Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Demonator Strikes Back

Did I do it, you ask? Did I ride the sled of death? I wish I had. The Demonator was in rare form on Monday. Kids went sledding down with glee, running into flagpoles, sidewalks, up driveways, you name it. I was dying for my turn, but that old sled had its own plan. The second to last run, I was waiting at the bottom of the hill to watch for cars and make sure no child got a concussion when the sled reached the bottom and they had to stop.

My daughter was in the front, her friend on the back. They were aiming for the driveway at the bottom of the hill, but veered off at the last minute, going right for the metal rain drain set in the curb. It's the number one most dangerous thing to hit. So I quickly put myself in between them and the drain and then sent up a frantic plea to the gods of snow that they'd slow down. The runners on that sled looked, well, kinda sharp.

No dice. The entire street and hill were one solid block of ice. The Deomonator kept coming. My kids know about the drain. The know not to hit it, and they went into evasive maneuvers. They threw down boots and gloved hands, trying to slow up. When that didn't work, they screamed their lungs out.

It was all up to me. I steeled myself for the inevitable impact. Then at the last minute, got one of those "I'm-going-to-die-under-these-runners" brainstorms and grabbed the cord on the front of the sled as they whizzed by. I pulled. Miraculously, it worked. They slowed down, turning sideways, and only grazed the drain. The Demonator was not pleased. It exacted its revenge swiftly and without mercy.. It pulled me down in one fell swoop.

Ice is hard.

I landed on my backside, and honestly, I think I broke my arse. Okay, I know that's not entirely possible. Still, I have got the single most unpleasant pain pulsing on the right side back there. And I've got a mega goose egg there too. I notice it each time I sit down on anything or roll over in bed.

It was the end of my sledding. I hobbled up the hill, very aware that I am not 9 years old anymore. Still, it was one heck of a day. I'd do it all over again, just get in a ride myself. And I will. After I heal. Winter has only just begun.

Of course, all that fun had to end sometime. Today, school was back on. Our driveway, however, is still an ice skating rink of death. My carpool friend almost slid into a tree when she came to pick up the kids this morning. Not good. I need carpool. So I spent the last hour being very adult and chipping off the driveway. I realize few will marvel at what I did, so I'm posting a picture here. Keep in mind, it doesn't look like much, but that is all ice, about an inch or two thick. Didn't I make nice clean tracks for the car's tires, not to mention footpaths for the kids. And got in some early morning aerobic exercise. What a deal.

If only I could regain control of the fine motor skills in my fingers.....

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Demonator Returns

It happens about twice a year. And when it does, Katie bar the door. SNOW. Just watch how loudly you utter that devilish word here in Oklahoma. I've heard many a Sooner decry it as a four letter word. Okay, it does have four letters, but you get the point.

I don't share the agony many down here experience when it snows. I chalk it up to the fact that grew up in Indiana. Snow country. As kids, my brother and I lived for that glistening white magic. We were the meanest sledders in our whole backyard (not to mention Suicide Hill where we sledded with all the other crazy people when it snowed really hard). However, I did grow so daring one winter - we'd had a lot of snow - the regular sledding down the backyard hill got kind of boring. I decided to experiment. I think I was one of the first snowboarders. Mind you, it wasn't anything fancy. I just tried standing up on my sled and using the pull rope attached to the front for balance.

I flew down that hill. Screeching. Cheering my own ingenuity. I was on top of the world. Until I barreled into the bush at the bottom of the hill.

Yeah, I hadn't seen that one coming. I even slit open my forehead.

I was ten and my fury knew no boundaries. I swore to cut down the bush that night. But my mom made me come in for dinner instead.

As the days passed, though, the scar across my forehead became a badge of honor. I was the kid who'd sledded standing up...and lived to tell about it.

So you can imagine my chagrin when it began to look more and more like we wouldn't have any snow before Christmas this year. We've had a very dry winter so far. And then, last night, that blessed cold front came down from the north. We didn't quite get snow. It was 75 when the cold front pushed through, after all. But we did get ice. Enough to cancel schools.

But more importantly, enough for the Demonator.

