Monday, April 30, 2012

Mommy Mondays: He IS Heavy, He's My Baby

Today I barely have the strength to write this post. That's partly because I'm exhausted from my girls weekend, which was wonderfully awesome, but it's mostly because we went to the Baltimore Aquarium today and guess what: they don't allow strollers. The woman at the ticket window sensed my horror when she mentioned this and said brightly, "We have carriers you can use." Either this woman doesn't have children, in which case she doesn't understand the physical strength (and height) required to carry a two-year-old in a backpack, or she does have children and she's just a big meanie. Either way, there was no chance I was going to carry Jack through the aquarium on my back.

If you've ever chased/carried/dragged a 35-pound child through an aquarium for two hours then you probably understand why I can hardly lift my arms right now. Add a few hours of DC driving into the equation, and I'm basically a worthless blob of Jell-O sprawled on the couch at the moment. Jack, meanwhile, recharged his batteries with a one-hour nap on the way home and is in full up tower-building mode.

Yes, that IS Finding Nemo in the background. Don't judge.
I made a quick post-aquarium stop at the drugstore on the way home, and as I was struggling to get my massive child into his car seat, I started to wonder what the $%#& I'm going to do with this kid if he continues to grow (which does appear to be an inevitability at this point, unfortunately). I know I'm not body-builder material, but I'm also not completely out of shape. How on earth do other mothers deal with this? Is there something wrong with me? Did I miss the class on wielding heavy children, or is there a baby forklift available that someone forgot to mention to me? Do I need to throw squats into my workout routine? Or am I just supposed to drag the kid by the ankles when he goes limp and refuses to move away from the lion fish? Thoughts? Suggestions. Hit me up. I'm desperate.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Foreign Service Fridays: Russian For Beginners

Today's post is a little on the short side, since I still have to work out, shower, and pack before I pick Kimmy up at the airport. Let the girls' weekend awesomeness begin!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Things I Love Thursdays: New Girl

Of all the new shows that started this year, my hands-down favorite has to be New Girl. I love everything about this show, from Zooey Deschanel and her ridiculously cute retro outfits to the laugh-out-loud humor that even John can't resist.

I mean, seriously people. Could she be any cuter?
I was a little sad to see Dermot Mulroney leave this week, but I'm waiting anxiously for the inevitable hook-up between Jess and Nick (then again, I'm sort of hoping they don't, lest this turn into some sort of Rachel-Ross spiral that takes over the entire show). I love that the cast (aside from Zooey) consists of relative unknowns; they're all hilarious in their own way, even Schmidt, who you want to hate but kind of can't help loving.

Don't you just want to be friends with these people? I know I do. I honestly can't remember the last time a sitcom made me laugh so much. My only complaint is that it's only a piddly half hour. I want more! Please, Powers That Be, don't let this show end!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Writing Wednesdays: At the Intersection of Confidence and Doubt

Today I noticed that a couple of my bloggy friends seem to be dealing with some writer insecurities, everything from critiquing, to pitching, to calling oneself a writer.  Since this is something I face constantly, I felt a little sad on their behalf, but I also felt a little grateful, because if there's one thing I've learned from joining this community, it's that we're all going through the same thing. There is a great deal of comfort in knowing I'm not alone.

Writers seem to be a particularly insecure group. This isn't surprising, considering we're putting our souls on paper and then sending them out for the whole world to see. We deal with rejection on a constant basis, whether from critique partners, agents, publishers, or - at the lowest points - even ourselves. I'm personally wading through the query trenches at the moment, so rejection is something I face on a weekly basis (actually, I haven't gotten that many rejections yet, so I either have a lot of no-responses, or the agents just haven't gotten to me yet; either way, I know it's coming).

Then again, none of us would be putting ourselves through this if we didn't believe on some level that our stories deserve to be published, that our voices and our characters need to be heard, and that we have something worth saying. It's a strange place to be, on the one hand feeling like a complete loser who is wasting time that could be better spent elsewhere, and on the other hand feeling like this is our calling, that this is what we are meant to do.

