Archives: General

What I would have, should have, could have said to my father before he died

 

Dear . . .

Sorry, but I just can’t seem to call you Dad. You’re father to me, connected by a set of chromosomes that helped determine the color of my eyes, the line of my lips, the pinch at the end of my nose, as well as countless unknowable things. We’re not bonded by any familial memories that would make me miss you.

Still, I’m sorry I didn’t call you back.

You tried at least three times in the last year to contact me. The second time, I went to answer the phone, saw your name on the caller ID and let it ring through to voicemail. “This is Bob McGaffin calling for Pamela.” No one calls me Pamela but you.

The third time, you spoke with my husband, Mark. He listened to your Bible talk and answered your questions about my mother and me. We were fine, he said. Pam will call you back.

I never did. I didn’t want to suffer through more Bible talk.

On Sept. 27, we got a call from “Steve” at the King County Medical Examiner’s Office. He broke the news of your death so gently I felt compelled to inform him you and I weren’t close. Estranged is the word I continue to use, though it’s not quite accurate.  There can’t be distancing or alienation where there was no love to begin with.

You looked like Glenn Ford

Growing up, I kept asking Mom why she married you only to divorce you in short order, before I could know you as a father, before I got a sibling. I really wanted a brother or sister. And a dog, but that’s another story.

You met dancing. You were a good dancer and looked like the actor Glenn Ford. But the main reason Mom married you, she says, is because all her friends were getting married – not a mature reason, she concedes.

She didn’t want to poison any relationship I might develop with you, so she waited until I was older to tell me why your marriage failed. Once that gate opened, the details spilled out: a table knife thrown, a picture destroyed, belittling, jealousy, control.

Mom was pregnant with me when you pushed her down because you resented her going to her own baby shower. When your abuse extended to me — yanking a bottle out of my mouth — Mom knew she had to leave.

To your credit, you accepted the divorce, faithfully paid child support and never forgot my birthday. You visited twice a year, once on my birthday and once over the holidays. We’d sit around the living room – you, your third wife, Marie, my mom, my grandmother and me — and I’d smile, answer questions, maybe play a piece on the piano, all the while counting the minutes until you left so I could breathe again.

I went with you and Marie on two outings that I remember. When I was younger, you tried to impress me by taking me in your big shiny car to a movie followed by a steak dinner at the Black Angus. You made sure I knew just how much money you were spending on me.

The second time, I was in my teens. We went to the Seattle Center and played putt-putt golf. Did you rib me unmercifully about my poor putting skills? I can’t remember. I just recall feeling bruised afterwards, like you’d stomped all over my fragile adolescent ego.

But you were the one with the fragile ego. Having come from an abusive household yourself (Mom told me), maybe this treatment of women was something you grew up with, something you learned. Making women feel small made you feel big. (Much later, you admitted to being a bad husband. Religion, for you, offered redemption as well as salvation.)

“I guess that’s my daughter”

The years passed. I graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in Communications/Journalism and eventually became a reporter for the Herald in Everett. A co-worker of yours at Boeing had seen my byline and asked you if I was related.

“I guess that’s my daughter,” you’d said. I only know about this exchange because you related it to my mother in a telephone call.

You were proud, I think, even though it troubled you that I never found God. You tried again and again to enlighten me. You’d call me out of the blue, your rambling, boastful talk peppered with Bible verses. I never appreciated the preaching, but I didn’t have the nerve to tell you to stop. It was your way of showing that you cared.

 

 

You also came to my wedding and, some years later, met our first adopted son, Casey, recently arrived from Korea. I know your fourth wife, Lucille, urged you to come see me and meet your grandchild. She tried to bring us closer together. For a while, it worked. But she died, and we soon drifted back to our usual distance.

I’m as much to blame as you, probably more so. We had nothing in common beyond blood. Our conversations were strained. And, much to my husband’s chagrin, I didn’t see the point of forging a fake bond for the sake of inheriting a small portion of your estate. If you left every last penny to the church, so be it.

A neighbor found you  

He’d come to check on you and found you in your bed. A likely heart attack, the Medical Examiner’s Office said. You were 89.

Mark and I went downtown to the ME’s Office collect the few items they’d removed from your house: your keys, about $300 in cash and the watch you were wearing. They described your home as “disorganized and unkempt.”

An understatement. Dishes and containers with food, half consumed, left out to rot and attract vermin (in evidence). Crusty spills on the kitchen floor. A mattress turned dark sinkhole. Everything covered with dust and grime. Even the cobwebs were black.

How could you live like this? Was there no one in your life? Or did you turn them away? A neighbor said you refused medical treatment. What about comfort? Where were the Christian Faith Center and its founder Casey Treat when you needed them? I see they sent you Christmas cards.

Or were you too proud to ask for help? Would you have asked me for help had I bothered to return your calls?

I picked through the piles of papers left on your dining room table next to an unfinished bowl of stew, a box of cereal and some green-tinged milk in a bottle. You’d set aside documents related to insurance, investments and funeral-home arrangements. I also found a faux-leather binder that looked like it contained a will. It was all there, waiting for me.

Did you know you were about to die?

Mark and I took what looked important home with us. Over the next couple of weeks, we also took the Toyota sports-utility vehicle you’d just purchased, a large blue glass vase, a framed photo of you when you were named leader of the Burien Elks Club, a shoebox full of hand-carved slides for Boy Scout neckerchiefs, as well as a banjo and a mandolin.

The instruments were a surprise

I never knew you played. I realize there’s a whole lot I don’t know. What I do know wouldn’t even fill out a decent obituary:

  • born in Topeka, Kansas
  • parents operated a dance hall
  • had a twin sister
  • Boy Scouts leader
  • Member of the Elks Club
  • Voted Republican
  • Owned at least ten Bibles
  • Attended prayer circle at the Highline United Methodist Church in Burien

You donated $600 to this church between June and August.

You left everything else to me.

Mom was the one who suggested I write you this posthumous letter. “Sometimes it helps,” she said, when you have unfinished business and mixed feelings.

So, once more, I’m sorry I didn’t call you back. If we’d talked, I would have told you that my first novel — about a girl struggling with the disappearance of her father – will be published next fall.

You won’t be around for its release, but your estate will help pay for the costs of this book, and, hopefully more to come.

So, thank you .  .  . Dad.  I hope I make you proud.

Your daughter,

Pamela

The Great Wall and the Great Ringwall: A tribute

 

Wallie loved life so much he seemed determined not to leave it, but time won out Aug. 12. He was 95. This is one of my favorite photos of my in-laws. We’d just brought our first son, Casey, home.

 

I won’t lie. The thought of writing about my big-fish father-in-law, Wallie Funk, scared me. How would I summarize his long, noteworthy life in a blog post? What would I include? What would I leave out? In spite — or perhaps because of — my close association with the man we affectionately called “The Great Wall,” I didn’t feel up to the task.

Then it dawned on me: Don’t try. My husband, Mark, already wrote the obituary and did a bang-up job.

So . . . here are my impressions of the man I came to know, with some family lore thrown in. I’m also including Wallie’s late wife, Mary Ann (Ringwall) Funk, because I can’t write about one in-law without the other. Both were equally influential in my life. How long has it been? Mark and I got married in 1987 and dated about three years before that. . . My God! Has it really been almost 35 years? No wonder I feel overwhelmed.

I remember meeting THE PARENTS. It was over dinner at the Washington Athletic Club, where they and Mark were members. I’d never eaten at a restaurant with a dress code. For a girl brought up by a single mother of limited means, this was another world. I remember being mesmerized by Mary Ann’s large jewel pendant as I tried to appear poised and well-bred.

I needn’t have worried. Wallie did most of the talking while I smiled and nodded and chewed with my mouth closed. If I said anything, it was probably in response to the coincidence of my last name.

Mark and I met at the Herald in Everett, where we were both reporters, but my name had apparently come up before I knew any of the Funks. I was on the staff of the University of Washington student newspaper, The Daily, while Wallie served on the publications board. Mark and Wallie had spotted my byline and wondered if I was related to KING/5 TV reporter Don McGaffin. He, along with Wallie, had covered the horrific capture of Lolita and six other killer whales in 1970 in Penn Cove.

(I’m not related, though Don McGaffin did stop by to see me once at The Daily office.)

Anyway, we found common ground, the Funks and I that extended beyond their son. We bonded over our mutual love of writing and journalism:  the mighty pen and the picture worth a thousand words; stories that marked history and made change.

Mary Ann — a former high school English teacher who did her part to keep the local bookstore thriving – was every bit as passionate about those things as Wallie, but she was comparatively quiet, the yin to his yang.

One of the few pictures of Wallie with the family. He was usually behind the camera. Carl is wearing red socks; Mark blue.

 

Wallie’s favorite holiday was Christmas; hers Halloween (she was born on Oct. 28). Mary Ann would entertain Mark and his brother, Carl, year-round with tales of trolls and monsters. For Halloween, she carved the pumpkin, and I bet it was her idea to have Wallie go out after dark and walk around the house with that lit gourd on his head.

“We had a record with the Headless Horseman story,” Mark recalls. “That pumpkin looked like a face with fiery eyes.”

I’m sure Wallie had a blast thrilling his young sons with a floating jack o’lantern, but Christmas was his time to shine. He’d get the tree, lights and decorations up shortly after Thanksgiving and leave them up long after the first of the year. (Towards the end of his life, Christmas was just part of the furniture.) On THE DAY, after the dinner plates were cleared and Mary Ann was busy in the kitchen serving up pie, Wallie would “hold forth” at the head of the table for anyone who cared to listen.

It was more often than not a stream-of-consciousness, anecdote-filled who’s who of Anacortes and Washington State politics, arts and history. I will admit, I sometimes got bored and looked for an excuse to drift away, maybe try to help Mary Ann with the dishes (only to be told no). Wallie’s energy for talk could be exhausting, but I usually learned something.

Mary Ann was every bit as opinionated as her husband. A former community college trustee and volunteer for Planned Parenthood, she could go on at length about creating equal opportunities for women and marginalized groups. And she read everything – novels, memoirs, biographies, newspapers and magazines, including her annual subscription to Mother Jones, a bi-monthly publication that aims to expose the evils of the corporate world, government and the mainstream media.

She famously got in the last word during a dinner conversation that has become family legend. Wallie was amazed to discover that one voter in Island County had cast a ballot for communist leader Gus Hall in the presidential election. He wanted to interview that person and get his or her story in the paper, even if that meant granting anonymity.

Mary Ann let him go on a while before she felt the need to interrupt. “Wallie,” she said, “it was me.”

That may have been what earned her the nickname “Red Mary Ann.” Her curiosity and appetite for ideas was tempered with the no-nonsense practicality of a North Dakota farm girl. Besides books for Christmas, she would give us stockings filled with fun diversions (a light-up yo-yo comes to mind) and the annual can of windshield defroster.

She was a feminist, but took a traditional behind-the-scenes role when it came to Wallie and his work as a newspaper publisher, community leader and local historian.  They were both proud of that legacy and rightly so.  Wallie’s efforts helped build Anacortes as well further the career of many an artist and journalist.

Wallie and Mary Ann in front of the painted cutout of Wallie at the Anacortes American newspaper office

 

Relentlessly positive, Wallie sometimes countered complaints and self-pity with a verbal hand slap. (“There you go again with the negativity!”) “Can’t” wasn’t a word he knew. He could talk his way into anything, whether it was a ride-along on a fishing boat bound for the new state of Alaska, or the front row of a Rolling Stones concert to photograph Mick Jagger.

And he had a real talent for raising money to support his causes, including a museum for Anacortes. Nobody said “no” to Wallie, well, at least nobody who agreed with his community view. An outspoken newspaper man, he made his share of enemies, but he earned many more friends.

Wallie loved the spotlight, but he also took genuine pleasure in the accomplishments and good fortunes of others. He frequently asked after my mother, and was delighted to hear that she’d blossomed anew at Seattle’s Norse Home after decades of living alone.

