Five Reasons Why Fifty Shades of Grey Will Never Be My Thing

01c83602e689905a6439a1c6346d42661. Set in Bellevue, Washington, the setting and its people do not inspire anything to moisten, except maybe the pre-glued lip of a manila envelope. Sorry, Fifty Shades, I’m not buying it. This homogenous community is about as sexy as plain tofu. Who could equate creative, raw and unleashed sex with this button-down, blue-shirt clad, Microsoft haven. From their obsession with The Black Keys to their singular pursuit of creating the perfect refurbishment of the Vanagon parked in their suburban garage,  the people locals refer to as Softies could never be sexy.

2. I’m not a fan of masturbation, so what’s the point? It might stem from my own sexual hangups formed as the child of an ousted Catholic mother determined to never have a pregnant daughter, I admit, this one’s all on me. I do know that my Women’s Studies class at UW didn’t help matters.

This was at a time before the class title changed to Wymyn’s Studies, which might relate to the hymen in some way I’m unaware of, but would be better titled as, “Why Men Are Scum.” We signed up for the class, my bestie and I, with two guy friends who thought it was a great way to meet chicks (or chyx?) and knock out five easy credits. Yeah, right.

From that first day in lecture hall, our guy friends came under the hostile gaze of the wymen in class throughout the hour. Every reference to ‘male priviledge’ made them sink lower in their seats. With the hour almost up, the professor announced our homework. We were to write our names in Sharpie on our dildos. If we didn’t yet own a dildo, we were to purchase one, along with said Sharpie. I didn’t even know the word, ‘dildo’ until that moment, so I was a candidate for option two – purchasing a plastic wonder wand. Problem was, it would never stir anything but confusion in me because after that class my dildo would be sporting a condom made up of man hate and wymen’s pride. That had the sure makings of icy loins.

So, no dildo, no point. Sorry, Fifty Shades.

3. Public sex = Ick. The thought of public sex makes me wildly uncomfortable. As a teen, I’d run the trail along the Columbia River after school, usually accompanied by my stepdad, Mike. One day, Mike bailed on me and I ran anyway – leaving him to watch the episode of All My Children he’d recorded on the VHS in peace. Thank you, Lord.

As I neared the entrance to the trail, I noticed a shiny sedan bouncing up and down. It was a sunny afternoon and my first thought was that a dog was locked inside the car, and was fighting to get outside to some fresh air. I approached, looked in the window and saw a chubby white butt bobbing up and down. I must’ve gasped, because the next thing I saw were two sweaty pink faces gaping back at me. I ran home and told Mike what he’d missed while watching AMC. Public sex. Ick. Sorry, Fifty Shades. I assume you don’t just contain condo sex, but public sex as well. And that makes me barf a little in my mouth.

4. My own failed attempt at PDA (public displays of affection) put me off Fifty Shades. Not sex, no. But, heavy kissing with a boy I’d been dating for some time. He was named Alfredo and was beautiful and delicious and shy. Oh God! He was shy. He’d been my friend for ages and then sometime during high school we decided to be a couple. He was the star of the basketball team, and gorgeous, and ohhhh soooo shy.

On a Sunday, God’s day, I invited Alfredo to my house under the guise of studying. Within minutes of walking in the door, I lured him down to the basement to watch football and “study.” Instead of falling all over me in the gaps between my mother’s trips to the laundry room, he read. He wrote on lined-paper. He studied.

I pinched my cheeks, pushed up my bra and licked my oh-so-willing-lips, but nothing. Alfredo studied.

Fast-forward to the summer. Alfredo came over to walk the river with me. I wore a cute swimming suit and teensie tennis skirt and we walked together, hand in hand. We spread our beach towels out on the dock and kissed. Oh, dear heavens, we kissed – physical, hot, lustful kisses. We were interrupted by someone standing above us, ahemming!

“Ahem!” said a purse-lipped old lady. She went on to explain that this was her dock. And we should take whatever this was leading up to far, far away from her respectable dock.

I can’t speak for Alfredo, but at that moment, all my lust spontaneously combusted, as did all hope for our budding relationship.

PDAs? Nope. Fifty Shade’s not for me. I’d squirm my way through the pages, in a bad way.

5.  My first, and only, exposure to porn was a fat failure. I’ll never try again, which means definitely no Fifty Shades.

It was the summer after my first year at UW. Me and my bestie traveled to Spokane to visit two of our best guy friends. It’d been revealed at the end of spring term that we’d never seen porn and they felt it was their duty to expose us to this life-changing media. (their words – not mine) Well, we didn’t care one way or the other, but it became the thing that our whole trip centered around. The boys had done research at numerous adult video shops and selected an award-winning (Yes! An Award!) video. They rented it, we ate dinner and they popped in the vid.

My bestie and I giggled our way through the opening scene. A woman’s television was broken. Oh no! She called a repair guy and he came over, tight shirt, tight pants and toolbelt. Well, while he was trying to repair the t.v., the woman unbuttoned her shirt, rubbed her boob, rubbed the other boob and then the movie faded out to nothing. We were in hysterics, laughing and rolling on the floor. THIS was the magical world we’d missed out on? Really?

On the other side of the room, sitting under a cloud of bitter, were our two guy friends. They were yelling at one another, “You just HAD to get an award-winner!” Etc. Etc. Etc.

Apparently, this was not typical porn. They were pissed that they’d completely blown their one and only chance to deflower two mostly innocent girls with the world of X-rated vids.

Porn, you and I were never meant to be. Sorry, Fifty Shades. I’ll never know if your best chapters fade out to nothing or thunder to a conclusion of  loud groans and noisy slaps.