Yesterday I ran across this quote, and I wanted to share it with all my writing friends, because it's so positive and hopeful that it just feels true.

“Loving your subject, you will write about it with the spontaneity and enthusiasm that will transmit itself to your reader. Loving your reader, you will respect him and want to please him. You will not write down to him. You will take infinite pains with your work. You will write well. And if you write well, you will get published.” --Lee Wyndham

All I can say is, I hope Ms. Wyndham is right.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Mommy Mondays: Building Resilience

One of the most unexpected and amazing aspects of parenthood is watching entire life lessons unfold in your child's mundane, everyday activities.

For example, another child wants to play with the toy your child had first. Life lesson: sharing. Or your child doesn't like what you made for dinner. Life Lesson: you can't always get what you want (or, "This isn't a damn restaurant and you'll eat what I say you'll eat!"). Or maybe your child smacks you in the head and you smack them back (okay, okay, you give them a time out). Life lesson: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

The life lesson Jack learned yesterday involved the world's most elaborate toy tower - consisting of stacking cups, Melissa and Doug puzzle pieces, and random tiny animals - and sadly, it's inevitable end. This is a story best told in pictures. Lucky for you, rather than help or comfort my child during this scene, I stood back and photographed it.

Much crying and wailing ensued. And of course at this point I actually did comfort the poor child, so you can simmer down, Grandmas. (I'd also like to point out his father dressed him yesterday...)

After Jack calmed down a little, I told him that everything was fine, that it had been a very splendid tower and I was quite proud of him. Then, after a big hug, we started building the tower anew. Because of all the attributes we hope for in our children - patience, honesty, integrity, confidence, kindness, etc. - some of the most important, in my humble opinion, are resilience, fortitude, and persistence. The world is going to knock us all down time and time again. It's our ability to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and start all over again that defines us.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Foreign Service Fridays: Fish Under a Fur Coat

Happy Friday, everyone! And just be grateful you're not having this for dinner.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Things I Love Thursdays: Eddie Redmayne

I usually stick to things I love on Thursday, not people, but Eddie Redmayne is just so damn cute, I think it's worth mentioning. I've had a crush on him since his brief appearance in "The Other Boleyn Girl," but his role in "The Pillars of the Earth" miniseries was the clincher. What is it about Eddie that makes him be constantly cast as "the nice guy?" I'm not sure, but I'm not arguing.

We rented "My Week With Marilyn" a couple of weeks ago, and I'll be honest, Eddie made the movie for me. Michelle Williams was obviously brilliant as Marilyn Monroe, but it's Eddie's innocence and naivete that make him so darn lovable. He was the perfect choice for the role of a star-struck young man trying to make it in the film industry. He only spends one week with Marilyn, but you actually believe that he's fallen in love with her in that time. In the meantime, you've fallen in love with him.

Yes, I have a thing for good guys, but Eddie's looks certainly aren't hurting. If you've seen him in the Burberry ads, you know what I'm talking about.

I've also noticed in my, ahem, research, that Eddie seems like a genuinely nice human being, which is why he's the perfect casting choice for the best friend in my new book (a younger version, of course). I wouldn't exactly call myself a "Redmayniac" - I'll leave that to more his more obsessed devoted followers - but I'm definitely a fan.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Writing Wednesdays: What Keeps You Going?

Some of you may remember that I entered a Secret Agent contest over on Miss Snark's First Victim last week (a huge thanks to Authoress for hosting these amazing competitions; I can't imagine the amount of work that goes into them, and she does it all anonymously). And guess what - I was one of the four winners! I got some helpful feedback to boot, and a full request is always awesome. I'm not getting my hopes up, but it was still a vote of confidence at a time when I really needed one. It's funny how the universe seems to give me just enough courage to keep going whenever I'm feeling down. And I keep track of all those little sparks, just so I can pull them up (usually from memory - I don't forget a compliment!) when I need one.

I wasn't encouraged to write in high school. Why would I have been, when there were so many other amazing students who stood out far more than I ever could? I didn't take a single writing class until college, and that was a journalism class my third/final year. I was so incensed over another class that I wrote an op-ed (my first) and it was published in the San Francisco Chronicle, and then again later in a text book. It was the first thing I ever published, and it was the push that got me going in the right direction.

