Monday, December 30, 2013

The Tell-tale Dish Towel (My Homage to E.A. Poe)

True! – guilty —very, very guilty I am, but it was unintentional.  The act has made me aware of what I have done.  I know everything there is to know about heaven and hell, so I always intended to return the object, so – hearken! – and observe as I calmly tell you the whole story of how I came to steal the red dish towel from the church fellowship hall.

It is impossible to say when the idea first entered my brain; but once conceived, I made up my mind. I had no choice.  I had to take it and thus mop up the serving table of the mess I had caused.

You fancy me a thief, but thieves do not intend to return the objects they purloin. Stealing the dish towel was unintentional.  Object there is none.  I own dozens of dish towels of my own. Passion there is none. I hold no grudge or malice toward its owner. 

I think it was the spill!  The pooling spill that made me reach for the towel.  I had tried a handful of paper napkins but they were useless in my efforts to stay the spreading wave of mulled cider, so anxiety seized me – it was headed for the floor!

With a loud yelp, I leaped upon a towel that was lying nearby and dragged it over the hot, sticky mess. At length, the spill was no more. I placed my hand upon my heart and held it there several seconds.  The puddle had soaked inside the wet towel.  The mess would no longer trouble our Christmas party.

If you still think me a thief, you will think so no longer when I tell you that I had no choice but to take the towel home with me that evening, wash it, and return it the next time I was in the vicinity. What should I have done?  Handed a soppy towel to its owner or returned it to the church fellowship’s kitchen in that condition?

Oh no, I had to take it home and wash it out – leaving no stain of any kind, no spot whatever - and return it with a smile.  I do smile, - for what have I to fear?

“Here!” I will say.  “I borrowed this at the Christmas party last month!  I admit I took it without telling anyone, but dissemble no more.  I have returned the red dish towel!”


Friday, December 27, 2013

Grandma’s Dining Table

Twenty five years ago my first husband and I bought a new home with four bedrooms and three baths, but my favorite part of the house was the enormous room you walked into from the front door. It had no dividing wall but the design was to use half of it as a formal living and the other half as a formal dining.
From the beginning I decided to make it into one huge dining room that would catch the eye when everyone walked in through the front door of my home.  
My three children were very young at the time, but I envisioned them grown and married. We counted five at the time, but one day we would grow to eight, maybe more if we factored in grandchildren, so I bought a table that sat a family of twelve.  My husband thought it silly to look that far ahead and convinced me to buy only ten chairs.
The room looked magnificent – the long, majestic table, the ten chairs, the buffet, a couple of real ficus, and a few other nice pieces of furniture – I was pleased.
The table lasted longer than the marriage, and it has gone with me to every house since then. There were homes where it didn’t fit and times when it would be more economical to just get rid of it, but I refused to surrender my dream of constancy and stability.
It has been used for homework by two generations and survived an unfortunate homework accident long ago.  Every time I change the tablecloth, I run my hand over the scar and smile at the memory.  
My grandsons use it in their play, hiding underneath it by lying on the chairs or pretending it is a cave. They help me set the table and hunt throughout the house to find extra chairs. I love that the chairs don’t match.
It has served many holiday and birthday meals and has witnessed a lot of laughter and heartwarming conversation. That table embraces my hopes and dreams.
This Christmas, it will sit fifteen people.  Fifteen of my most favorite people. We’ll sit five, elbow to elbow on each long side, and two at each end.  The baby will be in his new high chair, banging on the tray with a spoon or a rattle.

Four others will be too far away to join us, and one will be in heaven watching down, but if they were here, we would just put the kitchen trestle table to use.  It can sit another eight.  The more, the merrier.   All are welcome at my dining table. 

This was first posted in November, 2012, but it is one of my favorites so I wanted to share it again during this holiday season. 

Monday, December 23, 2013

Countdown to Christmas

If you didn’t buy it, wrap it, or bake it by now, stop.  Believe me, your Christmas will not be ruined, not unless you put more emphasis on calories and commercialism than on the true meaning of the holiday.

What is it, you ask?

Well, I have it on good authority that it will come without ribbons.  It will come without tags.  It will come without packages, boxes or bags. Christmas doesn’t come from a store; Christmas is a little bit more.

What is this little bit more?

Well, it may have something to do with a little bitty baby born in a stable many, many years ago.  He delighted his humble parents and astounded anyone who met him soon after his birth. This man had such a profound effect on the history of mankind that we read about him and study about him even today, two thousand years later, whether we are Christian or not.  

What we celebrate at Christmas is something so valuable that we sometimes take it for granted, and those who do not have it envy us – family, friends, and fellowship – things so valuable that they do not need ribbons.  They do not need tags.  They do not need packages, boxes or bags.

Christmas doesn’t come from a store; Christmas is a whole bunch more.

So when we wish someone a Merry Christmas, we are wishing them an abundance of those three - family, friends, and fellowship. 

