Monday, January 30, 2012

Mommy Mondays: "Eating Animals"

As parents, we sometimes have to make really big decisions on behalf of our kids.

Choosing what to name our children, whether or not to baptize (or circumcise!) them, what schools to send them to - these are decisions that we alone are responsible for. Perhaps because we're not always sure what the right thing is, we often follow the example of those who came before us: our own parents. But sometimes, we just have to go with our gut and hope our kids don't resent us for it some day.

For John and I, most of those big decisions were pretty easy. Jack was named after his dad; hence, Jack is the fifth John Jacob in the family (I know - yikes). John and I aren't religious, so there was no bris or baptism. And since both of us are vegetarians (aside from the fish John consumes once or twice a week), raising Jack as a vegetarian was a no-brainer, too.

Then he started eating solids, and we realized it wasn't as simple as we thought. I don't eat fish because I choose not to eat animals, but John is an endurance athlete. The fat, protein, and omega-3s found in fish can't really be replaced by supplements (although I'm sure some would argue they can). And for that reason, we decided to give Jack the occasional serving of fish sticks or salmon as well (not because he's an endurance athlete, obviously, but because he's growing what I hope will turn out to be a very healthy brain). Now, thanks to my mom passing on a book by Jonathan Safran Foer, called Eating Animals, I'm having to rethink that decision.

I became a vegetarian fifteen years ago because I decided I simply didn't want to eat animals anymore. My sister, Sarah, made the same decision (this came on the heels of a senior debate on animal testing), and we have both been vegetarians ever since. John was already a veggie when I met him, too, thanks to a trip to the slaughter house as a teenager. We stopped eating meat because we love animals, not for our health, or the environment, or because it's kind of gross. Over time, however, those additional factors have made it very easy for me to continue living a meatless life. I've read several books on the subject, including Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food, Dominion by Matthew Scully, and, on a related note, Temple Grandin's Animals in Translation. I didn't expect Eating Animals to provide me with any new information or change my mind about anything, but perhaps because he writes fiction and can affect his readers on a more personal level, Foer did just that.

I'm not going to go into all the gory details. If you want those, I highly recommend you read the book. But I am going to leave you with a little food for thought:

"Animal agriculture makes a 40% greater contribution to global warming than all transportation in the world combined; it is the number one cause of climate change."

"On average, Americans eat the equivalent of 21,000 entire animals in a lifetime."

"Nearly one-third of the land surface of the planet is dedicated to livestock."

"It shouldn't be the consumer's responsibility to figure out what's cruel and what's kind, what's environmentally destructive and what's sustainable. Cruel and destructive food products should be illegal. We don't need the option of buying children's toys made with lead paint, or aerosols with chlorofluorocarbons, or medicines with unlabeled side effects. And we don't need the option of buying factory-farmed animals."

As for Jack, I will continue to raise him as a vegetarian with the occasional fish in his diet; I'm hoping to limit it to sustainable fish if nothing else (Foer talks briefly about the commercial fishing industry, which is pretty horrific). We buy our dairy products from a local farm - South Mountain Creamery - which I highly recommend.  When the inevitable day comes when Jack realizes the "chicken" we feed him isn't really chicken, or he asks why his friend can have a hamburger and he can't, I'll be able to explain in concrete terms why we don't eat meat.

And of all the decisions I've made on his behalf, I'll know that this one, at least, was the right one.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Foreign Service Fridays: The List, Part II

As you probably know, last week John got the bid list for the 165th A-100 class. We thought we knew what our bidding strategy was going to be, but our minds have changed a thousand times since then. We realized that we weren't actually taking everything into account as we ranked the posts. Because believe me, there is A LOT to take into account.