He got misty eyed when I told him about my writing sojourns at the family’s Guemes Island beach house. Having just published his Pictures of the Past: Celebrating 125 Years of Anacortes History, he was awaiting the release of his daughter-in-law’s book. My one selfish regret is that he died before he could hold it in his hands.

But I can’t feel sad about Wallie’s passing. He and Mary Ann, who died in 2008, had long and interesting lives. As my husband wrote in Wallie’s obituary, “His family assumes his afterlife will be no less dull.”

I envision him enjoying one heck of a reunion with all the departed friends and loved ones. Yes, I’m sure he’s getting quite the welcome, Mary Ann smiling behind that characteristic mouth twitch of hers, as if to say, “It’s about time!”

I got a (paying) job!

I can’t wear slippers to my new job.

 

Six years ago I did what they tell you never to do. I quit my day job to pursue a dream.

The recession was in full swing. I had the barest beginnings of a novel, with no great vision other than that I wanted to write one. Ending a decades-long career in journalism and public-relations to try my hand at fiction required a crazy leap of faith. And it was the right decision.

I never would have finished The Leaving Year without that singular focus. Some writers can tap out their debut novels in stolen hours here and there. Karen Thompson Walker, a former book editor at Simon & Schuster, wrote The Age of Miracles in the mornings and during subway rides to work. That’s not me.

While I was able to write short stories around my day job, I couldn’t seem to make any headway on my first novel — maybe because I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know about outlining or story structure or character arcs or what writing process would serve me best. Writing a novel was a vast undiscovered land, and exploring it required long, uninterrupted stretches of time. I’m talking years, not hours.

Thank you, Mark Funk, my hard-working, self-employed husband, for giving me that luxury of time. He paid the bills while I spent five years writing, researching, editing, rewriting, getting help, querying, building a platform, getting more help . . . and basically trial-and-erroring myself through the single hardest thing I’ve ever done.

Now that book is in the publishing pipeline (stay tuned), and I’ve started another, this time with some insight into what’s involved, insight that will hopefully make me more efficient.

(I look back on all the time wasted writing and rewriting my first paragraph and shudder. Truth be told, you lose respect for time when you have seemingly unlimited amounts of it. You lose respect, but you also feel guilty, particularly when someone else is picking up the tab.)

Mark was and continues to be supportive, but after five years, even he was growing weary of being the sole breadwinner. And I hated asking him for money every month to cover my credit-card bill (even though it was mostly for groceries). I wanted to help our household’s bottom line and contribute to the cost of my book.

Plus, I was craving more social stimulation. My life had started to feel too insular, which is great if you’re writing about hermits or castaways, not so great if you’re writing about humans in all their quirky complexities.

The time had come to get an outside, paying job, something part-time and not too awfully stressful that would allow me to continue to focus on my writing.

I admit I was more than a little afraid to get back out there. My fear of job interviews is second only to my fear of public speaking (read my last post), but I must have been feeling brave that day I asked about a “We’re Hiring!” sign I saw while shopping at my neighborhood drug store.

I happen to love this store, so the idea of working for the company appealed to me. I got home and immediately filled out the online application to be a cashier/clerk. Literally seconds after I clicked “submit” I got a call to come in for an interview. (For the record, I got through the interview just fine.)

I didn’t expect my new job to be that challenging even though my retail experience was more than 30 years old. I’d worked at the University of Washington Book Store while a student.

Hello! My first day of training — on-the-job with real live customers — left me three pounds lighter and brain-drained by all the stuff I had to process, including:

  • Routine cash, credit and debit sales
  • Personal checks
  • Coupons and sales
  • Gift card purchases
  • IDs for cigarettes and alcohol
  • Store codes
  • Photo orders
  • Answering the phone
  • Greeting customers

Once I started at my assigned store, I also had to learn how to stock and “face” shelves, which is more complicated than it sounds. Any there’s many more tasks that they haven’t had me do just yet.

Suffice to say, my head’s been too full to get much writing done, but I hope that will change once I get over the learning curve.  I like my bosses and co-workers. And the customers have been great, by and large. Some have already given me material for future stories.

My favorite so far is the young man, complaining of a birthday hangover, who bought a bottle of milk and a pain-reliever, opened both at my counter, asked me what dose to take, and then proceeded to wash the pills down with his drink. He left, leaving the box the pills came in as well as his receipt and 3 cents in change.

Yep, no shortage of inspiration here.

What about you? Have you ever quit your day job? Or re-entered the workforce after an absence? Please comment below. I’d love to hear from you!

Learning to talk — Facing my fear of public speaking

 

I remember my first oral book report. It was that traumatic. I was in 3rd grade and I’d picked out a super-simple picture book to make it easy on myself. I think it was about frogs. With churning gut and clammy hands, I got up before all those faces and stood frozen while my heart galloped off in flight and my tongue turned to glue. The words I’d practiced in front of the mirror eventually tumbled out of my mouth, possibly in the wrong order, and everything shook — hands, legs, voice. Then it was over.

About all that can be said of my performance is that I didn’t throw up.

I’m sure my teacher took pity on me. Stage fright is cute when you’re nine years old. But I’m going to be 58 later this month, and my phobia isn’t so endearing now. Shouldn’t a woman who has spent her entire adult life working with words be able to speak in front of people?

Thankfully I didn’t have to do too much of that as a newspaper reporter or, later, as a public-relations professional. Most of my interactions were one-on-one. I’m perfectly comfortable asking nosy questions of strangers. But put me in front of an audience, and my lizard brain takes over. Complex thinking goes out the window.

Think I’m being too hard on myself? Consider my experience as part of a panel at a professional conference in the 1990s. I was one of three education reporters addressing a room full of public-relations people representing colleges and universities. We were supposed to give them insights on how they could get more press for their institutions. I was nervous and ill-prepared. My mistake. In introducing myself, I confessed that I received an inordinate amount of PR mail, most of which ended up in recycling.

I felt the air shift. The panelist next to me jumped in and turned on her southern story-telling charm, rolling out anecdote after anecdote, filling my  time, determined not to let me open my mouth again. Then the third panelist took his turn, and they had a fun back and forth, while I sat there pretty much ignored. They continued to ignore me even after the session ended and I tried to be friendly.

Public speaking leads to private shaming. Is it any wonder I prefer to hide inside my turtle shell and let others do the talking?

The irony is, now that I’m home alone trying to write books, I can’t hide any longer. Writing is the art of introverts, it’s true, but at some point, you have to get out there and promote your book if you want anyone outside of your immediate family to read it. Following my novel’s release, I hope to give readings at a couple of Puget Sound-area book stores, including the one two blocks from my house. Such events are de rigueur for authors, but my stomach twists at thought. Flashback to third grade and that disastrous panel discussion.

That’s why I’ve decided, at long last, to get help.  I’ve turned to an organization I first heard about from my 83-year-old mother. Toastmasters began in 1905 as a YMCA club to teach men (women weren’t allowed until 1973) “how to speak, conduct meetings, plan programs and work on committees,” according to their website.

Toastmasters International, as it’s now known, currently has more than 345,000 members and 15,900 clubs in 142 countries. Looking up clubs within a five-mile radius of my north Seattle home, I found 50, including two within easy walking distance. Obviously, a whole lot of people want to become “more effective communicators and leaders.”

I don’t know about the leadership part, but I’d like to be able to read from my book without shaking.

So last week, I went to my first meeting. The website for the Notable Northgaters Club spoke to me:

“We know that many people are afraid of public speaking. You might be afraid to visit. We promise we don’t bite, and we also promise that you will not have to give a speech when you visit! . . . We are truly friendly and want to make sure you are comfortable when you come to visit.”

The club meets Wednesday evenings in the basement of a church. I walked in and was immediately greeted by a gentleman (the Toastmaster/host), who asked me if I’d ever been to a meeting. When I said “no,” he seated me next to a woman who introduced herself as Linda and told me what to expect, including my role as a first-time guest, i.e., I could choose to participate or not, and I could come to as many free meetings as I wanted. Super low pressure.

She told me she’d joined Toastmasters because she was applying for work and wanted to be more confident in job interviews. Poised and personable, she seemed to have more than met her goal. I would have hired her on the spot.

After the Toastmaster made formal introductions, a young man, who happened to be the outgoing club president, gave a spirited speech on hip hop. As I understand it, members work their way through manuals, achieving certain milestones or awards by delivering different types of speeches. This particular presentation was to show the speaker’s use of visual and/or audio aids.

Every speech is critiqued by an evaluator who takes notes and a grammarian and “um counter” who listens for grammatical errors and filler words. There’s also a member who keeps track of time, switching on lights (green, yellow, red) to tell the speaker if he or she is about to run over.

It sounds intimidating, but the meeting I attended was buoyantly positive, with frequent laughter and regular applause. (Clapping not only shows appreciation, it also wakes people up, the Toastmaster explained to me.)

At the end of the meeting, I felt so good I actually took the Toastmaster up on his invitation to comment.

“I have a hard time imagining any of you as beginners,” I said, getting proud smiles and a few chuckles. “I’m in awe. You’ve given me something to aspire to. I found this very enjoyable.”

I’d said less than 30 words, yet everyone clapped as if I’d given a speech.

Hm, that was actually kind of fun, I thought as I walked to my car.  I think I’ll be back.

Note to readers: I know I’ve been erratic of late with my  blog. My book journey is picking up steam, and life is about to get much busier. That’s a good thing, but it means less frequent posts for the near future (monthly vs. twice a month). I hope you’re enjoying my ramblings. Please keep those comments coming because I LOVE to hear from you!

Photo credit: Pete

Hip Hip Hooray! To new body parts and moving forward

Running to the Seattle Mariners game in the 1980s.

Mark Funk # 63

For 45 years, my husband’s left hip did its job without complaint. It allowed him to play multiple sports in high school and survive four years as the smallest guard on the Oak Harbor football team. It helped him chase stories for three newspapers, play co-rec soccer into his thirties, run countless 10K races and complete one marathon. It even tried to swivel through a Latin dance class (my idea).

After we adopted the first of our two sons from Korea, that hip served as a baby bouncer and child seat. It was during a nature hike with two-year-old Casey riding on his shoulders that Mark felt the first twinge of what would become 17 years of pain.

He didn’t think much of it at the time, but the pain didn’t go away. It got worse, radiating down his left leg at predictable points that made us all suspect his back and a pinched sciatic nerve. He went to the doctor, who ordered an MRI of his lower spine. It showed nothing out of the ordinary.

Meanwhile, the pain bounced around from hip to knee to shin to ankle like a trickster. A cortisone shot in his knee brought only temporary relief. He tried physical therapy and acupuncture. I got him to try yoga. Nothing seemed to help, and some things made it worse.

Eventually the pain became chronic and debilitating, disrupting his sleep . . . and mine.  The man who used to love to run now balked at taking a walk. No wonder. When he did, his limp made me wince.

“How’s your leg?” I’d ask him.

“It hurts.”

“You’ve got to do something about this, force the doctors to get to the bottom of it,” I said. “This is a quality-of-life issue.”

I complained more about his pain than he did. I wanted some semblance of our active life back, but our needs kept getting swept aside by the more immediate needs of our children and our aging parents – the classic sandwich.

Then came not one, but two, big wake-up calls: Mark’s blood pressure was dangerously high, according to the machine at our local Bartell Drug Store. I urged him to go in for a physical, which confirmed the hypertension and revealed signs of something else: prostate cancer.

Prostate cancer is common in men of a certain age, and usually treatable. It also happens to run in Mark’s family, but his relatives beat it, so I was optimistic that his treatment would be similarly successful.

Still, I had an eerie feeling watching my husband’s skeleton appear on a monitor while he got a full-body scan to check for cancer outside the prostate. As the machine worked its way down to his groin, his left hip emerged as a cloudy white blob. I immediately thought, oh my God, the cancer has spread to his hip, but the technician set me straight: not cancer, inflammation.

