Don’t stop by, anytime.

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My house on an average day. Playing with cats is more important than putting laundry away.

I hate unexpected visitors.  I don’t want you to stop by if you are in the neighborhood.  If you are going to be driving by, feel free to text or call to see if I’m available, but if I don’t respond just keep driving.  Sure it might be fine to stop, but it might not.  I’m too polite to tell you to “go away” at my door, but I will quietly seethe your entire visit if you aren’t welcome.

See, I might be naked, fighting with my husband, or naked fighting with my husband.  Those things don’t happen all the time, but they do happen.  I might be in my introverted shell and while you’ll think I’m lonely, I am not.  I enjoy being alone.  It’s an infrequent pleasure in my life.

If I’m in the front yard, feel free to wave or honk or slow down for a quick chat, but unless I invite you in, please stay in your car.

I realize this is weird. My extroverted best friends with people skills tell me, “I was in your neighborhood yesterday and I didn’t stop.”  I think I’m supposed to feel guilty, but instead I reply, “Thank you.”  I know they are trying to illuminate the fun times I am missing, but I am not missing anything.

My house will be a mess if you stop by.  I am not a housekeeper.  If I don’t know you are coming there will be shoes and backpacks tripping you just inside the front door.  The dishes from breakfast, lunch, and maybe dinner the night before will still be on the table – worst case – or in the sink – best case.  The cat-box will be dirty and the house may stink.  My slovenly ways mean you will judge me and find me wanting.  I’ll feel terrible and you’ll feel superior, but I’m sure you can find ways to feel good about yourself without me being involved.

Please, if you are invited, come on over.  It’s not that I hate people, or parties, or visitors.  But I am descended from, or reincarnated from, peoples who had barriers to keep away invading hordes.  The drawbridge must be lowered, the moat monster put away, and the dungeons cleared before honored guests arrive.  If guests are expected, I know I won’t need backpacks to alert me of intruders, convenient food left in case I must suddenly flee, or cat poop to fling at invaders from warring tribes.  Be confident that if I asked you to come, you are welcome.  My house will be clean, my clothes will be on, and the familial fighting will be negligible.

I beg you, don’t stop by.  Give me a call if you are in the neighborhood.  We’ll meet at the coffee shop.  I’d love to see you there.

“Check it out”

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The perfect family stood in line waiting to select their bagels.  Two parents — the expected mom and dad — and three adult children out for Sunday breakfast.  The attractive eldest stretched to at least 6’4″ if you measured to the tip of his glossy black hairstyle:  spiked enough to be stylish, but not so much as to be inappropriate for one closer to 30 than 20.  The daughter’s lithe body, draped in a dark red lace shawl, clicked past me on sensible-heeled above-the-knee boots on her way to the restroom.  Her face was beautifully sculpted, framed by the sleek black hair, but she kept her eyes lowered as she excused herself  while slipping past me.

“Check this out,” the oldest held out a smart phone and bent over his smaller brother.  Glasses slightly askew the third child moved with less grace than his siblings, or others in line.  His face, his glasses, and his demeanor conveyed an extra chromosome or perhaps an abnormality in one.  The third child belatedly smiled at the phone and the mother beamed as her eldest protected her most vulnerable.

The father, had he been straight, would have neared the height of his son.  Stooped as he was, the top of his head reached the same height as the mother.  Trying to make sure her family didn’t cause an inconvenience, the mother directed her sons to the menu ensuring their orders would be ready the moment they reached the front of the line.  She was a strong looking woman, not lithe like her daughter, but fit and powerful: the backbone of her perfect family.

“Let’s check it out,” the older brother motioned to the menu and his brother’s gaze slowly followed.

The daughter breezed back from urinating, or fixing her hair, or her pre-breakfast bulimic purge.  Upon arriving back she closely conferred with her mother, who left for her own bathroom ritual.  Catching me watching her family she smiled an eye crinkling smile at me, which I returned.  Her joy at having her family together was genuine.

His wife gone, the father took on the shepherding of his family.  They stood closer together than a normal family of adults might, always keeping the third child toward the center as if protecting him from outsiders.  The daughter’s shawl provided a physical barrier to her brother as she placed her hand on his rounded shoulders.  The moment it was time to order they efficiently stepped up one by one and succinctly selected their bagels.  Returning, the mother walked directly to the cashier confident her order would be accurately conveyed by her daughter.  While waiting to pay, the mother surveyed the tables for one that would seat her family of five.

The only mishap was when the youngest son and father approached the drink cooler.  Apparently drinks had not been accounted for during their in-line planning, so they had to backtrack.  I stepped back to give them access to the cooler.  The son reached for a bottle of orange juice and mistakenly grabbed orange mango instead.  “That’s orange mango,” the father corrected, “or do you want to try something new?”

“I’ll check it out,” replied the third child echoing the sentiments of his majestic older brother.  His speech was deliberate.

