Sunday, November 30, 2008

We'll Take Two, Please

Next year I'm getting the most amazing birthday gift: TWO new grandbabies--one due the day before and one due the day after. I'm still in awe. One of them will be born in Arizona, a BOY, and the other will arrive in California. We're awaiting the news on the Pink or Blue issue in the Golden State. The ultrasound is TOMORROW. Nine AM. Give or take a few minutes, probably. I've called to confirm this. Two or three times. Not that I'm an anxious grandmother. But this baby is a first on "my side." Meaning that I didn't have to marry a Grandpa to accomplish this particular miracle.
The wonderful fact is, that grandchildren came with the package when I married my handsome husband nearly 10 years ago (you've got to love a God of second chances), and I'm thrilled to have 3 beautiful girls and one incredible nearly-two year old boy call me "Grandma." Though I've tried to claim credit for their beauty, intelligence, talent, and actual freckles--it's a stretch. And pure graciousness on their part.

California Baby, on the other hand, could actually have those freckles, or my mother's ski-jump nose, or my father's boundless energy, or . . a love of words and writing handed down for generations in my quirky family. The possibilities are awesome. And, since I lost both of my parents this past year (this baby's great-grandparents) it feels especially poignant.

So I picked a "Grandma" name (someone told me I had to). It's "CeCe." For my initials, C.C. And because my mother's Grandma name was "BeBe" after her initials, BB. It fit. The idea touched my heart. And the hearts of my son and his wife--parents to be.

I'm over the moon to be a grandmother of 4. And thrilled to be expecting two more. A BOY in Arizona, and . . .

Stay tuned. I'll be announcing news about California Baby tomorrow. If I can type. After staying up all night. Wondering, battling goosebumps . . . and being very, very grateful for God's beautiful miracles.

Pressing question: Can you see freckles on an ultrasound?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

What's Cookin'?

I LOVE cooking and everything related (except for cleanup and thank goodness I'm married to Felix Unger), from reading labels and prodding vegetables at the grocery store, to mincing and chopping and sauteeing. Oooh, and finishing touches, like piping frosting onto cookies, adding little sprigs of herbs (or fresh edible flowers) to make a dish look pretty, or choosing just the right serving dish.
My cooking impulses have run the gamut, from sweet to strange, to what-on-earth? Like:

1) Escargot. A special request and a true labor of love, involving poking seasoned and slippery snail bodies into decorative shells. Requiring lots of garlic, and--for me--to put aside all queasy common sense that snails are garden pests. Period.

2) Gingerbread houses--TWENTY, all topped with gumdrops and cinnamon red hots and candy canes . . . and itsy bitsy "Welcome" mats.

3) Christmas Yule Log: with knots and textured chocolate "bark", and little green leaves . . . and enough butter and cream to occlude the arteries of an entire city.

4) Abalone steaks: that rare, amazing Northern California shellfish that when perfectly pounded, floured and sauteed in butter . . . is a true delicacy. Ask the sea otters.

5) Tiramisu: the wonderful Italian dessert (with lady fingers, marscapone cheese and Kahlua) that hubby and I have been privileged to savor in romantic spots around the globe. And now reproduce at home in a healthier "Cooking Light" version.

6) Monkfish: freakiest fish you've ever seen, but a yummy "poor man's lobster." Steam, grill, enjoy . . . then try to forget where it came from, so you can sleep without nightmares.

For me, cooking is a lot like writing: creating something and then offering it for the enjoyment of others. Adding/writing in special touches (edible flowers, quirky characters), sweetness (tiramisu, love scenes) . . . local flavor (abalone, colorful settings), unexpected surprises (monkfish, escargot--and unpredictable characters!).

As Thanksgiving approaches, I'm doing both. Planning food, and writing scenes. Love it.

Happy Turkey Day and warm blessings everyone !

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Got Monkeys?

As you may recall, part of my current course of study (toward becoming a lay chaplain), offers an introduction to the practice of meditation, and . . . it has been a real challenge. Evidenced by the evening I got trapped in my wrist watch, while attempting a self-imposed quiet time.

My studies say, "We are what we do in silence." Profound, and perhaps troubling since today's culture is filled with frenzied activity, 24/7 instant communication, and non-stop external noise. Hardly peaceful. Worse, however, is the constant "internal chatter" of the unconcious mind; the endless stream of erratic and egocentric thoughts Buddhists call "a monkey mind," because it most resembles a tree of agitated monkeys all screeching at once. Yipes:

I've got a whole JUNGLE in there.

