Sunday, November 23, 2014

Fire's Catching: A Look at Mockingjay in the First Person Present

This week at the Unwriter’s Blog, we’re going to discuss a hot topic of writing. But to do so, we need to first take a trip to District 13, where Katniss Everdeen has learned of a rescue mission.

“Finnick and I try to station ourselves in Command, where surely first word of the rescue will come, but we are barred because serious war business is being carried out. We refuse to leave Special Defense and end up waiting in the hummingbird room for news” (174).

This weekend, the long awaited penultimate installment of the Hunger Games films opened: Mockingjay—Part 1! I’ve been looking forward to seeing this movie for as long as everyone else, and it was everything I could have hoped for!

I’ve been a longtime fan of both the books and the movies, and especially so since the books are written in the first person present point of view. This means the story is told from Katniss’s point of view as she’s living through the story. Any action scene or event that we readers get to see, we see through Katniss’s eyes. And this choice—the author, Suzanne Collins’s choice—to tell this story through Katniss’s eyes only, presents quite the conundrum in this month’s blockbuster film.
You see, in one pivotal chapter of the series’ third book (Spoiler alert!), Katniss sits in District 13, awaiting word that a rescue mission to free Peeta and the other victors held captive in the Capitol has returned successfully.

 “Making knots. Making knots. No word. Making knots. Tick-tock. This is a clock. Do not think of Gale. Do not think of Peeta. Making knots. We do not want dinner. Fingers raw and bleeding. Finnick finally gives up and assumes the hunched position he took in the arena when the jabberjays attacked. I perfect my miniature noose. The words of ‘The Hanging Tree’ replay in my head. Gale and Peeta. Peeta and Gale.”

The book, staying true to the first person point of view, keeps us with Katniss as we watch her anxiety build, as she tries to distract herself, waiting for the mission’s return. The movie, however, shows this scene in action since it’s such a wonderful opportunity to create tension for the climax of the movie—not to mention to use a bunch of special effects. So how did they pull it off, knowing that it wasn’t told in the book?

Simple. Katniss watches.

We need to perceive this story through her eyes, so the only way to show the scene in all its Hollywood glory, is to let Katniss watch it unfold as well. It’s how Hollywood adapts point of view to the big screen.

But it begs the question of the importance of point of view. My initial interest in seeing the Hunger Games movies (beyond being a total fangirl), was to see how they were going to present the story through Katniss’s eyes. For example, in the first movie, there’s an excellent scene where Katniss is stung by tracker jackers, a vicious wasp-like creature whose venom create frightening hallucinations in those who are stung. The movie does an excellent job of staying in Katniss’s point of view by warping the cinematography to show what her blurred and delusional vision must look like. It’s a beautiful expression of first person on screen. But movies don’t normally have the limitation of one point of view, so they get to jump around whenever they like. They can show the hero training and then jump over to the villain’s lair to see them plot their attack. By keeping the protagonist in the dark, viewers feel tension and suspense. But when a story is told in first person, we never get the opportunity to see the villain, or any other subplot, play out. To make sure they had their final action scene, Mockingjay’s screenwriter’s had to bring Katniss into the room so we could keep the story in her point of view.

It makes perfect sense for Mockingjay—Part 1 to bring Katniss into the scene to watch the rescue mission. But it wasn’t in the book. And it wasn’t in the book for a reason. What, then, does that tell us about telling a story in first person?

In short, it means that Collins wants us to love Katniss more than any other character. It means that despite the temptation to write the scenes we love to write—action scenes—this is still Katniss’s story, and our job is to watch Katniss live through it. It becomes more important to watch Katniss become anxious and stressed than to break away from her eyes and see the rescue mission. It becomes more important to watch her distract herself. Find out what she’s willing to do on her end to ensure the rescue is a success. It becomes more important to feel Katniss’s emotions with her, than to feel Gale’s conflict, Bogg’s determination, and Peeta’s gratitude. It ensures that we know that Katniss is the center of the story.

Collins is willing to sacrifice the thrill of the rescue to secure Katniss’s place in our minds. She’s willing to give up the chance to show emotions from other characters or a chance to see what the Capitol currently looks like. Because Katniss can’t know. She can’t know what’s happening in the Capitol or what Gale is really thinking.

We want to know. Anyone who swoons over Gale or has fallen in love with Peeta wants to be there, rescuing him. But Collins won’t let us. She’s willing to upset us to keep the integrity of her story alive. She’s willing to let Katniss look whiny, selfish even, to protect her story.

As writers we need to embrace this same commitment to our story. We all have complicated stories to tell. We all know the backstories, the side stories, the subplots. We all have opportunities to show parts of our story that would be really exciting. But the question to ask ourselves is—is it necessary? Is the scene vital to our story? Or is sticking with our character more important? What are we willing to sacrifice to keep our story focused?