Fast forward a year. With his blood-pressure under control and a so-far successful treatment for prostate cancer, we both agreed it was past time to revisit the leg-pain issue. X-rays and another MRI, this time of the inflamed left hip, showed bone-on-bone arthritis. On a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the worst he’s ever scene, the orthopedic surgeon said Mark’s hip was a seven or eight.

A complete replacement was in order.

Mark had the surgery June 7. We spent a day in the hospital. A shout-out to the fabulous folks at Swedish Medical Center-Issaquah: Thank you for making our stay as pleasant as possible.  Former reporter that he is, Mark got to know each and every nurse, attendant and therapist and their family backgrounds. Our diverse crew of caregivers hailed from Korea, Kenya, the Ukraine and India.

Given that his new friends were kinder and gentler than our sons were likely to be, Mark wanted to stay in the hospital an extra day. But his physical therapist –a buff and jocular Korean man — told him insurance wouldn’t cover avoiding teenagers. Mark had already demonstrated the he could walk with the aid of a walker, go up and down a small set of mock stairs, and get in and out of a mock car. He was good to go.

In the week we’ve been home, he’s gotten progressively more mobile, graduating from walker to cane and striding less and less like Frankenstein’s monster. On Monday, we took the three-block walk to Roosevelt High school and back, no problem. He’s still on morphine, so we can’t be sure that the hip replacement completely fixed his leg pain, but we’re hopeful.

Getting back to a new normal will take time. We’ll never return to playing soccer and running 10ks. Those days are gone for both of us. But I definitely see some bike rides in our future.

Speaking of moving forward, I have my own news. I can’t spill the details yet because I don’t know them myself, but I think I’ve found a publisher for my novel. Stay tuned for updates.

In the meantime, if you have a hip- or knee-replacement story — and it seems that most everyone does — please feel free to share it below. I’d love to hear from you!

Race photo credit: W. McNeely
Football photo credit: Wallie Funk

 

 

 

World-building for dummies

 

 

No, this isn’t a post about the POTUS. It’s a request. I’m the world-building dummy in need of tutoring from writers (and avid readers) of sci-fi, dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels.

How do I create a believable world for a novel set in a climate-changed US that’s told from the point of view of three crows and one human? (The human has a supporting role.)

Yes, I’ve given myself a ridiculous challenge for my second book. What on earth was I thinking?

For my first book — a coming-of-age, young-adult novel tentatively titled The Leaving Year — I stayed close to home, setting my story in the Pacific Northwest where I live during a time period (the late 1960s) that I remember.

I still had to do a ton of research on commercial fishing, Southeast Alaska, Native Alaskans, Tlingit myths, fish processing, Filipino cannery workers and Sixties slang. (I refused to use the word “groovy,” even though I know it was used then. Groovy sounds like it belongs in a Sixties parody, and that wasn’t my goal.)

Suffice to say, it was a challenge trying to get it all right, and I still don’t know if I succeeded, but Book 1 was a black-and-white Kansas compared to the Technicolor Oz I will need to inhabit for Book 2.

Put myself in the minds of three crafty birds, each with distinctly different personalities, all fighting for survival? Sure, no problem. Have them flee a virus that also threatens humans? Bring it on.

Did I bite off more than I my little beak can hold? No duh.

I’m such a world-building neophyte that I didn’t know until recently there’s a name for the kind of book I want to write. It’s called “eco-fiction,” shorthand for ecologically oriented fiction. I had no idea, probably because I’ve never been all that into fantasy and sci-fi, although I loved all the Star Trek spinoffs and read the Harry Potter series to my sons.

Up until now, my writing has been grounded in reality, a holdover from my years as a newspaper reporter. Every piece of fiction I’ve attempted has been an exercise in letting go of that just-the-facts hardwiring.

I got the idea for what I call “the crow novel” well over a year ago. I read up on crows and climate change and pandemics, quickly becoming overwhelmed by the enormity of what I’d set out to do. The more I learned, the more a realized I didn’t know.

Then came National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Trying to write 50,000 words in 30 days forced me to free my imagination and let it romp. I ended up with 47,000 words about a small family of crows torn apart by an advancing virus and wrathful humans, who think the birds are to blame.

I’ve since met the 50,000-word target (late, but oh well), which gives me about three-fourths of a child’s draft. It has potential, which is to say it’s not completely dreadful.

Imagining life as a crow in a warming world was fun when I didn’t have to nail down the picky little details, like setting.  In fact, I’ve yet to settle on a setting. My crows start off in a place based on my home-town of Seattle and end up traversing lakes and deserts, farms and suburbs, inner cities and mountain ranges. They’re literally and figuratively all over the place.

That’s fine for a first draft . . . which I’ve yet to complete. So maybe I’m jumping the gun here. My first order of business should be to finish, just shut-down my inner critic and barrel forward – accuracy and consistency be damned — until THE END.

Then I can go back to figure out and fill in all those pesky parts. Which brings me to ask the more experienced world-builders out there: Am I on the right track? What world-building hacks and strategies have worked for you?

If you’re a sci-fi/fantasy/dystopian reader (as opposed to writer), what books would you recommend for their awesomely awful worlds? Some favorites of mine:

Please share your thoughts below.

Photo credit: Torley Olmstead

My book journey so far – an accounting

 

46 (give or take) years I’ve wanted to write a novel

Nine years spent actually working on a novel

Countless times I edited and/or rewrote my first paragraph

Five-plus full drafts

14 beta readers/listeners

One time I read my entire novel aloud to my husband, Mark Funk, and sons, Casey and Charlie.

Four (additional) books on writing/craft I’ve read to guide and inspire me

About 2,200 dollars spent on professional editors/consultants/classes (online)

Ten(?) pounds dark chocolate consumed in pursuit of my art

1,240 games of Words with Friends played when I should have been working

13 blog posts written about a book that’s yet to be published

Four small presses queried

One small press that asked to see the novel

31 agents queried

20 agents who responded with a thanks, no thanks

Five agents who responded with a nice thanks, no thanks

Three agents who asked to read all or part of the book

One agent who was complimentary. Peter Knapp called my novel “quite compelling.” I love Peter Knapp.

Zero offers

All of which means I needed to find another way. Plan A – trying to get traditionally published – hasn’t worked, so I’ve moved on to Plan B — hybrid publishing or co-publishing. Yes, I will pay to play.

Am I disappointed that I haven’t been able to secure a deal from an agent and/or publisher? Yes, a little.

Could I still if I just kept at it a while longer? Maybe. But I’m 57 going on 58. I want to write more books, not spend the rest of my life shopping this one.

Is my failure to secure a traditional deal a sign that I should abandon this project? Hell no. I’ve worked too long and hard on it. That doesn’t guarantee quality, I understand, but I’ve read and re-read my novel ad nauseam, and I still like it. In fact, I like it a whole lot more now than I did in the beginning.

Bottom line: I believe my book deserves to find an audience.

I could self-publish, but putting out a professional-looking book takes skills I don’t have – cover design, for example – and I would have no way of distributing it. Book stores typically won’t consider self-published works.

The hybrid press I’ve contacted offers assisted self-publishing with some traditional-publishing perks, i.e. distribution. Yes, I’d have to pay upfront for editing and other services, but I’d have to do that anyway to produce a quality self-published book. And I don’t know enough to do everything a la carte.

So on May 1, I submitted my novel to SparkPress, which puts book submissions through a vetting process to ensure they’re publication worthy. According to their website, SparkPress “gives authors a traditional house experience, complete with an experienced editorial and production team, while allowing them to retain full ownership of their project and earnings.”

Sounds good to me. I’ll, of course, keep you all posted. Meanwhile, I welcome your thoughts.

Photo credit: Narayana Prasad

Camp NaNoWriMo is my kind of roughing it

 

 

I participated in my first National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) last November and . . . not sure “loved” is the right word . . . Let’s just say I got caught up in the crazy, can-do spirit of it all and learned I can crank out the words if you give me a goal, encouragement, nifty progress charts and coffee — lots and lots of coffee.

This month, I’m doing Camp NaNoWriMo with the aim of whipping my first novel, The Leaving Year, into shape for a final (I really mean it this time) round of submissions. I’m about 100 pages into a tune-up of my protagonist’s character arc, which, according to one agent, slipped around too much.

So far so good. I’m enjoying the Camp, which organizers bill as “an idyllic writers retreat smack-dab in the middle of your crazy life.”

It’s more flexible and less intense than NaNoWriMo:  The November main event gives you one goal — a 50,000-word novel – while the camp allows you to set any bar (words, hours, pages, even lines) on any writing project.

And, just like NaNoWriMo, you get a lot of on-line goodies, including:

  • nifty progress charts
  • virtual write-ins
  • writing advice
  • writing forums
  • prompts and exercises
  • pep talks from published authors

The Camp theme is fun. Participants join virtual cabins with 19 like-minded others. Mine is a “mixed” cabin of writers working on drafting and revision. With project names like “Night of the Sasquatch,” “Ghosts” and “Becoming Dawn,” I know I’m in creative company. And best of all, nobody snores!

I should add that everything NaNo is FREE, but you are asked to contribute to the cause. Here’s a bit more about their mission and programs from the website:

National Novel Writing Month . . . believes your story matters. We know that writing makes the world a more creative, vibrant place. Through NaNoWriMo, Camp NaNoWriMo, and the Young Writers Program, we work hard to empower and encourage that vibrant creativity. And, we can’t do it without writers like you.

If you want to try Camp NaNo, but missed out this month, you can sign up for the second camp in July. By then, the sun and mosquitoes will be out, and you can make believe you’re doing the real thing.

So what’s your project or dream project? I’d love to hear from you in the comment section below.

Staying the creative course with a little help from my friends

 

I thought my novel, The Leaving Year, was done when I started my “final” round of queries to agents and publishers a year ago.

Now that I’ve been turned down by everyone who had expressed interest, I’m going through yet another major edit of a book that has already taken six years of my life. In the words of that Dolly Parton song, 9 to 5, “It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it.”

Thank heaven for creative friends. I don’t belong to a writing group, but I’m able to call on a small circle of friends who are writers, artists and musicians, as well as a much larger group of online supporters (Thank you, She Writes!). They understand what it’s like to pursue dreams that require us to be both sensitive AND thick-skinned. They understand the pull, elation, grind and the frustration of the creative process. And they understand the disappointment of having work rejected — and the need to keep going in spite of it.

No, we’re not delusional to do this. Yes, our work matters.

That was the take-away from a recent conversation with two creative soulmates. In sharing our disappointments, we found camaraderie and hope.

One has been journaling, writing poetry and making up stories for decades, in addition to painting and doing collage – also with words. Her dream is to write and illustrate a children’s book, but the idea of submitting her work for publication scares her to death.

Despite encouragement from family and friends, she doesn’t think she measures up. “You have to be really, really good to do rhyme. It takes a lot of time and work,” she said, repeating the daunting feedback she got from a published author who had read one of her poems.

“I’m embarrassed to say I don’t believe in myself,” she said. “You have to be courageous (to put your work out there). But I think I’m getting closer.”

My other friend sang professionally for many years so she’s no stranger to rejection. She recently found a passion for painting landscapes and has produced many beautiful renditions of scenes and landmarks from her travels. Recently she was encouraged to apply to have her paintings shown in a gallery. She had high hopes, but the panel of artists evaluating her work turned her down.

“I was confused and hurt initially, especially since I was one of two chosen to present,” she said. “Funny how life will then restore confidence, first through friends and supporters, then by chance.”

She went to the open house at the Asian Art Museum and was inspired anew. “I saw the great force influencing my style,” she said. “I’ve got my mojo back.”

Even though I have no stake in my friends’ projects, I was genuinely relieved to hear that both of them had found a way forward. And I don’t see that bond weakening should one of us break through and achieve success, however we want to define it. I’m relatively sure we would all continue to support each other.

