Friday, November 30, 2007

Is your laundry basket half-full or half-empty?

I recently read about a woman who was lamenting the fact that her son, now a young adult, never called home or had much contact with her at all. She wondered why she had bothered with all that was required of his childhood—the diapers, the PTA meetings—when the rewards would be so few once he had flown her nest. How sad to think, in retrospect, she could find so little that was enjoyable about his upbringing.

And then I thought about a parallel mother, whom I’ve known for many years. Her son died suddenly at the age of 22. She holds close to her heart wonderful memories of a precious child whose potential was never fully known. He had just finished college and was on his way to becoming a youth pastor when he died. Thankfully his mother takes solace in the time she spent nurturing and guiding her son. If the two women were to meet, I can’t help but wonder if the first one might have a change of heart.

How we view our roles as parents is up to us. We can perceive the mountains of laundry and dirty dishes as drudgery. Or we can plow into the day-to-day with the notion that this is part of it. Sure there are other things I’d rather do than housework, but it’s my role in this family. And as my children get older, it is with delight and obligation to their maturation process that I get to teach them how to do chores—first by my side and later on their own. How I approach this role will directly affect how they view their responsibilities. Will they tackle their tasks with dread? Probably some of the time, because I know I do. But I have no doubt their attitudes will be a direct reflection of mine.

When the boys were toddlers, I learned pretty quickly that saying, “Let’s go play in the tub!” was greeted with much more enthusiasm than, “You have to take a bath.” The end result was the same; the difference was in the approach.

I keep a favorite quote on my desk that reads: Every step of the journey is the journey. If we become so focused on what our kids might one day become, we might miss out on the exciting steps—and missteps—they make along the way.

Chores, meetings, errands, carpooling, dental and doctor appointments. They are all part of raising a family. If I choose to delight in the process, find humor in the ordinary, rejoice in the routine, how much richer my life and the lives of my children will be!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Greeting Christmas

The challenge has been issued: It’s time to get going on my Christmas cards. A good friend—who I’ll refrain from identifying but her name starts with J and ends with ennifer—started asking (nagging) me about two weeks ago. “Have you thought about what you’re going to do for your cards this year?” she asked, trying to keep me from procrastinating but secretly fishing for ideas.

I have brought this on myself. Making our cards started years ago, and I’m sure it was partly a way to save money. But since then, the pressure to top last year’s greeting keeps escalating. One of my early attempts included a Christmas letter written from the perspective of our dog (insert eye-roll here) and then I think the next year the letter came from the viewpoint of our newborn son (double eye-roll now).

Now, I might be in the minority, but I love getting cards with pictures of my friends and/or their kids, and if you enclose a corny letter, then I’m really excited. Just don’t drone endlessly about Uncle Roy’s hernia operation. That I don’t care about. I love hearing how your kids made the basketball team or about your trip to Mickeyland.

Somehow I have fallen into the routine of sending a photo of our kids one year and a photo of our entire family (and sometimes the dog) the following year. Thankfully—since I’m still not wild about my haircut—this year is the kids-only picture.

Taking a picture is a no-brainer, but I still have to write my letter. Last year I rewrote the lyrics to “My Favorite Things” and the year before was an ABC thing. This year, who knows? I might just break down and email a photo to Shutterfly and call it a day. At least that’s what Jennifer admitted she just did!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Two reasons to cheer

It’s almost cliché to say, but I hate going to the dentist. A week ago, the day before our vacation, the dentist I had finally made an appointment with called to say they had a cancellation and would I like to come in. “No!” I wanted to say. I will never like coming in. But I covered the mouthpiece with my hand, stuck my head into the bathroom and hollered to my husband, “Do we have time for me to run to the dentist?” He said, “Sure.” I retorted, “I might be awhile,” hoping he would give me an out. “That’s fine,” he replied. “Take your time.” Darn. Why does he always have to be so agreeable?

