Sunday, February 5, 2017

Love in the Time of Cupcakes

February being the month where symbols of love like red hearts and satin are everywhere in anticipation of Valentine's Day, it seemed a perfect time to bring this out of the archives. Love has so many forms! This essay was a finalist in the 2010 Royal Palm Literary Awards for "creative non-fiction"!!

The last of the "tennis ball" cupcakes set sail this morning, a small but telling harbinger of the fact that I'm going to be facing an empty nest in the fall. Twenty seven years of "hands on" mothering symbolically reduced to two dozen clumps of devil's food cake in little foil baskets. They swooshed out the door with my youngest son, for what would turn out to be his last tennis meet of high school. He graduates in another couple of weeks, heading for college in the fall and instantly turning any use of the words "high school" into the past tense.

I've been making cupcakes decorated like tennis balls--light yellow frosting with the slightest tinge of green, arced with curves and swoops of white icing--for fourteen years now, ever since my oldest daughter signed up for high school freshman girls tennis before the school year even started. Call me OCD, I don't mind! I consider it a badge of honor.

There are fundamental differences between "girls tennis" and "boys tennis" and only some of them have to do with testosterone levels. Girls tennis season starts in late summer and continues barely to early fall, guaranteeing splendid and warm afternoons and entire weekend days watching budding young ladies flit around on the court in bouncing pony tails and miniskirts, suntanned legs flying. Girls tennis, from my experience on the sidelines, has involved matching hair doo-dads with color coordinated ribbons, team posters, lots of conversation, and a great appreciation for cute snacks. Hence the tennis ball cupcakes, a big hit for both my daughters and their teams for a bunch of years.

Boys tennis, on the other hand, starts just on the cusp of very early spring, when winter hangs on for dear life. And here in the upper Midwest, winter's claws are deep. More than one tennis season for my sons has started its first practice as snow flakes were falling. The weather leans more toward rain, and cold, and wind, and if there's coffee involved for blanket-wrapped spectators under grey, stormy skies, it's been hot, not iced. Very few boys sported pony tails, and nobody wore matching barettes. The guys still appreciated the cupcakes...but I don't know that they even noticed the decorative flair right before they inhaled them.

And still, despite the fact that for years my cupcakes have been nearly vaporized in haste (and without a single squeal of how "cute" they were) by their entirely masculine patrons, I clung to tradition. At least once a season I needed to send those sweet, fluffy treats along to a meet, even if, as the years went by and my job schedule got less flexible, another tennis mom would actually have to deliver them for me. Call me crazy, it's been done before.

While the tennis ball cupcakes stretch back fourteen years, the cupcake thing has actually been a fixture for something more like twenty four. Long ago enough that my oldest daughter would have needed to bring a birthday treat for kindergarten. Or preschool. So through the next two and a half decades, the miniature confections were a constant and a comfort amid the multi-tasking, crisis-response mentality that goes into raising four kids with a minimum number of trips to the emergency room. There were cupcakes with sprinkles for birthdays, cupcakes with candy dots for art shows, cupcakes decorated like little ghosts and jack-o-lanterns for Halloween.
This last tradition--the Halloween cupcakes--nearly drove me into the ground once. I had three kids in the same grade school at the same time. The youngest wanted Halloween cupcakes for his second grade class party. I signed on for two dozen, half of them orange and half of them white, with little ghost outlines and pumpkin smiles drawn on with melted chocolate, eyes made from chocolate chips. Then the fifth grader chimed in. I signed on for another two dozen. And then as I started the baking, when I thought of my daughter's class in eighth grade going without my cupcakes on this festive day, I threw caution to the wind. Halfway through decorating seventy two little ghosts and jack-o-lanterns with dribbley chocolate I rethought my enthusiasm...but it was too late to turn back.

I was planning to dress up for the second graders' party, and I tweaked my daughter with the thought of showing up in costume to deliver the goods. She's got a dark, sultry beauty to her, and she warned me off. "Mom, don't you dare!!" she said ominously, her eyes flashing like the fiery gypsy in Carmen. I filed that thought in the "hmmm..." pile. Made some soothing mention about bringing a change of clothes.

