The magic of instant friendship.

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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.

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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.

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“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?

When ‘Christmas Key’ comes to the Big Screen.

**insert laughing emoji face with tears streaming**

I mean, a girl has to dream, right? Because whether I’m reading or writing a book, the characters and places come to life in my head, and at a certain point it really is like watching a movie, isn’t it? This has been a busy month so far, with school starting up again (our school district decided high school needed to start an hour later, so not only is our schedule bumped back, but I took on an extra class at the end of the day, which means I’m now getting home at 5:00…not exactly teacher’s hours anymore!), and I also managed to get Book 2 in my Christmas Key series, Wild Tropics, published and out into the world. I’m really proud of being in the middle of an actual series now, and I’m currently working on a novella about Jake–one of the main characters–that will give some background information about how he ended up on a tropical island in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico.

But as I work on my stories, of course I have ideas about who the characters are, and who they look like. So, without further ado, allow me to cast the Hollywood version of Christmas Key:

Holly Baxter, Christmas Key’s 30-year-old mayor: I see her as sort of a blue-eyed Keira Knightly. Pretty, but kind of serious. A little quirky.

Jake Zavaroni, Christmas Key’s only police officer and Holly’s ex-boyfriend: Jake Gyllenhaal. Good-looking. Honest eyes. Looks like he’d be a tough but good-hearted cop.

Bonnie Lane, Holly’s assistant at the B&B: 50-ish, a Southern belle who loves men. A real saucepot–like a Golden Girls era Rue McClanahan, with a thick accent and a Blanche Devereaux sense of humor.

River O’Leary, Holly’s love interest who visits the island from Oregon: 30-ish, tall, good sense of humor, ex-pro baseball player for the Mets. Paul Walker–no question.

Maria Agnelli, the island’s resident cantankerous octogenarian: 86, a widow with a sharp tongue and a kooky streak. This is where my love of the Golden Girls becomes obvious (okay: we can call it an obsession)–Maria Agnelli is 100% Sophia Petrillo.

Cap Duncan, owner of North Star Cigars: looks like a pirate who walks around with a parrot on his shoulder. A little grumpy with a lot of secrets. I picture him as Donald Sutherland with slightly longer hair and a gold hoop earring.

Leo Buckhunter and Dr. Fiona Potts, Holly’s uncle and his girlfriend, Fiona, who is both the island’s only doctor and Holly’s best friend: Buckhunter is a grizzled, tattooed Matthew McConaughey in my mind, and that never wavers. Fiona is a petite, smart, funny woman in her 40s, and although I think of her with more strawberry blonde hair, she’s definitely a Reese Witherspoon.

Coco Baxter, Holly’s mother: late 40s. Self-involved, self-centered, self-serving. She and Holly aren’t close, and while she doesn’t technically live on the island, she visits all the time and her negative presence is always felt. I see her as a crisp (though not British) Kristin Scott Thomas. Remote and with an attitude, but beautiful.

I’ll be sure to let you know when the movie premiere is so you can be there! **insert another laughing/crying emoji again here**

Happy fall!

My Christmas Key soundtrack.

There’s almost nothing I do without music, except maybe sleep. I put Pandora on as soon as I start getting ready for work in the morning, I listen to music as I drive (preferably Sirius XM’s First Wave station), and I play it all day long in my classroom during the school year while my students are working. There’s more music while I work out at the gym in the evenings, and of course I listen to it non-stop as I write. A mellow Pandora station that fits the mood of my story and doesn’t distract usually works well, so for my Christmas Key books, a combination of Tropical Holidays and Caribbean Jazz are pretty much my go-to stations.

For me, music sets the mood and the tone of not just writing, but life. Certain songs can instantly transport you to a time and place (anything that came out in 1997–Chumbawumba’s Tubthumping, the New Radicals You Get What You GiveSarah Mclachlan’s Building a Mystery–are like a time machine to the fall of that year, a trip back to me driving around Miami as a 22-year-old newlywed in a beat-up car with no air-conditioning, trying to make it as a model on South Beach). Road trips are intimately tied to the music I listen to as I take in the small towns, the wide vistas, and the mottled skies, and I also find that songs are interwoven with the humans who recommended them to me, as one of my favorite students did this year when he made excellent suggestions for a handful of cool songs I’d never heard before. From this point on, those songs will always be the ones that Grayson gave me.

Music is such a big part of my life that it’s no surprise to me when I go back to revise and edit to find that I’ve name-checked several songs in every book. After finishing There’s Always a Catch and the forthcoming Wild Tropics, I had to go and buy the songs I didn’t already have in my iTunes library, and now I have a handy Christmas Key playlist to listen to whenever I need to get my head back into the game with drafting or revising. So without further ado, here are the songs mentioned in the first two books in the Christmas Key series. (I’m giving away two copies of my soundtrack on CD, so if you live in the U.S., leave a comment on this post and tell me which island on this beautiful planet is your favorite, and why–I’ll choose 2 winners on July 31st!)

