What I’m Reading – And You?

Wikimedia Commons

Ever notice how “summer” and “reading” seem to go hand-in-hand? Kinda like “whine and cheese.” “Peanut butter and jelly.” “Presidential debates and you’re kidding, right?”

Like most writers, I’m also a voracious reader.  Here’s what’s on my plate at present:

You may already know that Richard Paul Evans is a long-time favorite. I snap up everything this guy cranks out. Usually within a nano-second of publication. He’s that good. I’m reading through his Michael Vey series right now. Just polished off Book 4, Hunt for Jade Dragon. Fresh and engaging with a dose of gentle humor, this series is just plain fun. Highly recommended if you have a kiddo who’s a “reluctant reader.”

Dogsong – You can almost taste the snow and feel the cold in this terrific outdoor story by Gary Paulsen.  Being a dog lover helps.

Renegade – The Silver Blackthorn Trilogy Kerry Wilkinson’s novel about 11 teenage “Offerings” on the lam from King Victor and the Kingsmen is vaguely reminiscent of The Hunger Games. But there are enough intrigues and surprises to keep you turning pages. Fast. Set in a dystopian kingdom where just about everyone is a fief, a vassal, or enslaved to a sadistic, mad monarch. Bonus points: the author is British. The text is marinated with enough British-isms like “lift” (elevator) and “bonnet” (think car) to keep your average Yank guessing. Lots of fun!

Lie in Plain Sight  Maggie Barbieri’s multi-faceted “who dunnit?” *starring* baker and amateur sleuth Maeve Conlon. I don’t typically gravitate toward “who dunnits.” But this one is fun. Realistic dialogue and three-dimensional characters, with lots of unexpected twists and turns.

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Word or Less. I grabbed this one off a library shelf on a lark. It was one of those “swoop in, swoop out” expeditions. This remarkable true-life story by Terry Ryan doesn’t disappoint. Sensitive, crisp and briskly paced, this memoir is as “catchy” as the author’s mother’s “25 words or less” contest entries that keep the family afloat during the 1950s.  There’s plenty of subtle humor and rapier wit in this lively read. I loved it!

The book was made into a 2005 movie with Woody Harrelson, Julianne Moore and Laura Dern.

Any favorite titles or authors to recommend?  Chime in!

REAL DADS: Not Just One Sunday in June

Dad Naas Scan 2

It’s Father’s Day. Time for a card or two, a new tie, maybe breakfast in bed or a nice dinner out.  But have you noticed? There’s something off-kilter about a culture that spends 364 days a year  belittling dear old dad, then turns around to “honor” him on one Sunday in June.

Sadly, we live in a time and place where dads are often viewed or portrayed as: 1) Bumbling oafs who can’t tie their shoes without written instructions; 2) Insensitive clods and boorish louts or; 3) Invisible and irrelevant. Like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich without peanut butter. Or jelly. Or bread.

What Does It Mean?

There’s a fair amount of confusion about what constitutes a “real dad.”  Some equate dadness with volume, brute force, or beer bellies. They think the dude who sires a string of children and then disappears without a trace makes the yahoo a “father.” Or “dad” is the lunkhead who throws his weight around because there’s plenty of it. There’s a word for these kinds of guys. And it’s not “dad.” (Since this is a G-rated blog, you’ll have to fill in the blanks yourself.)

Real Dads

Real Dads can be hard to find these days. There are plenty of fakes. Just turn on the TV. But the Real Deal is still  around.  And often unsung.

A Real Dad is decent, hard-working, and upstanding. A Real Dad takes his family, job, and responsibilities seriously.  He gets outside himself to benefit others.   A Real Dad puts his family first.  Even when it’s “inconvenient.” Sometimes especially when it’s inconvenient.

Faucets, Flicks and Foregoing

Real Dads fix leaky faucets. Hang pictures or wall paper (without killing anyone). Walk on the outside of the sidewalk, nearest the street. Endure chick flicks without complaint.  A Real Dad may toil long hours in a thankless job to keep a roof over his family’s heads and put food on the table. Forego Monday Night Football to cheer a child’s Little League game. Put up a tent in the rain. Do dishes. Clean up dog barf. Teach junior how to slide into second without breaking anything, or stay home with the kids so Mom can have lunch out with the ladies.