The father paused reaching toward the traditional orange juice, but changed his mind at the last minute veering toward orange mango.  “I’ll check it out too.”  He nodded my direction in acknowledgement of the minor inconvenience he and his son had caused during their drink selection.

My order placed, paid for, and received, I walked to the soda dispenser.  The family had settled at a high top table with four seats nearby, father opting to stand rather than take a seat from another table.  They were not a family to take more than the appropriate allotment of chairs.  As I turned to go, I heard one of the family’s men utter, “…check it out,” and I wondered at what point did that repetitive phrase break the sister’s or mother’s perfect facade.  I knew I would break, but their life was not mine.  Perhaps the phrase was their own security blanket.  One that conveyed their belief in open-mindedness, curiosity, and willingness to make the best of what life had to offer.


Photo by The Creative Exchange on Unsplash

Chicken Eating Pear Noises

I have resigned myself.  I will never be a writer.  A writer must create beautiful grammatically accurate sentences with all the words spelled correctly, on purpose.  They care passionately about prepositions at the ends of sentences, starting sentences with “so”, pronoun agreements, and gerunds (which I spelled gerands before the spell-check wiggly-line alerted me to my error: I am hopeless.)  So I have resigned myself to becoming a story-teller, because no one cares if a story-teller screws up the language a bit.  Sometimes it even makes the story better.  Case in point, the Afthead household had a bag of pears going bad, so my husband and I were removing the moldy bits so we could feed the brown and mushy bits to the chickens.  (Chickens turn rotting food into eggs, which is magic I’ve come to appreciate in our months of ownership.)

Three chickens evaluating pears prior to eating them

I scooped the pears into a bowl and said, with delight, “Now I get to hear my favorite chicken eating pear noise.”

My husband looked at me with that you are a doofus look he reserves just for his beloved wife and said, “I think you mean pear eating chicken noises.”

I was horrified.  Pear eating chicken noises sounded like the noises giant pears would make as they ripped my poor unsuspecting chickens to bloody shreds.  “No,” I insisted, “that’s backwards.”

Leave it to my mom, the retired English teacher, to show me the error of my ways.  “Think of it like a hyphenated phrase,” she said, “Pear-eating chicken noises is what you love.  Chicken-eating pear noises are the terrifying ones.”

Once again my grammar savant engineering husband and English degreed mother found the errors in my word choices.  If I wasn’t so stubborn I’d stop disagreeing with them and just accept my ignorance.  There is a reason I make them read everything I write.  They are good at this English language stuff.

But I am good at the creativity stuff, so I hauled out the fancy markers, grabbed Afthead Junior and said, “Let’s draw pictures of chicken-eating pears!”

My daughter, having witnessed the pear-eating/chicken-eating argument, asked for clarification, “You mean scary pear drawings?”

“Yes.”

Behold, the chicken-eating pears.  They are terrifying.  They are chicken-eating.  They are bloody.  Keep your chickens locked up safe, folks.  You don’t want to see these monsters in your coop.  Nom nom nom,

Afthead’s chicken eating pear.  (Don’t know where he got the roasted drumstick.)
Afthead Junior’s chicken eating pear.  (Look in its mouth!  A head!  So scary!)

Yes.  Thanks.  I know.  It goes without saying.  I am a story-teller, not a writer.  And I am DEFINITELY NOT an artist.  No need to point that out.  It’s just rude.

Now off to go create the world of the chicken eating pears and how they wreck havoc on unsuspecting small farmers and backyard chicken enthusiasts.  Beware the pear!


Just in case you are wondering, the video below shows Rosie making the pear-eating chicken noises that I adore.  Listen close — it’s a subtle sound.

Reading Debut Novels – 2017

As someone who would like to have a debut novel someday, I read the first book of several authors this year, and tried to read them as a writer.  What was it about these books that first grabbed an agent’s attention, then a publisher’s attention?  Was it possible I could do what they did someday?  My last reading post for the old year highlights debut novels.

Dissension, by Stacey Berg

Stacey is an author I’ve followed for some time on Twitter:  @slbscifi.  (She followed me back, so I’m not a total stalker.)  Berg is not only an author of speculative fiction YA books, but is also a medical researcher.  As a chemical engineer who dabbles in speculative fiction, I look to her as a role model for how one might balance a left brain career and a right brain writing avocation.

I love YA fiction, so enjoyed diving into Dissension.  It’s set in a post apocalyptic world where “the church” has taken over directing the survival of humanity.  The main character, Echo, is responsible for protecting the church and the populous.  Berg has created an engaging innovative world and Echo vacillates between being a heroine and an anti-heroine as the story unfolds.  The story was engaging, so I also read Berg’s second book, Regeneration.

From Berg I’ve learned that if you are a science person, you do not have to write fiction in your non-writer area of expertise.  Yes, there are medical aspects of Berg’s books that are important, but that is not what her story is about.  However, her books have a scientific quality that I enjoy:  they are organized and logical.  Understanding that my background can influence my writing but doesn’t need to limit my writing is a valuable lesson from Berg’s works.