I wish I'd come up with the name. I'm a writer after all. But I give full credit to my firstborn daughter and her best friend from across the street. They nicknamed our red Radio Flyer metal runner sled the Demonator two winters ago when, according to them, all on its own, it took them sailing down the hill out in front of our house, down the long street, and right up the driveway of the house at the bottom of the hill straight into the garden. Both girls were thrown clear of the sled when it crashed intothe brick walkway around the garden. No one was hurt. More, scared out of their snowsuits. So of course the incident immediately became legend.

The story gets better each year (I've heard it told that sparks were flying off the back of the sled when it hopped the curb and flew over the drive and into the garden). The sled, for its part, plays along. It it unpredictable, like a bucking bronco. Kids get thrown every year. Which means the line to ride it gets longer. And what started as a nickname is now a permanent title of honor and fear.

Which makes me more curious each year. I haven't tried the Demonator out alone. I've always been forced to take a kid along. But when I got up and saw the ice this morning, I wondered, how bad could it be? I mean, what would it be like to stand up on that puppy and sail down a hill? The kids are watching a movie and drinking hot chocolate after all...

Oh, Demonator.....

Friday, December 12, 2008

Christmas Tree Chaos

I promised a story on Wednesday about Christmas trees. Here it is in all it's dysfunctionality and puzzlement. Reader beware. It's really is the Chevy Chase, Christmas Vacation, craziness in your tree kind of story.

It all has to do with perception of course. Perception of straightness. I wasn't infected with this until I met my husband's family. They're German. Live in Germany, cleanliness is next to godliness, compulsive-obssessive things must be exactly correct, German. And I mean that in a nice way. I just didn't really understand it until my first Christmas with the family.

That very first Christmas I spent with them, I had just moved to Germany and begun a Master's program at the University in Kiel. I was homesick and far away from home, almost at the north pole, I was so far north.

My then boyfriend - now husband - asked me to come home with him to meet his family for that quiet, gentle, highly functional event - a holiday. And not just any holiday. The mother of all holidays - Christmas. I was foolishly in love and said "yes" right away. This was a sign of commitment, right?

There were many many many embarrassing moments that trip, mostly on my part, with my lack of understanding of nuance in the German language, a very small apartment, and cultural craziness.

But the highlight of the whole weekend was when my husband and his mother put up the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve, as is traditional in Germany. His father didn't help. This is important. I didn't either. We each had our reasons. His I've never figured out. Mine, well, it had to do with safety. They put real candles on trees over there. And light them. I was already way out of my league. What if I put a candle on wrong and when it was lit, it burned down the whole apartment. I didn't think that would be good for "deepening" the relationship. So I watched.

No words were necessary for the subtle family dynamic that ensued after the tree was up. My husband and his mother put it up. They carefully decorated it. They put on the glass ornaments, the silver icicles, the candles, the tree skirt, and then stood back to admire their handiwork. I have to admit, it looked good.

Then my soon to be father-in-law walked in. Grimaced and said, "Es ist total schief." Which means, "It's totally crooked." And then walked out.

I was puzzled. Didn't he want to fix it?

Ah, not exactly.

My husband and his mother walked in, looked at the tree, cocked their heads left, then right, then left again. "Do you see it?" my mother-in-law asked. My husband shook his head.

Still, they pushed the tree in one direction. (It had looked straight to me before, and it still looked straight now. So maybe I wasn't the right one to ask. They didn't, by the way. This was a "family" thing.)

Twenty minutes later, my father-in-law walked in, took one look at the tree and said in a more exasperated voice, "It's totally crooked!"

I still didn't see it, but my husband and his mother came back in, tried to straighten out whatever "schiefness" there was to the tree, and then left again.

I was absolutely sure they'd gotten it right.

Not so.

This ritual went on the rest of the day, all the way up to church and after and into the next day. I'm not sure the tree ever got straight enough for my father-in-law. And he didn't ever try and fix it.

I don't pretend to understand what happened exactly. I've never seen this ritual in any other German household, but who knows. I chalked it up to family dynamics. However, it's begun to invade our house now, in a new way. Our trees are always crooked. So crooked that one fell down last year, spilling that delicious tree water all over the floor and breaking a few ornaments.