The answer to that question must trump any desire you have to show off those scenes that might taste delicious, but add only empty calories to your novel.  

“It must be midnight, it must be tomorrow when Haymitch pushes open the door. ‘They’re back...’” (175).

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Boomer Sooner to All!

‘Twas the night before Texas, and all through the state
Not a student was stirring, not any roommate
The buses were parked at Lloyd Noble with care,
Prepared for the team, who would soon be there.

The players were nestled all snug in their seats
While burgers of Bevo were all they could eat
And Bell in his jersey, and Ross with his grip
Had just settled in for long road trip

When out on the field there arose such a clatter,
Stoops sprang from his chair to see what was the matter.
Away to the press box he flew like a kite,
Turned on the big lights to check on the site

The lights on the breast of the new-painted grass
Gave the luster of mid-day to those who would pass
When, what to his wandering eyes would appear,
But a horse-drawn schooner, with two pony dears

With a little old driver, so lively and marry
He knew in a moment it must be Barry
More determined than soldiers, his faithful they came,
He whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!

“Now Perine! Now Shepard! Now Williams and Hayes
On, Nelson! On, Sanchez! On Striker and Clay!
Down I-35 quickly! Straight into Fair Park!
Now touchdown! And field goal! Before it gets dark!

And then, with a bell, Stoops heard from behind
The sounds of his Sooners, like God’s mankind
“There’s a team in Oklahoma, Norman to be exact
Where champions are bred, with the records to back.

“We swear our allegiance to the crimson and cream,
and lay down our efforts to honor this team.
We stand in the shadows of champions past,
And guard every inch of this hallowed grass.”

Stoops bowed down his head, to his team gave a nod,
And knew it was time to win on that sod.
Down to Dallas he’d go, to fight the Longhorns
And to take on Charles Strong, who'd lose all and mourn.

With a first down, a blitz, a touchdown and all,
Stoops watched his team gain winning points for that Fall.
Strong cried his way out, Stoops had won that grand fight. 
"Boomer Sooner to all, and to all a good night!"

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Big Bang Theory of Friends

Tonight is the season premier of The Big Bang Theory. And therefore the return of my favorite sitcom, Friends.

If you grew up with Friends, then it's no doubt you still find reasons to quote it throughout the day. Sadly, Friends ended ten years ago. But don't fret--because it's made a secret comeback, and you've been enjoying it every week on CBS.

Friends has come back as The Big Bang Theory, and here's the proof*:

1. The Cheeto.

PennyCheeto on Make A Gif
"Penny, you've got Cheetos in your hair."

Joey Cheeto on Make A Gif
"You got a Cheeto on your face, man."

2. Giving up your beliefs.

PsychicLeonard on Make A Gif
"Okay, let's go see your psychic."

RossEvolution on Make A Gif
"There might be...a teeny...tiny...possibility..."

3. Giving birth and kidney stones.

BabyKidney on Make A Gif
"I never told you about my brother's kidney stone. Do you want to hear everything that comes out of my family's genitals?"

"Kidney stones!"

4. Vegas.

PennyVegas on Make A Gif
"We had one of those silly, fake weddings."

"What's the big deal, y'know? It's not like it's a real marriage... If you get married in Vegas, you're only married in Vegas."

5. The throw-down.

(Couldn't find a gif for this one, so, enjoy the script!):

Leonard: Hey, pal. You didn’t see me telling Kevin that you thought cold wars were only fought in winter.
Penny: Okay. Then I’ll return the favour, and I won’t tell…
Laura: Laura.
Penny: Laura that half the dirty movies you own are animated.
Leonard: When you were telling Kevin about your acting career, did you mention your long-running role as "Waitress" in a local production of The Cheesecake Factory?
Penny: Did you tell her about your lucky asthma inhaler?
Leonard: Oh, yeah? Spell asthma.
Penny: A… S… Take me home.
Leonard: Maybe I’m not done hanging out with… (Laura has gone) You’re right, it’s getting late.

                                     RossJoeyKristan on Make A Gif
Joey: "Where do you think we lost her?" 
Ross: "Probably around Gonorrhea."

6. Rock, Paper, Scissor.

RockPaperSpock on Make A Gif
"Rock, paper, scissors, lizard, Spock!"

FireWaterballoon on Make A Gif
Joey: "Fire, it beats everything."
Phoebe: "Oh yeah, does it beat water balloon?"

7. The messy apartment.

PennyMess on Make A Gif
"This is chaos!"

                                       RossMessy on Make A Gif

8. Glue.

(Again, couldn't find the gif):

Ross (to Monica): "You can't go. You're the glue that holds this group together."

Sheldon (to Amy): They can't function without me. I'm the social glue that holds this little group together.

9. The weird beauty skill.

PennyFeet on Make A Gif
"See? With the grain."