I found Berg through Mary C. Moore, an agent I paid to review the first 10 pages of my novel, because I’m not just stalking authors through this little experiment of mine, I’m also looking for an agent who represents books similar to mine.

Mrs. Kimbel, by Jennifer Haigh

Ah, this Jennifer Haigh lady.  She taught me so much last year!  She taught me to find my keystone works for my own books – books that write the way I want my story told.  Then she taught me how she wrote her first book in a way she would never write a book again.  Mrs. Kimbel is a story is of three women, all married to the same man.  It was written as three discreet longish short stories that Haigh had to cram together into a novel: not a process she recommends.  It’s an interesting book, but outside of my normal preferred genre and style.  If you are a lover of interpersonal stories, I highly recommend it.  If you normally read crazy sci fi, epic fantasy, and apocalyptic fiction, maybe skip it.

Because Haigh was so negative about her process creating this first book, I wasn’t sure what I would learn from it.  But books never fail to inspire.  Haigh is a single woman with no kids and no career other than writing.  In her class I learned that she has eschewed a “traditional” life in favor of being a writer.  Writing is her priority.  So, I was surprised that her book about relationships and motherhood felt true.  Whenever an author believably writes about an experience they have not had I feel permission to write prose outside of my own life experiences.

Agent to the Stars, by John Scalzi

I adore John Scalzi.  I follow his blog.  I read his tweets.  I reply to his tweets.  (He replied back once, again proving to me that I’m not a total online stalker.)  I also love his books.  They feel like stories that actually happen.

Agent to the Stars, Scalzi’s first novel, is a funny little book about a Hollywood agent who represents an alien.  The book allows the reader to experience human first contact with a non-threatening new life-form.  True to Scalzi’s other works, it’s funny and unexpected.  The audiobook is a joy to listen to, read by Will Wheaton: one of my favorite readers.

From Scalzi’s first book, I learned about voice.  People have told me that my writing has “a good voice.”  I’ve read that agents are looking for works that are more than just technically accurate: they need a voice.  But voice is one of those nebulous things like love or faith or parenthood that you have to experience to understand.  Because I’ve read so much Scalzi has written I was able to sense his voice even in this first novel, and I think I understand the concept better now.  All Scalzi’s works are irreverent, unexpected, and highlight details other authors might gloss over.  Those details make his stories real, which I love.  From his first novel, Scalzi had voice, and maybe now I understand mine a bit better.

I learned so many different things from my first-book experiment, so am continuing it in 2018.  I just finished Point of Direction, a book by Rachel Weaver who is an instructor at Lighthouse Writers Workshop where I am a member.  I wanted to read Weaver’s book because she’s someone I can take writing classes from, and even ask annoying questions in person: an invaluable resource for the aspiring novelist.

My second planned first-book for 2018 is Markswoman by Rati Mehrotra.  (She’s a WordPress blogger too.)  I also found Mehrotra through Mary C. Moore, who recommended Mehrotra’s author website as one of her favorites.  Expecting some whiz-bang super-designed wonder, I was happy to see that Mehrotra’s site was well organized and easy to read, but not unobtainable.  I also found her site to be a wonderful resource for potential publication journals and she’s taught me what it looks like to be a more grown-up writer than myself.  Again, I follow Mehrotra on Twitter @Rati_Mehrotra – yes, she follows back – and have loved virtually celebrating the publication Markswoman.  (It just came out this past Tuesday, but it’s been so exciting to watch the pre-publication build up.)  I can’t wait to see what I’ll learn from this read.

That’s it.  All my reading analysis for 2017: the good, the bad, and the debut.  For 2018 I’m already 7 books in, and after Markswoman I’m going to dive into an Ursla K Le Guin story or two.  Shockingly, as a lover of speculative fiction, I’ve never read anything by her, and her death this week revealed what an inspiration she was to authors I love.  My bookstack is full, as always, with new stories to love and learn from.  Let me know if there’s anything you’ve read that I should add to the stack.

 

Books that Inspired my Writing – 2017

I am coming up on six years of being a writer.  On February 20, 2012 I put words to paper for my first – still incomplete – novel.  Since then I have not yet published anything (except this lovely blog) but I have finished writing two short stories; finished a second novel;  started three other short stories; and have four rejections to my name.  While my publishing may have been limited, 2017 was a big learning year for me, and from that learning, I am hoping to get two pieces polished in 2018 and start circulating them through the journals I’ve identified as good fits for my work.

One evolutionary writing step happened this year, when mid-book I would switch into reading-as-a-writer mode. As I read, I’d start thinking about what the author was doing, and learn from that new perspective.  Below are 3 works that helped me grow as a writer in 2017.

Slade House, by David Mitchell

I didn’t know reading-as-a-writer was a real thing, until I saw a talk by Jennifer Haigh.  Part of her process is to find keystone works.  Not books she wants to copy, but books that do something well that is relevant to her work, and new to her, such as using the first person point-of-view or being set in the same time period.  Her recommendation was to find this keystone book, dissect it, take notes, and learn how a published author accomplished the task you are attempting.