After our meeting with John's career development officer (I think that's what he's called - I joined in via conference call) yesterday morning, our strategy has changed even more. One helpful thing we learned: you can put short notes next to some (not all!) of the posts with your reasoning for ranking it a certain way. For example, if a place is known to have crap Internet, you can make a note of that (something along the lines of, "wife is writer; needs Internet.") Whether or not they actually take that into account (I'm guessing not), it at least helps explain your bidding strategy, and one thing they're looking for is consistency. Our priorities are 1) cone (political) 2) region of interest 3) safety. So it would make sense for us to rank a political job in a safe city in John's region of interest high. It would not make as much sense to rank a political job in a safe city not in John's region of interest high, or a consular job in any city high. BUT, we could put those as mediums. We can even indicate mediums we'd prefer over other mediums in the notes. And you can indicate your highest highs as well. They did stress to keep the notes to a minimum. But if there's a city that seems to meet our other criteria and doesn't have Internet, we could rank it lower and make a note. You get the idea. I hope.

Originally we only had a few highs. We've had to rethink that as we've done more research and realized that some places we might have overlooked at first actually have a very good quality of life based on personal post reports. If you'd like to check out any country yourself, just go to, then to RPRs (real post reports). Not every report is made by a Foreign Service officer (I think any expat can contribute), but there is a lot of useful information, including what the public transportation is like, how expensive (and reliable) Internet is, how safe the city is, what not to take with you, and what you absolutely should take with you. Obviously a lot of it is completely subjective, but it gives you a good feel for what living in the city would be like.

Packing "list" of realist painter Adolf Konrad (1915-2003)

There are also posts that look good at first glance, but turn out to either be less safe, or more remote, or less interesting, than you might assume. That's why it's important to research every single post on there (unless there are certain jobs you simply don't want no matter where they are). Even if you think you know a city well (maybe you've been there before, or you know someone who has), living somewhere for two years is extremely different from visiting for two weeks. What might seem like minor irritations (public transportation) or even benefits (lack of fast food restaurants) could become real hassles over time. I'm not big on McDonald's, but after eating goulash for months, I might start to crave those french fries. Even living in London ten years ago, I was always happy to visit a nearby Starbucks. A vanilla soy latte can do a lot to boost your mood when you're feeling homesick. Like I said, there's a lot to consider, and only a little time left to do it. Our bid list is due early next week.

If any of you have any thoughts, please weigh in in the comments! We need all the help we can get!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Things I Love Thursdays: Hermes Wallpaper

Okay kids, this is gonna be brief, but I just had to share this with my book-loving (and horse-loving!) friends. How gorgeous is this?

It's Hermes wallpaper, an "illustrated depiction of the fashion house's library of equestrian books in Paris." Who wouldn't want a wall covered in THAT? Okay, there's probably a lot of people who wouldn't, but guess what - I do! Horses, books, and varying shades of blue. What's not to love?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Writing Wednesdays: Why Write?

This week, I've been thinking about why we write.

I know we all have different reasons, but for me, it wasn't something I'd thought a lot about before; writing was just something that once I started doing, I couldn't stop. Eight years ago, I was living in BFE with nothing better to do, and I guess I'd always kind of wondered if I could write a book. Once I tried it, and realized that I was in fact capable of writing several hundred pages, I decided to try again. And again. And again.

I know for sure what aren't the reasons: it's certainly not because I think what I have to say is so important that the rest of the world needs to hear it, or because I think I'm the best writer, or because I want to be famous. I don't expect to get rich off of writing. I don't expect to receive rave reviews if I ever do get published. Would all of those thing be nice? Of course, but they're not the reasons why.

Having a child and making it my goal to continue writing helped me realize why writing is so important to me. It makes me feel like my brain isn't turning to mush, for one thing. It gives me a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day. And it is a quick - and free - escape from the tedium of my everyday life. It's something I'll probably continue to do even if I don't get published, even if it's just posting on my blog a few times a week. I will admit that I get a sense of satisfaction from knowing that I make a few of you laugh every now and then, or that I've helped inspire one or two people to follow their passion. Hearing a critique partner say that they enjoyed my novel is great, of course. But those aren't reasons to spend two to three hours a day doing something you don't really have time for. I do it because I enjoy it, and because it defines ME, not the role I play in other people's lives (wife, mother, daughter, sister).

