Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Pursuing Happiness

A few years ago, I was asked to speak on the Declaration of Independence at an event celebrating the 4th of July. At the time, I was struggling with the decision to go back to school, trying to figure out if I really had what it takes to be a writer, and missing many of the comforts of home and family. So I chose to speak on one particular phrase:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

This year my thoughts have returned to this passage, especially the three basic human rights. While Life and Liberty are listed as passive, inherent privileges, Happiness is the only thing that we must actively pursue.

I have come to a bit of a crossroads in my life yet again, which always forces me to ask myself, "What will make me happy?" Just something else to think about this coming holiday.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Greetings from South Africa!

Okay, I'm not in South Africa, but a good friend of mine just got back from there last week. She went on a safari, climbed Table Mountain, attended the Honduras-Chile World Cup match, and got engaged (no blood diamonds for her). She even brought back some South African candy called Fizzies that kind of bubbles and foams in your mouth like sugary toothpaste.

I've wanted to go to South Africa since I was very young and first heard about this guy named Nelson Mandela and the ANC. I had a friend living in South Africa at the time, and he would send me airmail with pictures of the savannah and stories of the beautiful Bantu people he met. Writing my country report in sixth grade, I watched CNN as the racial tension mounted and held my breath for election results. It felt like I had a personal stake in that election: if Nelson Mandela didn't win, my report would be just another boring list of GDP and weather patterns. I was probably the only 13-year-old American who actually remembers watching the rugby game that inspired Invictus, long before Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman made it popular culture.

With the World Cup in full swing, it's kind of surreal to see that nation take center stage once again. I don't much care about soccer--who wins or losses--but a part of me really cares that these games go well. That people come away remembering South Africa as a country where good things happen. Yes, that nation has horrible crime statistics, and the unemployment rate is unbelievable, but don't we all need a little something to hold on to? Something that makes us proud and unique? Between these World Cup games and the 2016 Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, it's about time we broaden our sports view and include the southern hemisphere in world-wide events.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

finding my voice

In my recent writing, I've been thinking a lot about voice. Both narrative voice and writing style. I've been working on a particular manuscript for awhile now, only to realize that I should be working on a different character's story. But in telling the new story, I have had to totally rethink how I write.

The first character is very much me. She is dialogue focused and action driven. The second character is kind of a quiet observer, something that I am not. So how will I be able to write two stories about two totally different characters yet still be me?

Every writer puts more than a little of themselves in what they write, drawing upon their own experiences and desires to build a three-dimensional character and relatable plot. And because people are complex and have multiple personality facets, a writer can create one character who is outspoken and gregarious and yet another who is sullen and introverted.

A great example of this is Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, which provides us with a litany of distinct characters in a single volume. Yet each story keeps to Chaucer's style--the Wife of Bath obviously being penned by the same author who created the Squire.

A more modern example of this same concept is Laurie Halse Anderson, who manages to publish consistently stellar contemporary YA novels, historical fiction and picture books. Twisted is even narrated by an ostracized teenage boy while Chains is told from the perspective of a young slave girl during the American Revolution.

If only I could crawl into the heads of great authors and figure out how they did it (and still do it). These characters in my head so want to be released onto the page. I just hope I am able to do them justice.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Best Dad in the World

I know pretty much everyone thinks their dad is the best dad in the world, but really, that title goes to my dad. I can't imagine having any other dad, and if I'd been raised by anyone else, I wouldn't be me. So this Fathers' Day, I share with you ten of my best memories of my father to prove that he really is The Best Dad in the World.

1. Mom has this picture of the three of us kids, all of us in our pajamas, piled on top of Dad. The best part of the picture is that it's a real moment in our lives, not posed or a special occasion. Every Saturday morning my brother, sister and I would fight for the best seat in the house--on top of Dad--to watch Saturday morning cartoons. He loved The Tick best, so of course, we loved it best, too. I really need to get a copy of that picture from my mom.