As an avid reader, this process makes sense to me.  While most writing books stress that you have to read to be a writer – a writing skill I’ve always been good at, the not-writing one – they don’t tell you what to do with all that reading.  But now I know there is a catalog of works in my head that I can refer to as a writer when I’m trying to do something new.  That said, sometimes fate and the muses smile and the right book falls in your lap at the right time.

That’s what happened with Slade House.  I’d just finished reading it when I saw Haigh’s talk.  Instantly I realized that I’d just read a keystone book for my in-progress novel.  Slade House is set in five vignettes spaced exactly nine years apart.  Each section is told in the same setting and has common characters, which is exactly what my book does, but in annual increments.  I was struggling with how to size each mini-story, and keep the pace moving, which Slade House does incredibly well.  There were mini-climax moments in each time period, but the overall plot of the book escalated up to the final climax in the last year.  Again, this is exactly how I want my book paced.  Based on Haigh’s suggestion I got out my note-cards and spreadsheets and analyzed how Mitchell created his story.   I now have a guide for how to move my story along, avoid repetition in my world building, and write something that might work for publication.  Oh, and that elusive comparable title I’ll need for querying agents?  Done.

The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi

This book could have gone on my list of most hated books for 2017.  Bacigalupi wrote a novel about climate change, a topic about which I am both passionate and have close to expert knowledge, and I hated it.  Best of all, I read this for my beloved Apocalyptic Fiction class, so I got to publicly explain my loathing, which is why magic happened.

It’s easy to hate a book.  It’s easy to dismiss the author, say they suck, and quit reading.  It’s hard to sit in a class for three weeks and tease out the exact moments that turned you off, then dissect those moments, then hear other’s contrasting opinions, then have an epiphany, then explain to the other writers in class  your epiphany: real characters and believable interaction are more important to me than plot or world building or theme or language or anything.

The moment when Bacigalupi’s tortured heroine springs from the chair she’s been strapped to and starts cleaning out her rescuer’s bullet wound made me want to throw my Kindle across the room.  People do not act that way.  People do not jump up when they have been physically tortured to care for some person they might have a crush on.  Women do not dismiss off their oozing wounds, throw a shirt on over their naked torso and become ad hoc medical professionals.  I do not want to write unbelievable scenes like that.  I want humanity.  I want you to feel the desperation of torture, experience the burgeoning attraction between the heroine and her rescuer, understand the agony of pulling a shirt on over shredded skin, and realize, with the heroine, that her survival requires that her rescuer doesn’t die.  That is how I wanted the story told, and I am so grateful for Bacigalupi doing it in the completely wrong way, so I can understand my values as a writer and how I want my story told.

I will never read that book again.  If I had a paper copy I would  have composted it to save others from having to read it, but I am a much better writer for having struggled through the reading and understanding.

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline L’Engle

Do you ever doubt yourself as a writer?  Do you ever want to quit and do something sensible?  When this happens, go find Madeline L’Engle’s 1963 Newbery Medal Acceptance speech.  Unfortunately, it’s been removed from her website, but it is published in the back of the 50th anniversary paperback edition of A Wrinkle in Time.  It’s worth a trip to your local library to find it, but don’t read it in the stacks or you might find yourself crying next to children looking for the dinosaur book section.

The section that matters to me begins with a quote that is now hung up next to my writing desk, “Most of what is best in writing isn’t done deliberately.”  L’Engle goes on to talk about her writing of A Wrinkle in Time and says, “I can’t possibly tell you how I came to write it.  It was simply a book I had to write.  I had no choice.”  I read these words – the words of an author I have loved since I was a child, the words of the first author I ever met in person – when I was ready to give up on my stories.  I found the process of editing too hard.  I was never going to be any good at grammar.  I had totally screwed up and published the first draft of my best short story on my blog and no one was ever going to publish it.  I was just wasting my time.  Again, the muses smiled on me when I decided to read one of my favorite childhood books and then thumb past the reader’s guide to find inspiration when I needed it most.

I write like Madeline L’Engle writes.  I write because I have a story I have to tell.  Maybe no one but me and my mom will ever read my stories – and she won’t even read the dentist one – but a Newbery Medal winner feels about writing the same way I do.  Reading her speech kept 2017 from being the year I quit writing.

In 2017 I found a book to show me how to architect my novel.  I found I book where I learned how not to write.  And I found a book that inspired me to keep writing.  What did you read this year that changed you?

A book, too, can be a star, “explosive material, capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly,” a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.

– Madeline L’Engle, 1963 Newbury Medal Award Speech

Afthead’s Best and Worst Books of 2017

2017 was a great reading year for me, but every year since I have been able to read was a great reading year for me.  I love reading.  I love books.   However, certain ones rise to the top, so here are my favorite (and least favorite) books of last year.