The next day I dutifully and precariously loaded six dozen cupcakes into the minivan, and set off for school. Fifth grade cupcakes were dropped off and put out of mind. The second grade Halloween party was so cute it could make your back fillings hurt. I think that was the one where I'd made my son a little royal blue cape with fake ermine collar, for his part as the "king" in a teeny tiny little play.

And then the lunch bell rang. I grabbed the last two dozen cupcakes from the van and walked them down the length of the school to my daughter's eighth grade classroom. As I stood in the doorway, her back was to me. A friend she was chatting with looked up, and announced slyly, "Sarah, your mom is here." Slowly she turned... and there I stood, a shallow cardboard box filled with treats utterly overshadowed by my appearance in a Pocahontas style beige fringed tunic with red embroidered trim, black leggings, and a feather in my hair. I bit back a grin, but it was really hard.

My daughter flashed daggers at me with those dark brown eyes. If looks could have killed, I'd be writing this from the great beyond. But at the same time, despite her fourteen year old peer-reviewed fury, I could see the corners of her mouth start to turn up in a smile in spite of herself, at the sheer perversity of my guest appearance. I delivered the goods and quickly exited stage left, fighting back a laugh.

Eight years later we were chatting on the phone as I drove to drop off yet another batch of tennis ball cupcakes for her younger brother's meet the next day. I was going to have to miss this contest too, and so once again the cupcakes were going to stand in for me, making me feel like I was still sharing a part of the adventure. We shared a good laugh about the day I showed up looking like Pocahontas at her eighth grade classroom. At the age of twenty-two, you develop a lot more perspective and forgiveness for antics like that.

I bemoaned the fact that with her in college, I didn't have the opportunity to bring festive or seasonal or downright ridiculous treat to her classes anymore. "Mom, you can bring cupcakes to my class any time!" she assured me. "We'll eat 'em!" I could resist pushing the envelope. If it was around Halloween, could I wear the Pocahontas costume again? There was just an instant of hestitation, then..."okay!" I could just imagine her eyes rolling across the miles between us. Maturity comes in many forms, and learning to humor a mother during a fleeting moment of insanity is a remarkable milestone for a daughter of any age.

I never did drive eighty miles to a college classroom after that to bring a sugary treat to a bunch of accomplished and sophisticated college students. Life just got a little too busy, it seems, though in hindsight I wish I'd grabbed the opportunity. But I still remember laughing at the memory with her, and the beautiful thread of give-and-take the offer and acceptance held, binding us tightly and preciously with love and affection despite the distance.

They were just cupcakes. And then some.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

FINNIGAN THE CIRCUS CAT is "live"!!!

My first children's chapter book, "Finnigan the Circus Cat," is now out there in the world on Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions. The story--and this is just the first of several to come--revolves around a tiny rescue kitten who finds a home in a small town circus museum, and the two mice that befriend him and become his closest companions. I was inspired to write it by the convergence of three things--my son and his wife brought home the REAL Finnigan as a tiny rescue kitten; my daughter became a circus aerialist; and I became a Grandma! 




Here's the description from the back of the book, which is already picking up some very nice reviews.  And for more on the story of just how I came around to drawing the pictures inside the book, here's the post I wrote for Growing Bolder about this very new chapter in my life

"Maximillian and Leroy are two circus mice cousins who think they’ve got it made in the shade at the old, shuttered Farnsworth Circus Museum. There are no dogs around, there’s a safe path to the full pantry in the old house, and the barn is full of dry hay and old circus wagons to hang out in.

But when a new generation of Farnsworths move in, things start to shake up. And when eight-year-old Lucy Farnsworth brings home a tiny rescue kitten and hides him in the barn because her dad is allergic to cats, Max and Leroy need to think fast if they’re going to be able to stay.

With the help of Boomer—the strangely silent family dog—Max and Leroy take the new kitten under their wing and show him the ins and outs of living at the museum, and flying “under the radar.” Along the way, they all come to realize that the family that you make can be just as important as the one you came from. And when Leroy finds himself in deadly peril, it is Finnigan the Circus Cat who saves the day!

Inspired by a “real life” rescue kitten and illustrated by the author, this book will delight, in the traditional call of the circus ringmaster, “Ladies, Gentlemen, and Children of All Ages!”"