—–

If you’re in the mood for a more cerebral read, check out my novel – filled with friendship, mystery and psychological thrills, Four Rubbings.

Just Not the Dirty

It Was a No Good, Very Bad Week

It was a no good, very bad week.

But, I’m not gonna quit!

maya-angelou_D1TR3It was the supreme and brilliant, Maya Angelou that said,  “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”

This phrase has gotten me out of some very toxic relationships. Maybe you think it’s only the callused and cynical that value her statement. But everything about me radiates softie. I give people not one chance, but decade’s worth, and the toll it takes on me and my family has been brutal. But Angelou’s words cut through the guilt and let me do an instant gut check. Who are you?  Okay then. I believe you. I’ll stop looking for something else that you cannot give/be.

This week I was slammed by not people, but people within businesses that I work with, one paid, one volunteer.  It wasn’t a rude nudge, either. No, I was thrown into a solid wall by a big Samoan. As a result, I spent three days disconnected to social media, email and cell phone. I needed some silence and some space to see clearly what these two places revealed about who they are. The complication is that I love both organizations, I do. I love what they stand for, the tenets they were founded on and the people, too. But, I needed to see who they were and believe them the first time.

As my heart hardened, and my inner voice whined, “Not fair!” and “Why me?” I did what has taken me 33 years to learn, I shut up. No easy task for the girl my college friends called, “Verb,” as in highly verbal. My voice strained to scream, my fingers to type long-winded and drama-laced emails, and my hands ached to strike out, shake, and claw.

The first night didn’t go well. It was as though all the negative thoughts had become toxins in my blood. My stomach twisted into knots and my heart literally ached, so much so that my husband asked if he should call the paramedics, twice. I let myself feel. The next two days went better. I spent time with my family and dug in the dirt and painted and scribbled in my sketchpad and did chores, all the while thinking, processing, sorting.

Because after 33 years of failing, I’ve learned how to be patient, how to lock down the worst in myself and wait for something better to seep in.

As of this writing, Day Four, I’m still waiting for the something better. But, at least I have  peace of mind knowing that I haven’t hurt anyone with my words. I haven’t damaged relationships with people and companies I care about. I don’t have a clear direction, but it’ll come.

I’ll recognize it when it comes because it will be something I never would’ve done on my own. I call it grace. I’ve learned to recognize grace because it whispers something foreign and strange when my humanness aches to lash out, hurt, and damage. And that’s how I know the thought is not from me, broken and flawed me, because it is the opposite of my thoughts. Beautiful grace.

So, if you’re interested, I’ll share what grace reveals from the two messes I’m facing. And maybe the next time life twists your guts, you can take a breath, or ten, or a thousand and see what grace creates in the pause.

Back Camera

Neighbors – A Special Guest Post by Kate Erickson

funeral home 2

Stately old residence or mortuary?

Our home in Fort Bragg, California chose us [see December 13, 2013 guest post]. In the summer of 1990, we were on our annual trip to visit friends when we walked by a white Victorian, saw the For Sale sign and said, “That’s our house.”

This 130-year old home beckoned us to move in and fill it with a family. At the time, we had two kids in college, a three-year old son and three-month old daughter. We had professional jobs in Fresno that would not transfer to a small, remote community.

The act of buying this house made us determined to do whatever we could to raise our younger kids in this beautiful coastal area, to bring them up in a town where they could be insulated from big city pressures. Three years after the purchase, we were able to move in.

Since our house is so old, you’d think the most common question people ask is when it was built. Actually, the most common question is “Does it bother you to live next to the mortuary?”

It’s not like we live right next door. An alley separates the properties. If the mortuary didn’t have a sign out front, you would think that it was a stately old residence.

The owners of the mortuary—Larry and Shirley Blair—lived in the apartment above the business with their teenage daughter Charla. Their 20-something daughter Charise and son-in-law Nathan lived in the apartment off the alley. They were warm and welcoming—the perfect neighbors.

We moved in the summer before our son Harrison started first grade. One afternoon, walking home from the park, the kids and I stopped to chat with Nathan who was doing yard work. Harrison asked if he could stay and help.

Thus began Harrison’s summer of nearly daily visits to the mortuary. If he wasn’t “helping” Nathan with yard work, he was playing catch with Charla or trailing Larry.

One day, he discovered the casket room and came home to announce, “I picked out the perfect caskets for you guys.”

When Gary and I explained that we want to be cremated, Harrison shook his head in disgust and said, “Nobody wants to be buried anymore.”

Another time, he told us he saw a deceased person in a casket. “He looked like he was sleeping.”

Nathan came over later that afternoon and apologized. The viewing room is part of the chapel and when he and Harrison were walking through the adjacent hallway, Harrison caught sight of a casket and darted into the chapel.

funeral home1

The mortuary from the street, looking surprisingly normal

When I asked Harrison how he felt about seeing a dead person, his only comment was, “He had a really pretty casket.” A few days later, I bought a copy of the Fort Bragg Advocate News and found the man’s obituary. I read it to Harrison and we talked about how that man was once alive, about his career and family. Harrison was mildly interested in the man’s history, but didn’t get into any questions about mortality or what happens after death.

During our first year in Fort Bragg, whenever anyone asked Harrison what he wanted to be when he grew up, he’d say, “A mortician.” The questioner would look alarmed, hardly expecting that response from a six-year old.

Harrison started first grade, began gathering friends and spent less time next door. A few months later, he stopped his visits.