So why am I thinking about all this, you might ask? I guess it's because this whole Foreign Service thing is about to become a reality, and not only will my ability to shop at Target be in serious jeopardy -- there's a very good chance I won't be able to continue blogging (or Googling, which is imperative to my writing, even if it is fiction). John seems to think there's a universal, if somewhat expensive, solution to the fact that many of the Foreign Service posts are "off the grid." I'm not sure how well a satellite Internet device is going to work, but if all the reports that power outages are common and that the dial-up Internet harkens back to 1994 are true, I know I won't have the patience to go online very often. There's also the fact that we're not supposed to be identifiable on a blog, which is going to be tricky if I ever do become a published author.

I am willing to give up a lot for John's dream, including Whole Foods, Anthropologie, reliable air conditioning, and potentially the ability to leave a compound without fearing for my safety, but writing is one thing I'm simply not willing to give up. On the little worksheet John had to turn in today, which lists how you're going to rank your post preferences, the spouse's ability to telecommute was not one of the options (even though having a pet was). I'm wondering if we could have written in "maintaining spouse's sanity," because all I know is that without writing, I simply wouldn't be me.

So why do you write? Please share in the comments!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Mommy Mondays: Reign of Terror

Last week I did something I swore I'd never do - I flew across the country with Jack, without John. I thought I was well prepared for this trip. Sarah was flying with me (with Minky), and I outfitted Jack with all the necessities: wolf pup neck pillow, puppy backpack/leash (don't judge until you've tried to go through security with a squirming toddler), fox backpack full of toys, Finding Nemo, various snacks, diapers, wipes, drugs, etc. I even borrowed one of those wheelie-jobbers you attach to the car seat so I wouldn't have to deal with the stroller. I was ready!

And then we hit the security line at Dulles. It took an hour and a half just to get to our gate, at which point the flight was boarding. And the geniuses who assign seats decided to put Sarah, Jack, and me in different rows. That's right - I didn't even have a seat next to my own child. For some reason, the people who work for United Airlines couldn't seem to fathom that Jack was mine. The woman at the check-in desk actually said, "So you're traveling with pets, correct?"
"Well, one is a human child," Sarah replied. The woman didn't even blink.
We finally ended up with Sarah in one row and Jack and me seated in the last row (and since we were some of the last people to board, I was trying to jam a car seat into the window seat by myself while Jack ran amok). The douche sitting in the aisle seat, who had a seriously annoying habit of sniffing every eight seconds, was totally useless. He even had the nerve to get annoyed when I got up once, during the entire 5.5 hour flight, to get a napkin because my nose was bleeding.

In short, I got on the airplane looking like this:

And walked off looking like this:

Jack got a cold the second day of our trip. A nasty cold. The kind accompanied by a cough and waking up in the middle of the night with a fever. Which meant I was also up in the middle of the night, and I also got a cold. This pretty much set the tone for the rest of the trip (aside from the first few days while the lovely Kimmy was with us, which were actually a lot of fun). Unfortunately, Jack is already pretty volatile these days, but the cold seemed to push him over the edge into full-on Terrible Twos horror.

The question on everyone's mind last week - aside from "When will the terror end?" was, "Where do kids learn this stuff?" Jack has developed a flair for the dramatic that I can only hope will one day be harnessed for good and earn him an Oscar for best actor. When Kim dared to take the hair blow dryer away from Jack, he fell to his knees sobbing, his head buried in his hands in a sort of "woe is me" gesture befitting Scarlet O'Hara herself. When Sarah tried to cheer Jack up (or frankly even had the nerve to look at him) his lower lip would curl into a pout, his eyes would screw up in anger, and he would make a hideous "meh!" noise while hitting himself in the face. His own grandmother described these episodes as "homely." I think she was just being kind.

By the time our week came to an end, I think we were all ready for Jack to be on his not-so-merry way. At least in my house I can confine him to a small, baby-proofed area, while at Grandma and Grandpa's house Jack went skidding around the kitchen, into the dining room, past the office, and through the living room in a sort of race-car-like maneuver that more than once resulted in tears, thanks to the fateful combo of socks and hardwood floors. I left Washington feeling like one of those morons who volunteers to go on Wipe Out (a show my father loves and is therefore somewhat enjoyable, only because my dad has the greatest laugh ever). When we boarded the plane bound for D.C., I was too tired to care that Jack was repeatedly kicking the seat in front of him, spilling pretzels on the floor, and screaming at the top of his lungs for no apparent reason.