Go Get Them

Real Dads take 1:00 a.m. phone calls in the middle of a sleep-over – come get me Daddy, I’m scared – and break every land-speed record on the books in the process.  They attend daughter’s tea parties, scrunch their knees into their chins in those made-for-kindergartener chairs. Down gallons of pretend tea and wear those funny little party hats like they’re dining with royalty. Because they know they are.

Real Dads may not always know how to express themselves. They may have a hard time finding the words to tell the wife and kids how much they mean to him.  So they do instead of say, speaking the language of self-sacrifice, service and grace.

Real Dads:

  • Stand for the National Anthem. They remove their hats, hold ’em over their heart and sing about rockets’ red glare, bombs bursting in air as their eyes mist.
  • Don coat and tie and conduct somber graveside services for dead gold fish and neon tetras.
  • Burn Christmas Eve and the wee hours of December 25 assembling brand new purple Schwinns.
  • Open those stupid pickle jar lids.
  • Spend an entire afternoon traipsing from store to store in the mall with the wife or kids, pretending they’re having a great time.
  • Say Yes when they can and No when they should.
  • Have arms that embrace, shield and protect. Their shoulders are big enough to ride, cry on, and hide behind.
  • Pray. And teach their kids to pray.
  • Are never quite thanked enough.

Real Dads cement a protective wall around the fam as no one else can. Real Dads stand on that wall, often alone, and patrol. Real Dads put any lurking menace or stalking evil on notice with, “Not on my watch. You’ll have to come through me first, and I’m here for keeps.”

With Dad at Neff How do I know? Because my dad was a Real Dad.  And not just on one Sunday in June.

***

This post was previously published on June 16, 2013.

7 Ideas for Jump-Starting Your NEW Writing Year!

banana split

Ah, January! Twelve freshly-scrubbed new months brimming with potential. So writer, what are you going to do with 2016?

Don’t wait till July moseys across the calendar to start getting serious about sharpening your writing skills and exercising those writing muscles. Start now! (As one husband who shall remain nameless has learned, even when yours truly is looking out the window, she is working. )

Here are seven brilliant ideas to help you work smart, make better use of your time, and do more with your writing this year:

  1. Cut back on social media usage. Now, before you have a heart attack or go into social media withdrawals, hear me out. I didn’t say dump social media altogether. Just cut back. Social media has a place for connecting with your readers and marketing your work, et al. But it can also be a huge time waster – and an excuse to delay or avoid doing the work of real writing. I set a timer before jumping on Facebook. When that puppy dings, I bail. Period. Otherwise, social media can gobble truckloads of time and energy away from real writing. And while tweeting has its place, it’s no substitute for sustained, thoughtful, deliberate writing designed to engage. You’re a writer, not a tweeter or a status-up-dater. Savvy?
  2. Set your writing goals. I know, I know. We creative types hate setting goals. They’re just so…. goal-ish. But believe you me, setting a goal(s) and writing it down will help keep your writing life focused and on track. And save time by avoiding The Dreaded Bunny Trails. Example: I plan to write ____ words per day/week. Or, I will finish ___ chapters by ___ (date). How ’bout: This year I’ll crank out ____ blog posts per week?
  3. Make a plan and take consistent action to meet it. Related to #2. Jot down what you want to accomplish this week as a writer. Next month. Next year. Do you want to publish more ebooks? How many? When? On what topics or stories? Do you want to be published in more magazines? Which markets? Sell more books? How? Each person is unique and your plan of action will be, too. The point is, be consistent. Writing down how you plan to move from Point A to Point B will help you crystallize that plan and take concrete steps toward meeting your goal. It’s a way to make good use of limited time, instead of doing the pie-in-the-sky, by-and-by bunny trail thing.
  4. Take small steps. That War and Peace rewrite? Good luck with that puppy. Ditto cracking the New York Times Bestseller List when you have yet to write a single coherent paragraph. Start small and build. Look for classes, contacts, and coursework to help you learn and grow as a writer. This may seem time-consuming at first, but it’ll pay off later as you learn what to dive in to and how. Ditto what time-wasting pitfalls to avoid.
  5. Rest. Yep. You read that right. Rest. Overwork or a stressed-out mind often manifests itself in The Dreaded Writer’s Block. So listen up. Hitting the block wall may be your mind’s way of saying, “Give it a rest already. Take a break. Recharge. Disconnect. Let the creative juices have a chance to rejuvenate.” They will return if you resist the urge to run them ragged. Promise. Adjust #3 as needed.
  6. Be consistent, but don’t be a slave. There’s a difference.
  7. Most important: Have fun. This may seem self-evident. But it’s easy to forget. If you’re not having fun in your writing, what’s the point? (Tip: Banana split with extra hot fudge. If you’re weight-conscious, hold the banana. Just sayin’.)

