Monday, October 24, 2016

Happy Birthday!

We've been celebrating a lot of birthdays month. My mom hit a milestone this year -- one that surpasses the 29th anniversary of her 29th birthday -- and we celebrated a friend's (substantially smaller) milestone last Saturday. My husband's birthday is three days after my mom's, and our friend and his college-aged daughter both celebrate in October as well.

Clearly, this is not the first year that we're celebrating all of these birthdays, but as I look at the range of ages, it strikes me that not all birthdays are created equal. When we're kids, we can't wait for our birthdays to arrive. Birthdays mean cake and presents and parties and a day that's all about us.

As young adults, we begin celebrating our birthdays differently. Our friend's daughter celebrated her first at-college birthday, something our daughter will do next month. As we head deeper into adulthood, the shimmer of birthdays begins to dull. We focus more on the celebrations of our children, and, over time, acknowledge our own birthdays only grudgingly.

Why did we develop this backwards view, where youth is to be celebrated, but that a life well-lived is to be somehow brushed aside, obscured by a number which, in the end, means nothing?

I don't mean to get morbid here. I'm just wondering: why don't we strike up the band and create a big fanfare for every year that we're alive and accomplished? Do we find it somehow frivolous? Do we think we're too mature? If so, who convinced us that trading in a party for maturity was somehow a good deal?

My mom has been alive for more decades than she wants me to tell you. She and my dad have been married for more than fifty years. They've raised two daughters who've grown up, moved out and added new branches to the family tree. My parents have friends, family and colleagues who value them, support them and remember when they could dance all night, but who love them just as much now that they'd rather stay in and watch Netflix. When my sister and I planned their golden wedding anniversary celebration, it was small, at their request, but what it lacked in numbers, it more than made up for in love.

Love. Pride. Relationships. Friends. Family. Respect. These are indicators of a life well-lived, things that are earned and burnished with time. And birthdays give us an opportunity to acknowledge them. So why not make the day of our birth a celebration? Instead of measuring them against the high points of years past -- and often coming up short -- why don't we make them a day that celebrates the things that take a lifetime to achieve and appreciate?

I know, I know. I'm being childish and self-indulgent. Maybe I should just grow up.

Or maybe that's what I want to celebrate in the first place.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Friday Feature: Self-Evaluation

This semester, I'm once again teaching a first year seminar where we're talking about things like success, perfection and happiness. My goal isn't just to get my students to think about these things and learn about them, but also to get them to think about themselves in relation to these things and to maybe discover a little something about who they are, and who they want to be in the process.

As a result, I'm compiling quite a collection of articles toward that end. This one, from Dan Waldschmidt's blog, was posted last New Year's Eve -- a great time for introspection and personal reflection.

But what if we don't have to be college freshmen to ask ourselves these questions? What if we don't simply reassess around the start of a new year?

How would you answer these ten questions?

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

5 Things I Want My Readers to Know

Beach bums or my next cast of characters?
(Photo: Morguefile)
A while back, a fellow author posted things she wanted her readers to know about her. I thought that was a pretty cool idea, so I jotted down a few ideas of my own, and thought I'd share five writer-type things I want my readers to know about me. 

It all starts with the characters. For me, everything begins with the people -- the story, the plot, the entire book. I start by creating a cast of characters -- who they are, what they like, what they dislike, what they want -- and a problem or inciting event. From there, the rest of the story emerges.

I'm a pantser. I don't plot. Sure, I have an idea of where I want the story to go, but my characters usually express their opinions, too. In the end, I may or may not end up where my synopsis said I was going (I usually don't). You've heard of flying by the seat of one's pants? That's how I write.

I enjoy promotion. Although I truly dislike promotion of the "buy my book" variety, I love any form of promotion that puts me in touch with readers. I like writing newsletters, crafting blogs, tweets and Facebook posts and meeting people at book signings and events. It feeds a different part of my creative side than writing does, and the feedback I receive really does get filtered into my books. One reader comment can trigger an entire subplot. 