Writing coach and independent publisher Brooke Warner stresses the importance of building community in her guide, Green-light Your Book: How Writers Can Succeed in the New Era of Publishing. She lauds “literary ambassadors,” like author Elizabeth Gilbert, who work to pave the way for other writers.

“Another person’s success does not lessen the chances of your success,” Warner writes. “There’s enough to go around.”

She suggests that aspiring writers ask themselves the following question: “Why am I the person to be writing my book?

Applied more broadly, Why am I the person to be creating this painting/sculpture/piece of music/dance/poem/essay? Because my experiences and inspirations are unique to me. No one else can express them quite like I can.

To quote my singing/painting friend: “For all of us, it’s about answering the creative call and doing what we do. That sharing takes many forms and inspires us to keep going.”

What about you? What keeps your creative flame lit? Where have you found support? While you’re thinking on that, here are some words of wisdom and inspiration from several literary ambassadors who have helped me.

“Do whatever brings you to life . . . . Follow your own fascinations, obsessions, and compulsions. Trust them. Create whatever causes a revolution in your heart.”
― Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

“Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.” — Stephen King

“Trust in what you love, continue to do it, and it will take you where you need to go.”
― Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within

Don’t look at your feet to see if you are doing it right. Just dance.”
― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

 

photo credit: simpleinsomnia

Women (characters) I have loved

This isn’t a high-brow list of classic, literary heroines. Nor is it a kitschy ranking of popular femme fatales or women warriors. So before you say, “But what about …” understand that this is MY list, pretty much off the top of MY head, of MY favorite female characters.

Most of them are from books I read (or had read to me) as a child, but others are more recent discoveries. Together these unforgettable protagonists possess all the qualities I hold dear, including strength, honesty, humor, wisdom, kindness, passion, compassion and grit.

For whatever reason, their stories stuck with me. Their voices resonated. And now, they’re helping me develop my voice as a writer and creator of characters. Thanks, girlfriends!

Juana Maria

Juana Maria

  1. Karana in Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell. Karana is a native girl who’s left behind on an island off the coast of California in the 1830s. To survive, she must teach herself skills that only the men of her tribe learn, including hunting and fishing and spear- and canoe-making. She also befriends the island’s animals, including the leader of the wild dog pack that killed her younger brother. Now that’s what I call an open mind. As a girl reading this book, I loved Karana’s bravery and resourcefulness (she makes her home out of whale bones!). It was only after reading this novel to my two boys that I found out it was based on the true story of Juana Maria.
  2. Jane Eyre in the novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Plain, Jane Eyrepoor and not afraid to speak her mind, Jane Eyre would seem to have dim prospects in Victorian England, and that’s what makes her such a great heroine. She’s every bit Mr. Rochester’s intellectual equal. Their love is a meeting of minds and hearts, class differences be damned. Yet Jane’s strong principles force her to flee Thornfield Hall after she learns of her soul mate’s devastating secret. Me? I’m nowhere near that strong. Live in sin? Sure, I’ll run off to Paris with you. But that would have made for much less interesting story.Secret Garden
  3. Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Gardening and nature really are transformative! In this children’s classic, a girl left orphaned by a cholera epidemic is sent to live on her uncle’s English estate. Sullen and rude, she’s not a very likeable character until she gets outside, discovers the beauty of the Moors, meets a boy who talks to animals, and finds the key to a hidden garden. As she Mary finds joy, she ends up bringing life back to Misselthwaite Manor and all who live there.
  4. Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Over the course of this brilliant coming-of-age 15705065090_6b97dca15f_onovel, Scout goes from being a tomboy who wants nothing more than to see her reclusive neighbor, Boo Radley, to a girl forever changed by the racial injustice she witnesses in her Alabama town. In one of my favorite scenes, she breaks up a lynch mob by innocently addressing one of its members, a man she recognizes as the father of a poor, white classmate. I love Scout because she’s questioning, feisty, and, like me, would prefer not to wear a dress.
  5. Claudia Kincaid in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. Claudia is a bossy organizer who has an annoying habit of correcting her younger brother’s grammar, but you have to admire the audaciousness of a girl who runs away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and basically camps out there. She and her brother sleep in a 16th Century royal bed, bathe naked in a fountain (collecting the coins as revenue), and get pulled into a mystery surrounding a beautiful statue that may or may not be a Michelangelo. This story is every child’s fantasy.4281604113_2a82620f75_o
  6. Delia Grinstead in Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler. Speaking of fantasies, who hasn’t imagined walking away from it all as an adult? Delia is a mother of three older children who’s taken for granted – imagine that! – so, during the family’s annual beach vacation, she takes off wearing only her bathing suit. She escapes to another town, buys a dress, lands a job, rents a room and begins Life 2, which turns out pretty sweet. I don’t necessarily admire Delia’s walking out on people she loves, but I like that she makes her own change at a time in her life when her path seems set.
  7. Liesel Meminger in The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Liesel is a girl after my own heart. A foster child living in Nazi Germany, she literally steals back the words that are being destroyed and corrupted by Hitler. And discovers her identity in the process. (She eventually becomes a writer.) To me, this is a story about the power of words — and love –to overcome evil, and Liesel is an angel in the flesh. She captures the heart of a neighbor boy; nurtures the spirit of a Jewish man hiding in her aunt and uncle’s basement; and reads to her frightened friends and neighbors as they sit huddled in a deep basement waiting for the bombing to stop. She’s so special, even Death takes notice.
  8. Addy Shadd in Rush Home Road by Lori Lansens. Addy is another kind of survivor. The story begins when she is a lonely, old woman who agrees to take in a neglected young girl, Sharla, from her trailer park. One cast-off helps another as Addy relives memories of her tragic past. We learn about the heartbreaks and losses Addy has endured, including the traumatic events that forced her to leave her home of Rusholme, Ontario, a town settled by escaped slaves. For all the pain she’s suffered, Addy is gentle and patient, with love to spare for this unloved girl.17019598175_4545abb7ac_o
  9. The mother bunny in The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown. I remember my mom reading this to me as a child and feeling so sorry for this poor mother bunny who loved her son so much that she would do anything to find him and bring him home: climb a mountain, become a tight-rope walker, even turn herself into a tree! I’ve since learned not to take this story so literally, but I still love it, and her.

If I had more time, space and energy, I’d add the following to this list: Charlotte, the spider from Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White); Muriel from The Accidental Tourist (Anne Tyler); Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games series (Suzanne Collins); and pretty much any female character written by Louise Erdrich and Barbara Kingsolver.

So who’s on your list?

 

Photo credits
To Kill a Mockingbird: el cajon yacht club
Ladder of Years: Wolf Gang
Runaway Bunny: regan76

Women ‘By the Wayside’ – An interview with author Anne Leigh Parrish

 

Like many writers, my foray into fiction began with short stories. I guess they’re easier to teach in the span of a college night course than novels, but I’m not sure they’re easier to master. The short story leaves no room for error.  They’re little diamonds, perfectly brilliant.

My friend, Anne Leigh Parrish, has mastered the form. Her work shines, and I’ve been fortunate to have her as a friend and writing mentor for 20 years.  We met at a University of Washington Extension course in literary fiction writing — not that she needed it. I remember my awe at learning that she’d already placed a story in the Virginia Quarterly Review.

Since that time, she’s published more than 40 short stories and four books, including one novel, What is Found, What is Lost (She Writes Press, 2014). Her second novel, Women Within, is forthcoming from Black Rose Writing.

By the Wayside (Unsolicited Press, 2017) is her third collection, and it’s another fine one.  With heart and honesty, she pulls you into the lives of women who are trying to move forward and find their true selves in spite of past hurts and those who would dismiss or deny their strengths.

As the title implies, they might start out sidelined by guilt, emotional-scaring and self-doubt, but by the end of the story, either manage to break free (in sometimes dramatic fashion) or arrive at a new understanding about themselves.

Parrish’s writing is spare, but she manages to convey the rich complexity of her characters and their lives with well-chosen details and spot-on dialogue.

In my favorite story, An Act of Concealment, the main character, Anna, is called upon to save her neighbor’s holiday dinner. It’s a seemingly innocent scene, but it reinforces the story’s theme of behind-the-scenes women who protect their family’s (read male) reputations even at the expense of their own.

Smoke begins with the observation that, when it comes to forest fires, “a healthy, living tree was harder to ignite.” It’s the perfect metaphor for a young woman so filled with hate and self-loathing that she can’t give or receive love.

I would describe Parrish as a feminist writer, but her message never feels heavy-handed. She tackles her most political subjects – racism and abortion – in short allegories with some humor.

Magic realism is also used to highlight how blind to the truth people can be. A genie pops out of an engaged couple’s spare-tire compartment (Trial by Luck) to grant them one wish, except these two can’t agree on anything.  In “How She was Found,” a young woman, Fiona, who has been living according to her father’s wishes, discovers an ancient skeleton while on an archaeological dig with a group of men. The men see the discovery in win/gain terms, but Fiona is so captivated by the possible life behind the skeleton that she hears it speak to her.

I could go on siting more stories I enjoyed, but I want to give Anne a chance to answer some questions.  So here we go:

First of all, congratulations on your third collection! What a productive year you’ve had. Is there a secret to your productivity or do you just superglue your butt to the chair and write until the bond wears off? (I’m kidding, sort of.)

Writing gets easier with time. It used to be an awful struggle. I think back to a story I wrote in 2003, “When Every Part of You Breaks.” This was a 5,000-word story that took me almost six months to nail down. I can’t imagine anything taking that long now. Also, my children are in their twenties, and that has meant a world of freedom for me. Having two books come out this year was something of a surprise. I was lucky enough to find two different publishers, one for the collection and one for the novel. I need to keep writing. If I’m not writing or pulling something apart and putting it back together, I just don’t feel right. With the recent launch of By The Wayside, having just finished the first exhaustive round of edits for the publisher of Women Within, and querying agents for my just completed novel, The Amendment, I‘ve got plenty to do in terms of tasks and marketing, but it’s not creative in the way that only writing can be. I can’t stay away too long.

Many of your stories are told from the point of view of girls or women struggling to overcome or escape oppression that is either self-inflicted (in the case of the adults) or inflicted upon them. Why is that?

I put this down to my emerging feminism. I’m obsessed with the boundaries and limitations imposed on women, both from within and without. Women sometimes can be their own worst enemies if they feel they have to live up to an unexamined ideal, one that really doesn’t work for them. They’ll always run into trouble that way, and I’m fascinated by the cognitive disconnect that can occur. Reproductive rights and issues are moving to the top of my list of manias, though the word “mania” implies a pejorative connotation I perhaps don’t intend.

I’m impressed by the range of situations and settings you present so convincingly in these stories. There’s the immigrant newlywed in Huron, North Dakota circa 1920 (An Act of Concealment); the anthropology major on an archaeological dig (How She Was Found); the woman researching mystics to better understand her troubled sister (The Keeper of the Truth); and girls growing up in poverty (The Lillian Girl) and privilege (Letters of Love and Hate). Where do you get your ideas and how much research are you doing to make them come alive?

With stories, an idea usually comes from an image, around which I build the narrative. In “An Act of Concealment,” the final scene was that image. In “How She Was Found,” it was the protagonist holding the skull, looking into its empty eye sockets, and so on. I had to do some research for that particular story, so I could name human bones correctly. As to “The Keeper of The Truth,” I looked up Tarot cards, and the various meanings they held. With “The Lillian Girl,” obviously I had to acquaint myself with the films of Lillian Gish; and for “Letters of Love and Hate,” there really wasn’t any research per se.

You’ve written many more short stories than you have novels. What keeps you coming back to the short form?  

