Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Greatest Gift?

Confession: We're on a trip, so I completely forgot to write a blog post for today ahead of time. But in a way it was serendipity, because it gave me an idea of what I wanted to write about.

We're visiting with our old college friends, something we do twice a year - once for New Year's and once for beach vacation at the Outerbanks (which I mentioned in a previous post). New Year's is always hosted at a different house, and this year for our friends in Ohio it's their turn. But yesterday we first stopped in Pittsburgh to visit with our other college friends, who will then caravan the rest of the way to Ohio with us. And it was just a spectacular day.

Driving in, we skirted Carnegie Mellon's campus, our alma mater. As we passed all the buildings, both old and new, a rush of memories filled my mind...and my heart. This is why we come back. This is why these old friends are so special to us, even after all these years. We cut our teeth on life here...together. And we couldn't have done it without each other.

After that we picked up our friends at their house and it was on to WafflesINCaffeinated in Beaver, PA. Their family has been there many times, but not ours. We indulged in maple-smothered chicken and waffles, something I haven't done in a long time. And it was fantastic. Best waffles I've ever had.

From there, we went over to the Andy Warhol Museum, something I've always meant to do while visiting Pittsburgh, but never had the chance. I'm a huge fan and thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in his art for an afternoon and bringing back the memories of the Andy Warhol era. Even better, our teenagers were as captivated as we were!

My youngest son is an aspiring artist and my niece an aspiring actress, so going to the Warhol was perfect entertainment for them. For once, no one pulled out their phones, except to take pictures of art they appreciated! My heart was full. Here are the kids having a blast doing their Screen Test:

After that, we went back to their house for dinner and visited with some of their close neighbors and friends. Drinking, laughter, and silliness ensued, keeping us up until well past one in the morning.

All in all, the perfect day.

Now, it's early in the morning, everyone is still asleep, and the snow is softly falling here in Beaver County. Their cat, Bella, is asleep at my feet and the only sound I can hear is her occasional purr and the ticking of the grandfather clock in the hall. And all I can think of right lucky I am, for friends, family and good times. So much so, that I keep looking over my shoulder, not just waiting for the other shoe to drop, but for it to come sailing at my head from behind. Because as blissful as this moment is, life has its ups and downs. All the more reason that nothing should ever be taken for granted; life can change in an instant. But for now, I will bask in the glow of yesterday and the promise of what today might bring.

The greatest gift? Being able to enjoy the moment you're in and being grateful for it. For it is a gift, not a given.

Happy New Year to all. May 2018 be happy, healthy and safe for you...and may there be many, many moments you can truly enjoy.

To start that off, I'm giving away a paperback copy of THE GHOST CHRONICLES to one lucky  person who leaves a comment. (Or THE GHOST CHRONICLES 2 if you've already read the first book in the series.)

Marlo Berliner is the award-winning author of THE GHOST CHRONICLES, her debut book which was released in November 2015 to critical acclaim. The book won the 2016 NJRW Golden Leaf Award for Best First Book, was named FINALIST in the National Indie Excellence Awards for Young Adult Fiction, received the Literary Classics Seal of Approval, was awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion, and was named one of the “best indie YA books we have seen in the past year, from both self-publishers and small presses” by IPPY Magazine. THE GHOST CHRONICLES 2 was just released in October.

When she's not writing or editing, Marlo loves reading, relaxing at the beach, watching movies, and rooting for the Penn State Nittany Lions. After having spent some wonderful time in Pittsburgh and Houston, she’s now back in her home state of New Jersey where she resides with her husband, two sons, and a rambunctious puppy named Max. 

Friday, December 29, 2017

Are There No Prisons? Are There No Work Houses? by Brian Katcher

Image result for scrooge 

That's my favorite line from A Christmas Carol. Scrooge says it when asked to make a donation for the needy. An unfortunately, that's kind of the attitude of the day. People are getting meaner and the world is getting more divided. People are insulting their opponents like a bunch of ignorant poop heads. Leaders advocate violence until I just want to bash their stupid heads in. We refuse to listen to the point of view of others and I wish people like that would shut their mouths already. 

