Sunday, December 25, 2011

On the 12th Day of Christmas My True Love Gave to Me: 12 Months of Memories

"On the twelfth day of Christmas,
My true love gave to me:
12 months of memories,
11 days a-vacationing,
10 pages turning,
9 ducks a-bugging,
an 8 year old dancing,
7 hens a-laying,
6 cats a-sleeping,
5 More Minutes!
4 calm equines,
3 fuzzy dogs,
2 flightless birds,
and an old farm in the country."

Enough said: It's Christmas Day. An entire year is nearly over. I am grateful for so many things today: my parents visiting from 500 miles away, weather warm enough to go outside without wearing a bazillion layers, the succulent turkey dinner that will soon knock me into a tryptophan-induced coma.

Still: as I've been revamping the 12 Day of Christmas for the past week and a half to make it more meaningful to me, I've been reminded again and again of so dang many things that I am grateful for. They just won't fit into a single song. And so, today, to cap things off and end this little 12-day series, I am especially grateful for having been able to spend another year with the people and creatures that make my time on this planet meaningful and rich.

Some of the memories 2011 brought:

*  We got Barkeley, our St. Bernard, in January. He quickly became a Totoro-like member of the family. So many memories of the previous months include His Giganticness resting his fuzzy head on my lap (or on my computer), quietly entreating attention.

*  My 8 year-old daughter began taking ishinryu karate and loved it. I watched her go from fumbling through the basic movements to calmly practicing self-defense techniques with full-grown adults. Two weeks ago, she earned her yellow belt. Her smile at learning of her accomplishment is a memory I'll cherish for a long time.

One of my favorite views.
*  I rode far less than I wanted to, but the times I did ride were filled with the stuff memories are made of: a willing horse, wide open spaces, and (on occasion) the company of a good friend. ::sigh:: I'm smiling just thinking about it...

*  In direct contrast to my time in the saddle, I spent far more time than I wanted to in the ER when WunderGuy seized violently, unexpectedly, and uncontrollably. Most of the problems were attributed to a change in manufacturer of his meds (don't get me started on generic meds made in other countries ). But MRIs revealed that the mass in his brain, which has been so well behaved for so long, had decided to move. So I now have a lifetime's worth of memories of driving my husband to radiation treatments every day for 5 weeks. With any luck, this is something WunderGuy and I can reminisce about together for years and years to come...

* This summer, while I was walking Kestrel, a nasty bad Midwestern storm blew in from Lake Michigan. Not only did it catch us in it (I walked the last 1/2 mile in rain so hard I could literally not see my feet), but it dropped a 100+ year old maple tree on our house. And our car. Insurance came to the rescue and the roof of the house is fixed. As for the car... Not so much. Every time I drive it, I'm hit with memories.

* I spent several days in Burbank at my first-ever script pitch conference. Learned a lot. Reconnected with old friends and made some new ones. Made a lot of promising contacts but failed to make a sale. ::sigh:: But while I was there, I was able to hang out with my very good friend Karen, who I haven't seen since 2005. And eat a fabulous Thai dinner with her. I adore filling my memories with friends and good food!

There are so many more memories for which I'm grateful: movies watched with friends, "game nights" full of laughter, my god-daughter's birth, stargazing and swimming with my child... I doubt there's enough money in the world to induce me to trade any of them.

Shortly after WunderGuy and I were married, my grandmother died of pancreatic cancer. My grandfather died a few years later of a broken heart and Alzheimer's. His demise was terrible for us. But in the end, he was left alone with his memories. And they were good ones. He was so sad about losing my grandma -- his constant companion for 53 years. Somehow, for him, it was preferable to succumb to losing the present in order to revisit his past. When he died, he took all of his memories with him. In the end, they were all he had.

This Christmas, as I am surrounded by those I love, I plan on making a few more wonderful memories. And when I do, I hope I'll remember to be grateful for those who are integral to their creation. Here's wishing you a Christmas full of gratitude-inducing memories as well!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

On the 11th Day of Christmas My True Love Gave to Me: 11 Days a-Vacationing

"On the eleventh day of Christmas,
My true love gave to me:
11 days a-vacationing,
10 pages turning,
9 ducks a-bugging,
an 8 year old dancing,
7 hens a-laying,
6 cats a-sleeping,
5 More Minutes!
4 calm equines,
3 fuzzy dogs,
2 flightless birds,
and an old farm in the country."

Of the many things for which I am grateful this holiday season, one of the most immediately obvious is Christmas Vacation.  Aaaaahhhhhh.....

My daughter, who loves school, still could not control herself from an obsessive countdown of the days separating her from vacation. (I mean, one can enjoy school as much as humanly possible, but school can't hold a candle to vacation. "School" and "vacation" are the time-spending equivalents of mashed potatoes and chocolate chip cookies fresh from the oven. Mashed potatoes can be your favorite food, but no one's going to choose them over cookies.)

Finally, the day came! Bliss! Joy! We are now in a frenzied enjoyment of two full weeks of vacation which, not counting weekends ('cause those wouldn't have been school days anyway), gives us eleven whole weekdays of things like sleeping in, not having to pack a lunch, no homework, and playing instead of studying.

To make the vacation even better, the grandparents are visiting. BONUS!!

