Posted in Halloween, Reading

How to Have a Happy (Spooky) October

October is drawing to a close. Have you enjoyed it to its fullest? Have you drained October of its delicious lifeblood? Have you sucked the marrow of October’s bones?

Fear not. October has not yet breathed its last. Even if you’d like to avoid crowds and indoor spaces, there’s still time to celebrate the month’s spookiness in a safe* way. Here are some suggestions.

* Note: By “safe” I mean Covid-safe, not ghost-safe, clown-safe, or unknown-creatures-of-the-night-safe.

#1: Carve Some Pumpkins

Pumpkin-carving has always been a favorite Halloween tradition in my family. I love pulling the lid off a pumpkin and seeing its insides for the first time. Some pumpkins are neat and tidy with just a few handfuls of seeds to scoop out. Some are gooey and gloppy and have to be shoveled out with a spoon. Others are thick-sided and stringy, holding onto their lid for dear life, requiring tools to hack through the forest of their innards. I love designing silly and creepy faces and then bringing them to life with knives and candles. I love the smell of freshly singed pumpkin. I love it all.

Unfortunately, this year the squirrels in my yard decided they love pumpkin carving too, and they proved to be quite efficient artists. In less than a week’s time, the sinister squirrels had reduced most of our pumpkins to nothing but hollow shells. We rescued a few and made them “house pumpkins” to keep them safe. Until we gut them and carve them ourselves. Heh heh.

#2: Go for a Hike & Let Google Guide You Home

A couple of weeks ago, I grabbed my water and snack and bug spray and journal and headed out for a hike. The trail by my house is a weaving, twisting, interconnected web of paths that ramble through the woods and dry creek beds and brush behind and between the neighborhoods nearby. It’s hard to get truly lost on the trail, but it’s easy to never travel the exact same path you’ve traveled before. There are just too many choices to make.

On this particular morning, the weather was perfect. I walked and walked and… just kept walking. After almost two hours on the trail, I was well beyond where I’d ever been and began wondering where exactly I was and if maybe there was a faster way back to my house. I brought up my good old Google maps app, changed the method of transportation to walking, and searched for the quickest route home. Success! If I just went a little further, I could cross the highway and be home in only twenty minutes via a sidewalk instead of a hiking trail. I gladly followed the app’s advice.

Until I came to this.

This, according to Google maps, was the quickest way home. This dark, graffitied, clown-infested drainage tunnel is where Google maps told me to go.

I took this photo, cursed under my breath, texted my husband to say I wouldn’t be home for a while, and turned back around. But if you’re more adventurous/crazy than I am, I suggest you change your transportation app to walking and see where Pennywise, I mean Google, takes you.

#3: Read a Scary Book, or Better Yet, Listen to a Scary Book While Walking Around at Night

I love spooky books. I love listening to audio books. I love walking around my neighborhood at night. A few weeks ago, I combined these loves into one very creepy hobby.

The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James is a fast-paced, engaging, ghostly murder mystery set in the town of Fell, New York, in both 1982 and 2017. The plot follows the story of Viv, a naive twenty-year-old in 1982 on her own for the first time in a strange place, and Carly, Viv’s twenty-year-old niece who is investigating her aunt’s unsolved disappearance thirty-five years later. The narrative bounces back and forth between the two young women, who end up leading mirrored lives. Carly rents the same room where her aunt lived in 1982 and gets a job as the night clerk in the same haunted motel where Viv worked, and where she disappeared.

The ghosts of the Sun Down Motel are visceral specters not only seen, but heard and smelled and felt by the witnesses who encounter them, and they leap off the page and into the reader’s senses as well. But the spirits are not the only things to be feared in this mystery. Fell, New York, is full of unsolved murders– women who disappeared from homes, parking lots, or jogging trails, their bodies to be discovered later, and their stories haunt the narrative too.

See? This is the perfect novel to listen to while walking around your neighborhood at ten o’clock at night!

Each night I left the house with my walking shoes and earbuds, I told my hubby, “Back in an hour if I haven’t been murdered!” He never found that very funny, and I guarantee my parents don’t find it funny now as they read this either, but I always thought I was hilarious. That is until I got about about mile into my walk and started really getting into the book. Then I’d find myself checking over my shoulder much more frequently than usual and speeding up my steps. **

I burned a LOT of calories listening to this book.