                                       Eyebrows on Make A Gif
"Aaaaand, done."


10. Quiet down

PennyQuiet on Make A Gif
"Fellas, please..."

                                    RossQuiet on Make A Gif
"Uhh, fellas..."

Now, can someone tell me how to get this on Buzzfeed?

*It took me HOURS to find and create all these gifs. So, make sure you leave me a comment complimenting my skillz.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Space Between Two Words

I grew up going to a summer camp that focuses much of its daily energy on the character development and leadership skills of its campers. This camp taught me not only to climb trees, shoot guns, and right a capsized boat but also to overcome even the most grueling challenges—physical, mental, and emotional. For as much as my time as both a camper and a counselor shaped who I have grown to be, bulking up my weaker muscles and ironing out the messier wrinkles, over time there is one such lesson that has had a more profound effect on my professional life than I ever expected.

That is the lesson on creativity.

There are two kinds of people in my family: those who go to museums and those who meet at the café afterward. While my grandparents, my mom, my aunt, and my brother innately understand traditional art, my dad and I just don’t get it. We’re math people. Logic people. Football people. We say, “Have a nice time. We’ll wait in the car.”

So, naturally, I grew up understanding that I was just not a creative person. I off loaded all creative responsibilities to my more creative friends and family members, even having my mother create a gift for a friend in my place because I knew I wasn't creative enough to accomplish it. I told myself I was acknowledging my own limitations and seeking solutions from those with the talents I needed. This kind of attitude was golden in job interviews, and, I believe, landed me my first, and favorite, job.

I realized my lack of creative talent was a problem on my second day. As part of my on-boarding to the publishing house I had recently joined, I was to attend a brainstorming meeting in which we would create new titles for the books we published.  I distinctly remember the thoughts that followed me from my desk to that conference room. Uh oh. I’m not creative. This is not going to go well, and I’ll probably get fired. By the time I sat down, my brain came to my defense by acknowledging that it was my first time, and I could probably get by with “just observing for now.”

But after months and months of listening to so many good ideas and hearing my own measly ideas shot down on the few occasions I spoke up, I grew increasingly fearful.

What if I’m not creative enough for this job?

What if they notice?

Surely they've already noticed.

I’m such a fraud.

Of all the ways college tries to prepare you for the real world, it was camp that had prepared me for this kind of battle. Self-esteem is hard to come by in a text book, but out in the woods you learn how to pick yourself back up, keep you head held high, and remind yourself of the reason you are not a fraud and happen to be doing okay. Not great, I conceded,—but okay. After all, they hadn't fired me yet.

It was during the losing third quarter of this mental game that I made a pilgrimage back to camp to visit for a night and attend a Sunday evening council fire—where campers are recognized for their achievements and receive a sermon-esc lesson discussing a chosen quality that they are to practice in the coming week. That night, we learned about creativity.

Creativity, apparently, was a quality that everyone could express. As I began to hear myself chant those familiar words—I’m not creative—in the back of my head, I asked myself to be quiet for a moment and listen to the speaker. She spoke of our God-given ability to be creative and that each of us had the intelligence and the skill to create ideas. And this is where I interrupt this story to make a very important point. You see, she did not say create “good” ideas. Or create “award-winning” ideas. Or create “client-approving, you-get-a-raise-for-your-brilliance” ideas. There was no adjective between the verb and noun. Only the space it takes to get from the end of one word to the beginning of the next. And that’s when my perspective on creativity shifted so suddenly, so profoundly, that I attribute my entire professional success to that very small space between “create” and “ideas.”

You see, she took me back to the denotation of the word “create.” She stripped it of its cultural connotations about positive adjective associations. Of its inherent talent to socialize with only the artistic few. Of its fleeting and mostly disappointing presence in my life. This is when I remembered that before it conjured images of Van Gogh and modern dance, it fueled Henry Ford’s assembly line. The art of creating has been ongoing for centuries—millenniums—since the beginning of time, really. Whether through divine forces or scientific bangs, creation just happens. It does not require adjectives of color, line, form, or praise. It is a verb void of prerequisites.

It denotes, in it’s most natural form, the creation not of only good ideas, but ideas.

Suddenly the sound of creativity did not include only colorful birds chirping during an afternoon of painting in a whimsical garden of poetry and genius. Now, it even sounded like wheels, grinding along a conveyor belt with nuts and bolts, churning out materials in a sweltering factory. It sounded like number two pencils scrawling digits across an evenly-lined notepad. Like the sizzle of oil in a pan while a chicken fried itself into dinner.

I returned my thoughts back to that sermon, and felt a fire ignite in my chest. Suddenly, I was creative. I looked around and noticed creativity in everything. I created thoughts with my mind. I created dinner with the food in my pantry. I created jokes during conversations. I created plot twists for my authors.  Dare I say I had been creative this whole time?