The short form is a break from novel writing and all the marketing and promoting I have to do around my two titles releasing in 2017. Lately, I’ve gotten into flash, variously defined as a story under 1,500 words, or under 1,000 words. These are GREAT fun, and fairly easy to place, so there’s also the element of relatively quick gratification. I learned about writing from writing stories, so I think I’ll always write them, always come back to them. They just feel like home, if that makes sense.

 If you could share one major lesson you’ve learned from your years of writing and publishing, what would that be?

What really matters is whether you’ve written your story to your own satisfaction. There’s no point in being baffled by how someone interprets your work because people will experience it according to their own private paradigm and world-view, and you have no control over what they bring to it.

Can you give us the teaser for your forthcoming novel, Women Within?

For the curious reader, I can say that if feminism—or the female experience—is your thing, something you feel strongly about, you will want to read this book. I show women as caregivers, rape victims, mothers, daughters, failing in love, succeeding in life, struggling with accepted norms about how they should look and act, there’s even one character who poses as someone’s mother when she’s in truth something else (won’t spoil that moment for you).

What else can we expect from you?

The Amendment. This is my third novel, and a sequel to my linked short story collection from 2013, Our Love Could Light The World, where I introduced readers to the Dugan family. The protagonist, Lavinia, is a wry, cynical, feisty soul who suffers a sudden life change. She takes herself on a cross-country road trip and has several weird, sometimes hilarious encounters with strangers.

Thanks, Anne!

Help! I need a new name

 

I’m still an awkward adolescent in the adult world of blogging, but I thought I was doing just fine until I joined a social-media hop organized by Raimey Gallant. The hop had about 400 of us writers and artists agreeing to follow each other’s blogs, Facebook fan pages, Twitter accounts and the like to boost our online audiences and make connections.

As I started following these other blogs, though, I couldn’t help comparing mine to theirs.  One thing I noticed right off the bat. Many of these blogs had clever and intriguing names. Okay, Raimey’s blog is her name, but she has a cool-sounding name!

I mean, “Updates from Pam McGaffin” wouldn’t be so bad if I had a different name like . . . Margaret Atwood.

Or maybe I cut the word “updates” because there isn’t much to update. I’ve got one and a half unpublished books if you count my very rough, two-thirds-done first draft of Novel 2. And I’m still waiting on at least one agent and one small press who have asked to read the full manuscript of “The Leaving Year.” So, yeah, still no news.

But . . . okay, here’s an announcement: THIS IS GOING TO BE MY YEAR! If I can’t find an agent and/or (traditional) publisher, I will go the indie, non-traditional route. This novel will fledge in 2017, meaning I’ll start the actual process toward publication. MARK MY WORDS.

Hm, that’s not a bad blog title.

I tried to come up with something better than “Updates from . . .” when I started my blog a year and a half ago. Since my first novel is about the daughter of a missing fisherman, I played around with combining nautical and writing terms. For reasons now lost to me, I also got caught up in some cooking/creativity symbolism.

The result of this brainstorming was the two notebook pages you see above. There are some good ideas in there, I think. Also some bad and ugly.

First the good, as in I kind of like them:

  1. IN OTHER WORDS
  2. GRIST
  3. HOOK AND LINE
  4. CATCH-ALL
  5. HUNT AND PECK
  6. LIFELINES
  7. TALESPINNING
  8. WRITE NOW

The bad, as in I can’t imagine what was going through my head:

  1. CLEANING THE FILTER
  2. CARP
  3. BLOGGY DOGGY
  4. MILD MUSE
  5. NOODLES
  6. WORD SWILL or is it WORDS WILL?

The ugly, as in gag:

  1. LET’S WRITE BOOKS
  2. DEEP THOUGHTS

Now I see that there are entire websites devoted to helping bloggers come up with unique names. Just Google “blog n” if you’re curious. I haven’t tried any of them yet, but that may be next.

What do you think? Do I need a name change? Do any of the ideas listed above make you want to read my blog and tell your friends? Lay it on me straight and/or cast your vote. And if you’re the author of one of the blogs I’m now following, share how you came up with your name.  I’d love to hear from you.

It felt good to march into history. Now to keep it going

A view from the Womxn’s March on Seattle

 

If the election filled me with despair, Saturday’s record-breaking women’s marches across the US and around the world lifted my heart and filled me with hope.

Our Misogynist-in-Chief Donald Trump has poked a sleeping lioness, and boy is she pissed!  I say sleeping because many of the women (and men) who felt compelled to turn out Saturday had grown complacent leading up to his election. Many of us looked at the polls and said, “Hillary’s got this.”

For many, maybe even most, this march was a first.

I count myself in that number. I’ve never been politically active. Yes, I’m a regular voter who can be persuaded to donate to a cause now and then. I’ll sign petitions I support, but I’ve never started or circulated one. I’ve never volunteered for anything outside of my sons’ schools.

You’d never find me at a rally because I hate crowds. The thought of joining tens of thousands of people* in downtown Seattle scared me more than a little bit. How would I get down there and back with all those bodies overloading public transit? What if things get out of hand?

Robin Daly (front) takes a selfie of our “pussy posse” (her term)

Thank goodness for some gentle prodding, first from my sister-in-law, Mara Funk, who enthusiastically shared her plans to travel to Washington, D.C., and then from Kathryn Gardow and her husband, Dave Bradlee, who hosted a pre-Seattle march breakfast and logistics meeting. They made it easy to say yes.

Thank goodness also for the Pussyhat Project. A knitting protest was right up this introvert crafter’s alley. The pattern was simple. Finding solid fuchsia yarn was not. While I searched the picked-over selection of pinks in the yarn aisle of Fred Meyer, I was joined by three other women doing the same thing. We talked about creative solutions, briefly bonding over our happy dilemma.

That’s when I knew this event was going to be big, and that I had to be a part of it. I had to register how appalled I was that a man who boasted about sexually assaulting women could be elected president. I had to stand up against racism, xenophobia and fear-mongering, and stand up for human rights, health care access and our warming planet.  I couldn’t sit this one out with the rationalization that no one would miss me.

As everyone knows by now, size matters to our new president. I’m just one person, but I wanted to help make the Womxn’s March on Seattle the biggest it could be. Maybe a pink tidal wave would show him that we will not forget or forgive his sneering disparagement of so many. If we amassed “in numbers too big to ignore,” maybe he’d find it hard to dismiss us or blame others (like the media), though I felt sure he’d try. That’s what narcissists do.

So walking with my pussy-hatted sisters and brothers was my way of showing that I will not be dismissed.

Now, of course, the challenge will be to turn this symbolic protest into a sustained effort with goals and actions. It’s up to each and every one of us to stay vigilant and engaged. I’ll admit that’s easier said than done. That’s why I’m writing this blog — to hold my own self accountable.

So here’s my vow for any and all to see. I will:

  • Stay informed, using reliable local, national and international news sources.
  • Call out falsehoods when I hear them.
  • Freely discuss issues that matter to me, including justice for all, health care for all, reproductive choice and climate change.
  • Let my neighbors and friends who are Muslim and/or immigrants know that I support them.
  • Stand up against bullying and hate and encourage my boys to do likewise.
  • Donate to three key organizations fighting for the groups/issues threatened by Trump’s administration and the Republican-controlled Congress.
  • Vote.

I’m also going to knit a pussy hat for my 81-year-old mother. She wants one.

What about you? Did you march? What are your plans for the next four years? Please comment below.

*Organizers of the Womxn’s March on Seattle expected to draw 50,000 people. They got more than twice that number. Estimates ranged from 100,000 to 140,000.

Getting back to health and finding happy

Post-polar bear dip selfie

 

The last couple of months haven’t been the best of times, health-wise.

I never do well with the short, dark days of fall and winter, and this season has been particularly depressing for all the reasons everyone has already talked about ad nauseam (so I won’t repeat them).

National Novel Writing Month in November had me living on chocolate and coffee — and too little sleep. Then came December with its delightful blend of stress and weight gain, headaches and hot flashes, and a nightly bout of swollen sinuses that turned my tongue to fly paper and made me wheeze like Darth Vader.

Once the holidays were over and my nasal passages finally cleared, I was more than ready for a fresh start. I’m not into resolutions, but the New Year happens to be a natural time to hit the reset button and think about a change in focus for the days ahead.

I usually set a one-word intention for the year. In 2016, it was “engage,” and I tried to – socially, politically and emotionally – until I got so depressed I had to disengage to save my sanity.

For 2017 I had a tough time choosing a word. I thought of “job” because I need to find (paying) part-time work to help support my unpaid full-time writing. There, I said it. But finding a job is just a to-do, not a direction. I toyed with “joy,” but I didn’t want to put that much pressure on myself.

Finally, the decision was obvious: Health. Duh. And not just for me, but for the whole family. I’ve already heard the groans from my two teenagers, but my husband, Mark, has been surprisingly game.

On New Year’s morning, we did the Resolution Run 5K & Polar Bear Dive, a 3.1-mile jog (or slog in our case) through Seattle’s Magnuson Park followed by a quick, head-under dunk in Lake Washington. For me, it was a chilly baptism that washed away the sins of the holidays. For Mark, who has been known to plunge into Puget Sound no matter the temperature outside, it was no biggie.

He also agreed to join me on a three-week nutritional cleanse under the guidance of Anti-Inflammatory Eating Made Easy, by Michelle Babb. She’s a registered dietitian with a private practice in West Seattle, and her her recipes are truly simple as well as tasty.

On the mental health side of things, I need to cut back on my social-media consumption. Freedom is a useful app if  you don’t quit out of it all the time, like I do. I tell myself I’m just going to check email, but end up spending an hour on Facebook playing Words with Friends and reading posts about the sunny vacations of others, President-Elect Trump, starving polar bears and dead bees. This is NOT what I need this time of year.

What I need, besides more self-discipline, is to take better advantage of every daylight hour, maybe even GO OUTSIDE. Now that the days are getting longer and my sinuses have cleared, I’m can actually go for a jog or a bike ride. Yay!

Ben relaxing

There’s no better pick-me-up than outdoor exercise . . . unless it’s a trip to the off-leash dog park, where my canine son can get his needs met. When Ben finds his soulmate, and they chase and play and hump, gulp water, then chase and play and hump some more, his unbridled joy gives me joy. And that’s healthy for both of us.

What about you? What makes you feel better during the dark days of winter? Do you have an intention for 2017? Please share your thoughts below.

So this is Christmas (ugh)

 

I procrastinated writing this blog. I didn’t know how I would start it, what I would say. It’s not a problem of having too little to write. It’s a problem of having too much: some 50 years of accumulated Christmas baggage.

Why is it my least favorite holiday? I’m not sure I can explain it a way that would make sense. My family, both immediate and extended, isn’t dysfunctional, except maybe for the ongoing sibling rivalry between my two sons. Politics and religion don’t divide us. Substance abuse isn’t an issue. We’re all comfortably housed with enough money to get by.

Why then do I not look forward to this time of year? My husband, Mark, a Christmas lover, doesn’t understand, and we’ve been married 30 years. When I told him I was struggling with how to blog about my ambivalence about the holiday, he advised me not to do it at all.

“Don’t be a downer,” he said.

“But I suspect I’m not the only one who feels this way,” I told him. “I know I’m not.”

He had to agree with me on that point.

So here’s a blog post for all you un-merry folks out there who see Christmas (or whatever you choose to observe) as something to endure rather than celebrate. For the rest of you, well, maybe my words well help you understand us seasonal Eeyores.

Christmases past  

Christmas at my Aunt Jean’s. The girl next to me is Connie, who lived next door.

I used to love the holiday and look forward to it. I’d get that warm, romantic longing in my heart when I heard songs like Sleigh Ride and Winter Wonderland. Oh, to be able to ride in a one-horse open sleigh! Or dance like Vera-Ellen in White Christmas. And those gowns!

Perhaps my expectations were too high.