Best books:

Morning Star, by Pierce Brown

I am a firm believer that the third book of all trilogies are terrible.  So much so, that I have considered that if I ever become I real author I will not write trilogies, because I don’t want to doom every third book I write.  Pierce Brown proved me wrong with this book, until I found out that his FOURTH book in the series is due out in 2018.  Therefore, my anti-trilogy stand holds.

This book begins with the most compelling imagery I have ever experienced in a book.  He made me uncomfortable, surprised me, and horrified me all in the first chapter.  In fact, that chapter was the reason I knew I couldn’t handle the audiobook: it was too much in the best way.  This book was only for my eyes, not my ears.

Way Station, Clifford D. Simak

Clifford Simak wrote this wonder in 1963.  A story about space travel and aliens and the end of human civilization so topical that I didn’t realize how old the story was until after I finished the book and looked at the publication date.  Perhaps it was the setting in a ramshackle cabin in the forest, but I think more likely it’s the timelessness of his writing and his story.

Ready Player One, Ernest Cline

According to social media, it’s cool to trash this book right now.  Well I’m going to stand up and display my unquestionable uncoolness and say I loved this book.  As a child of the late 70s and early 80s this was a trip down memory lane set in a future dystopia: an impossible juxtaposition that worked wonderfully.  The good guys were good.  The bad guys were bad.  The story was just fun, and 2017 was the perfect year to appreciate a fun read.

Best Audiobook:

A Man Called Ove, Fredrik Backman

I adored reading this book and appreciated that the audiobook taught me I had been mispronouncing every proper noun in this book while reading in my head.  This simple story of a simple man’s life was more poignant, more real and more heartbreaking in audio than when I read it.

Worst books:

The Power, Naomi Alderman

Oh, I wanted to like this book.  I wanted to dive into the hype and the perfectly timed topical plot contrasting the #metoo movement and relish the idea of women evolving a deadly electrical superpower.  I wanted to meander down this alternate universe and marvel at what would happen if women were in power.  But I couldn’t.  I enjoyed the idea, but I didn’t enjoy the people, the relationships, or the story that just fizzled out.  That said, I have nothing but admiration for Ms. Alderman to write the perfect unique story to be published at the perfect time.

Super Flat Times, by Matthew Derby

I found this book on a list of the best speculative fiction of all time, or the best dystopian fiction of all time, or some other internet list that struck my interest.  Since I’d read and enjoyed several other books on the list I figured this one – raved about by the article’s author – would have to be a worthy read.  It was not.  There were some interesting ideas, and some not interesting ideas all held together with bits of gum and shoestring and then shoved into a book in a disorganized heap.  My theory is that Matthew Darby wrote the list, or someone who loved Matthew Darby wrote the list and stuck his book on.  Either that or I am just too dumb to understand the point of Super Flat Times.

How to be a Good Wife, Emma Chapman

The only thing I remember about this book is that I bought it at an airport when I forgot the real book I was reading.  Thus, I’m assuming between my one star rating (a rarity for me) and my lack of memory that this is a book I wouldn’t recommend.  I don’t care enough to do more research.

Worst Audiobook:

Red Rising andGolden Son, by Pierce Brown

Funny that one of my favorite series to read this year was my least favorite to listen too.  I have to say that has never happened before.  Normally I can handle violent audiobooks.  I enjoyed the first three Game of Thrones books while on maternity leave and nursing my baby girl.  But then, I’d listen to a stock ticker if Roy Dotrice read it.  In the end, I think that was my problem with this audiobook.  It’s intense and I did not like the reader.  His accent didn’t match the voices the characters had in my head, and he didn’t differentiate between the different characters enough, so I got lost, after already reading the book.  The combination didn’t work for me at all.

Best Children’s Books:

Unicorn Crossing, by Dana Simpson

If you have a daughter, know a girl, were once a girl, or ever had an imaginary friend go read this book.  In fact, if you are a living breathing human being with a smidgen of a sense of humor, you should read this book.  Read the whole series.  It’s about Sophie and her unicorn, Marigold Heavenly Nostrils, and their adventures together.  It is amazing.  I love reading it out loud.  I dream that someday I can do the audiobooks for Dana Simpson.  I love doing all the voices, but I must say, my Marigold voice is perfect.  This is the fifth book in the series, so please read all five.  You’ll be a happier human if you do.

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street, by Karina Yan Glaser

This was such a sweet story.  It’s set at Christmastime, so I checked it out at the library thinking my daughter and I would read it together forgetting that we were in the middle of Harry Potter world.   So I read it myself.  It was a great story about the ingenuity of kids and how they can solve big problems in ways parents would never manage.  I can’t wait to read this with my kiddo next year.

Worst Children’s Book:

The Boxcar Children Series, by Gertrude Chandler Warner

I didn’t really have a worst children’s book this year.  I love children’s books, but this series just has a hard time being relevant.  Similar to The Vanderbeekers the Boxcar children have to overcome adversity using their own wits in the first book.  Then their rich grandfather finds them and things get a little weird.  Not to say that rich kids can’t solve problems, but the problems the author comes up for them in later books get a bit odd.  The last book we read the family spent the summer on a deserted island that wasn’t really deserted.  It was a stretch.  Read the first one, maybe the second one, then stop.

