March 25, 2013 in On Writing

In the past year, since I’ve decided to spend more of my time writing, I have dabbled in the occasional writing contest. Some are great fun, with open prompts of 750 words or less: nothing too time consuming, just a great opportunity to practice writing.

Some are more challenging, with very specific prompts/genres/longer word counts. Sometimes, I can be inspired; other times I can just tank it. Like the last writing contest I did that called for me to write a short story about a bank teller and a time machine in the genre of comedy. Seriously? My dad just died. I didn’t have a comedy in me. I still practiced writing, and I still sent it in, but I’m going to be honest: my short story sucked.

Maybe all my short stories suck, for I’ve never won any of the contests I’ve entered…until now!

For the first time ever, I cracked the upper echelon of the winners bracket. Sure, it was in the form of an Honorable Mention in the company of 20 others, but still… I won a free ebook! I’m taking it as a sign to keep practicing, to keep flexing that writing muscle, and maybe someday I might even win a cash prize!

In case you’re interested, here is my Honorable Mention-winning short story written for the following prompt in only 24 hours:

Hearing a light thump outside, she walked to the front door and opened it slowly. Wind and snow swirled and the cold lashed her cheeks. By her feet she discovered a small pot with tiny white flowers. She recognized it as a Galanthus nivalis. Footprints in the snow led to and from the porch and a note tied to the slender stalk fluttered in the icy air…


God, do I need a break. Things are getting out of hand. She is getting out of hand.

I stomp my boots on the grate outside the front door, knocking off as much snow as I can. It’s frigidly cold: every breath brings icy air directly into my lungs in a way that is almost painful. I have to take one glove off to manipulate the key into the lock. The wind chill factor alone freezes my exposed fingers in an instant. I get the door open and take off my boots, leaving them on the porch. The cabin is cold and dark; no respite from the weather outside.

I turn on a few lights and ratchet up the thermostat. It’s a nice cabin, as cabins go. Clean and furnished with wooden chairs, a comfortable looking sofa, and–would you believe it?–a flat screen TV. I can feel myself relax for the first time in months.

It takes several trips to the car to haul all my gear in, including the grocery bags from the little market two miles down the road. I get a fire going and sit down on the couch with a beer. Stretching out my legs, I rest my feet on the coffee table, letting the heat from the fire warm them.

This is nice. Peaceful. I like that no one knows where I am. I borrowed this cabin from a friend of a friend of a friend; I’d be hard to trace. Which is exactly what I want. I need some time alone. I need to think about the predicament I’m in.

I can’t hide forever. I need a solution that is more…permanent.

Exhausted from the treacherous drive through snow-slickened, curvy roads, I am content to simply watch the flames flicker and jump in the fireplace and listen to the howl of the wind barely kept at bay by the windowpanes.

I might have dozed off. If so, I have no idea for how long, or what it was that woke me. I thought I heard something… A log shift on the fire? A particularly strong blast of wind?

I hear it again. It’s a light thump coming from outside the front door. Like a drift of snow blown down from the roof. Or a step on the front porch…

No. She can’t have found me again. Not here. I didn’t leave a trace.

I sit up, straining my ears, but the only sound I register is that of my own heart beating. I rise up from the couch and walk quietly to the hearth to select a wicked looking fireplace poker with a sharp metal hook arching away from its shaft, like a barbed hook you’d bait a fish with. Then I head to the door. There is no peephole or window to peek through, so I gather my courage and as quietly as I can, I unlock the door and open it a crack.

There’s nothing there. Half expecting to be ambushed, I open the door wider and scan the front yard. It’s hard to see with the wind blowing the snow into swirls that could hide anything. I squint, seeing if I can detect any movement out there in the darkness, but the cold wind is doing a number on my exposed face and fingers gripping the poker. I’m about to turn back in when something catches my eye.

There. On the porch by my feet: a clay pot with small white flowers on spring green stems. My heart sinks and it suddenly becomes hard to swallow. The snowdrop. Her favorite flower. The flower she carried as a bouquet at our wedding.

I didn’t see it at first because I was looking head-high, not down. But now I see it, and the note that is tied the stem—the note that is always tied to the stem—and the footprints in the snow leading to and from the porch. Footprints, not bootprints.

She’s barefoot on this frigid night. If I had to guess, she is also wearing a thin, white nightgown with spaghetti straps that used to flow around her ankles when she moved.

Gripping the poker more firmly, I search from side to side, not daring to venture out, not bothering to lock myself back in the cabin.

I should have known: I can’t hide from her. She will always find me.

I don’t bother to read the note: it’s always the same. A copy of her death certificate, with the cause of death listed as accidental.

But it wasn’t an accident. We both know that. And she won’t let it rest.

I’m starting to shiver, but I’ve come to the end of my rope. I can’t run from her anymore. This has got to end.

