It’s the most wonderful time of the year–Part 3.

December 2003, Naples, FL

My baby girl is turning fifteen this month, and as always, I’m left wondering where the time goes. Over the years, people have jokingly given me a hard time about giving birth the day after Christmas, saying things like, “Well, you didn’t plan that very well, did you?” (wink wink, nudge nudge), but I feel like I planned it just right. So far she loves having her birthday wrapped up with Christmas, and we’ve never encountered the “Oh no–her birthday and Christmas gifts are wrapped in the same paper!” drama. Not that she would mind–she honestly loves Christmas. 

But in addition to her being the best Christmas gift I’ve ever gotten, doing my photos with her each year has become my best gift to myself. (In case you missed parts one and two of my “It’s the most wonderful time of the year” posts, they can be found here and here.) Since she turned three, I’ve been taking photos of Holland in my wedding dress each year for her birthday, graduating from a point-and-shoot camera to a much nicer one, and moving from my bedroom or the park in our neighborhood to destinations like L.A., Miami, Disney World, Amsterdam, London, and Paris and now, this year, to New York City. It’s been an amazing journey so far. 

The downsides of this particular project are as follows: extreme nostalgia on my part; cold weather in our chosen locales that require her to wear her jeans under the dress and to let her teeth chatter dramatically as she assures me that there is no way I could possibly love her, otherwise I’d never make her put on a frilly pink dress in public and pose in front of strangers; and the inevitable squabbles between the two of us that go something like this:

Me (theatrically): “Someday I’ll be gone and you’ll be sorry that you couldn’t just pose on the Brooklyn Bridge in twenty degree weather like I wanted you to.”

Her (with eyes rolling): “But why aren’t we done yet? I’m not doing this anymore today. Seriously, Mom. I’m done.”

Her father (sternly): “Do this one thing for your mother. She never asks you for anything.”

And then, in the end, I have the photos I wanted. Some days we’ll go out and I’ll feel like I got nothing that’s even worth editing (and every December I flog myself for not taking a photography class at some point during the year that would make me more technically adept so that I wasn’t relying on luck and creativity alone), but in the end, I find that I’m thrilled with the crazy things we’ve captured and the amazing places we’ve gotten to go. If 18 ends up being the last year we do this, as planned, then I’ve only got three more years to go…and I can’t believe that.

Other than writing, this has been the biggest and most creative project I’ve undertaken, and whether or not the photos are “technically” on the mark or not, it’s something I’m really proud of. It’s a true labor of love, and I know someday she’ll look at these photos and smile fondly, forgetting that I made her stand on the steps of a church in Paris in December in a tank top while I pulled the dress on over her head, and forgetting that I made her wear the dress around Disney World and weather the stares of curious onlookers. 

Someday she’ll think it was cool and creative and fun, and maybe someday she’ll even do something similar with her own children, should she choose to have any. But at the very least, she’ll appreciate the hard work we both put into this project…hopefully while I’m still around. 😉 

Happiest holiday wishes to you and yours! 

Brooklyn Bridge 2018
Chinatown 2018
Grand Central Station 2018
Grand Central Station 2018
Central Park 2018
Central Park 2018
Central Park 2018
Central Park 2018
Central Park 2018
Statue of Liberty 2018
Manhattan Skyline 2018
Times Square 2018
Times Square 2018
Times Square 2018

When life gets in the way of writing.

Now that 2018 is wrapping up, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. As far as years go, it’s been as fast as any other and reasonably productive in terms of writing (I’ll have one more book out around Thanksgiving, and I’ve got two others actively in the works). But it’s been a year that reminded me of where I am in life. It hit me in the face with the news that yes, I am forty-three. I’ve got two aging parents with different ailments. My only child is about to turn fifteen. None of my current students were born before the twenty-first century and none of them seem to know who The Golden Girls are. It’s been…topsy-turvy.