***

When Harrison was a senior in high school, we hosted an end of season basketball dinner at our house. We needed a dozen extra chairs and asked to borrow them from the mortuary. Larry led us into the casket room where the chairs were stored.

Harrison’s face lit up in a big smile. “Wow, this place sure brings back memories.”

***

Living next door to the mortuary has not always been a lighthearted experience. At times we’ve been exposed to deep sadness, something we might otherwise have chosen to avoid.

Around 4:30 in the afternoon on August 26, 2003, the second Tuesday of a new school year, emergency sirens filled the town. An hour later, the mortuary became a hub of activity, the likes of which we had not seen in the eleven years we’d lived next door. The white van—the vehicle used to pick up bodies—left and returned more than once. Police and sheriff vehicles came and went throughout the evening. Glances out my kitchen window revealed a steady stream of law enforcement and emergency personnel, their pale faces strained with anguish.

Harrison got home from high school soccer practice to say he’d heard that some kids had been drinking and racing up Sherwood Road where their car hit another car.

A flurry of telephone calls assured us that our kids’ friends were safe. However, the pall of knowing that a group of kids needlessly lost their lives drifted across the alley and into our hearts.

Three of the five kids in the car died, along with a 43-year old woman who was driving the other car.

fort bragg grave

The grave of one of the teen’s killed in the accident

The loss of those children, of that woman, and the suffering of the injured survivors shook our small town to the core. The owners and employees of the mortuary were not immune to this trauma. As difficult as it was, they put aside their feelings to offer empathy and comfort to heartbroken families.

***

Does it bother us to live next door to the mortuary?

Not at all. Like nearly everything about living in this small town, the experience has added layers of quirkiness as well as deep compassion to our lives.

(Editor’s note from Jennifer Hotes: One evening when I was staying with my Fort Bragg family over break, Harrison came home from the mortuary for supper. He smiled at me and said he’d picked out the perfect coffin for me, shiny white wood and pink satin pillows. I took his choice as a compliment. He said it was one of the most expensive caskets in the whole mortuary.)

Kate loves the quirky aspects of living on the Mendocino Coast so much that she writes a humor blog about it. Check it out at:  www.ithappenedatpurity.com. Her posts are funny and poignant. Become a subscriber. While you’re at it, like her page on Facebook. Thanks for being a guest, Kate!

Why Parakeets Are Best Left Dead

MillyWhiteBudgieCageSmallImageOriginally, my brother wanted a goat as a pet. But, our apartment manager didn’t allow goats. (a rule that doesn’t have to appear on your lease to be legally acknowledged – by the way) Though, I’d argue that when you’re talking about an apartment building located in the far-reaches of a tumbleweed town in eastern Washington, the management should be more flexible.

Regardless, Garth moved on, visited the local pet store and set his heart on taking home a budgie parakeet. He named the bird, Woodstock, after the little bird in Charles Schultz’s famous comic strip, Peanuts, Snoopy’s best friend.

Woodstock’s flying was an awkward mix of klutz and peril. He often smacked into trees or fluttered upside down, spun wildly and landed on the ground with stars and spirals drawn around his head. Garth’s bird was either an avid follower of the Peanuts comic strip or suffered brain damage as a chick in the egg, because he flew exactly the same way. That is, when he got the chance to spread his wings, which wasn’t very often.

Yes, because the dirty little secret about bird ownership is that it comes with a hefty side dish of guilt. When you purchase a wild animal with survival skills long ago scratched from the DNA, you’ve made a lifelong commitment to keep your pet from doing the main thing he was born to do, fly. He will live in a cage. With clipped wings. So he will never get away. Never. Because, the truth is, you haven’t purchased a bird, more like your own feathered prisoner. And that makes you his warden. In our case, that was Garth, Warden Garth.

Ninety-nine percent of Woodstock’s life was lived in a two foot by one foot cage. His sole companionship came from a mirror attached to the wall. The reflected Woodstock made the real bird bob his head up and down in a somewhat pornographic and disturbing way.  Besides eating and bobbing, Woodstock’s entertainment consisted of sharpening his beak across a large cuttle bone, and sitting on a wooden perch to crap on newspaper. Does this strike you as a terrific way to spend a life? Will I get a 3% cut of all the PETA donations inspired by this blog post? The answer to both questions is, probably not.

I think Garth sensed the emptiness of Woodstock’s life immediately, but I’ve always been slow on the uptake. On Saturday mornings, after ingesting a bowl of sugar-coated cereal and watching a few hours of Looney Tunes on television, I was happy. Something about the combination of the afterglow of Tweety cartoons and the crash from the sugar made me keenly aware of Woodstock’s imprisonment. I found myself begging Garth to let Woodstock free.

“Open his door. Let him fly.”

That’s all it took to encourage Garth, I suspect because he was already chanting the same thing in his head. He’d open the door and Woodstock remained on the perch. Garth would call his name, and Woodstock stayed on the perch. Finally, Garth would reach in and gently pry Woodstock’s curled nails from around the perch and release the bird into the living room.

I always hoped that Woodstock would circle above our heads in graceful loops to our cheers and whistles. This was never to be realized. Woodstock’s flying, if one could call it that, resembled the inky up and down readouts of the old fashioned EKG machines. It was all quick drops and high bursts. The bird sputtered up and down in the air, almost hitting the ceiling, nearly smacking the floor, creating spastic Vs in my mind until, wham! He slammed into a window or wall, lost a handful of feathers and then crawled up the drapes where his long nails got caught in the fabric. He jerked and bobbed frantically, losing more feathers, until he was freed by Garth’s gentle hands. It was unnerving, heartbreaking and horrifying. And somehow, which might explain a great deal about my inner-workings, within minutes of nestling Woodstock into his cage again, I forgot the trauma caused by letting him fly.