I decided then and there that I would no longer dismiss my ability to be creative—seeing it as a natural talent that my mathematical-side of the family had left me lacking—but would embrace it even in it’s smallest presence in my life. Yes, I would now practice it as if it were a skill to master—like calculus.

It’s been three years since this revelation and in that time I've spent many more days walking from my desk to a conference room to brainstorm with my coworkers. But now, the thoughts that carry me down the hall include, Let’s see what we can come up with. Let’s generate at least 3 (adjective-less) ideas in the course of this session. Let’s keep practicing creativity. Every now and then, the younger version of me will groan at the thought of having to interrupt my busy day for another brainstorming session and that old, familiar—though quieter—chant will begin, I’m not creative. But now, in its wake the older me pipes up, dismissing my past self, giggling at the notion that I could even have the choice to not be creative. After all, even the thought “I’m not creative” had to be created. 

I find myself now enjoying creativity more than I ever thought I would. I hear people describe my writing career as “so creative” even though I've always thought of it like math with words. I've found myself sought out for brainstorming sessions due to my creativity.  I even take on projects that require “someone creative” because I know that that person is me, and I look forward to the opportunity to challenge myself into earning the adjective “good” in front of my ideas.

It takes only one thought, only one shift, that tiny space between one word and the next to turn the impossible into the possible. To sit on a log bench and hear your biggest weakness described not as a talent you cannot attain, but instead as a definition you’re already defining. To find yourself lost in a career that requires creativity far beyond your talents and to realize that you can and will master it as a skill. Because despite your own objections, creativity is just a word with a definition—needing no adjective to exist. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

5 Weird Beauty Tips I Learned From My Dad

Dad's are funny creatures. If yours is anything like mine, your childhood was filled with weekend house projects, boring golf lectures, and endless tie shopping. Dad's are annoying, funny, awkward, and lame. They do ridiculous things like tell racist jokes in front of your new Hispanic friend or use the term "partner" without realizing it's connotation has evolved. But they also do good things like change your break pads and promise to buy you a Porsche when they strike gold.

Sometimes, they even provide beauty tips.

I realized far too late into my adolescence that I didn't grow up like most girls. I didn't practice putting on makeup, doing my hair, or accessorizing my outfits. I had no regular shopping trips, and I wore cloths from The Limited Too for a few too many years. While some girls were reading Seventeen, I was reading the fifth Harry Potter. Again. To this day, I'm still pretty bad at doing makeup, I'm too lazy to do my hair, and I'm just now updating my high school wardrobe.

Despite these girly set backs, I did end up learning a few valuable beauty tips from my dad. And not on purpose.

1. Leave in conditioner
Did you know that if you leave a little conditioner in your hair rather than rinsing it completely out in the shower you could end up with silky, smooth hair? I didn't. Not until my dad mentioned that the reason our Golden Retriever was so soft was because he didn't rinse the conditioner out of his fur during baths. That's right, my dog had better hair than me for years until I heard this little gem! (Let's face it, he still has better hair than me and is most definitely the prettiest member of my family.)

"Don't hate me because I'm beautiful." --Dave, the dog

2. Stop touching to stop breakouts
The best way to stop breakouts and reduce acne is to stop touching your face. Every time you itch your cheek, pick a pimple, or wipe sweat with your hands, you're transferring God-knows-what from your fingers to your face. I didn't have a Pro-Active worthy face of acne as a teen, but I broke out often enough that it was a little annoying. My dad mentioned that he stopped breaking out after he learned to stop touching his face so often. I'm unlucky to take after his pale, burnable skin instead of my mother's dark Floridian tan, so I listened up. Now-a-days, when I'm deep into editing and I find myself resting my chin in the palm of my hand, I try to remember to move my hands into my lap so my fingers can't brush my chin and cause awkward adult breakouts.

3. Suck it in and stand up straight
One time, my dad called me fat. I was about eleven years old and standing in the family room with him. He told me I needed to suck in my tummy so I wouldn't look fat. Now before you call Child Protective Services, realize with me that he really meant I needed to stand up straight. I was slouching, with my back arched so that it curved in severely and pushed my abdomen out. From the side I looked like the letter S (the second person from the left in the photo below). If I would stand up straight, with my pelvis squared and my hips tucked under, my tummy would align appropriately, and I'd look more like the letter I (the middle person). Think about how a dancer stands with her core contracted and her hips aligned with her shoulders. This advice would come in handy, particularly when I was posing for photos in my future prom dresses. Hips squared, tummy in, shoulders back. Ultimately, better posture. Which brings me to...

Standing up straight can instantly slim you!.
4. Dress your figure, not the outfit
Looking good in a prom dress is not about the accessories, fabric, or bling. It's about choosing a dress that curves in all the same places your body curves. Watch enough Miss America formal wear contests with my dad, and you'll learn all about which dresses look good and which do not. You better bet he'll be helping me pick out my wedding dress someday.

