I have a favorite Sunday joke that goes, “A mother left church to look for her son and found him sitting on the curb in the parking lot. ‘You need to come back inside,’ she said. ‘But Mom, nobody likes me. Nobody talks to me or wants to sit by me. It’s boring going to meeting after meeting. I’d rather be outside enjoying the sunshine. Isn’t that a better way to feel God’s love?’ ‘Son, there are two reasons you need to come back inside,’ she said. ‘The first is that you made a commitment to God. The second is that you’re the Bishop.’
I often feel like that bishop.
Of course, you can change bishop to pastor or priest or rabbi or even Relief Society President or PTA Chair. The reason I like this joke is because at its heart it’s really about reluctant leadership and obligation. Even the most stalwart on the outside can have internal doubts.
There are many people in my church who would find that sentiment horrifically unsettling, but I consider it marvelously humanizing. I feel like I can lend a hand to a human. I can also forgive humans for making mistakes.
My husband and I team teach Sunday School to fourteen year olds. Some days it’s like trying to raise the dead. They constantly beg for treats and want to take naps instead of participate in discussions. It’s a lot like helping in the nursery but without diapers or Goldfish crackers.
One Sunday when I was teaching alone I walked out on them, saying I refused to believe they were truly as stupid as they were pretending to be when they insisted Catholics crucified Christ.
You don’t even have to be Christian to know that’s impossible.
But calling their bluff and storming out was probably not one of my more Christ-like moments. I even told them that if they didn’t want to learn, I’d wheel in a tv and play a video each week while I sat in a corner reading a book. Surely that would bring more Sunday peace to my life than struggling with these knuckleheads.
After stomping around the hallway and grinding my teeth to hold in the inappropriate words that bubbled up to the surface, I realized what I needed to tell them.
God only had one perfect person to do his work in the entire history of the world—and even Jesus had days where he wept in frustration. If our faith rests in the infallibility of a single person or group—bishop, scout leader, parent, Sunday School class—we’re guaranteed to be disappointed, possibly angry, and sitting on the curb while the meeting is going on. Our fragile, tempest-tossed faith has to be more resilient.
Faith is something that grows not because of all the good we’ve experienced, but in spite of the bad. It is the fervent belief that no matter now big or insignificant our contribution seems, no matter how little progress we seem to be making, faith is knowing the journey defines the destination.
After nine months of cajoling, badgering, challenging, and insisting that kids think beyond easy answers like prayer and reading scriptures when we ask them about how they will tackle life’s curve balls, I realize that I’m going to miss them when a brand new class takes their place in a couple of weeks. More surprising is that they say they’re going to miss us, the mean teachers who insisted their weekly treat was having us as teachers.
Evidence of God’s power and grace, if you ask me.
It’s been a long time since I laughed out loud while reading a book. Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple is spit your Diet Coke funny. I’ve lived slices of Bernadette’s life, right down to the passive-aggressive snooty private school politics and paralyzing life changes and completely related to her world.
It’s a witty read. The story is pieced together from emails, text messages, and letters that reveal an artistic and well, genius, woman who gives up everything for her daughter. By the time her daughter no longer needs her attention every moment, Bernadette is adrift in a life she no longer recognizes. At the beginning, we see Bernadette at such a low that she hires a virtual assistant in India to take care of everything from Thanksgiving reservations to planning a family cruise to the Arctic. To hide her dysfunction from her husband, she instructs her assistant to deduct her salary from her personal checking account, a grand total of $30 a week since she’s paying her 75¢ an hour. From there things head south in the worst way possible. It takes a remarkable series of events involving mudslides, the Russian mob, school fundraisers, and death by cruise ship for Bernadette to remember who she is and find pleasure and purpose in life as herself, rather than as an extension of her family.
Thoroughly entertaining and perfect for vacation or by the fireplace reading, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is highly recommended.
When my son was eight years old, we made a deal that he would take piano lessons until he was sixteen or could play all the songs in a simplified hymnal, something I guessed would take three or four years at the most. By then I figured he’d love music and would want to continue to play.
Not so much.
I made the fatal rookie mom mistake of underestimating the power of the truly unmotivated. I once caught him practicing the piano while standing next to me in my office. He’d recorded himself practicing weeks ago and simply had the piano playback the tracks.