I wish you a Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Grace Not Greed

I wrote this for a collection of Christmas devotionals in 2011.  It is still appropriate for the times at Christmas in 2013.

 “May mercy, peace, and love be yours in abundance.”  Jude 1:2 (NSRV)
The winter of 1991 found me in the middle of a messy divorce.  I struggled to pay a four-digit mortgage and to feed and clothe three growing adolescents on a teacher’s salary.
On previous Christmases, our letters to Santa had been long and expensive lists of toys and electronics, but this year we would have to find a different way to “make merry.”
I tried to explain our situation to the kids, but they stopped me mid-apology with an announcement of their own.
“We don’t want anything for Christmas.” They explained they already had everything they needed – we had each other, a roof over our heads and a safe place at night, food to eat (even if it was way too many servings of boxed mac and cheese or ramen noodles), and they had me.  They knew I wasn’t going to abandon them.
Grace replaced greed in our letters to Santa that year.
Our Nativity set dwarfed the centerpiece-sized Christmas tree.  Three small store bought presents lay next to a mound of homemade gifts, but the best present of all sat on the carpet next to me – my three wise children, smiles on their faces, drinking hot chocolate and singing carols. 

Prayer:  Dear Lord, thank you for the love and comfort of family.

Monday, December 16, 2013

What I Want for Christmas

My two front teeth are in great shape. Thank you (especially to my dentist and her team), so what do I really want for Christmas?
Everyone and everything dear to my hearth and home are doing well, so what could I possibly want or need?
Well, for starters, I would like a firmer and more youthful body, one that does not wiggle when set in motion.  It would be wonderful to be the envy of all the ladies in my Cardio Dance class when I walk in dressed in my skin tight workout clothes and my bust, belly, and butt amaze everyone.  A thinner waist would also be appreciated.  Thank you in advance.
Two, I would like to win the lottery, not the little one of just a couple of million dollars but the big honker one with the dozens of zeroes behind it.  I realize I actually have to buy a ticket, so I would like to be the envy of all when they interview me for the six o’clock news (I would insist on a long shot so I can show off my gorgeous new firm body) and I mention that I bought ONE ticket on the fly from the convenience store down the street the ONE time I stopped to buy a bag of Cheetos.  Who knew?  Lucky me! Yay!
I know.  It must be wonderful to be me – both gorgeous and rich. 
Three, I will need a crew, staff, a posse, someone to look after me and my millions.  I would employ the usual – an accountant and a lawyer, but also household and a groundskeeper. Oh, and also someone to help me with my makeup and clothes.  A cook!  Oh glory, someone to cook for me and HoneyBunch.  I would never have to scramble another egg or throw together another casserole. Yay!  Double yay!
Christmas wishing is so much fun.  You search your soul for the very things that will make you happy and you ask for them, regardless the price or common sense. You make your demands known repeatedly to those around you (or you write it all down and send a letter off to Santa) and you eat tamales or Christmas Cookies waiting for the Big Day.

I’ve been “nice” all year, so I’ll see you on the 26th.  That will be me on the six o’ clock news, showing off my good fortune. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

Creating Family Traditions

My Chinese daughter-in-law is excited about her first American Christmas.  All the preparations and decorations she sees on TV and in the stores remind her of the month-long celebrations of her own country and she is eager to join in on the fun of the season.

Chinese culture is big on the giving of gifts.  One can never visit a home without giving a small token (most often food) to the host or hostess.  Gifts preclude the asking of a favor and thank you gifts follow after a kindness is given. If two people exchange gifts and one outdoes the other, it becomes a competition and is usually followed by a second gift of greater value.

She is mesmerized by all the sales and ads, but I warned her not to let it lure her into buying something extravagant. I advised her not to let her old custom rule her American Christmas. The giving of Christmas gifts does not have to be expensive. It is always better to give something from the heart. 

My husband’s family is Czech, so along with the traditional Christmas dishes, my mother-in-law serves kolaches and sauerkraut. My family serves tamales and buñuelos next to the glazed ham and the Texas pecan pie.

I suggested that she consider celebrating Christmas with a mixture of both cultures – American and Chinese, a holiday celebration that represents both of them.  They could make yummy foods that remind them of their winter holiday and decorate their home with both cultures.

Isn’t that what we did when we first started our own homes and families?  We combined the traditions of two families into one, and maybe we started our own.  Once we decided what we wanted from the holiday, we all built on from there.  

Monday, December 2, 2013

Daddy’s Favorite

On December 24th, my dad would have turned 92, but he died two weeks after he turned 84. He never met any of my wild, rambunctious extended family – all my children’s spouses, seven of my eight grandchildren, or my dear husband, but if he had he would have been deliriously happy for me. 

Family meant everything to my dad.

He loved his siblings, those alive and dead, and he adored his parents, speaking of them with the greatest of respect, but we, his own family, he put above everyone and anything else.  