Now maybe my monkeys are genetic, maybe they jumped onboard during all those adrenaline filled years as an ER nurse, or maybe they simply come with the whole "writer package" mind-set; I'm not sure. But I truly admire people who seem to be . . . without a traveling circus. It led me to write this scene for DISASTER STATUS, which shows our heroine ER nurse Erin Quinn, wrestling (boxing actually) with this very same concept:

Erin stilled the speed bag, and then glanced down at Elmer Fudd. The goldfish, transparent fins swirling, stared placidly out at her. No tsunami waves. She’d finally figured out how to punch the bag without shaking the wall behind his little glass condo. It had to do with her foot position and the arc of her swing. Balance. Just like Annie said. Erin needed to stay balanced over her feet, be strong and consistent, and stick to the moves, the routine . . . no crazy stuff. Crazy.

She pressed a towel against her damp forehead, her stomach fluttering. She wasn’t going to think about Scott. She’d eaten two and a half brownies, whipped her heart rate up to one-forty, and was sweating right through her tee shirt. Chocolate and endorphins--he was supposed to be banished. It wasn’t fair. All she was asking for was a little bit of peace.

Erin stepped close to window and smiled. Now there was the perfect vision of serenity. Her grandmother, rusty auburn hair tied up with a batik scarf, sat on the garden bench in the rosy- gold sunset, her back straight, hands resting on her thighs, and eyes gently closed. Her breathing was rhythmic and intentional. Beside her lay her well-worn Bible. Centering Prayer. She’d done this for as long as Erin could remember. Explained it alternately as “my quiet time,” Christian meditation, “listening with the ear of my heart,” and-- when her life was particularly hectic and her temper short--“my only sliver of sanity. Now scoot and leave me be!” During those awful months of her husband’s illness, this daily silence had seemed exactly that. Her sanity and her strength.

Since childhood, Erin had tried over and over to emulate her Nana’s peaceful repose. And failed completely. The truth was that profound stillness made her edgy. Silence prompted her to . . . fill it. Her work, the chaos of ER--sirens, nervous chatter, beeping alarms--felt far more normal. And on her days off, she whacked at her speed bag, shadow boxed on the beach or jogged along the sand, listening to her Ipod instead of the waves. Even when she curled up to read, she tapped her foot to an endless stream of music. Deprived of that, she’d hum. Always moving, never silent-- it was who she was. Erin shook her head. If she were a goldfish, she’d welcome the tsunami.

Guess what Erin's challenge will be? Yes . . . to learn to be still and listen to what is truly important. Will she learn that easily?

No. Her heart--and the life of someone she loves--will be at risk before she learns the difference between being "strong" and finding "strength."

Meanwhile, I'll be working on my own slice of silence and serenity. It's getting easier, step by step. On tiptoe. Quietly. Shh.

So much to hear.

How about you? Traveling circus, or present-moment peace?

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Truth or Fiction?

As a kid, I got in trouble for telling whoppers . . . as an author I get paid for it. Strange, but that's what we as writers do: Make stuff up.

Nevertheless, the most frequent question that writers get asked, is:
"How much of this is real . . . is this stuff really about YOU?"

Not long after my first Darcy Cavanaugh mystery hit the shelves, I got a confusing phone call that went something like this:
(me, innocently) "Hello?"

"Is Darcy there?"
(me, straddling a strange sense of disassociation) "Um, no, there's nobody here by that name."

"Oh, yes, I think there certainly is."
(Big spooky silence on my end) "No, really there--"
"Ha! You can't fool me. I know that book's about YOU, Candy!"

It was a neighbor who'd been tickled to read a book written by someone she knew. And who fortunately (I hope) was finally convinced I did NOT have a shamrock tattoo, have never dated an FBI agent, dangled perilously from a lighthouse cliff, or (though I've taken many memorable cruises) discovered a dead body in a shipboard spa.

But the fact is, there is at least a smidgeon of truth in all fiction. As writers we draw upon life experiences to springboard plots, and must offer up many personal emotions and sensitivities in order to develop characters who seem "real." I certainly did this in my comic mysteries, and continue to do so in my new medical drama series for Tyndale. I pencil in truths/memories/feelings the same way I sprinkle cilantro or fresh rosemary onto the food I cook. It's makes the story ring true for the reader . . . and for the writer. A good friend sent me a card with a quote from Anais Nin:

"We write to taste life twice." I framed it for my office.