I had lots of plans for my writing projects this year. I always do. I took my computer with me to the U.K. for the month of July, prepared to both care for my father, who has Parkinson’s, and to write in my spare time. But I underestimated the amount of work it takes (emotional and physical) to truly put in quality time with someone who is almost totally reliant on others, and I don’t know that I even opened my computer once. But it was a glorious month nonetheless. I got to take long, slow walks with my dad along the river that winds through the property where he lives, and we spent countless hours listening to the songs he used to play for me on his guitar (“Catch the Wind” by Donovan and “House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals). As I tucked him in each night, I’d kneel next to his bed and talk to him for a long time, just laughing about jokes we have together and reminiscing about everything.

At one point, he was searching for something in his nightstand (when a person has dementia, you often don’t know what they’re looking for and sometimes, neither do they) and he came up with a journal. As he can’t really write anymore, I knew that the pages were filled with thoughts he must have jotted down when he was first diagnosed. He handed it to me and I flipped through the pages, watching as his distinctive handwriting changed and sloped with the progression of the disease. I saw that there were pages and pages of detailed phone messages–as if he’d written down what he would say in case someone’s voicemail picked up when he called them: “Hi, Steph. It’s Dad. I’m sorry I missed you. I’ll call you later. I love you.” And his thoughts about having Parkinson’s: “It’s like I still have 10,000 messages floating through my brain, but only about ten messengers to deliver them.”

It was a challenging and beautiful month, and I had talks with him that reminded me of the old days. There were times when I said, “Dad, I need to talk to you about things, and I don’t care if you have Parkinson’s. I just need you to be my dad.” And of course–as he always has–he listened. He patted my back in the halting, measured way he has now. He found the words and put them together and offered them to me as best he could, offering advice and consolation. And it was wonderful.

Those will be memories I take with me to the end. I have no regrets about not writing this summer.

I came home and got into a minor car accident right on the heels of that trip, then ended up in bed for a week with an MS flare-up. I normally give little thought to my own health condition, but when MS knocks you on your ass, it says, “Hey! Psst–hey, you. Climb into bed. I’m about to hit you with a wave of fatigue that feels like nothing you’ve ever known.” And it did. You’d think that a week in bed might equal thousands of words written in a story, but it doesn’t. The days pass in a blur of naps and food that people bring you and take away, and then eventually you emerge from the fog and you’re ready to put your feet on the floor again and face the world.

School had barely gotten going this fall (delayed by a teacher’s strike that set us back to mid-September), when my mother suffered a medical emergency while in Reno. She’d driven there to care for my godmother–her best friend of 40+ years–who had been diagnosed with cancer and hospitalized. Unfortunately, my mom had driven herself down there and was unable to drive home, so my brother and I booked a last-minute flight and went down there to get her. What resulted was a totally unplanned week with just my mom and my brother (something I haven’t had since the three of us went to Disneyworld together in about 1994). There were serious things to talk about and more than 500 miles for us to travel together with me in the backseat of a Subaru listening to my brother’s wacky music (a combination of alt-folk-country stuff that makes me gag, Dr. Dre, Eminem, and Prince–my mom asking us, “But why did this guy want to put Kim in the trunk?” about Eminem is a definite highlight for me). The trip was draining and challenging and eye-opening in terms of my brother and I realizing that our parents both have needs that are escalating rapidly, but it was an unexpected gift to get to run around “The Biggest Little City in the World” with my brother, eating sushi while the chef coaxed fire from oil on the grill, running into little metaphysical shops to buy crystals and dream catchers, racing each other up and down the stairs in casinos, and brushing our teeth next to each other in our shared hotel room like we were a couple of kids again.