Well, we liked Woodstock, and because he was Garth’s, I assume Garth loved him. When we moved into our house, Woodstock came with us. He had a place of honor on the corner of Garth’s desk, next to a stack of books about Egypt, my brother’s latest fixation.

mount-st-helens-eruptionThen, on May 18th, 1980, Mount St. Helens blew her top. I don’t remember any house-shaking booms, but the sky outside became pocked with ash sacs. And poor Woodstock died of a little birdy heart attack during the eruption. We found him dead in his cage and left Garth to bury him or flush him however he saw fit. I was sad, but not sad enough to miss the birthday party Bobbie McPherson was hosting at Farrell’s.  Her mother had ordered the volcano ice cream sundae and I wanted my share.

May. Woodstock died in May. I don’t remember Garth mentioning the bird throughout the remainder of spring, or summer on our visit to California to see our father and other mom. He’d gotten heavy into Egyptians, created an immaculate black pyramid, and placed it in the bare spot on his desk that Woodstock’s cage once occupied. I thought maybe he put it there as a sort of memorial to his first pet. After that, I didn’t give another thought to the bird, his death, or Garth’s grieving. It just evaporated for me.

The summer we spent at Dad’s sped by, but at the end of August, it was time to return home to Mom and school. Before we arrived home, Mom changed our bedding, vacuumed our rooms and dusted. In order to clean Garth’s desk, she had to move the black pyramid. And when she lifted it up, she found Woodstock lying there. Woodstock. If anything could bring the bird back to life it would be a few months sitting underneath a pyramid, right? That’s what the Egyptians believed would happen, resurrection, new life.

Maybe Garth’s calculations were right, and Woodstock did rise from the dead. But, with no birdseed and water and mirror and cuttle bone and Garth after waking, maybe Woodstock decided that death was an improvement.

In death, Woodstock could soar like an eagle, avoid any obstacle and hold onto his feathers at last.

budgiesm

Writing My Reality: The Diversity in Four Rubbings

big heart

A cultural collage by Jennifer L. Hotes

Okay, readers. I’m going to let you in on a little secret about literature. Despite what the fine print on the first page of every novel states, we authors write our reality. The lawyers insist that we say, “All characters and details are fictional. Any resemblance to real life is coincidental.” Baloney.

The truth is, writers stand in the shadows of every social function and absorb the details of you, your manner of speaking, the details of your conversation (yawn!) and what you wear. We are the great secret stealers and eternal detail absorbers. Basically, we’re the Bounty paper towels of society.

Four Rubbings is no different. I have the legalese in the front of the book, but the characters I created are a quilt sewn from the fat quarters of my life and memories. So, when one angry reader criticized Four Rubbings for showing diversity in an unrealistic and overly idealized way, I balked. Okay, the truth is I had a fit. I barked at the computer, stormed around the house, and scared the cats and kids. But, a day or two later, I contemplated the criticism. Had I presented the world in an overly idealized way through my cast of characters?

Two of the four teens in the book come from parents with different ethnicities – actually three, if you include the Aleutian background of one mother. Did I present familial diversity to promote ethnic tolerance in the world?

Well, let’s turn the microscope on my life, shall we? I live in the Seattle area. If my children were to attend their home school (literally, the one closest to our residence) then their classmates would be predominantly white, but would also include families that moved to the area from Japan, Russia, China, India, Greece, Ireland, Spain and Mexico, to name a few.  They live our reality.

Not bad, but they don’t attend their home schools. My daughters attend feeder schools for Microsoft, Expedia and Google families. The palette of skin colors and cultures their school populations include is vast. I once asked our principal how many languages the families at our school spoke, and she smiled in response. Maybe she was trying to count them in her head, but then she giggled, “Wow! There’s an amazing number.” They learn our reality.

Our local grocery stores include vast amounts of what was once known as ‘specialty food,’ but seen in this bulk, the phrase becomes an oxymoron.  Kosher. Indian. Italian. Hispanic. French. Japanese. Chinese. Korean. British. In our house, I’ve been blessed with kids that will try all types of food, but constants in my kitchen include edamame, tofu, Cajun gumbo, Chinese dim sum, Indian naan with chutney, British pies, French brie, and Italian anything.  They eat the same variety of foods at school and when we travel. They eat our reality.

My youngest daughter, Bryn, proudly announced to me yesterday that her friends all have beautiful and unusual names. They reflect the depth of culture and rich ethnicity of our reality. They speak our reality.

So, for those that criticize my portrayal of diversity in Four Rubbings, my heart breaks a little for you. I’m reminded of the time three decades ago when I graduated from high school. My grandmother had come to witness the graduation from Chicago, Illinois. She was gracious and kind when she met my handful of best friends. She really was sweet to them. On the drive to the airport for the return flight home she said to my mother, “That’s the closest I’ve ever stood to a black man.” My mother did a double-take.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Jennifer’s friends. When I met her friends, I realized that is the closest I’d ever been physically to people that weren’t white.” It wasn’t said with malice. She went on to say what lovely people my friends were. But, it was an innocent observation. So if your reality is as sheltered and homogenous as hers, today let me encourage you to change your reality.

If the people you spend the bulk of the day with look very similar to you, have similar backstories and childhood memories and share the same beliefs as you, change your reality. Don’t shun your old friends, I’m not asking for that sacrifice. Instead, venture out of your neighborhood to worship at a new house of God, eat at a new type of restaurant, go to a book signing in a different district of your city, rally for a political cause in the next town over, try an exercise program that reflects a different culture than your own.

