Thursday, February 26, 2009

Go Ahead, Jump!

Ellie is 5 years old and has recently learned to jump. We are all thrilled by this development - a result of increased strength, balance, and coordination achieved by 5 years of physical therapy and 2 years of gymnastics. She bounces around all the time, lately, our own little Tigger.

Despite being only 42 inches tall (and 46 pounds) Ellie manages to have a significant impact on the people around her, whether it's the hundreds of people at church who are touched by her excitement at being there every Sunday, or the handful of people who were less pleasantly touched by her contribution to the community pool tonight, ending open swim early. (Sorry, folks) (I'll note here for the record that Ellie still says "boyana" for banana and "shoo-kick" for music, and I hope she never stops. Potty accidents, she can grow out of any time now.)

Lizzi has become a dignified old lady. She doesn't jump except for a prime position on top of a cushion on the couch. But she doesn't have potty accidents, either, and that's something to appreciate.

Ada is 25 months old, 35 inches tall, and 26 pounds. She's enthusiastic about jumping, but doesn't achieve much air. The doctor diagnosed her as white (not really, that was a bad reference to an old movie) and is unconcerned but suggested that Ada might enjoy doing gymnastics, too. Alas! Saturday morning just got even shorter. Ada would like you to know that her favorite color is orange, and she's moved along from liking "spots" (polka dots) to rainbows.

Also, she's begun trying out knock knock jokes. In fact, she has a whole stable of them. I'll give you a couple and see if you can catch onto the pattern:

Knock knock!
Who's there?
Pig who?
Oink oink oink!

Knock knock!
Who's there?
Cow who?

Because you sat through all that, here are a couple courtesy of a Quiznos kids meal:

Knock knock!
Who's there?
Repeat who?
Who who who!

(I bet you're looking around for someone to do that to, right?)

Knock knock!
Who's there?
Nobel who?
Nobel, that's why I knocked.

HAH! Have a great weekend.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

New Safety, New Concerns In Tests for Down Syndrome

A handful of biotech companies are racing to market a new generation of tests for Down syndrome, a development that promises a safer way to spot the most common genetic cause of mental retardation early in pregnancy even as it weaves a thicket of moral, medical, political and regulatory concerns.

My friend Becky sent me a link to this article, thinking I might find it interesting.

Indeed I do. And I have been following this development for months with enthusiasm and excitement. (Though I am uncomfortable with some of the wording/phrasing within the piece, that's pretty much par for the course with this type of reporting.)

My perspective on prenatal testing and Down syndrome differs widely from that of many other parents of children with Trisomy 21. Ellie was diagnosed prenatally, and so was Ada (with her oh-so-typically configured chromosomes). With Ellie I had the quad screen (second trimester maternal blood test, safe for mom and baby but very high rate of false positives - and negatives) followed by a targeted ultrasound (aka "Level 2") that picked up markers for Down's, culminating in amniocentesis because I just needed to know and to prepare myself by that point. With Ada I had chorionic villus sampling, CVS, late in my first trimester. I've only been pregnant twice, I've had prenatal testing twice, and I've chosen not to terminate twice. So that's my story.

I'm someone who needs to know everything I can, to understand as much as possible, to feel like I have control over a situation. Pregnancy was no exception to that. For me, knowing as much as possible, as safely as possible, as early as possible sounds GREAT.

I share the concerns of many other parents of children with Down syndrome that earlier, safer, and more widely available diagnostic tests will lead to fewer children born with Down syndrome and worse community support and acceptance for people with Trisomy 21.

"We have a history in this country of a eugenics movement where people tried to eliminate certain people from the gene pool," said Andrew J. Imparato of the American Association of People With Disabilities. "People could start wondering, 'How did you get born?' "

I just disagree about the right way to address the problem. I'm giving a talk to a group of obstetricians next week about delivering difficult news to moms whose babies have been diagnosed to Down syndrome prenatally. There are some things my doctor did that were great, and others that she (and her office) could have handled much better.

I think that educating people and eradicating fear of the unknown are critical. I think that talking about Ellie and sharing our experiences together are important parts of the process. I think that doctors doing a better job of talking to pregnant women about the diagnosis is necessary.

But I don't think that limiting access to information is at all helpful. I trust women to make their own decisions about what testing they choose to have throughout pregnancy. I trust women to make their own choices about how they manage that information. I think that my job, and the job of each pregnant woman's healthcare team and the community at large is to help women as they research and learn and decide as they see fit.

I can't see this as simply a personal decision; it's also political. And I can never see this as purely a political decision, either. In this case, the two are inextricably combined for me. And I hope that gives me an extra bit of compassion for families dealing with the uncertainty surrounding pregnancy, prenatal testing, prenatal diagnoses, and decisions about whether or not to terminate.

I see this scientific breakthrough as a call to action, not a threat to my child.

