Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year!

2011 is just hours away. I am looking forward to a quiet evening with my brother, Eric, his wife, SeDonna, and my youngest son, Nathan. Tonight's theme is Mexican; the casserole is in the oven, the salad is in the fridge, and I will put the rice on the stove momentarily. For dessert, we will enjoy the last of the Christmas goodies (thanks, Mom!). Afterwards, we will play board games and patiently await the toll of midnight.

I don't know about you, but I am glad to see 2010 draw to a close. It has been a disappointment of a year, with more than its share of loss and struggle and failure, although I hope I have learned a thing or two from my mistakes. But it hasn't been all bad; there has been love and joy and success, too, and that is where I am going to place my focus. Ever the optimist, I am certain that 2011 is the year that my dreams will start to come true.

Thanks to all my readers for being by my side through good times and bad, for all your wisdom and encouragement and support. I wish you all abundant blessings and much happiness in the days, weeks and months ahead. Happy New Year!



Monday, December 27, 2010

Holiday Reflections

Despite my apprehension, I had a wonderful Christmas.

It took me the better part of last week, but I got a tree and some decorations up, put cards and packages in the mail, and accomplished what shopping, wrapping and baking I needed to do. On December 24th, the boys and loaded up the car and headed to Mt. Carmel, Illinois to spend the holiday weekend with my parents and my brother, Eric and his wife.

This is what our Christmas looked like.

We opened gifts on Christmas Eve night.

Traditionally, I am the designated Santa.

Nathan and Casey loved their new Slankets.

Nathan gave Casey a vuvuzela.

I was rendered speechless by my new Kindle, a totally unexpected and extremely generous gift from my baby brother.

On Christmas morning, we met at my parents' house and caravanned to the local VFW hall for a turkey dinner.

The fam.

Casey grooved on the pecan pie and cranberry sauce.

We even had snow - which was stressful for me as I drove those last few miles on icy roads in Indiana and Illinois on Christmas Eve - but once we were safe and settled, I couldn't deny the magic.

My parents' house on Christmas morning.

We spent Christmas Day eating too many goodies, playing Uno and Aggravation, and generally enjoying being together. The time went by too fast, as it always does. I am truly thankful for my loving, supportive family, and for all the memories we share.

***

"There comes a time in everyone's life when all you can see are the years passing by
And I have made up my mind that those days are gone."
~Rascal Flatts, I'm Movin' On

I love the week between Christmas and the new year. All the hustle and bustle is behind me; I have no schedule and no deadlines. I can simply kick back, play with my new toys, and plan for a fresh start on January 1st.

Believe me, I am thinking long and hard about that. Last year, instead of making resolutions, I came up with a list of daily, weekly and monthly goals that were meant to help me achieve a list of general goals. I did a reasonably good job of keeping up with those lists throughout the year, yet I feel frustrated by my lack of accomplishment. In my defense, the stalled economy didn't help with my financial goals, and I *DID* pitch my novel at the M&M Conference Still, I am going to look at my daily routine, and see if there is anything I can do to pump it up; also, I am going to revisit my general goals, and try to make them more specific. Finally, I want to chart my progress on my Amazing Life List, and determine whether or not it needs updating, as well.

I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and are finding time for rest and reflection this week, as well. What was your favorite present? What are your resolutions for 2011?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Writer, Rejected

Yesterday was a tough one. I got my first rejection letter.

And my second.

The first was from the agent I pitched to at the M&M Conference in October. She said,

"Unfortunately I was not as caught up in the story and characters as I had hoped."

The second was from the agent I pitched to at the GRW meeting in November. She said,

"Although your idea is heartwarming and intriguing, I'm afraid I just couldn't quite connect with Tessa."

She might as well have stabbed me in the heart.

Both suggested that another agent might feel totally different about my story; one said "it could be perfect for someone else" and the other wished me "tremendous luck in finding the ideal advocate" for my work.

But I wanted HER to be the advocate for my work.

I shed a few tears, I shared the news with my kids, then I announced my failure on Facebook. To my delight, I received an outpouring of support and encouragement from my friends there, many of whom are also writers. As a result of their responses, I decided to celebrate my rejections. I went out to dinner with a friend, drank a couple of glasses of wine, and came home and ate a very large brownie for dessert. Then I went to bed early and slept the clock around.

I woke up ready to revise, to make my story and characters more interesting, to make Tessa more accessible. Unfortunately, I am so busy with last-minute holiday preparations that I wasn't able to touch my manuscript today. But I will get back to work next week. And I intend to have my novel finished and polished and ready to send out to anyone and everyone by the end of January.