The best was when I was listening to the last couple of chapters, and the events in the book were getting more and more intense, and the main character was in trouble, and my nerves were on edge, and I walked past a garage right as my neighbor started up a table saw.

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Yeah, normally I’m just a walker, but I might have jogged a little that night.

Anyway, I recommend The Sun Down Motel in any season, and if you want to make it creepier and get some exercise while you’re at it, I recommend the audio version and a good pair of walking shoes.

** Note: I live in a VERY safe neighborhood and know many of my neighbors and was rarely the only person out walking at this time of night and always had my phone with me (duh, that’s how I listened to the book) and only ever wore one earbud so I could hear outside noises as well, so Mom and Dad, keep your lectures to yourself, please. I’m FINE. 🙂

#4: Tell Ghost Stories by a Campfire

Gather some firewood and a friend and a couple of comfy chairs, and sit back to lose yourself in the flames of a campfire. When it’s good and dark, so that the light of the blaze is illuminating only your circle of warmth and the rest of the night is blacker than coal outside your field of vision, it’s time to tell a ghost story. Don’t know any? Grab a book to read from. You could go classic with Edgar Allan Poe or Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, or choose a more modern assortment such as All Hallows’ Eve by Vivian Vande Velde. You could even read a TRUE ghost story from The Ghostly Tales of Austin by yours truly.

Then again, you could always just sit back and wait for the ghost stories to write themselves.

I was recently reminded of a night a few Octobers ago when I made a campfire in my backyard and settled in for a peaceful evening of crackles and wood smoke with my trusty dog, Uno. Our backyard, as you can see in the photo above, backs up to a wooded area. We have no neighbors behind us, just trees and bushes and the various critters that haunt our part of Austin. That night, when darkness fell, leaving me alone in my circle of firelight, something beyond the fence drew Uno’s attention. He stepped up to the fence, looked through the bars into the night beyond, and growled.

No big deal, I thought. Just an animal.

Uno growled again, more ferociously.

No cause for concern, I thought. Even if it is some boogieman, Uno’s on the job.

Then my trusty dog stopped growling, went to get his tennis ball, dropped it at the fence, and sat down.

Friends, when your dog offers his tennis ball to the darkness, it’s time to go inside. That’s exactly what I did. My campout was over. I took my goosebumpy self in the house and made Uno come in with me. I didn’t know who or what in the night beyond the fence asked my dog to play, and I didn’t want to know. I was DONE.

So, yeah. Go have a campfire. It’s probably a good idea.

#5: Stay Home & Relax

October is a busy season for everyone, not just ghosts. If you don’t have time to take a three-hour hike or mutilate vegetables or play fetch with the darkness, don’t worry. Engage in some self care instead! There’s no shame in staying home and treating yourself to a little me time. Indulge in a sweet snack, watch a spooky movie, read a favorite book, or just enjoy some time doing nothing at all. You deserve it.

Happy October, Everyone!
Whatever you do, have a spooky good time!

Posted in Life, Reading

Simple Pleasures

It’s been a while since I traveled.

The last time I flew somewhere was in October of 2019 when I took myself on a writing retreat to The Highlights Foundation in Pennsylvania. I spent a long weekend writing, reading, watching the wildlife, and taking long walks through the woods by myself.

The last time the hubby and I took a vacation was in June of 2019 when we spent a few days in the San Juan Islands in Washington. We spent our time hiking the shoreline, watching the wildlife, and taking long walks in the woods together. One of the reasons why I chose the house we rented was because it had so many comfy spots to read.

For me, traveling isn’t often about the go, go, go and do, do do.* I like to sit and stay and experience. It’s about doing the things I love somewhere new. Some of my favorite things to do are reading good books and taking long walks through nature, and I like doing these things wherever I am. Planning for vacation, for someone like me, means the paperbacks I choose to put in my carry on bag are just as important as the shoes I pack in my suitcase. (And those shoes better be made for walking.)