2. I think Dad was a little disappointed he had to wait six years to have a boy, so he pretty much treated my sister and me like boys our entire childhood. But boy or girl, what kid doesn't love camping and fishing and shooting? I learned how to drive a boat, gut a fish and nock an arrow all from Dad. And though Mom hates camping, she put up with it just so we could have these adventures as a family.

3. One of my favorite chores growing up was tending our vegetable garden, mostly because that is where you'd find Dad on the weekends (after cartoons were over, of course). I remember one summer he put me in charge of the carrots. I tilled the patch, planted the seeds, watered, weeded and harvested. I was so proud of those carrots and insisted Mom use them in every salad, vegetable platter and stir fry she made that summer. Dad instilled in me a love for gardening that continues today, although it is much harder now that I live in an apartment with no balcony.

4. Baseball is life, thanks to Dad. He taught me how to throw, catch, hit and spectate. From pro games to little league, Dad watched them all. He also made sure we understood the importance of being die-hard White Sox fans, a tradition that continues today. I miss watching games with Dad, but every time I check the stats and see the Sox have won, I think of Dad and hope he's happy, too.

5. I have a proud Sicilian heritage, but I'm also proud to be Polish, Alsatian and Scots-Irish. Dad (and Mom) made sure we learned about every side of our family and knew where we came from. Dad told me stories about his dad being blacklisted in the 50's for his connections to unions and how his mother's parents came through Ellis Island. But he also made sure we knew the stories of Mom's family and how they fought with Lafayette in the American Revolution and were some of the first settlers in Northern Illinois.

6. Dad had this secret code that all of us thought Mom didn't know. He'd ask who wanted to go with him to the hardware store, which was code for "got get ice cream." He made sure to spend individual time with each of us kids so we knew he loved us.

7. Despite my current profession, I have a head for numbers, and much of that is thanks to Dad. I loved counting, so Dad encouraged me by giving me the change in his pockets and letting me count it every night. He taught me to balance a check book, invest in the future and save for the important things in life. I know it sounds kind of lame, but Dad taught me how to be a financially responsible adult long before I left home.

8. I know I posted about this just a few months ago, but Dad is one of my biggest cheerleaders. When I told him I wanted to be a writer, I could see he was thinking "How will she ever make a living doing that?" Okay, he actually said that a time or two. But even old dogs can learn new tricks, and Dad has really come around to this whole writing thing. Now he's the one who tells me, "Keep at it, I KNOW you will achieve your dream as long as you don't give up on it."

9. Hugs and kisses and "I love you"s were never skimped on by Dad. He wasn't too much of "a man" to show us his affection, and there were plenty of times when he cried with us as we cried on his shoulder. I remember one time in particular when Dad cried with me. I was a senior in high school, doing an internship and living away from home. All the interns were supposed to meet for a class, but one didn't show up. She had been in a car accident and died. It was the most horrible experience I had ever faced. I called Dad and couldn't stop crying long enough to tell him what happened. I was finally able to tell him, "Daddy, I need you." He and Mom hopped in a car, and four hours later they were at the place I was staying, giving me hugs and telling me how much they love me.

10. Dad is my greatest example of faith. Throughout my entire childhood, we would eat together as a family and then read scriptures. I first heard the story of the creation and the words of the ancient prophets from my father's mouth. He could make even the Old Testament exciting and funny and applicable. Every night, we'd say a family prayer and then be carried over Dad's shoulder "like a sack of potatoes" off to bed. We'd attend church every Sunday as a family, and though I am far from home, I continue to honor the Sabbath and faith of my father.

After all that, there's no way you can't see my dad really is The Best Dad in the World. And my dad can beat up anyone who says otherwise.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Stuck in the past

I've been watching all these TV shows from my childhood, and I have no idea why. It started with Doogie Howser, M.D. And now I'm on to Quantum Leap. Next it will be Twin Peaks.

I really need to get a new hobby like bike-riding or fencing.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Miles and Miles in Manhattan

It felt a little like the National Lampoon's tour of the Louvre, but we managed to see more of NYC in four days than I have seen in my previous three trips there combine. We averaged about 10 miles of walking per day, and I have the pictures of friends sleeping in parks, on trains and at restaurants to prove it.