Nope, not workin' for ya.

5. Anti-aging cream
I recently had a conversation with a friend who was shocked to hear how old my dad is. He doesn't look his age; he looks ten, maybe twenty, years younger. He is active and healthy and capable of doing the physical activities he is interested in: walking, biking, golfing, and playing with the dog (see above). His anti-aging secret has to do with his philosophical beliefs of what it means to age. He doesn't accept traditional limitations of a body's capabilities due to it's age. In fact, he doesn't celebrate his birthday because the number is not important. So while lots of people run around looking for creams, injections, or surgeries to reverse the effects of aging, he doesn't accept the concept of aging at all. It's a beauty tip more valuable than all the others--although, I'm not sure I'm quite ready to give up my birthday cake.

Don't be weird.

And there you have it. What beauty tips did you learn from your dad? Who's the prettiest member of your family?

My dad and Dave the dog. Best buds.

Friday, May 16, 2014

This is Where I Leave You: A Reivew

Much to my amazement, I found time to read another book. As an editor and writer, reading is part of my job description, so when I haven't read anything new in a while, I start to look guilty, flinching at the sight of book stores and looking over my shoulder for the writing gods to strike me down.

It's a tough life.

Luckily, it's not as tough as the life I was reading about in said book. Nor is it as funny. This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper has to be the funniest sad book I've ever read. 

In my last book review, I mentioned that my favorite genre was autobiography/memoir. While this wasn't a true memoir, it was written as such. That is, the characters were fictional, but the protagonist was writing his story.

And it may have just moved into first place as My Favorite Book.

You see, I like minimalist writing. Witty humor. Inside jokes between the author and the reader. And this book was full of them. Like this little gem:

"The grave digger looks like Santa Clause, and I don't believe for a minute he doesn't know it. With his long white beard and stout build, he has to know the effect of wearing a red and white anorak and how inappropriate the whole getup looks in the Mount Zion Cemetery. When you spend your days putting corpses in the ground, I guess you have to find the fun where you can. But this morning, as we bury my father in a teeming downpour, Saint Nick is all business, even as his ridiculous raincoat makes him stand out like a bloodstain against a sky the color of a dead tooth."

A dead tooth. Have you ever heard such a perfect description of the sky so beautifully built around context and imagery?

Judd Foxman, our protagonist, returns to his homestead along with his three fiery siblings to sit shiva after his father's death. He's recently separated from his wife, who he found in bed with his boss, so he's left to survive the mounds of Jewish women looking to set him up with their daughters/nieces/cousins. Throughout the course of the seven-day shiva, Judd reflects on how his marriage fell apart, how his family fell apart, and how his life will ever be put back together. He's a regular Humpty Dumpty. He reunites with an old fling, fights with more than one sibling, and even uncovers a secret about his mother that rattles his whole concept of marriage.

But despite the horrific sadness of the whole situation, Tropper is able to write with perfectly dry humor so that you find yourself laughing instead of crying. Take Phillip, for example, Judd's youngest brother. The black sheep of the family, not only as the baby of the siblings, but also as the only one willing to express emotion in a house full of stone faced Jews.

“Phillip is the Paul McCartney of our family: better-looking than the rest of us, always facing a different direction in pictures, and occasionally rumored to be dead.”

Or this little remark on lustfull love:

“And even if you didn't fall in love in the eighties, in your mind it will feel like the eighties, all innocent and airbrushed, with bright colors and shoulder pads and Pat Benetar or the Cure on the soundtrack.” 

But he also balances the line between perfect sensitivity and bluntness with pieces of wisdom such as:

“You have to look at what you have right in front of you, at what it could be, and stop measuring it against what you've lost. I know this to be wise and true, just as I know that pretty much no one can do it.” 

This novel is written right up my ally. Tropper's writing style hits home with me as he describes in plain, colorful English the exact struggles of Judd and his family, friends, and life. He uses vibrant characters and sets them in the worst of events, letting their stubborn, silent, and violent personalities push the rhythm of the story forward, forward, forward.

If you're looking for a quick read about love and death that won't make you cry, check this one out. You won't be sorry. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Tri-Delts and Homework, A Review of Wild by Cheryl Stryed

In my senior year of college, I took an Honors course called Autobiography in America, run by a woman whose first order of business was to banish all Tri-Delts from class, due to their house's recent outbreak of the Swine Flu. I later learned that she was a (probably) lesbian Catholic who had come from Yale and was hesitant to take this job in Oklahoma because she wasn't confident she'd find anyone down here to date. I guess she must have found someone because on that first day of class she begged the nine of us sitting around the rectangular tables not to drop the class because she couldn't afford not to have this hour filled. She bribed us into staying by abolishing all papers and told us we could end the semester with a book report of our choice. I hadn't had any plans of dropping the course since it was one of the last I needed to graduate, but this lesson in negotiation by silence was priceless, and I thoroughly enjoyed getting out of what surely would have been torturous paper-writing for my hardest class thus far.

