch. Celebrate like there's no tomorrow. You won't regret it.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Day 3: Denial

Here are some things I did today that were NOT writing and/or promoting:

1. Read about Reese Witherspoon's new baby and mused on whether "Tennessee" is a redneck name or a literary one, eventually settling on literary

2. Watched the "Gangnam Style" video, again (twice)

3. Giggled through a sexy short story by my writing bud Allison Leotta

4. Ate a gyro (note: not part of my diet)

5. Googled myself and checked my Amazon number (more times than I will own up to)

6. Took my eldest kid to Starbucks and got a Frappuccino (note: also not part of my diet)

My youngest was home with a stomach bug today, and knowing that at any given moment I might be called upon to attend to this issue kind of threw a wrench into my creative gears. I swear, if it's not one thing it's another: my kid's got a fever, my husband's got his arm in a sling, the dog's on an antibiotic, my boss wants to know why I missed the deadline to submit to the bulletin, Verizon sent out their electronic thugs to remind me that I forgot to pay my bill again, and all that's just since Saturday.

But there are positive developments as well. I managed to make slightly brilliant progress on Wonder Girl despite the distractions, I'm getting some glowing reviews and good press opportunities on Heaven Should Fall, and my heart has been fuzzily warmed by the many eminent authors who wished me a happy bookbirthday on Twitter (check out my feed!). As for productivity, I'll do better tomorrow. No more K-pop. No more Reese. Back to the business of listening to my imaginary friends, and I mean it this time.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Day 2: My Tennis Ball Guru

I've been saying for years that I need a mentor. More recently, in my more confused and desperate moments, I have commented that what I really need is a volleyball with a handprint on it, a la Cast Away, that speaks in the voice of Stephen King. In my mind, I mean. It would scoff at my concerns over whether my prose is quite literary enough, what that reader said about my book on Goodreads, and whether I will ever feel worthy enough to dare to apply to the MacDowell Colony, because in On Writing he specifically (without naming it) jests about his own long-ago MacDowell fantasies.

From the photo above, you can see where this is going. I did it. After a somewhat fraught phone call with my agent ("You can always send your new manuscript to me before you send it to your editor," she told me, "I'll give you my honest opinion," to which I replied, "that's what I'm afraid of") I came home, grabbed a tennis ball that has never been used by my lazy non-retrieving "hunting" dogs:

Lightning. Today.

... and drew on it an artistic interpretation of Mr. King. He has a seat of honor on the bookshelf just to the right of my writing chair. Writing is a lonely profession, so how delightsome it will be that I now have someone to talk to. And this will be a relationship of mutual respect: no "#1 fan" jokes from me, no comments about how "The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition" could have maybe stood to be a little less complete and more cut, and in return he won't berate me for being slow and neurotic. Stay tuned as he doles out advice to me and hopefully offers me guidance on an upcoming sex scene.

Meanwhile, the blogger reviews for Heaven Should Fall are coming in slow but positive. One of today's: "a grim and compelling tale whose finely crafted characters reveal a thoughtful study of an insular family stunted by extremist views and shocking tragedy." Oh, grimness! The end is uplifting, I assure you! And on another uplifting note, it looks like I will be at the Baltimore Book Festival this Saturday after all. Please drop by and allow me to sign a copy of my shocking tragedy for you.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Day 1: And We're Live

My Facebook post from late in the day said it all: "If you could see my true inner self at the moment, you would see Britney Spears shaving her head and attacking a car with an umbrella." Today I was the "First World Problems" meme come to life. Yes, my husband let me sleep in, and it's Book Release Day, and I got to go out to an all-you-can-eat taco buffet for lunch. But I also learned that there's a major snag in my plans to be at the Baltimore Book Festival this Saturday, and I spent much of the day fretting about my dog, Thunder, and taking him to the vet, who lightened my Visa by $172 and gave me more to worry about. Thunder-- fun fact-- makes a guest appearance in Heaven Should Fall, along with his sister Lightning, as Dodge's dogs. Here's a "special features" detail about our rescue dogs that you won't see on Shelfari: Lightning is the heartbreakingly sweet, emotionally needy beagle who turns up her nose at a kibble breakfast but will gladly eat out of the bathroom garbage can, and pees in random locations on a whim; Thunder is the Good Dog, the strong silent type who has turned out to be so medically fragile that he's more like a porcelain sculpture of a beagle. He suffers from back pain, for which he takes two pills, and now has a problem with a gland I can't discuss in polite company, which has so far required two gazillion-dollar antibiotics to address.

Other than dealing with those two different types of pains in the ass, I spent much of the day responding to the copious amounts of social media love offered by my friends and colleagues. Writers, by and large, are terrific people. So are friends. I hardly got any writing done on Wonder Girl today, so distracted was I by the outpouring of affection. As for the diet, that didn't go so well; there was that aforementioned taco bar (wow, was that good), but I did manage to get in a walk with a friend. The day can realistically be summed up with a screenshot from my calendar:

The latter appointment belongs to my husband, with whom I share a calendar. He deserved it. Not only did he let me sleep in and supply me with tacos, but he stopped by Barnes & Noble to take the pic at the top of this post. So after a long and eventful day, we're all enjoying the warm glow of a day well spent. I have a new book out, and he has, well... beer.