The only good thing I can say is, it's over. I survived flying alone with a two-year-old, even if it did age me ten years. Thank goodness John and I have chosen a lifestyle that will rarely require traveling, particularly on long, multi-leg flights to foreign countries.

Oh wait.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Foreign Service Fridays: The List

Hi all! I know this post is kind of late for all the East Coasters out there, but Jack's napping on West Coast time, so bear with me.

Yesterday we got THE LIST. All you Foreign Service folks out there know what I'm talking about, but for anyone who doesn't, The List is our "bid list," a spreadsheet of available posts that each A-100 class gets. That means that somewhere on that puppy is our future home. I'm not allowed to go into particulars, but let's just say it's got some great posts, some truly awful, worst-case-scenario posts, and a whole bunch of in-betweeners. John and I felt like we'd discussed everything but, as is generally the case, we were wrong.

One thing I hate about The List is that it consists of cities, not countries, and for those of us who are geographically challenged (ie, me), it's basically worthless. Fortunately, my ever-patient husband added a country column for the truly obscure ones (I still had to look up a bunch of them; bless John's little heart for thinking I know where some of these places are). In addition to the city, you get the cone (political, econ, consular, etc.), the language requirement (not as straight forward as you'd think; QB is Spanish for reasons unknown to me. In addition to the language code there's a proficiency requirement, which is generally 2/2 or 3/3, aka, pretty much fluent), the report date (ranging from mere weeks from now until early next year), the differential (sort of like a cost-of-living adjustment, only in this case you get more money the crappier a place is), the danger pay percentage (frankly I don't think an additional ten percent of John's pay is going to make up for having to drive around in an armored vehicle, but there you have it), and the size of the post.

Our particular list has very few posts that don't allow family members to accompany the FSO, although there are a handful of posts that John simply doesn't qualify for based on report date, language requirements, etc. Being in Washington has actually been a blessing in disguise, because it allowed me to have my minor freak out away from John. I was skirting a mental ledge for a few minutes there, one foot safely inside the walls of sanity and the other dangling somewhere in no man's land, but Sarah and Mommy managed to pull me back toward safety, and John and I have had several very civil discussions about the whole thing. We have almost two weeks to come up with our preferences (the list we turn in that ranks every post, including those John isn't actually eligible for, as high, medium, or low), but we have to turn in our little worksheet that basically explains our "bidding" strategy in just a few days. It turns out John and I are on the same page for this. Whew!

Essentially, John and I would prefer a post in his cone (political), in his geographic region of interest, in a place that has Internet (that is my one requirement for this whole thing. If I can't write, I'll almost certainly lose my toe-hold on sanity and plummet into the abyss). I have a feeling John and I won't get our top pick OR our worst-case scenario. It will probably be some random country that's kind of crappy but kind of cool. I can handle that. In theory. Right now it's just one step at a time. Plus, I figure the worse a place is, the better my stories will be to share with all of you. Unless we don't have Internet. In which case all bets are off.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Things I Love Thursdays: Query Contests

Hi all! I realize I've been quiet this week, which is due to the fact that I'm visiting my parents in Washington State and I prefer not to blog on vacation. BUT there's always an exception. Meredith Barnes over at La Vie en Prose (I wrote about her fabulous Ask An Agent forums here) is offering query critiques to anyone who mentions one of her selected author's books. I can't speak personally for these books, since I haven't read them, but I'm choosing to post a link to Dan Streib's books, since he's a veteran and I've got a soft spot for veterans. Also, his books sound intriguing (Meredith described the main character as James-Bond-meets-Anderson-Cooper, and I also have a major soft spot for Anderson Cooper). 

So, without further ado, here is the link

I hope at least some of you will check it out. And here's a link to the contest, in case any of my writing friends want to enter! 