That's all in an effort to explain how this class happened to become my favorite and most memorable course in my college career. Without the dreaded papers looming over my head, I was free to read each book and present my opinions and thoughts without fearing for my GPA. Therefore, I read, week after week after week, the thirteen autobiographies that opened my eyes to a new genre of literature--or really, to a new way of getting to know a person. Reading the words that each author chose to share with me helped me decipher what from their life was most important to them versus what their Wikipedia article might say. If only all classes came without homework and Tri-Delts!

And so it's from this background that I present my review of this year's book-to-movie memoir: Wild by Cheryl Strayed:

I began this book on the flight home from my spring vacation. Despite my lack of sleep the night before, I was unable to nap. The flight attendants didn't force me to power down my electronic devices, so I pulled up my iPad and shuffled through the stack of books I'd downloaded for this trip. Sadly, I had breezed through a fun chick flick novel on the previous flights, so I was now left with the heartier novels to choose from.

I started reading Wild because it was about a twenty-six-year-old woman hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Being twenty-six myself and identifying as a somewhat outdoorsy type, I thought maybe this woman and I were alike.

But after the first chapter I realized, no. We were not alike at all.

I hadn't cheated on my husband.
I hadn't slept with random strangers.
I hadn't spent long summer nights shooting heroin.
And I hadn't considered a three-month hiking trip after my mother didn't die.

But I did have two more hours of my flight, so I kept reading.

Cheryl, the protagonist, is young, married, and finishing up college when her mother dies of cancer. It is because she both loves and hates her mother that her sudden death breaks Cheryl's heart. She sets out on the trail four years later after divorcing her husband, meeting various other hikers, rattlesnakes, and a lot of physical pain.

I liked the book. In short, because the writing was good and the plot was obvious. I knew she wouldn't die in the end, I knew she'd reach some sort of peaceful mindset, and I knew she'd end up happily ever after. I like to know where my books are going.

What I did not like about the book was her. In a strange, hypocritical way, I was angry at her the whole time for not being as like me as I had initially hoped she'd be. I was also mad that she didn't break in her boots, her pack, or her gear. WHO DOES THAT? There is also a traumatic scene about a horse which left me weeping--yes weeping--in the kitchen while waiting for my dinner to cook. And I don't even really like horses. I hugged my dog for five straight minutes after that. I think he was mad at her, too. It was too hot in the house for hugging.

Her writing style is quite nice though. It's that contemplative, self-reflective, I-can-come-up-with-pretty-phrases-like,

"Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves
"Alone had always felt like an actual place to me, as if it weren't a state of being, but rather a room where I could retreat to be who I really was." 

But it was also funny--she calls out REI and Snapple and other brand names without worrying about the labels dating her text--and reacts to animals exactly how I would ("BEAR! BEAR! BEAR!"--it was a fox.). She also flutters from being slightly paranoid about serial killers to being "not afraid." I, too, am more worried about psycho killers than bears when I'm in the woods. 

So, I guess we kinda are alike.

She followed the hero's journey fairly well. Although without sidekicks she's left with fewer characters to develop. We come to understand that her new best friend becomes Monster, the overweight pack she carries, and we hear more about Monster than we do about any other human she comes into contact with. 

As a memoir, it serves it's purpose well. Though she includes flashbacks and memories and even a taste of the future, she sticks to one, significant time period to relive. She doesn't tell too much, doesn't drag out the physical injuries she suffers, men she meets, or food she eats. Yet I was acutely aware of those parts throughout each chapter, whether they were there or not. Just like the blisters on her feet, I knew that despite her mishaps and good luck, she was always thinking about the emotional baggage she'd come to shed.

Autobiographies and memoirs, though they are technically very different, both teach us about people from their own perspectives. What I learned from Cheryl was that Cheryl needed the vastness and isolation of the wilderness to reboot her life. And she knew that going into her journey. So often, we hear about the hero's life lessons being learned as a happy side effect of their journey. Not often does a heroine plow through a journey on purpose. Most of the time, if a character's goal is one thing, her result is another. I was both surprised and pleased that Cheryl accomplished what she'd hoped. Her insistence on finding peace didn't negate her ability to let the trail find it for her. I guess the trail is going to do it's job whether you ask it to or not. And Cheryl asked. And Cheryl received.

If you're looking for a thoughtful and well-written memoir, take a peek through Wild. If nothing else, you'll hear about an epic trail that you may just add to your bucket list. 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Movin' On Up! Adding Promotions To Your Resume

Congratulations! Great Work! Way to go! You did it!

Promotions are awesome. More money, more respect, and more time telling other people what to do.