So I accepted their offer and spent the next hour or so having the most uncomfortable x-rays EVER and then a cleaning which involved various instruments of torture. My only consolation was returning to my car and checking my cell phone for messages. I assumed the only one would be from my son, asking when I was coming home as he always does when I’m gone longer than he thinks is necessary.

Instead I had a message from the editor of Austin Family magazine telling me they wanted to run an article that I had submitted to them. I had revamped my haircut disaster story from my blog, and they are now running it in the January issue. Yea!

Then this Monday, I returned from the pediatrician to see my home phone message light blinking. An agent I had queried and sent the first chapter wanted me to send them the full. Another yea! only a bit louder this time.

So yesterday I emailed the file for A Forgiving Season to Office Max and went to pick up the printout. Two guys were working the copy center, and the one helping me couldn’t find the charge slip. So he asked guy number two for some help. Guy number two was at the computer, working with two customers on their print job, and he stopped to pull up my file to check the page count.

One of the women seated across from him, turned to me after reading the screen and asked, “Did you write that?”
“Yes, I did,” I answered.
“The whole thing?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Are you publishing it?”
“No, ma’am,” I said. “I’m sending it to an agent in New York and hopefully she’ll find someone to publish it.”
A Forgiving Season,” she said, thoughtfully as she elbowed her friend. “Y’all, we’re gonna remember this day. You’re gonna be on Oprah next year, right?”
“That would be nice,” I said.
“Well, that’s how it starts,” she said.
“Yes, ma’am. For some it does. You’re right about that.”

Neat to have someone cheering for me who doesn’t even know me!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Nobody loves you like Shamu

Our family just bucked tradition in true cowboy style and celebrated a non-conformist Thanksgiving at Sea World. Soccer son had a weekend tournament in San Antonio, and we headed out of town a few days early to make the most of the holiday.

First Stop: Meeting up with the Halbert Family. We hadn’t seen them in six years, when we all lived in Illinois. Their military tour had taken them from O’Fallon to Utah to Boston and now they’ve landed just north of Austin and are enjoying retirement. Amazing how quickly we were able to catch up. I’m grateful for friendships that stand the test of time and distance.

Second Stop: San Marcos to visit my husband’s alma mater. The campus was deserted because of the holiday, but he was able to share some memories with the children including lunch at one of his favorite haunts that served a strange—but delicious—combination of juicy burgers and sinful cinnamon rolls.

Last Stop: San Antonio for a long weekend. On Thanksgiving morning we awoke to a 40 degree temperature drop, bundled up in layers and headed to see Shamu. It was cold and gloomy but not a bit crowded. We seemed to share the park with many non-Americans who didn’t mind missing out on a holiday tradition they probably don’t celebrate.

After seven hours of rides and shows, feeding marine mammals and downing cups of hot chocolate, we called it a day and feasted on hot pizza delivered to our hotel room. (If we closed our eyes, we could almost taste turkey, dressing and pumpkin pie.)

The final games of the soccer tournament were rained out, so we headed home a little early, thankful for the time we were able to spend with friends and family.

My daughter and I returned home with souvenir chest colds, so I took her to the pediatrician yesterday. After she coached the nurse on how to take her temperature (“If you put it in too far, you’ll make me gag just a little.”), and scolded the doctor for buttoning her hair in her dress (“Next time, if you let me know you’re about to button my dress, I can raise my hair out of the way and then you won’t pull it.”), the diagnosis: A harmless cough but a severe case of bossiness. I’d already made half of that analysis.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Here Mousey, Mousey, Mousey

Lately we’ve been enjoying the late-night antics of a mouse that runs along our backyard fence. My husband first spotted it as it ate from the birdfeeder that’s mounted on our fence. Then our dog noticed it and decided that the evil mouse should be driven from the yard. But since the fence runs along a brick wall, his chase ends when the fence gets too high.

The other night we had some friends over and they too enjoyed the fun game of dog vs. mouse-on-a-fence. So cute. So desperate are we for entertainment, apparently.