We were lucky to have such a good man as our father. Not everyone can say that.

Oh, he was strict and stubborn and opinionated.  He was Old World old-fashioned. Letting his daughters out into the modern world frightened him and we gave him plenty of reason to worry, but there was never any doubt how much we loved each other.

He had this wonderful knack of treating us like ladies (Ladylike traits were not valued in the late 60’s and early 70’s. It was the era of Free Love and the start of feminism.), and though we protested his admonitions, we loved the attention.

He taught me to waltz, first by carrying me in his arms when I was little, later by placing my tiny feet on his shoes when I was in grade school.  On holidays, he would play records on his stereo, and after waltzing with my mother (who would bat at him with a dish towel and go back to fixing lunch), my sisters and I would like up in hopes he would ask us to dance.

He tucked us into bed at night when we were tiny.  It wasn’t an ordinary tuck and run.  He would visit with each of us and tell us stories or sing to us.  He would cover us up, asking if we wanted to be wrapped like a taco or an enchilada, then he would kiss us on the forehead and bless us.  He would do the extended Sign of the Cross, the one where you do the sign of the cross four times – once on the forehead, the second over the mouth, the third across the chest, and the fourth – a large cross from forehead to chest.  He would wish us a good night, turn off the lights, and leave us safe and smiling in the dark. 

When we got older, he would bless us before we retired for bed or when we left the house, but eventually, we got modern. And it stopped.

All our lives, he had a wonderful knack of making each of us, sons and daughters, feel as if we were THE special one.  Ask any one of us, and we each will swear we were Daddy’s Favorite.

HoneyBunch and my dad missed meeting each other by months, but they would have liked each other immensely.  They are so much alike – intelligent, gentlemanly, well-spoken jokesters. They are both fierce, family men.

I love you, Daddy.  I was so blessed to have you as my father.  You are always in my heart.  

Monday, November 25, 2013

My Life Is a Lifetime Movie

Happy Seventh Anniversary, HoneyBunch.
Being married to you is the easiest, most fun, and most magical time of my life.  I feel as if we have always belonged to each other; the forty-five combined years we spent with others fade into nothing when we are together. 
I never knew what being truly in love was like until I married you.
Baby, you complete me. You are my clone; my soul mate. Scary thought, but true. The person who was just a friend is . . . suddenly the only person you can ever imagine yourself with. You know me better than I know myself.  I, of course, am the prettier one.
It was the million tiny little things that when you added them all up, they meant we were supposed to be together.  It is like . . . magic.  In the movie of our lives, you get to play Tom Hanks and I get to play Meg Ryan.
I’m your density.  You know how to make laugh, how to make me happy, and how to encourage me. I am the only one who gets (and appreciates) your jokes.  I am here to care for you and make sure you get your daily supply of tomatoes and yogurt. Since God’s time-space continuum is different than ours, it is no wonder it took Him fifty-six years before He led you onto my path.  I am not complaining; I am grateful for every minute left of my life I get to spend with you.
When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible. I knew when you asked me to marry you after only six weeks of dating, and we married after only knowing each other for three months, that our life would be perfect from the very start.  
I married you so I can kiss you anytime I want.  And I find myself wanting to kiss you often, especially when you shower our children and grandchildren with your unselfish love. I find your kind heart very sexy. You should be kissed and often and by someone who knows how - me.
When I look at you, and I . . . and I’m home. Life on this patch of dirt takes on special meaning because you are here, next to me, only a few steps away, all day long. You give my life peace and joy and safety.
My heart is, and always will be, yours. I may not say I love you as many times as I should, but then, HoneyBunch, everything I do is to show my love and respect for you.

As you wish, my dearest HoneyBunch. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

On November 22, 1963

Sister Mary Gisela was admonishing the eighth grade choir for not projecting loud enough when the Mother Superior of our Catholic school ran in and whispered something into her ear before running out again.

Sr. Gisela looked horrified, then she announced that our President had been shot.  We needed to kneel and pray for his recovery – now! 

She led us in prayer as we wrapped our minds around the incredulity that people existed in this world who would dare shoot a President.  

We remembered the celebration of the day before when President Kennedy had visited our city and the love we all felt for our charismatic, Catholic president.

Soon after, Mother Superior walked in again and we listened as she addressed us.  Our President was dead, killed by an assassin’s bullets. 

School was being called off and our parents were coming for us. 

I was too numb to cry. I was thirteen.  I didn't understand that such ugliness could exist in the world.  Not then.   