Because 2011 is going to be MY YEAR.

My critique partners and I have vowed: 2011 is the year we are going to GET PUBLISHED.

You heard it here first!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Sounds of Christmas

My Christmas memories have soundtracks.
  • My parents owned long-play record albums of seasonal favorites by such greats as Elvis Presley, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Johnny Mathis, and Jim Nabors; as a child, I would stack them six-high on the stereo changer and make sure the house was filled with Christmas music all through the month of December. If you have no idea what I am talking about, ask an old person. Like me.
  • The first time I remember playing the piano in public was in the third grade; I performed "White Christmas" at our elementary school Christmas program. I look at the piano score now and wonder how I was able to play it after just one year of piano lessons.
  • My paternal grandmother loved the song "The Little Drummer Boy." If we were together for Christmas, I would play it for her in person; if not, I played it over the telephone. I miss that.
  • I have seasonal sheet music that belonged to my dad and have added much to his collection over the years. I have spent literally hundreds of hours playing Christmas music on the piano; consequently, I know practically every word to every Christmas song ever written. If I am ever on "Jeopardy" and the category is "Christmas carols," I will make a sweep.
  • I am not ashamed to admit that I isten to 98.5 FM, "Atlanta's Home for the Holidays" almost exclusively in my car from Thanksgiving through Christmas Day, and to little besides my extensive holiday CD collection on my iPod. This makes my children crazy. I do not care.
I could go on an and on. Instead, I will share the Christmas music memories I made this year.

1. Nathan and I made the four and a half hour drive to Spring Hill, Tennessee and enjoyed a house concert of solo piano music presented by artists Joseph Akins and Philip Wesley.

l-r: Joseph Akins, Yours Truly, Philip Wesley

Santa put in an appearance, too, and played an amazing arrangement called "Jingle Bell Boogie." You can buy the single for just 49 cents at CD Baby. It will be the best 49 cents you ever spend.

I made a point to mention what a good girl I have been this year.

The concert was so amazing that even grumpy Beethoven found a little holiday spirit.

Beethoven

2. I attended Mill Creek High School's holiday orchestra concert. Instructor Dana Lowe really knows how to draw music from her students. Charlie Brown showed up, too. He gave me a candy cane. For real!

Mill Creek High School Concert Orchestra

3. I went to my friend Cell Fehrenbach's birthday bash at Loco's in Gainesville. Technically, this had nothing to do with Christmas. But it helped make my holidays complete nonetheless. Because that woman can REALLY sing. It is beyond me why she isn't rich and famous. Her voice is reminiscent of Tracy Chapman, but her lyrics are optimistic and laced with humor. I love her stuff. Give her a listen.

Cell

4. I participated in the fifth annual Messiah Singalong with the Riverside Chamber Players and the Michael O'Neal Chamber Singers. The instrumentalists and soloists were superb, the conductor was excellent and engaging. I sat in the alto section, next to a woman who actually knows how to sing; she helped me find my pitches in a couple of the songs I don't know as well as others. But I held my own for the most part, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience of being a participant in the event as opposed to just a member of the audience. It was wonderful to be a part, however, small, of such a magnificent performance. I plan to make this an annual event.



Do your Christmas memories have a soundtrack? What is your favorite seasonal song? Your favorite holiday CD?

Have yourself a merry little Christmas!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Reverb10

I just found out about an online initiative for the month of December called Reverb 10, in which simple writing prompts allow participants to reflect on the year that is passing and manifest the year ahead. Click HERE to find out the details.

Since I am late joining in, I plan to journal my responses, two per day, so that I will have completed all the prompts by year's end, but I will post some of them here.

Today's Question:

How has a friend changed you or your perspective on the world this year? Was this change gradual, or a sudden burst?

MANY friends have changed my perspective on the world in 2010; this has been a gradual change, a culmination of many events and occasions. I have been single much of this year, giving me the freedom to accept the gift of female friendship, which was frequently and richly offered. I luxuriated in time spent with my Jane Austen Book Club cohorts, my GRW sisters and my newfound critique partners, my sweet sister-in-law, and a dear friend from the past. I also learned that true friendship does not depend on physical proximity; I value the love and support of my Facebook friends and a childhood neighbor, even though it has been many years since I have seen some of these people.