Bottom line: You got this. Now. What are you going to do to jump-start your writing this year?

Christmas, EVE

J and E

A half full bag of Purina One dog chow sits in a corner of my kitchen. I should pass it on.

But I can’t.

Friends and family say, “Our dog is expecting puppies soon. You can have the pick of the litter.”

But I can’t.

Selecting a Christmas ham the other day, I thought about which tidbits I’d tidy to the dog dish, saving them for Evie.

And then I remembered.

A boon companion of fourteen-plus years, Eve passed away on December 19. The Eve-less days that followed gimped along with the alacrity of crippled snails on crutches.  Emotions rose and fell like the tide. The traditional merriment suggested by the calendar mingled with bereavement, stirring up a cocktail both sweet and tart, like strawberry-rhubarb pie. I didn’t know which flavor to bite in to. And finally chose neither.

“I’ve decided,” I said to husband Chris three days before Christmas. “I want to scatter Eve’s ashes at the Mountain.”

Sam and Josiah, eve and blankets

Chris didn’t ask which one. In Washington State, there’s only one.

The Mountain

Our yellow Lab knew Mount Rainier well. Even though she wasn’t allowed on the trails or in any building, Eve loved camping trips to the Mountain. In fact, Evie didn’t seem to care where she was – as long as she was with us.

The first time we took her camping at Ohanapecosh on the southeast hip of Mount Rainier National Park, Eve was uber-miffed about being left outside the tent for the night. As in, “What’s the deal with this, family? How come you’re in there and I’m out here?!”  After making her consternation clear, Eve wound up inside, where she promptly plopped onto my feet and drifted into a contented sleep.

And so Mount Rainier was a natural choice for our final goodbye to Eve.

DSCN6456

Cramming a last-minute trip to the Mountain into Christmas Eve meant a long, glacial, and exhausting day. But I couldn’t stand the thought of waiting until spring. Chris agreed, which is how we wound up heading to Mount Rainier the morning of December 24.

Seclusion on the Southwest Flank

The car was quiet as we churned out the miles to Ashford and a secluded glen near the Mountain’s southwest flank. Because it requires a steady uphill climb and good land navigation skills to find, the quiet meadow sees few visitors. We discovered it on a previous hike and were dazzled by its September beauty, bursting with blueberries and late wildflowers, hemmed by a laughing creek and soaring evergreens.

The three of us – me, Chris and youngest son Josiah (14) – stopped, parked, and took our time, breath exhaling in frosty plumes as we wordlessly crunched over virgin snow to a corner of the meadow. The Mountain towered overhead in ermine mantle and white-satin snow skirts. An achingly blue sky hung out wood smoke in rungs.

Chris retrieved the urn of Eve’s ashes from his back pack and handed it to me. Clumsy in thick winter gloves, my fingers fumbled with the lid. Maybe it wasn’t just the gloves. I handed the urn back to Chris. He opened it and handed it back.

I knew the protocol. Last words. A final goodbye. Toss.

I couldn’t do it.