Stretch. Stretch your boundaries. Stretch out your arms to embrace this beautiful melting pot. And for heaven’s sake, if you have the means, travel to new places.

I’d love the diversity reflected in my book and my life to be yours as well. It is my love-filled Valentine wish for your life.

 

 

To Hell with Stereotypes: Let’s Look Past Our Covers

Stereotypes. Dictionary.com defines a stereotype as, “a simplified and standardized conception or image invested with special meaning and held in common by members of a group.” Wikipedia mentions that stereotypes are snap judgements that lead us to look no further for the truth. Now, that sounds more to the point, doesn’t it?

headshot2We carry with us a multitude of stereotypes. Don’t believe me? Let’s do a little exercise. Here I am. Take a look at the picture. Now, make some guesses about me. What race am I? What’s my job? Am I married? Do I have kids? Am I rich or poor? Do I believe in God? Was I raised in a two-parent household? Did I attend private school? How white am I, really? Would I see you coming down the street and avert my eyes? Could you find anything in common with me?

Okay, now look closer. Let your eyes linger and I’ll tell you who I really am.

As a kid, I attended public school in rural Washington, Pasco School District(PSD) to be specific. If you’ve heard of it, that’s thanks to the race riots of the 1960s. But, what you may not know is that my father, Gary Riley, was brought into the district to restore peace to the only district in the state to have diversity. And my dad did restore peace. But, not without having crosses burned into our lawn, receiving death threats and other slights from the public. After that, we moved to California where my father took a position at a university and helped to create a nationally-adopted program called Upward Bound. Google it. Yeah, my dad did cool things, didn’t he?

I think the stress of living in a community that largely hated us took a toll on my parent’s already strained marriage. Even the move to sunny California couldn’t repair their broken marriage.  After the divorce, my mother moved us back to Pasco to teach kindergarten. We lived in a small apartment. We pinched pennies, eagerly taking the blocks of cheese offered to us by the government to make our food dollars stretch. We learned how to season the bland, gritty blocks into something palatable to fill our bellies.

Those pennies added up, though. The summer before I entered fourth grade, we moved into our own house, a house with a yard! The rest of my childhood was uneventful. I went to college, worked at a few companies and settled down in suburbia to raise two daughters. Most my days now are spent behind the wheel of a car, driving my kids to school and sports practices and music lessons. But, my girls fence, they don’t play soccer. And they’re mastering the drum set. You’d never guess either of those facts by looking at them.

totem blendOh, I forgot to talk about my cultural heritage. I’m a genetic mutt. Maybe all of us are, but speaking to my own personal background, I have some Polish, Irish, German, Scottish and allegedly, Nez Perce. My skin is olive-toned all year. My children have an even more interesting heritage. Their father was an Alaskan homesteader and his mother traced their family back to include a Crow relative and two relations that fought against one another during the American Revolution.

It’s not what you expected to hear after looking at my picture, was it? And, no doubt, your life and background is even more interesting and complex. The older I get, the more keenly I see that we all hold stories, filled with rich layers of substance and worth the telling.

In this age when derision and class warfare are the orders of the day, I refuse let our differences feed the fires of hatred. To me, they fuel the fires of curiosity and love. My challenge to you is to turn off the mainstream media for a week and look at the world through your own eyes, your own sharp mind. See what I see; people taking tender care of one another. It’s all around us if we choose to watch the world for goodness.

This week, as my youngest daughter and I stood amidst a crowd of 700,000-plus in downtown Seattle to celebrate our first Super Bowl victory, I smiled. All around us were people celebrating, laughing, and sharing in a victory. We were different colors and genders. Together, we were savoring this moment in time, but we were also making history. There were no arrests, or violent acts, or broken glass. We shared a piece of the sidewalk with strangers that became friends before the parade marched past. We were united in love – the love of a team, of a coach, of a city and of one another. It was such a powerful moment for my daughter to be a part of, swimming in a sea of humanity, and it was good.

I grew up in an era that coined the term, ‘color blind.’ They told us to be blind to color. And the phrase made me bristle. I can’t ignore you, in all your beauty and individuality. No way.

Let’s stay curious about one another, ask questions, explore and come to respect each other fully and completely. Let our differences be a conversation point, a bridge to help me understand you and vice versa. Because we are more than our covers, aren’t we? Much more.

Next week, look for my blog post about the cultural diversity of my city, Seattle, and how it’s reflected in the characters of Four Rubbings. Who knew writing my reality would cause such a stir with the readers?

Speaking of diverse viewpoints, here’s an interesting blogpost about the challenges our youngest generation faces, marriage equality. Regardless of your viewpoint on the matter, it’s worth a read and some serious contemplation. Thank you to John Wood for the blog.

Why I Don’t Care If I Sell Another Book

PollyannaThis week I had the opportunity to talk with the kids at Eastside Preparatory School. It’s one of the most academically rigorous schools in Washington state, but you wouldn’t know it to look at the student body because they defy the geek stereotype. As 200-plus kids trickled into the room, I was struck by how beautiful and shiny they all were. Stylish and smart? Unfair.

Feeling a twinge of self-doubt, I checked myself for stray scone crumbs and dabbed a smidgeon of gloss on my dry lips. Ah, better. And then for some reason, I thought back to when I was a teen. At any given moment, I could name off a laundry list of shortcomings, a pimple, fat butt, cheap jeans. I also remembered how hard I worked to seem perfect.