Monday, November 18, 2013

Christmas Gift Exchanges

Last year, my three grown up kids asked if they could swap names and do a Christmas gift exchange.  It was so successful that they decided to it again this year.
We number fifteen now in our “immediate” family and that becomes a lot of individual Christmas presents to buy.  We all have blended families so my kids and I have other “immediate” family circles on our Christmas list.
Believe me; the grandkids have done the math, and they may wish we hadn’t.  They are kids, after all, and they love getting stuff. They may not like what their parents decided, but I applaud their solution.
As grandparents, HoneyBunch and I are not included in the name swap, but I have claimed myself the grandmother who always buys the grands a set of pajamas at Christmas.  I might throw in a snuggly or a book, but I stay away from anything more expensive or complicated. I’ll leave that for Santa (their parents or the other grandparents) to buy.  My present may not get oohs and aahs, but I want them to know I care for their needs and not their wants.  
 Everyone wrote their names on slips of paper, and to help their “Secret Santa” find them a gift, they listed three hobbies and three things they wanted that might cost $20 or less.  The couples swapped names with each other and the seven swapped names also. I saw some sad faces, but we were adamant about setting a limit on the greed that comes with the season. 
Everyone was supposed to keep who they chose a secret, but by the end of the day, the only one who hadn’t figured out who he had was the seventeen-month-old baby.  
I prefer Christmas presents that represent the season – games or craft kits that involve the family and bring them closer. I also like gift exchanges with a theme or a common objective. I especially like inexpensive gift swaps where all you have to buy is a pair of cheerful, Christmas socks or a beautiful, new Christmas ornament, or where everyone shares dozens of freshly baked, homemade Christmas cookies.
Our writing critique group does a White Elephant Exchange with gently used books, and I have ended up with real treasures. The thought stays with me all year, and before I donate my old books to the nearby library, I keep one or two that might end up being my Christmas present at the next book exchange.
When I blogged on this last year (You might want to refer to the comments on an older blog dated October 29, 2012.), we had several other great suggestions.  
One family exchanges dollar gifts. (Yes, gifts that cost ONE dollar.) Isn’t that intriguing? Another family donates to a college scholarship or a charity in each other’s names.  It started as a present to their father who didn’t want more “stuff” around his house, and it became a tradition after he was gone.
Christmas is not about greed and avarice; it is about family and selflessness. It’s about spending happy and fun times with each other because at the end of the day, after every box has been unwrapped and opened, and the sparkle of the day is gone, the most precious gift we exchange with each other is love of family.    

Monday, November 11, 2013


When I told HoneyBunch that I am fast running out of time, he scolded me and called it nonsense.  He said if I take care of myself, I should live well into my nineties in good health.
That is exactly my point – the road ahead is much shorter than the road I leave behind.
HoneyBunch didn’t want to hear any more of my morbid thoughts, but then he is five years younger and is still in his fifties. He holds on to his youth as prudishly as a heroine holds on to her virginity in a Jane Austen novel. If I mention his graying hair or his bushy, grandpa eyebrows, he takes offense.
His family putters well into their eighties; mine lives long too, but we sputter and backfire, requiring quite a few expensive tune ups and engine overhauls all the way. Our heredity and genetics differ, and I am glad for his sake.  I do not wish him the ailments that come with age for so many of us.
I tried again to share with him my observation that my “someday” list is limited by the number of days left in my life. When he shushed me, I realized he did so because he doesn't want to imagine life without me.  He wants me to live in a long string of someday’s with no regrets and no cautions.  He sees me with young eyes – for him I am a young woman with a wide, open road ahead for both of us.
He wants us to live like there is no limit to our future, a road full of somedays, and I love him for that, so for our sake, I will try and take good care of myself.

Monday, November 4, 2013

No Pets, Thank You!

I respect any couple (or single person) who decides to be childless.  Hey, breeding is not something one should do without serious study.  It is quite a commitment.
I feel the same way about acquiring a pet.  Don’t get me wrong, I love most of God’s creatures, except for those that might bite or sting me.  Okay, maybe also squishy and ugly things do not make my list.
I am not immune to cute.  I “share” forward plenty of Facebook pictures of cute puppies and kitties, but I have lived long enough to know that the shelf life of cute is short, and the responsibility of having a pet is long.
Cute wears off when the puppy grows up and digs up the landscaping in the back yard. Cute is not how I would describe a kitty who claws and scratches the few nice things you own. There is nothing cute about poop or piss or hairballs.
Pets are expensive.  They have to be fed, taken to the vet, groomed, cleaned up after. You cannot go off on holiday without finding a sitter for Pooch or Tiger.  A visit to the pet sometimes costs as much as a major appliance or the price of a down payment on a car or a house.  
Pets want to go outside, get exercise, and fetch. They shed. They make noise.  They keep you up at night and wake you up in the morning. Not everyone will welcome your pet into their homes. Not everyone will appreciate your dog nosing them when they visit, dusting off cat hairs on their expensive clothes, or sharing the bathroom with a litter box.
Did I mention that pets come with responsibility? Lots of it?
As if that wasn’t bad enough, there is the danger of falling in love with them. Treating them like family. You come to depend on them as much as they depend on you. But they get sick and they die.
And you tell yourself – I am not doing this again. 
You get rid of all the stuff, except for a collar, a picture, a toy, and you vow - no more pets. No, thank you. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