Tomorrow I'm hoping for an exciting Foreign Service Friday, since we should be getting "The List" any minute. Stay tuned!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Weekly Inspiration: Jack and the Flumflum Tree

Everyone thinks they can write a children's book. Admit it - you've found yourself reading a story to a child at some point in your life and thought, "I can do better than this!" And that's probably true. There are a lot of bad children's books out there.

But every now and again you come across one that resonates with you for some reason. As a child, my favorite books were Corduroy (which I'm happy to report Jack loves) and The Little Engine That Could. Before I was old enough to know what a "mantra" was, I repeated "I think I can" over and over until I finally made it across the balance beam.

In children's books, illustrations are just as important as words. Sometimes the author is also the illustrator, and there is a harmony between the words and pictures that just clicks. Take, for example, Where the Wild Things Are, featuring one of my all-time favorite children's book lines: "Oh please don't go - we'll eat you up - we love you so." Dr. Seuss is another example of this.

And then there are the collaborations. I imagine it must be difficult to be a children's book writer who doesn't do his or her own illustrations. Finding the right artist to express what you can see so clearly in your mind's eye has to be difficult. But sometimes the pairing is so perfect it seems as if it could only have come from one imagination. Jack and the Flumflum Tree, which Jack received from his Aunt Elizabeth for his birthday, is one of those books. Not only are the illustrations fantastic, but the rhyming scheme is so spot-on you almost find yourself singing the book instead of reading it.

Written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by David Roberts, it's quickly become one of Jack's (and my) favorite books. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the protagonist shares a name with Jack, but he started talking about the Isle of Blowyernose after the first reading. We've read it about thirty times since then, and it still hasn't gotten old.

My favorite line from the book is Jack's own little mantra: "Don't get your knickers in a twist," said Jack. "Let's have a look in the patchwork sack." Jack is calm, resourceful, and brave, and with his little bowl cut and dorky sweater, how can you not love him? If I ever decide to write a children's book, this is what I'll strive for.

Things I Love Thursdays: The Seven Year Pen

This isn't going to be a regular thing, so don't get too excited out there (kidding), but since I'm not sure if I'll have time to post tomorrow, I thought I'd do something a little different this week. Besides, I can never resist the opportunity for a good alliteration!

For my very first Things I Love Thursdays (which is a lot like Weekly Inspiration, I'll admit, just less in-depth), I'm excited to tell you about The Seven Year Pen. Sarah actually discovered this little cutie, but once I saw her adorable white pen with tiny black Wayfarers on it I had to have one for myself. Not only does this pen last seven years, it writes awesomely, and it's great for the environment (the packaging said something about the millions of pens that are thrown out ever day, but I can't remember the statistics). But most importantly, they're freaking adorable. Sarah got me the turquoise one with the whale. Aren't they the cutest thing ever?? I've got my eye on the one with the feather. Totally worth the eight dollar price tag (especially if you're not the one paying for it).

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Writing Wednesdays: Writing the Query First

One of the cool things about joining the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI), aside from getting updates about all their cool conferences and being able to put it in a query letter, is that you get their magazine as part of the package. My first issue came yesterday and I was surprised at how much great information was in there, including a conference calendar that I will definitely be perusing throughout the year.

One of the articles that really caught my attention was "Query Letter First" by Karen Kincy. This go-round, I decided to try this method, which I'd never done before. Thanks to Sarah forcing me to outline, I knew enough of the story ahead of time to write a query before I'd even started Chapter One. I think a lot of people worry that their story won't end up anything like their query, because characters have a way of leading us in directions we hadn't even imagined, but as Kincy says, "Knowing where I might be going with the novel did not in any way distract me from seeing much better paths ahead. I simply tweaked my query letter as I went along, making sure it reflected the current manuscript."

Thanks to a wonderful agent I've known for some time, I was able to test out my original query before I'd even completed the manuscript. Guess what? It sucked. There was more red ink on that puppy than black when she returned it to me. And of course, she was totally right. I had dumped everything into that query, including about seven characters, every major plot twist, and all kinds of back story that was completely irrelevant. In the end, that query was really more of a synopsis than anything else. But it gave me focus and direction, and I enjoyed writing it. Plus, the agent pointed out several major issues I was able to remedy not only in the new query, but in the novel itself.