As it turned out, my stubborn Jewish godmother had opted not to tell us when she’d come up to visit in June that she was already battling cancer, so by the time she was hospitalized in the fall it had metastasized and spread everywhere. There was no turning back. Being able to see her in Reno (as she and my mom were in the same hospital, only in different wings) was a gift. At one point she was only eating through a tube, but she really wanted a Whopper from Burger King, so I brought it to her even though I figured she’d never be able to eat it. Unfortunately, by the time I got there she’d been readmitted to the ICU and was having trouble breathing, but she told me in a stage whisper to hide the cheeseburger in her bag for later, which I obviously did. The fact that we were in cahoots over something as silly as a Whopper while she struggled to catch her breath will be something that makes me smile forever. She was a huge, mythical figure in my life–a gorgeous, successful journalist with a long history of traveling the world to report the news–and the first person to really tell me to roll up my sleeves and write. She mailed a book to me when I was living in Miami twenty years ago (Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones”) with the inscription “For my dearest Stephanie–Let’s check out this one and talk. Love, Aunt Beverly.” She read my books and sent me Hanukkah gifts, gave me advice on situations with all of her love and wisdom, and laughed every time I said “Oy vey!” She died on Halloween just before midnight. I already feel the loss of having her in my life.

So now, here we are, fast approaching Thanksgiving. I’ve got another book in the Christmas Key series ready to release in the next few weeks, and two other projects that I’m chipping away at. Sometimes life gets in the way of writing and that’s okay, but sometimes writing is there as an escape when life gets to be too much. It’s a gift to be able to put my fingers to the keyboard and disappear into a world of my own creation–a place where my crazy, creative mind can roam free and invent people and things that amuse or entertain me. And it’s a huge bonus that other people are willing to come along for the ride.

As 2018 winds down I can say that I’m really grateful for all of it: the good, the bad, the painful, the happy, and the gift of the written word. Life is challenging. And beautiful.

The novel I wrote with a former student.

DSC_7684

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: some of the best humans on the planet walk through the door of my classroom and into my life. I’m blessed to know them all, but every so often you have students who become friends, and that’s a truly magical thing.

About a year ago, my friend Omar and his twin brother were about to graduate, and we’d been talking for a while about the things I’d written and about how the boys are interested in writing and directing screenplays. Omar said, “Hey, we should write a book!” To which I said (of course–because I never turn down a good writing project), “Yeah, we totally should!” And from there, the idea for a young adult time travel novel was born.

We started it on May 15, 2017 with just a few ideas about how the story would go. Omar graduated in June, and we’ve spent the past year collaborating in all the ways that modern technology allows. Last summer we spent countless hours working on the book via FaceTime from different time zones while I visited my ailing father in the U.K.; even more hours working on the story in a shared Google doc while I soaked up the sun on my back deck; and we’ve made many, many trips to our favorite Barnes & Noble over the past year to collaborate face-to-face as we created characters and hammered out scenes. In fact, we’ve been to that particular bookstore so many times to work on the story that not only do the café workers know us, but we have our own favorite table by the window.

This book has been a real labor of love for both of us, and it’s gone off in different directions than we’d originally planned. I never plot anything too intricately when I write, so that took some getting used to on Omar’s part. I like to just see where the story takes me, and he was kind enough to go along for the ride. Sometimes we agreed on details, sometimes we didn’t. Sometimes I understood the crazy loops we were making with time travel in our story, and sometimes he had to draw exasperating diagrams for me that left me more confused than when we’d started.

But in the end, we have a finished product. A book that started with him not knowing how to put in his two cents politely with his former teacher, and ended with us debating plot twists and being creative equals. We got to take a trip to the 80s with this book and incorporate some of the bands we both love (The Smiths, The Psychedelic Furs), and–most importantly–we got to be friends. Real friends.

Just like his twin brother and their two older sisters before them, Omar is one of my favorite people to ever walk through my classroom door. He’s smart and funny and kind, and he’s taught me way more than I ever taught him.

So even if we sell zero copies of this book, writing it is something I’ll always cherish. But hey–if we sell a million copies and become time travel gurus and world-famous authors, then that’s okay, too. We’d be honored if you’d check out our novel and support us, and if you felt like leaving us a good review, that would be even better! It’s available here on Amazon right now, and in the next couple of days it’ll be available in both print and through every other major bookseller as an ebook!

