Good-Bye, Little Decade

English: Traditional Devil's Food Birthday Cake

Birthday Cake (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I write this, it is the last day I will ever be twenty-something, and while I would usually rather crawl under a rock than draw attention to my birthday, this one’s kind of a biggie. I could not wait to get out of my teens. I started college when I was seventeen, the youngest kid in my orientation class. I was always self-conscious about my age and went to great pains to stay inconspicuous. Every birthday, I thought, “Well, at least now I can say I’m in my twenties,” “Now maybe I’ll get some respect, since I’m past twenty-five,” and so on. But even now, I know that most of you are probably rolling your eyes, thinking I’m still a baby. I reach this age with mixed emotions because there were things I always assumed I would do before I hit thirty. But here I am, as unpublished and anonymous as ever, at least as far as the brick-and-mortar bookstores are concerned. But is that what life’s all about, anyway? I’ve thought a lot about what did happen in my twenties lately, and it’s been a pretty eventful ten years, even if I didn’t accomplish every single goal.


Two months after turning 20, I set my wedding date and started planning. I finished writing my first novel and started the long process of revising. I graduated with a BA (English/Philosophy) six months to the day before my wedding. I hardly noticed that I was finished with school, so immersed was in the editing and typesetting process of the second volume of Fiction Fix.


Thomas and I got married two months after I turned 21. I was actually the breadwinner the first five months we were married (scary thought because my salary was not spectacular). We lived in a tiny apartment and loved it, although we were excited (and naive) about becoming homeowners in the near future. 2004 was also what I think of as the Year of the Hurricane. There were four big storms, at least for Northeast Florida, and we spent many a night playing Scrabble by candlelight. A couple months before my next birthday, Thomas and I put a deposit down on our condo.


Not wanting to go month-to-month on our rent, Thomas and I moved in with his parents the weekend that I turned 22. Then our condo complex’s original builders went out of business, and it turned into a huge fiasco. We were assured our condo would be ready by September—November at the latest. We should have just walked away, but the $4000 we’d put down seemed like too much to lose. Oh well. One cool thing I did that year was to travel to New York with a group of choral friends, where we performed contemporary British composer John Rutter’s Requiem in a mass choir in Carnegie Hall. Even better than singing in Carnegie Hall was being directed by Rutter himself.


In May of 2006, Thomas and I became homeowners. We tried to put the extra six months of waiting behind us, figuring that in a couple years, we’d make all our money back, plus some, then get a house where we could raise a family. Ha. Anyhow, we moved in and adopted our kitty Willow shortly afterward. That fall, I had gum surgery, in preparation for getting braces. But before filling my mouth with metal, I found out I was pregnant.


It was mostly the year of the inflating, pregnant belly (and everything that goes with it). I cannot forget that this was also the year the last Harry Potter book came out. My parents, Thomas, and I went to Barnes and Noble for the midnight release. I read it aloud all the way home and much of the next day. (Thomas read ahead while I napped—hey, give me a break, I was pregnant.) Sad to think we’ll never go to a midnight Harry Potter book release again. Our first son Peter was born a few months later. The middle-of-the-night feedings, colic, and reflux were a pain, but his first few weeks are still magical to me. It’s a time I also associate with the movie The Departed, which we watched almost constantly for a month or two. When Peter was four months old, I got braces. At that point, the economy had already tanked, and my job at my family’s small business started to disappear. I transitioned to bookkeeper, which is much less than full-time. If I’d known, then, that we would have to survive on little more than Thomas’s salary, I probably wouldn’t have paid $6000+ to fix my bite, but it was money better spent than the $4000 we wasted on the condo’s deposit.


For several months, my family focused on my maternal grandfather and his failing health. I’m so glad that he lived long enough to know Peter, whom he adored. We honored his 89 years with a beautiful memorial service. Just a few months after Grandaddy died, my church ordained me as a deacon (in the Presbyterian church, we’re the lay people who provide pastoral care for the congregation and staff), and I know he would have been proud. On the writing front, I took a break from Fiction Fix to concentrate on being a mom. And on the mommy front, Peter was more and better than I ever could have imagined. I worried I would never lose the baby weight, but constant exercise and an appliance installed in the roof of my mouth that made it almost impossible to eat helped me lose an extra 20 pounds. Never fear, my orthodontist fit me with a new appliance, and my appetite was back by the time we took Peter on his first trip to Disney World.