Table for Sale on eBay

I'm sure you've seen it already, though I just got it for the first time late last week. And I just can't stop looking. It's one of the best email forwards I've received in a long time.

Um, the photo might not exactly be suitable for work. Or home. Or . . . anywhere, really.

"Can you solve this little riddle? First take a look and guess. You'll find the answer below, but try to figure it out before you look!

This table is for sale on eBay. How can you tell it's being sold by a man??"

Random link to pic.

Disturbing Snopes article. Sort of ruins the fun, actually. (And includes more disturbing photos.)

Hope you had a little chuckle before the ashes and the praying and the seriousness of Lent. I'm clearly not ready for it yet, so I'd better start preparing myself, like . . . now. ish.

I was going to post something else tonight, like, maybe a recap of the 4-week parenting class Paul and I completed tonight (sort of a Love & Logic knock-off, very cool) or an account of Ellie's cardiology appointment, or a note about Ada's recent experience with Spaghetti-O's.

Instead, I was busy chatting with a friend and . . . knitting. Then I watched Monk. But tomorrow I'm sure I'll be properly back on track, ashen forehead or no.

Monday, February 23, 2009

I'm Not Romantic

I've been known to buy a whole box of kid valentines, write sweet things on each and tape chocolates to them, then hide a few in my husband's work bag or business trip suitcase every now and then throughout the year. I've ordered a pizza with the pepperoni in the shape of a heart on Valentine's Day. And I've made heart-shaped meatloaf by hand. So maybe I am romantic. But I'm not big on sweet nothings and I tend toward the sarcastic when my husband gets mushy.

None of that is what this post is about. I mean romance as a literary genre, the modern version rather than products of the 19th century or languages derived from Latin, and I'm about to review a couple of romance novels next week so I wanted to get this part out of the way first so that it doesn't clutter up the review.

I've mentioned before that romance isn't one of my favorite genres as a reader, and my stock explanation for why is that what interests me more is the next part. That's really the reason why I don't write romance novels, though. I've actually tried. I plotted and wrote and found that the story I really wanted to tell was not how two people came to be attracted to one another, overcame obstacles, and then lived happily ever after, the end. I want to talk about what "happily ever after" means. I want to know about what happens five years in, or twenty-five. After that first flush of love, then what? And maybe from there the romance angle isn't even the most compelling part of the story for me.

There's no single thing that's true in every romance novel, of course. (Except, possibly, depending on your definition, the Happily Ever After, or HEA.) And many of the same themes in romance novels (and movies) also crop up in other genres. Besides, there's quite a bit of genre cross-over these days.

But, as a reader, there are some things I find frequently in romance novels that bug me and pull me out of the story:
  • A sense of inevitability about two people coming (and eventually staying) together.
  • A suggestion that sex (or a kiss, or a vow, depending on the author/story) cures all.
  • A heavy focus on the way one's loins react when someone special walks into a room.
  • Cliched language to describe all of this, especially body chemistry and reading things in others' eyes (mine don't have text boxes).

I'm reading along, right there in a high adrenaline life-or-death moment with the heroine when - bam! - the hero enters the scene for the first time. And you might know it immediately because her pulse quickens, she feels a sharp tug somewhere down deep inside her, she meets his eyes and time stands still, etc. Those moments take me out of a story and don't describe what the beginning of a relationship is like, for me.

I appreciate that everyone has a different experience with this. But I will say that I do think there's danger in over-romanticizing relationships. I think there's danger in sugar-coating what it takes to make a relationship work. I think that portraying a relationship as easy (once the external and/or internal conflicts have been resolved) is as disingenuous as the way mainstream porn portrays women and sex.

I started all this in response to the article Romance Is Not a Four Letter Word at Publisher's weekly and discussed here.

"There's something wrong with literature aimed at women?"

Not by me. (The same could be said of cozy mysteries, cookbooks, and lots of other genres that women buy more heavily than men. For me it's not the intended market, or the inclusion of a love story, just the style and language.)

"When someone tells me they don't read or don't like romances, I always ask them what romances they have read that caused them to dislike the genre. I think you can guess the most common response -- the person has never read a romance. Nope, they are just taking a snobbish attitude that they learned from others"

In my case, this isn't it. I have read romance novels: single title, category, sub-genre, etc. And they're just not for me, as a general rule (which is not to say that I don't make exceptions). See above re: style. Serious or funny, paranormal or historical, there are tropes I find commonly across the genre that annoy me and pull me out of the story. I like to lose myself in the story.

So these are the reasons why romance novels don't always work for me. (My comments about the dangers of over-idealizing relationships leading to unrealistic expectations notwithstanding.)