That was the first and only time I regretted buying a digital piano.
Now sixteen, a month ago he told me he was ready to quit. With a gun pointed at his head, I think he can manage a couple of hymns and a classical piece or two, but it’s obvious he’s not going to be tickling the ivories for pocket change at a piano bar or subbing for the church pianist anytime soon.
I was seriously bummed.
You see, I always wanted to learn to play the piano.
The closest I came was in fifth grade when a band teacher starting coming to our school twice a week. Only two kids from each 5th and 6th grade class could join the band. Since it met during regular school hours, teachers had to approve who could miss valuable class time. I begged my teacher Mrs. Goo to let me go. I said my parents insisted that I be in band. I promised to bang the erasers to rid them of chalk every day before lunch, that I would stay in from recess on band days to read and do extra math, and the kicker, I would never ever ask another question in class again. Eventually, a boy no one liked and I got chosen. I think Mrs. Goo was secretly relieved to be rid of us a couple of hours a week.
At the first band meeting the conductor said if we played the sax, clarinet, or oboe we had to buy reeds. If we played the trumpet or trombone we’d have to buy a mouthpiece. Drummers needed to provide their own drumsticks. I raised my hand.
“Is there an instrument that doesn’t cost anything to play?”
“The flute,” he laughed. “The school has a few you can use.”
Score! “I want to play the flute,” I said.
“Hell, no,” my father said.
“There’s no rental fee and band is during school so I don’t have to go early or stay late. I can still ride the city bus with Heidi.”
“Band? Like marching around on a field? What about uniforms? I’m not paying for that.”
“It’s free,” I said.
“Fine,” he said. “You want to look like an ass marching around in the rain, that’s up to you.”
To keep the peace I practiced before my parents came home from work and saved all my babysitting money for three years to buy my first flute, a crappy Artley that I was so proud of in eighth grade. I played all through high school, marching in the rain at football games and teaching at summer band camps. As a freshman, I earned a chair on a competition symphonic wind orchestra that traveled all over the United States performing at places like Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, Rockefeller Center, the Rose Bowl, Disneyland, and the White House—all major multi-week adventures when you’re a bunch of teens traveling from Hawaii. Jazz, classical, baroque, pop, movie scores, ballads—I played them all, including ballroom waltzes and be-bop oldies for the Waikiki tea time crowd at a fancy hotel. By the time I was a high school senior, I could sight read and play just about anything a conductor threw at me.
But as a freshman in college, I psyched myself out and didn’t even audition. Since I wasn’t a music major I didn’t think there was a place for me to play. Life went on with less and less musical joy in it until I turned around and realized I hadn’t sung in a choir or played more than a token note on a flute in more than 25 years. It didn’t seem possible.
The lessons are already in the budget, I thought. But so what? I’m the boss of me now.
“Okay,” I told my son. “If you really don’t want to play, you don’t have to. But I’m talking to your teacher about taking your spot.”
“You can’t do that!” my thirteen year old daughter shrieked. “It’d be too embarrassing!”
“Oh, for me because I’m old?” I asked.
“No! For me because you’re old! Moms don’t take piano lessons! What about recitals? No way!”
Yes, way. With three lessons under my belt, I’m already tackling beginner’s Christmas music with simple three and four note chords that I fumble my way through. According to my teacher, it’s actually easier to teach an old dog new tricks, especially when the dog is used to pounding on a different kind of keyboard for hours on end and can already read music.
After all, somebody’s gonna have to play the piano when the kids are gone. Might as well be me.
Holding my breath and staring at the light fixture, I waited.
Dang, I thought. Late last night I didn’t double-save my manuscript.
Beep, beep, beep nagged the UPS in my office like a toddler’s persistent Mom, Mom, Mommy, Mom. I know nothing’s foolproof. All the UPS really does is allow me twenty minutes to gracefully shut down the server and computers—assuming I’m even home. During an outage smart money always unplugs everything from the wall to protect delicate electronics from a power surge meltdown when the electricity comes back on.
Most days I choose lazy over smart. When I realized I’d have to move my desk, I just turned my computer off.
