Happily Ever After

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This exercise came from the book 4AM Breakthrough by Brian Kitely. The instructions say to write a 250 word story without repeating a single word. Each word must be different, even the title.

Whoa… this was hard! Not being able to repeat words like “the” or “a” and “an” proved pretty challenging! But to make it easier I chose to write it about my favorite muse: my daughter, Lyla. Awwww!

(Let me know if you spot any repeats!)

Happily Ever After:

Once upon a time (this one right now), there was an incredibly sweet, sassy, beautiful, bright, happy, healthy (thank God) 3-year-old little girl named Lyla Rain Henderson.

With passionate adoration for some pretty random if not wildly ordinary things, including but not limited to: vanilla ice cream, hugs, kisses, apple juice, family, friends, preschool, stars, triangles, octagons, shapes in general really, princesses, puppies, pirates, picnics, fairies, racecars, road trips, running, singing, dancing, ballet class, bologna, butterflies, baseball, the moon, stars, Looney Tunes, rainbows, horses, squirrels, cupcakes, castles, spaghetti, school busses, clouds, laughing, fruit (specifically bananas, strawberries, apples, pears, blueberries, cantaloupe…), vacation, movies, milk, McDonald’s, muddy puddles, playing games, reading, coloring, flowers, snacks, snow, knock-knock jokes, make believe, glitter, buttered toast, Twizzlers, Tootsie Rolls, toys, her hair, airplanes, fairy tales, scaring people, dresses, candy sprinkles, yogurt smoothies, green grass, taking baths, going fast, flying over railroad tracks, big trucks, hay bales, helping, holding hands, cornfields, carrots, crocodiles, edamame, using chopsticks (well, trying), magic, cardboard boxes, pancakes, presents, unicorns, Dora, being best friends, talking your ear off, telling stories, learning math (not me!), eating graham crackers (AKA: yummy rectangles), giving mosquito bites (you might say “pinching”), food shopping, swimming, smiling, stirring liquids (yeah!), swinging on swings, spinning herself dizzy and, finally, all things pink, she makes our world so much better just by being part of it.

Run-on? Maybe. Long list? Definitely. But it’s okay.

Another fortunate mommy, I love my daughter more than anything. Oops. Check that. Everything.

Word Count=250

“The Writer in the Family”

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This week’s lecture posed the questions: “Why do you write? What does it mean for you to be a writer? What do you want your stories and novels to do?”

I write because I love to write. Even when I don’t love what I’m writing or when the pain of writer’s block sets in, I continue to write because I love writing. It’s who I am. I’m a writer. I want my stories to fulfill my need to write them.

In the short story “The Writer in the Family,” E.L. Doctorow opens: “In 1955, my father died with his ancient mother still alive in a nursing home.” As a reader, I’m chuckling uncomfortably already and asking myself questions. For one, why doesn’t he refer to his father’s mother as grandma, nana, mum-mum or any other cutesy name we tend to use when describing our parents’ parents?

“The Writer in the Family” grabbed me immediately. Maybe it was the empty way the narrator spoke of his recently deceased father or maybe it was Doctorow’s snarky “ancient mother still alive in a nursing home.” The way the story is narrated is both bitter and funny, and I love that. Would she have been dead in a nursing home? It also reminds me of the way we as people speak sarcastically of our families when we have deep-rooted, hard to understand issues with them.

Non-writers get to simply speak this stuff out. Whether the stuff, if you will, is good or bad, they talk about it, deal with it and move on. They brag about their kids at family functions, bash their in-laws in the form of a joke at a cocktail party, update a passive aggressive Facebook status or two, and/or commiserate mutual marital problems with friends over coffee. Or maybe they skip all of those middle men (and women) and go directly to a psychiatrist. Well, writers write. This is how we deal with it… whatever it is.