*** Request a PDF REVIEW COPY to look over for your classroom or library!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Birch magic

It can be really hard for me to pick a favorite tree most of the year. I cherish my walks in the nearby forests, even though these days I no longer have the woods at my front door.

There are the maples, of course, especially in the fall, all gaudy and showy and blazing like torches with golds and crimsons and flaming orange as seasons change and small animals make winter preparations.
There are the oaks, gnarled and magnificent when standing alone in a field, tall and steadfast side by side in the forest, surrounded by fallen acorns and a multitude of deer footprints in the grass and dirt. I’ve come late to the realization of just how many varieties there are, some with leaves as dark shiny green as vinyl and with points sharp like holly, others with leathery red leaves, yet others with green lobes like spatulate fingers on an ogre’s hand.
And how could I not favor weeping willows, with long tendrils of slender leaves breaking the surface of a nearby pond, graceful curtains of green taking me back to my childhood walks at Chicago’s Humboldt Park lagoon and gardens with my father.
But then it turns to winter, and as I walk along snowy paths in leafless woods, it is the birch trees that take the title.

In the grey, dismal landscape, when all but the evergreens have lost their color, they stand out, tall and stark and white against the diminished forest. In spring and summer and fall, their grace is obscured by the riot of leaves and branches and flowers that make up the tapestry of the woods.
But in winter, they stand apart, and their quirky beauty is on full display.
This morning, with a winter storm bearing down later in the day, I took to the woods for a little fresh air and a change of scenery from the living room and my computer desk.
The path through the fields and into the woods was a mess of slush and ice, and I moved carefully at the pace of a toddler despite my lug-soled boots. The sky was overcast, and the forests were a drab combination of greys and browns above the watery snow. As I picked my way from one foothold to another, I wondered whether the possible inspiration or rejuvenation from such a dispiriting scene was even worth the time and effort I had spent layering up against the cold.
And then the birches made their appearance, some singly, others in groups. Sentinels of winter like tall white candles against the dark. I found myself wading into stands of broken branches and thorn bushes to look more closely at the shredded bark on their trunks.

Some looked almost feathered, like the fringe on an expensive silk scarf.
Another tree sported curls that looked like leftover ribbon from New Years Eve party favors.

And yet another showed patches of freshly peeled bark to the weather, exposing surfaces as smooth and unblemished as a new baby’s cheek. I touched its cold, smooth surface with my bare fingers, absolutely spellbound.

Eventually tiring of the precarious balancing act that simply walking around on the watery snow and ice entailed, I turned away from the woods and went slip-sliding my way back to the car and man-made warmth. As I left the trees behind, the wind picked up around me and the thought of getting indoors and warm got better and better.

But as I picked my way over puddles and slush, my creative neurons were firing again, and images and descriptions of nature were flooding my imagination. The magic of those birch trees still lingers. 

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Old Washington County Courthouse

It appears to have taken me moving out of West Bend to finally get in the door of the Old Washington County Courthouse during daylight, with a camera, to just have some fun.
The old courthouse--how a historical museum, along with the former jail next door--is a stunner. Its creamy brick walls glow a soft yellow in the sunlight, set off by red roof tiles and white gingerbread trim.
Inside, the first floor is devoted to rooms filled with historical collections--displays devoted to Native American life, European immigration, food production, and the military service of local residents, among them. In the "Heroes Remembered" room about the military, one item on display is a ladies' blouse made from camouflage parachute silk. It's a long and interesting story that accompanies it, and author Ernest Hemingway even has a part! 

The second floor also houses some smaller rooms with various and sometimes changeable exhibits, but the centerpiece of the old courthouse is the single courtroom that was used for "circuit court" twice a year (in spring and fall) from 1890 when it was built until 1962 when a newer, "modern" (and much, much homelier) courthouse was built in West Bend. The old courtroom--dating back to when judges seemed to uniformly be old white guys with deep scowls and muttonchop sideburns--features 24-foot ceilings, stained glass windows, and a judicial bench that's quite imposing.

So enjoy! And find out more at the Washington County Historical Society.