Later, after I wrote that first terrible novel, I took a travel writing class and was encouraged by the professor to submit my story for publication. Then there was the author who sent my book to her agent (who in turn said, "You will be published." Maybe she was just being nice, but I believed her). There was the fabulous rejection letter I received on my last novel, which I printed out and highlighted for when things got really bad, and the feedback from my awesome CP, Cara, which has made me believe in this novel far more than I ever did before.

I know it's important to believe in myself. And I do. But without those extra boosts from the friends and mentors I've met along the way, I don't know if I'd still be following this crazy path. What's kept you going (in writing or whatever dream you're pursuing)?

Monday, April 16, 2012

Mommy Mondays: Just The Two Of Us

Some of you may have seen my post on Friday that I got a job at the consulate in Yekaterinburg. This is good news of course, for several reasons:

1) I'll be around Americans/English-speakers for 20 hours a week
2) I'll have something to keep me occupied during those long winter months (all ten of them)
3) We'll be making a little extra money, which never hurts
4) I'll be able to get a nanny for Jack

Number four is the tricky one here. You see, I've been feeling a little burnt-out on the full-time mommy thing for a while now (I don't think it's a coincidence it happened right when Jack turned two). He has his two mornings of preschool a week, and that's certainly a nice break, but there are times when the child makes me absolutely insane. About, oh, three times a day, on average. Now I'm not saying Jack is worse than your average two year old. And I'm not saying that I don't love being home with my boy, because I do. Jack and I have a lot of fun together most of the time, and I love seeing him learn and grow every day.

But I'm also not the most patient human being on the face of the earth (no comments from the peanut gallery - that means you, John). I think in a way it will be really good for me to be away from Jack a few days a week (or every morning, or whatever my schedule turns out to be), because it will mean that by five o'clock I'm not hanging on by a thread, ready to pounce on John and throw our child at him as soon as he walks in the door. In fact, I'll get to be more like Daddy for a change: someone Jack is always happy to see, someone who gets to be "fun" because she's not always doing the dirty work. Sounds kinda nice, right?

But like I said, it's tricky. For over two years now, it's been just Jack and me. We're a team, the two of us. I always have my sidekick with me, no matter what. And Jack always has me to kiss his head when he bonks it on the table, to read him his favorite stories or play farm with, and to not only be the one to put him down to sleep every day, but to always be there when he wakes up. To think that someone else (and not Daddy or Grandma or Sha Sha, but someone else) is going to be those things now, too - that's not something I take lightly.

Ah, Mommy Guilt. We all feel it, right? Whether we stay home or work or stay home and then go back to work - we're always torn in a million directions. I know that's part of what it means to be a mom, and I'm so grateful I've been able to do everything on my terms so far. I know it can't always be just the two of us forever. But despite the tantrums (Jack's AND mine), the long days and the hard work, the ranting and raving and carrying on, despite the what-ifs and if-onlys, I know this much is true: I'm going to miss it all the same.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Foreign Service Fridays: Hello, I'm Moving to Russia

Here's this week's Foreign Service post!

Happy Friday the Thirteenth!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Things I Love Thursdays: New Projects

The reason this post is late today is because I've been writing for the past couple of hours. That's right, I'm working on the new book, and it feels great! It's a little tricky, seeing as it's set in Saint Petersburg and I've never actually been to Russia, but who wouldn't be inspired by this:

Or this:

My main character, Akira, is half-Russian, half-Japanese, and shaping up to be a total badass. As of right now she does kenjutsu (Japanese sword-fighting) and ballet, and she looks kinda like this.

Her enemy is Koschei the Deathless, reimagined by me as a soul-eating demon who takes over the body of his last victim. The giveaway? His rows of needle-sharp teeth, even when he's in the body of a small child. That, and the horrible sound he makes before he eats his victims' souls. Thanks to a crap deal her grandfather made as a young man, Akira's soul is on the line, and she's not the kind of girl to wait for a hero to rescue it.