  1. Let’s Stay Together–Al Green
  2. God Only Knows–The Beach Boys
  3. Trouble–Coldplay
  4. Hotel California (Live)–Eagles
  5. Brilliant Disguise–Bruce Springsteen
  6. Just Like Heaven–The Cure
  7. Jamming–Bob Marley
  8. Witchcraft–Frank Sinatra
  9. Thriller–Michael Jackson
  10. Somebody Else–The 1975
  11. Jingle Bell Rock–Bobby Helms
  12. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!–Ella Fitzgerald
  13. Santa Baby–Eartha Kitt

 

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

It’s truly my favorite time of the year, and not just because I love Christmas (but I love Christmas–I really do! And I’m a huge dork about it. Anyone want to come over to my house and listen to Wham! sing “Last Christmas” for the 431st time this season?) It’s also my favorite time of the year because by December I’ve spent about six months planning and envisioning, researching and dreaming, and I finally get to zip Holly into my wedding dress for our annual birthday photos.

Like all good ideas, this one was borrowed and adapted, and I’ll be the first to tell you that I know I’m not alone in wanting to document the passing of time by doing a sentimental yearly photograph. I actually got the idea from a parenting magazine back when I still had a newborn. There was a short article about a lady who had taken her own mother’s gaudy 1960s bathing suit (a boxy affair covered in loud floral print and with cone-shaped pleats on the bust) and posed her daughter for a picture each year on her birthday wearing the bathing suit. She took the photos in front of the same wall, and the progression from a barely-standing toddler draped in this bathing suit, to a lovely eighteen-year-old who actually filled the suit out, was really very charming and sweet. I flipped the page and forgot all about it.

Flash-forward to my own daughter’s third birthday. The lady with the bathing suit popped into my head, and I thought, “That would be cute to do with Holly, only in my wedding dress instead of a bathing suit.” So I pulled the pink tulle over her soft blonde baby head, and eased her little arms through the dress. I didn’t have a plan at that point–just the idea of seeing the progress of her growth each year by using my dress as a measuring stick–so I sat her in front of our oak sleigh bed and snapped a few pictures. They were sweet and simple, done with a point-and-shoot camera. I packed the dress away and planned to do it again the next year.

And I did. And the year after that, and the one after that…and then, this year, we set out to do it for the tenth year. Those early birthday shots were pictures of her doing whatever she felt like doing: posing or just standing, the sweetness of her baby face (3rd birthday), or the funny way her missing front tooth juxtaposed against the wedding dress (6th birthday), and even the year we just put the dress on over her rain boots and play clothes and went to the park in our neighborhood to play on the swings (8th birthday), acting as the backdrop for our “wedding dress pictures,” as we’d come to call them.

But then I started thinking of the potential and of all the fun we could have as we carried this on through her 18th birthday. We went up to Timberline Lodge on her 9th birthday (the day after Christmas) and got her posing in the dress with the snow falling outside the windows of the warm lodge. The next year we went to Astoria on a gorgeous, crystal-clear winter day and let her take a handful of colorful balloons all around town. For her 11th birthday we went to Disneyworld, and I got shots of her in all of the parks and on South Beach. This year we flew to L.A. and did Disneyland, then followed it up with a real “L.A. day” (I called it the, “If Holly Went to Hollywood, What Would Holly Do?” year). We got shots with the fabled Hollywood sign behind her, some on the Walk of Fame, and then we ended the day at the Santa Monica pier just as the sun was sinking into the Pacific, where I think we got some of our best photos to date.

It makes me really happy every year to dream up new locations and ideas, and I spent a fair amount of time this fall googling from which street and which neighborhood we could see the Hollywood sign (answer: 5th and Windsor in Hancock Park–a beautiful and quiet neighborhood lined with amazing houses and giant palms), and picturing my baby with her hands in Marilyn Monroe’s hand prints, so it was pretty awesome when it all came together. We had amazing weather the last day of our trip, and there wasn’t even a wisp of smog hanging over the hills. I love watching the years fall away through the lens of this fun tradition, and I’m pretty amazed at how far this $50 dress has traveled. It started on a beach on Maui when we got married, it’s seen snow, flown more miles than a lot of people do, and just in the past two years I’ve shaken sand out of it from both coasts. I’m already nostalgic for the years gone by, but I can’t wait for her next birthday…I’m already dreaming of getting my next shot.

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On turning 40.