I can always write another novel. Hernias are forever.
With the UPS no longer beeping at me to do something, anything, quick, I considered my next move.
No writing on the manuscript, I thought, not even on my laptop since I can’t get to my most current files on the server. No social media stuff either unless it’s from my smart phone. Yuck. There’s a headlamp hanging on a peg in the mud room. I could—horrors!—clean the bathrooms. No laundry. No vacuuming. I could empty the dishwasher and wipe down counters.
Oh, joy. Without my favorite electronic gadgets to lean on, I’m like a housewife in the 1890s, but without a snazzy rug beater or ruffled apron.
Or maid. In the 1890s I’d have a maid, a nice homely hardworking lass who cost me 5 cents a day. I’d totally pop two bits a week for someone else to clean. There’s probably a month’s wages in the couch cushions. With Ella scrubbing her heart out, I could recline on the fainting couch all day and read trashy novels while snacking on chocolate bon-bons.
Wait. Do I even like bon-bons? Not the chocolate and fruit kind, that’s for sure. And when’s the last time I read a book on paper? There’s not a printed book in the house that I haven’t already read.
What if this power outage never ends? It’s November. We’ll freeze! No, we’ll just put more clothes on. It’s fine. Eskimos lived without central heating for thousands of years and they didn’t have ski coats or thermal underwear.
Dinner! Well, at least last night’s bread is still fresh. Peanut butter sandwiches. Blah. The kids will just have to deal with it. Hubby’s out of town. Typical. I wonder how the camp stove works. Last I saw it was piled under all the scout stuff in the basement. Propane canisters are green, right? Maybe I can build a fire.
I glanced through the window.
“Oh, #@^!$*!! The horses!”
Out loud it sounded worse. How am I going to water the horses? No power, no automatic watering pump, no heat. The water trough will freeze solid. That means we’re back to filling buckets and breaking ice like the pioneers. Horses need at least 5 gallons of fresh water a day. Six times five plus spillage—
Damn. That’s a lot of buckets. The kids will have to get up really early to get that done before school.
But if the pipes freeze, they can’t get water from the tap. Where’s my nearest water source?
The hot tub.
It’s insulated so it should stay above freezing for several days. The kids can dip buckets out and carry them down to the horses. Maybe it would it be better to bring the horses to the deck. Can horses climb stairs? Should we even give spa water to horses? It’s a salt system, not chlorine, but salt’s hard on kidneys. People lost at sea go crazy drinking ocean water. That settles it. The horses are crazy enough already. Hot tub water is for washing dishes and clothes.
Did Eskimos wash clothes? The wore furs, right? Do you even wash furs? Cats lick themselves clean.
I’m not licking anybody’s parka. Seriously. I’m not.
So no hot tub water for the horses. That leaves Deer Creek Reservoir. It’s what? Ten miles each way? Twenty miles on horseback will take most of the day. We’d have to start at dawn.
But really, when did anybody last add salt to the hot tub? Maybe it’s still an option.
I sighed. Too bad my daughter loves them. It would be easier to set them free. Worked for Willie.
Holy crap. Twenty miles each day. After I get snow pants and a jacket on, I’ll dig the ax out of the mess in the garage and use it to break ice and chop wood. The kids and I are going to need water, too. I better figure out a way to tie coolers to the horses. I think we’ve got bungee cords in the truck. Maybe take fishing poles—
Huh. Power’s back on. Guess I’ll shower and write a blog post.
Another stunning cover from Jolly Fish Press is Dependent by Brenda Corey Dunne. It’s the story of 45 year old Ellen Michaels who loses her husband in a tragic military accident and has to rebuild her life. Can you imagine having everything you count on disappearing? Available July 2014, I’m clearing my reading calendar for this one.
Coming from Fox Hollow Publications December 2013 is Christine Haggerty’s debut novel Acquisitions, the first in the Plague Legacy series. I had the privilege to read an early version of the manuscript and can’t wait to read the final. It’s an amazing YA dystopian fantasy set in a possible future. Don’t miss it.
As the author of a series, I’m often asked by other writers about character development—specifically, how should characters change from one book to the next. I always say it all depends on whether your series is more like a fast-food burger or a chef’s table dining experience.