What were your favorite books of last year? I’m always looking for a new great read!

Afthead Reading Totals for 2017

On a whim last year I started keeping track of the books I read.  Fast forward to this year, and all my friends are telling me about their Goodreads goals for 2018.  Pshaw, I muse, that was so 2017.  Except I didn’t set a goal, I just counted books.  Also, I didn’t do it on Goodreads, which I feel bad about since Goodreads helps authors.  Oh, and Goodreads has been doing this for awhile, so I’m not actually starting any trends.  Therefore, in 2018 I realized I’m a backwards, behind the times book reading list keeper.  Huzzah.

However, before I dive into this new-fangled Reading Challenge, I still want to review what I read in 2017.  The list is easily discovered by clicking the “Reading” link above.

I read 83 books in 2017, and for a working mother going to graduate school, I think that is pretty darn impressive.  Now, you may disagree with my accounting, so let me break it down for you:

  • 38 books were read in my head just by me
  • 22 books were audiobooks
  • 23 books were read out loud to Afthead Junior  (my rule was they had to be chapter books which took more than a day to read)

However, if you look at the numbers above and think I read 38 grown-up books, or read/listened to 60 grown-up books, you would be wrong.  This Afthead loves children and young-adult chapter books herself.  Here’s my breakdown by age category:

  • 31 children’s books
  • 9 young-adult books
  • 43 adult books (16 listen/27 read)

Now, another funny tendency I have is to listen to books right after I read them.  I’m a fast reader and often miss out on details when I read in my head, so I turn around and listen.  Many times it becomes a different book to me.  For example, as much as I loved Pierce Brown’s Red Rising series, I could only listen to the first two.  The combination of a reader I didn’t love and violence I glossed over in my head made it a hard audiobook for me.  But I still counted both the reading and the listening as different “read” books.  The duplicates are:

Finally, not all of my reads were first time reads.  Not only do I listen to books I have read, but I also reread books – always have and always will.  I can’t tell you how many books became different stories when I read them at different times in my life.  The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver, stands out as the most changed story between readings for me.  As a mom, the message was much different to me than pre-kiddo, but I loved both versions of the story.   So books that were read in 2017 and also before 2017 are:

So, depending on how you count I read somewhere between 83 and 27 books this year.  However, this exercise was as much about reflecting on my annual reading as it was about counting.  Looking back, the year broke into a few themes:

I’ll cover those over the next few days.  Now, off to go finish my second book of 2018: Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, by Matthew J. Sullivan.  Have you read it?  So far it’s great!


If you want to follow along with me this year on Goodreads, I’m at http://goodreads.com/afthead, but I’m also keeping my good old blog list up to date too.

RIP Zombie Hamster

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It wouldn’t be the holidays around the Afthead house without a pet dying. Yesterday, when my husband was looking for things to do I suggested he check on Lula, the zombie hamster.  He disappeared into the basement and shortly returned shaking his head.

“She’s really dead this time?” I asked.

“Had been for awhile from the looks of her.”

And like the dope I am I burst out crying. She wasn’t my favorite pet, but death is sad.  We had a quick burial beside the dead-bunny-bush where Lula joined the baby bunny who died in our window well several years ago.  No words were said, because it was 20 degrees out, but her tiny body curled neatly into the hole I managed to spade out of the frozen ground.  She looked very Lula-esque as I sprinkled dirt on top of her.

The last time I knew she was alive was December 14th, because she tried to run around on her wheel while I was working at home:  the tumor on her hindquarters made movement difficult.  I gave her a slice of apple which she nuzzled on for a bit before drinking and heading back to her purple cave.  It was a nice final hamster human interaction.  (Yes, she could have been dead for two weeks in there, but I was dealing with a cancer scare at Christmas and couldn’t bring myself to check on her.)  The last time my daughter saw her was at our Christmas craft party where one of Afthead Junior’s friends suggested feeding Lula to her pet snake.  I can’t say that would have been a worse ending for Lula, but my daughter balked at a Lula death by snake swallowing.

This morning, I did a little research.  Lula’s life expectancy was 1.5 – 2 years.  By my calculations we had her almost 3.5 years.  So she lived an entire lifetime as a hamster, then another as a zombie hamster before the zombie-hamster-tumor took her agility, then her sight, and finally her life.

My last hope for Lula is that she and the bunny don’t start some mini Pet Sematary in my back yard.  I really hope she rests in peace back there.

My favorite Christmas Present? A Benign Biopsy

My new favorite word is benign.  Say it with me: benign.  It’s a little choppy and doesn’t really flow off the tongue;  there may be too many syllables for the length.  It wasn’t a word I’d given much thought before last week.  In fact, if you’d asked me before that, I would have said I liked the word malignant better.  It has a force to it, a weight, and a power that is scary as heck when it might be related to your own body.