The part in the story I most related to came early. “You’re the writer in the family,” the narrator’s aunt says. She butters him up with flattery, lays on the guilt and then asks him to write a fake letter to his grandmother pretending to be his father. The narrator clearly doesn’t want to do this. Who would? But he goes on: “That evening, at the kitchen table, I pushed my homework aside and composed a letter.” He writes the letter and the aunt is brought to tears by it.

Being the writer in my family has its advantages and disadvantages, too. I get to be the “artistic” and the “creative” one. However, I also get to be the “moody” and “obsessive” one. I can’t argue. I am all of those things. I get to write all the resumes (my dad once said “you made me sound like me only better.”), cover letters, eulogies, holiday card messages, love poems, complaint and/or thank you letters which typically start out “dear sir or madam.” I get to proofread all the homework (well, all but math). Last week my brother Frank called and asked me to write him a “fake note” saying why he kept his 16-year-old son, my nephew C.J., home from school. When he argued that “raging diarrhea” wasn’t a good enough reason, I argued it was much better than “I took him to the Eagles game. They lost… again.” Even though these things can be, at times, annoying, I say “I get to…” because, even when it feels like a curse, it is still a privilege to write.

As Doctorow’s story continues, the letters (and the guilt) progress and they weave into a sort of life story. It’s not a true story but in a way that doesn’t matter. It becomes Jonathan’s father’s story, a legacy of sorts, and though it begins as a way to protect the frail dying grandmother, it becomes something bigger. The letters help the family to grieve and they help Jonathan learn and come to terms with his father’s life and death, as well. Even when Jonathan expresses his desire to stop writing the letters, he can’t. He needs to do this. He is being called to do this. Not simply by guilt or grief or love or some sort of family obligation, but by that inner voice inside of him who tells him who and what he is. Like you and me, he is a writer.

Thank You and You and You and You and You…

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It’s not the things we have and don’t have that make us who we are. It’s the people who we love and who love us.

I am so thankful for my family, my friends and for all the people who have come in and out of my life. Thank you for making this life such a wonderful journey.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

xoxo,

Val

Lyla’s Shopping List

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I need to go to the supermarket today and do some pre-Thankgiving food shopping so this morning I decided to put together a list. While doing so, my 3-yr-old daughter, Lyla, approached and asked me what I was doing.

I told her I was making a list of food and groceries to get at the supermarket and she replied that she wanted to make one, too. So, mostly humoring her, I asked her what needed to be on the list, though I’m not sure why I bother humoring her when it’s becoming clear that she’s smarter than me.

Anyway, (without any prompting and in the order she mentioned each item) the following is exactly what she told me to put on her list:

  • Fruit
  • Vegetables
  • Bologna
  • Milk
  • Apple Juicey
  • Fruit Snacks
  • Rectangle Crackers (AKA: Graham Crackers)
  • Sour Creamy
  • Colored Cereal
  • Charm Cereal
  • More veggies for dipping
  • Yo-grut (this is spelled incorrectly on purpose per her pronunciation)
  • Ranch Dressing

Not a bad list. I’ll need to add a few items of my own and maybe remove at least one (or perhaps both) of those sugary cereals she seems to love so much but all in all it’s a pretty decent shopping list… especially for a 3-yr-old.

I’m actually kind of surprised she didn’t include ice cream (Va-lil-la is her fave). I think I’ll go ahead and add that one in anyway!

 

 

 

Cantaloupe

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I’d like to credit the book 3AM Epiphany by Brian Kitely for the following writing exercise…

Looking Backwards. Write according to the following rigorous formula: Tell a story from a person’s childhood, using three sentences from deep inside the child’s POV(letting the adult mind interfere as little as possible) and then five sentences from the adult’s POV. Keep going back and forth this way. Show us both the very adult feelings of the narrator and the very childlike (and hence mystified or incompletely understood) feelings. Don’t let the child know more than the adult. The adult version of this self is always removed from the moment, always a bit more relaxed. 700 words.

As I read the various exercises in the book I selected this one because it immediately grabbed my attention and inspired me. It was a pleasure writing this memory from my own childhood. The following is a true story.