IfYouWereHere-f500 copy

 

 

The magic of instant friendship.

IMG_1039

I came home from work the other day to find my little lady in her bedroom, lying on the bed with her laptop open and the Christmas lights she keeps strung around the room all year long plugged in. She was creating a website for a school project and had her phone propped up next to her so that she could FaceTime with a friend. Sounds like pretty much any thirteen-year-old in America, right? But this isn’t just any friend–this is a friend she met at the pool in Mexico when we vacationed there four years ago, and he–yes, he–lives in Virginia. So while she’s doing her pre-dinner homework here on the West coast, he’s playing around on his flight simulator on the East coast where it’s three hours later in the evening. They giggled and chatted as they worked on their individual pursuits, so I closed the bedroom door and went to change out of my work clothes, thinking how small the world must seem to them. I mean, I’ve met people and lost people and found them all over again (or never found them again at all) so many times throughout the years–to think that keeping in touch and seeing the face of someone you met so randomly is this easy for them seems strange. Their world is so different.

Her muted laughter drifted from her bedroom down the hall as I unwound my scarf and took off my earrings, and I thought about the day these two unlikely friends met, and about the way I’d pulled some hotel stationary from my pool bag and scribbled some thoughts as they played together under the sun. Though I hadn’t seen the paper in a few years, I knew I still had it tucked away somewhere, so I went in search of it. I found it folded in fours and tucked between the pages of a leather-bound journal in a drawer. Here is what I wrote:

She’d waited four days. Four long days for a playmate. Four days of settling on Mama as a swim date. Four days of conducting the ocean in its rise and fall with her long arms, unaware of my camera trained on her.

DSC_0351

And then finally he came. Not the fellow nine-year-old girl she’d hoped for. Not someone she could talk Barbies with, but a dark-haired eight-year-old in swim trunks and a black swim shirt with a pirate emblazoned on the chest. Prior to his arrival, there’d been fits and starts of “What’s your name?” and unremarkable snubs by girls who already had sisters and friends to play with. They didn’t need her. These repeated social letdowns had left her wrapped in a towel in tears by my side all week, but in one swift move of friendliness and curiosity, this boy in the pirate shirt had taught her one of life’s special secrets: sometimes boys are just easier.

He asked her where she was from and quickly explained to her why our four-hour trip from PDX to Cabo would take five-and-a-half hours on our return: “Headwinds or drag,” he said knowingly. “I’m kind of a plane expert.” He told us he was a member of the Beckford Barracuda swim team back in Richmond, Virginia. He told us he could swim the backstroke in 1:12, and that he knew how to have underwater tea parties. He told us he’d be happy to help us with our fries, which we were snacking on poolside on this, our first all-inclusive vacation and our first trip to Mexico. I slid the plate in his direction.

I could see that she was put off by the fact that he didn’t need her name in order to pursue this friendship, and that he seemed to want to share with her every piece of information he’d ever gleaned during his eight years on planet Earth. His desire to bring her into his world was charming, in my opinion, so in addition to “Sometimes boys are just easier to make friends with than girls,” I whispered another of life’s little secrets in her ear before she dove back into the pool: “Sometimes boys like to talk. A lot. Just let them. You’ll get your turn when they finally run out of things to say.” She nodded and snapped her aqua-tinted goggles back into place, took a deep breath, and dove into the turquoise pool after him.

IMG_4012

“Holly,” he said sometime later. “Want to go in the jacuzzi?”

“Sure.” She shrugged, trailing after him.

Want to go in the jacuzzi?” my husband intoned, eyebrows raised. “I thought she hated the jacuzzi! I thought she was the jacuzzi police–’No one under sixteen allowed.’”

“Not anymore,” I smiled, watching as she followed her new friend across the pool deck.

