Posted in Life, Writing

Take Your Mind Off Things

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Right now, my dog, Uno, is curled up on the bed behind me, his sixty-five-pound body making a perfect, tight circle, his nose tucked into his tail. He is obviously cold, even though it’s 68 degrees in our house right now. I could cover him with a blanket. Sometimes we do—like at bedtime when he’s in his crate (because we keep the house really cold at night, and he looks like one of the pets on those cruelty-to-animals commercials if we don’t) and sometimes just to be cute (because he’s already a really cute dog, and when you cover him up with a purple blanket, his cuteness ratchets up to squeal-level). But right now, I don’t cover him because two hours ago we took him on a walk through the neighborhood when it was 33 degrees and windy, and although we were bundled up like walking burritos (brrr-itos, get it?) and shaking in our wool socks, Uno was happily trotting along, bouncy with energy and stopping to sniff every new smell as if he had all the time in the world. I mean, why rush just because Mom & Dad’s noses have snotcicles hanging from them? It’s now 28 degrees and dark outside and still windy, yet if I offered a second W-A-L-K, Uno would be happy to oblige. But then he would come home and curl up into a tight little ball again, looking like the poster child for the SPCA. (If he weren’t on a bed, under a blanket, in front of a space heater, that is.)

This dog dichotomy has got me thinking about my own hypocritical tendencies. This past weekend, I visited the new Austin Central Library with a good friend. We walked up all six flights of Hogwarts-style stairs* and all the way back down again. After that, we went for a walk around Lady Bird Lake with my husband and the aforementioned Uno. Not being a particularly athletic-type person anymore, my legs were already weary from the library stairs, and halfway into our loop, I was feeling tired and sore and just a wee bit whiny. But THEN we arrived at the dog park at Auditorium Shores, and the site of all those adorable wagging tales and lolling tongues perked me right up. I watched games of fetch, petted a group of Great Danes, squealed at a baby Husky, and laughed at a Weimaraner trying to catch a squirrel in a tree. (How dumb does a squirrel have to be to choose to live in a dog park?) When we left, I had a smile on my face and a skip in my step.** It wasn’t until we were almost back to the start of the trail that I remembered I was supposed to be tired. Hmm…

Another moment this makes me think of happened in my first period class last week. A student with sensory issues arrived to my room in distress because his shirt was itchy. This is no laughing matter. Consider the least comfortable item of clothing you own—the pants that are too tight or the sock that always turns around inside your shoe or the boot that rubs a blister on your heel—and multiply that sensation times ten. This is what kids (and adults) with sensory issues have to deal with. It was only 8:30 in the morning, and already the student was red-faced and angry about his unbearable situation. After we determined that there was no tag to be cut out (it was just itchy fabric) and no extra shirt to change into, I empathized with him and said he’d just have to get through the day and then never wear this terrible shirt again. He was still yanking at the collar and snarling as I gave directions for the lesson, but a few minutes later when he was working with his partner on their project, I noticed that his face was back to it’s usual color, and he was gesticulating wildly with his hands, no longer tearing at his shirt. The itchy fabric seemed to be forgotten. For the moment, at least, he didn’t mind it.*** Hmm… again.

“Mindful” is a buzzword these days. We are encouraged to be mindful of our surroundings, mindful of others, and mindful of ourselves. We remind ourselves to slow down, take deep breaths, and be in the moment. At my school, we even have “Mindful Mondays” where each week, the counselor leads us through a short exercise on mindfulness during the afternoon announcements. I love these little lessons. 95% of the time, I’m on board with being mindful. I think it makes us better, healthier, happier inhabitants of the world. But then there’s that other 5% of the time when we need to get out of our heads and take our minds OFF things. In other words, sometimes we just need to lose our minds a little bit.

My cold pup loses his mind when we go for a walk. I lose my mind when I see a bunch of adorable dogs. This student lost his mind when he started having fun working on his project. And we were all better off without them.

One more example that comes to mind is… this blog post. I’ve been trying to write a blog post for three days now. My original idea turned out to be too big and needed more research than I was willing to do. After that, I just stared at the computer a lot while eating Sour Patch Kids and thinking, I have absolutely nothing to say. Then I’d watch Will & Grace reruns and call it a night. And… repeat. Tonight I sat down and, although I was out of Sour Patch Kids, I was also still empty of ideas. Nothing worked, mainly because I didn’t try anything. I just sat and stared and thought writerly thoughts that were the equivalent of I’m cold and I’m tired and I’m itchy. Finally, I decided to write for ten minutes. Not a blog post, just something. ANYTHING. Ten minutes of words and then I would give myself permission to watch Will & Grace and go to bed. I looked around my room for something to say. I saw my dog curled up into a ball. I started typing. And then… I lost my mind.

That was an hour ago.

I’ve found my mind again. It’s right where I left it, next to this finished blog post.

Today, I give you permission to take your mind off things.

* One of my students told me the new library had stairs “like in Harry Potter.” The staircases are very pretty, but I’m disappointed that they don’t move.