So, as I looked out at the faces in the crowd, I wondered if they felt the same as I once did? If I could read their minds, would I hear thoughts dripping with self-loathing and doubt? My heart broke.

I sucked in a gulp of air and a feeling washed over me. Like the rays of the sun, it warmed my hair and face, and with it came a clear conviction.  Writing the novel, Four Rubbings, wasn’t the most important thing. Teasing a storyline and selling copies of the book, that didn’t matter anymore. In fact, I realized that writing the book was just the vehicle that brought me to this place, in front of these kids to deliver a message of hope and encouragement. As I clicked ‘play’ on my Powerpoint slideshow, I knew that the words to come might be the only encouragement they’d receive all week, or month, or year. And I lost my breath.

My mother, a longtime public school principal, spoke of this often. In September every year, she committed all student names to memory. She ate lunch in the cafeteria with the kids. She checked in with teachers to find out the details of her students’ lives. Who was struggling? Who was making progress? Who was having problems at home? She sleuthed out the details and then reached out to her kids to offer help or congratulations. She told me it was important to touch each child with kind, personal words as often as possible because she was keenly aware that her compliments might be the only nice things some of these kids might ever hear. Ever.

I clicked the first slide and spoke to the kids of EPS about knocking down stereotypes, dreaming big, blocking out the negative and accepting help. I hoped my words might resonate with one student. If I came off as an idiot to the other 199, then so be it. If my positive message empowered one person to reach for their dream, then it was worth it. One kid. One kind word. One life changed.

Fellow Booktrope author, Tess Thompson blogged about a similar subject in her post titled, “I’m with Stupid.” Read it. She said it more artfully in her post than I did at the assembly, but the message was essentially the same. If you follow your heart, success will follow. Be bold and follow your passion. It’s an upbeat message, to be sure, but one worth repeating.

Why does it feel like I’m always apologizing for being positive? My whole life I’ve been accused of being a Pollyanna – a reference I didn’t understand until adulthood. Pollyanna was a fictional character that saw the positive side of every situation, regardless of how dire her circumstances. She lost family members. She faced death. And still, she smiled. Well, I suppose I’m sort of like that.

Fine. It’s true, I am Pollyanna. Toss your eggs at the computer screen, flip me off in your head, I can handle it. After spending time with the students at EPS yesterday, I know with such clarity what the world needs right now is more positive. So, I’m not going to apologize for being who I am anymore. I’m an optimist in a cynical world. I choose to see the best in people, hope for the future, see the invisible members of our society, smile, overuse exclamation points, wave at cops and construction workers, and add smiley faces to the end of my emails. Deal. With. It. :)

But, get one thing straight. Being positive doesn’t come naturally. It takes work.

431312-women-no-moneyIn college, when I was broke, held two jobs to pay for tuition and books, had way too much homework, and subsisted on cheap ramen, I posted a list on my dorm wall called, “Good Things Comin’ My Way.” I updated the list often to remind me that there was always something worth celebrating just around the corner. So what if I needed a microscope to see the good? My list included wearing clean white socks, sleeping in on Saturday, visiting home, talking to my brother, attending a football game, crunching fall leaves, having a day without rain, etc. You get the idea.  Small joys kept me moving forward.

Today, more than ever, it takes real effort to stay positive. I was a student of the media, so I know the studies about how disproportionate the violent/crime-related news segments are compared to the actual instances of crime. They overblow the bad, undercover the good. Yeah.

And in our current political climate when every politician (it seems being inept crosses party lines) works to pit you against me, us against them, him against her; I find that the news is no longer safe ground for me either. Of course, I have to track the news to stay informed. But, I can only take it in small doses. Then, I must unplug.  That’s why you won’t find me posting political stuff on my Facebook wall. I refuse to feed the derisive climate of the day. I love you. I could never hate you.

After my talk with the kids at Eastside Prep, I stopped caring about selling books. This is about me being a positive voice for others. Yes, I wrote a novel. I fought all the negative forces out there and within myself and got it done. You can transform your goal into an accomplishment, too.  But, the book is no longer the thing.

So as I climbed off the stage, I knew my goals had shifted. The lights on the stage dimmed and I found myself surrounded by students. They hugged me, asked questions, shared stories and shook my hand, and I listened. Selling books doesn’t matter anymore. But, being a positive voice for others does. So, that my friends, is what I’m going to pursue now. :)

My Jekyll and Hyde Reality

Poster - Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)_01For me, the toughest challenge about being a writer is the Jekyll and Hyde-ness of my days. In order to write, I have to shut out the world, close the drapes and withdraw into my thoughts. But then, to sell my book I need to engage with the world of potential readers through tweets, blogs, vlogs, posts and earnest conversation.

This is most certainly a first-world problem, but writing a novel is tough. So, when you submit that final draft, approve the cover, write the back cover blurb and hit send on the final details, you want to rest. But, don’t expect to rest if you want to sell any books.

Because books don’t sell themselves, do they? As an indie author, published by a hybrid publishing house, Booktrope, it is expected that we are not only willing, but excited about immersing into social media. Twitter. Facebook. Wattpad. Tumblr, Instagram, YouTube, to name a few. We have to find our future fans, connect with people that will connect with our writing. Also, we want to enhance the reader’s experience and find ways to connect them to our characters after they close the book.

Truth be told, we rely on the enthusiasm of strangers to bring our novel into the spotlight. We love our readers, and adore our bookclubs, and oh how we gush over our reviewers, the gems that took the time to read our novel and then post their opinion for all the world to see. You are worth every minute of squeamish discomfort I felt as I vlog, blog, post and tweet. I happily become Dr. Jekyll for you. Saucy, spicy, loud Dr. Jekyll.