 







Friday, August 14, 2015

A writer "retreats"

The writer in me was craving some peace and quiet, some long-term sitting time, some mental room in which to grow and nurture a thought plucked from thin air.
The rest of my daily life was having absolutely none of that idea!  The last few years have gone by with the speed and fury of a cyclone, carved up by job, commute, new grandbaby, elderly relatives in decline, funerals, household chores, writers’ conferences, wrestling with nature rather than ceding the field of battle over my ten little flower beds, and…of late…the addition of two “spare” cats to the household while their owners (my children) went temporarily overseas.
It seemed that I could hold no train of thought for longer than five minutes, and I was wilting from the lack. A dear friend of mine who I had first met at an idyllic writers’ retreat led by the late poet Norbert Blei was headed back to the idyll earlier this summer for a glorious full week away from reality.
I knew full well the value of that environment, and that recharging of the soul. I had experienced it for myself three times in the past decade, driving north along the western shore of Lake Michigan to “The Clearing” in Door County, a collection of log cabins and larger gathering places and campfire pits set on the shore of Green Bay, augmented by three hearty meals a day with the plates whisked away by the staff so that “the writers” could get back to work…or not. Another year, when my checking account permitted but my work schedule forbade my going up to The Clearing  I rented a tiny cottage on the lake and repaired there for a week of replenishing solitude. I hiked shaded trails, lived mostly like a hermit, and wrote…and napped…a lot.
Oh, this year as my friend prepared to launch into her writer’s Eden, I was so jealous! But a combination of scheduling problems and finances conspired to keep me from going with this time. A week away from home at a place like The Clearing is never cheap. Add to it the post-divorce costs associated with parking the dog in a kennel for a week and paying someone to drive over to feed the cats and make them feel validated, and the idea of a week-long getaway rapidly rose to the level of “pipe dream.”
Still…I knew I needed to recharge. Badly. And so I improvised.
I co-opted my youngest son and his wife, newly returned from a semester abroad “across the pond” in Ireland, to move in to the house while I’d be gone and play zookeepers to Lucky the dog and the four felines who had kept me in conversation, kitty litter and carpet shampoo for a number of months. One of the cats was theirs, and while I had grown incredibly fond of little Finnigan over the course of seven months, there was payback to be reaped. Knowing that the cats would not be “home alone” and full of mischief was a HUGE weight off my shoulders.
Then I got on line and started looking for a cheap motel room for an entire TWO DAYS that my other commitments didn’t cut into.  And lo and behold, I found a lovely place just two miles from Kohler Andrae state park, site of what I consider the loveliest beach in the state of Wisconsin. SOLD!! I booked the room and started to pack.
My needs, when you got right down to it, were very simple: a bed and a bathroom, breakfast, free WiFi, and above all, peace and quiet. Armed with my laptop computer, a picnic basket full of “gluten free” snacks and fruits, and several cans of Diet Coke, I set out to recharge my batteries.
It didn’t take long. I could feel both life and creativity flooding into me before I even stepped on to the sandy path leading from the parking lot to the beach. I felt my state of eternal vigilance and rapid responsiveness—dog, cats, elderly mother, kids, work, laundry, boyfriend, and the occasional raccoon in the garage—relax, and new trains of thought start to grow and evolve. I felt the daily realities and timetables and litter box maintenance fly right out of my head on the breeze, to be replaced by whimsy, and mischievousness, and, dare I say it, imagination.
Leaving the motel for the first time to head toward the beach, I drove past the ruins of an older motel, in full swing of being reclaimed by nature. It gave off the disturbing feel of the Bates Motel…about twenty years after abandonment when Norman Bates got locked up at the end of “Psycho.” It was desolate…and atmospheric…and I stopped to snap a lot of photos. A place that creepy has just got to find a spot in a story some day!
An early morning trip to the shore revealed that I was indeed the first person there, and I walked into sand shrouded in mist rising from the rains of the night before. The sand between the grass in the dunes was still pockmarked by raindrops, and I set my little blanket a few hundred feet from a gathering of seagulls at the water’s edge. While I am a rabid fan of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s book “Gift From the Sea,” I admit I broke her cardinal rule that the shore is no place to work, but a place to replenish. And so I wrote.
I was writing “old school,” of course. I had left my iPhone in the car’s glove compartment, and the laptop back at the motel room. I was equipped with those most antiquated forms of writing accoutrements—a pen and a pad of paper.  But sitting there, surrounded by wind and waves and footprints in the sand, the thoughts and images just kept coming as though Pandora’s box had been opened. And every piece of dialogue that I jotted down, every shred of character development or backstory that emerged, invariably led to more. It would have been criminal NOT to write it all down! Nefariousness, clues, atmospherics, troubled families, emotional scars, observations of modern society—they all would have flared and then disappeared on the wind like leaves in autumn, gone for good if not pinned to the paper.
There were breaks in my action, of course. I can’t sit by the shore and not be lulled by the sight of rolling whitecaps. Or stretch out full-length and watch clouds pass by…or even just close my eyes and listen to the sounds of the wind and water. This is truly my favorite beach, reminiscent in size and endless, unbroken horizon of the shore at the edge of the ocean. While you may not spy any dolphins playing in the surf at daybreak, I personally find that the dearth of sharks and jellyfish is more than a fair trade-off.
And so it went. A trip to the beach followed by the trek back to the motel to read and research and type, after a quick shower to remove sand and sunblock. Write, rinse and repeat.
I will drive back toward reality and routine in a few hours, but not before I return to the beach one more time with pen and paper in hand. As I chatted the day before with the motel manager, he offered up the location of yet another “inspirational” place for a writer to visit, known to the locals yet off the beaten path. If I had another day or two to spare, I’m sure I’d find my way there, drawn by the promise of broken foundations and ruined buildings, grown-over gardens, and cliffs at the shore.  I’m keeping the exact location of that one to myself.