You know us Hawaiians; it’s all about the food.
When you walk into a burger joint, you pretty much know what you’re going to get. Some series, particularly detective fiction like Robert Parker’s Spencer series, are structured like your basic grilled patty in a bun. First book to last, Spencer changes his underwear and not much else. A crime is committed. It gets solved. Some shooting, drinking, and bed-hopping happens in between. The order the books are read in doesn’t matter much more than having a bacon cheeseburger one day and a jalapeño ranch burger the next.
For burger-lovers, this consistency is a good thing. For authors making bank with a series, it’s awesome. With infinite combinations of new toppings and special sauces to season the plot, there’s no reason to mess with the character of the ground chuck. And with no over-arching storyline, the series never ends.
But no matter how juicy, few people crave burgers all day every day. Variety being the spice of life, it should be no surprise that some series are the literary equivalent of a multi-course chef’s table meal. When you sit at the chef’s table in a restaurant, you relinquish control over your dining experience to the chef who determines the pacing, ingredients, and presentation of each course. For readers, it’s about savoring each dish on the way to dessert.
Think of the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling. In each book the wizardlings had adventures and obstacles, but there was a more important over-arching tale involving Voldermort and Harry that advanced until it was resolved at the end of the last book. Now imagine knowing from the beginning Dumbledor’s end game and Snape’s true character—you’d be eating dessert first and spoiling your appetite for all the delicious tension built in the previous six books.
Just as a chef considers the textures, flavors, and juxtapositions of each dish in his set menu, the author of a cohesive serial story forces characters to change and grow from book to book, ultimately piquing the reader’s hunger for the next course. In a burger book, character development is secondary to the plot. A juicy char-broiled book series is all about enjoying similar experiences with beloved characters over and over again.
Here’s another example.
The Niuhi Shark Saga is a multi-course luau complete with roasted pig, hula dancers, and cake. It’s one loooooong story broken into bite-sized MG/YA books.
Through the series Zader, the protagonist, changes from the odd kid who always has to be rescued to the kid who questions everything to the young man who determines for himself how he will live his life. In each book I have to consider where Zader is in terms of his eventual transformation and where the other characters are in relation to both Zader and their own conflicts and ambitions. It helps that many of my characters are going through adolescence, arguably the biggest transformative time in anyone’s life.
In book one, One Boy, No Water, Zader is hiding in the shadows. There’s a lot of symbolism about young, tender things growing in the protective safety of the reef. He has Uncle Kahana, Jay, and Char Siu to guide and support him, and he’s pretty comfortable being led. At the end, Zader recuses his brother from a paralyzing fear and himself from bullies. This triggers his predator nature, and it’s obvious he’s outgrown the idea of camouflage as safety.
In book two, One Shark, No Swim, Zader’s grown enough that he no longer accepts what he’s been told as fact. Uncle Kahana is unwilling to deal directly with the changes he sees in Zader, and that causes problems. Char Siu, Zader’s gal-pal, is starting to understand that there’s a big difference between boy-world and girl-world and she’s navigating deep water while the boys are still splashing in the shallows. Jay begins to get caught up in competitive surfing, leaving Zader alone on the sand. These conflicts and others finally drive Zader to listen only to himself and to make a choice no one expects.
In book three, tentatively titled One Fight, No Fist, there are consequences for Zader’s choices. He’s older, more secretive, and both less trusting and more protective of his family and friends. He’s bolder, more aggressive, and is ready to take the fight to his stalker. He’s so far from where he started, he’s almost a different person. Consequently, all of the other characters have to change and adjust to this new person—or better, don’t adjust—and the reader can watch the sparks fly.
The changes the Niuhi Shark Saga characters go through are really the storyline that ties the books together. Without character growth the series would be like The Simpsons tv show—Homer chasing one doughnut after another, hanging out at Moe’s, and never learning or suffering from the consequences of his adventures for more than 30 minutes.
Now there are a lot of doughnut lovers who crave that consistency. Go, Homer, go!
But if you’re in the mood for something different, try a little of my Niuhi Shark Saga lau lau and poi. But be sure to leave room for the killer pineapple-upside down cake. You won’t believe what happens next!