I love watching my daughter's wholehearted embracing of her vacation. Frankly, I'm enjoying the whole "sleeping in" thing every bit as much as she is. Vacation: it's the gift that keeps on giving. And, in all honesty, if I can't be grateful for vacation -- a break in the daily routine that runs my life the entire rest of the year -- then I'm probably in danger of becoming either a workaholic or a hermit.

Without vacation days, the holidays would be an impossible melange of commitments, company, and obligations. Vacation: the very word includes "vacate" which means "to leave." Vacation gives me leave to put my regular life on hold for a while, to leave the merry-go-round that my days can become, and to empty my calendar of everything I wish.

So far, at some point during each day of vacation, I catch myself thinking of all the things I could be (should be?) doing. These are the things I normally do, that I'm not doing because the vacation interferes with my regularly scheduled programming. I realize that those things aren't going to get done any time soon. I also realize that the world will not self-destruct because those things aren't happening. And, once again, I am profoundly grateful...

Friday, December 23, 2011

On the 10th Day of Christmas My True Love Gave to Me: 10 Pages Turning

"On the tenth day of Christmas,
My true love gave to me:
10 pages turning,
9 ducks a-bugging,
an 8 year old dancing,
7 hens a-laying,
6 cats a-sleeping,
5 More Minutes!
4 calm equines,
3 fuzzy dogs,
2 flightless birds,
and an old farm in the country."
A sad reality of the publishing world is that writers don't read. A few months ago, Salon even weighed in on the matter of non-reading writers. It's tragic and it's true: too many of us are guilty.

I daresay no one ever became a writer without reading -- and reading voraciously. Generally, writers began as dyed-in-the wool reading addicts who would shamelessly admit to reading everything:
Children's books...
Classics...
Potboilers...
Pulp trash...
Cereal boxes...
Shampoo ingredients (what the heck is "cyclomethicone" and why does it remind me of an amusement park ride for junkies?).

But somewhere along the way, the days that dragged when I was nine began to fly. Now mine zip by so fast that if I blink twice, I'll miss one.

Sadly, a day has only 24 hours. In that time, in addition to sustaining a relationship, raising children, letting the dogs out, doing laundry, buying groceries, researching agents & publishers, formatting for Smashwords, cooking dinner, editing, working (God help us) the day job, and letting the dogs out again, we must find the time to actually corral the Muse, get her to cooperate and create.

Something has to fall by the wayside. Too often, at least in my own life, it's reading for pleasure.

I think part of the problem is the "for pleasure" aspect of reading. As if it's a frivolous activity that should only take place when all Important Stuff has been accomplished. Which is never.

But reading, like eating, isn't something a writer who wants to remain inspired can do without for very long. In all likelihood, reading is what made us fall in love with words in the first place. Some writer say they "don't have time to read." Or, worse yet, claim "there is nothing out there worth reading. That's why I write."

Bull pucky.  No offense intended, but reading is the writing profession's equivalent of continuing education. The writer who doesn't make time to read is akin to the doctor who doesn't make the time to stay current on what's happening in the world of medicine. The long-term effects on either professional's career can be devastating.

Because reading is so important, so critical, (and -- let's face it -- so dang much fun), I've implemented a plan to make sure I include it in my life. Every day, I make sure I read 10 pages. That's all. Just 10. There's time enough in every day, I reason, to read 10 stinkin' pages. No matter how busy life gets, 10 pages are a doable thing.

This practice has made me grateful for several things:

*  I have rediscovered how much I love escaping into a good book and am thankful for the writers out there who didn't give up, who persevered, and who saw those books to fruition.

*  I am grateful for the short window of downtime those 10 pages bring to every day.

*  I am exceedingly thankful that those few pages provide me with something to talk about, to think about, and to brood upon OTHER than my own works-in-progress and my own life.

*  Finally, I am thankful for the surprising gift of ::gasp:: Extra Time that I often discover. Because you know what happens more often than not? This writer who for far too long has thought she didn't have enough time to read for pleasure discovers that those 10 pages just aren't enough. And I find the time to shoehorn in an entire chapter... or two... into my schedule.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

On the Ninth Day of Christmas My True Love Gave to Me: 9 Ducks A-Bugging

"On the ninth day of Christmas,
My true love gave to me:
9 ducks a-bugging,
an 8 year old dancing,
7 hens a-laying,
6 cats a-sleeping,
5 More Minutes!
4 calm equines,
3 fuzzy dogs,
2 flightless birds,
and an old farm in the country."

I never wanted ducks.

Chickens; yes. (See Day #7 of this series...) I've always wanted chickens. Chickens serve a purpose. Chickens lay eggs. Plus, they taste great.

Ducks -- actually, waterfowl in general -- were the Great Unknown. I didn't know enough about them to have strong feelings one way or the other. Guinea fowl, for instance, I knew I didn't want. Though they're pretty and, I understand, eat ticks, I can't stand to hear them. They sound exactly like a woman being heinously murdered. ::shudder:: But ducks just quack. And swim. For years, I thought they don't do much else...

If it walks like a duck...
We had one or two ducks at a time over the years, but they didn't really register as an integral part of our "vast menagerie." Then, one of the children's teachers at our church said she wanted to get some chicks and ducklings and let the kids see the babies as they fledged. But she needed a place for them to go once they'd grown. Would we take them?

I figured "some" meant 4 or 5, so I said "sure."

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that "some" meant 26!

Boy, howdy!