Because I just know there has to be a “next time.”

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Printers Row magic 2015!!

The magic started early at this year's Printers Row Lit Fest! Okay, getting up at four in the morning in order to drive to Chicago early enough to unload books and supplies at the Chicago Writers Association tent instead of carting them from the parking lot was ghastly. BUT!!!! What a marvelous day from the get-go! The first adventure started upon arrival, with the discovery that somehow there were no black tablecloths provided to cover the beat-up folding tables that authors set up books and displays on. Gasp!
As we stood there and wondered what to do next, "Havana Lost" author Libby Fischer Hellman looked around us and noticed that the posh "beaux art" Hotel Blake stood literally across the street from the CWA tent. Libby and I have followed each other's literary adventures for years on Facebook and by CWA emails, but had never actually met in person before. She had a splendid "eureka" moment regarding the possibility of renting some tablecloths from the hotel, and enlisted me for the procurement detail. She pitched our plight to the hotel staff at the front desk, and I threw in a "and we'll donate our books to the hotel library too" offer for good measure.

Five minutes later, a stack of elegant white tablecloths arrived to save the day, and she and I and "No Turning Back" author Dan Burns gratefully handed off signed copies of our books. The rest of the day proved to be just as fun. Even the weather was great, sunny and not too hot, and the wind didn't pick up and knock over my large poster until I was nearly ready to leave. (In earlier years I've been known to duct-tape the poster to the tent supports...)
I shared a table for several hours with author Jessica Cage, who writes paranormal fiction featuring werewolves.
You couldn't find two sets of subject matter or writing styles more different, but we reached total accord on the fact we thought the "Dark Shadows" movie remake with Johnny Depp was AWFUL! I sold nearly every copy of "When the Shoe Fits" that  brought along, which is always a nice development. Then, when my four hours were up, I turned my "it's got great 'chi'!" section of the table over to my friend David Berner, who was there with his books "There's a Hamster in the Dashboard" and "Any Road Will Take You There.
Later on, I had coffee at Printers Row with my friend Ann, and then crossed to Chicago's west side for an annual post-Printers Row dinner with my friend Paula. Both women have been incredibly supportive and encouraging of my writing since I started blogging back in 2007, and I am thankful every day to have good friends who nudge me along to see bigger vistas than I do on my own.
Once more, Printers Row Lit Fest proved to be the most fun I have as an author all year. So glad to have the connection! I'm already planning to be there next year, with one new book...or perhaps two! 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

INDIEFAB and IWPA Award finalist!

I’m happy to announce that my essay collection, “When the Shoe Fits…,” has made the list of finalists in Foreword Reviews’ 2014 INDIEFAB Awards...and also won FIRST PLACE in its "biography/autobiography" category in the annual Illinois Woman's Press Association's annual communication contest. Now, on to nationals...!!!! 
When the Shoe Fits