And then my son discovered a mouse in the garage. It had taken refuge under the freezer. Just for the record, this is the level of my mouse tolerance: Mouse on fence—kinda cute. Mouse in garage—kinda creepy. It was time to bring out the big guns. Or at least a few traps.

So I put “mouse traps” on my shopping list and headed to the store. After ten minutes of trying to decide if I should poison it, snap its neck, stick it to a glue board, or humanely catch and release it (Yeah, right! Like he wouldn’t come back?), I opted for the traditional spring traps and the jumbo glue boards. (I hid them on the bottom of my cart in case Ms. Fancy Pants saw me and thought I was skanky for having a rodent problem.)

I baited the glue boards with some leftover Halloween candy while my son played launch-the-plastic-lizard with the spring traps. I snatched the traps from him before he could snap a finger and baited them with peanut butter.

Carefully, I laid the glue boards down and then went back in for the snap traps. Of course one went off as I set it down and I nearly wet my pants. If you want to see me die an immediate, painless death, throw a mouse on me. I dare you. I’m sure it would work.

So, I reset the spring trap and went back in the house where it was safe. Fast forward to the next morning. Spring traps are still set, but one glue board is missing. Not a good sign. After some deep breathing in the safe house, I go back out to search for the board that has apparently become a wheel-less skateboard for a giant rat.

I find the glue board wedged under the ball-keeper-cage and look under it to find NO MOUSE. He was so super-strong, he managed to free himself from the glue trap, leaving some hair and footprints behind and now is hiding somewhere, waiting to pounce on me, I’m sure. So now, I’m on the lookout for a patchy-haired rat who doesn’t like peanut butter. Hopefully he’s over at my neighbor’s house. I think they thought he was pretty cute.

Friday, November 16, 2007

I just can't compete

Dear Over-dressed Shopper:

I’m not sure what your motivation is, but I wish you would just stop it. You know who you are. You have on your designer jeans—in an attempt to appear casual—but then you’re wearing high heels and enough jewelry to make Mr. T look understated. Your rhinestone-studded T-shirt isn’t fooling me either. I’ve seen them in the trendy boutiques and know it costs ten times what I paid for my plain, faded T (which conveniently came from a store where you can also buy the detergent to wash it).

Your hair is freshly washed and styled, and it’s a safe bet you never let your child use your sleeve as an impromptu tissue. Not only do you carry a fashionable handbag, you have the wallet to match and a coordinating key fob. I can tell by the weight of my homemade sling bag if I’ve remembered my wallet (also purchased at the Red Bull’s-eye), and if it’s really heavy, then chances are I’ve managed to bring my cell phone. An ultra-heavy bag means I’m probably toting the remains of someone’s snack or an assortment of Happy Meal toys.

Just so you know, Ms. Fancy Pants, when the What-Not-To-Wear people or Oprah’s make-over team decide to swoop down upon an unsuspecting shopper and offer the re-do to-die-for, it’s going to be me they pounce on, not you, sister. I am the poster woman for a “before” shot that makes an audience shake their heads in wonder. Do you really want the odds swinging so far in my favor? I would think not.

So, leave your make-up at home in the drawer where it belongs. Save the manicures for the hand models and the highlights for the high-schoolers. Join me in the Land of Dowdy. It’s much more comfortable here.


Plain Jane

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Talk funny to me

I was writing a shopping list across the breakfast table from my daughter. Aloud I listed off, “Tea, butter, toilet paper…”
“I don’t like hearing that word unless I’m in the bathroom,” she said, looking up from her cereal bowl.
“Toilet paper?” I asked. “Why not?”
“It just sounds funny in my ears,” she reasoned.
I laughed.
“It’s not funny,” she said.
Respectfully, I tried to sober up. She’s right. It’s not funny when something just doesn’t sound right in your ears.