I'll spare you the 281 pictures I took and share just one favorite spot from each of the four days.

I loved our time at the NYC Public Library's outdoor reading room in Bryant Park. While we were sitting there, it began pouring rain. So we all huddled under an umbrella and talked about books and past vacations and mutual friends. It ended up being one of the best hours of the trip.

While I had seen Liberty and Ellis Islands from a distance on the Stanton Island Ferry on a previous visit to NYC, I had never before visited the islands themselves. All the time I was there, I kept thinking: "Did my great-grandfather sleep in this bed?" "Did my great-grandmother rest on this bench?" "Did my great-uncle lean against this pillar?"

There is something magical about the Brooklyn Bridge. Think of the engineering feat it took to construct it, the millions of people who have walked across it, the ships that have sailed beneath it and the art that has been inspired by it. It was also the perfect way to work off the slice of Junior's Cheesecake we had just eaten.

Our last stop was Central Park, and what an experience. Of course we timed it perfectly with the Puerto Rican Day Parade, so we ended up adding about 5 miles to our planned trip to get around the parade rout. But we met some great people who invited us to their party in the Bronx, which we had to decline as we were leaving the city in just a few hours.

An exhausting trip, but a great trip. I'm so glad we had a chance to see the city together. I'm really hoping we'll be able to do a trip like this again soon.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Night Bus to Inspiration

There's nothing like a change of scenery to get the creativity flowing. And there is no place like New York City to do just that. Book shops and historic sites, amazing food and wonderful friends.

Every time I go to the Big Apple, I look forward to visiting some of my old favorites like Chinatown and The Strand, but I never run out of new things to see. This time my firsts will include Central Park, Ellis Island and the Guggenheim. But what am I looking forward to the most about this trip?

Reuniting with old friends, or course.

Last year they came to visit me in D.C., and this weekend we get to spend time having fun together in a new city. No work. No school. No responsibilities. Just new adventures. I'm thinking next year should be Hawaii.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Happy 10 Year: Here's to Many More!

Ten years ago this month I walked onto the football field in a red cap and gown with a blue and gold tassel and left with a blue cardboard folder with nothing inside. That's right--at my high school you didn't get your diploma at graduation but in the mail later that summer after the administration reviewed you transcript to make sure nothing was missed.

But I did receive that diploma, and ten years later I sit here contemplating what I have done with my life. Would my English teachers be proud of me for majoring in journalism and minoring in literature? Would my math teachers wonder why I walked away from the subject I tutored, student assisted and received the highest test score in to work in a field I struggled with all through high school? And would my American History teacher be happy I now live in our national capital while another social studies teacher be shocked to hear that though I received an A in his macroeconomics class, I couldn't wrap my head around microeconomics in college and was proud of the C I worked so hard to get? And would my band teachers smile if they knew I conduct music at church every Sunday?

And what about my old friends and classmates? I'm still connected with a lot of them through facebook, email and the occasional phone call or visit, but our lives have all taken much different paths. They all had such a profound impact on what I have done with my life and what I am becoming.

From the Saturday morning physics class at FERMI Lab to the hours spent building sets for school plays. From the semester-long internship in the governor's press office to the random trivial learned preparing for Scholastic Bowl meets. (Yes, I really was that big of a nerd in high school.) I'd like to think none of the time and activities I invested in are wasted on my life today.

Those four short years really did pave the way for my life today. And I have a good life--I'm happy. So here's to the West Aurora High School Class of 2000. Thanks for the good years, and here's to many more!

Friday, June 4, 2010

10 Best Read-Aloud Picture Books

Each one of these books is not only a great stories with some amazing illustration, but they are a blast to read aloud. Even as an adult I have fun reading them and sharing them. And at no point have I ever gotten tired of them, even when a three-year-old girl begged me to read Pigeon three times in a row before she would go to bed. Or when my little brother asked for Wild Things every night for a month solid. Or when I found myself humming Paint days later.