Suddenly we had DUCKS! And a few GEESE! And I discovered what our farm had been missing all those years:
Organic Bug Control! ~cue the dancing girls and confetti shower~
 Bug Patrol in action.
The first year we had our waterfowl, we learned that they kept to themselves. While ducks and geese happily hang out together, a definite "Us vs. Them" mentality exists between ducks and chickens.  The 2 species will co-habitate at night if locked up in the same coop -- barring other options. During daylight hours, however, they go their separate ways.

While the chickens scratch away in the dirt looking for worms, the waterfowl patrol ponds and puddles snapping up mosquito larvae like it's candy! Had I but known!

The difference a flock of ducks makes in airborne, flying pests is remarkable. There have been some years B.D. (Before Ducks) when the mosquitoes literally drove us indoors. That has never happened A.D. (After Ducks). I will never again be without a flock of ducks on my farm. I'd far rather have them than the buzzing, stinging alternative.

I am very grateful for my ducks -- perhaps all the more so because they are a blessing I never knew I wanted or needed until I had them. Some things I've wished and worked for for years before I acquired them. My ducks, in contrast, were a hidden blessing. And it's a delightful thing to be surprised by gratitude.

Have you been surprised by gratitude lately? Tell me below...

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

On the 8th Day of Christmas My True Love Gave to Me: an 8 Year Old Dancing

"On the eighth day of Christmas,
My true love gave to me:
an 8 year old dancing
7 hens a-laying,
6 cats a-sleeping,
5 More Minutes!
4 calm equines,
3 fuzzy dogs,
2 flightless birds,
and an old farm in the country."
WunderGuy and I were married for 14 years before we were blessed with a child. We actively tried to have children for 7 of those years, joking about all the money we'd wasted on birth control.

We found out we were expecting the same week we learned WunderGuy was losing his job due to outsourcing and downsizing (Corporate Speak for "You no longer work here."). Oh, joy.
C. at 2 1/2 years.

Ah, but our daughter IS a joy. She's a constant reminder that there is still wonder in the world. She enables me to hear old jokes, see old movies, and revisit old haunts with new appreciation.

She is opinionated and brilliant, graceful and coltish. She's got her father's gentle spirit, she's got my gift for gab, and she is definitely her own person.

Every day, she reminds me that she is not me. She is Herself. She doesn't necessarily like the same things I do, enjoy the same foods, or think Those pants go with That shirt. And every time she jolts me out of my comfortable rut where I have experienced the world for the past 4 decades, I am grateful anew.

I've reached the age of walking. I run only for emergencies. All normal activities -- mucking stalls, grocery shopping, going to get my hair cut, exercising the dog -- involve walking.

Not so, my daughter. She rarely walks anywhere. She skips, twirls, stomps, and clomps. She races and runs, dodges and darts. She literally dances through life.
C. at 3 1/2.

Though she was an easy pregnancy, hers was a fairly difficult birth. She was overdue so labor was induced. The umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck, she aspirated fluid during birth, and upon coming into the world, her Apgar score plummeted. She was immediately put on a respirator and placed in something that looked like an alien aquarium. I couldn't hold her until nearly 13 hours after she was born. Thank Heaven for obstetrics and pediatric medicine.

I worried a bit that I might not have a maternal bone in my body. I wasn't someone who desperately craved a child. Though WunderGuy and I feared we might not be able to have one, we never took heroic measures to conceive. And I wasn't ever one of those women who gets all gooey over babies. Puppies and kittens, sure. Babies -- meh.

How my daughter has changed me. Now I, too, am one of "those" women who smile knowingly at pregnant ladies. It's a bittersweet smile: they are about to enter a phase of life that I lived through once, but will never experience again. When I was expecting, everyone told me "Enjoy it; it goes so quickly."

I remember thinking how stupid that advice was. I've been on this planet for over 30 years. I think I know how fast time moves.

C. at 4 1/2. She's twice that now...
I didn't have a clue. So many things have gone in the blink of an eye. I can't remember the last time I dressed her. Or the last time I bathed her. Or washed her hair. She does all those things on her own now. I wish I had some way of knowing when the "last" of something was happening. Perhaps I'd savor it more thoroughly before losing it forever.

Though I can't stop time (truth be told, I doubt I'd really want to), sometimes I'd like to take a page from Alan Lightman's wonderful Einstein's Dreams and freeze time to move more slowly at critical moments. I never knew, for instance, that the last time my daughter crawled to get someplace would be The Last Time She Crawled. One day, the crawling was no more; the dance had begun.

I am grateful for every day I get to hear her music and watch her move to the beat of her very own drum. She is truly the gift that keeps on giving.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

On the 7th Day of Christmas My True Love Gave to Me: 7 Hens A-Laying

"On the seventh day of Christmas,
My true love gave to me:
7 hens a-laying
6 cats a-sleeping,
5 More Minutes!
4 calm equines,
3 fuzzy dogs,
2 flightless birds,
and an old farm in the country."
Few simple things cause me to be more grateful than my chickens. Yes, I know how ridiculous that sounds. Bear with me here...

I am not Poultry Woman. I generally prefer my animals furry to feathered. My chickens (as opposed to the horses, dogs, cats, & indoor birds) are not members of my family. They get fed and watered every day and locked up at night. Other than that, they have free range of the farm. So it's not them, exactly, for which I am grateful. It is their eggs -- those portable pockets of gold -- that have me singing their praises all year round.