Fortunately, it's a new year. Rather than pretend you're going to lose weight or give up that cock fighting ring, resolve to make the world a better place. Do more community service hours than the judge mandated. Don't call in sick unless you actually are ill or really hungover. Tell yourself that it's only a game and, while throwing that chair may feel good, the players really are just kids and don't mind that the ref is a blind dumbass with excrement for brains.

Remember, Alfred Nobel founded this famous prizes (the Alphies) after inventing high explosives. So, like, you can cause the deaths of thousands of people, and still be remembered as a peacemaker.

In conclusions, I managed to get tickets to Hamilton this year, so I'm pretty happy.

Oh, gifts. Whoever makes me laugh the hardest in the comments will get one of my books for free. Well, some sort of book, anyway.


Thursday, December 28, 2017

Gifts, Talents, and Hard, Guided Work (Also, Aikido, VCFA, and Writing YA) by Dean Gloster

            I’ve been fortunate, in my new career as a novelist, not to be an especially gifted writer.

I’m good with that. It means I have to struggle, to work hard, to consciously grow and to improve in some areas if I’m going to keep writing. Which is as it should be.
(Portrait of the Artists, as a Young Hand)
 I mostly don’t believe in “Gifts” and “Talents” with capital letters, which by themselves can shape someone into a Great Artist in a creative arena.
            Oh, there are amazing writers creating amazing works, but the more I talk to them about their process (“It took twenty-eight drafts, and I wasn’t sure I really had something until draft twenty-six…”) it sounds more like the product of hard, fierce work over a long time.
Even the outliers, the absolute bursts of inspiration (“The picture book came out almost complete, and when I sent it to my agent, she said she’d send it out without changing a word”) have—in my experience, anyway—happened only to the hardest-working and most steadily productive writers I know. (*Cough* Merriam Saunders.)
If you want to be struck by lightning, it turns out, you need to spend lots of time outside, uncomfortably wet, on high ground, during thunderstorms. 

I do believe in smaller things, though—aptitudes. If you’re smart and analytical, for instance, that may help you learn faster in an area that requires lots of sub-skills (such as, say, writing novels.) Having lots of endurance also helps with things that take sustained effort over time, like novel-writing. If you are resilient, you can more successfully weather the setbacks of rejection that are part of the process.
Me? As a writer, I have an aptitude for dialogue and voice. Description of setting, explicit point-of-view character emotion? Not so much. So I know some of what I need to work on.
But the truth is, if you work hard, you can improve even at things you don’t have much aptitude for, so long as you have passion for them.
Last year, in my fifties, after a particularly unfortunate U.S. presidential election, I took up the study of Aikido.
Aikido is a wonderful discipline. To oversimplify and perhaps miss the point completely—as we enthusiastic white belts are uniquely positioned to do—Aikido is a martial art that allows one to throw, immobilize, and pin attackers while doing the least amount of damage. It involves balance, mindfulness, blending with the attack, flow, relaxed shoulders, and a combination of footwork and moving one’s torso—not just arms—in a wide range of what seem to a beginners extremely precise techniques.

It’s a martial art I’m almost spectacularly exactly unsuited for.
I have limited forward flexibility, but there are lots of forward rolls involved, as ten-year-olds throw me onto the mat. I have a PTSD-heightened fight-or-flight reflex (without, in my case, much flight component) but Aikido involves relaxed shoulders and flow and grace, not tensing, even when a black belt simulates a punch to my face. I’m a concrete, analytical guy, and there is a ki energy flow aspect to Aikido that doesn’t translate exactly into those terms. And I’m really aggressive and somewhat athletic, so my go-to approach is to add more—a lunge, an oomph, a little body English lifting my back foot as part of the throw—which is exactly, precisely not Aikido.
Part of the reason I love Aikido, though, is that it almost completely challenges me and who I am, and asks me to learn a profoundly new approach. It doesn’t speak to my pre-existing strengths or the gifts and aptitudes I bring from my first fifty-some years, but asks me to develop some new ones.
That rocks.
The best way to progress in anything—writing, Aikido, or anything else—is to get some coaching. Practicing hitting a golf ball 10,000 times wrong doesn’t do you much good. Getting guidance on how to hit it better, and then practicing that, does.
So, when I was in my fifties, while my first novel was under submission, I also went back to school, at Vermont College of Fine Arts, to get an MFA in writing for children and young adults.