Last Friday I was presented with that glorious word, benign.  All day I sat by the phone waiting for my biopsy results.  Before the biopsy, the mammography center had warned  that I might not hear the results until after Christmas, but the surgical center seemed certain that I’d hear on Friday.  My husband and I had discussed the uncertainty and decided that if the sample was cancerous we didn’t want to hear until after Christmas.  I rationalized that I could fake my way through the holiday not knowing, but would likely ruin everyone’s Christmas if I did know.  However, when I discussed my plan with the biopsy nurse practitioner and doctor they looked at me like I was crazy.  “I mean, I’ll have questions and I’ll need to know what the plan is if it isn’t benign.”  I told them.  They assured me that there would be a plan – nay a whole team ready – if the sample was not benign so I capitulated and agreed that they could call, which seemed to satisfy their need for procedure and protocol. (“Not benign” is such a stupid euphemism.)

My arms were deep in the sink, soaking my brother’s Christmas scarf for blocking when my daughter ran in, “Mom, your phone is ringing.”  I dripped while sprinting into the study and grabbed my phone.  Better to ruin my phone with soggy hands then miss this call.  They were going to tell me if the turtle ripped from my body was a good turtle or an evil turtle.

There is no situation that is beyond the absurd in my life.  While I was laying face down on a surgical table, my clamped and bleeding boob protruding through a hole, the doctor put up the image of the sample taken from my flesh.  It looked exactly like a turtle with a bulbous middle, a head, and four smaller blob appendages.  Of course, I shared my interpretation of this image with my medical team.  Appeasing me, they pointed out the lighter squiggles on one turtle foot.  That was the sample they wanted.  The worrying parts of the turtle were now outside of me ready to be analyzed and tested.

The call had no preamble before the nurse practitioner – the one who convinced me that I wanted to talk to her no matter what she was going to tell me – said, “I have good news for you.  Your sample is benign.”

That moment is clear in my head.  As unclear as the medical guidance given to me by my doctor during the biopsy procedure.  He was very kind, but the nurse assigned to me seemed hellbent to ensure any medical information provided was covered up by cheery banter.  She entered with the doctor and was “there for me” in some role perfectly clear to her.  At the moment the biopsy was about to happen the doctor said, “I’m going to take the sample now.  You might feel…” but whatever I might have felt was drowned out by the nurse screaming in my face, “WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE CHRISTMAS COOKIE?” I still don’t know what I was supposed to feel, but Nurse Rose knows I like sugar cookies the best.  Her question wasn’t a total non sequitur.  She’d drowned out the anesthetic information by asking me my plans for the day, which involved making Christmas cookies.

Sure, maybe making Christmas cookies they day you get a biopsy might seem a little strange, but that’s what happens when you get an irregular mammogram less than two weeks before Christmas.  My brother’s scarf was carried with me from waiting room to procedure room to waiting room the day of the biopsy, because I had knitting to finish before the holiday.  My potential cancer worries were all wrapped up with holiday concerns – pun intended.

The decision to have the mammogram right before Christmas was an odd one for me.  In a flash of uncharacteristic optimism I took the appointment offered because, after my first irregular mammogram in June, my doctor and I looked at the films together.  She’d assured me that the worrying spots had been on my mammogram in 2015, disappeared in 2016 and were back in 2017.  She said it was probably nothing, but cautioned me that I needed to go every 6 months, just in case.

At the time, the mammogram didn’t seem like it was “just in case,” but in hindsight the lady doing my mammogram got less and less chatty as she took more and more pictures.  Since this was my first followup appointment, I just figured she didn’t find my demeanor charming.  Or maybe she was also unsure how she was going to get everything done before Christmas.  When she asked me to sit in the waiting room I didn’t wonder, but when she asked me to come back into the bowels of the mammography center I got concerned.  She led me into a dimly lit room with faux leather chairs around a small conference table and I panicked.  The room looked exactly like the special room my vet has for euthanasia appointments.  When the radiologist arrived and didn’t bring me a warm blanket and a cocktail of life-ending drugs it was a relief, until he suggested a biopsy.

The warm blanket came right before they strapped my legs to the biopsy table and raised me into the air on the worst amusement park ride ever.  Nurse Rose did not find my amusement park ride jokes funny as the table made herkey jerks and my boob was smashed and smushed and poked.  I feel like being “there for me” should have involved laughing at my jokes.

The benign call ended awkwardly.  When asked if I had any questions I mentioned that I thought the incision was bleeding more than it should.  The nurse practitioner seemed taken aback, like the invitation for questions was rhetorical.  I was supposed to just hang up in a blaze of relief and joy.  When I told her that the bloody spot under my bandage was much bigger than a dime or nickel she said, “Well, if it’s still a problem on Tuesday give us a call” then said goodbye.  My Christmas cancer worry was replaced by a smaller bleeding-out worry.  Nothing I couldn’t fake my way through, but enough to make me drift off to sleep with images of bloody wounds dancing in my head.  (Spoiler alert, I haven’t bled out yet.)