Miss O’Lenski told us there’d be a fire drill that day but I forgot. The alarm went off and it was so loud I got scared. We were supposed to walk in single file but I ran.

At eight years old, it’s my first memory of a fire drill but the day was a memorable one all around. It started with the evacuation but then I panicked and fell down a flight of steps, twisted my ankle and had to go to the nurse’s office. It was pretty swollen and appeared to be sprained so the nurse called my mother. I was a clumsy kid so my mom wasn’t at all shocked when she had to leave work and get me. She came right away, brought me home, laid me down and told me to elevate my leg.

When my brother got home from school, I was on the couch. He was being mean and wouldn’t leave me alone. I couldn’t get him to stop it so I yelled, “Dad!”

When my father saw what my brother was doing, he shouted, “Franklin, I swear to God, if you drop that cantaloupe on your sister’s face, I’m going to kick your ass!” To which, my smart aleck brother scoffed and said, “I’m not gonna hit her with it, Dad. I’m just messin’ with her.” My father quietly sat, watched and waited as my brother continued to toss that cantaloupe from one hand to the other. Frank laughed every time I flinched which was every time he caught it within mere inches from my face.

He threw it like a million times. I was scared he’d miss. I kept telling him to stop but he called me a baby. 

Meanwhile, the phone rang and my mom answered it. It was an old rotary phone, beige and attached to the wall, and as she anxiously paced the room the cord stretched and twisted around her. My brother, father and I were far too busy with our cantaloupe drama to pay any attention to her or to the conversation she was having. But apparently it was a producer calling from one of those spin-the-wheel-and-then-answer-a-trivia-question game shows popular back in the 80s. She excitedly jumped up, switched on the television and then turned and shushed us.

Frankie was looking at Mom the last time he threw the cantaloupe. He missed. It hit me right in the face.

Over the years my mom must have told me a dozen times but for the life of me I cannot recall the question she was asked but she answered correctly and won $3000. She jumped up and screamed, and the next thing I remember is our neighbors rushing in to congratulate and hug her. I clutched my nose with both hands and cried hysterically while my dad shouted and chased my brother around the house. Suddenly I was invisible and not exactly happy about that. The worst part was that after being sent home from school one day with a sprained ankle I returned the next day with two black eyes.

My stupid brother broke my nose!  It hurt so bad I couldn’t stop crying. Nobody even cared.

That’s the story about how my brother broke my nose with a cantaloupe. Though our mom remembers it as the day she won the money that paid off our house. And oddly enough our dad hardly remembers it at all. I know Frank didn’t mean to actually hurt me; he was just being a kid and trying to be funny. And in retrospect it was funny and even though it really sucked I still laugh every time I think about it.

The next day at school everyone asked me what happened. I told the truth. They still called my mom.

Earlier this year, 28 years later, I finally went to see an ear, nose and throat specialist. When the doctor asked me what happened I told him this story. He laughed and said he didn’t expect my reply. Then he scoped my nose and diagnosed me with a deviated septum. Afterwards, I called my brother and told him all about it. I even threatened to send him the bill.

Happy Birthday, Dad

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If you’ve met him, then you know that my dad, Frank Zane, is the funniest guy on the planet. But that’s not all…

In addition to being hilarious, he’s also raw, honest and smart. He’s a natural storyteller. A hard worker. He’s never boring. Fun to be around. The life of the party. He’s strong yet sensitive. A family man. He loves with his whole heart. He can teach you a thing or two about everything. But you’d better listen carefully because when he gets to talking, he talks fast and his stories tend to go on for a while and they go off in many directions.

He reminds me of me. Or maybe I remind me of him?

When it comes to my dad, you either love being around him or you simply can’t stand him. I’ve found that if the latter describes you, then you’re probably pretty uptight because I swear he can make anyone laugh. But, at times, you have to be willing and able to laugh at yourself in order to get the joke. If you can’t laugh at yourself, then you and my dad will probably not get along.