On my 26th birthday, we went to Disney again, and I became extremely sick. When we got home, I was diagnosed with double ear infections and tonsillitis. But the fun was only starting; the antibiotic I took gave me hives that covered my entire body, including inside my mouth. Ugh. It was also the year when we realized that we had already lived in the condo three years and would continue to live there longer than expected. A lot longer. But we cringed at the idea of selling it and only breaking even or maybe even taking a couple-thousand dollar hit. I wish we had. But I had high hopes for making lots of money and paying off the balance because I finally landed a literary agent. That means publication, right? Wrong. It took the better part of two years to figure out that she didn’t care at all about selling my book to traditional publishers.


We went to Universal Islands of Adventure the weekend that the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened. (Very bad idea, especially when you have a toddler in diapers.) Later that week, Peter was ring bearer in my cousin’s wedding. The next month, Peter was potty trained, his incentive two more trips to Disney World. In between the trips, I finally got my braces off. By that point, people were bugging us about having another kid, and with the braces off, I was ready to entertain the idea. Less than two weeks before I turned 28, we found out we were expecting our second child. I was also in a writing funk. I was looking for a good reason to ditch my useless agent, so I told her I was pregnant and didn’t want to write anymore. That’s not exactly true, but I had given up on publishing. I’d thought about starting a website, but I was too depressed by the whole not-getting-anywhere thing to do much about it. When I found out I was pregnant, I spent my meager savings for my website on baby stuff.


I spent most of the year tired. A few months before we welcomed baby Ian, Peter started three-year-old preschool at the same elementary school I attended. Thomas also went back to school to finish his bachelor’s. Due to laziness, tiredness, and being pregnant, Peter and I ate at Five Guys a lot, which was probably a big factor in gaining more weight with baby number two than baby number one. Ian was born two weeks before Christmas, and things weren’t quite as magical as when Peter was born. It took us a while to adjust to a very different little boy, but we love our baby just as much as his big brother.


Without a doubt, this has been the busiest year of my life thus far. I kind of got my writing mojo back and started this blog and discovered Smashwords. I started working with Fiction Fix again, after a four year hiatus. I also started getting up at 4:30 every day to exercise; it’s the only time I can do it now that Peter’s in school five days a week. I joined three different committees at my church and also started taking Sewanee’s Education for Ministry four-year course. We took the boys to Legoland to celebrate their birthdays, then Disney World at the beginning of this year. We put the condo on the market in January, figuring no one would ever want to buy it, and within 24 hours, we had an offer (although for much less than we originally paid). It was a whirlwind, finding a place to live and moving so quickly. The condo days are finally behind us; we actually have a house big enough for all of our stuff, although we weren’t brave enough to actually buy again. Since I’m not publishing bestsellers yet, I decided to start substitute teaching at Peter’s school, and I’m earning an income, while still not having to work full-time. I’m once again searching for an agent. Maybe I’ll actually get published one day. And if not by a traditional publisher, I’m determined to make my book the best it can be and publish it as an ebook, if nothing else. I always thought, Well, if I’m not published by the time I’m thirty, I’ll just save a chunk of money and self-publish. When you start writing a book at nineteen, you think that ten-plus years is more than sufficient for perfecting it and going through the entire publication process. Well, guess what, thirty is here, although a hardback copy of my book is not, it’s not the end of the world. Instead of giving myself a timeline, I have a list of prospective agents, and once they’re exhausted, I’ll go to plan B.

As for my thirties, my boys will be adolescents by the end of this decade. I’m sad, on the one hand, that I won’t have cuddly infants anymore, but I love watching them grow and learn. Maybe during this decade, we’ll plunge into the housing market again, maybe not. At least now we’re much better informed. And maybe that miracle of publication will happen for me. My dream, one that I have every time I volunteer in Peter’s school library, is for a child to come in one day and ask for my book. Wouldn’t that be cool? But if not, the best thing about being forced into some semblance of patience is that I’ve discovered how many other joys there are in life.