Of course, we don't all have extremely generous agents at our disposal, but we do have each other. And the query critiques I've gotten from all my new bloggy friends have been awesome. If you're in the early stages of your novel, I highly recommend this method. As Kincy points out, "Wouldn't you rather decide now instead of later to reconstruct your plot? Your revisions span only paragraphs, not pages." It's certainly worth a shot!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Mommy Mondays: Room for Seconds?

Something happens when your firstborn turns two. The friends and family members who have been fairly good about not asking when they can expect to see baby #2 start to get antsy. Your belly isn't getting bigger; you don't seem to be checking your watch for ovulation updates; you're not even discussing the possibility of a little brother or sister for #1. Clearly, you are not right in the head.

Most of my friends with children around Jack's age have either just had their second, are pregnant with their second, or are actively trying to get pregnant. And apparently I'm expected to do the same. At the park the other day, a friend of a friend, who has a three year old daughter and is herself pregnant with her second, asked me casually when I was thinking of having a second of my own. I'm not sure when it became okay to ask a near-stranger when they're planning on breeding again, but when I told this lady that I wasn't sure there was going to be a second, a look of surprise came over her face. It was like I'd just told a butcher I was considering going vegan, and a little neon sign flashing DOES NOT COMPUTE appeared over her head, only for a moment, before she smiled and said, "Oh."

At this point in the conversation a certain amount of back-pedaling is required, before things get really awkward and you pass the point of no return. I usually say something along the lines of, "My husband just joined the Foreign Service and we'd like to know where we're going next before we decide." This is something people can understand (well, a lot of people don't understand why we want to join the Foreign Service in the first place, but they can see why you'd want to make sure you'll be living somewhere you won't be expected to give birth in a field before making any decisions), and generally the conversation can be steered toward safer ground, like the unseasonably warm weather, or poop (parents can always bond over poop; don't ask me why). But in my head, I'm always thinking, "What is wrong with me that I'm not dying to have a second child already?"

I know there are parents out there who decide to have one child. Many of my friends growing up were only children, and for the most part they are happy, well-adjusted human beings. I read somewhere recently that only children are actually more successful than their siblinged counterparts. Kids are expensive, and they require a whole lot of time and energy to raise properly. And yet making the decision to have one child seems unthinkable to most people I know. Some of them are just eager for another baby; some want a friend for their other child; and some, it seems, have another child simply because it's the thing to do. I worry that Jack could be lonely without a sibling, especially considering that he's going to be growing up all over the world, but there's no guarantee siblings will be friends. I enjoy the freedom of only having one child right now, but eventually I'm not going to care about going to karaoke on a Saturday night with my single friends (I hope). If we end up in the middle of nowhere with a fabulous nanny and no Internet, having a second might seem like the perfectly logical thing to do.

For now, I'm hoping that one day I'll wake up and know that it's time (or not), that Jack will cease to be a baby in my eyes and I'll long for that warm baby smell, the teeny tiny hands and feet, the gummy smile and that sense of importance that comes from knowing this little person is entirely dependent on you. But right now, all I know is that the only thing worse than having to clean this up:

is having to do it twice:

Friday, January 6, 2012

Foreign Service Fridays: Decisions, Decisions

No no, we don't have the list of possible posts yet, so don't get too excited. That goes for John, too, who lately has been going a wee bit insane with all this Foreign Service stuff, even though we're still twelve days out from getting the bid list (wow - writing that down makes it seem like it IS really close!). While John was in Italy he decided to break the globe down into regions and rank them in order of preference. He suggested this morning that I do the same. Here are the reasons I refuse to do that:

First of all, the majority of countries are not going to show up on that list. We can discuss the possibilities until we're blue in the face, but if they're not on the list, we've just wasted a lot of breath for nothing, and no doubt gotten into several arguments we could have saved for a later date.

Second, ranking things by region doesn't really make sense to me. I'm not opposed to any one region per se, just specific locations within some regions. So putting Southeast Asia above South America is a generalization I'm not prepared to make. I'm sure there are places in either one of those regions that are lovely, and places that I'd rather read about online than spend two years living in.