Sure there’s no denying that he’s funny, but my dad also has a very serious side. He cares deeply. He loves intensely. He wants you to listen and get to know him and he needs to make you smile. He will hold your hand when you’re sick and never leave your side when you’re struggling or in pain. If you want to talk politics, take a stroll through a museum, if your GPS breaks down or you need a good punch line, he’s the guy to call.

He’s an enigma wrapped up in a conundrum disguised as a dirty joke.

But if you think you have him all figured out, you don’t. Just when you think he’ll say or do one thing, guess again. He will shock and surprise you. He tells the best stories and some of the worst jokes (most of which I can’t repeat here). He drives slower than anyone I know and, yet, he always arrives first. All these years and I still haven’t been able to figure out that last part.

There are a million stories I could tell about my dad to convey who he is and how important he is to me. This one comes to mind:

When I was in high school, I started taking flying lessons. I’d wanted to learn to fly planes ever since I was a child when my dad would take me and my brother to Philly Int’l Airport to watch the planes take off and land. It was cheap and effective entertainment. Because I loved the thought of flying so much, before I was even old enough to get my driver’s permit, my dad pushed me to take flying lessons (he also taught me to drive but that’s another story).

One day, while learning emergency procedures of all things, the small single engine Tomahawk I was piloting suddenly began to fall apart. My instructor and I were flying at about 2000 feet and he had just asked me if I spotted a suitable place to land in the event of an emergency when some wind got under the engine cover causing it to come unhinged. It tore off and flew over the plane, shattering the windshield. We were forced to land in a blueberry field in Hammonton, NJ. For the record, that wasn’t the spot I’d picked.

When my dad came to pick me up that day, the representative from the FAA said, “Your daughter’s very lucky because had that piece come loose, she would have been decapitated.” Lovely. Apparently he was pointing to a small piece of windshield that was still intact. A two inch piece of fiberglass (and my instructor’s quick thinking) saved my life.

My dad turned to me and said, “Don’t you dare tell your mother.” Then, the next day, when I was considering giving up my aviation aspirations, he gave me his version of the classic “when you fall off your bike” pep talk and urged me to get back up in the air ASAP and keep on trying.

I get my stubborn streak from my dad. I guess you could blame him for my temper and lack of patience, too. But you have to take the bad with the good, right? Well, he also taught me a lot of very important things.

He taught me that hard work and commitment pay off. He taught me to be fearless even when I’m scared to death. He is the reason I laugh at funerals and say the most inappropriate things every chance I get. He taught me how to be strong and sensitive at the same time, to stand up for myself and the people I love and to fight for what is right–even when everyone else says it’s wrong. Because of him I believe that life is an adventure. And that no one is the boss of me but me! He taught me that I am in complete control of my life and if I fuck it up, well that’s OK because I can always get back up, brush myself off and start over. He taught me to reach for the sky and never stop reaching.

And, perhaps most importantly, he taught me that it’s OK to laugh at myself. And it’s a good thing because these days, I find myself doing that a lot.

I love my dad. He’s the greatest, sweetest, craziest man I know.

Happy Birthday, Dad!

Social Brainstorming

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Writing is typically a very solitary activity. In general, creative types can tend at times to be almost hermit-like especially during our most creative journeys of self-discovery and expression.

Nobody comes to mind, other than maybe the Dalai Lama in all his meditative glory, who can get further inside his or her own head and stay there longer than a writer.

I am guilty of this.

I seek out solitude to write. I need my own space, time, peace. That used to be easy. But these days, being a mom and wife, my time is filled with all sorts of activity and distractions. And achieving solitude is no longer a simple task. I’ve considered taking desperate measures such as locking myself in a closet to find a minute to write. It’s not exactly something I’m proud of but I’ve been known to mentally leave the room mid-conversation or physically go off and hide in the bathroom to quickly jot down notes in moments when inspiration strikes.

Of course I love spending time with my family and friends but, still, I try to make or find the time and peace and quiet to write whenever and however I can. It’s important to me since I need it to achieve my dreams.