Now, post-jacuzzi, they have set up camp on a shared towel under some stranger’s umbrella, the roiling Sea of Cortez a backdrop to their games of “Rock, Paper, Scissors” and hand claps. I watch them with mild envy as my baby replaces me as her only playmate on this trip, and wonder what impression this brief friendship under the sun will have on either of their young hearts. Will this self-professed “plane expert”–this boy who patiently explained to my daughter that she lives in the Washington with Seattle in it, not Washington D.C. where the president lives–will he grow up and remember this day? Will he one day think of blonde-haired, red-shouldered Holly from Spring Break in Cabo? Will he write about her? Perhaps fashion a poem as a grad student about a long-legged girl in a purple bikini who swam with the dolphins but wouldn’t race him in the backstroke? Or will it fade from memory for both of them, lost as many things are in the haze of childhood–like the pink sun setting just west of the crashing waves of the Sea of Cortez?

It’s the most wonderful time of the year–Part 2.

Last December I posted about my favorite hobby aside from writing: taking pictures of my daughter in my wedding dress every year around her birthday to mark the passage of time (the original post is here). This December we went to Europe to spend the holidays with my dad and stepmum in the U.K., and we traveled to Paris and Amsterdam as well as to London and the English countryside. It was two and a half weeks of wearing the same jeans and boots, cramming the beat-up pile of pink tulle and satin that was my wedding dress into a camera bag, and offering to buy my 13-year-old a pregnant puppy if she’d let me strip her down to jeans and a tank top in public (and in freezing weather) yet again to yank the dress and a jacket on and snap some shots of her in front of the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben. She was a trouper. (And I totally reneged on the puppy, which I’m sure will come up in therapy when she’s an adult.)

Her dad had to run interference between us on several occasions (how many times can we both retreat our separate corners and point our fingers at each other–me accusing her of not seeing the long-term vision of the project, and her demanding that I act like a normal mom for once…as if that’s ever going to happen–before we just bag the whole concept and I start to vacation with a point-and-shoot camera and forget all about the wedding dress that’s shoved into the back of my closet?) But we got it done. And even though it was cold–sometimes teeth-chatteringly so–we got our shots. I made some blunders with a couple of days of photos (didn’t realize I had my ISO set too high), but my husband acted as my trusty assistant, snapping back-up pictures with his iPhone and helping me to coax my mini-me into re-shooting a couple of our locations in Paris. It was a real family effort this year.

And now my baby girl is 13. A teenager. Her braces are off, her self-consciousness is in full-swing (“Mooommmm, there are people staring at us!”), and she is still the absolute light of our lives. Happy 2017–here’s to another year of adventure and joy!

 

 

RRBC Book and Blog Party 2016!

Blog Party 1

Welcome to this stop on the blog tour! This is our first time participating, and we’re really excited to join you from Vancouver, Washington. We’ll have two winners today here at Redbirds & Rabbits, and all you need to do to enter is comment on this blog post. Our two prizes today (both randomly drawn by the RRBC team) are:

  • One $25 gift card to Old Navy (perfect for back-to-school shopping!)
  • One paperback copy of There’s Always a Catch, the first book in my Christmas Key women’s fiction series. Along with the book, I’ll send you some “book swag” like a magnet and my own homemade soundtrack of songs inspired by There’s Always a Catch and the forthcoming Wild Tropics, which is book #2 of the series!

It’s exciting to have you join us from wherever you are on this beautiful planet, and we’d love to tell you a little bit more about ourselves. My name is Stephanie, and I’m the mom. Holland is my 12-year-old daughter, and we’re the co-authors of a series that Holland dreamed up two summers ago. From her original idea, we decided to write books about what it might feel like for young girls to move to America. Each book is about a girl from a different country, and the main character’s story follows her as she moves to our country and gets assimilated. We published our first book, Iris, about a year ago, and we’re incredibly excited to announce that we just put out our second book, Mai, a few days ago.