The three of us stood there, sniffling. None of us trusted our voices. After a few minutes Chris offered a brief prayer. We said nothing more, choosing to be alone with our separate thoughts of a gentle yellow Lab who came to us as a “cast off” but snuggled her way into our hearts as few have.

Standing in the snow in the winter shadow of the Mountain, we took turns scattering Eve’s ashes. Toes turned numb. Noses reddened. Cherry-cheeked winds scrubbed cyan skies.

Josiah and Eve

And we remembered.

“Good bye Evie” I finally whispered, holding a fine powder of ash in one gloved hand. “You were a good girl. We will never forget you.” I was the last to let her go, ashes floating on a galloping wind riding hard to Puget Sound.

We drove into the park, stopping at Evie’s favorite places. A water dog, Eve loved the Nisqually River. Ohanapecosh. Tipsoo Lake. Christine and Narada Falls. We stopped near Cougar Rock Campground to chain up. We camped there a few years back, the six of us and Eve. The campground is closed now, asleep under a thick quilt of snow.

DSCN6438

We made it to Paradise by early afternoon. The alpine aerie is usually smothered under thirty feet of snow – sometimes more – from October through May. Once thawed, Paradise hosts outrageous wildflower runs in July and August, when its world-famous meadows erupt in a glorious bouquet of Renoir pastels. If you’re quick, you can glimpse creamy white dollops of avalanche lilies, waxy-yellow petals of Suksdorf’s buttercup, clusters of fragrant Sitka Valerian, pink bistorts, red-spotted monkey flowers and purple lupine. These vast carpets of floral color brush an iridescent canvas, but their blossoms are as brief as they are dazzling.

Like life.

Afternoon faded and cotton-candy clouds fluttered over the Tatoosh Mountains like pennants over Yankee Stadium. Fog crept into valleys. Temperatures took a nose dive. We headed back to Longmire, the Nisqually entrance, and the three-hour return trip home. Just past Longmire, Josiah opted to remain in the car listening to Amy Grant croon about chestnuts and an open fire while Chris and I stopped at Tahoma Creek. We walked to the bridge and listened to the frigid waters rush to the Sound as a cirrus sunset draped the sky in peppermint, grape and tangerine.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Remembering

Shivering in the deepening dusk, I remembered how Eve and I watched scores of Little League games together. I shivered in the bleachers until she apparently figured this out – and managed to maneuver her large self in front of me, using her thick fur coat as a wind break. I also remembered:

  • A gusty December morning in 2007, when Eve wasn’t herself. She seemed agitated, on edge. A few hours later the Storm of the Century hit, plunging us into three days without power and heat. Somehow she knew. And I learned to pay attention.
  • When son Nathan, then 14, returned from an eight-day hospital stay with a plate and seven screws in his leg, the result of a fractured femur. Eve was the first to greet him at the door. She never left his side during three long months of convalescence, crutches and rehab.
  • Eve-style fetch.  She’d plunk a “retrieving” stick down at my feet after half a dozen tosses, look up in her a matter-of-fact, clear-as-the-nose-on-my-face doggie way and say: “You want that thing? You go get it.”
  • How Eve  roamed the house when I was out of town for a few days. She reportedly checked every room over and over, looking for me. She bowled me over with joy when I returned home, tawny tail wagging in furious delight.
  • Tripping over Eve coming down ice-slicked stairs at the school. I nursed skinned hands and knees while she stood apologetically at my side, head cocked, tongue lolling, until I was able to hobble home, gripping her back for balance. …

And then I heard it. Probably from a passing vehicle. Or maybe I just imagined it: A dog bark. Just once. Then night swirled out of the sky, punctuated by the sigh of a Northwest wind.

“Christmas, Eve”

Christmas is a season when we give and receive tokens of love. Eve gave not tokens, but love itself. The Mountain gives reminders that winter doesn’t get the last word.

This season of bereavement will thaw.