I also get annoyed by the frequent right-back-atcha-with-interest discrimination I see all over the place, including up there in the PW article and the comments that follow. From the article: "I started asking around and the feeling is the subject matter for book clubs must be deep (read boring) to be book club fodder. (Don't even get me started on Oprah's picks, I say let Gayle pick the books once in a while) They're supposed to be Book Clubs not Doom and Gloom Clubs. What about fun? What about enjoyment? What about characters actually caring about each other in a loving, adult fashion? Didn't these people ever hear about romance being combined with thrillers/suspense/paranormal/historical/humorous/erotic? What about variety being the spice of life??"

Um . . . not all literary fiction is deep and boring. Quite a bit of non-genre fiction is fun. What about enjoyment? Characters care about each other in other genres. There's even love in other genres (where a romance might be a significant part of the story arc but not necessarily the main one). And yes to variety. But where's the celebration of variety in suggesting that all literary/book club/non-romance fiction is boring, unfun, doom and gloom, and unenjoyable, with characters who don't care about one another in a "loving, adult fashion?"

How does this sort of attitude support the oft-repeated assertion that "romance readers/writers are some of the nicest people?" How does it do anything except further highlight unnecessary inter-genre tension?

Diana Gabaldon's books used to be marketed and sold primarily as genre romance, though her books don't really fit into traditional/strict demarcations of romance, historical fiction, or fantasy. She also doesn't do any of the things I listed above that annoy me. I know that bookstores need to know where to shelve titles, but I think there's a great deal of room for lowering barriers between genres and I think Gabaldon is a great example of doing so.

Do you know who really drives such change (or lack thereof)? It's readers. So many of us - us, meaning readers - pick up a thriller and expect something just like X, or a cozy mystery just like Y, or a romance novel just like Z. But completely different, of course, though it has to turn out the same way. As long as readers prefer books that follow templates, that's what editors and agents are going to be looking for, because that's what they can sell.

So there's a challenge for us - as readers - to be willing to try lots of new things and be specific with ourselves about what worked for us, what didn't, and why. And there's a challenge for us - as writers - to avoid the stereotypes, comfortable forms, and cliches of our chosen genres. I think the work will be stronger for it.

And we'll have less of this inter-genre bickering, too. Maybe I'll put cozy mysteries in my cross-hairs next. I love 'em. But I get so tired of reading about murder. There are other mysteries to solve, people! But murder sells, because we buy murder mysteries, and so on and so forth . . .

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Getting Warmer - Reprise

I was getting ready for bed on Thursday night when I realized that I was really cold. That wasn't so weird; I was really tired, too, and am often cold when I am tired. But . . . I checked the thermostat just to be safe.

It was about 7 degrees cooler than it should have been, there in the warm center of the house. I went to the thermometer by the back door and it was 5 degrees colder still. Uh-oh.

I walked into the bedroom, cringing a little at the necessity of waking Paul, who'd gone to bed about 30 minutes earlier. I was pleasantly surprised to see that his eyes were partially open and he was still wearing his glasses.

"I'm so sorry to be so ignorant. I swear that tomorrow you can show me everything you know about the furnace so that I don't have to get you out of bed for something like this again. But the house is cold and the furnace isn't even blowing."

"I don't know," he said.

"You still have your glasses on. Could you please come downstairs and take a look at it?"

"I don't know." Paul reached out and set his glasses on the bedside table.

"But a few weeks ago when the furnace kept going out, you kept going downstairs and flipping some switch that would temporarily start it again. I don't even know what switch you were flipping. Could you please-"

"I don't know." He rolled over onto his side - away from me - and snugged the covers up under his chin.

I went downstairs, muttering about both my husband and my own ignorance. I cleverly discerned the furnace from the water heater and took off the front of it. There was a little switch marked "on," which I flipped a couple of times. Nothing happened. I replaced the front of the furnace and noticed a switch on the side of the unit. I flipped that a couple of times. Then I went to the electrical box and flipped the appropriate switch. Nothing, nothing.

Still grumbling, I came back upstairs. I covered the couch-bound pug with a blanket, added a second warm fleece to Ada's crib, and tossed a Nana-knit afghan over Ellie's bed and ours. Then I dressed myself for bed in heavy slipper socks, pajama pants, a turtleneck, and a full-length flannel nightgown.

Last month, we had a very expensive repair to our "only ten years old, very good, should last a long time" furnace. This month, we had another, unrelated, part seize up and die. This part was even more expensive. But the overall repair was not, because the awesome repair dude from Harster didn't charge us for any labor. (In addition to that little gift, they made it out to the house an hour after we called both times this winter and replaced our air conditioner the same day we called them in August.) So, yay!

Sort of. I mean, it's another month of not being able to start replacing our unsittable living room furniture. But all in all, we had a nice time snuggling up in front of the fire on Friday morning. Plus, I decided that it was a good time to clean the oven (love that fabulous self-cleaning feature) so the kitchen stayed cozy.