Now, bring it on, thirties!

It Shouldn’t Be a Popularity Contest

Eric Whitacre

Eric Whitacre (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I don’t think anyone would ever call me a rebel. When I hear people talk about all the stupid stuff they did, writing it off as, “Well, I was just a teenager,” I wonder why I never did those same things. The whole balking against my upbringing thing never happened.

But when someone says, “pop culture,” I absolutely cringe. When Titantic was really big in high school (I had friends who had time and money to waste and saw it in the theatre more than ten times), I refused to see it. To this day, it remains one of those movies on my personal “banned” list. It could be a masterpiece, but it seemed popular for all the wrong reasons.

So maybe I’m a pop culture rebel. Well, not entirely. I mean, I did go nuts over the Harry Potter books, and I do have Facebook and Twitter accounts, as well as an iPhone, on which I can check my statuses. But take fashion, for instance. Skinny jeans are in, right? Kids, adults, male, female, skinny people, not-so-skinny people–they all wear skinny jeans. I watched kids getting off a school bus one day, twenty or so. Out of all of them, only one kid wasn’t wearing them. And I just prayed that I wouldn’t be forced into buying them because this girl does not have skinny legs. Yes, I’m small, but the brand jeans that I buy come in “curvy,” and they actually fit. (If you’ve ever been clothes shopping with me, you’ll know how monumental that is.) I’m not going to go out of my way to not buy trendy clothes, but if they don’t look good on me, forget it. If they do look good, however, I’ll continue wearing them long after they’ve gone out of style. (This is a trait I came by honestly. I used to cringe at the skirts that my mom wore, you know, the semi-A-line ones with huge pockets? Yeah, they’re back now. Who knew she was a fashion maven ahead of her time.)

But fashion is just a small part and not really the important part of how pop culture snakes its way into our lives. This popularity business is starting to make us kind of dumb, quite frankly.

Now, I know I’m about to sound old and preachy, but this issue is close to my heart. About twenty years ago, I fell in love with my school’s media center and checked out every book I could, from Ramona to Greek mythology to Little Women. Some of my best memories from that time center around those books or time in the library. Of the six guys I used to hang out with, the bigger the book you read, the cooler you were. And no, they weren’t nerds with pocket protectors (although all of them made the honor roll). They played baseball and football, took piano and violin lessons, sang in our choir, took Tae Kwon Do, drew amazing cartoon-like illustrations in the margins of their homework, had rock collections and pet reptiles. In other words, they were well-rounded guys, not pigeon-holed into one particular sport or other area of interest. And though I fit in well enough with them, I didn’t feel nearly as cool. I was not athletically-oriented at all, and although I started taking piano lessons younger than just about anyone else I knew, I was no good. So what could I do? Read. And the two-to-three hundred page books I routinely read just didn’t cut it anymore. That’s when I found Little Women, a five hundred-pager. To this day, the longer the book, the happier I am to read it. Series? Even better.

Today, my son goes to the same school, and I volunteer in the media center. There is now a computer program that assigns reading levels to books, and when kids read them, they receive a certain number of points, according to whichever level it is. One day, my job was to look up each book and find out the level and how many points each book was worth. The books were all new to me, either too advanced for my five-year-old to read yet or too young for me to read for my own pleasure. I asked the media specialist how high the reading levels went, and she said about the eighth grade. The next thing I asked: Did they still have Little Women? Yes, but kids don’t read it all that often (and it’s one of those eighth graders). I waxed eloquent about the books I used to read and asked if she’d noticed a decline in literacy. (She started working at the school my last year there, so she’s seen the entire progression.) Her answer saddened but did not surprise me. Kids these days are more interested in graphic novels, which are fine, but instead of just attracting kids who, otherwise, wouldn’t ever touch a book, they’ve lowered the standard for everyone else.