 It was wonderful. It was amazing. It was humbling.
            The faculty, it turned out, was amazingly talented. My classmates, it turned out, were also amazing and talented. There were writers who were much, much further along their writing journey and more accomplished than I was. (*Cough* Ally Condie.)
            There were writers less than half my age who were more than twice as talented as I was. (*Cough* Marianne Murphy.)
            There were writers who were so amazing even at the things I did best—voice, humor, blending humor with serious topics—that I would have been intimidated to read their novels before mine came out. (*Cough* Addriene Kisner. Buy. Her. Book. Out this spring.)

            And that, friends, is one difference between almost all of us who write for young people and some of those who don’t: The brilliance of my classmates does not diminish me. We’re on the same side. We believe in the magic of books for young people, because we experienced that magic, as young people.
            I have come full circle. I believe somewhat in talent. I believe somewhat in gifts. But I believe more in hard work and in practicing a discipline and in improving. My job, these days, is to get better. It’s exciting and it’s fun. I'm a very lucky guy.

            Dean Gloster graduated with an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts in July 2017. He is a former stand-up comedian and a former law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court. His debut YA novel DESSERT FIRST is out now from Merit Press/Simon Pulse. School Library Journal called it “a sweet, sorrowful, and simply divine debut novel that teens will be sinking their teeth into. This wonderful story…will be a hit with fans of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars and Jesse Andrews's Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” They are remarkably patient with him at the wonderful dojo Aikido Shusekai in Berkeley, California.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Gift of Rest (Jennifer R. Hubbard)

This time is a gift, the waning days of the year. Many of us spend this time with family. We may be resting, cocooning, shopping, cleaning, traveling. We may be working, although judging by the emptiness of my commuter train, maybe not.

I’ve always loved slow days, days of peace and reflection, days of respite between the bustle of holidays and the bustle of our regular lives. May these days be such a time for you, as we gather ourselves to face 2018.

Also in the spirit of gifts, if you would like a copy of any of my novels (The Secret Year, Try Not to Breathe, or Until It Hurts to Stop), email me at jennifer[at]jenniferhubbard[dot]com by January 15, 2018. I may be able to send you a copy if you are at least 13, with a mailing address in the US or Canada.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Congrats, Iceland. Really. (Courtney McKinney-Whitaker)

I know a lot of writers, librarians, academics, and lay-booklovers, so that thing about how everyone in Iceland gets books for presents on Christmas Eve and then spends the whole night snuggling under the covers and reading has lit up my Facebook feed about 80 bazillion times this holiday season. Rough estimate.

 I'm not sure if this is true or just a myth generated and perpetuated by the Internet, but either way I have this to say to Iceland.

Congrats. Seriously, congrats, Iceland, on making the rest of us look bad, all the time.

Here we are down in more temperate climes, running around like Buddy the Elf on uncut maple syrup straight from the tree, eating and drinking ourselves sick, visiting however many people we need to visit to make every family member happy, going to church however many times we need to go to make every family member happy, staying up to make sure Santa makes it to our house, getting up early to make sure we get everywhere we need to go, hoping all the decorating and wrapping and doing get done.

And there you are, Iceland, in your perpetual Yuletide darkness, with your Hygge (I know Hygge is Danish, but isn't Iceland sort of Danish, too? I am too busy to look it up. I hope I am not creating an international incident or being ignorantly offensive.), smugly watching this when you look up from your book once in a while to gaze in a magic snow globe like the one Santa has to show him what's going on down in the world below the Arctic Circle. (Are you below the Arctic Circle? I am too busy to look it up.)

My annoyance is born of jealousy. Icelandic Christmas Eve sounds like an introvert's dream, while American Christmas Eve is an introvert's nightmare. I am an introvert.

(There are some things about healthcare and gender equality I am also jealous of, but this is a Christmas post.)

But Christmas Eve is over now. Now it's the day after Christmas. Also known as St. Stephen's Day, Boxing Day, the second day of Christmas, the first day of Kwanzaa, and probably some other things, though as a child I simply thought of it as The Most Depressing Day of the Year.