For example, Paris Hilton deciding to be charitable and scheduling a trip to Rwanda. Sounded funny to me and surprise, surprise: it didn’t happen. Britney Spears taking parenting classes. Can’t imagine the frustration level of the instructor. I’m thinking she should start with basic hygiene. Didn’t her momma tell her to wear panties in public? Speaking of her mother, something else that sounded funny in my ears. I heard Lynn Spears signed a book deal with a Christian publisher to write a parenting book. And then I listened to the collective banging of heads by wanna-be-published writers who are eminently more qualified.

And how about the Santas in Syndey, Australia, who have been encouraged to say, “Ha, ha, ha” instead of “Ho, ho, ho” because, if overheard by the child’s mother, she might get offended? Sounds more than funny to my ears. Come on, people! Lighten up!

Wonder if Santa would be offended if I had my daughter ask for a years’ supply of toilet paper for Christmas? Now that might make him say, “Ha, ha, ha!”

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Horse Therapy

Recipe for having the creative juices sucked right out of you:

Host a marathon birthday party for teenager and ten of his closest buds
Have four-year-old daughter throw up all over the kitchen floor and then run fever for four days
Commit to three articles with deadlines all on the same week that child is too ill to attend preschool
Have to cancel critique group because husband went out of town and child is still sick
Have only connection to the outside world involve trips to nearest grocery for food and cleaning products
Forget to bathe one day and decide you really don’t care

Put it all together and you have no desire to be witty, clever, or engaging in your conversations much less your writings.

As much as I love writing my blog in the hopes that someone besides my mother is reading it and feeling a similar connection, I hesitate to write when I really have nothing to say. My thoughts the last few days weren’t really worth sharing.

But…child is better, articles are submitted and have been accepted, I’ve bathed and dressed and even flat-ironed my hair. Now we’ve just completed a mission of kindness and pursuit of fresh air. I bought a jumbo bag of carrots on my last run to the store and we headed out to feed our neighborhood horses. I think they enjoyed our company as much as we did theirs.

Friday, November 9, 2007

We know what you're buying

Apparently I have some new best friends I didn’t even know about. I learned their identities when I got a letter from them in the mail last week. This is—in a nutshell—how it read:

Dear Pamela:

We notice you spend a lot of money in our store. As a matter of fact, you spend more than one in five people who visit us. To show our appreciation, we are enclosing some coupons we tailored just for you. We look forward to seeing you again real soon.

The Folks at Kroger

Apparently, because I hand over a little plastic thingy that hangs from my keychain for the Kroger boys to scan as they check my purchases, the Kroger execs are keeping track of what I buy. This just seems a little too Big Brother for me.

I can envision their marketing people, sitting back, reading through my list of purchases, scratching their heads. “Look here,” says #1. “She bought fudge Poptarts, chocolate chip Eggos, fudge Toaster Strudels, and Cocoa Krispies. This woman is a chocolate nut, I think. Should we send her a coupon for Cocoa Puffs or All-Bran cereal, which is what she should be buying?”

“It’s a toss-up really,” answers #2. “If you send her the All-Bran coupon, she’ll probably never use it. But look here, she bought two packs of Slim Fast. Maybe it was for someone else.”

“Let me see that,” says #1. “No, look. It was Chocolate Fudge Royale. It’s probably hers.”

And so it goes until they’ve amassed eight or ten coupons “tailored” for my shopping needs. I threw the whole packet in the trash. It just sorta creeped me out to think that people I’ve never met know what I purchase each week. But if I don’t hand over my key tag, I’ll end up paying 15% more for my groceries than I should.

Each time my purchase is totaled and before the cashier hands me my receipt, he’ll scratch his thumbnail in a circular pattern around my total savings, printed at the bottom leaving a dark ring. “You saved $26.53 today, Mrs. Hammonds,” he proudly exclaims, handing over the shiny paper.

Next time I think I’ll say, “Oh yeah? Well, keep it to yourself, will ya?”

Thursday, November 8, 2007

I love my country

I’m not a huge country music fan. More accurately, I’m not even a medium-sized fan unless you count my short-lived fascination with Kenny Chesney or my love of Johnny Cash after Walk the Line. But I tuned into the CMA awards last night and watched it intermittently between my usual evening chores.