** After we left the dog park, we walked by the statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Uno had to growl at it for several minutes before we could continue on. What does my dog have against this Austin icon???

*** If my student had not been able to take his mind off the itchy shirt, I promise I would have found something else for him to wear. I did make his other teachers aware of the issue in case he became mindful of it again during the day.

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the offending statue

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Don’t forget! The Morose Penguin Review is accepting submissions until midnight on January 31st! Send your best and/or worst and/or only poems about morose penguins via the Contact Form on my website.

Posted in Poetry, Writing

Introducing: Morose Penguin Review

It’s that time of year. It’s cold. It’s dreary. People stopped giving you Christmas presents weeks ago. You’ve been forced to put on real clothes and go back to work, where no one is leaving prettily-wrapped homemade baked goods on your desk anymore. (What’s up with that?) You’ve just broken your first new year’s resolution, and the second one is only holding on by a thread. Plus, there’s something called “Blue Monday” looming on the horizon, which sounds like a cool new bar, but is actually just the name coined for the most depressing day of the year. As if anyone needed that added to the calendar.

In short, things are pretty gloomy.

Why not celebrate the gloom? Embrace it through art.

Last month, I posted my formula for naming a lit journal, and several of you shared your creative creations. The one that made me smile the most, however, was mine: Morose Penguin Review. I have to admit, I sort of fell in love with it. And if there’s a better publication for these gloomy late-January days, I don’t know what it is.

So here’s what I propose. Make yourself a nice cup of tea or pour yourself a double bourbon or open a five pound bag of gummy bears—whatever you indulge in, I don’t judge—and write some gloomy poetry. Because for one month (and one month only) I’m going to publish the Morose Penguin Review here on this blog.

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Bringing you gloomy poetry since 2018

Here are the guidelines. We’ll keep it simple.

Theme: Morose Penguins
Genres: Poetry
Deadline: January 31, 2018 (midnight CST)
How to Submit: Send one poem (any form, maximum 30 lines) and a two-sentence bio using the contact form on my website. I will read them all and publish the best. And possibly the worst.
Payment Upon Acceptance: Publication on my blog, a virtual pat on the head, and the satisfaction of knowing that you have lessened the gloom (or multiplied it, depending on your piece) of millions* of readers.
(* Actually, probably more like 100 readers.)
What I’m Looking For: Poems about morose penguins that make me laugh or smile or think or go “Aww…whoa.”

I realize this is a short turn-around time, but if we wait too long, winter will be over and no one will be gloomy anymore. Plus, if you get your submissions to me by the end of January, I can publish them in February which, let’s face it, is just a slog of twenty-eight blue Mondays in a row.

That’s it. Surprise me. Wow me. Make me laugh. Try not to traumatize me too terribly. Above all, have some fun and distract yourself from all the gloom. I look forward to seeing what you send me.

Posted in Reading

Because I Was Reading

A few years ago, I convinced myself that I knew my books (all 700-ish of them) so well that I could identify them merely by touch. I sat on the couch with my eyes closed and my hands over my ears while my husband brought me five books at a time. Then, keeping my eyes closed, I ran my hands over the covers, flipped the pages, felt for bookmarks, inhaled their scents, and generally absorbed their bookiness through my pores before making my guess.

I didn’t get a single one right.

This was very disappointing and also somewhat embarrassing, and the “See-you’re-crazy-I-told-you-so” smirk on my husband’s face only made matters worse. However, I still maintain that I know SOME of my books that well. He obviously just didn’t bring me the right ones.

Whether or not I know my books as well as I thought, it doesn’t take away from how much I love them. Reading is still my favorite thing to do, and I did it a lot in 2017, finishing 60 books that spanned fiction, nonfiction, YA, middle grade, adult, children’s, poetry, short stories, horror, sci-fi, fantasy, realistic fiction, historical fiction, comedy, classics, graphic novels, comics, audio books, and novels in verse. Whew! I consider that a job well done.

However, dedicating the hours necessary to finish 60 books in a year does mean there are times when other areas of life are neglected.

Chances are…

If you called me and I didn’t answer, it’s because I was reading.

If I showed up a little late to your gathering, it’s because I was reading.

If I left the tea kettle whistling until the water boiled away, it’s because I was reading.

If I forgot to feed the dog, it’s because I was reading.

If an announcement about a delayed flight made me smile, it’s because I was reading.

If I had tears in my eyes at a coffee shop, it’s because I was reading.

If I didn’t realize a cat had crawled into my lap, it’s because I was reading.

And if I fell asleep on the couch with the light on and a bookmark stuck to my face, it’s because I was reading.

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A few of my favorite 2017 reading spots (& reading companions)

In fact, the reason why this post didn’t come out on December 31st like I planned, is because I was reading. I was determined to finish one more book before the end of the year. (And I did.)

So, the question is… WHAT was I reading?

I read a lot of things last year, and I liked most of them. Here are a few favorites. (For a full list of what I read, check out my Goodreads page.)