Now I love this time. My family, out of necessity and sanity, began celebrating the 12 Days of Christmas about a decade ago. We don't try to do it all on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. We do our visiting and traveling and so forth during the 12 Days instead. Let me tell you, it's so much better than one.

This time, this week between Christmas and New Year's, has always had a sort of unreal quality about it for me, like it's somehow not really part of time. It seems like stolen time. The rush is over, the new year not yet come. So I hope during this strange week, you can find some time to read like you were in Iceland. With that in mind, my gift to you is a list of book recommendations for this week. It's still Christmas through Twelfth Night, after all.

1. Have you seen British Library Reprints? You must see them, and you must check out the Crime Classics series. This December, I read Mystery in White and The Santa Klaus Murder, both lovely, cozy, Golden Age country house mysteries begging for the Masterpiece treatment.

2. Have you read Nancy Mitford? Do you like Jane Austen? Would you like Jane Austen with more bite? You could do worse than to check out Mitford's second novel, Christmas Pudding, the funniest Christmas book I've read.

3. Do you feel your holiday should have been more spiritual, but do you fail (as I often/always do) to make it so? Sarah Arthur's anthology of poetry and prose selected from over 2000 years of writing helps. Light Upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany is elevating winter reading even if you're not among those Christian denominations that celebrate the seasons of the church.

4. Do you prefer short stories at this season, find them easier to digest than a whole novel? YA lovers have doubtless heard of My True Love Gave to Me, which is excellent. If you can get your hands on a copy of the out of print May Your Days Be Merry and Bright: Christmas Stories by Women, it will change your life.

5. Our own Holly Schindler recently released the novella Christmas at Ruby's, a sweet Christmas ghost story, which I read on the treadmill this afternoon. It was exactly what I needed to read, so thanks, Holly.

(I would link to all these, but I'm writing this four days before Christmas and am too busy being Buddy the Elf. Search for them wherever you like to buy books.)

Now I'd love a gift in return. What are your favorite Christmas/Holiday/Winter reads? Tell me in the comments. And give yourself a night this week to read like you're in Iceland.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Happy Whatever You Celebrate, or Don't Celebrate, from Bill

Normally you would be seeing Jen Doktorski today, but we did a tradeski which means somehow I ended up with Christmas morning. Oops.

Except for liking colored lights, which I like 365 days a year, I don't get a lot in the way of holiday spirit. This year has been tougher than usual for a lot of us for all the reasons I won't beat to death.

So with my turn before me, I'm in a bit of a dither. You guys don't want to hear me whine about my less-than-enthusiastic relationship with the holidays. The theme of the month is gifts, giving and receiving, not, "The Holidays: Shut Up Already, Bill."

After going around in circles about what to write about, I had a brainwave (as they say in British dramas). 20 years ago I wrote an actual Christmas story which was published in a community newspaper in my then home of Portland, Oregon. In 2010, I resurrected it (I know, that's Easter, but stick with me here), and posted on my website. As it happens, it's all about gifts, giving and receiving, so I am going to reprint it again here.

It's an autobiographical story, but no need to get into the details of how much is memoir and how much is fiction. Suffice to say we really did have a grey Persian cat named Tanya, given to us by a fellow named Danny Coots. And, while I can't be 100% certain, I do think Tanya actually was hot.