Snow will retreat. Chinook winds will swim over Paradise meadows. Wildflowers will burst into Renoir bloom. Spring will come again to the Mountain, as it will to us. When it does, I will remember Eve’s last gift. It came not in physical form or tangible shape like those items found under trees on December 25th, but in the solitude of a snow-studded meadow, an achingly blue sky, soaring evergreens and the cool kindliness of memory.

Christmas, Eve. Indeed.

Eve and snow, lick

***

Eve passed away on December 19, 2013. This post and its companion, Forever, Eve, were the highest rated posts of 2013. You can read more about our ‘best girl’ in my new book, Forever, Eve.

 

 

‘For Tonight, Darkness Fell…’

An amazing version of this powerful Michael W. Smith tune.

Merry CHRISTmas!

P.S.: I have a special post going up tomorrow. After that, I’ll be taking a break from blogging until the New Year to focus on family and friends.  Best wishes for a joyous and blessed Christmas!

Forever, Eve

Our ‘best girl,’ Eve, passed away on December 19, 2013. This post and its follow-on, Christmas, EVE, were the two highest rated posts of the year. Both posts plus much more are in my new book: Forever, Eve.

***

“Animal lovers are a special breed of human, generous of spirit, full of empathy, perhaps a little prone to sentimentality and with hearts as big as a cloudless sky.”

– John Grogan, Marley & Me

With Evie

Her name was Eve. And she was more “human” than most people.

Our first dog and the only other female in the family, “Eve” seemed a natural when considering names for our purebred yellow Labrador retriever. She came into our lives at age three, a “cast off” from a church friend who worked long hours and had “no time” for a dog who “needed people to be happy.” Eve stayed for more than eleven years.

My four sons grew up with her. Romped through the woods together. Splashed in the river. Swam in the lake. Hiked the hills. Played cowboys and Indians. Robin Hood and his Merry Men (it seemed Eve was inevitably assigned the role of Friar Tuck, which somehow seems fitting). We took her just about everywhere: camping trips, Mount Rainier, picnics, reunions, baseball games. Forest, field and vale. “Hi Evie!” I chirped every morning. “How’s my best girl?” She returned the salutation with a cheerful tail thump.

Dog marsh II

Forever, Eve

The color of toasted marshmallows with the personality of Pooh Bear, Eve thought everyone was her best friend. She loved everyone equally and well. Eve brought out the best in and thought the best of everyone. She was loyal, loving and generous. Protective. An eternal optimist. She couldn’t wait till I arrived home and danced a canine jig every time I walked in the door. She would quietly pad into my study and plop herself down on the carpet next to my desk, keeping me company as I read and wrote and worked. Even when every other family member scattered to the four winds with work, school, sports or other pursuits, I was never alone. There was always Eve. Forever, Eve.

My good dog seemed to know whenever I was stressed, ill, upset, or otherwise out of it. She stuck to me like crazy glue, refusing to leave my side. Eve also stuck with me through moves and new neighborhoods, injuries, surgeries, job losses, birthdays, and graduations. Funerals, weddings, Christmas parties and kid illnesses. She was my faithful companion over hundreds of miles of trails and hikes, with an uncomplaining, “just-happy-to-be-here, thanks-for-bringing-me-Mom” attitude.

Eve and Josiah 2

“Lady With The Lab”

I’m told that I was known around town as the “Lady with the Lab.” I suppose it’s true. When my boon companion was younger and more spry, I rarely went anywhere without her – either by vehicle or on foot. Eve was my faithful companion on long morning walks and strolls on the beach until increasing age and arthritis caught up with her. No longer able to climb the stairs to son Nathan’s upstairs bedroom, her preferred sleeping quarters, Eve settled for a warm blanket and a cozy dog bed near a living room heating vent.

The last year of her life, Eve was unable to navigate the thirteen steep steps in and out of our house. So she trained my teenage sons. Seriously. She barked whenever she needed to go out or come up. And they carried her.

Dog marsh 1

Not Long

When Eve’s fourteen-plus years caught up with her, she deteriorated quickly. It was shocking how fast she faded. She refused food, including her favorite doggie treats. Stopped barking altogether. Could barely manage a feeble tail thump when I entered the room.