Dr. Jekyll is the extroverted side of my days. She slaps duct tape over the mouth of our inner-governor and boasts about the novel, shares silly pictures, reposts someone else’s deep thoughts, toots the horn of other authors. She survives on gin and tonics, alternative music and doge memes. She’s cool. She’s relevant. And when she looks in the mirror, she smiles as she applies lipstick too thick and too bright across her lips. She laughs too loud.

And Dr. Jekyll has a heart filled with love. She loves her fellow indie authors. She loves her local libraries. She adores all independent bookstores and longs for the day the one down the block will call to set up that book signing. She covets the recognition of John Green and J.K. Rowling and Michael Connelly. But, she doesn’t hold their success against them. She just daydreams that she one day will walk among them.  This is Dr. Jekyll, the extrovert on steroids. Being her exhausts me. But I like being her in small doses.

The writing side of my personality is Mr. Hyde, because that’s what I have to do to be an effective writer. Hide. It is a lonely, soundless life. If I want to get into the heads of my characters I need everything else to fall away. This means I can’t bear the company of people, or the sound of music, or a view out the window. Somehow the cats and dog make it through Hyde security. They nestle within reach, and when the words won’t come, I stroke their fur.

My long-time companion, Quincy the golden retriever, died as I was wrapping up the ending to Four Rubbings, I lost my bearings. Quincy’d been with me for the whole process, from dream to notebook to Word file. We walked the wet streets together, took in fresh air between chapters, and helped cleared my head. When Quincy died, I stopped caring about the finish line. I wasn’t supposed to reach it without him. But, thankfully, my heart healed, well mostly, and I finished the book.

But since the release of Four Rubbings,  I’ve existed in the gray areas between Jekyll and Hyde. I committed to devoting six months to promote the novel before embarking on book two. I’ve nearly reached my self-imposed deadline and I’m worried that I won’t be able to wipe the lipstick off, shut out the world and write in the coming days. Worried and excited. Because, I crave time inside my own head to invent characters, fill in their details, set them in a situation and then watch them play out the story. I do miss writing.

So, after Four Rubbings goes on its blog tour the end of January, I’ll silence the cell phone, turn off the radio, shut the drapes and write. But, I want to tell you now that I will miss you. Though, I promise I’ll let Dr. Jekyll out of the cage every now and then to say hello.

(a book you should know about) Running Secrets, a novel by Arleen Williams

running secretsRecently, I got the chance to meet author, Arleen Williams. She’s just released her novel Running Secrets (The Alki Trilogy), published by Booktrope, and I wanted to share the novel’s backstory with you. In Arleen’s own words, here is the story of Running Secrets.

Running Secrets is the story of friendship between a suicidal young American struggling to understand her own identity and the Ethiopian home healthcare provider hired by Chris’s parents to care for her. It explores questions of race, identity and family secrets with a bit of romance thrown in for them both.  The genre is Contemporary Women’s Fiction.

What inspired you to write this book?
Inspiration? Really questions. I tend to write in order to answer questions I’m pondering. After finishing my first book, a memoir called The Thirty-Ninth Victim, themes and questions remained that still had no answers.

When Chris, the protagonist in Running Secrets, came to me, I needed to understand why a young woman “with everything” would want to end her life. I knew suicide rates in America are astronomical, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, but I wanted to learn more and started researching.

“In 2010 (the most recent year for which data are available), 38,364 suicides were reported, making suicide the 10th leading cause of death for Americans. In that year, someone in the country died by suicide every 13.7 minutes.”

And what about suicide attempts?

“In 2010, the most recent year for which data is available, 464,995 people visited a hospital for injuries due to self-harm behavior, suggesting that approximately 12 people harm themselves (not necessarily intending to take their lives) for every reported death by suicide.”

(http://www.afsp.org/understanding-suicide/facts-and-figures, January 9, 2014)

As I searched for understanding, I found other questions… What could cause a parent to withdraw or simply not love her/his own child? Why do we keep family secrets? What good or harm do they do? And, who are we when we discover we’re not who we think we are?

Chris’s story stemmed from the roots of attempted suicide. Gemila Kemmal, her caregiver, is a wonderful amalgamation of the many, many immigrant students I’ve had the pleasure to work with here in Seattle for almost three decades and from the tremendous caregivers who supported my mother, my family and myself during Mom’s final years with dementia.

We live in a country where “foreign-born workers represent 21% of direct caregivers in the U.S., according to the Rand report. No employment-sponsored visas exist for direct-care workers, and most of the legal immigrants who do such work enter the country through family-sponsored visas. An estimated one in five direct care workers is undocumented.”

(http://blogs.marketwatch.com/encore/2013/11/06/immigration-could-ease-a-caregiver-shortage/, January 9, 2014)

I find this another interesting question to ponder: our growing need for elder care and home healthcare providers juxtaposed against the anti-immigration rhetoric that continues to fill the news. From those questions, a story evolved and Running Secrets came to life.

This book is the first in a series. Please share your writing journey, from book to series. Running Secrets is Book One of The Alki Trilogy. I fell in love my characters and just couldn’t stop writing their stories. In all three books, this cast of characters explores the meaning of race and immigration, family and friendship in our ever changing country of first peoples and immigrants.