Iris-FINAL.jpg          Mai-f

In addition to the books I write with my daughter, I also pen a women’s series based on a fictional island off the coast of Florida called “Christmas Key.” The main character, Holly Baxter, is the 30-year-old mayor of a tropical island where the only traffic comes from slow-moving golf carts driven by retirees; the commute to work involves getting sand between your toes; and happy hour means salty margaritas with a view of the ocean. The only drawback for Holly is the lack of romantic options on Christmas Key! Book one, There’s Always a Catch, came out in the spring, and book two of the series, Wild Tropics, will be out in September.

TAAC-CK-BK-ONE-f          WildTropics-TAAC-f

And finally (as if two series and being a full-time teacher wasn’t enough!) I write YA under the pen name Reed Hall. My first YA book, @Robertopancake, came out last year, and it was a book that I absolutely loved writing. The whole thing was inspired by an exchange about music that I had with a kid on Twitter back when the site first became popular, and it moved me to write this book from the perspective of a teenage boy. The real @Robertopancake kindly gave me permission to take his (often hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking) teenage boy tweets out of context and use them in my own fictional tale. The result is a book that I’m still incredibly proud of, and the main character is someone I love as if he’s a real, live boy (and many of my readers have said they wished he was real!).

Robertopancake - High Resolution

Thank you for stopping by today–we’ve loved being a part of the Rave Reviews Book Club the past few months, and this blog tour has been a great example of what a wonderful, supportive community it is. Happy reading and writing, everyone!

~Stephanie & Holland

The magic of words.

We all know by now that I’m on this writing journey with my pre-teen daughter, and I can confirm to you all that it’s been one of the best things I’ve done in my life. My girl turns 13 this year, and we’ve just spent the summer together doing a variety of things (which, I’ll admit, includes a fair amount of time spent re-viewing Gilmore Girls on Netflix), but most importantly, we’ve sat together and finished our first draft of the second book in our American Dream series. It took us a year to get that done (those are the realities of working with a hormonal adolescent who would sometimes rather watch Barbie furniture building how-to videos on YouTube than read through a section of a manuscript again to get it just right), but last night, as we sat in her bed under the Christmas lights that she has draped around her room, we emailed the edited draft out to our beta-readers, and it felt AMAZING to say we’d completed this project.

And by “completed” I mean we’ve written it and taken turns reading the chapters out loud, making our changes and haggling over word choice and description (the final editing will be mine to do once we get feedback). But that’s the magic, really: the words. The ones we wrote together, the ones I listen to her read, and the ones we debate over. They’ve kept us working together, side-by-side, like glue. They’ve kept us from drifting into a land where she holes up alone in her room like a typical teen, keeping her words to herself or only sharing them with friends. Instead, she shares them with me. As we write, we talk about other “stuff”–boys, mean girls, fashion, music. I mean, we talk a lot anyway, but this gives us a safe place to make silly jokes and to apply the situations we write about to real life. This book we’ve just finished gives us the chance to talk about what mean girls are like in middle school in 2016, and lets us ponder what sort of messages we want each book to impart. (For the record, she talked it through as I listened, and we ultimately decided that this book is about believing in yourself and overcoming whatever obstacles or limitations life throws in your path.)

Writing also gave us something to talk about on our road trips this summer. We sat next to pools in Buffalo, Wyoming and talked about our next book: who will our main character be? Where should she be from? (Russia, we’ve decided.) What state will she move to in America? (While driving to an abandoned gold-mining town outside of Bozeman, Montana, we determined that she’d definitely be moving to a horse ranch in the “Treasure State”.) And as we power-walked through a pool in Spokane, Washington like a couple of middle-aged retirees on a water aerobics mission, we even got to daydream about a time when we had enough books published that we could go on an indie bookstore tour, setting up tables and autographing books for our rabid fans. (Hey, a girl can dream, right?)

I know there are a few more weeks of summer and I shouldn’t be mourning its end just yet, but teachers go back to work three weeks from today, so…the end is near. I have some final editing to do on my own book, and I’m hoping to have both of our books out in early September (it always takes longer than you think it will!) The covers are done, the drafts are written and in their final stages, and–as always–I’m eternally grateful for the magic of words.