The Practical Christmas

Growing up, my sister Vicki and I had a special name for every Christmas. There’s the Toy Sequence: Hot Wheels ChristmasStrange Change Christmas,Talking GI Joe Christmas (also known by Vicki as the Shut That Damned Thing Up Christmas). Then there’s the Big Bummer Sequence: Salmonella Eggnog Christmas, Emergency Appendectomy Christmas, and Multi-Color Underwear Christmas.
Of greater notoriety is the Oft-Retold-in-Horror Cycle: Electrical Fire ChristmasTurkey with Larvae Stuffing Christmas and Aunt Nell’s Affair Revealed Christmas (followed eleven months later by Aunt Nell’s Other Affair Revealed Thanksgiving.) Finally, there’s my mother’s Epoch of Let Us Never Speak of This Again, or what Vicki and I refer to simply as the Year of Danny Coots.
Danny was a fellow who drew a second glance. Long stringy hair, pointed chin, square gap where his four front teeth had once been. He claimed to have lost them in a bar brawl, and you shoulda seen the other guy blah blah blah. But Mom told us his face bounced off the steering wheel of his pickup when he rammed into a culvert. Seems he’d been paying more attention to his 8-track tape player than the gentle curve of the road ahead. Most of the time you couldn’t tell about the teeth though—he had a pretty good bridge, as well as a tendency to politely cut apples into bite-size chunks or slice his corn off the cob.
Mom had a thing for fixer-uppers. Vicki and I didn’t know it at the time, but she met Danny about a week after his release from county jail: six months for car theft. The cousin of our neighbor’s sister-in-law’s uncle, something like that, insisted Danny was all right, just a little wild around the edges. All he needed was the stabilizing influence of a settled woman. And besides, he hadn’t exactly stolen the car, just borrowed it without permission. The only reason he got caught at all was the cops happened to be there talking to the car’s owner when Danny tried to return it.
In spite of his history, that first Christmas with Danny was pretty quiet. Mom wanted to call it the Lookit the Pretty Kitty Christmas—her gift from Danny. But Vicki and I dubbed it the Aunt Nell Forgets Her Digestive Enzyme Christmas and that name stuck, despite the fact a pure-bred Persian kitten was a definite attention-getter. Mom didn’t want to accept such an extravagant gift,  but Danny insisted he got it for a pittance from some guy on second shift at the call center where he worked. Fellow’s wife was a breeder, allegedly—it would be a year before we’d come to suspect Tanya might be hot. So our new pretty kitty clawed her way onto the dinner table while Danny delighted and horrified us by popping the bridge out of his mouth onto his dinner plate. Both helped distract us all from the aromas Aunt Nell silently emitted.
Mom and Danny ran hot and cold throughout the next year. He didn’t take to the stabilizing influence of a settled woman nearly as well as advertised. He liked to stop for a beer or six on his way home from work, which didn’t bother Mom if it happened every so often. But if it was gonna be frequent and it was gonna be six, she’d just as soon he went to his own home afterwards. Vicki and I were impressionable children after all.
Yet Danny obviously liked us, and wanted to be around. When my bike frame snapped, he took me to a shop to get it welded. He would read aloud to Vicki while she painted her nails, and he even let her braid his hair. Most Friday nights he took Mom out for dinner and movies or dancing. Vicki and I were old enough by then that they could leave us for an evening without a baby-sitter, and Danny ordered us a pizza and pop. Who could beat that?
But then in May, on his way home from one of his after-work jaunts, Danny got stopped by the police and had more than a little trouble with the field sobriety test. Sentence: 90-days in the county workhouse and six month suspended license. He got out after 65 days for good behavior, and his first stop was our apartment. Mom didn’t bite. She was already in the hunt for other fixer-uppers. “Men with promise, Danny. Men without jail time in their futures.”
“That’s over,” he pleaded. “Think about the good behavior.”
“Let some other woman think about it. I got kids.”
September and October came and went with no sign of Danny, but then in November he showed up near Vicki’s birthday with a dozen bottles of nail polish and a boxed set of Nancy Drew mysteries, plus a grocery sack of gourmet cat food for Tanya. He tried to give me a pocket knife but Mom vetoed that. Still, it was a warmish reunion and Mom agreed to let Danny take her to dinner that Friday. Pizza night was back on.