I love to cook and to bake. I enjoy food from all regions of the world and (I daresay) I make a very passable cook. But whenever someone raves over my baked goods, or my egg drop soup, or my custards, I know that the real kudos belong to my feathered friends taking dust baths beside the barn.

"Born free...!"
I've had people ask for recipes and then accuse me of holding out on them. "It doesn't taste the same as yours!" I blame inferior eggs on their part instead of any malice aforethought on mine.

I know city people (my BFF's Mother-in-Law is Exhibit A) who refuse to eat farm-fresh eggs because "they came directly from the chickens." Which makes no sense to me. These are the same people who literally think milk comes in a plastic jug and steak comes in styrofoam trays. They exist in deliberate, willful ignorance. And I can't help but feel sorry for how much they are missing out on.

In the summer, between the chickens and ducks, we have more eggs than we can eat. I give away the surplus to friends who quickly become used to foods tasting and looking better. When winter comes, and the surplus is gone, my friends bemoan the necessity of storebought eggs. I share their pain.

The last time I bought eggs in a store is the last time I'll ever buy eggs in a store. The entire family noticed a difference in taste, texture, and appearance. My 8 year-old daughter started a trend that the whole family soon followed when she asked "what is that?" and refused to eat the barely-yellow yolk and rubberized white of a fried egg from the store.

We are spoiled. We freely admit it.  Because of my chickens, I really believe my food tastes better and is more nutritious. And every time I search for eggs (one MilleFleur hen is notorious for hiding her nests), clean the chicken coop, collect eggs, or crack one open, I am grateful.

Monday, December 19, 2011

On the 6th Day of Christmas My True Love Gave to Me: 6 Cats a-Sleeping

"On the sixth day of Christmas,
My true love gave to me:
6 cats a-sleeping,
5 More Minutes!
4 calm equines,
3 fuzzy dogs,
2 flightless birds,
and an old farm in the country."

As I continue to cultivate intentional gratitude for the things that fill my life, I cannot overlook the Cats of Hendrickson House. Of which there are 6: 4 indoors and 2 in the barn.

I love all animals, but if push came to shove and I had to choose, I'm a Dog Person at heart. I've always had both cats and dogs. The dogs were my friends. My companions. My best buds. The cats were... cushion warmers. My daughter, however, is a Cat Lady. Because of her, I have come to appreciate the un-dog-ness of our cats.

All of our indoor cats became house dwellers out of necessity:

Patches came inside because it was so fr%^#king cold out when we got her spayed (no, we didn't think that one through very well, but we wanted to avoid the inevitable Spring Litter) that I couldn't in good conscience leave her to recuperate in the barn.

Hercule came in to heal from our neighbor shooting him in both the front and hind leg. He survived a shattered femur and lost a toe, but his ordeal didn't blunt his affection for humans. He's a love (and my favorite). Named for Agatha Christie's detective Poirot, because of his "little moustaches," Hercule is a tuxedo cat whose favorite perch is atop anyone's shoulders. When he lived in the barn, apres shooting incident, he would often be my shoulder stole while I did chores.

Cuddles, a 15-pound Russian Blue, was one of a litter of five 2-week old kittens some moron threw on our burn pile while we were at church. We bottle-fed them all. Three lived. We found homes for two of them, but Cuddles remains.

And then there's Night Owl, a tortie with twice the normal number of toes. Her mitts are so big, she'd probably gladly offer Hercule one of her spares. She was my daughter's favorite in a litter of barn kittens we took in to be spayed and neutered last year about this time. I got a call from the vet with the news that one of the kittens had a serious heart murmur. She probably wouldn't survive the surgery. She definitely wouldn't survive pregnancy.

So Night Owl came to live inside. She's made it one year. She's in no obvious duress. In all likelihood, she'll live several more.

The barn cats are Maddie and Othello. They should keep the barn mouse-free. However, they've failed to read that memo. Their favorite pastimes are sleeping in the hay and eating (and, in Maddie's case, chasing other cats away. She's quite the Queen Bee.)

All of our cats spend the vast majority of their time sleeping. It's their raison d'etre. It's why they were put on the planet. They can, and do, sleep everywhere: on the beds, on the dirty laundry, on the clean laundry (bonus points if its still warm from the dryer), on windowsills, and in the bathroom sink. They have raised sleeping to an art form.

Jane Pauley has famously said, “You cannot look at a sleeping cat and feel tense.”

Jules Champfleury mused, "A little drowsing cat is an image of perfect beatitude."

And Saki poetically posits: "[The Cat] seems the incarnation of everything soft and silky and velvety, without a sharp edge in his composition, a dreamer whose philosophy is sleep and let sleep."

There is something about the way a cat takes to sleeping that begs for me to take note. I ask myself, "Is there anything in my life that I enjoy that much?" I honestly don't know the answer. But until I find out, I am grateful to my cats for showing me that it is possible to have a wholehearted appreciation of one of life's simple pleasures.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

On the 5th Day of Christmas, My True Love Gave to Me: 5 More Minutes

"On the fifth day of Christmas,
My true love gave to me:
5 More Minutes!
4 calm equines,
3 fuzzy dogs,
2 flightless birds,
and an old farm in the country."
No list itemizing the things for which I am grateful this Christmas season would be complete without singing the praises of my husband of 23 years.