There have been a couple of occasions in which someone I thought was a friend for life has let me down in a big way. But the joys have far outweighed the sorrows, so I will continue to risk having my heart broken. Maybe it is my destiny to live the rest of my days as a single woman. But single and lonely do not have to be synonymous.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Cheese Grits


As a writer, I understand the value of being a part of a critique group. Although it took me several months to find them, now I see my critique partners every Friday morning. We haven't been together long; we are still getting to know each other and figuring out our "process."

But a couple of weeks ago, a crisis arose in our midst. We understood that this would prevent any actual critiquing from being accomplished during that Friday's session, but we felt it imperative that we meet, anyway. The substance of the crisis is not my story to share; all I can tell you is this emergency called for some serious comfort food. A spinach quiche was the star of the menu, and I was instructed to bring cheese grits to serve alongside.

I had never made cheese grits before, but I believed I could, even though my writer friends are southern belles and I am a damned Yankee. (I stayed.) I searched high and low, finally found a recipe that sounded like it might be good enough, and followed the directions to the letter. To my relief, everyone who tasted my dish loved it and wanted the recipe for their own. So I am going to share with you now, although it turns out all that was really expected was grits with a little butter and cheese grated in. Live and learn. These would taste great on Christmas morning.

***

CHEESE GRITS

1 cup uncooked grits
4 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 cup butter
1 cup milk
4 eggs, beaten
2 cups cheddar cheese, grated

Bring salt and water to a boil; stir in grits and cook according to package directions. Remove from heat. Add butter, milk, garlic powder, and 1 1/2 cups cheddar cheese, mixing well. Let cool so that eggs will not cook when added; add eggs and pour into a buttered casserole dish and bake at 350 degrees for one hour. During the last few minutes of baking, sprinkle the remaining 1/2 cup cheddar cheese on top of the casserole.

***

For dessert, we had bourbon brownies. They were beyond delicious, but the baker refused to share her secret recipe, so I have been experimenting with my own. Look for the results in a future post.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Following Directions


I made snickerdoodles the other day. Click HERE for the recipe.

Look closely at the picture above. Two of the cookies were made following the recipe; the other two were made substituting baking powder for baking soda. Can you tell which is which? If you guessed that the cookies on the left were made using the substitute, you are correct. They had an odd flavor and did not "flatten out with crinkled tops" like they were supposed to.

According to my research, sometimes it is possible to substitute baking powder for baking soda with no negative effect. Come on! You wouldn't think that a tiny teaspoon of ANYTHING would make a hill of beans' worth of difference. But, as you can see, sometimes it makes all the difference in the world.

The lesson? Baking is a science. To be successful, it is important to follow the directions. Precisely.

And listen, my friends. There are many situations in life in which following the directions is the only means of achieving an optimal result. Sometimes it just doesn't pay to make substitutions. Sometimes you can't simply wing your way through.

But, unfortunately, it seems that when it comes to some of life's most important scenarios, there ARE no directions.

Take child rearing, for example. How many times have you heard people ask why children don't come with an instruction manual? The answers to that question are complex and varied. But the fact is, they don't. You do the best you can, and you hope for a positive outcome.

Marriage similarly comes to mind. Because it seems like a girl can do everything right and still her spouse will have a midlife crisis and buy a sports car and have an affair with a woman young enough to be his daughter and leave her out in the cold.

Men.

Maybe that's why I enjoy baking so much. It's something I can count on. If I follow the directions to the letter, I am guaranteed a good result.

So tomorrow I will post another recipe. See you then!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Surviving Christmas

It's December 10th already; we're smack in the middle of the Christmas season and, I'm pleased to report, things aren't so bad. There is a wreath on my front door, a red and green sparkly plaid cloth covering the dining room table, and a tiny Christmas tree in the living room; there is even a sprig of mistletoe hanging in the kitchen doorway, although the only kiss I'm likely to get is from my dog. The greeting cards have begun to arrive, and I have already been to two delightful holiday concerts--more about those in a future blog post. I have sold a few Christmas items in my Etsy store and come up with some low-cost/no-cost gift ideas for friends and loved ones. I have enjoyed a couple of eggnog lattes, a handful of Christmas movies, dozens of Christmas songs. And baby, it's cold outside.

Best of all, I got an early present yesterday: after reading my requested synopsis, the agent I dream of representing my work asked to see the first fifty pages of my manuscript. Opening that email was better than opening a stocking filled with Godiva chocolates--and it wasn't fattening.

Yep, it's finally beginning to feel like Christmas.