Scaredy Cat

I have a TV service with over 500 options which includes dozens of movie channels that run nothing but for twenty-four hours a day. You think with the money I pay for this service and the abundance of offerings there would be more of a selection every evening that would keep me happy, especially during the month of October. 
For some reason whoever schedules these stations thinks they are the only ones who came up with the ingenious idea of running nothing but horror movies for the whole month of October.
Vampires, zombies, and angry boogie men vie with alien creatures and serial killers over tasty human beings. The “family” channels feature psycho-thrillers with demented men, women, and children who consider family and the unsuspecting traveler as easy prey and plan their gory deaths.   Even the kid-friendly channels bury us with cartoon versions of the same.
Call me a scaredy cat, but I just cannot watch scary movies. I cannot stomach anything that literally eats away at my imagination and makes me believe that what is happening is real.
That does not mean I cannot defend myself. I can be Ripley or Clarice.  I can be Selene (though I doubt I would look good in skin tight leather, at least not without some serious undergarments).  I have learned certain skills in life. My upbringing has given me the innate experience necessary to make up for the loss of agility that I have never possessed.
I can swing a mean frying pan and shoot a gun.  I am an expert at the fly swatter, the rolled up newspaper, and the shoe.  Many a varmint could attest to my expertise except they can’t since they met their demise at my masterful hands. 
It’s when they show up in 3-D on my wide screen that I cannot handle things that come at me from outer space.  I cannot find my inner Ninja when things sprout up from the ground and their first thought is to snack on me.  Any alien queen who captures me and tries to cocoon my aging body to breed little aliens is out of luck.  My breeding days are over.
I hate horror movies and now we have TV shows based on all this boogie stuff. 

No, thank you.  

Monday, October 21, 2013

Using the Johari Window to Create Fictional Characters

Though I love a good story, I am drawn to fiction with strong, likeable characters.
How does a writer accomplish this?
There are hundreds of books on characterization, and I have studied quite a few excellent ones, but I have discovered an answer in the most unlikely place – the science of cognitive psychology.  I use a simple heuristic that was developed in 1955 to explain how a person presents himself and interacts with others. It is called the Johari window.
It looks like this -

Each quadrant is called a window and it studies the human being from four different perspectives.
How persons represent themselves to others is called the Open Window. It is how they dress, act, and react. This is how they want to be perceived. 

It sometimes differs from how others see them. In the Blind Window, the person is unaware that others might judge them differently than how they presented themselves.
In the Hidden Window, they keep things to themselves they do not want others to know or that only very few might know but are not allowed to share with others. Sometimes they might not even acknowledge some of these inner conflicts to themselves.
The fourth window, the Unknown, lies the unforeseen future. It might happen in the immediate future or it might lie far ahead, but everyone eventually encounters a test or a crossroad, and they will have to respond employing the traits displayed in any or all the other windows.   
I owe my gratitude and my apologies to Drs. Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham since I took their heuristic and adapted it for my own use - to create fictional characters.
I use a five by eight index card (for its convenience and its size), and I divide one side into four equal squares, imitating the Johari graphic model. I use one card for each character I am developing and I fill in each square to flesh out my characters and their story. (I use the back side to keep additional notes on the character – dates, plot points, details, etc.)
I start with the Hidden Self quadrant because this square houses the inner conflict and drives all the others. I explore the character's secrets, fears, - anything that the character keeps hidden from others.  This is the vulnerable side of the character and drives all the other squares. It contains the story. 

The “hidden self” will influence how the character dresses, how they act, how they react to others. Like a mannequin in a store window or an actor in a movie, I dress the character and place them in the Open Window.  

I look for some qualities that might be easily misinterpreted or misconceived and will fit in both the Open and in the Blind Window.  For example, a person who has a traumatic past (hidden self) will dress and act a certain way either to deflect attention or put on a false bravado (open self), but others might misinterpret the character as cold or distant (blind self) since they do not know the person’s hidden past.
By filling in the Johari, the character becomes rounded and solid – a realistic person who stands out from the others and draws attention from the reader.

He/she is now ready to face the Unknown.