I don't read nearly as much as I'd like to -- at least not when it comes to novels. As much as I try to squeeze in my stack of novels, I end up reading mostly non-fiction unless I'm on vacation. During the school year, I read a lot of articles and books in the psychology/social science realm, but, since I believe everything we read impacts us in some way, I draw inspiration from these materials, too -- not just for the classes I teach and the articles I write, but also for my fiction, if indirectly.

I find a lot of my reading material on Twitter. My Friday Feature has become one of my favorite things to write, and I often find the article that sparks it all in a tweet. I read very little in the way of print media any more, instead finding the "latest and greatest" via social media, which leads me to the electronic version.

As much as I complain and become frustrated over a lack of writing time, I really do believe that a writer can't write unless she has a life and experiences to inspire her. Fortunately, my life provides plenty of those things. 

Monday, October 17, 2016

So Long, Starbucks

Wikimedia Commons
Today is the last day my favorite Starbucks will be open. This evening, the baristas will close this store for the last time and, tomorrow, they will begin readying a new store, one that will open on Friday.

One that's even closer to my house than the old one. And has a drive-through.

But I can't imagine I'll avail myself of the drive-through, at least not very often. For me, the allure of my Starbucks has always been the cafe. There, I run into other regulars, along with friends I haven't seen in quite some time. I have coffee dates, even though I don't drink coffee.

And I write.
Message from one of the baristas
(who's also a writer) who knew I was
working on book revisions.

Big chunks of my first novel were written in the cafe at the Randolph Park Starbucks. Sections of the next novel, the one that sat in a drawer for close to a decade before I finally pulled it out and got serious about revising it, were written there as well. I had release celebrations for Casting the First Stone and Chasing a Second Chance there, and my book celebration at the Gettysburg Starbucks was made possible by a former Randolph Park barista who'd risen to the position of manager at a new store. And, when I needed a cake and yummy nibbles for my Casting the First Stone party, it was another Randolph Park barista who not only created it for me, but also made truffles and connected me with a colleague who baked giant cupcakes in gourmet flavors.

Remember Norm and Cheers? The Randolph Park Starbucks has long been my Cheers. No, they don't call out my name when I enter (well, one of the baristas does), but they know my drink, my job, my avocation, me. I talk with the baristas about kids, life and writing -- theirs and mine -- because they're more than just people who create my beverages. Many are my friends as well.

Fortunately, they'll be traveling to the new store, so that much -- the heart of the store -- will be the same. I haven't seen the inside of the new place, but if the exterior is any indication, I think I'm going to like it.

Still, I'll always have a special place in my heart for the Randolph Park store, and I'm hoping it doesn't become, well....

Kathleen Kelly: [writing to "NY152"] People are always telling you that change is a good thing. But all they're really saying is that something you didn't want to happen at all...has happened. My store is closing this week. I own a store, did I ever tell you that? It's a lovely store, and in a week it will be something really depressing, like a Baby Gap. Soon, it'll just be a memory. In fact, someone, some foolish person, will probably think it's a tribute to this city, the way it keeps changing on you, the way you can never count on it, or something. I know because that's the sort of thing I'm always saying. But the truth is...I'm heartbroken. (IMDb)

Okay, okay, so that's a little melodramatic, but I couldn't pulling in a quote from a favorite movie (You've Got Mail), especially since it was running around in my head. 

And endings are sad.

I guess a Baby Gap wouldn't be the worst thing. 

But it will never compare to my Starbucks. 

Friday, October 14, 2016

Friday Feature: Drink Your Milk!

I'm a Starbucks regular. Some might call me an addict. My drink of choice is an iced chai tea latte, and, with few exceptions, I get it every time I go to a Starbucks, varying only the size of the drink and, occasionally, the milk I choose. Knowing that the drink is high in sugar, I tend to order it with nonfat milk in some sort of treat karma balancing act, but articles like this one from Next Avenue are making me rethink my choice.