To help keep myself in the proper frame of mind, I am squeezing in a few minutes every day to do some seasonal reading. Every year, I try add a book or two to our holiday collection; back when my children were small, I chose books to read aloud to them. Some of our favorites were Merry Christmas, Mom and Dad by Mercer Mayer; The Night Before Christmas illustrated by Jan Brett or Tasha Tudor; The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg; The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Wojciechowski; The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson; and Christmas with Ida Early by Robert Burch. During that time, I personally made an annual event of reading Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry, and Miss Read's Christmas Tales. Since then, I have discovered another Christmas novel by Miss Read, No Holly for Miss Quinn; last year, I also read Skipping Christmas by John Grisham (Christmas with the Kranks was based on Skipping Christmas, but as is often the case, the book is much better than the movie). This year, I am reading Lakeshore Christmas by Susan Wiggs, a recommendation from the blog Petit Fours and Hot Tamales, whose family I will join in January. I have only finished the first chapter but so far, so good.

Like playing holiday music on the piano, reading these special stories helps me to escape from the hustle and bustle that threatens to consume both my spirit and my soul this time of year and to get out of my head and into a better place. What books have been a part of your family's holiday tradition? What are some of your grown-up recommendations?

Friday, December 3, 2010

Christmas in Perspective

I have always been the queen of Christmas. In what I refer to as my "former life," I spent 364 days preparing for the holiday, sewing quilts and making jam in the middle of the summer and setting them aside for winter gift giving, constantly looking for the perfect presents for friends and loved ones. By Thanksgiving Day, my shopping was finished, so I spent the rest of that weekend wrapping packages and decorating the house, leaving the month of December free for writing cards, baking cookies, making candy, reading holiday books to my children, attending holiday activities with them, and playing Christmas music on the piano. Some years, I would even do a little more sewing, making holiday outfits or pajamas for the kids, staying up until the wee hours of the night to finish everything.

It sounds idyllic, doesn't it? Well, the truth of the matter was that, although I loved my children, I was living a lie, and Christmas provided me with a means of escape from reality. Making December 25th the focal point of my year allowed me to avoid dealing with some of the pain and problems that were the core of my existence. As you might imagine, I experienced an incredible letdown on Christmas night; I dealt with that by getting up early the next day, hitting the after-Christmas sales and starting the process all over again.

I didn't realize any of this until after my divorce. And I am not suggesting that there is something wrong with YOU if you love the winter holidays and spend months preparing for them. But for ME, Christmas was an unhealthy obsession.

This year I am experiencing the opposite extreme. There has been no extra cash for shopping these past few months; November was consumed with NaNoWriMo, and I spent every spare minute Thanksgiving weekend working on my writing. This week, all my piano students wanted to know when they might expect to see a Christmas tree in my living room and whether or not I will hang lights on my house. The answers are I don't know and never. The fact is, the autumn cloth is still on my dining room table, and I am not looking forward to digging all those boxes out of decorations out from under my stairwell. My boys are old enough that they aren't much interested in helping; they have busy lives, and friends, and really don't seem to care whether we put up a tree and decorate the house or not. The flip side to that is that they seem to understand that there won't be much in the way of presents this year. But there's got to be a happy medium.

I have been listening to Christmas music since the first of November; I have a large holiday CD collection, and could listen to the songs of the season year-round, although I force myself to save them until after Halloween. I also own a large stack of Christmas sheet music; I sit down at the piano and play every chance I get, and my students are enjoying playing Christmas music, too. I have a small holiday DVD library, and I have watched a few of my favorites already. And I am planning a few seasonal festivities: attending a Christmas house concert in Tennessee, participating in a sing-along "Messiah," and going to visit my family in southern Illinois over Christmas vacation.

But there will definitely be some compromises. For example, I love a fresh cut tree--putting it in the stand, adding lights, covering it with ornaments I have collected over the years, gifts from piano students and souvenirs of travel, keeping it watered throughout the season. But I can't really justify the additional expense right now, so maybe I will pull out my little artificial tree, set it up in the corner of the living room, and festoon it with some simple glass balls. The red and green tablecloth and my Fitz & Floyd collection in the dining room, my nutcracker on the mantel, a few candles here and, my house will "feel" like Christmas with minimal effort. Heck, I might even get inspired to send some greeting cards--and it's a sure thing I will bake a cookie or twenty.

The point is I'm going to do what I can do and not stress about the rest. I couldn't keep up with the Joneses if I tried, so there's no point in comparing my situation with anybody else's. I choose not to mourn for what I don't have, but to be grateful for what I do--and keep Christmas in perspective, with my focus on my work and my family, and not on an much-hyped, over-commercialized holiday that usually doesn't deliver on its promises.