As for Paul, well, on Friday morning he woke up surprised to find the house so cold. "I have no idea what I said to you last night," he said. "But I suspect that I was a bit of a jerk and I apologize for that."

And now we should be good for another 10 years, right?

So, how about you? Has your heater ever conked out when it's 50 degrees outside? Or your A/C when it's 70? Or are you like us, where the air only goes out in August and the heat in January/February?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

I Made Something!

I've always wanted to be crafty, but I'm just not. Sure, I make cakes (for family birthdays) and candles (for teacher Christmas gifts) and stuff like that. But I want to be someone who can actually make STUFF, like blankets, scarves, hats: useful things.

I completed my first serious craft project when I was 9. My grandmother collected dolls, and I sewed one for her, all by myself with support (though not hands-on-assistance) from my mother. I think I still have the sad little thing somewhere. Other than that isolated incident, My craftability was pretty much limited to finger weaving on long car trips.

When I was in my late teens, I developed a craving for some lingerie. I didn't need Fredrick's of Hollywood, but I wanted something other than a fleece Garfield nightgown. My mother (intelligently) refused to buy me any undergarments or sleepware that I'd ever want to show a boy. And that stuff is expensive. So, once again, I attempted sewing, this time with significantly less support from my mother. I have several pictures to mark the experience (and, once again, I've kept the product). Suffice it to say that satiny materials are not friendly to non-talented sewfolk (yes, I originally typed "sewers") and that creating spaghetti straps by hand sucks.

As an adult, I tried very hard to learn several crafts, including knitting and crochet. I have some sort of a mental block. I just can't do it. And my basement is littered with the fabric, yarn, needles, machines, and other cast-offs (that was a craft pun, didja catch it?) to prove it.

So when I learned about "round loom knitting" and how it is so simple that even a ten-year-old can do it, well, I was hopeful but far from confident. I've been burned before. Latch hook, anybody?

But it works! I can do it! And I kinda like it! It's not so easy that it feels like I'm completely cheating, but it's not so hard and time-consuming that I give up in frustration. I did my first practice project this week. It took me a couple of nights of television watching with Paul to complete. Behold: a hat!

(For a newborn with a very, very small head.)

My mother has this theory that most people who knit well have a hard time with crochet and vice versa. Sure, there are some people who do both easily and well, but I balance them out by being unable to do either.

What are your craft triumphs or epic failures?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Busy Bodies

Ellie's been in gymnastics for a couple of years now, and she's still enjoying it. But when it's time to load into the car and head off to class, she's starting to seem a little bit less excited to stop playing and go. I don't blame her for this. Actually, I'm unexcited about it, too. The program is great and has done good things for Ellie, don't get me wrong. She has learned to jump! And her balance has improved tremendously; she's impressive on the beam. But with school/Paul's work Monday - Friday, gymnastics every Saturday, church on Sunday, and Ada still taking an afternoon nap, we have little time to go out and do things as a family.

And I am a big go out and do things as a family person. Before gymnastics moved to Saturday morning we'd do at least one big activity every weekend: zoo, Grant's Farm, Science Center, Magic House, park, 6 Flags, arch, whatever. We still squeeze in stuff like that, but it would be nice to have a whole morning a week for it, when everyone's rested and fresh.

So we've been exploring other activity options for Ellie, and she seems particularly psyched about therapeutic horsemanship, which I think would be great for her. If you've never seen one of these sessions, you should check it out. Like most kids, Ellie loves riding horses. Her Nana arranged for her to have one session in Wyoming last year, and she loved it in a therapy setting, too. On horseback, Ellie will be working on gross and fine motor as well as cognitive and academic stuff all at once in a thoroughly enjoyable fashion.

This is the way I think about activities for Ellie: here's what she needs to work on, here's an activity that can help focus on those things, and here's a way we can make it fun. we do this with physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech, pre-academic work, social skills, you name it.

I was having a conversation with my girls' pediatrician this week, and the doc is one of those amazing people who causes my brain to go, "click!" and suddenly I'm seeing things in a different way. She started talking about how, when her daughter (who has Down syndrome) was 6, she started classes with an inclusive community theater group, and she LOVED it. She's gotten so much out of the experience.

See, the doctor's daughter knows that school is harder for her, that sports are harder for her, that she's not as coordinated as some of the other kids, etc. But she has a great memory and she loves drama. She can act. It's something she's good at, and this has really helped with her sense of self esteem and overall happiness.

Of course!

For months, I've been worried about my precious Ellie. She's still a beacon, with this light within her that makes strangers smile and fills a room - an entire sanctuary - with a glow. But I feel like she's got a dimmer switch, now. I feel like she's so much more hesitant. She'd rather play alone in her room, by herself, than reach outside of her comfort zone. She knows that she's different from other kids, both in what they can do and in how they interact with each other. And rather than push for acceptance, she sometimes chooses an easier route, wanting to play with her own toys at home, wanting to watch the videos she quickly and easily memorizes, wanting to do the things she can do without being redirected or corrected or rejected.