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* The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud – An excellent end to an amazing series. Read my full review of this fifth and final book in the Lockwood & Co. series here.

Print* Falling Over Sideways by Jordan Sonnenblick – Sonnenblick has outdone himself with this novel. I didn’t think I’d ever love any of his books more than Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie, but Falling Over Sideways got it just right. Just absolutely perfectly right. An excellent read for middle schoolers, parents, teachers, and anyone who loves a good story.

25814154* The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell – I can’t express how much I loved The Madwoman Upstairs. It’s everything I wanted and needed from a summer read. Wit. Charm. Passionate book discussions. Literary scavenger hunts. Scandals. Secrets. A creepy old tower. The Brontes. This novel had it all. I listened to it on audio, read by Katie Koster, and it was fantastic. So fantastic, I bought the paper copy. Now I’m tempted to start over and read it again. So good.

24902132* Leaf and Beak: Sonnets by Scott Wiggerman – This poetry collection sat on my shelf for too long before I finally read it. Now, I don’t know why I waited. The sonnets follow the poet on his daily walks around his Austin neighborhood and are organized by the seasons, but there is nothing trite or expected from these elegant poems. The sonnets are both vivid and subtle, allowing the reader to stroll pleasantly through the verse while also inspiring her/him to pause and reflect at regular intervals. An excellent collection.

920607* The Arrival by Shaun Tan – Is it possible to “read” a book with no words? If you don’t think so, then you haven’t read The Arrival. This wordless story of a man leaving his homeland for a new country communicates the immigrant experience in a beautiful, intimate way.

17465707* Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro – I bought this book based on its adorable cover, and the inside didn’t disappoint. Still Writing is written in short essays, anecdotes, and tips. It reads easily and is a positive and encouraging take on the writing craft, while also being realistic. I took a lot of notes while reading it and put it down to write multiple times. (That’s how you know a writing book is good—it makes you WRITE.)

23203257* Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart – Lily, a transgender girl, and Dunkin, a boy with bipolar disorder, are both struggling through 8th grade. Their friendship will tug at your heart. At least, it tugged at mine.

19364719* Slasher Girls & Monster Boys edited by April Genevieve Tucholke – This anthology of teen horror stories by some of today’s best YA authors is way more gruesome and creepy and dark than I expected. I liked almost all of the stories, and several stayed with me long after I finished them, especially “In the Forest Dark and Deep” by Carrie Ryan. Thanks to that story, I’ll never be able to watch Alice in Wonderland without cringing again.

22840421* My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows – This book CRACKED. ME. UP. It’s a historical fantasy comedy romance. (Yeah, that’s a thing.) It’s like… if Game of Thrones met The Princess Bride except half the characters could turn into animals. You know what, just read it.

12948* (Not a favorite, but still one I want to mention) – The last book I read in 2017, the one I finished just a few hours before midnight, was The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, and I can’t decide what I think of it. I’m keeping my thoughts to myself for now because my book club will be discussing this classic horror novel in a couple of weeks, and I don’t want to give away all my conversation topics here, but I would love to know what others thought of it. Have you read it? Did you like it? (I promise not to steal your opinions for my book club. All clever critiques will be duly attributed during our discussion, I promise.)

So… the next question is… What will I read THIS year?

I hesitate to even post these titles because, if history is any indicator, books that I put on my “must-read” list often meet with procrastination, forgetfulness, or disappointment. But this year’s list is a winner, I can feel it. Here are ten books I definitely want to burrow into in 2018:

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  • A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (I already started this one and am enjoying it so far.)
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (This has been on my reading list for years. A friend gave me a beautiful purple copy for Christmas, so now I have no reason not to dive in.)
  • Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery (No, I’ve never read it. Don’t shun me. A student gave me a copy—again a gorgeous one—so I’m going to give this classic a try.)
  • If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino (My friend recommended this book. The summary sounds just as strange as the title. Wonderfully strange! I’m so excited to read it.)
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (I’ve watched this author’s TED talks and read her interviews. Everything she says is eloquent and gorgeous, so I expect her book will be the same.)
  • Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman (This has also been on my reading list for years. It feels like time to read it.)
  • Ghosts of Greenglass House by Kate Milford (I got this sequel to one of my favorite middle grade novels for my birthday but haven’t made time for it yet. I can’t wait to see what Milo is up to.)
  • Dreadnought by April Daniels (I’ve heard great things about this YA novel about a transgender superhero.)
  • Eva Moves the Furniture by Margot Livesey (Nova Ren Suma recommended this book during my workshop with her at Highlights. I don’t remember why anymore, but when Nova Ren Suma recommends something, you read it.)
  • The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming (A student highly recommended this book to me, and it meets my goals of reading more nonfiction and reading outside my comfort zone. Plus, the girl is brilliant, so I trust her.)

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Well, there you have it. Books, books, and more books. I’d love to hear about your own reading achievements. What was your favorite read in 2017? What are your goals for 2018? And tell me what you thought of The Turn of the Screw! (It’s ok. You can be honest.)