Third, we're going to want to research each possible post in depth when the time comes, because reading other Foreign Service blogs will no doubt reveal things we haven't even considered yet. I know John thinks two weeks isn't enough time to research sixty posts, but he underestimates my abilities.

Fourth, we're not just talking about one country vs another. We're talking about the job itself, the language requirement, the move date, the quality of life, etc.

And finally, in the end, we don't have all that much say in the matter. Someone is going to get the crappy post that no one wants. With my luck, it will be us. Sure, it's lovely to imagine ourselves living in an apartment in central Florence, but it's probably not a very realistic fantasy. My motto has always been "Plan for the worst and hope for the best," and that's just what I intend to do. Yes, I'm a planner by nature, and usually I obsess over these kinds of things. Maybe I'm just too obsessed with my book at the moment to think about this stuff. Maybe my brain is burying my terror somewhere deep into the recesses of my subconscious. Maybe John is just worrying enough for the two of us. Whatever the case, I refuse to freak out until I see the bid list. Then all hell can break loose.

I should also clear up a couple of things I wrote about last week that were incorrect. Flag Day (the day we find out where we're going) is actually going to be on February 17th (eeeek!), not the 24th. And someone with a 5.8 wasn't 40-something on the list. Apparently there were two people with the same name and someone made a mistake. So John's odds of getting in now weren't quite as bad as we thought, but nevertheless, we're glad everything worked out.

The one bit of planning I did allow myself in John's absence was getting a cork board and map pins for our world map. I took the liberty of putting two "NO" pins in the map to get the process started (the key is pretty straightforward: green=high; yellow=middle; red=no). If anyone has suggestions for how to tackle the bid list, I'd love to hear them in the comments - I know there are a few Foreign Service lurkers who read this blog who never comment. Show yourselves!

I know the pins are a little hard to see; think of it as Where's Waldo, the Geography Edition.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Writing Wednesdays: Killing Your Darlings. Literally.

We've all heard the expression "kill your darlings." It's a common writing trope, along with "write what you know" and "show, don't tell." Frankly, I'm not big on these sorts of generalities. If we all wrote what we know, fantasy would simply cease to exist as a genre (unless all fantasy authors are insane and they ARE writing what they know, in which case the world just became a far more frightening place). To "kill your darlings" means to get rid of the parts of your writing you love the most, because they're probably not nearly as good as you think. The expression has been attributed to Faulkner, although supposedly it originated with the author Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. Whoever coined it, the phrase has stuck. And there is no one who has taken it more literally than George R. R. Martin.

In this case, I'm not talking about the writing itself. I'm talking about characters. In the A Song of Ice and Fire series, Mr. Martin kills off one of his main characters in the very first book, A Game of Thrones. Since I saw the HBO series first, I wasn't as shocked when Lord Eddard Stark gets his head lopped off in front of his own children.

But midway through the third book in the series, A Storm of Swords, two characters who have been a part of the series from the very beginning are killed off in one fell swoop. I didn't see it coming. At all. I'd just spent thousands of pages getting to know these characters, and within the span of a few paragraphs, they were obliterated. Just like that. I couldn't sleep afterward. I thought a third character was also dead and I HAD to skip ahead to make sure she was alive, because my nerves just couldn't take losing three characters in one night.

I'm told it takes a lot for a writer to delete a scene they love. I don't really have that problem, because I never really fall in love with any of my scenes (I just don't have that high of an opinion of my writing). I might have a line I think is funny that I don't want to get rid of, so I'll try to find room for it somewhere else, but if an editor or agent tells me something needs to go, it's gone. But characters? That's a whole other bucket of coleslaw, my friends. My characters I love. I wouldn't have created them if I didn't. And to spend so much time developing them (literally around 2,000 pages by this point in the series) only to stick a sword through their heart or have their throat slit, is simply unfathomable to me. Bad guys are a different story, of course. But we're not talking about bad guys. We're talking about good guys, people the reader has come to care about, even if their chapters are a little boring. I don't know how Martin does it. I give him props for being so brave, but at the same time, as a reader I'm kind of miffed. With four more books in the series, I'm left wondering if ANY of the characters will be alive at the end.