I think we'll still sign Ellie up for therapeutic horsemanship, and I think she'll love it. But we'll look into theater, too. Because it's good to reinforce her special gifts and talents as well as her challenges. Just like we would do with any other child.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Network Ratings and Me

We used to be a Nielsen family! Recently, they took our little box away, so now I'm no longer forbidden from mentioning it in public. And I'm telling you! Did you ever wonder why a show you hate stays on the air? Perhaps I'm to blame.

I lackadaisically follow a couple of HGTV shows and record The Daily Show (which I enjoy though I rarely get around to watching it lately). I like House (and met one of the lead writers at Love Is Murder!) and Grey's Anatomy. When it's on, I really enjoy Project Runway. I also watch Private Practice, Monk, Law & Order, and Lost. Once I start watching a show, I have a hard time quitting even after the love is gone. I'm sure that's shocking and all.

Paul adds on Battlestar Gallactica and 24. The girls watch Playhouse Disney and Dora the Explorer.

So, have I ruined your life? What do you watch? And what that you used to watch has been canceled because I didn't watch it?

Monday, February 16, 2009

New Blog

I have time for just a quick note tonight, because I've spent the past two hours creating a new blog. As expected, I've spent much of that time praising Blogger for the ease of setting up a feature-rich blog, interspersed with occasional exclamations of frustration with the template's limitations.

Why can't I interact with all that grey space?! Why can't I add my own image right there, without developing a whole custom template?

Anyway, I'm relatively happy with my new blog, and I'll be even happier with it once Blogger adds a new feature whereby I can publish a post to two different blogs simultaneously.

This is because I have 9 blogs. Nine. NINE. Most are hidden, some are pseudonymous. And I don't update them all regularly. Even so, maintaining the ones I do work on takes time I can ill afford.

The purpose of the new blog is to be a writing blog. Now, I obviously write a lot about writing here. And I expect to continue to do so. In fact, for the time being at least, this will continue to be my main blog, where I continue to post 5 days a week on all manner of topics.

But some of this stuff isn't really . . . professional. So I have a new blog that's basically just the reading and writing posts from this blog. Nothing original, so far. But as I prepare to go out there as a writer, I figured I'd better start baby-stepping toward professionalism. But not here! Here I'm just as unprofessional as ever.

Bearing in mind, as I always do, that my mother-in-law reads this blog, so it's not like I'm suddenly going to start talking about sex in graphic detail. Ah-hem.

So, anyway, if you're SO OVER hearing me lecture about politics and rant about potty accidents, feel free let me know if you'd rather Follow or Subscribe or Link to the writing blog instead of this one.
To Clarify: the new writing blog is just the reading/writing posts from Houdini for now, not new/separate/different content.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Some of the Text Messages I've Received Lately

Two weeks ago, the day before my pregnant sister's due date, I received a picture mail from her showing a close-up of a beautiful baby girl. A Korean baby girl. My sister is not Korean, and neither is her husband. I had a moment of great concern, then remembered that my sister's college roommate - whose parents are from Korea - was pregnant too. I responded with my initial worry to MiddleSis, who texted back:

"That would put a bit of a strain on my marriage."


Do you know the Le-iea story? According to the cousin of a friend of my sister's (and so forth) this is a little girl's name. How would you pronounce it? Apparently, her mother calls her Le-dash-ia. Anyway, here's another message from MiddleSis, this one in response to my question about deciding on a baby name. She was sure she was having a boy.

"I tell the Le-iea story all the time. If a boy it's Bruce. Will call Brodie."

I am so glad that I have a niece. (But of course I didn't say anything negative about the name, once they'd decided!)

On the day of Evelyn's birth, I got a series of messages from my mom and sister as they waited for the tardy doc, including a picture of my sister - suited up for surgery - flashing the peace sign. She called to announce the birth while she was still in recovery (and in pain). For the rest of the weekend, we passed several phone calls a day back and forth.

Two days later, this text came:

"All right - Everly or Evelyn or forever hold your peace."

She decided on Evelyn.

In my family, we talk about just about everything. In Paul's family, there's a bit less of that. Here's a text I got from him last week:

"Grandma died. System is down again at work. Ada still sleeping, though. :) "

Yes, he told me that his Grandma died in a text message. And there was a smiley face in the same message. This is not to suggest that Paul was cavalier about losing his grandmother, just that . . . he's still working on expressing his feelings!

Two years ago, I swore I'd never text. In the past I also swore that I'd never have a cell phone. OK, maybe I'd get a phone, but I'd rarely use it. And never while driving! All this does is make me a late adopter of new technology. I'm still holding out against HDTV and Blue-Ray. But I'm sure that I'll eventually see them as indispensable.