Now, might all this change in the course of the next year or so? Probably. Will I potentially give up this project for another somewhere along the way? Maybe. But it's got me writing, and that's never a bad thing.

Plus, I'm learning a little Russian along the way.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Kale Chips a la John

Okay guys, I promised I'd be back with our winning kale chip recipe, and here it is! It's as good as the store-bought ones, and SO MUCH cheaper! This recipe is modified from one we found in Food and Wine magazine, because we didn't have all the ingredients on hand. The kale chips can be made in the oven, although we highly recommend a dehydrator (it makes ALL the difference. We got a Nesco one from Amazon for $35). We tried a lot of the recipes that just call for olive oil and salt, but they weren't cutting it for us. These are awesome! The only problem? They're gone in ten minutes. Kudos to you if you can make them last longer!

1 head of kale, de-stemmed and torn into pieces
1/2 cup almond butter
1/4 cup warm water
3 tbsps extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp tahini
2 tsps cider vinegar
1 tbsp onion powder
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp oregano
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper
1/2 tsp sea salt

Mix all the ingredients (except for the kale and salt) in a bowl or cup and stir until combined. In a large bowl, pour the liquid over the kale and mix thoroughly with your hands until the kale is coated.
Lay out the kale pieces on cookie sheets or on the dehydrator layers, then sprinkle with salt. They take three hours in the dehydrator or two hours in the oven at 200 degrees F.

This is the first time I've written a recipe so let me know if something doesn't make sense! Enjoy!

Writing Wednesdays: Secret Agent Contest

Today I'm participating in the Secret Agent Contest over at Miss Snark's First Victim. I feel so lucky to have gotten in on my first try! Here's how it works, for my non-writing friends:

Your title and genre are posted on the blog, along with your first 250 words. Anyone can comment, and an agent will be among those commenters. When the contest ends, the agent will be revealed, along with the winning manuscript (the winner gets a partial request). I'm certainly not expecting to win, but I figure any feedback I can get at this point is worth something. Please stop by and leave a comment if you want to (honest feedback only, please - as much as I'd love a bunch of people saying how great my book is, that sort of thing is frowned upon :P). I'm number 31. Thanks to Authoress for the opportunity!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Mommy Mondays: Not According to Plan

A couple of months ago, we made plans to drive up to Philadelphia with friends for Easter/Passover weekend to take our kids to Sesame Place, an amusement park completely devoted to Sesame Street. That made us pretty awesome parents in my book. Of course, I can't really take the credit, since it was Courtney's idea, but I was excited to present Jack with a day of total fun. The hotel had a pool, there's absolutely nothing else around Sesame Place, so the kids were guaranteed an entire day at the park, and we even got a suite at the hotel so Jack could sleep in the bedroom and John and I could sleep on the pull-out couch in the living room. But then, two nights before the trip, Courtney noticed some fine print on the bottom of the website for the first time: "Park opens for the season on April 28."

Whoops. There weren't all our carefully laid plans. Thank god our kids weren't old enough to understand. Otherwise we would have been ordering some last-minute Elmo costumes or scrambling desperately to find a suitable alternative. Instead, we planned a nice Easter brunch for Saturday and a trip up to our friends' farm for Sunday. It wasn't going to be as exciting as Sesame Place, we figured, but it was better than nothing.

Does this child look disappointed to you?
Turns out the weekend was awesome. I'm sure we would have had a great time at Sesame Place, of course, but it's funny what can happen when your plans go seriously awry. On Saturday, Jack and Anneliese had a wonderful mini-egg hunt, thanks to Courtney, and the farm on Sunday couldn't have been better. Jack got to hold a baby lamb:

Jack and Squid
And "drive" a tractor:

The only bad part was trying to get Jack OFF the tractor
And play with goats and run amok, and even do a second Easter egg hunt. And I learned a couple things this weekend, too. First, that I definitely do NOT want to own a farm. Our friends Nick and Katie, who are just as urban as you and me but decided to take over a family farm that was going into foreclosure, have had to work literally around the clock to take care of their 80-something sheep. Thanks to a ram getting in with the sheep early, many of the baby lambs (yes, I realize a lamb is a baby sheep, but these lambs are so little I'm calling them baby lambs) were born when there was still snow on the ground, which meant Nick and Katie have had to not only bring the lambs into their one-room house, but occasionally into their bed. The neat-freak part of me was going slightly insane while we were there (there was a sheep nibbling off of Jack's plate while he ate lunch), but Katie has made the best of a truly insane situation. She commutes three hours a day and gets about three hours of sleep a night. The rest of the time she's working and bottle-feeding lamblets. So while Jack may have had the time of his life on the farm, I think it's safe to say we will not be adopting a sheep any time soon.

I'm also trying to accept the fact that the universe has a plan for me, even if I can't see it yet. Was Russia my first choice? Absolutely not. But I do believe there's something waiting there for me. With every book I write that doesn't get published, I tell myself the next one will be "it." I still think it's going to happen some day, but like everything else, probably not how I expect it to. Letting go of my need to control the future is, I'm coming to find, my life lesson. I think the Foreign Service should help quite a bit with that. After all, "the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry." And sometimes, it's the moments in life we didn't plan for that are the very best of all.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Congrats To a Fellow Writer!

Krista Van Dolzer of Mother. Write. (Repeat.) just landed the awesome Kate Schafer Testerman of kt literary (she's one of my top choices...haven't had the guts to query her yet!) as an agent. Her story of "the call" is awesome and inspiring! She's also running a contest where you can win a query critique - thanks, Hope, for sharing! Here's the link to the contest if you still want to enter.

Congratulations to Krista! And thanks for the opportunity!

Friday, April 6, 2012

Foreign Service Fridays: To Do or Not To Do: Language Immersion

My latest Most Eligible Family post is available here.

Happy Easter/Passover/weekend everyone!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Things I Love Thursdays: Daughter of Smoke and Bone

I finally got around to reading Laini Taylor's phenomenal book, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, this week, and I'm so glad I did! It was the best thing I've read in a while. I think it took me three sittings to finish it - it would have been less if I didn't have silly responsibilities like a child and a husband to think about. I'd forgotten how inspiring it can be to read something really well written; it makes me want to work that much harder on my own writing. Taylor has created a world that is completely unique and yet fully realized at the same time, which I can really appreciate now, having tried to do something similar in my last book. The only bummer? It made me want to live in Prague (my number one choice for our A-100 list) so bad! I'll have to settle for visiting. At least it's a direct flight from Yekaterinburg...

Here is the description from Amazon:

Around the world, black handprints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky.

In a dark and dusty shop, a devil's supply of human teeth grown dangerously low.

And in the tangled lanes of Prague, a young art student is about to be caught up in a brutal otherwordly war.

Meet Karou. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters that may or may not be real; she's prone to disappearing on mysterious "errands"; she speaks many languages--not all of them human; and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that color. Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she's about to find out.

When one of the strangers--beautiful, haunted Akiva--fixes his fire-colored eyes on her in an alley in Marrakesh, the result is blood and starlight, secrets unveiled, and a star-crossed love whose roots drink deep of a violent past. But will Karou live to regret learning the truth about herself?

And here is the cover, in case you missed it the last time I posted it:

I can't recommend this book enough! And I can't wait for the sequel!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Writing Wednesdays: Are Conferences Worth It?

This past Saturday I attended my first SCBWI conference. It was held in Buckeystown, MD, and it was a simple one-day workshop with a few guest speakers and plenty of time to mingle with fellow writers. I'll admit, I was a little worried when my GPS took me off the main highway and onto a single-lane country road. The sign for the conference center looked a thousand years old and you had to drive another mile past it to get to the parking lot, which literally faced a barn. But the facility was actually quite nice, and once I met up with fellow NaNoReviMo-er Janet (hi Janet!), I felt much better.