Christmas in gray, rainy Seattle could never measure up to the snowy magic conjured in songs and on film . . . particularly after my Aunt Jean died. She had been our small family’s Fezziwig, the holiday linchpin, hosting us and a neighbor or two at her cheerfully decorated home in South Seattle. When she passed in her forties of bone cancer, she seemed to take much of the joy of the holiday with her.

My mother and grandmother weren’t ones to pick up the baton. Neither was my uncle or cousin. They might come over to our house for the obligatory holiday stopover. My father came, too, with his wife. But I remember these visits as painfully stiff affairs that put me on display: My growth would be remarked upon, and I might be asked to play something on the piano. After an hour or so, our visitors would make a polite excuse to leave, and we could all breathe again.

Mid 70s? Check out that tree.

We did our celebrating on Christmas Eve. These were quiet threesomes – my mother, my grandmother and me – with a couple of game hens because a roast or a ham would be too much food. After dinner and gifts, my mom and I would take a walk through our quiet neighborhood, and she would invariably remark on how “magical” Christmas Eve was compared to Christmas Day, which, in her view, was a “letdown.”

Christmas Day was when I’d get together with my friends and compare gifts. Since my mother wouldn’t buy me anything that was too big, messy or dangerous, this was my chance to play with pogo sticks, Jarts, Easy-Bake Ovens, Hoppity Hops, Clackers and Creepy Crawlers/Fun Flowers plastic molds. But the best part of this holiday gift sharing/boasting was being able to vicariously experience what Christmas was like as part of a bigger family, with parents, aunts and uncles, cousins and siblings. I am an only child.

I eventually married into that larger family. Mark’s German-Swedish clan, particularly his dad, Wallie Funk, revel in the holiday. Wallie has been known to leave up his tree and decorations year-round. (It saves all that packing and unpacking). Mark’s mother, MaryAnn, once hosted two big Christmas meals while limping on a broken foot. She didn’t know it was broken at the time. Neither did we, because she never complained.

MaryAnn stuffed turkeys and stockings. The gift exchange was a flurry of ripping and tearing, no attempts made to save the pretty bows and paper for reuse next year. We were showered with an embarrassment of riches, and it left me a little shell-shocked and thinking that I better step up my own gift-giving game. If I couldn’t figure out what to give the cousins, there were always food baskets. Everyone likes food.

I appreciated the generosity of Mark’s family, but the idea of giving gifts just for the sake of giving  gifts (to people who already had too much stuff) felt not only artificial, but wasteful. I would openly joke that the one thing Mark’s parents really needed was storage space.

When we adopted our boys, Christmas lost its same old same old tarnish for a time. Seeing the

Casey’s first Christmas

holiday through a child’s eyes is like seeing it shiny and new. I still remember Casey’s first Christmas when he ignored the gifts and played with the wrapping paper. Sigh.

Stuff and more stuff

We’re, all of us, to blame for indulging them. They got enough Thomas the Tank Engine trains and pieces to cover our entire basement in track. (We considered it an “investment” in durable, collectable toys until we learned about the lead-based paint they

Loss of innocence?

used in China.) They got so many stuffed animals that we had to relegate them to a couple of clothes

hampers so they’d have places to sleep. There were big, plastic, noisy things branded as educational. The novelty of these gifts never lasted longer than the big D batteries required to power them.

All of this stuff eventually wound up in the crawl space of forgotten toys, never to be touched again. The wastefulness bothered me, of course. Instead of spending all that money and effort on something so fleeting, I wanted to give them books, theater tickets, experiences they would remember and cherish.

This has been met with limited success. Casey fell asleep during The Music Man, and they were less than enchanted by other productions we’ve seen. Neither one of them has cracked open any of the books I’ve given them. (I keep trying, hoping for a breakthrough.)

These days they’d much rather play games on their cellphones or the Xbox. (I’m convinced Casey uses his laptop primarily to play League of Legends.)

This year Charlie will get a laptop of his own. “It’s time,” Mark says. Okay, maybe, but every Christmas we get more and newer electronics, and I can’t help but think that, while this may be good for the economy, it can’t be good for the environment.

I know this sounds like a first-world problem, my moaning about too much stuff when many people have so little or are running for their lives (Aleppo). But that’s why I’ve grown so disenchanted with this holiday. We give lip service to the real meaning of Christmas, but it’s lost in a bombardment of ads and special shopping days. There’s even “Christmas in July.” Gag.

I’ve tried to tune it out, but since the boys (husband included) are fond of watching television and listening to commercial radio stations, I can’t escape it entirely. I’ve tried to rebel, making my own gifts or even handing out the first chapter of my novel in progress (not something I recommend). Art and heart just don’t get the appreciation they deserve despite the time-honored message of the little drummer boy.

Maybe I just need to lighten up and not let Christmas overwhelm me with its myriad obligations. Maybe my problem with the holiday is its excesses: there’s too much build-up, too much expectation, too much pressure, too much commercialism, too much hubbub. For those without means or family, it can also be too expensive, too disappointing, too lonely.

Sorry if this has turned into a rant. I was afraid of that. I feel my Christmas-loving husband rolling his eyes. So, to end on a more positive note, I will list, in no particular order, the things I do like about this time of year:

  1. Bright lights on dark days. Houses, trees, shrubs, railings — all a twinkle with fairy lights, a stunning single palette of cobalt blue, glowing white icicles and those big old-fashioned bulbs in every color including Xmas orange. I love them all.
  2. Christmas cards. Not sending them – we don’t – but receiving them, particularly those photo cards that show the age-progression of our friends’ “kids.”
  3. Eating. If you can’t stuff your face over Christmas, when can you stuff it? I love mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie, and all things chocolate. I indulge freely and without guilt.
  4. Singing. I belong to a women’s singing group. Every Christmas, we have a party and belt out our holiday favorites, from Silent Night to The Holiday Dinner Song (hilarious). It feels good to sing and laugh.
  5. Get-togethers with friends and family. Although I’m an introvert who would always choose a low-key evening at home over a party, I force myself to get out during the holidays and – lo and behold! — I usually end up having a pretty good time. Christmas, at its best, is a time to reconnect and remember. Why do you think Auld Lang Syne (Times Gone By) became a holiday song?

 What about you? What do you love and/or loathe about the holiday? I’d love to hear from you . . . even if you think I’m a Grinch.

My novel is longlisted!

I have news! My young-adult novel, The Leaving Year, was longlisted in MsLexia’s 2016 Children’s Novel Competition.

That means that it was among the 100 “most compelling and accomplished manuscripts submitted.” The annual contest, for unpublished women novelists, drew about 1,000 entries in all.

Mslexia, based in England, is “committed to helping women writers progress and succeed, through (its) quarterly magazine, writer’s diary and annual writing competitions.”

 

Photo credit: muse1nspired

Answering hubby’s Qs about National Novel Writing Month

 

This is what my kitchen sink looked like on the last night of NaNoWriMo.

 

I apologize for not blogging in November, but I needed all the creative energy I could muster to write a novel in 30 days. Okay, I didn’t really do that, but I did pound out more than 47,000 words during NaNoWriMo.

Those of you familiar with the largest writing event in the world already know I fell a little short. To “win,” you have to write 50,000 words by midnight Nov. 30. Still, I’m happy to come away with a start on my second novel (albeit a sloppy one) and the realization that yes, I can write fast if I turn off the inner editor and just let ’er rip.

My NaNoWriMo "Dashboard"

NaNoWriMo page charting my progress

I’m not going to say too much about my novel in progress because I’m still discovering what it’s about, but I will tell you that it’s written from the point-of-view of crows against a backdrop of climate change and possibly a national pandemic.

My husband, Mark Funk, grew a little alarmed by my sudden obsession with pandemics, animal extinctions and under-water cities. So to reassure him and satisfy his curiosity, I asked him to write out some questions about NaNoWriMo for me to answer. (Mark, like me, is a former newspaper reporter so he asks really good questions.)

Q: Why on earth did you want to do this?

A: I saw NaNoWriMo as the perfect opportunity to blow through all my hesitancy and self-doubt and get a bunch of words down on my second novel. I also hoped to develop a healthier, more joyful writing habit. It’s really freeing to just write and let the characters and story take you where they will.  I ended up going to some surprising places. I also ended up with a lot of movie-cliché dialogue, but sometimes you have to plow through the bad to get to the good.

Q: Crows occupy the center stage in your book. Why crows? What attracts you to these birds and what do you think humankind might learn from them in the age of climate change?

A: The seed for this novel came from the BBC story on Gabi Mann, the Seattle girl who received gifts from the crows she fed out of her backyard.

It got me wondering what was going through the crows’ heads, and that led to the idea of writing a novel from the crows’ point of view. They’re so smart and funny, I knew I’d have fun creating the characters. Plus, they’re easy to observe. All I have to do is walk outside.

A story about crows is a story about our urban environment, and climate change seemed like a natural backdrop. Crows are expected to adapt to global warming better than most birds, but they aren’t immune. For example, they’re particularly susceptible to West Nile Virus, a mosquito-borne illness that has been linked to rising temperatures.

What can we learn from them? Crows are smart, social and adaptable. They’re also devoted and protective parents, as anyone who has been dive-bombed knows.  To combat global warming, we’re going to have to be smart, adaptable and better stewards of this earth.

Q: Talk a little about the pressure of trying to complete a 50,000-word novel in just 30 days.

It’s intense but doable. At first, I found it really hard to hit my daily minimum of 1,667 words, like I was scraping the bottom of the creative barrel. Some days I just didn’t have it in me and gave up. After the election, for example, I had to force myself back to the keyboard by telling myself my story was more important than ever.

As the month went on and I discovered the magic of timed “word sprints” (a nifty feature on the NaNoWriMo website), I found it much easier to not only hit the minimum, but exceed it.  On the final day, I wrote like the wind, putting down more than 6,000 words, but I couldn’t quite make up a 9,000-word deficit. Speaking of pressure, I found it really tough to get to sleep most nights — a combination of too much caffeine and not being able to turn off my brain.

Q: You weren’t alone in Seattle. More than 2,260 pursued their muse here. Tell us about the NaNo gatherings in our city.

A: I only went to three “write-ins”, two at the Wayward Coffeehouse in Roosevelt and one at the Greenwood Public Library. I enjoyed comparing notes with the two young women I met at the Wayward, but these meet-ups weren’t about socializing, they were about getting work done, and the participants I met were serious about that. At the Greenwood Library, I sat with one other woman in a small study room. I couldn’t help but notice that she was typing way more than I was – humbling. Afterwards, we introduced ourselves and have since traded emails promising to stay in touch.

I’m interested in meeting other writers, but I’m not sure I’m the sort who can get a lot done in a coffee house. I feel too self-conscious and I’m distracted by the other customers and their conversations. Maybe, with practice, this will come more naturally to me. I hope so because writing is lonely work.

Q: After November 8, your narrative, at least as described to me, seemed to blacken. It was as through a murder of crows had flown between the earth and sun, casting a long, dark shadow. Why the mood change after Nov. 8?

A: Ha! Need you ask? You live with me. Actually, my novel was always leaning towards the dark side: crows and climate change just don’t spark super happy thoughts. That said, my novel isn’t total gloom and doom. I would like for it to be hopeful. That’s my goal anyway.

Q: Will you participate next year?

A: If I have a strong idea for another novel or if I’m still working on this one, then yes. I couldn’t start NaNo with a blank slate. I’m not that creative.

Q: Did you notice that I started to grow a beard just before Thanksgiving?

Mark and his "beard"

Mark and his “beard”

A: No.

 

 

Ready . . . Set . . . NaNoWriMo!

5311841878_60fbaf6216_z

I may not be able to keep up my blistering pace of two blog posts a month next month because I will be trying to churn out – gasp – 50,000 words.

Yep, I signed up for National Novel Writing Month this year even though I am quite possibly the slowest experienced writer on the planet, or maybe because I am the slowest . . .

It took me about five years, give or take, to complete my first novel, The Leaving Year, which I’m now shopping around to prospective agents and small publishers.