I still don't think I'll ever announce a birth or death to family members via text message, though.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

My New Niece

My younger sister had her second baby last week!

For those keeping track, my parents have four granddaughters, all with names starting with "E" or "A." That's Eleanor, Adelaide, Arria, and Evelyn. After Adelaide and Arria, my mother pleaded with us to never name another child something that starts with a vowel. Alas! MiddleSis was never very good at obedience. She does, however, have big, healthy babies.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Developmental Milestones

My parents are beginning to age. Well, my dad turned 65 this week and my mom is 59, so, yes, they are "beginning" to age. But my dad still makes the occasional off-color joke accompanied by a little giggle, and my mom still feels uncomfortable in certain stores and around certain people. I wonder: do they still feel like kids sometimes, in the worst sense of that word? Do they still feel like they're not quite grown-up yet, like they're faking the whole maturity/responsibility thing?

I bet they do. I know I do.

There's a part of me that feels like I'm playing a game. Refinancing our house a couple of years ago down into a 15-year-mortgage felt like a move in a board game. (This was much like the feeling of obtaining a mortgage in the first place!) Parenting? Being responsible for two little children, one with special needs? HAH! Double hah!

Perhaps this is an artifact of growing up in the first real video game generation, but I sometimes feel like this is all for play, for practice, and there are unlimited do-overs and safety nets.

I'm thinking about all of this stuff tonight because Paul's grandmother is expected to die within the next few days. Death is always unexpected, even when it's expected. Death is always inconvenient. It's supposed to be. It's supposed to pull us away from our daily lives and shove the Big Picture into our view for a time. It's supposed to force us to stop and look around from time to time.

The big picture I see right now is that when Paul's grandmother dies, she'll be the last of our collective 8 grandparents to do so. And then our parents truly will be the oldest generation. We'll become the sandwich generation.

I'm not ready for my parents to be old.

And I'm quite OK with not being entirely grown-up yet.

But I can definitely do without the horrible angstyness of adolescence. I'm glad to have mostly left that far behind.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


Paul and I are taking a parenting class through our local Parents as Teachers organization. This week we spent some time talking about making our children feel valued and loved, and about how they absorb values from the environment we create for them.

I mentioned how I can see all this happening in my own children by watching them play together. Watching my girls play together is my favorite thing in all the world to do. When one girl gets hurt, the other hugs and kisses her. They frequently affirm and praise one another. They're generous with their affection and both say "I love you" regularly.

Today, Ada started a new little sister habit (I hope it becomes a habit) that warmed my heart almost to bursting. Or something.

Anyway, Ada asked me to read a book to her. I love to read to my girls, but occasionally I can't do it right away. For example, today I was tidying up quickly before a friend came over for dinner and to watch the girls while Paul and I went to our parenting class. Ada asked if I could read her Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?. I asked for a couple of minutes. She left and took the book to her big sister and instructed Ellie to read the story to her.

"Oh, sure!" Ellie said, clearly delighted to be asked.

And she did it! Ellie "read" that story to her little sister. It was awesome. And it was the second time today. Surely, life does NOT get any better than this.


Writer D.A. Riser asked:

I forget who, but someone had a blog out this weekend that agents aren't interested in pitches at conferences. Basically, their point was that the agents are just too polite to tell you no to your face so they ask you to send them your query, regardless. Does that match your experience, or did you find some that you think were sincerely interested?

No and yes.

It's my understanding that most agents wouldn't be traveling to and accepting pitches at conferences if they weren't looking for new authors and interested in finding the next great/fresh/exciting voice out there.

I didn't expect that most agents at the convention would be interested in carrying home my manuscript - even just the first 50 pages - so I didn't bring that. I did bring along an extra thumb drive, just in case I needed it. Hey, it never hurts to be prepared, right? (I didn't need it.)

I was a little surprised to learn (though it makes sense, in retrospect) that the agents didn't want to be bogged down by any paper, including business cards and query letters. Some took notes during the pitch sessions, most didn't, all wanted the query and requested material to be sent via email or snail mail after the conference.

Love Is Murder is a great little conference (it's limited to no more than 300 attendees) and one of the most helpful sessions for me - someone who's just beginning the query process - was the session called "How to Pitch to an Agent or Editor" that was scheduled before the first Pitch-A-Palooza session. That single session taught me more about what the agents and editors were looking for, individually and as a group, than anything else I've heard or read. And it let me know which people I was most interested (or most uninterested) in working with, too. I loved that.

I pitched to 5 agents at Love Is Murder and got 5 requests for more material. I think that several of the agents were being polite and asking for material from everybody, preferring to deal out rejection via email or snail mail later rather than in person.

But I did overhear one of the agents and a couple of the editors bluntly telling other authors, "I can't sell that," and "I'm not really looking for that right now," or "this just isn't a good fit for me." I did see some authors walking away from pitches empty-handed, without the agent or editor's business card with submission information hastily scribbled on the back.