You gotta love an award show where women with big hair and even bigger dresses share the stage with guys who are dressed as though they just left a tractor pull. And if I were seated behind someone such as Kenny Chesney or Brad Paisley, I’d be tempted to tap them on the shoulder and ask them to remove their hats. I’d be a bit miffed if I couldn’t see the stage!

But despite the gaudy dresses and the oversized belt buckles, there’s something that I find very endearing about the country music industry. They just seem like one big, happy, functional family. I watched as award “losers” quickly hopped to their feet to cheer on the winners, slapping them on the back or grabbing them in a bear hug as they made their way to the stage. And it looked genuine! When Kellie Pickler broke down singing her song on stage, the camera panned the audience and many cried right along with her. They knew her story and many had their own rags-to-riches tale too. And not to be outdone in the emotion department, Brad Paisley choked up during his acceptance speech for male vocalist of the year.

When dressed-like-a-princess Taylor Swift won the Horizon Award for best new artist, the adorable 17-year-old gushed that the honor was “the highlight of her senior year.” (And to think mine was winning the tug-o-war over a mud pit at our homecoming festivities.)

I am an American Idol junkie, so my real motivation for tuning in was to see Carrie Underwood. So I was pleased to see her win two awards including back-to-back female entertainer of the year awards. In her honor, I will go to iTunes today and finally buy her new song I love so much: So Small. If you haven’t heard it, watch it on Yahoo video. It just might make you a country music fan.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Your feet smell like chicken

When cooler weather finally arrives, I get the urge to pull out favorite recipes—hearty soups and southern, comfort food.

Apparently my friend Tracy gets the same impulse. I stopped by her house the other day, scooped her baby Lily up and then sniffed. “Oh, I think she has a poopy diaper,” I said, holding her out for Tracy to peek in and check. Nope. She didn’t. Apparently it was Tracy’s chili simmering on the stove that I caught a whiff of. “That’s one way to be sure you don’t get invited to stay for dinner,” she said. Oops. I’m not a chili fan, can you tell?

But I have been hungry for baked potato soup—a great recipe from The Blue Owl restaurant in Kimmswick, Missouri. I also tried a new recipe for corn and salmon chowder the other day that I’d clipped from Cottage Living magazine. I thought it was delicious, but the kids thought it was weird to have corn in their soup.

Then on Saturday I boiled a chicken to make a family favorite: homemade chicken and dumplings from Jan Karon’s Mitford cookbook. (Not at all fattening!) The recipe suggests boiling the chicken a day before, letting the broth cool overnight and then skimming the fat before cooking with it.

Just before going to bed, I placed the chicken in a bowl and poured the broth into a Tupperware container to put out in the garage refrigerator. I had my son open the door for me and as I lifted it up onto the shelf, I quickly learned that Tupperware doesn’t hold its shape so well when hot. The container buckled, the lid popped off and I spilled about two quarts of chicken juice down the front of the open refrigerator and onto my feet.

I made my son go get his dad and together we hosed off the refrigerator parts on the driveway, poured bleach on the floor and hosed that away too. Just what we love doing at 10 o’clock at night! I apologized to him for pulling him away from the television. He said it was fine; the fridge needed cleaning anyway. His reward came on Sunday evening when we had yummy chicken and dumplings for dinner. And then again when he had seconds.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Dress for success

The tears were flowing freely at our house Friday evening. I decided to take, whoever showed an interest in tagging along, to our high school football game. The weather was perfect, it was our last home game and well, I just needed to get out of the house. Turns out our four-year-old daughter and her 12-year-old brother wanted to go. Dad and teenage boy (who actually goes to the high school) decided to stay home and bond over some music and snacks.