I haven't been to a writer's conference since 2005, when I went to a large conference in San Diego after writing my first novel. I was totally out of my league, completely intimidated, and utterly clueless. But I did walk away from that conference with an internship at a literary agency, and the things I learned from that experience were certainly worth it. My goals this time around were very different. It was a small conference, with only one editor and one agent in attendance, so I certainly wasn't looking to snag an agent. Do writers find agents at conferences? Of course. But if you go to the conference with that as your only goal, you're probably going to be disappointed. This time, I wanted to meet some new people, hopefully learn a few things, and most importantly spend a day devoted to the thing I love, something I haven't done in a very long time.

The morning discussion was led by children's book writer Esther Hershenhorn, who was totally hilarious and had a very uplifting story - it took her 19 years to get her first book published, and now she's a successful author and teacher. I'm not sure I have it in me to go 19 years without getting published, but it was certainly a lesson in persistence. Esther also gave us some great exercises to try to get to know our characters better. HarperCollins children's book editor Sarah Dotts Barley spoke about common mistakes and how to avoid them, and agent Rachel Orr gave us some great examples of how to bring your character's voice to life. Finally, a group of regional members who have been published answered a few questions about their journey.

At the end of the day, I'd say I met my goals. I didn't come away with any major "aha!" moments, but then, what is there to know, really? I suppose the theme of the day was persistence, and that is certainly something I struggle with. Then again, I've kept at it for 8 years so far. I'm probably not going to give up any time soon.

When I got home from the conference (it was an hour away, so I left at 7 a.m. and got back at 6 p.m.), Sarah asked me if it was worth it. It's hard to answer that question. Was it worth the $90 I spent, the extra driving I had to do to get Sarah to my house so she could watch Jack since John was out of town, or the anxiety I always cause myself over these sorts of things? I think so. I think it's always worth it to devote time to your passion, and to spend it with other people who share that passion, even if you don't walk away with anything tangible. Sure, a big New York conference might have provided more opportunities, but it also would have cost a lot more money, time, effort, and anxiety. That's not to say I wouldn't love to go to one of those conferences one day, but for now, I think this was a step in the right direction.

Plus, I finally got Sarah to change Jack's diaper. And that's certainly worth something.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Mommy Mondays: Parents VS Stomach Flu: Round Two

Okay guys, remember how a few weeks ago I was all proud of my vomit-predicting awesomeness? How I made it through Jack's first stomach flu with nary a stray splash of spew? Remember how I was all, "We got this! We're ready for anything! Bring it on!"?

Well, Round Two struck on Thursday, and this time: I was not ready.

It happened like this. I got a call from Jack's school saying that the stomach flu was going around and Jack was looking very pale and like he wanted to throw up. So I rushed to school and picked him up. I had a bucket in the car and his smock-bib on, just in case, but we made it home okay. Jack looked really sleepy though, so I took him up to his room and began to prepare his crib. But I couldn't just let him wander around, and he can't be trusted on his changing table, so where did I put him? In his beautiful blue velvet chair, natch. I turn around for one second and BLARGH - commencing vomit. I caught the next round in my bare hands. That was fun. Then I set about cleaning Jack up, all the while shooting pained glances at my velvet chair, which was absorbing vomit by the second. Don't even get me started on the little crocheted pillow that sits on the chair.

Here's what I realized during Round Two: the stomach flu is totally doable when you have TWO parents on hand. But when it's just you? And you've got to do the prep work AND take care of the pukey kid? It's virtually impossible. I should have done what Sarah suggested (afterward, of course) and stuck Jack in the bathtub. Hell, pretty much anywhere would have been better than the chair. Lesson learned. But even still, it's a two-man job. I had a desperate urge to text John requesting backup, but I was pretty sure he wasn't going to leave Russian school for this. Fortunately, I already had tickets to the Hunger Games that night, so John got to face the next bout by himself (the dog bed took the brunt of that round, I'm sorry to say). And then, as if the universe really wanted to drive home the fact that two parents are better than one, Jack had another round of pukies just as I returned from the movies.

So the score, in the end, was settled on all accounts. Parents vs stomach flu? 1:1. I just hope it's more than a few weeks before Round Three.