I first switched to nonfat milk in my twenties, and so I feel positively decadent ordering my drink with its default 2% milk. I even trip over the order (I can order it with nonfat milk in one long, Starbucks-savvy, string of attributes) and, when I order it with 2%, I stun the baristas who know my drink order by heart. And ordering it with whole milk? Unthinkable.

But, as it turns out, I might be doing myself a disservice. The difference in sugar is negligible from one kind to another, and, since the milk is probably the only thing in the drink that's good for me, splurging on 2% might not be such a big splurge after all.

Who knew?

Thursday, October 13, 2016

6 Questions from the Porch Swing for Lisa Lawmaster Hess

Yesterday was a busy day -- so busy, in fact, that this post got neglected. So today, I'm having a seat on my own porch swing. I've finished interviewing my characters (but if I left out someone you'd like to hear from, please leave me a comment and I'll invite him or her to stop by), and so I thought I'd try my hand at my own questions.

Where will we find you when you’re not here on the blog?
Lisa: Teaching, planning to teach, grading papers, writing an article or novel, organizing something or, if I must, doing something to (literally) keep my house in order.

What’s something we’d be surprised to know about you?
Lisa: Friends know this, but readers might find it surprising that I love to tap dance. I'm very rusty, but it was one kind of dancing that I could pick up as an adult without feeling self-conscious. I keep thinking I'll get back to it, but I'm not sure my old feet can take it anymore.

What are your thoughts on children?
Lisa: Pro :-) It's funny, but I was always surprised that I ended up in education, because I was never one of those people who grew up with a natural affinity for kids -- the ones who knew that motherhood and teaching were life goals from the time they were just kids themselves. I developed that affinity over time and over years of having amazing students of all ages, and, of course, after becoming a mother myself. 

What regrets do you have?
Lisa: Not practicing the piano more. I suppose that's easy enough to change, but had I done so sooner, I might be as good at playing the piano as I'd like to be.

Whom do you admire? 
Lisa: My parents. They've been the loves of one another's lives for 56 years, and both of them are  smart and sharp. They taught me to work hard, be strong, kind and respectful and anything I've accomplished I've accomplished because of the foundation -- and soft landing spot -- they gave me. 

Who's your favorite character?
Lisa: That's like asking a parent who her favorite child is! I love all of my characters for different reasons. Except maybe Jim. And Carmella. She's just mean.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Sweet Silence?

Ali Spagnola
Last winter, as the college visits began to wane, replaced by FAFSAs and a college to-do list, I found myself projecting to the time when my daughter would be happily ensconced at college. A good antidote to the recurring nag-ignore cycle in which we sometimes found ourselves between acceptances and the move itself, it reminded me that though her imminent departure made me sad, there might actually be some things to look forward to.

Last night, as I was settling on today's topic for this blog, I came across a draft of that post. The timing was perfect, because this week, we're preparing to head north for Parents' Weekend, seeing her for the first time since we dropped her off in August. 

I think it's safe to say she's settled in well. Surprisingly, so have we.

The list of things I wouldn't miss was short -- one item in fact. It was the music. Unfailingly loud and always peaking when I was trying to concentrate, its sudden bursts could shake the thoughts right out of my head. Don't get me wrong -- I like music, and my daughter and I actually like some of the same stuff. It's just that I work better in quiet, and a blast of any sound when I'm trying to think is generally unwelcome, especially now that I've reached the age where wispy threads of thought unravel at twice the speed in which they form. 

I wondered, however, if this was a case of being careful what I wished for -- if the lack of music would make the house too quiet.

It didn't.

There is one sound I miss, though. The sound of her voice. I miss talking to her and hearing her laugh. Texts are wonderful, and I'm profoundly aware of how fortunate I am to be parenting a young adult in a time when communication is so fast and so easy. But those same teens have developed an aversion to phone calls, and so actual conversations -- the ones where I get to hear what's going on in her life -- are infrequent. And greatly missed. 

And so, not surprisingly, that's what I'm most looking forward to this weekend. Just talking. Laughing. Spending time with her. 

I have a feeling the weekend will go much too quickly, and, when we return home again, the house will seem much too quiet.

At least until Thanksgiving.