Robert, whom I generally refer to here and on Twitter as "WunderGuy," is (in a word) amazing.

We've spent more of our life together than apart. In all our time together, he's never picked a fight, criticized my opinions, or refused to listen to me. He's not a "Yes Man" by any stretch of the imagination. He has his own thoughts and theories. But he's also capable of listening to opposing viewpoints without getting defensive or resorting to underhanded arguments.

I see so many (too many) married couples who no longer respect each other. For some, it seems that they go out of their way to belittle their partner and cut him or her down. I am so grateful for my husband's continued support and friendship.

Robert and I met during Freshman orientation at our university via a prank phone call I made. (True story.) Our first conversation lasted for 2 hours -- into the wee hours of the morning. Shortly afterward, I dumped my then-boyfriend to go out with Robert, who was just so darn sweet and cute.   (Yes, I know; teenage girls are so fickle. Guilty.) I had every intention of dumping the new guy when someone better appeared. I had no way of knowing then that no one "better" would ever even be a blip on the radar.

We have precious little in common. I'm a country girl at heart. He's more of a townie. I'm at my best when surrounded by fuzzy animal bodies. He doesn't require a dog, cat or horse to make him happy. I'm a night owl. He's SUCH a morning person. I love being outside. He was perfectly content to be a fluorescent-light-lit cube dweller for years.

But we share the same ear for music, eye for movies, and heart for humor. Over the years, an entire sub-language has evolved between us comprised entirely of book and movie quotes that have become our own personal in-jokes. Only when others comment that they can't understand us do we realize how often we lapse into the We-Speak.

Perhaps nothing more aptly illustrates my gratefulness for Robert the WunderGuy than our current early-morning routine.

When school started this year, I'd set the alarm so I had time to get up, get C up, let the dogs out, do outside chores, shower, make lunches, and get out the door on time. Within a few weeks of the routine, Robert started getting up when the alarm went off. He takes care of the dogs and makes C's lunch so I can hit the snooze button one time and get five more blessed minutes of sleep. This may sound like a little thing to some people. But to this non-morning person, it is huge! Every morning, it makes me appreciate him a little more...

What are you grateful for that others might find trivial, but to you is immense?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Fourth Day of Christmas: Gratitude for Calm Horses

"On the fourth day of Christmas,
My true love gave to me:
4 calm equines,
3 fuzzy dogs,
2 flightless birds,
and an old farm in the country."
As my revamping of the 12 Days of Christmas continues, I can't pass up an opportunity to voice my gratitude for my four horses.

Theo: My Big Buddy.
Specifically: I am exceedingly grateful for their well-trained calm.

Too often, upon discovering that I have horses, that I train them, or that I've written horse-themed books, someone will say, "Oh. I had horses once." (Occasionally, this sentence is modified to "I rode a horse once.") What follows inevitably is a tale of destruction, woe, and a near-death experience.

"It didn't want to leave the barn, see, 'cause that's where its friends were. We tried to take it out on the trail, but it took off for home. It ran about 56 miles an hour through an orchard. I held on for as long as I could, but..."

OR

"He'd been a racehorse, see, so it didn't have any steering or brakes. Once I was riding it. My two little sisters and me were bareback on it. And the neighbor's dog came out and spooked it. It took off hell-bent for Sunday. We hung on as long as we could, but..."

The people who tell such tales come in all shapes, sizes and colors, but their stories are astoundingly similar. I always feel sorry for their lack of quality horse experience.

For me, the best part of having a horse is the relationship we have. I love walking out to the pasture and having a creature that weighs over a ton see me, leave his grass smorgasbord without a backward glance and come thundering up so I can scritch him.

Today, we have four fabulously Zen equines:

There are the two Percherons, Theo and Lily.

Hannah, the Quarter Horse / Paint, is my daughter's mare -- an honest babysitter if ever there was one.

And then there's butterball Birdie, a Welsh-something pony who rides and drives, and whose favorite place to be is in your pocket, looking for treats.

They're not deadheads -- far from it. All of them can get up and go far faster than I can move. But the wonderful thing is that when they choose to move, they do so as willing partners instead of trying to get away from me.

My horses are an integral part of my life. Their beauty, grace, strength, and trust provides me with a source of constant wonder. Every time I look out the window, my heart overflows with gratitude.

Friday, December 16, 2011

On the Third Day of Christmas, My True Love Gave to Me: 3 Fuzzy Dogs

"On the third day of Christmas,
My true love gave to me:
3 fuzzy dogs,
2 flightless birds,
and an old farm in the country."
My dogs are members of my family. There's Type A Kestrel, who if she were a horse would be a warmblood -- leggy, athletic, with legendary endurance. After we lost our English Mastiff to systemic lymphoma, Kestrel crawled into my lap at the Humane Society, stared into my eyes and refused to budge.

"My person left me here," she said more clearly than audible words. "I have no idea why, but I'm expecting you to remedy the situation."

She came home with us before the ink on the paperwork was dry. Shortly after adopting her, I came down with Swine Flu (which sounds a lot funnier than it really is), then participated in the I-Can't-Believe-I'm-Actually-Crazy-Enough-To-Do-This 3-Day Novel Contest. The new dog and I literally spent an entire week of concentrated time together. This resulted in significant separation anxiety on her part when I was attempting to sleep for the first time in days.