As I work through what I hope is my final round of revisions on my WIP, I've had to get rid of a couple of characters in order to condense the story. They were minor characters, but even still, it has been difficult. Characters have a way of taking on a life of their own. Once created, they do things even you didn't see coming. In some ways, getting rid of a character is like killing them off. We'll never know where their story might have gone if things had worked out differently. For now, I just have to mourn their loss and move on. Besides, you never know when they might pop up again in the future.

So what about you? Have you had to kill any of your darlings yet? Please share in the comments!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Mommy Mondays: What I Am

Yesterday, Sarah and I were discussing our New Year's Resolutions. I had already shared my writing resolutions for 2012 with all of you, but Sarah (who never, ever lets me off the hook) insisted that those were goals, not resolutions. To be honest with you, I wasn't really sure what the difference was.

Sarah described a goal as something you don't necessarily have control over (like getting an agent), whereas a resolution is a decision to achieve something or make a change, a sort of pact you make with yourself. For example, Sarah resolved to do something philanthropic with her time this year. Many people resolve to lose weight or quit a bad habit. Unfortunately, most resolutions tend to be broken fairly quickly. According to the New York Times, "Four out of five people who make New Year’s resolutions...will eventually break them. In fact, a third won’t even make it to the end of January." Goals, on the other hand, tend to stick around for longer, probably because we can put them off as long as we want.

So, what are my resolutions? For one thing, I resolve every year to be a better wife and mother. Of course that's pretty abstract, but generally it has to do with being more patient, not just with John and Jack, but with myself as well. Unfortunately, I sort of shot myself in the foot this morning by deciding to change Jack's crib sheet. Seriously, who in the hell decided that the crib mattress should not only be the exact same size as the crib, but so stiff it requires super-human strength to bend it into submission? And of course the mattress is at the lowest setting, and the crib itself comes up to my armpits, so when I bend over the railing to try and reach the far side of the crib, my feet are dangling a good two feet off the ground, making leverage as unattainable as the patience I resolved to embrace in 2012. Worst of all, when you're changing the crib sheet, you have nowhere to cage your toddler. This means that while you're hovering in mid-air, muttering obscenities as your feet flail around uselessly, your child is running from room to room like an escaped chimp, slamming doors, riffling through drawers, and above all looking for anything that is highly likely to cause bodily harm. Patience, indeed.

After Sarah told me the things she'd like to change about herself this year, she looked at me expectantly. She'd just acknowledged her character flaws and apparently it was time for me to confess mine. "The thing is," I said after thinking for a few moments, "and I know you're probably going to laugh when I say this, but there isn't really anything major I want to change about myself. I've sort of come to accept myself for what I am." Remarkably, Sarah managed to keep a straight face. While she certainly made no effort to agree with me, she did manage to come up with a fairly diplomatic response. "You're right. You've finally gotten to a point in your life where you're happy with yourself."

Now don't get me wrong, people. I'm still insecure about a lot of things, and as I demonstrated this morning, I have plenty of stuff to work on. But for the first time in my life, I really am happy with who I am. Not with what I've achieved, necessarily, but with who I am as a person. And it only took thirty-one years to get here!

Like all parents, John and I like to fantasize about the hundreds of opportunities in Jack's future. Knowing that he will grow up in the Foreign Service is scary and exciting at the same time. He'll probably be far more independent than I was as a child, but probably a lot more lonely, too. He won't have the luxury of growing up with the same friends, living in the same house, and going to the same school, but he'll meet new people and experience things he'll never forget. Imaging all that possibility is one of the most exciting aspects of parenthood. Naturally, John and I have already discussed numerous career paths:

Food critic?
Unemployed hipster?
Whatever path Jack chooses -- and I'm sure it will be something we haven't even imagined yet -- I hope it takes him a lot less than thirty-one years to accept himself for who he is. After all, what's not to love?

And in the meantime, I resolve to make it John's responsibility to change the crib sheet.

(If you have a spare moment, check out this Sesame Street video with entitled "What I Am.")