The Unknown quadrant houses the outer conflict, the quest, the challenge. The character will respond based on the traits the author developed in the other three quadrants, but especially those in the Hidden Self where the inner conflict and the character's story lie. This conflict will test the character’s resolve, and it is how he/she responds that the author has created a satisfactory story with realistic characters and a believable resolution. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Trading One Dream for Another

When I graduated from college in 1971, my dream was to teach for a year, maybe a year and half, in a local high school and save my money, then I would go get my doctorate in Spanish and teach in a college. I would travel during the summers to all the Spanish-speaking countries of the world and become world famous for my studies.
I had a teaching assistant job offer good for two years at UT Austin and the promise of a Ford Fellowship. Everything was set in place. I just had to get through the next eighteen months.
My mid-year teaching assignment was in a high school in the deep south side of the city.  I was to teach junior and senior Spanish and English.  Since the neighborhood was mostly Latino, so were the students. No problem, I thought.  I was from that neighborhood.  I was Latina.  It would be a piece of cake.
These were kids about to graduate, so they didn’t give me much trouble.  My biggest problem was my age.  I was twenty-one and my students were ages 16-21, so I looked too young to be their teacher. My second biggest problem was that everything was fine as long as I didn’t expect the kids to do any work.
If I read to them, they listened and answered questions, but if I asked them to read on their own very few followed through.  When I called on kids to read for me, the same handful of students would volunteer, but if I called on others, they refused and the same handful of volunteers would intervene and read to the class.  
I became suspicious and one day announced that each student would be required to read one paragraph out loud for me as a test grade.  I started up one row calling on students. Some refused belligerently and others got violent. Nothing I said calmed them down so I required them to see me privately, before or after school.  
It did not take me long to discover what was wrong. Most of the kids were illiterate. Handfuls were reading on a pre-primer or primer level.  I was shocked.
I had gone to a neighboring high school.  I had always been in advanced classes so my circle of friends were “the smart kids.”  I never realized how lacking the school system was back then for the kids who had learning disabilities. Those who made it to the eleventh and twelfth grade had been passed on or had dropped out.
I was saddened by the fact that there were hundreds if not thousands who would “graduate” from high school but would not be able to read more than their name.  
I kept on saving my money for graduate school but in the meantime I studied all I could on my own about teaching older students to read. The deadline to take advantage of my UT teaching assistantship and my fellowship came and went, and I continued to teach in the same old school district. I transferred to a nearby junior high and took a job teaching remedial students.  Maybe if someone started with students who were a bit younger, they would not end up holding a useless diploma.
I got my graduate degree in reading.  I got a job as the reading coordinator for that same school district, and for five years I helped develop a reading program with twenty-two top-notch reading specialists who served four middle schools and two high schools.  They did awesome work.
I transferred to another school district after that, but by then remedial reading programs in secondary schools were sprouting all over the nation. It pleased me to see more and more accountability towards high school graduates.
I never got my doctorate degree in Spanish language and literature.  I never traveled to the many Spanish-speaking countries of the world. I never became a world-famous college professor, but there is a large group of adults who are able to read because I traded one dream for another. 

Monday, October 7, 2013

Creating Strong Fictional Characters

Character questionnaires ask inane questions - a character’s favorite color or what they have in their refrigerator. These questionnaires are superficial and cosmetic and do not create characters that walk off the page and into reader’s hearts.

Readers want to connect with the character’s inner workings. They want to empathize with the protagonist’s feelings.  What is their inner conflict? What are their fears?  What secrets does the main character keep so hidden that even they do not acknowledge their shameful existence?

In order to face whatever conflict the author throws at them in the story, they must be armed with more than their favorite color or the contents of their refrigerator.  

It is only when the author builds characters from the inside out that he can costume them with the kind of frippery found in questionnaires.  It is only then that the inanity of the questionnaire becomes integral to the story.

For example, a female protagonist neglected as a child by her alcoholic parents and who had to fend for herself and them would probably be ashamed and hate her childhood. She would overcompensate for her childhood helplessness by being in charge and in control of everything in her adult life. She might yearn for love and attention, yet keeps everyone at arm’s length.

Her favorite color would be red since it stands for power and pain and passion. She would keep a six pack of beer in her refrigerator which she never drinks.  It is there as a hated symbol of what destroyed her life, but it is also a fearful reminder that she too has a hereditary propensity for alcohol addiction. 

Remember, nothing should be merely superficial, coincidental, or cosmetic.  Everything is dependent on the character’s hidden side, the inner workings, the psyche. To create strong fictional characters, the author must intentionally give them strong personality traits, either good or bad, and thereby make them realistic and believable.   