Even if it means killing her again.

Holding onto the poker, I step into the snow, following the direction of her footprints. I sink down to my knees in stocking feet, jacket-less, glove-less, taking step after step into the darkness, until I can no longer see the lights from the cabin and the footprints behind me have been swept away by blowing snow.

A person could die out here, lost in this cold.

Too late, I realize that’s exactly her plan.



March 22, 2013 in Reflections on Pop Culture

There are many, many sources out there willing to give you free advice on how to fill out your NCAA March Madness Basketball Bracket Challenge, but who do you believe?

I’ve watched expert sportscasters argue about who will make it into the Sweet 16, the Elite 8, and the Final Four. I’ve read expert sports journalists try to predict every year’s Cinderella, the low seeded team that stuns everyone by marching through the tournament as giant slayers, knocking out teams bigger, better, and stronger than them. And I’ve listened to every statistic the sports mathematicians can dream up, and with all this information available to us, I have come to this conclusion:

No one knows how to predict who will win.

You can’t, because there’s no way to quantify the heart of a team, its momentum, the exact moment a team will transition from hot to cold or from cold to blazing hot, or when an adrenalin surge or the cheers from the crowd will transport a team to a buzzer beating victory.

I’ve been filling out my bracket for years, and while I can’t tell you how to win, I am an expert in how to destroy your own bracket, even in as little time as one day/half a round!

Here’s how:

1)    Believe the experts.

How will this help you lose? Because above everything else experts love a good story, and in the absence of a good story, they will make one up. I imagine the conversation goes a little something like this:

EDITOR: Jack, your analysis of the East region is boring.

JACK: It may be boring, but at least it’s accurate.

EDITOR: You don’t have an upset prediction.

JACK: There isn’t one in this bracket. It’s going chalk.

EDITOR: But if you had to pick one…

JACK: There isn’t one.

EDITOR: (more menacingly) But if you had to pick one…

JACK: (sighing) Fine. I’ll pick…#13 Montana over #4 Syracuse.

EDITOR: (looking interested) Do you really think that will happen?

JACK: Not in a million years.

EDITOR: I hope you can write it more convincingly than that.

And so it happens that you read Jack’s analysis in USA Today and inexplicably pick Montana over Syracuse…

2)    Believe the statisticians.

After all the random statistics I’ve read, I can tell you that the winning team might have blue in their uniform colors and a coach with a letter “I” in his last name and a first name with only 3 or 4 letters. It has a strong possibility of having an animal as its mascot and it won’t be a #16 seed or a team whose name begins with a vowel. If you find a team that fits all these requirements, a) you are spending way too much time on your picks; and b) pick them to go all the way. Trust me. Your bracket will go down in flames.

3)    Go with your heart.

That’s right. Go with the teams you love: your hometown teams, your alma maters, the previous Cinderellas that have become kings of the court (I’m talking about you, Gonzaga!), and the teams that have let you down year after year because you just can’t give up on them…not yet. Follow this rule alone and you can really create some havoc in your bracket.

4)    Care.

Because once you care, all sound judgment and rationality go out the window.

Why shouldn’t they? March Madness is irrational (hence the “madness” in its name). But I’d argue that’s why this is the most exciting sporting event there is: it’s unpredictable, it cannot be analyzed with any accuracy, and with all the adrenalin on the court, it makes for some of the most impressive basketball moves I’ve ever seen.

So who cares that I lose every year? (Well, I care, but I’m trying to rise above.) I’m just happy to be along for the ride.

Oh, and by the way…GO ZAGS!


March 20, 2013 in Reflections on Pop Culture

Read Part 1 of A Pop Culture Holiday here.

During my self-imposed exile from life and its responsibilities in the comfort of a cozy blanket on my couch, I did more than just watch TV and browse Pinterest. I read too…lots of things. At first it was short things requiring no attention span, like magazine articles and blurbs on Amazon.com and Goodreads. But then I graduated to books, and I did so with a vengeance, diving into a book so riveting I yelled at my kids for even thinking of interrupting me while I was reading.

I’m talking about Defending Jacob by William Landay, a courtroom drama that has the assistant DA Andy Barber relegated to the backseat in the defense of his own son for the murder of a schoolmate. Did Jacob do it? Or is he innocent? I loved every minute of this book: the snappy dialogue during the interrogation scenes, the perspective of Andy Barber from both a legal and a parental standpoint, the gradual unraveling of clues, and the ending when the truth is revealed. This is a great, suspenseful, escapist read.

I also re-read The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Why? Why not? It’s good. It’s sad and disturbing, yes, but it’s also fascinating, this descent into a nervous breakdown by a woman that I wouldn’t say I cared for especially, but I sure didn’t want to see her come to any harm. Esther wasn’t always kind, and she didn’t make the best choices in her life, but she’s human and didn’t deserve to feel the way she did, so out of touch with reality that she could no longer read the written word, change her clothes, or bathe for three weeks. I’m thankful we live in a time where electroshock therapy isn’t the first line of attack against mental illness.