But now you're bored, or you're moving, or you've reached the top, and it's time to find a new company to take over.

We all know resumes aren't supposed to be as long as a LOTR movie, so how do you include all those fancy promotions without drowning your resume in word goo?

Here are 3 solutions to show off your promotions:

1. Adding a bullet point to your current job description.
If you have been with the same company for a long time, and your promotions happened early on, you can add them as the final bullet point to your current job's description. This is a great option if you've held your promoted position for a long time (like, years-ish) and your entry positions aren't very relevant to your current search. Think a restaurant manager who's overseen her team for ten years, but started as a host and/or server for a year before being made manager. 
For example:
             A Really Good Restaurant
                    Restaurant Manager, 1999-present
                       -Manage team of 8 servers
                       -Report daily earnings through proper data entry
                       -Interact with guests to ensure proper guest satisfaction
                       -Previous positions included Server (Aug. '98 - Mar. '99) and Host (Jun. '98 - Aug '98)

2. Listing promotions at the top of your job description.
If your promoted job is fairly similar, or is a derivative of your entry job, list it under your current job's title. This is a great option for someone who's working his way up the food chain in an office. 
For example:
           Big Corporate Office
                   Executive Assistant, 2011-present
                        Past: Administrative Assistant (2008-2011)
                                 Receptionist (2007-2008)
                        -Coordinate executives' schedules and manage appointments
                        -Arrange travel including flights, hotel, and car services
                        -Great guests and maintain a comfortable waiting room
3. Including job descriptions for each new promotion
If you took on new responsibilities with each promotion, be sure to highlight those new responsibilities in your bullet points. This option works well for someone who is working her way up the food chain, but is also taking on new duties with each promotion. 
For example:
            The Sales Company
                     Account Manager, 2009-present
                        -Track all incoming orders for new and established customers
                        -Provide sales training for team of 10 sales associates
                        -Travel to visit retail customers and ensure satisfaction
                   Assistant Account Manager, 2007-2009
                       -Maintain inventory of customer database
                       -Make sales calls for pre-established customers
                       -Follow up with customers on sales
                  Sales Associate, 2004-2007
                       -Cold call local and national retailers to gain new customers
                       -Provide sales pitch during sales meetings
                       -Track potential customers using company wide database

And there you have it. Depending on your situation and the format of your resume, choose the option that works best for you. Highlight your skills in your job descriptions and make it clear that you were promoted because of your talents. Be sure to mention your promotions in your cover letter to explain thoroughly why you're such a catch. 

Now go get you that next big job. You've earned it!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

What!? 5 Ways To Communicate Like A Pro.

Most of my friends are in their twenties and are enjoying the bliss of settling into careers. Steady paychecks, double monitors, and office parties have become the norm now, and as much as we love our professions, there's always SOMEONE who's able to ruin the day.

Most of the time, they do this through bad communication. Maybe they've forgotten to include you in a project email, or they've written an email to a client that gets your butts whipped.

Either way, being a great communicator is hard for a lot of people. Luckily, learning how to get better isn't that difficult, and many times, there's a simple formula to it! Here's a list of 5 ways to improve your communication and be the best coworker ever.

1. Don't abbreviate! 
When writing an email to a client, it's important that you use full words for everything. Even if the abbreviation is well-known (such as "EOD"--end of day), spell it out. You never know who will be reading the email and if they're up to speed. Do not make up new abbreviations without explaining them. I spent nearly 3 months on a project figuring out an abbreviation that someone had created. It wasn't until the very end that we finally figured out what it was.
        Ex: Chose the best answer:
              "Let's get started on the OST before Monday, so we don't get behind."
                A) OST = on-screen text
                B) OST = opportunity-scheduled transition
                C) OST = outbound sectional transportation
                D) OST = one sound transition  
Wrong. You're all wrong. The correct answer is E) Organ slicer technologies. Duh.

2. Always ask a question if you are confused. 
You could spend weeks BS-ing your way through a project, or you could suck it up and spend 5 minutes learning how to do it right the first time. Whether you're new on the job, or a seasoned employee, stop wasting everyone's time and speak up. If you don't know something, find the person who can help and get the information you need from them. Being humble enough to ask questions is a rare trait. Show that you're a diamond in the ruff by communicating your needs from the get-go!
            Ex: "Hey Cathy, can you show me that short cut you used in Excel to input this data? That will                      help me do this project efficiently."

3. Always ask a follow-up question.
See something fishy? Need clarification? Don't send back feedback highlighting the mistake or unclear section. Ask a question about what's going on so whoever you're working with understands why you're confused and can make the proper adjustment. Unless you ask a follow-up question, they will be left to play the guessing game, which can go round and round.
          Ex: "I'm not sure what you're trying to say here. You're saying "level", but do you mean you                     want us to raise the level, or lower it?"