Monday, September 30, 2013


For the last two and a half years I have written a Monday blog without fail.  This past week I struggled and struggled to find a subject to write about, so I considered the things I always obsess about.
ü  Growing old - I have nothing to say here worthy of mentioning (at least, nothing nice or kind.), so keep reading.
ü  My writing life. If I am having enough trouble coming up with a 250-450 word blog, what do you think I have to share about writing that is worth taking notes?  
ü  Buying a new car. My efforts to replace the Red Bomber, aka Grandma’s Jeep have come to a standstill. I feel like I am divorcing a perfectly good spouse in an effort to replace it with a trophy wife. The old car is sturdy and dependable, low maintenance and still in good shape.  The new car would be expensive, showy, full of cosmetic baubles. I know from personal experience how the Jeep must feel. Remember, I was divorced twice before I met HoneyBunch.
ü  Men – Maybe I could write about my “vast” experience with men but it seemed disrespectful, not because my children might happen upon this blog or the subjects might find reference to themselves, but because almost all the men from my “past” are now dead.
True story.  I know of at least four men who are no longer with us. I had nothing to do with their demise. They all passed away of natural causes in the last ten years. That is my statement and I am sticking to it.
ü  Sex – Right, like I know anything worth writing about. I go to bed every night with Vicks stuffed up my nose, a fine Cetaphil coating on my face and neck, and diabetic foot cream slathered on my feet.  The piece de resistance is my gray nightgown shift.  My husband says I snore, but so does he.  His comes through his throat; mine comes through my nose. We sound like whales talking to each other in the ocean deep.
ü  Taboo subjects.  If they are labeled taboo, do you think I would honestly mention them here? Oh wait, I just confessed to my “vast” experience with men and my “sex” life. Oops. 

I’ll try to find something to blog about next week. I promise.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The ABC’s Spell Healthy

A - Almonds, Arugula
B - Breakfast is very important.
C – Calcium and Vitamin D daily intake
D – Dinner, Diabetes, Dairy
E – Exercise – choose something addictive and fun.
F – Family activities, fish, fruits
G – Gym workouts (videos are okay.)
H – Healthy snacks – don’t ditch them; choose wisely, hydrate.
I – Interactive video games that involve movement, jumping, standing
J – Join a group to improve exercise, education, weight loss, or to make friends.
K – Kiwi, kale – learn their many benefits.
L – Lunch – measure, choose wisely.
M – Measure your portions. Medicines, movement, meditation
N – Naps, 8 hours of nightly sleep
O – One slice of pizza is okay; fill your plate with salad.
P – Portion control.  A kid’s meal is the size of a “real” adult portion.
Q – Quinoa
R – running (or biking or swimming or dancing)
S – Spice your food to reduce salt intake.
T – Tea has many soothing benefits.
U – Utensils – measuring cups and spoons are your friend.  Put your fork down between bites.
V – Vegetables, vitamins
W – Work standing.  Weight training
X – X out sodas and sweeteners, especially artificial sweeteners.
Y – Yogurt, yoga, yams

Z – Zumba!!

Thursday, September 19, 2013


Alone won’t let you wear your fancy bracelet, the kind that has a latch and needs three hands to get it onto your wrist.  

Alone says no to that becoming dress, the one with the tight bodice that won’t give so you can scootch it up in back, and you can zip it all the way to the top.  

Alone thinks it’s a bad idea to bake your favorite cake recipe or that meatloaf you love to make with real mashed potatoes and the green bean casserole - unless you want to eat it all week long or freeze the remainder into a dozen plastic lunch containers.

Alone won’t listen to your joke or your story, and it gives useless advice on your latest wacky idea.   

Alone doesn’t care if you steal the covers, hide the remote, or lie about the bathroom scales.

Alone gladly gives up the second seat at the theatre or the symphony so you can use it for your purse and coat.

Alone lets you be the hero of your life’s story, wear the pants, be the boss of you. It gladly lets you swat at the spider, squash the water bug, and shoo the salamander, but then refuses to help dispose of their dead bodies afterwards.

Alone ignores you as you struggle with that clumsy box Fed Ex just left on your front step.  It looks the other way as you drag the trash bin to the curb and just sits, like a lump, in the front seat of the car while you figure out how to jump start the dead battery.

Alone doesn’t take up much room at the restaurant at your table for one. It lets you eat all the tortilla chips and won’t steal your guacamole.

Alone doesn’t care that you watch too many musicals and chick flicks, and doesn’t eat your dark chocolate candy or your Blue Bell then hide the empties at the bottom of the trash can.  

Alone won’t get you a bandage, warm you a bowl of chicken soup, or check on those noises coming from the kitchen in the middle of the night.

Alone doesn’t care about your feelings but that is okay.  You can live alone.  It’s when Alone sometimes brings home an unwanted guest – Loneliness - most often it is in the middle of the night or on a weekend, and suddenly being alone looks different.   

Loneliness amplifies everything, and everything you see loses its color or its fun or its warmth. Problems become insurmountable.

You hate bracelets and hard-to-zip dresses.  You want to haggle with someone over the covers or the remote or what movies to watch at the cinema.  You wish someone was stealing your chocolate or the guacamole off your Number One Mexican Special.  You want someone (besides your pillows or the cats) who talks and listens, laughs and argues, and takes turns with you taking out the trash.  Best of all, you want someone – another human being – who cares enough about you to get you a Band Aid, eat your cooking, and get up in the middle of the night to check for zombies.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Our Song

Why is it when we are sad, every song we hear stabs at our heart, even commercials for fast food make us cry?  Yet when our heart is happy, we bop along, singing at full wail.

Music, like our sense of smell, elicits specific memories.