But as creative as I can be when I’m alone and as tempting as it might be to stay hidden away in that quiet, creative place, I know that I can’t stay there forever. It’s obviously not healthy to be alone all the time or even most of the time. While we all need some semblance of peace and quiet to catch our breath, we also need direct (and indirect) contact with other people. Finding a healthy, happy balance can be a struggle for some of us.

It is for me.

While I love making new friends and being around people, I also long to be alone so that I can think and create and write. Until the words flow from my brain and onto the page, it can often feel like I am at war with myself. I need to crawl deep down into an almost meditative state to accomplish my goals, but I also need to stay healthy and that requires a level of human contact.

I hate to admit it but sometimes I have to force myself out of my head and out of my house in order to be physically around other people. In addition, I urge myself to occasionally pick up the phone and have real time conversations.

But when all else fails, I turn to my social network of choice: Facebook.

And, in addition to its obvious “social” benefits, I’ve discovered a whole new reason to love Facebook. When I’m stuck on an element of creativity or when my mind has come to a fork in the road or even a dead end, I can simply update my status to ask for help. Until recently, I had no idea it could be such an amazing brainstorming tool!

Earlier this year, I was struggling naming a new character so I posted a description. Within minutes, my Facebook friends were in a frenzy bouncing names back and forth. Some took it seriously while others were more playful, but all were helpful and inspiring in their own ways. Later, I posted that I needed a name for a fictional company. I got great responses for that, too.

When I worked in corporate events, I loved (most) meetings and, more specifically, brainstorming sessions. For one, they helped break up the day. But more importantly, I found that the act of getting people together around a great big table in a conference room was the best way to get and then expand upon some really awesome ideas. Sure, we’d all sometimes bitch and moan about being too busy for yet another meeting but those meetings were productive from a creative point of view. Even the conference calls had their high points, although those were much more challenging for me to pay attention.

These days, conference rooms and boardroom tables are practically obsolete. At least they are in my life. I’m sure companies still use them, but now social networking sites allow us the freedom to brainstorm with our friends, family and even folks we don’t know. It’s an easy, far more efficient and convenient way to get opinions and answers from a multitude of people, near and far, and way more than could possibly fit in an actual conference room or, for that matter, in my living room. Facebook makes it easy to gather my family, friends, acquaintances, work contacts, associates, former classmates and even my dentist all in the same “room” to simultaneously ask a question.

I like that.

And, with no boss looking over my shoulder, I can post any topic or question that strikes my fancy (and I can be pretty darn fancy), then go off and spend time with my daughter, take a walk, make a phone call, workout, bake, go shopping, have lunch or even take a nap while I wait for feedback. And it’s all-but guaranteed to eventually come. Even if half of my Facebook friends are busy elsewhere, there’s a good chance that the other half is itching to be involved. So now instead of getting reprimanded or risk being fired, the answers are simply waiting for me when I return. It’s brilliant!

I also like that I can sit in my PJs and call a meeting of the minds (as well as the wise asses) whenever I want. Morning, noon or even in the middle of the night, there are bound to be people ready and willing to join in and post their ideas or give me a swift kick in the tuchus with an inspirational quote or two when I need it most.

As the song goes, “That’s what (Facebook) friends are for!”

And, not to brag, but my Facebook friends are pretty amazing. Individually, they are some of the smartest, funniest, most creative, inspirational, talented, sincere, thoughtful, charismatic and just plain helpful people out there. Together, they are a brainstorming force to be reckoned with. And perhaps the coolest part is that they come from all aspects of my life: past and present.

Because of Facebook, I have received their combined assistance on many occasions. And for that, I am eternally grateful. In fact, I hope to someday include a special thank you message to all of my Facebook friends on a future acknowledgment page when I finally reach my goal and publish my first novel. Wouldn’t that be a great way to show them how much they’ve meant to me?

Of course, I’ll probably need more of their help to get there!