A brief update: Two of the four agents who asked to read all or part of the novel have since declined it, but one called my story “quite compelling.” I haven’t heard back from the others.

Anyway, I need to move on to Novel 2, if only to distract myself from waiting on Novel 1.

I’ve done some research. I have a premise and several pages of notes. But I haven’t started writing.

NaNoWriMo, I hope, will light a fire under my butt, incinerating my procrastinating inner naysayer in the process. This naysayer/critic/editor, whatever you want to call it, has no business butting in while I’m writing my first draft, but I have a hard time silencing her.

That’s one reason it took me so long to write Leaving Year. I was editing and rewriting and wallowing in despair before I had the whole story down – a big no-no if you actually want to finish the damn thing.

It took all my will to finish. That, and the fact that I had told too many people what I was doing.

I wouldn’t recommend my process. I didn’t really have one. No outline. No plan. No routine. I pantsed (an actual writing term meaning to fly by the seat of one’s pants) it the whole way, and was often so overwhelmed or discouraged that I’d do almost anything, including scoop dog poop, to put off facing it.

A wildly productive day for me was 500 (new) words – words that I’d often end up cutting or editing the following day.

With NaNoWriMo, I won’t be able to do that. To complete 50,000 words in 30 days, I’ll have to average 1,667 words a day. The goal is creation not perfection or even quality. I’ll have gag my naysaying critic or send her packing to, say, Antarctica. She seriously needs to chill out.

Even if I don’t get to 50,000 words by 11:59:59 p.m. on Nov. 30, I hope to have developed a healthier, more joyful writing habit by then. That alone will make this crazy project well worth the time and effort.

I’d love to hear from anybody out there who has written a novel or the start of a novel in November. How did it go for you? Do you have any tips for this NaNoWriMo newbie?

NaNoWriMo Fun Facts

  • Nearly half a million people are expected to participate this year in what has become the largest writing event in the world.
  • Chris Baty started the project in 1999 with 21 friends in the San Francisco Bay area.
  • The month was changed from July to November “to more fully take advantage of the miserable weather.”
  • More than 250 NaNoWriMo novels have been traditionally published, including Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus and Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl.

 

Photo credit: Steven Bedard

Reclaiming the space of a half-empty nest

Ben on the new couch. Note the pet cover.

Ben on the new couch. Note the pet cover.

 

Because I suspect you all could use a break from this stranger-than-fiction election, I thought I’d relate the story of our new couch.

Mark and I had just dropped our eldest son, Casey, off at Western Washington University. We were headed home when I saw my friend, Barb’s Facebook post. She was desperate to sell her couch, a beautiful plum-colored piece with graceful curves and cute matching pillows. She’d take any offer. The only catch: it had to be out of her Bothell townhouse that night.

Now normally I would see this, say, “Can’t do it,” and scroll on. But something wouldn’t let me pass up this opportunity. We pulled off at next rest stop and I showed Mark the photo.

“We desperately need to replace our couch,” I said, stating the obvious.

Let me take a moment to describe our old couch. Besides being beige, an automatic strike against it, the poor thing had been mauled by our pitbull-mix, Ben, in his efforts to protect us from the mailman, trick-or-treaters, door-to-door solicitors and pizza-delivery guys. Over the years, he’d managed to rip loose the attached back pillow on one side, eviscerate the left armrest and shred the upholstery on the seat cushions. The whole mess smelled distinctly of dog.

I just laughed when the guy at College Hunks Hauling Junk told us they donate still-usable furniture to Goodwill. This couch looked like something you would see on a street corner with a FREE sign, only worse. We should have replaced it years ago, but other things – braces, sports league fees, the dishwasher catching fire — always bumped it down the priority list.

Now, with one kid gone, I had this sudden urge to get rid of it and all our other worn, torn, oldie, moldy things and re-civilize our living space.

Mark and I took a detour by Barb’s place. The couch was even nicer than the picture – and BIG. There was no way we could move it ourselves. So we called our friend, Brian, who has a truck and a strong, football-playing son, Tad. Along with our football-playing son, Charlie, the three of them managed to solve the puzzle of getting Barb’s big couch out of her little townhouse. (Seriously, I’m not sure what came first, the townhouse or the couch. No wonder she left it behind.)

Brian loaded this behemoth onto his truck, drove with it making alarming kerchunk sounds in back, carried it to our house and helped us set it up in our living room.

We paid Tad $20, but the only payment Brian would accept was a bottle of wine. We saw them off, and the following morning, I started looking online for slipcovers. While I was at it, I ordered new sheets and a quilt for our bed (which Ben also shares).

Then, because I was on a roll, I cleaned out Casey’s bedroom and claimed his desk as my new work space. Unlike my basement office, which I rarely use, his room is bathed in light from an east-facing window that offers a partial glimpse of Mount Rainier.

That's Paulina in the background.

Ben with Paulina in the background.

I hope people reading this don’t get the impression that I couldn’t wait for my son to leave so I could start making home improvements and take over his room. That’s simply not true. I miss him and want him to visit as often as possible.  I even changed the sheets on his bed and left all his sports posters up. Okay, I did take down the blown-up copy of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue featuring Paulina Porizkova “Shaping Up Down Under.”

Really, who needs to look at that when you’re working in your comfy pants and slippers?

There’s much more that I could clean out or replace around here, including some ratty towels that predate the 16-year-old who’s still with us. Charlie is a sophomore at Roosevelt High School and a jock. When he moves out in two years – not that I’m anxious or anything – I’ll finally be able to rid the house of those annoying rubber turf pellets he trails like bread crumbs.

Are you an empty-nester or close to it? What was the first thing you did after your eldest took flight?

Letting go is hard to do: Casey’s started college – Eek!

Preschool poster showcasing Casey

Preschool poster showcasing Casey’s life to that point

Note: This is the first in an occasional series of posts on the empty-nest process.

 

Mark and I got our eldest off to Western Washington University last Saturday. We assume Casey’s doing okay. He said as much when we tried to talk to him after the big move.

“Can’t talk right now,” he texted the first time I called. “But everything is going good.”

Casey – who we call Casel, Wasel, Case and Wase — is a young man of few words . . . unless he wants or needs something. We had just dropped him off in Bellingham and were on our way to Guemes Island for a night of R&R, when Mark’s cell phone started buzzing.

Casey: Clothes hangers??????

Me: They are in the box with the bed stuff.

C: And wtf did mom take the good towels out of what I packed? (He thought he was texting Mark.)

M: I gave you 3 ½ good towels.

C: New shoes are MIA.

M: Look again. Thought I saw them.

C: Also can’t find flip flops.

M: I know I packed those.

C: Not the other ones …….Check the back (of the van).

M: There are two pairs of slides in that box.

C: Nope.

M: If there’s anything important you need, we can come back tomorrow. . . We will check the back of the van when we can pull off.

C: Found them . . . in the backpack.

M: Good. What about the other stuff?

C: I think so. Disappointed about the towels.

M: Did you find new shoes?

C: Yes

M: And hangers?

C: Yes

M: Good. Call us tonight?

Can you hear the pleading in that last message? He didn’t call. Mark and I returned to Seattle the following day, fingers crossed that he would manage to survive the next two weeks with disappointing towels.

So passed a stressful milestone, possibly more stressful for me than for him. I just about lost it last Thursday, the day I had set aside to go shopping with him for the rest of his college supplies. No amount of nudging could get him out of the basement and away from his computer game, so I finally told him he was on his own.

To his credit, he got it done, using his own money to order from Amazon everything he needed (and some things he didn’t). Second-day delivery, of course. He now has enough No. 2 pencils to last through graduate school. Or maybe he could set up a little business at Delta, the residence hall he shares with 114 others. (And yes, that was the name of the fraternity in Animal House.)

I shouldn’t worry so much. For now, he seems to be surviving without us nagging him to get up and out the door. His first test was an actual test: a math-placement exam bright and early Monday morning. He didn’t sleep through it. He didn’t forget to register for classes the next day. He didn’t sign up for Basket Weaving 101 (I don’t think there is such a class at Western).

As I write this, he’s hopefully in his History 104 class, learning about America after the Civil War. He’s also taking Economic 101 (markets and society) and Math 112 (functions and algebraic methods). He had the good sense to register for classes starting no earlier than 10 a.m.

(Mark interjects: But Casey has not opened his financial account at Western, something that would allow us to transfer our state’s GET funds, his housing allowance and other fees to his chosen school.  Sigh . . . you can lead a child to debt-free education but you can’t make him . . .)

At some point, I just have to trust that his fledgling wings will carry him. He’s a smart kid who has, for the most part, steered clear of trouble. Knock on wood.

Still a little more communication would be nice, something beyond the one- and two-word answers he gave us when we finally did speak with him Wednesday night. What I’d give for an adjective or two, if only to be assured that he does, in fact, feel.

Okay. That’s not fair. I know he feels. He fawns over his dog, Ben, and has been known to say to us, “I love you, too.”

He has a secret sentimental side. I saw evidence of it cleaning out his bedroom. You can learn a lot about a person by the things they choose to keep.casey-box

I was careful to pack away in a box anything that wasn’t obvious trash. This included a stuffed bear he’s had since he arrived from Korea, a  fifth-grade book report he labored over, a framed photograph of Ken Griffey, Jr. (when he was still a Mariner), a preschool poster showcasing his life, and a note with distinctly female handwriting that says, “You are nice thanks for lending me a stats book one time.”

So, there is a human in there.

Casey, if you’re reading this, I’m having a little fun here. You know I love you to pieces and wish you all the best at Western. Please remember to brush your teeth.

Next up: Reclaiming the space.

The writer’s life and why I need my sweat sisters

After last year's Iron Girl

After last year’s Iron Girl

 

We are thinking, social animals, happiest when we have a sense of purpose and belonging. Families, when they’re functional, provide this. So do our best workplaces, churches and schools, not to mention the Army.

Writing alone in a messy kitchen? Not so much.

We undiscovered, self-employed writers tell ourselves our work is important and has a purpose, but the truth is, no one really cares if we finish that story, novel or poem. And while we may belong to writers’ groups and organizations, mostly we’re writing for ourselves by ourselves. It can get damn lonely.

Which is why I’m about to do another triathlon.

You see, there’s a group involved, a wonderful group of supportive, like-minded women who love the challenge and camaraderie of training and competing in three sports — four, if you count the transitions between swimming, cycling and running.

The Black Diamond Sprint Triathlon this Saturday near Enumclaw will mark the end of my sixth (or is it seventh?) season training with my marvelous coach, Denise Geroux. Our group is in constant flux. Members come and go as life dictates, but several of us can’t imagine a summer without “tri-ing” or at least dropping in on a workout or two or three.

For the last couple of years, our group has included cancer survivors from Team Survivor Northwest, including a woman who has done more than 50 triathlons and now regularly wins her 70-and-older age division. A few other members placed in their age groups this year, but most of us are content just to finish our races without pain . . . and maybe, just maybe, shave a few seconds off last year’s time.

With triathlons, there’s always an element of danger. We sign waivers making sure we understand that participation involves risks, including “serious bodily injury, sickness and disease, permanent disability, paralysis and loss of life.”

I have a little experience with these dangers, having done a somersault over my handlebars in a training tri three years ago. It left me with a scarred shoulder and the nickname “Pambo.” (I was determined to finish the race until Denise talked me into a trip to the ER.)

It’s that risk, always in the background, that makes conquering this sport so sweet. Sharing that accomplishment with others is even sweeter.

We cheer and clap as each sweaty sister crosses the finish line. The looks on our faces in those post-race group photos is a mixture of relief, fatigue and euphoria.10393693_10204684516537532_8021776958556605575_n

I’m not exaggerating. Exercise triggers a release of hormones, including dopamine (think controlled substances), that fight depression, relieve stress, numb pain and boost focus and confidence. It’s one big happy pill.