Two weeks later, a few days after Aunt Nell Gets in to the Mulled Wine Thanksgiving, Danny arranged to pick Vicki and I up after school. His big plan was Christmas shopping at the mall, followed by Chinese take-out. He asked Mom to loan him her station wagon—didn’t want to haul a big load around in the back of his truck. “A big load of what?” Mom muttered, but she gave him her car.
Danny, as it turned out, wanted to shop alone. We agreed to meet him at the fountain in the center of the mall around six o’clock. Vicki and I didn’t have much money to spend, but we usually only bought gifts for Mom anyway and we took care of that in a matter of seconds at the Earring Hut. The two of us wandered around for a little while together until Vicki ran into a couple of her friends and abruptly remembered she was an only child. While looking for something to spend my last coupla quarters on, I saw Danny in the checkout line at Penney’s buying a vacuum cleaner. I prayed it wasn’t for me. Talk about an ignominious addition to the Big Bummer Sequence: the Hoover Upright Christmas.
Danny was in high spirits when Vicki and I finally caught up with him at six. He had a big sack of wrapped packages slung over his shoulder. He grinned at us and wiggled his bridge in and out. “Let’s go get dinner!” At the car, we saw that he’d already made one or two drop-offs. I looked at Vicki and I could see what she was thinking—Humongous Haul Christmas. The three of us barely fit in the car.
Back at the house, Mom showed less excitement. “How did you pay for all this, Danny?” she asked.
“Oh c’mon! Christmas bonus!”
“Yeah, right.”
The build-up to Christmas was almost unbearable. For the better part of a month, Vicki and I had to live with a mighty mountain of loot, none of which we could touch until the big day. Mom was tight-lipped. She implored Danny to return some of it, but he refused. It’s too much, she insisted. Nothing’s too much for my babies, Danny replied. Back and forth. Meanwhile, Vicki and I brainstormed on the perfect title for what was obviously going to be the best Christmas ever. Vicki advocated, simply, The Best Christmas Ever. “Bo-o-o-oring,” I said. I proposed Justice At Last Christmas. We argued for weeks, right up until Christmas Eve, when fate settled the debate for us.
Stolen Credit Card Christmas.
I have to admit, the police were pretty nice about it. They didn’t arrest us or anything. But they didn’t let us keep the loot either.
A cop came over and helped us load everything into Mom’s car, then followed us as we drove to the police station. When we carried the packages into the squad room we saw Danny sitting at a desk, his hands cuffed and hanging loosely between his knees. He looked up and tried a smile, but it came off sickly and hollow. They’d taken his teeth.
Christmas morning, Vicki and I opened packages of notebook paper and underwear. “It’s the Practical Christmas,” Mom declared. Vicki rolled her eyes in that Yeah, right way of hers, but neither of us said anything. If Mom wanted it to be the Practical Christmas, then that’s what it would be. So long as she was in earshot, anyway.
A couple days after Practical Christmas, Danny made bail and showed up at the door all weepy and begging forgiveness. Mom was having none of it. “I never should have let you come back, Danny,” she said. “We’re finished.”
“I just wanted you all to have a nice Christmas.”
She closed the door on him. We later read in the paper that this latest stunt netted Danny ten months in the state penitentiary. The only thing that kept it from being three years was he’d shopped for bargains.
Mom lost her interest in fixer-uppers after Danny. Her next beau was a solid citizen. Insurance agent. Decent enough fellow, I guess, but dull as dry toast. She ended up marrying him. Vicki and I found ourselves with a matter-of-fact step-dad who never understood our need to title the holidays. He thought we were being mean when we christened the Aunt Nell Thinks She Can Drive a Stick Shift Easter. “The poor woman did eighteen hundred dollars damage to your uncle’s Miata,” he said. Whatever.
A few years later (Aunt Nell Isn’t Taking Any More of Our Crap Festivus), I asked Mom if she ever missed Danny. “No!” she said, and turned away. But a little while later, over a glass of mulled wine, she murmured, “Danny did have spirit. And he sure loved you kids.”
“You too, Mom,” Vicki said.
“I suppose,” she said, scratching the now fat and sassy Tanya on her soft grey neck. “You gotta admit, Stolen Credit Card Christmas beat the hell out of Multicolor Underwear Christmas, didn’t it?”

Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Gift of Adventure by Sonya Weiss

The season often makes me reflect on some of the best gifts I’ve ever received. One in particular stands out from my childhood. Mom and Dad bought me a pair of roller skates before I’d even started school. I have an old photograph of that Christmas morning with me trying on the skates, a huge smile on my face. I was five years old.

I learned how to skate across the hardwood floors in the home we lived in and from there, I was on skates more often than not. I skated on sidewalks, in the road, and at the local roller skating rink.

I didn’t realize until years later that it wasn’t so much the skates that were the gift. It was the adventures that came with them. The friends I’d hang out with at the rink. The friends I’d skate outside with. I’d skate everywhere. Exploring neighborhoods beyond my own.

I was a tough kid. More of a tomboy than not. I loved to push myself with jumps, spins and the fast breaking that took you almost to the brink of falling. I loved the thrill and the daring. Of course, there were falls. But I bore the road rash and bruises like badges of honor and I’d get right back up and speed away again. I wasn’t afraid to fall. It was part of the adventure.

Somewhere along the line, I learned to play a little safer. Maybe it was getting older. You don’t bounce back from a fall quite as easily. You do more sitting on the sidelines. The sad thing is that can happen to all of us in life. We learn to take fewer chances, fewer risks. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

The adventures are fewer and fewer until we get to the point where we can’t remember the last time we did anything we could label an adventure because we’re afraid to fall.

So this year, I hope you give yourself the gift of adventure. I hope you decide to take the trip that leaves you slightly fearful. I hope you make the change that you want to try but you’ve been hesitating. I hope you write that book. I hope you talk to that cute guy or girl. I hope you take the chance on whatever you’ve been holding back on. You might fall, but it’s part of the adventure.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Gifts in Disguise By Christine Gunderson

Gifts in Disguise
By Christine Gunderson

The best gift I ever received was a total surprise. The package was deceiving. It didn’t look like a gift. It looked like a disability.

I opened this gift in first grade when I brought home a math worksheet covered in red ink. My parents sat down and patiently explained what I did wrong. I filled in the correct answers and went back to school, confident the problem was solved. But that was just the beginning of my lifelong struggle with numbers.

I can’t do algebra. I can’t remember dates or phone numbers or zip codes. I have trouble reading the hands on an analog clock. Don’t ask me to hang pictures, because I won’t read the tape measure accurately. And I never use maps because I just can’t read them. 

My brain also assigns genders and personalities to numbers. Yes, I know this isn’t normal. Six is a beautiful ingénue and eight is rugged and handsome, sort of a numerical Marlboro Man. Six and eight are destined to be together but nine is an evil and jealous witch who tries to keep them apart.

This made math difficult when I was in elementary school. Every long division problem was like an episode of Days of Our Lives.

For a long time I thought I was weird. Or, perhaps, just not very smart. Then about a year ago, someone told me about a learning disability called dyscalculia.

Wikkipedia describes it this way:

“Dyscalculia is a difficulty in learning or comprehending arithmetic…Dyscalculia can occur in people from across the IQ range—often higher than average—along with difficulties with time, measurement and spatial reasoning.”

This is me. If learning disabilities held pageants, I would be Miss Dyscalculia. But my struggles with math, maps, rulers and clocks took place back in the 70’s and 80’s, way before we knew about things like dyslexia or dyscalculia. There wasn’t a way to fix it. So I just accepted that no matter how hard I tried, I would never be good at math.

This is the gift.

I’ve never been confused about what I should do with my life because I knew that I should not, under any circumstances, even attempt to become an astronaut, a physicist, an accountant or a mathematician. I learned to focus on the things I can do, like writing. And talking. I’m great at talking. Just ask my husband and kids.

I became a television reporter and then a press secretary on Capitol Hill. They told me there would be no math in these occupations and they were right. I loved my work. I had the gift of knowing what I shouldn’t do.

Over the years I’ve seen many smart, talented people struggle to find their passion. They’re cursed with the ability to do everything well. Nothing is off the table. Anything is possible. But how do you identify your strengths when you excel at everything you try?

I’ve never had that problem. My inability to do math is one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received. It’s given me clarity and focus.

Yes, it’s humbling to fail at things other people find easy, like reading a map. It’s embarrassing to admit that by the time my kids reach fifth grade I can no longer help them with their math homework.

But I know my strengths and I don’t take them for granted. I’m grateful to be with good words since I’m so bad with numbers.

Writing plays to all my skills. I’m clumsy and hate to exercise. But this is now an asset, because writers are required to sit in a chair for hours at a time moving nothing but their fingers.

I excel at this.

I’m also grateful to have found writing because it led me to other writers, many of whom can’t do math either. I found my tribe. My people. Just don’t expect us to split a check and figure out the tip. That’s what engineers are for.

So if you’re talented at everything you attempt, you have my sympathy. But if you have an area of struggle, rejoice and be glad. Sometimes our limitations are priceless.