Kestrel's not really into sleeping. She is the kind of dog who sleeps with one eye open. It's difficult to get a picture of her really gone. Only once have I been successful:



Usually, however, I end up with something like this:


River, the unfortunate example of what happens with an pit bull gets intimate with a Shar-Pei, has no such compunction. She's like a racing Quarter Horse: all the energy in the universe crammed into a compact brown-brindle body. She expends it in a primal burst -- POW!!  Then she's done. She's either "ON," obsessively playing with her Jolly Ball (see video below), or "OFF" (see photo above).
video

And last, but in no way least, there's Barkley. The only male. The only purebred. The only dog who outweighs me. The only laid-back, Type B Zen-master. Barkley has mastered the art of living in the moment. His role in life is to hold the floor down and act as a back door draft deterrent. He does these jobs well.


Barkley loves all creatures great and small. He's not nearly as fond of laying in front of the fireplace as Kestrel and River. Instead, he prefers to park himself in front of the Magic Box that displays moving pictures accompanied by realistic sounds. He's quite myopic and we speculate on how real he thinks the things inside the TV actually are. In any case, he knows the moment we pop a DVD in and hurries to his spot so he can watch along with us.

These three dearhearts make every day warmer and more wonderful. They are all "rescues." River was an unspayed stray who wandered into a good friend's front yard. Kestrel and Barkley were adopted after being dumped at the Humane Society. Someone else's loss is my inestimable gain.

I often say that my dogs help keep me sane. People laugh as if I've made a joke, but I fear I'm far more serious than they suspect. Every day, my dogs provide me with the priceless gifts of genuine enthusiasm, adoration, and unvarnished love. I am forever in their debt.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

On the Second Day of Christmas, My True Love Gave to Me: 2 Flightless Birds

"On the second day of Christmas,
My true love gave to me:
2 flightless birds
and an old farm in the country."
As I continue my revamping of the 12 Days of Christmas lyrics to make them more meaningful to me, I can't help but consider the two inhabitants of the cages that dominate the dining room.
Gatsby: Ringer of the Dingie-Bell

Gatsby is a Quaker parrot that we acquired from a friend who owns an eldercare home. Gatsby's owner died about a year after we lost our beloved Quaker Valentino. So we all figured this would be a match made in heaven -- two bereaved souls finding comfort in each other.

Yeah. No.

No one knows for certain how old Gatsby is or what his original name was. He had developed an unhealthy attraction to a bell in his previous cage, exhibited by stuffing his entire head inside the bell and shaking it violently back and forth. The end result was that he not only wore off all the feathers around his neck, but he so damaged the  follicles that the feathers won't grow back. It's been years since the bell has been removed from his cage. He's not a feather-picker. He's a feather-won't-grower.

Quakers have a tendency to prefer one person above all others. In Gatsby's case, all evidence indicates that his preferred person has shuffled off this mortal coil and the rest of humanity Just Doesn't Cut It.

He's irascible, opinionated, and sometimes he's just plain mean. The first year we had him, he'd rather bite your finger than take food from it. (This, happily, has changed. Banana, peanuts, and mango go a long way toward soothing the savage beastie.)

Gatsby lives in an enormous cage intended for a macaw. He patrols his cage and believes that every square millimeter of it requires defending with his life. So why am I grateful for him?

Well, you see, he has his moments. When out of his cage and, therefore, out of "Protect My Domicile" mode, he will occasionally sit on my shoulder for hours without once drawing blood. I cherish the times we can co-exist without the necessity for Band-Aids. Gatsby has taught me that nothing can be 100% rotten all the time.

His vocabulary includes a ton of things we've never taught him, like "Por favor" and "Wake up, little birdie. WAKE UP WAKE UP WAKE UP!" I am unspeakably grateful that he was never taught any *ahem* colorful words before we acquired him.

He has an excellent ear for conversation, often joining in with a helpful "OK! Good-bye! Good-bye!" when he thinks I should either A.) get off the phone or B.) kick a guest out the door. When I call or talk to the dogs, he will piggyback on my conversation with a forceful "Good GIRL! Good - good - good!" He is my Word Monitor: a very real, living reminder that the words I say might very well come back to haunt me.

He loves water. The highlight of his day is taking a bath. If the bath doesn't arrive when he thinks it should, he attempts to cram his whole body into his drinking water. Then he laughs hysterically -- an uncanny imitation of me. He has taught me how easy it is to find joy in simple pleasures.

Max and his Special Friend.
The other cage in the dining room is occupied by my daughter's parakeet Max. Max is sweet, timid, soft, and kind. He's the AntiGatsby.

Max's very favorite thing in the world is his mirror. That, you see, is where his Special Friend lives. His Special Friend looks like him. He never tires of Max' s company. And he happily plays Kissy Face as long as Max wants.

Max isn't the brightest, perhaps, but as my daughter pointed out: at least his obsession doesn't result in permanently removing the feathers from any portion of his anatomy.

I'm grateful for Max for entirely different reasons than I am for Gatsby. My daughter wanted her own bird (a bird that wouldn't pierce her ears or disfigure any other part of her), so she carefully saved up her own money for months until she had enough to buy him. During that time, she researched different species, determined she wanted a parakeet, then read every book on parakeets she could find. Because of Max, my daughter now understands the joys of having a goal and making it a reality.