I’m sure there are some people out there who squirm at this idea of traveling. Why go somewhere just to read? You could have covered so much more ground and seen so many more attractions! You’re missing out! I get that, and I concede that there are some destinations where reading would be a dangerous waste of time. (You probably shouldn’t take a book on a safari.**)

Despite opinions to the contrary, this is the kind of travel I love, and it’s served me well. For one thing, books are sponges; they carry the memories of the places they go better than any souvenir. (Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man holds my trip to Peru between its pages, and all I have to do is look at my copy of Bridget Jones’s Diary to be back on the plane to England in 2001.) But a bigger benefit of being a creature of habit is that the things I love to do can be enjoyed anywhere. Even at home.

The hubby and I made the difficult choice not to visit our families for Thanksgiving this year. If we could have popped in for a quick, outdoor gathering, that would have been great, but it’s a four-hour car ride to see my side of the family and a four-hour plane ride to see his. Due to COVID-19, it just wasn’t worth the risk. So I spent my week off work walking the trails near home, reading and listening to good books, and hanging out with the wildlife, both inside and outside of the house. I even turned my front yard into a coffee shop for a day.

Uno and I enjoy a latte at our cool new hangout.

I’m grateful for simple pleasures that I can enjoy anywhere. I’m grateful for my health and for the ability to stay in touch with my loved ones even when I can’t visit them. I’m grateful for the stories that keep me entertained while I wait for the world to heal.

I’m looking forward to traveling again. Hawaii, Greece, and Chattanooga*** are all on the bucket list, but the first trip I take when things are safe again will be to visit the families I’ve been missing for too long.

Wherever I go, though, I’ll be taking my books and my walking shoes.

* Aaaaaaaand, now I have “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” by The Police stuck in my head.
** I changed my mind. ALWAYS bring a book. Question: What’s the best book to take on a safari?
*** What? It’s nicknamed “The Scenic City” and is supposed to be a lovely place.

Posted in Reading

Reading During the Pandemic

It’s been five months since the coronavirus pandemic hit the country, shutting down schools and businesses and sending us to our homes like children being sent to their rooms to think about what they’ve done.

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There is nothing good about COVID-19, but I’d be lying if I said the stay-home situation didn’t come with a few perks. For some, long commutes have been shortened to the walk from the bedroom to the home office, and although we can’t see friends in person, the switch to online meetings has allowed people to hang out in new ways. Some virtual gatherings have actually been larger than their real world counterparts because people who couldn’t attend due to distance can now participate.

For me, one of the benefits of this stressful situation has been the extra time to read.

Can’t go anywhere interesting? Read.
Got insomnia due to anxiety? Read.
Avoiding household chores? Read.
More walks mean more audio books.
Fewer friend gatherings mean more pages.
Ever-present bad news means greater need to escape reality.

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My dad saved this comic strip for me, which is why it has my name on it. 🙂 It hangs on my wall.

I’ve finished thirty-two books since March 13th, reading eight in June alone. Although I wish my summer had included travel and swimming and brunch and kickball games, this time with books was time well spent. Here are a few of the standouts.

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, finished March 28th

This is the book that bridged the gap between the real world and the pandemic world. I started it before everything shut down and finished it after. I spent a lot of time reading it in the porch bed I made for myself. (I spent a lot of time in that porch bed this spring and plan to recreate it in the fall when the weather is cooler.) Magpie Murders is a clever murder-mystery-within-a-murder-mystery that was a nice distraction during troubling times.

Wolf By Wolf by Ryan Graudin, finished May 18th

24807186This YA alternate history was much more engaging than I expected. I listened to the audio book, and I found myself taking longer walks so I could hear more of the story. Set in a world where the Nazis won the war, the plot is about a Jewish girl on a quest to kill Hitler. The experiments conducted on her as a child in the concentration camps turned her into a shape-shifter. Now she’s working with the resistance and using her unusual gift to masquerade as someone else in order to win (hopefully) a high-profile motorcycle race which will give her the chance she needs to assassinate the dictator. The book is fast-paced with ample twists, and the sequel is equally good.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson, finished May 25th

32191710._SY475_The universe is BIG. Like, blow-your-mind-and-make-you-want-to-crawl-under-the-covers-and-hide big. I love listening to Neil deGrasse Tyson talk, and he narrates the audiobook himself, so I highly recommend you listen to it. It’s not very long and is really interesting. I didn’t understand everything in it, but Tyson has a way of explaining things so that even non-scientists can grasp them.