So....maybe it's good to be obssessive about straight trees, but we can't seem to master it. I spent five hours "watching" our nine foot tree on Tuesday because it had begun to lean all on its own. Don't ask me why. My husband came home, puzzled. How had that happened? To avoid last year's disaster we made it lean toward the front windows. This way, if it falls, it'll hit the window. Okay, there's the chance the window might break, but if it doesn't we've save the ornaments. Pretty smart, right?

Just don't tell my father-in-law.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Shout Out to Readers

I was all set to blog this morning about another 5 hour "tree watch" I sweated through yesterday. Don't worry, for those who love the occasional whacked out Christmas tree story, it's coming. But today, it's a shout out to readers.

I didn't know I was going to write this blog until I opened my email this morning. There was a letter waiting for me from a father who had bought my new middle grade novel for his son. He said: "I am writing to let you know my son has not put 'Dragon Wishes' down since we purchased it. He is fascinated with the characters and the story. I have not seen him this excited about a book that was not 'Star Wars'. "

For all readers out there who ever wondered whether authors read your letters and whether those letters make a difference, as an author, I can say without a moment's hesitation, they do! And how they do!

This letter put the sun in an entirely stressful day today. I'm in edits on the last 30 pages of my young adult novel, so tired, I feel like I really am in labor and delivery all over again. And then I got this letter. The best part of the whole thing is that a child is reading my work, and is inspired by it. I mean, comparing it to Star Wars? Is there any greater honor? Just between you and me, I used to lay awake at night trying to move rocks with my mind. I used to put one in my bed next to my hand. Sometimes I'd lift it up, sort of to give it a head start with the whole levitating thing. I never did move that rock - other than with my hand - but I lost a lot of sleep trying. That's the effect that Star Wars had on me.

And now my writing might actually be having this effect on a reader? I can hardly believe it.

So thanks, Dad, for letting me know. Thanks to every reader who's ever sent me a picture, letter, email, the works, especially kids. I hang up pictures in my office. They inspire me. I read all of the letters, and some, I keep in a special file. They are amazing. I can't say it often enough.

Here's one of my favorites, copied verbatim from the No. 2 pencil handwritten letter I received:

Dear Mriss Nyikos "I'm really happy you were here. I liked the books Squirt the Squid, Shelby the lemoin shark and Dizzy. Squirt is very cute and funny. Shelby is.....well, I forgot, but dizzy is a heck of a story. I think the book Dizzy is the beast. Im working on a book about Salmon. I hope you come back soon. Your friend Tommy P.S. Lemon sharks kill us in freenzezs

Thanks kids. Thanks parents. Thanks readers! I appreciate your words. Here's a heartfelt shout out to you!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Winging It

I'm getting old. I didn't believe it - or I was in a great denial place - until Friday, when fashion reruns finally caught up with me.

Truth be told, I supposed, I've been building to this for eight months. It all started when I went to another salon for a day of beauty and came out with what was supposed to be a very chic cut. It had a lot of layers, and I have long hair. So, the first six weeks were okay. Then it was time to go in again. I went back to my regular stylist.

Like a good customer, I readily admitted my digression, hoping he'd forgive me. It had been a full day of beauty. They were supposed to cut my hair, I tried to explain. He examined the results rather critically, finally holding up a hunk of my hair - which is really long - in the back. My stomach turned. It was only a few inches long. "What did she do here?" he asked.

I think she was trying to be nice and take off some of the weight of my thick hair. That's the generous answer.

Still, I felt like the kid who'd cut her hair with her school scissors. And, like that kid, I've waited since March for my hair to grow. I'm kinda attached to my long hair, and my hairdresser knows this. He waited until the guilty clump of hair had grown out long enough to ask the dreaded question: "Should we clean up all of these layers?"

This meant taking off about three inches of my hair. I gulped and then agreed. I'd been cursing that same hunk of hair for more than seven months now. I felt like I'd paid my penance for straying from my hairdresser.

Jim did a great job with my hair. He cleaned it up beautifully. He offered to style it a little differently for me, my hair being so much shorter now. I gleefully agreed. I love it when someone plays with my hair, and this particular "do" meant hairspray, a curling iron, and lots of turning and finessing. Usually, he does my hair with a blow dryer and a brush. It's that straight. Getting the curl to stay in takes, well, a really long time.

When all was said and done, he turned me around, and....there they were. Gentle, far more modern, but nevertheless there: wings.