For all the years I’ve wanted to be a writer (which is as many years as I can remember), I’ve cut myself a bit of slack by saying, “Well, it’ll happen someday. Someday I’ll be a real author.” But when you have a big birthday like I had this week, it forces you to assess and reassess all that you know to be true about yourself and your life. This birthday–more than any other–has been one of personal growth. For the first time ever, when I said, “I really don’t want anything for my birthday–I already have it all!” I really meant it. I do have everything I want or need, and if I don’t, the responsibility to obtain those things is mine and mine alone.

Holly and I are just a couple of weeks away from publishing the first book in our series, and we’ve got a summer of writing ahead of us. We’ve been super-creative lately, thinking of story lines, picture ideas (she took the one above in our neighborhood park yesterday after I brought home all of the balloons that my wonderful coworkers and students gave me for my big day). It’s an exciting time, as she’s also wrapping up her years in elementary school, growing about two inches a day (or so it seems) and turning into a young lady who makes me so very proud. This journey we’re on together towards publishing has been the very best writing adventure I’ve taken so far, and I know I will always hold it in my heart as one of the most successful things I’ve done as a mother, even if we aren’t ultimately the world-famous authors that we imagine ourselves becoming!

But for as scared as I was of turning 40, I have to say it’s been fabulous so far. If I could share a few words with my younger self–the one who always wanted to be a writer, but beat herself up for not making it happen–I’d tell her so many things, first and foremost that she should keep cutting herself some slack, and that someday will come…and all too soon.

And I’d tell her this: You’ll do okay–I promise. You’ll marry your high-school sweetheart, move across country to Florida with your childhood dog, your 1983 Toyota Tercel with no AC, and your new husband. You won’t have jobs, and you’ll discover that the modeling you moved to Miami to pursue isn’t what you thought it would be.  That the agencies and clients don’t love you as much now that you’re old enough to call your own shots, and you don’t want to do all of the things they tell you to do.

You’ll stay in Florida for ten years, get your Bachelor’s degree, live through an incredibly challenging stint as a child welfare caseworker, try your hand at grantwriting, and meet some people along the way who you’ll carry with you always. You will give birth to the most wonderful creature you’ve ever known (no bias there, of course…), and while holding your infant in your arms, you’ll be diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Because the combination of these two things bring uncertainty and fear, you and your husband will decide that moving back across country to be with family is your best option, so you’ll make that leap–with a baby and two cats in tow (and everyone on that cross-country flight will despise you, but so be it.)

Back in the northwest, you’ll be a stay-at-home mom, manage a non-profit for a few years, and will ultimately get your Masters in Education so that you can take on the biggest challenge and most enriching job of your life. Being a high-school teacher will bring you immeasurable joy, and some of the most amazing people you will ever know will come into your life simply because a counselor assigned them to your class. They’ll walk through the door of your room, unsure about who you are, but prepared to teach you about heartache, patience, humor, and loving other humans even if you can’t “fix” them. Stay strong–you will be rewarded.

So all of these things will conspire to make you who you are at 40, and they are all things that should thrill you and make you proud. You are here, you are (mostly) healthy, you have love, and–most importantly–you have learned to give of yourself without expecting anything in return. The rest is gravy. Now go and write that damn book, girl! Someday is now!

When Spring Comes Early…

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THIS. WEATHER. Who says global warming isn’t real? Our friendly after-school janitor debated this with me the other day (as here in the Pacific Northwest we haven’t seen a lick of the white stuff fall from the sky since November. NOVEMBER!)  He falls heavily on the side of “shifting weather patterns” as opposed to “global warming.” I–on the other hand–think that the world has to be tilting perilously on its axis or something in order for us to get a string of sixty degree, sunny days in February. But why quibble? All I know for sure is that, meteorologically speaking, things just ain’t right. A friend in D.C. says her son’s school district has added minutes on to every school day into the month of April to make up for all of their snow days, and my daughter is busting out her gladiator sandals before Valentine’s Day and referring to March 5th as “another hot, sunny day, right Mom?” So things are definitely topsy-turvy up in this joint.

Anyhow, with a sky the color of a Mexican Jay’s feathers, and trees already covered in puffs of pink cotton candy cherry blossoms, I know it’s time to break out my camera and hit the open road. Of course my favorite subject is also my writing partner, and I feel like I can say this without sounding like a braggadocio mom: girlfriend knows her way around a pose. I think it might be genetic. I started modeling at twelve, and while I generally prefer being on the other side of the camera now, I do love to watch my baby girl angling and configuring herself into just the right position to catch the light and convey a mood. Not that I’m desperate for her to follow in my footsteps (believe me–I’d rather she do a sport! Take AP classes instead of leaving school midday for fashion shows! Go to college while the ink is still wet on her high school diploma!), but it does make a mother proud. It does. I can’t even lie.