Because of Max, my daughter is daily confronted with the responsibilities that accompany caring for another living creature. Oh, sure, we have a whole assorted menagerie and she's helped with chores from the time she could walk. But Max is different. Max is hers. We wouldn't have him if it weren't for her. I am grateful to Max for teaching my child about important decisions and long-term commitments.

Gatsby and Max can fly -- sort of. Their wings are clipped in such a way that they can get enough loft to evade the dogs, should a Situation arise. But they can't get enough velocity to bash their brains out in our big picture windows.

Being flightless affects each bird differently. Max clings to the humans in the vicinity and hitches rides on them. Gatsby, predictably, takes a sort of perverse pleasure in going out of his way to get where he wants on his own terms. Each one feeds my gratitude. They offer me two very different ways to approach a perceived problem. Sometimes the answer is to enlist the help of someone bigger, tougher, and stronger than I. And sometimes the answer is to suck it up and do what it takes to get where I want.

Tomorrow: The 3rd Day of Christmas Revamped...

Do you have any Gatsby-like challenges for which you are grateful? Share them and we'll commiserate together. :)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

"On the First Day of Christmas" Revamping a Carol with Gratitude

"On the first day of Christmas,
My true love gave to me..."
So begins the Christmas song that reminds me more of "100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" than of anything to do with a baby in a manger.

I'm pretty good with the early numbers. It's when I get up to 10, 11, and 12 that I get confused. Is it "10 pipers piping" or "10 drummers drumming?"

Sometimes I feel like Fozzie Bear, forgetting what comes next:


"Ba-dum BOM BOMP!"

This year, in the spirit of thankfulness that the season brings, I'm going to revamp the 12 Days of Christmas with lyrics that more accurately reflect the gifts I've been blessed with and the things that make my life worth living. ('Cause, truth be told, if my True Love gave me a partridge in a pear tree, I wouldn't be singing about it. At least, I wouldn't be warbling a particularly happy song.)

I owe the inspiration, in part, to Kathy at Bliss Habits (@BlissHabits). Her blog is dedicated to the intentional enjoyment and awareness of things that bring us bliss. One of her Bliss Habits is "Gratitude."

Recently, I encountered a question that challenged me: 

If you woke up tomorrow with only the things you'd given thanks for today, 
what would still be in your life?

I want to be more intentional in my gratitude. I have enough clothes to wear and won't go to bed hungry. I can see, hear, taste, run, create, worship Whomever I want and freely voice my thoughts. For these and many other things, I am grateful.

Perhaps by sharing my 12 Days of Christmas, I can encourage you to come up with your own list of things that bless your life.

So...
"On the first day of Christmas,
My true love gave to me:
An old farm in the country."
I live in a house that's over 120 years old, situated on 60 soggy acres in southwestern Michigan. Few would consider that anything to sing about. I, however, could compose odes to our home all day long.
My view from the dining room table.

When we started house hunting, we were young and had precious little money. We knew we wanted enough acreage to keep a few horses, and we had to be within driving distance of WunderGuy's work. As a result, we looked at every falling-down fixer-upper within 50 miles. We looked... And looked... And looked.

There was the "Indoor Pool House" with 3 feet of standing water in the basement.

There was the "Gadget House," full of every conceivable amenity from built-in vacuum cleaner and intercom system to convection ovens and warming racks in the kitchen. None of which worked. If WunderGuy had been an electrically-gifted handyman, the house would have been a steal. As it was, we only saw a Money Pit of broken gizmos.

Then there was the "Death House," in which an entire room was painted a dull, dead blue, and a pentagram covered the floor. Mounds of melted candle wax and the dessicated bodies of mice and other hapless creatures completed the decor. Um... no.

We looked for over a year. We despaired of ever finding something we both liked and could afford. Then we looked at an old brownstone farmhouse. As soon as I walked through the front door, I knew that I was home.
Sunrise from my kitchen window.

It needed significant work. Some projects, like needing a kitchen, new windows, and a barn, we knew about when we bought the place. Others -- like needing a new bathroom and furnace -- were unexpected surprises. But it felt like home the first day we moved into it and 20 years later, its hominess has only increased.

I'm grateful for my home. I consider a dry, safe, welcoming place a great blessing. Sure, it's old. Sure, it has about a million and one things that could be done to update it and make it better. Sure, I have friends whose homes are newer, nicer, and less covered with dog hair. But I'd be hard-pressed to find a home with more love in it. And for that, I am eternally grateful.

That's Day 1. Tune in tomorrow for Day 2...

With 12 days left to Christmas, what one thing are you most grateful for?

Monday, December 12, 2011

One Author's Experience With a New Publishing Model: Q & A With Gale Martin

Today, I welcome as my guest the fabulously talented and charming Gale Martin (@Gale_Martin): cat lover and homemade beef stew doyenne. Gale's novel, "Don Juan in Hankey, PA," has recently been released by Booktrope, a publisher with an unconventional publishing model. She graciously agreed to share her publishing experience with my readers and address some of the most common questions new authors ask about working with new, niche, or small publishers. 

Thanks for having me on MuseInks. In 2011, Booktrope, a Seattle-based publishing firm, published my novel with an opera backdrop called DON JUAN IN HANKEY, PA.  They have a publishing model unlike any I’d ever encountered. For all the authors out there who are shopping or will be shopping books, I’ve put together this little Q&A to help you along in your journey towards publication.