I gulped, but I have to admit, I kind of like them. They are so much better than the ones I had in high school. Did anybody else have these? Just remembering the amount of hairspray it took to keep them flying off at the edges makes me giggle and cringe at the same time.

So, now I'm wing girl again, able to leap tall buildings with a single flap of her hair. And just between you and me, I don't think they look so terrible, which makes me wonder if I'll be repeating the "blonde" (read orange) hair dying phase I went through my senior year. My hair may be about to become far more interesting than its been in years. But if I start sporting a striped pair of pants and a thigh length bulky sweater - a look that never really worked for me - it'll be time for a fashion intervention. Until then, I'm flapping off to try a few other fashion adventures.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Turkey Trauma

What do you do with all that leftover turkey?

This question has plagued me since I was a kid and we ate turkey sandwiches, turkey casserole, turkey stuffing, and turkey turkey turkey until I really started to look at my back to see if I was sprouting wings (or worse, a bright red waddle).

Now, years later, as the turkey preparer, I have sympathy for my mom. There's a ton of leftover turkey and only so much to do with it - or feed to the dog.

In the hopes of creating yet a new, but classic, way of dealing with the leftover turkey trauma at our house, I busted out the soup pot. This was after we'd had leftover turkey au naturale, turkey sandwiches, and the threat of turkey meatballs. This was stifled by a staunch turkey rebellion on the part of my entire family.

So, soup pot it was. Time to hide the dreaded ingredient, turkey. Here's what I came up with in my experiments with the bubbling cauldron - turkey soup. So it wasn't a reinvention of cooking per se, but it didn't turn out all that badly. I used 8 cups of water, 4 boullion cubes, leftover celery, carrots, onion AND parsely (so this is really a 2 for 1 - how to use up those leftover veggies as well), 12 oz. wide egg noodles, tons of turkey cut up into cubes, and three mined garlic cloves. First, I boiled the water and the boullion cubes, then added the noodles. While that was coooking, I sauteed the veggies together in a separate pot with the garlic. Once everything was good and bubbling, I dumped it all together - adding the turkey surreptitiously when no one was looking - and let simmer for an hour, with a little salt and pepper to taste.

My kids were skeptical. They'd had turkey for a week straight by this point, but turkey soup garnered the coveted "Best Food Ever" kid rating. There were happy kids everywhere, and one happy mom, who, with a guilty sigh, packed the leftovers in their lunch for school the next day.

That did it for us and leftovers, but if you've still got some, The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook has got a fantastic list of what to do with them. Really delicious things there. Give it a look.

Dragon Wishes news: I was interviewed by Tasha S for my newest middle grade novel, Dragon Wishes. Please take a look. It turned out really well, which means I didn't embarrass myself...I don't think.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

SCBWI Policy Change

I got a puzzling email the other day from the regional representative of the SCBWI. The SCBWI is the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. It's an international organization that basically supports children's writers and illustrators, offering workshops, national and regional conferences, and, at the local level, a group of authors who can lean on one another for all sorts of things, like critiques to a sympathetic ear when the writing world gets tough.

So it really suprised me to read the following policy change: "No books should be a part of our website or sold at our conferences if they are self-published, subsidy published, or published by print on demand internet companies."

Um, what?

I kinda thought we were there to support each other, not pass judgment. Doesn't enough of that go on through the market.

I thought long and hard about whether to post on this, but since it's begun to gnaw at my brain while I'm out running - usual brainstorming time for me - I'm posting. I keep coming back to a phrase used by the U.S. Supreme Court when they review a law that looks like it's on a collision course with itself: slippery slope.

Here are the reasons this looks like a slippery slope to me:

First, HarperCollins - a big publishing house - just created a new imprint that is POD and lower royalties in exchange for higher author profit sharing. What do we do about those authors? Or smaller publishing houses that adopt similar measures to survive the economic downturn we now find ourselves in?

Second, we're in an economic downturn, and this policy seems like it's going to be hard on a lot of small businesses. But small businesses are the backbone of the American entrepreneurial spirit. And after watching my dad work with them as a CPA for over thirty years, and run his own small business, I get the impression they struggle enough as it is. They don't need me making it any harder.

Third, books face an uphill battle these days against all other forms of entertainment. It seems like they could use all the support they can get, regardless of how they come into being. The market will undoubtedly decide if they are worth the paper they're printed on, regardless of who printed them.