And even when the agents did ask to see more material, there were variations. For example, the first agent to whom I pitched asked me for 75 pages. She asked for material from the woman who pitched to her right after me, too, but only 50 pages. Random? Who knows. The other author and I dissected our conversations with the agent trying to figure that out. But the agent and I had a great conversation in which she highlighted the challenges of what I'm trying to do, then started talking about how those could really be positives in this market, etc. She seemed genuinely interested and called my pitch fresh, new, and interesting. (Yay!)

One agent to whom I pitched asked for the whole manuscript. I heard her asking for other complete manuscripts, which definitely took the wind out of my sails a bit, BUT. Even within that general request, there were hints about how she really felt (I hope.)

After hearing my hook and pitch, this agent asked me, "These threats, are they happening online as well as in person?" From the way she asked the question, I could tell that there was a correct answer here, and I immediately provided it.

"Yes," I said, mind racing, already thinking about how I could add that into the manuscript and getting excited about how the story could really be improved by this, a lot of tension added via the change.

"Send it to me!" she said quickly. "Immediately. Tomorrow!" She did ask for manuscripts from other writers; I heard her saying things like, "Send it to me; I'll take a look at it." She did not tell everyone, "The whole thing. Immediately! Tomorrow!"

So I'm choosing to think that's a good thing!

Over the course of the weekend, I refined my pitch quite a bit. At first I tried to downplay the online gaming part of my novel, thinking that would be a turnoff for a market that skews older and female (as interest in computer gaming skews younger and male). I was surprised to find a lot of interest in the online component to my novel - even from the agent who requested all follow-up materials via snail mail - and came away from from the pitch sessions with ideas about how to actually beef up that part of the manuscript and consider building a series out of the online community rather than (or in addition to) the analog community I've built for my characters. It turns out that there might be room for a conventional mystery that's not a cyber-thriller but still has a web 2.0 component to it.

I could have spent months querying agents via email without getting the same amount of feedback I got by pitching face-to-face at a conference, even before I got over my initial terror enough to start asking cogent follow-up questions. Both my pitch and my novel will be stronger for it.

Another thing I was surprised to learn was that the agents and editors did not want to see writers using notecards or crib sheets of any kind. And in the "How to Pitch" session, they kept telling us not to be nervous. As if! But I heard things like, "If you don't know what your story is about without looking at your notes," and "If you can't sell me with enthusiasm," then they didn't think you were ready to sell and promote your novel.

So I skipped the panel session immediately before my first pitching session and spent an hour in my room, practicing my pitch over and over and over in the mirror, without using my visual aids. I didn't think I'd be able to do it, but I had to, so I did! And I'm so glad I got over needing that crutch!

In my first pitch, I stopped, closed my eyes for a moment to collect myself, apologized, and started over. It all went great after that, and I had chosen an agent for my first pitch that I thought would be sympathetic to a nervous author. (She was.) She told me how she thought she could sell it, and asked to see 75 pages.

Now I just need to finish The Dreaded Chapter - not the last chapter, that's written, but the one before it, the chapter in which It All Comes Together, the hardest and scariest chapter for me to write. And I need to polish, then send my manuscript out to readers. And then I'll be ready to sent it out to these 5 agents and a few others.

En guarde!

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Back Home

I have no idea what to say. My brain is numb. "You make it sound like you were there for a week!" Paul says of my 3 days at Love Is Murder. Maybe I'll have processed it all better by tomorrow.

Great conference.

The experience of pitching in person is terrifying.

And one of the best uses of time and money for a writer I can imagine.

In a letter or e-query you can't see the agent's face, can't see what she's really responding to, where you need to explain more, what's actually exciting her. And you can't ask follow-up questions.

I learned SO MUCH this weekend. And now I have a lot of work to do. Good night!

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Snow Days

Last week, we had a snow day with 2-3 inches of snow on the ground. And a second the next day after a few more inches fell.

On Wednesday of this week, my parents got two feet of lake effect snow in just a few hours. My mom - who has lived just south of Lake Michigan for many years and grew up in New England besides - said that she's never seen snow come down so fast. It was a complete white-out, and fell on top of the snow they already had, making some impressive piles. Both of my parents work a few miles away from where they live, and the snowfall was slightly less the further away one drove from the south shore of the lake. Neither of them had snow days the day after that huge snowfall. Now that's a regional variance!

We love our snow. I just wish we got a little bit more of it.

Love Is Murder (and so are sleepless nights)

I am trying not to have an entire blog that says, "I am very, very tired," for about 5 posts a week.