“She’s an old dog” the vet said, demonstrating a masterful grasp of the obvious. “She doesn’t have much longer.”

“Is she in pain?” I asked.

“No. She’ll probably just go to sleep and not wake up. Or I could put her down.”

I shook my head, unable to bear the thought of artificially hastening the imminent. Husband Chris didn’t argue. Eve was always “my” dog more than she was anyone else’s. It was my decision.

“As long as she’s not suffering,” I murmured, “I want her to die at home, surrounded by everything and everyone she loves. Not in some impersonal, sterile vet clinic.”

J and Eve

We kept her as comfortable as possible, often waking in the wee hours to tip-toe out to her dog bed and check on her. Relieved at the shallow but rhythmic rise and fall of her chest, I crawled back into bed or sat and talked to her, scratching her ears and rubbing her belly the way she loved.

“We All Do”

The morning of December 19 yawned chill and charcoal gray. Frost feathered rooftops. Lawns wore ice pajamas. I spent most of the morning coaxing liquids into Eve. Adjusting her blanket. Stroking her tawny blond coat. I knew it wouldn’t be long. “You are a good girl, Evie, and I love you. We all do.”

Domestic duties called and I retired to the kitchen. Less than an hour later, son Nathan (21) came into the kitchen with, “I think Eve is gone.” I dashed to the living room, hoping against hope for any sign of life. A pulse. Breath. Anything. There was nothing. She was limp but still warm. And completely, undeniably gone.

The kindest, gentlest soul I’ve ever known, Eve passed away peacefully in her sleep a few days before Christmas.

The season isn’t the same without her. Those who’ve never lost a pet can’t understand. Those who have need no explanation.

Josiah and Evie

Too Deep

I called Chris at work. “I need you to come home. Now.”  He did.

“She was always your dog,” Chris said as we gently lifted Eve’s lifeless body into our van for transport to the pet cemetery. “Good girl” I whispered upon arrival, stroking the noble golden head and back in a final goodbye. I removed Eve’s collar and tags and slipped them into my pocket. It was some time before I could bear to leave her.

Some losses are too deep for tears.

Silent Night

An anemic sun dumped dull rays out of a flannel-gray sky as we arrived home to an Eve-less house – for the first time in more than a decade. Thick as a chocolate milkshake, memories poured out of every corner. The house seemed eerily empty and unnaturally quiet without the welcoming bark of my ‘best girl,’ the jangle of her dog tags. The ears pricked at the sound of my voice. The warm amber eyes following my every move. Her black licorice nose gently butting me for attention.

Holy Night

A frosted moon necklaced the Olympic Mountains as I offered a quiet prayer of thanks for the truest friend I’ve ever known.  A few hours later, a thin white fleece of snow jacketed the foothills.

I still can’t stand to see or hear dog commercials. I avoid the pet care and dog food aisles. I woke more than once in the pre-dawn gloaming today, thinking I heard her voice. Sometimes I catch myself straining for a “good morning” bark, the flash of a tawny tail.

with Eve

Evie is gone. And so is a large chunk of my heart.

It’s hard to describe the heart-hole left by the loss of a well-loved pet. But then, Eve wasn’t a pet. She was never “just a dog.” Compassionate, patient, loyal, and selfless to the end, Eve was a palomino sirocco on four legs. A member of the family.

All is Calm

Shortly before her death, I knelt next to her and told her the truth, Marley-esque style. “Eve,” I whispered, “You are a GREAT dog. You are The Best There Ever Was.”

John Grogan put it this way:

“A dog judges others not by their color or creed or class but by who they are inside. A dog doesn’t care if you are rich or poor, educated or illiterate, clever or dull. Give him your heart and he will give you his.”

All is…

I did and Eve did. Her heart was indeed “as big as a cloudless sky.”   Eve was more “human” than most people – and our lives are better and brighter  for having held her in our hearts. Forever.  She truly was The Best.

Good night, sweet girl.

Sleep in heav’nly peace.

Evie's stuff 1

Read Eve’s full story at Forever, Eve the book.