The trauma began over a wardrobe struggle. My daughter wanted to wear the Belle dress she had shopped in all day, along with the purple fairy wings we scored at the after-Halloween sale at Target. I picked out a cheerleader dress (handed down from a friend) with a turtleneck and tights. Very fitting for a football game, I thought, even if I do have an aversion to teenage girls who jump around in short dresses in front of God and everyone. I tried to reason with her. Not only was her Belle dress short sleeved, I could envision being jabbed by the fairy wings every time she squirmed on my lap.

I took her aside and calmly said, “It’s just not going to work. It’s too cool outside for your Belle dress and too crowded in the stadium to sit next to you with wings on.”

She took a deep breath, wiped a tear away, and said, “But I just want to look professional.”

I hear ya, sistah. Me too.

I struggle with trying to appear professional when I sit down at my computer to complete a story assignment and have to clear away Hotwheels, Polly Pockets, or decks of cards from the desk to reach the keyboard. Under my feet I kick away a soccer ball or someone’s discarded shoes. Then the phone rings and I reach in the drawer for a pen only to grab a broken crayon instead. Urrrghh! It’s really enough to make me cry. Or maybe I should just find a Belle dress and fairy wings in my size and then see if anyone will take me seriously.

Monday, November 5, 2007

The first few pages

I’ve learned, since writing my first manuscript and sending it to agents, that most request a query letter (a letter that tells them who you are and what you’ve written and why others might want to read it) and typically he or she will ask for your first chapter, the first five or ten pages or possibly just a synopsis (a three-page summary of your book, beginning to end).

At first I was offended. If I took the time to write this tome, wouldn’t they be doing me a disservice to just read the first five or ten pages and not at least a few chapters? I entered my manuscript in a competition last spring that asked for the first ten pages, which happened to be my first chapter. It was amazing how much the judge was able to comment on—characters, conflict, hook, plotting, setting—having read just a couple thousand words out of the 70,000+ I had written.

But now I admit that I can read the first few pages of a book to get a sense of how that author writes, whether or not he or she is speaking to me and if I’m eager to read more. That’s all it takes. I know I’ve asked people about a book I’ve read only to hear them say, “Oh, I started it, but I just couldn’t get into it.” And I’ve done the same, picked up a book because of the back cover pitch or on a recommendation of a friend, and just couldn’t get past the first few pages. Rarely do I give that book a second try. It just didn’t grab me.

Rarer still does a book start out with a bang and then die a slow death midway through. But it does happen. Those are the stories that make me wonder if I’m losing my attention span or did the author run short on imagination.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Picky, picky, picky

I read on a literary agent’s blog the other day a question she posed which, paraphrased, read something like this: If you had to choose, which would you rather read? A well-written book with a weak plot or a so-so written book that’s a great story? I can’t say that I would enjoy either.

First of all, I’ve discovered that the more I read and write, the choosier I am with my reading. Authors whose books I used to enjoy, I’ve reread to get a sense of plot or character development or just a feel for why I liked the particular story, only to find that I didn’t enjoy the story as much the second time around. (And, no, Sonya, I am not talking about A Prayer for Owen Meany—I still love that book!)

I recently read a name-brand author’s new book whose work I’ve enjoyed immensely only to trudge through his latest story. To me it read like a first draft. Not only did I struggle with wanting to fix his sentence structure, but I even found holes in the plot. Points of conflict he introduced only to drop them like a bad habit (or a bad metaphor) mid-way through the book.

My husband listened to me rant for awhile and muttered something about sour grapes and then suggested I reread some of this author’s earlier books. “I’ll bet you’ll find the same stuff in what he wrote before; you just notice it now,” he said. So I took him up on his challenge and reread the first page of three of his books and noticed a vast difference: his earlier books were better. I can only assume a different editor was at the helm this time, the book was rushed to press, or because he sells so many books, the publisher doesn’t suggest many changes to what he submits.

Regardless, what started as a visit with a favorite author ended with disappointment that I spent so much time reading a book that was not enjoyable. So, for me a book has to be well-written and have a great plot. Otherwise, I feel cheated that I’ve given my time to a story that’s left me disappointed. I don’t think I’m asking too much.