Q. Should wanna-be authors continue to seek traditional publishing outlets for the book? 

A: Actually, I do believe in the model embraced by the publishing industry. Find an agent. Have the agent shop the book to us. That’s where I began. I queried about 140 agents, and had a lot of requests, about 15-20 partials and full manuscripts. More than one agent read the whole thing, and then told me they couldn’t represent it. One in particular gushed over it and said, “I just can’t take on any new clients.” That’s when I knew the landscape for fiction writers like me had dramatically changed. It used to be if an agent a) finished your book and b) liked it, you would get an offer of representation. 

I would have preferred not to go directly to a publisher. I wanted to have the book agented going into the whole process. However, I believed in the book and didn’t want another finished book sitting on my shelf.  I had barely put my toe in the water when I learned about Booktrope Publishing from the Twitter bio of another writer they published. Just like in the Longfellow poem, “I shot an arrow into the air,” I shot a query off to Booktrope in March of 2011, with no expectations for success. Booktrope offered to publish my book in July with an email that said, “If this book is still available, we’d very much like to publish your book. We really like it.”  After doing more research, I was favorably disposed to consider their offer.

Key takeaway: Keep your eyes open to new publishers and new models of doing things. Look where other debut authors are being published. People are dying to talk about their publishing experiences on Twitter. Make sure you plug in once-in-a-while.

Q.  Might a publisher like Booktrope be the right one for me?

A:  One of the things that attracted me most was that Booktrope had expertise in digital publishing. Though I had only read one or two e-books in my lifetime when I contracted with them, I’d been reading so much about how e-books are becoming more and more of the book buying market, that they are the way of the future. 

By July of 2011, I had almost 1,000 followers on Twitter and had more than 50,000 visits to my Operatoonity blog. Operagoers and opera lovers would comprise a target audience for the book, yet the opera-loving community is international. It may be a small group compared to even the audience of musical theater lovers, but it certainly is an international group. 

And operagoers were online in droves--if Roberto Alagna sang in Berlin last week but is performing in New York this week, operagoers across the globe are dying to compare notes—and now they can, thanks to social media. At the same time I was hoping to dip my toe into the arena of digital publishing.  Because Booktrope also published print copies and I hadn’t yet figured out how to sign an e-book at a book signing, that made them a better fit for me, than just a e-publisher.

Key takeaway:  While small presses continue to publish quality offerings, investigate whether they will publish your book digitally, in versions for the popular e-readers. It may not be your preferred avenue of publication, but it absolutely is essential for capturing a larger readership—a global readership. 

Q: How involved do I need to be to market my own book? Won’t the publisher do most of it?

A:  Even if you are published by a Big Six press, there are expectations that  after  their marketing effort is completed, that you must pick up the mantle of promoting your book. Their marketing team must move on to the next client, after all.

Booktrope ‘s model is unlike any I’ve ever seen. After they accept your book for publication, you become part of a creative management team that includes an editor, a designer, a book marketing manager, and in my case, the publisher, though I understand Booktrope just added a position to help the publisher so he can take on more books.  Your marketing manager and, in fact, the publisher help you plan and then roll out online and in-person marketing events  from a marketing plan they devise.

We have had editorial, publishing, and marketing meetings via Skype. In my case, the book marketing manager prepares and sends out news releases and make contacts for author events. The publisher sends out review copies (print and electronic) and places ads in online venues such as Kindle Nation and Facebook. 

The publisher, Ken Shear, is like a coach, encouraging you to send e-invites to build attendance at your on-ground events or to get more Amazon reviews.  He doesn’t believe authors should have to wait two years until they see their books in print. The book marketing manager works with me for the life of the contract—five years—so she’s incented to help you sell your book long after it is launched.

Key takeaway:  Whether you go with a small press or a conventional publisher, you must be prepared to market your work. However, if your work with a small press, you are in a better position if you find someone like Booktrope, who provides a level of marketing support over the life of your contract. 

Q.  What advice do you have for writers who want to get their book out to the public?

The big six publishers have a time-honored published model that has worked for centuries and that has yielded the world’s greatest literature. However, many in the conventional publishing world and everyone along the supply chain of the publishing industry hasn’t kept pace with technology to the extent they probably should have. There are still plenty of agents who only accept snail mailed queries and don’t have a decent website. Publishers have been the "gatekeepers" to ensure a certain level of quality. But they aren’t the only ones who do that anymore.

Companies like Booktrope also believe in the benefits of gatekeeping. But instead of having an editor, a proofreader, and a designer in house, they use freelancers who elect to work on an author’s book if they believe in the work. I just read a statistic that the sales of e-books have outpaced printed books for the first time this year at Amazon.  This kind of data must have people in the conventional industry scratching their heads and squirming in their seats. And I love books—books that you can hold in your hands. But not to appreciate or anticipate the impact of e-books is just plain short-sighted.  

Small presses need to consider how to reach digital audiences more than they are. And self-publishing is just a big morass where authors and their titles get lost and largely where authors and their money get taken. Oh sure, every once in a while, one lucky self-published soul hits it big. But self-publishing, even in you call it indie publishing, is still a crapshoot.  And often crappy writing.

Key takeaway: As conventional publishing gets harder and harder to crack for debut novelists destined for the midlist, look for outfits like Booktrope. Except right now, there might be only one Booktrope.

I encourage you to visit Gale's website and connect with her on Twitter. She's a valued addition to my online writing friends -- and I suspect she'll be the same for you.