There are certain songs that I find downright annoying. I absolutely hate (and I mean hate, sorry) the theme songs Over the Rainbow, My Heart Will Go On, and Fame. Not only have they been overplayed, but I find my annoyance also stems from my dislike of their movies.  

I also find explicit modern music annoying and disgraceful.

You see, my father was a musician, so I grew up listening to entrancing rhythms and beautiful lyrics.  He played the Big Band music of the 40’s and the smooth ballads of Agustin Lara (the famous Mexican composer of over 700 songs), so I associate that music with my childhood.  

My teen years were wrapped in Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones, and Three Dog Night, but as I had children of my own, they took charge of my musical tastes.  My young adulthood is a blur of Sesame Street ditties, the Ghostbusters theme song, and any song associated with a John Travolta movie.

In retrospect, my love life (as extensive as it was) can be pared down to one playlist - Don’t Rain on my Parade, Footloose, and It Had to be You. For the sake of my children and my dear husband, I cannot be more explicit, though at the time my hormones probably would have chosen other titles.

For now, the one song that best covers me is One and Only by Adele. It fits my life with HoneyBunch the best. He and I found comfort and “home” in each other, so I choose it for “our song.”

Music is necessary for the human soul, so tell me, what song is your all time favorite? 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Yellow Car, The Game

If necessity is the mother of invention, desperation is its grandmother.

I’m driving home from picking up two grandsons from school.  They are both strapped into the back seat when the yelling starts.  I hear a swat, then a howl followed by a bloodcurdling battle cry, and the scrimmage begins.

I’m merging onto a stretch of expressway that resembles a French braid and our three lives depend on my total concentration.

          “Let’s play a game.”  I shout over the battle of fists coming from the back seat of my Jeep.

They answer with another smack and another cry of pain.

“There can only be one winner; everyone else will be losers.” I singsong the word “losers” knowing that might divert their attention.

I merge left thanks to the kindness of a young man in a yellow car.

The older one asks over the screams of his younger brother, “What kind of game?”

“Let’s count trucks.  We like trucks.” I try not to sound desperate.

“That’s no fun.  That isn’t special.” There is a whine in his voice.  He detests math in every form and cannot be seduced into doing “work.”

I merge left again and this time I give the yellow car a break.

“Yellow cars,” I say.  “Have you two ever noticed how few there are?” The game will be fair. The three-year-old knows his colors and can count up to twenty.

The back seat is quiet now as I merge left one last time.  We are now safely on our route, and I settle in for the 30-minute ride. “Whoever sees a yellow car or truck first gets to claim it, and the person with the highest number by the time we get to grandma’s is the winner.”

“One,” the oldest says, claiming the yellow car we pass on our right.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Grandma’s Jeep

My oldest grandson was born one month before I bought my red Jeep Liberty, so all seven of my grands have never known me to drive anything else.

When I announced recently I was buying a new car, I was met with shocked looks, not just from the grandkids but from the rest of the family as well.

Will it be red? 

Will it be a Jeep?

More importantly, what was going to happen to it? I wasn’t going to trade it in, was I?

People get attached to houses, and so my family has become attached to Grandma’s Jeep.  It’s more than just some old car - it’s a symbol of Grandma (or Mom); it’s home; it’s a part of the family. 
It has been my office, counseling and tutoring grandsons as I drive to and from school, soccer, or swimming lessons.  It has been my interrogation room where naughty boys have confessed their sins and received scolding’s and an earful of advice. It has been the stage for Grandma’s traveling acts of great feats, where out of boredom or desperation the kids and I have invented games, songs, and really bad, dumb jokes. 

It’s been lived in and used. Tiny Lego pieces are tucked in between the car seats, as well as paper wrappers and notes from the teacher that didn’t make it home. The seats are stained from spilled sodas or juice, wet swimming suit bottoms, and assorted goops the boys were explicitly told not to open in the car.

Like its owner, the transmission is slipping and it tootles down the road at an irritatingly slow speed.  It needs new tires. The air conditioner only works on high, and the radio no longer works at all. It leaks, leaving puddles wherever it is parked, and it makes embarrassing noises at inconvenient times.

Most of the miles on the odometer were racked up by hundreds of trips to pick up and leave off, including the library, McDonald’s, and Dairy Queen.  The upholstery is an archeological dig, the stains testimony to the many ice cream cones and Dr. Peppers I let my boys sneak even after their Mommy said no.

But still it does not erase the fact that I need a new car.

I have made one concession.  My next car will be red, that way the kids will know it is me coming from a distance, but it will not be a Jeep. My husband has intervened as well.  He decided we will not trade in Grandma’s Jeep, not out of sentimental reasons but because she has been a good and faithful old car, and he says no one could ever give us in trade what she is worth.

I agree.  No car I have ever owned has meant as much to me. She is filled with wonderful memories and those are things that money or a new fancy sedan could never replace.