When people ask me what I got for Christmas this year I go blank.  I got benign, but almost everyone doesn’t know I had a biopsy.  A few friends and family members along with an astute coworker who caught me at a bad time know, but I didn’t tell anyone else.   When was the right time?  During the band concert?  The school holiday party?  During our work calendar exchange?  At my friend’s dad’s funeral?  Had the ending been different I would have had to tell, but now I’m just awkwardly hugging on one side and randomly asking people to carry heavy things for me.

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Along with my constant appreciation of the absurd are my rose colored glasses.  Even after my Magic 8 Ball told me I didn’t have cancer (this was before the actual diagnosis) I couldn’t help planning for the worst.  The silver lining of the cancer scare was my evaluation of the things I was afraid of losing:  my family, my friends, my book, my stories and – surprising to me – my Master’s degree.  In the week between mammogram and biopsy I planned how to transition my work role to others, write my book at chemo so my mom could read it, and make countless videos and knit objects for my kid to remember me by.  (Because a box of hand-knits is almost the same as having a mom, right?)  I also hoped I would feel well enough during treatment to go to school.  It’s interesting the things that rise to important when you are considering th….

“WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE CHRISTMAS COOKIE?!?!?!”

Now when things start to get serious around here, you’ll understand why I’m screaming cookie gibberish.  My surgical pamphlet tells me that one in eight women develop breast cancer and four in five biopsies like mine end up benign.  That means many women are having these procedures and it’s all okay, but for each four of me, one other woman is dealing with all the fears I had the past two weeks.  If you find yourself in this same uncomfortable situation, my hope is that your turtles turn out benign and your warm blankets just make your uncomfortable amusement park ride a little bit more pleasant.

Christmas Tardis Scarf

My brother is a Doctor Who nerd. Now before you tell me about other people you know who won’t stop talking about the new Doctor this season, let me assure you, he is a nerd of a higher level. Before he was 40 he was on a panel at some sci-fi convention speaking as an expert on early Doctor Who. He’s been watching since William Hartnell (the first Doctor) and Tom Baker (the fourth Doctor) were PBS regulars at our house along with Sesame Street and 3-2-1 Contact.  He has obtained his 10,000 Doctor Who hours several times over.

So when Jimmy Beans Wool and Lorna’s Laces released their limited edition Police Box yarn in March I started planning. I looked for patterns that looked like the Tardis–the magical police box in which Doctor Who travels the galaxy–and settled on the Blocks and Squares Scarf by Tetiana Otruta:  a modified basket weave pattern with a nice border to keep the scarf from curling.  To me, the pattern looked like the rectangles on the side of the Tardis.

My plan ready, I started knitting with the anticipation that the scarf would be done for my brother’s birthday in November.  However, scarf knitting always takes me longer than I expect. The monotony gets to me.  I missed his birthday so had to get my knitting mojo going for a Christmas delivery date.  By December 22nd, I had the final garment finished and ready to block.

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When knitting, I often miss the forest for the trees, so I was shocked when the blocked scarf revealed an unexpected cosmic sinusoidal wave. This miraculous pattern is enhanced by the fact that I joined two skeins of yarn mid-scarf, and as far as I can tell I accidentally did it perfectly.  It’s not the multicolored scarf that was Tom Baker’s trademark, but the scarf feels very Doctor Who and  “wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey”ish.

The scarf was further improved by the addition of a tiny Tardis charm, a stitch marker, also purchased from Jimmy Beans Wool, which was released the same time as the yarn.  It’s subtle, yet ensures that the careful observer knows this is a scarf for a time traveler aficionado.

Now, I have never knit a present for my brother, so this whole enterprise had me a bit worried.  I assumed he would love the gift, but his knit-worthiness had yet to be tested.  So after taking a few artistic shots of his present on our fence that needs painting, I carefully wrapped the gift.

To ensure he understood the full meaning of his present, I wrapped the two yarn sleeves around the scarf, proudly displaying the “Police Box” name along with the tiny silver police box charm.

Christmas day I anxiously watched him open the gift.  He studied it for a bit before I started blabbering: telling him about the yarn and the charm and the pattern I picked.  He unwrapped the scarf and put it around his neck.  “It looks so nice,” he said, “I thought it was commercially made.  Do you mind if I show it to some of my Doctor Who friends online?  They are going to be jealous.”

Such magical words to a knitters ear.  Of course he could share it.  Then he asked me how to wash it and didn’t flinch when I said it should really be hand washed.  All early indications lead me to believe that this won’t be my brother’s last hand knit present.  Which is good, because I may have picked up a few skeins of Bigger on the Inside this spring too.  Time to start planning for next year’s knitting gifts.

Here’s hoping all your holiday knitting was loved and cherished.


Knitting Details

Pattern: Blocks and Squares Scarf by Tetiana Otruta

Yarn: Lorna’s Laces Police Box from Jimmy Beans Wool

Ravelry Link: https://www.ravelry.com/projects/afthead/blocks–squares-scarf