For me, tri-ing with friends is the perfect antidote to the solitary brain drain of my chosen profession. I get out. I move. I sweat. I breathe. I belong. And when I come home, I’m relaxed, righteously sore, and that lonely laptop in my messy kitchen doesn’t look so daunting. I might even have the juice to write a few words.

What about you? How do you find purpose and belonging? What’s your natural happy pill? Please share your thoughts below.

Summertime, and Alaska is easy . . . to love

 

I finally got to visit the state where a good chunk of my YA novel is set.  Our trip was short, only six days, and I saw but a sliver of it in its fairest season, so I may not be qualified to say this, but ALASKA IS FREAKIN’ AWESOME!

I went there with my husband, Mark Funk, and younger son, Charlie, to collect our eldest, Casey, who had spent the last five weeks working on a political campaign. Democrat Steve Lindbeck, who my husband has known since their days at Stanford, is working to unseat Congressman-for-life Don Young.

Now I’m not one to discriminate based on age, but Young has been in office for 43 of his 83 years. Steve thinks, and I agree, it’s time for new leadership. Our family helped him celebrate his Aug. 16 primary win, and I’d love to come back for the general-election party in November, but I’ll be too busy with NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Plus, Alaska is cold and dark by then. Guess I’m a fair-weather fan.

We had to take a road trip

Steve’s  home-base is Anchorage, which isn’t as pretty as the mountains and waters surrounding it. In fact, it looks like a flat suburban city, with one important difference. Anchorage’s extensive trail system encourages climate-friendly transportation. Casey never needed a car while he was there. He biked and walked to the office.

In winter, when it snows, the trails are lit and groomed for cross-country skiing. Imagine shushing or pedaling along through the trees and maybe seeing a moose or two on your way to work?

I really, really wanted to see a moose while I was in Alaska. (The taxidermied one at the airport doesn’t count.)ak-me in moose hat2

Casey saw no moose during his first five weeks. He barely saw Anchorage, spending most of his work and leisure time staring at computer screens.  So we took him with us on a last-hurrah sightseeing trip to Homer and back, with stops in Girdwood (The Bake Shop serves a terrific breakfast), Soldotna (a prime spot for fly fishing, and we slept well at A Cabin by the Pond) and the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (well worth a visit).

Okay, I have to say more about the Center. Not only did I see my first real live moose there, but I also saw brown and black bears, elk, wood bison, musk ox, a raven and Snickers the Porcupine.  I tried to get a photo of Snickers, but he was face down in his food dish, and my family was threatening to leave for Homer without me. So I’m glad the Center posted this cute video of him eating corn on the cob.

Homer’s where the heart is . . . and the eagles

As we drove down the stunningly scenic Seward Highway, I wondered, where are all the eagles? I thought eagles in Alaska where as common as pigeons in New York City. But I hadn’t seen a one.

Turns out, they were all in Homer for an eagle convention. Kidding. They were probably with us all along, but I finally started spotting their telltale white heads in Homer. As we drove, I had to point out each and every one to my boys, who weren’t nearly as excited as I was.

“You’re like a five-year-old,” said Charlie, who is 16.

But he was as amazed as I when we went on a guided kayak trip (we used True North Adventures) around Yukon Island and Elephant Rock and were practically buzzed by nesting eagles. We also saw floating sea otters, including one pair that appeared to be embracing, and the far-off fins of killer whales. Actually, Charlie was the one to see the fins. I missed them, probably because I was marveling at a moon jellyfish.

There was no missing the spectacular panoramas of Kachemak Bay and the Kenai Mountains. Thanks to some very generous friends, Cindy Armstrong and MarBeth Johns, we got a free two-night stay in their rustic little cabin with a killer view of peaks and glaciers . . . and porcupines.  Yep.  They come out at night. Mark almost walked into one on his way to the outhouse.

Of course, I didn’t go to Alaska just to collect my son and ooh and aah over the wildlife. I had an ulterior motive. I had to see if I got the details right. You see, I wrote that Alaska section of my novel based mostly on online research and interviews with friends who had been up there.

What I got right

Were my assumptions correct? By and large, yes. I also made some rather lucky guesses.

It really does rain a lot, even in summer, which makes for some big mud puddles. And, yes, there really is a saloon called the Salty Dog, except “Dog” is spelled “Dawg,” and it’s in Homer, not Ketchikan, and the interior is lined with signed dollar bills not fishing memorabilia.

My protagonist’s coming of age hinges on her running away to Alaska. I learned from Casey that the “The Last Frontier” really is a place that matures a person. This was his first time working and living away from home. His hosts, while gracious, expected him to be independent and pull his own weight. Casey came away from the experience more confident and more willing to accept responsibility, qualities that will serve him well when he heads off to Western Washington University this fall.

So some big thank-yous are in order. First to Molly McCammon, a woman I met only in emails, who fed and housed my son the first week and a half. Then to Steve and his wife, Patty Ginsburg, took him in for the remainder of the time (as if a 24/7 political campaign isn’t stressful enough). And, of course, Cindy and MarBeth, who showed us endless hospitality and helped make our trip to Alaska an actual vacation.

I hope to see you all soon . . . Okay, maybe not this winter, but spring?

Can you say, “Baby moose?”

 

Photo credit of Steve Lindbeck winning the primary: Evan Brown

Novel # 2 – Where do I begin?

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If you’re a writer who has a devil of a time starting things, you’re probably familiar with what I call the “begin it now” quote:

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man [or woman] could have dreamed would have come his [or her] way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.” (Brackets mine)

This passage – a combined quote by Scottish mountaineer William Hutchison Murray and Goethe translator John Anster – used to be taped to my office wall as a reminder not to dawdle.

I tend to procrastinate when it comes to writing, particularly if I’m starting something new or big, like a novel. I procrastinate because I know there’s a steep learning curve ahead, and I’m a perfectionist. I’m a perfectionist because of a deep-seated fear of failure.

I think it goes back to second grade. I had to repeat it.

In the ’60s, repeating a grade wasn’t couched it in gentle, ego-protecting language. They didn’t explain that children develop at different rates and that maybe I needed more time to catch up because of my late summer birthday. No, they used F words – “flunk” and “fail” – and that shame stayed with me for years.

Sorry, I didn’t mean to go off on that. I’m over it. Really I am. My second-grade redo isn’t the reason I’m having trouble starting my second novel.

My procrastination this time around probably has more to do with family stuff and the barrage of disheartening national and world news we’ve seen this summer. (For more insight on the relationship between bad news and writer’s block, read Marisa Goudy’s blog post, “The 5 Traps that Silence Writers In Troubled Times (And How to Escape Them).”

Plus, there’s no denying that beginnings are really hard for me, much harder than endings or even murky middles. I don’t know where in the story to begin, and the journey ahead looks impossibly long and dark, with obstacles and steep climbs and dead-ends.

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naked mole rat

Writing is a process, and I know I should embrace it like a happy naked mole rat, but I hate tunneling blind.

Okay, I’m not totally blind. I do have what I think is a pretty good idea for Novel 2. I even have a vague plot line. What I don’t have is a starting point, and I’m not the kind of writer who can write out of order. I just can’t.

So I’ve been doing research – another way to procrastinate! – except I really do need to get inside my subject – crows — for this story to be at all convincing. I’ve already spent hours online and read two very detailed books on corvids, including the excellent “In the Company of Crows and Ravens” by John M. Marzluff and Tony Angell. But I still have so many questions, so many decisions to make.

About the story: Do I have a narrator? What will be the point of view, first-person or third? One protagonist or three? What do my characters want? What stands in their way? Where should my book be set? In what time period?

About the process: Should I write with an outline? Or bump along by the seat of my pants like last time?

You see, I’m still learning how to write novels. My first took me five years, give or take. I was horribly inefficient with my time and effort. With my second, I’m determined to make things easier on myself. That’s why I spent a half day trying to learn the Scrivener writing software, and another afternoon exploring something called FreeMind.

I wasn’t procrastinating. I’d like to think I was committing myself, just like the quote says.  Maybe beginnings are a process, too.

What about you? What’s your biggest writing challenge and how do you overcome it? Please comment below!

Photo credit (curve): Kervin
Photo credit (mole rat): brxO

Happy Birthday, Blog! 5 things you’ve taught me

 

My blog and website turned a year old on July 12. Since I forgot to celebrate, here’s a belated happy birthday to www.pamjmcgaffin.com!

I started blogging as a way to build that all-important author platform, which to me sounds very brick and mortar-ish but has more to do with growing an email list and letting people know that you do, in fact, exist. Obviously, I still have a lot to learn, but here are five insights I’ve gained so far.

  1. Hiring professionals can save you a lot of time and frustration if you don’t know what you’re doing. I know it’s technically possible to build your own website, but I’m not technically inclined. I knew nothing of WordPress or MailChimp. I didn’t know how to choose a good host or that I’d need to track my website traffic and protect against spam. I just recently learned what SEO stands for (still not completely sure how it works). I would rather clean scum from my refrigerator than work on computer issues, so I’m glad that Writing Coach Brooke Warner of She Writes Press and Kenny McNett of Fitted Web Design saved me the trouble with their “Sites on Summer” webinar last year. You made the process almost painless. Thank you!
  2. If you build it they will come – NOT. I don’t know what I was expecting. People didn’t flock to my site the second it went live. When I Googled my name (a self-indulgent habit), I didn’t get a thousand new hits. A website without promotion is like that tree falling in the forest. No one will know or care unless you tell them, and keep telling them, over and over again, any way you can — via social media, during dinner, while jogging, at other friend’s book signings . . . Really, you must lose all sense of shame.
  3. Blogging can be fun and give you a sorely needed feeling of accomplishment. Novels take a long time to write, but I can knock out a blog post in less than a day, two days if I’m being really fussy. My twice-monthly blog gives me the satisfaction of actually finishing something! That people like! To understand why that’s such a big deal, you need know a little about writing and submitting and how humbling it all is. In the last two weeks, I failed to win a contest (didn’t even get an honorable mention) and was turned down by a literary agency that had requested the first 50 pages of my novel. So keep those “likes” and comments coming. I will soak them up like a Bounty Quicker Picker Upper.
  4. Good content will keep them coming back, but it’s okay to mix things up. Over the last year, I’ve blogged about myself, my likes and dislikes, friends and family, the writing process, what’s inspired and helped me, and my efforts to get my first novel published. I don’t have an identifiable theme or format, and that’s okay for now, because I’m still learning, still discovering what resonates and what doesn’t. Different subjects pull in different readers (particularly if I’m linking to other sites). Every post is an opportunity to attract fans from near and far. I kid you not. According to Google Analytics, “sessions” on my site have come from 84 countries, including a couple I’ve never heard of. While I’d love to find a way to snare a reader in Mongolia or Iceland, I realize the first reader I have to engage is myself. If I like what I’m writing, if I’m being real and entertaining and occasionally practical, someone else will find value in it, too.
  5. Building an audience takes time, effort and gall. Confession time. After a year of blogging, I have a grand total of 23 subscribers, and six of them are family, including yours truly. (I practically had to bribe my sons to sign up, and they can’t be bothered to read my blog, even the posts about them!) I get it. People are bombarded with messages, and there are only so many hours in the day to dink around online. I, too, am guilty of reading an interesting post and ignoring the “subscribe” box that pops up like a conscience bubble. We don’t need or want any more emails, thank you, which is why I’m not above asking someone to subscribe to his or her face and handing over my business card. I know it sounds so 1980s, but it works. Note: If you’re not already one of my 17 non-family fans, feel free to prove me wrong by going to my contact page and signing up. It’s easy, and I promise not to inundate you with emails. Plus, you will get ABSOLUTELY FREE my “12 Tips to Saner, More Successful Writing… From My Three Decades of Trial and Error”. See what I mean about shameless?

Do you have a blog or plans to start one? Share the best thing you’ve learned or ask me a question. I’d love to hear from you!