Finally, and most worrisome to me, there is a long list of authors who have gone on to greatness - or who are great - who have self-published: Mark Twain, J.R.R. Tolkien (Lord of the Rings), and far more recently, Steven King and Christopher Paolini, author of Eragon. They probably don't care whether an independent group decides to snub them or not, but does that mean that the SCBWI has effectively determined that it cannot talk about certain Mark Twain books anymore? Or the first printing of Eragon?

All of these points make me feel really uncomfortable about this SCBWI policy change. As a member, as a writer, I feel like I need to say something. I don't want to snub any other writer or their work. Each writer's journey is different. I don't know enough to tell them how that journey should look, or what's best for them.

What I know is this. I write. I cheer for other writers. I cheer for books. I don't care how they're printed. As for their quality, I put my faith in the market. Readers are a pretty savvy lot.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Half a Globe Away - Haere ra

Monday morning’s steady rain perfectly reflected my somber mood. I didn’t want to go home. Not by a long stretch. I’d just found a whole new world, and already, I was going to have to say good-bye.

But I still had a trip through Nelson left, I reminded myself. Ulla had very generously agreed to accompany me on what can be described as a frenetic shopping spree. I still had presents to buy for all of my family and friends back home. And a million postcards to write. If I couldn’t bring New Zealand itself back, I would bring a few mementos.

We started in the center of Nelson at the giftshop across from the Information Center. My shopping almost immediately became less about finding some thing, and more about trying to limit how many somethings I'd found. There were tikis, paua shells, paua shell earrings and Christmas ornaments, wool products, socks, hats, shirts, just so much!

I haphazardly made a quick list in my head of friends and family. It’s going to be a very Kiwi Christmas this year! And then I began hunting and gathering. We had (for women, yes, this is a must!) to visit three more giftshops – with a short break at the Swedish bakery for sustenance to carry me through – before finishing up the shopping. It will be very…woolly in my house this December, but I think my family will like that.

Pleased with my shopping exploits, I was more or less ready to begin to take my good-byes when Oliver told me there was one last place we had to visit: Page and Blackmore Booksellers. My eyebrows shot up in amazement. New Zealand had one more surprise left up its sleeve.

A year ago when I’d begun my research for information on French Pass and Pelorus Jack - themes of my present young adult novel - I’d come across Oliver’s book about Arthur Elsmlie, who’d settled French Pass, in the New Zealand national library's online catalogue. A few hours of research proved that the title was, very unfortunately, impossible to get in the U.S. So, like a good researcher, I began scouring New Zealand stores online. Page and Blackmore, in Nelson, had the title. What’s more, the owner knew the author, Oliver Sutherland.

The path I’d been on for a year came full circle that morning when I walked into the store and met Peter Rigg. Peter had been the one who'd generously agreed to ask Oliver if I might contact him all those months ago. Peter had started my historical, then virtual, and ultimately, very real trip to New Zealand. And now, here I was shaking Peter’s hand. He acted as if it had been nothing, an every day event. For my novel - and for me - it has been everything but. It has taken me halfway around the globe to a whole new land, new culture, and most importantly, new friends. Here's a shout out to you, Peter. Thanks!

My head still reeling from this last great surprise, we turned and headed home for lunch, and then from there, to the airport. It had been a week of wonders in New Zealand. I’d experienced a lifetime of experiences in so little time, and now, now it was time to get back to my story, back to my characters, back to the world I’d created around this impressive stretch of New Zealand land and history, and weave in the details and delights I’d experienced.

So I wasn’t really saying goodbye to New Zealand that Monday afternoon when I boarded my plane in Nelson to make the long journey back to this side of the globe. As I sit here and write now, I know that it will be many months before I ever do that - actually, maybe never.

For now, my characters are knocking at the door of my mind, eager to get out into the New Zealand that I've seen and experienced. My mind is racing with ways to improve my story, nuances to add, flavors and textures that have come to life in full color since I've been there. But most of all, most of all my heart is buried deep in the rich folds and breathtaking peaks of the New Zealand I've come to know. I've had that rare experience we all happen upon now and again along this path we call life - I've been awed.

Haere ra, New Zealand. Until we meet again!