Since I was already down after reading The Bell Jar, it seemed a natural progression to watch Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Based on Edward Albee’s play of the same name, two married couples spend an evening drinking heavily and descending into a vortex of who-can-humiliate-their-spouse-the best epithets. It’s dark and ugly, this relationship between Richard Burton’s George and Elizabeth Taylor’s Martha, and I cringed during the entire movie at the hateful things they spat out at each other. I can’t say I recommend it, but I was fascinated by Elizabeth Taylor. I didn’t grow up with her. By the time she appeared on my radar, I knew her only as Michael Jackson’s close friend and a former actress. Watching her in her heyday was a revelation. I now appreciate why she was such a legend, and why she won the Oscar for this role.

And now I’m reading Lord of the Flies, one of the books I inherited from my dad, and arguably the precursor for the current crop of dystopian novels that have taken us so deliciously by storm. Another dark book (with a spooky cover), but also a riveting look at the strengths and weaknesses of human character when the constraints of “normal” society are removed.

It’s a funny thing, being down. Wallowing in dark books, dark movies, and dark characters has actually been a wonderful escape. I’ve enjoyed every minute of my exile on the couch. But now, I think the time has come to re-enter life again. It’s time to get off the couch and start doing things that bring me joy again. Slowly, yes, and with baby steps, but it’s time.

First up? Well, I do have this book I also brought home from my dad’s…


March 18, 2013 in Reflections on Pop Culture

After losing my dad, I had an entire gamut of emotions I was anticipating, but the one I had not expected was fatigue.

I’m exhausted in a way I’ve never felt before. It’s all encompassing: physically, mentally, and emotionally. It’s not that I can’t do anything, because I’m doing plenty; it’s that I don’t want to do anything.

Instead of diving into life like I normally do, I am currently operating under this principle: “Does this have to be done today?”

Does this bill need to be paid today? Do I have to cook dinner, or will take out suffice? Can I skip blogging? Can the kids go one more day without clean underwear?

I have given myself permission to take a little hiatus from life and have been indulging in a pop culture holiday. What exactly is that, you may ask? Well, it involves the couch, a cozy blanket, and any of these activities:

Watching the entire 3rd season of Downton Abbey

I love Downton Abbey, and I was excited to get caught up with this enticing series, but the season finale left me agitated. I knew a major character would die; I even knew which one it was. I spent the whole last episode on the edge of the couch wondering if this was the moment the main character would die. Would he get hit in the head with a cricket ball? Was he going to suddenly fall to the floor with an aneurysm? Was he being so unbelievably romantic by saying things like “Mary, I never knew that this kind of happiness was possible until this very moment when I can see your beautiful face beaming down at the miracle that is our son,” because the writers are trying to pull at our heartstrings?  If so, why are they making Mary’s responses so cold, as in “Remember that the next time you’re angry with me.”

If you’re going to kill off a major character and you want to make your audience weep uncontrollably, then you need to look no further than Thirtysomething’s “Second Look” episode. It was billed as a very special episode, and we were all waiting with bated breath to see if Nancy’s cancer had been eradicated. A second look surgery was scheduled, and most of the episode was dedicated to the build-up of the surgery and how it affected every character.

And then: whew! Nancy would be ok! All was well!

And then: wham! They killed off a major character with no warning whatsoever, when we least expected it. To this day, that episode remains one of the most affecting hours of TV I’ve ever watched.

Browsing my friends’ Pinterest Boards on my iPad

There’s nothing quite as relaxing as lounging on the couch looking at pretty pictures on my iPad. I had a field day browsing Pinterest, especially my friends’ boards. I have great friends, and boy, do they have great finds on Pinterest! Like this OMG dessert I found on Jennifer’s board called Slutty Brownies:

I made these the other day and yes, they are as good as they look…yum!

Or this one that I just added to my own board for Desserts I Want To Make in 2013: Peppermint Bark Cheesecake. Doesn’t it just sing Christmas?

Of course, it wasn’t all desserts…or was it? My friend Julie has a simple board entitled “Dreamy” with pictures like this on it:

Clearly, I’m not using my own Pinterest boards to their fullest potential.

Watching the entire Season 5 of Private Practice

I’m a huge fan of Shonda Rhimes, or at the very least, I’m a huge fan of her casting director.  I mean, honestly. Taye Diggs, Tim Daly, and Benjamin Bratt all on one TV show? Heaven.













But Shonda Rhimes was not yet done. For a brief arc, she introduced Stephen Amell:

I’m thinking my friend Julie had the right idea with her “Dreamy” Pinterest board.

Stay Tuned for Part 2 of A Pop Culture Holiday.