Readers of this blogpost are going to want to buy your book. Where can they get it?   Running Secrets is available at all the normal on-line sources (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.) in both e-book and paperback format. Readers can also request it at any bookstore or library.  (Editor’s note: Indie authors rely on you to request their books from your local independent bookstore or library. Thank you for introducing indie books to readers.)

Can you tell us about you?     I live, teach and write in West Seattle. I’m not a runner, but I walk and bike Alki Beach and Lincoln Park on a regular basis.

I took my first writing class at age 48 and plan to participate in my first 200-mile bike ride to celebrate my 60th birthday. I believe “old dogs can learn new tricks” and I’m convince that we are never too old to try something new! 

What has been the best moment in your writing career?     Finding a publisher in today’s changing world is like the proverbial needle-in-a-haystack. So Blue Feather Books signing The Thirty-Ninth Victim, and later Booktrope offering a contract for Running Secrets were both magical moments. But holding those two books in my hands for the first time was also incredibly special.

How do you come up with the titles of your book?     I’m terrible at titles. I’ve been told that The Thirty-Ninth Victim doesn’t represent the story. I wasn’t working with my writing partner, Pam Carter, back then. Maybe we’ll have to come up with something better for the re-release next year.

When I need a title, Pam and I brainstorm together. We list ideas and eventually land on something that works. Because we write and read our work together, and because Pam is my first reader, she knows my work well – maybe better than I do! I’m always grateful for her perspective and creativity.

How long does it take you to finish a novel?     Yikes. I don’t really know. I started writing Running Secrets when The Thirty-Ninth Victim was under contract back in 2005. The publication was delayed until 2008 due to a change in ownership of the publisher. I kept writing. I’d never written fiction, never taken a fiction writing class, so I went through a slew of lousy drafts. I set the manuscript aside and wrote a second memoir I called Moving Mom (scheduled for 2015 publication). Then I returned to Running Secrets and rewrote it a few more times. And I mean rewrote! When I finally knew the manuscript was finished, I also knew I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to Chris and Gemi and the other characters, so I started writing Biking Uphill (to be released spring 2014) and The Alki Trilogy took on a life of its own.

As I wrote, I searched for a publisher. When I signed with Booktrope last summer, I had a backlog of work, but I never kept track of how long each book took and I was often working on more than one at the same time. Because I teach, I have much more writing time in the summer and hope to finish Book Three of the Alki Trilogy by late 2014.

So that’s a long-winded way that saying that since 2005, I’ve written three and a half books. I guess that’s about two and a half years per book, right?

How can readers connect with you?     Readers can find me at www.AlkiTrilogy.com. If they subscribe, they’ll receive automatic updates about readings and releases. They can also read and comments on my monthly personal essays at www.arleenwilliams.com. I love comments and reviews!!

Readers who are in the Seattle area and would like me to visit their book club are welcome to e-mail me at aw@arleenwilliams.com.

 

New Year – Fresh Start!

orchidThere’s a one in 365 chance you’ll stumble upon this blog post on a day other than January 1st. Well, so what? Any day is a good day to make a fresh start. It’s just a trending conversation as we throw out our old calendars and pin up a new twelve months.

I’m making a couple changes. Are you ready to break that bad habit yet? Are you about to reach for a major goal? Then, I’m here to cheer you on as well as share my successes and inevitable failures with you. So, like always, I did a bit of research to help us both out.

  • From MY YOGA ONLINE, Gabrielle Harris shares the story of Buddhist lamas that work over the course of decades, DECADES, to perfect certain poses. The evidence of their slow, persistent attempts is seen in the ruts their hands and feet wear into the stones. Gabrielle tells the tale to remind us that the path to major change is a slow and steady one, so be patient with yourself. I’d also suggest you journal each day – even if you only jot down a single word in your smart phone “Notes” app. Make a record of your journey so that you can look back over time and appreciate how far you’ve come.
  • Also from Gabrielle, be clear about your goal. Be as specific as possible and set your intention. My personal example is that I intend to start losing weight, today! I’m doing this specifically to have more energy and reclaim my health. (Yes! You need to add that level of detail.)
  • Which brings me to tip #3. Set your goal for yourself, not someone else. Don’t set a goal to please your mate, impress your friends or outdo your coworkers. Those goals won’t be achieved. It’s got to be something you want for yourself first. Let the reaction of others be a happy side effect, agreed?
  • Confide your goal in someone you trust – even better – find someone else aiming for the same goal and team up. Then you can support each other, check in with one another, encourage and share in your successes and missteps. When I vlogged about this subject for teens, my example was about raising grades. Simply raising grades involves changing many small daily habits, like where you study, when you study and who you spend your after school hours with. This is all infinitely easier if you have a mutual friend to study with each day at the library.
  • Forgive yourself. You’re going to screw up, slip, or forget. Don’t give up! Remember what the lamas taught us? Change happens gradually. You’re in this for the long haul, so keep that in mind and give yourself a pass every now and then. Wake up tomorrow and start fresh again. Slight footnote here – if we’re talking about major addiction, that’s a different challenge entirely. I still care about you and your journey, but please, seek a doctor’s help so you can seek a clean life with every physical advantage possible. You deserve it.
  • Finally, think about the roadblocks you’re going to face BEFORE you face them. For me, I know I’ll be faced with restaurant menus, surrounded by delicious smells and want to veer toward those items that are deep-fried and coated in butter. If I picture it now, I can rewrite the story. I imagine myself choosing something healthy, feeling physically good afterward, and proud. I have to play and replay my doctored up ending a few times, but it gives me a stronger chance of making it past that particular roadblock successfully.

So, good luck to you. As always, I’d love to hear how you are doing. Until next time, take care.