Instead, I will say these things:
  • I am planning to attend Love Is Murder this weekend, and if you're planning to be there as well, please seek me out to say "hi!"
  • It will be the first time I've left Ada.
  • I am a little anxious about the whole thing, but am really really really looking forward to it, too.
  • I have nifty business cards with a great little image that Paul designed for Seek Ye First. (It involves a thumb drive and coffee, so how could it not be great?)
  • I've decided that book sucks, by the way. I still love the characters and the story; I'm just convinced that I'm a talentless hack and will be rewriting it until I die. Which might be soon.
  • On an entirely related note, we are struggling with sleep. And by "we" I mean Ellie. And by "struggling" I mean that bedtime involves over an hour of working to get her down to sleep at night, while afternoons are currently a negotiation between "nap time" and "quiet time" in the hope that if we can keep her awake all day, she'll sleep better at night. That's not working as well as I'd hoped. She's cranky and tired in the late afternoons/evenings, while still waking up several times a night (she's been out of her room twice already since midnight tonight) and getting up before 6:00 am. But at least she didn't fight sleep as hard at bedtime today.
  • Have I mentioned that I'm sleepy? Oh, I wasn't going to talk about that. Nevermind.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The Book Review Club (February)

I am excited to be a part of Barrie Summy's new Book Review Club. When I first signed on, I had such high hopes for myself. "I'll wow them all," I thought. "I'll be both funny and insightful. I'll review War and Peace like it's never been done before!"

Now, I've never actually read War and Peace. Not even the Cliff's Notes version. I'm not proud of that, but I'm not too ashamed to admit it, either. And what did a little detail like that matter, anyway? The first review wasn't for ages. It was days and days away! Blink. It's today.

And the book I've spent the most time reading this week is Once Upon a Potty by Alona Frankel.

There are different versions of this classic tome, and I'll be talking about the one we have, the Girl version, complete with matching Prudence doll, her plastic potty, and an accompanying DVD.

When Ellie was about 18 months old, she developed a great interest in the potty and her developmental therapist recommended this book. Ellie loved the book from our first read through, and still requests it regularly nearly 4 years later. She was, however, completely creeped out by the weird-looking Prudence doll for quite a while so we substituted a beanie Dora the Explorer on the plastic potty. She loved that, and the DVD was an even greater hit.

But this is supposed to be a book review, right? Ellie immediately "got" this book, and wanted to keep it right next to her potty chair to read every time we were in the bathroom. Which, as you might imagine, was frequently. Her favorite part was the page where Prudence sat on the potty. "And sat and sat and sat and sat." 77 times. Even now, as a five-year-old, she's happy to sit on the toilet as long as it would take her to sound out the words "and sat" 77 times. I'm not kidding; I counted. 77. I've certainly had ample opportunity to do the math.

Now Ellie has a little sister who just turned two and is very interested in all things potty-related, including this book. Fortunately, Ada prefers me to truncate the "and sat and sat and sat" page. She likes the next page more, where Prudence stands up and sees what's inside the potty. Both "Wee-Wee and Poo-Poo!"

As we all know, a good picture book tells a story in both words and pictures, where the illustrations work as hard as the text to convey meaning. This book is no exception. It's just that I'm not quite clever enough to have figured out what Frankel was trying to illustrate with her drawing of "poo-poo."

Ada gets the whole potty concept, in theory and in practice (if somewhat inconsistently). But she studies this one illustration with her head cocked to the side, then looks up at me. "Ice cream?" she says. Now that she draws (hah hah) this to my attention, I see that she does have a valid point. (Ah-hem) It's just that now whenever we read this book - a mere 2-3 times a day - I sort of want to vomit 2/3 of the way through.

The whole time I've been writing this - and for entire months of the last few years - I've had the fabulous little jingle from the DVD stuck in my head. Because I think you'd enjoy the same experience, here it is. My gift to you: The Potty Song

Final thought: highly recommended! A very good read. Appeals to all ages.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Draft Pitch

Edited and significantly changed 2-4-09

I'm working on the "pitch" for my almost-completed novel. On good days, I feel like Seek Ye First is good enough to be published. In tired moments and on worse days, I feel like I need to rewrite and go in a different direction completely. It should be more literary! It should be more genre! It should be funnier! It should be darker! It should be more "women's fiction" with the mystery riding backseat.

When the book is finally ready, the next thing I'll do is start pitching the story to agents. The idea is to pique an agent's interest enough that she - or he - requests more (a partial or full manuscript). The first step in the agent query process is to identify appropriate agents and note their submission guidelines. The second step is to send a query letter, and the "pitch" is a paragraph of the query letter describing the book. It often sounds like back cover copy and is also the verbal pitch you might give to an agent or editor were you riding an elevator together or sitting across the table from one another during a pitching session at a conference.

In the meantime, I'm taking this draft pitch down to keep working on it. Thanks to all those who sent suggestions via comments or email!

It’s the eve of the year’s most hotly anticipated video game release, and someone’s trying to permanently delete the game’s secretive lead designer. . .