*Funny story: I first started listening to this one night and accidentally fell asleep with it playing. I had the most irritating dream where my husband was following me everywhere talking about physics, and I couldn’t get him to stop. Walking the dog– talking about physics. Shopping at CVS– talking about physics. I kept saying, “Be quiet!” but he wouldn’t. I was SO annoyed with him! Lol. However, once I tried listening to book while awake, I really enjoyed it and did not fine Neil deGrasse Tyson annoying at all.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, finished May 31st

This novel about a man sentenced to house arrest in a Russian hotel is one of my favorite books. I read it and loved it in 2018 and then re-read it and loved it even more this summer. This funny, touching, thought-provoking story full of unique and lovable characters is the perfect companion for when you’re stuck at home and lamenting your inability to go anywhere. It wins for the most sticky notes I’ve ever left in a book.

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths, finished June 26th

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My mom recommended this book to me, and I’m glad she did. It’s a murder mystery about a high school English teacher who’s also a writer and who’s obsessed with a horror story written by a mysterious deceased author whose study was located in the attic of her school. Oh, and it’s also a ghost story. Um… check, check, check, check, check. This book was right up my alley! Despite all the gruesome murders, it still felt like a fun escape from the world.

Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga, finished July 11th

IMG_20200816_125101This middle grade novel-in-verse about a Syrian girl who moves to America really grabbed my heart. The writing is excellent, the main character is clever and relatable, and the struggles she goes through are perfect for middle school readers who have had to learn how to straddle two cultures and for those who haven’t. I marked so many memorable lines, including:

Americans love labels.
They help them know what to expect.
Sometimes, though,
I think labels stop them from
thinking.

And…

Hoping,
I’m starting to think,

might be the bravest thing a person can do.

I recommend this book to kids and adults alike.

The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives by Dashka Slater, finished July 17th

33155325._SY475_On November 4, 2013, on a city bus in Oakland, California, a black teenage boy named Richard flicked a lighter at the hem of the skirt worn by an agender teenager named Sasha. Within seconds, the skirt went up in flames, severely burning Sasha and changing both of their lives. The 57 Bus tells the story of these two teens and their very different backgrounds and the consequences of a moment. This was a hard book to read but an important one that has me thinking about my role as an educator and a citizen and a human and how I can help create a society where the Sashas and the Richards of the world can both live safe, successful lives.

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill, finished July 29th

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This slow, creeping, ultimately sad horror novel is full of atmosphere and subtle but persistent spookiness. Writers are told that their endings should be both surprising and inevitable, and Susan Hill nails it. This book is still on my mind weeks after reading it.

 

Love, Teach: Real Stories and Honest Advice to Keep Teachers from Crying Under Their Desks by Kelly Treleaven, finished August 3rd

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Ignore the very messy desk in the background, please.

I have been reading the Love, Teach Blog for years, and I’m so excited that Kelly Treleaven’s book is finally in the world! Her combination of humor, heart, and crazy competent teaching advice has gained her a huge following of tired, stressed, but fiercely dedicated teachers who are thankful for her unflinching honesty and welcoming kinship in a profession where it’s really true that anything can happen. Treleaven’s book has fewer funny stories about “whisper turtlenecks” and the time she was late for work because she got a squirrel stuck on her head (true– there’s a video), but it is jam-packed with super useful tips about everything from setting up your classroom to dealing with unsupportive administrators. But don’t worry. Even though the book is serious in its mission to help teachers through the rough parts of the profession, there are still plenty of quirky stories and embarrassing moments sprinkled throughout. It made me both laugh and cry (but not under my desk). The book is aimed at first year teachers, but I’ve been in the classroom for twenty years and still found so much of the advice inside helpful. I recommend it for teachers of all ages, all content, and all stages of their career. You won’t find a more honest and heartfelt guide to education anywhere.

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What books have kept you from going crazy during the pandemic?