Personal memory certainly played a part in this snippet of a scene from my current work, DISASTER STATUS. My heroine, Erin Quinn, goes to Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk:

The morning breeze smelled of seaweed, hosed asphalt, Coppertone, cotton candy and popcorn. Screeches from gulls blended with other sounds: laughing children, an electronic ding-boing, pow-pow-pow from the Casino arcade, the relentless whoosh and pull of ocean waves . . . and a continuing chorus of screams from the Giant Dipper roller coaster. If Erin kept her eyes shut a moment longer, it could be 1980 and she’d be perched atop her grandfather’s shoulders, her nose sun-crinkled, feet bare and speckled with sand, fingers wonderfully sticky and tongue half numb from eating a frozen chocolate banana. . . But Scott's voice hauled her back to the present, as effectively as if he'd thrown her over his shoulder in a fireman's carry.

Have I been to Santa Cruz? Sure, lots of times. Did I eat those frozen bananas? You betcha. Was my impromptou dance on the wharf with a handsome fire captain . . . interrupted to dramatically rescue an electrocuted dock worker? No way!

But it was great to have Santa Cruz in my "toolbox" of writers' experiences. As well as others I've collected over the years, good stuff & tough stuff. I'll use these in the fiction I write. And I'll do it much the same way this list combines fiction from my books and experiences from my life. Have I really:

Been stalked by a poet?
Swum with stingrays?
Worn a Wonder Woman costume?
Delivered a foal?
Been in bank robbery?
Broken my neck?
Owned a one-eared cat?
Sat on a chicken at Daffodil Hill?
Done the limbo on a jet-powered catamaran?
Ridden a camel at the pyramids?

Truth or whoppers? I'll never tell.
Oh, yes, the camel photo. Good point. Okay, you caught me there.

I get paid to make stuff up. And I draw upon the blessings of past experience . . . to taste life twice. And then I share it, to entertain and to encourage others. Doesn't get better than that. And that's the truth.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Heart . . . and Home

When people learn I'm a native Californian, they inevitably ask: "How did you end up in Texas?"

Well, actually it sounds more like this: "How'd y'all wind up in Texas?"

My answer to both is: "The pre-nup."

When the brows rise, I tell them that I'm joking . . . sort of.

The fact is that not long after I began dating my wonderful husband (11 years ago this month), he starting dropping little hints. As in, "Ever been to Texas?" " Look at those clouds . . . looks like a Texas sky to me." "Ever wanted to . . . visit Texas?" And then there was that subtle refrigerator magnet: "Life's too short not to live it as a Texan."

When he slipped the engagement ring on my finger and the lovely sapphire was "exactly the color of Texas bluebonnets," I finally figured it out. Once a Texan, always a Texan.

So, though the "pre-nup," never actually existed . . . we've been in Texas for four years now.

It's been amazing. New terrain, new weather (every 5 minutes) new food (fried . . . what?), new creatures (scorpions in the shower, armadillo in the pool, lizards on the dining room ceiling . . . don't get me started on the wild pigs), whole new culture. All joking aside, I've loved every minute, but . . .

We're ready to move back. Really. Our house is on the market. Has been for 2 months now.

You know how that goes--keeping the house perfect all the time: toilet lids down, check the pool for armadillos, light the pumpkin-pie scented candles, vacuum every seven minutes, Windex the finish off the mirrors, re-plant the flowers after the deer eat them . . . don't even think about cooking fish. Lots of fun.

Amazingly (though the economy has managed to tank since we listed the house) we've had more active interest than we expected. The truth is, our house is wonderful and we've priced it below market--which, in Texas, is still holding better than most of the country. Whoever finally does get this house will be blessed, as we have been. It's by far the nicest house we've ever owned, in an outstandingly beautiful setting, in a wonderful, artsy, peaceful little town. We have neighbors you could trust your life with, a church we dearly love . . . so why are we moving? Good question. And a perfectly cliche answer:

Because "Home is where the heart is."

Or to be exact: Where the Kids and Grandkids are. And they live out West--in California, Nevada, and Arizona. For the past several years we've been flying and driving back and forth, but it never feels often enough. We miss them!

The final prod? Recent news that we'll have two more babies due on MY BIRTHDAY (April) next year. One in California (the first on my side!) and the other in Arizona.

So we're giving this house selling deal a shot. We're keeping the armadillos out of the pool, we're lighting the candles . . . we're hoping that this house will be just right for someone, and that somewhere out West there's a place for us.

Lord willing, it's going to happen. Meanwhile, this is a great place to live. And to write books. I'm not complaining in the least.

Okay. Maybe if there are two floating armadillos, and the deer get my purple pansies again.