And then there’s music. My dad raised me on Styx, Alan Parsons, Blue Oyster Cult, Tchaikovsky, and Saint-Saens. I grew up singing in choirs and participated in a few musicals as a teenager. I still love all of the above, plus Sweeney Todd, Mumford and Sons, System of a Down (yes, I know), Metallica, and current British composer extraordinaire John Rutter. When people talk about Usher and Adele, I’m kind of lost because I don’t listen to any of that kind of thing, unless I catch it in a commercial or movie. And people my age look at me like I’m crazy. Just like I shouldn’t wear flare jeans (they were so ten years ago), I should get with the times, right? My poor kids won’t ever know what’s popular, unless they hear it with someone else. The music we listen to in the car is either from the above mentioned groups and composers, or one of Peter’s faves of late is the sixth movement from Brahms’s A German Requiem. I actually got the bug to write this particular post as I listened to him singing his heart out, going right along with the tenor line, then asking for me to play it again. Now, you can’t tell me that that “dead white guy’s” music didn’t connect with him.

I was moved and encouraged recently when my mom showed me Eric Whitacre on TED Talks. This is a long video, but if you’re familiar with TED, you know it’s worth it. If you need some arm-twisting, Eric is a tech-savvy, good-looking, youngish, self-proclaimed classical composer. And he created a virtual choir in 2011 that comprised over 2000 people from around the world—young, old, black, white, male, female, nerds, cool people—every kind of person imaginable. So that tells me that there’s hope after all, if only we can open enough minds to thinking outside the so-called popularity box. People will learn to connect with music like this if they’re taught that it’s okay, if they think they won’t be teased. And some people like me will love it anyway, not really caring what others think.

I’m not trying to create a new kind of popularity, just open people up to more possibilities than what typically top the charts and grace the covers of the magazines at the check-out lines. For parents or teachers who have already given up because their kids just don’t like to read, or who don’t like classical music themselves so never played it for their babies, what kind of message are we sending by this lack of effort? I think it’s unacceptable to give up and say that if we can’t beat them, we might as well join them. Progress isn’t worth it if it plows right over and buries the good along with the out-moded VHS tapes, legwarmers, and suitcase-size mobile phones. Don’t lose the things you love; share them, and watch the wonder and growth at these new-old discoveries.

My Story As Told by Music Part II

My husband and kids are used to it by now—me walking around the house and singing like I’m starring in my own personal musical. I won’t even realize I’m doing it, and my husband will comment that it’s been a long time since he’s heard that particular song. Music energizes me, inspires me to write, and gives me a creative outlet that I can share with others. I have been in one kind of chorus or another since I was in the first grade, when I started singing with my church’s children’s choir. Church, school, community chorale—the longest I’ve gone without singing in a group was the first year I homeschooled, but even then I tagged along with my parents to the Don Thompson Chorale’s rehearsals every Monday night. The members eventually got tired of seeing me sitting there and allowed me to rehearse with them. A year later, I made it to full-fledged performer, my first concert being the weekend of my fifteenth birthday.

Many important events in my life have been marked by music, from the day my husband and I started dating (which happened on a chorus trip) to our wedding five and half years later (the Don Thompson Chorale sang five pieces at our wedding) to the births of our two sons (I sang a requiem the day the first was due, although he didn’t grace us with his presence for another eight days, and I performed in a concert exactly one week before the second one was born).

Some of my favorite performances were in grand settings with mass choirs. I sang three times at Epcot in Disney World. My high school chorus performed in district and state festivals every spring, which allowed me to sing, among other places, at both the University of Florida and Florida State. With the Don Thompson Chorale, I have performed in the Florida Theatre and the Times-Union Center. My most memorable performance was in Carnegie Hall, but before you get all impressed, I was one of at least two hundred people. Even better than the setting, our conductor was John Rutter, the composer of the Requiem we performed (that’ll mean something to you if you’re a choral buff).

And now for my shameless plug—I have yet another opportunity to make wonderful memories in my near future. The Don Thompson Chorale, which has performed one hundred fifty concerts to date, is giving a free concert at the Jacoby Symphony Hall at the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts on September first. Our previous performances there were with other choirs. This will be the first time we’ve done it on our own. And this concert is particularly special because we are celebrating our Director Emeritus Don Thompson’s seventy-fifth birthday. Students from his college directing days are joining with former and current Chorale members to provide an evening of choral fun in the River City (click here to listen to us). Oh, and by the way, it’s FREE! Check out the graphic below for details, and I hope to sing for you there.