4. Always provide follow-through actions.
This statement rings true no matter who you're communicating with. Whether it's your boss, a client, or your teammate, end an email or phone call with the actions you expect them to take. Not only does this remind them to do them, but it sets the stage for following up with them later. Don't give them a reason to say, "Oh, I didn't know you needed that from me." Avoid delays and frustrations by articulating what you expect of them.
           Ex: "For next week, we will plan to receive your numbers by end-of-day Wednesday. Thanks                        for working on those for us."

5. When working with a team, communicate your actions.
To piggy-back on number 4, be sure to communicate what actions you'll be taking. Your team, your boss, and your clients expects you to be working for them as well. Make sure you set their expectations from the beginning by articulating what you will be working on. That way, they have an opportunity to add or subtract actions from your list before you start. And, you can avoid delays or frustrations later.
           Ex: "Once we receive your numbers, we'll input them into our system so we can have a                                 projection for you by Friday. Until then, we'll work on the PowerPoint so it will be ready to                   use."

What other communication strategies do you guys use?
What areas of communication have you seen break down?
What is your favorite secret to effective communication?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Winter, I'm Feeling A Bit Chili

As the weather plummeted into freezing temperatures and the snow fell, I decided it was prime time to make chili! As you know, one of my New Year's resolutions is to make a new recipe every month. Last month I made homemade brown bread. This month, I made some delicious chili!

This recipe is from a friend of mine who's made this annually at his super bowl party. Having moved out of town this year, I didn't want to miss out on this amazing concoction, so I made it for myself (and several other people) this past weekend! I even remembered to take some pictures! Although, I forgot to take one of the final product. It disappeared too quickly!

Here's the recipe (written by my friend, not me, hence, it's funny!):

Smoke and/or Fire Modular Chili

Note: To move along the scale of spiciness, adjust the numbers in parentheses. Peppers are presented in ascending order of heat. Pro-tip: Favor the top of the scale for crisp and smokey, favor the bottom to descend through the levels of capsaicin Hell.

Makes: A lot of chili.


2 8oz cans tomato paste
1 16oz can diced tomatoes
32 oz water
8-12oz dark beer
1 can black beans (drained)
1 can red kidney beans (drained)


~2 lbs. of diced beef. Lean stew meat is fine, but if you’re feeling fancy, get a grocery store brisket cut and dice it up yourself.


1 Green Bell Pepper(s), cut into small chunks (1-2)
1 Red Bell Pepper(s), cut into small chunks (0-1)
1 Pablano, cut into small chunks (0-2)
8 Jalapeños, cut into small chunks (0-8)
6 Serrano peppers, cut into small chunks (0-6)
2 Habanero, minced (0-2)

Fresh Stuff:

~3 leaves Basil, shredded
Cilantro, shredded to preference
1 white or yellow onion, diced
4-6 cloves garlic


1-2 tbsp smoked paprika (add more if you use less hot peppers)
1-2 tbsp oregano
1/2-1 tbsp thyme
2 tbsp chili powder (pre-made or make your own if you’re feeling adventurous)
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tbsp cracked black pepper
1 tsp cracked salt


It’s pretty straight forward, really. Dice up your onion and garlic. Take half of that and put it in a pan with some olive oil (just enough to cover the pan and get some on the onion/garlic). Sauté that for awhile, then add your beef and brown it.

While you’re doing this, put all the “foundation” and “spices” into your pot or crock pot and cut up your peppers and fresh stuff. My advice is to wear some cooking gloves when you cut up your hot peppers. You really don’t want habanero on your hands when you rub your eyes or go to the bathroom.

After everything is cut up (including the cilantro and basil), put everything but your meat into the pot and turn it on low until the meat is browned. Once the meat is ready, put everything from that pan into the pot as well. Stir and stir and stir until you’re convinced that everything is evenly distributed. It should smell pretty great, but it gets better. Turn the heat up to high until it starts to boil, then bring it back to just low enough to remain boiling. Let it sit for hours (I normally go at least 5 hours). If the water level gets too low, add in more beer, not water. Water will water it down, beer adds flavor. When you’re about ready to serve it, if it’s not as thick as you’d like, you can add in flour (1 tbsp at a time) until it’s the right thickness.

Put it in a bowl, optionally add sharp cheddar, fritos, or your choice of cracker. Don’t add in sour cream though. Well you can, but I may call you a heretic. Depending on how far down the Path of Heat you went, you may want to have some bread/milk/refreshing beer nearby. It can get really hot. 

As you can see, you'll want some decent prep time in the morning before letting the slow cooker work it's magic all day. We started by chopping up our onions and garlic:

Chop chop!
While he worked on the veggies, I took care of the meat:

No Cheez-its were harmed in the chopping of this meat.
Let me tell you about chopping this meat. We bought 3 lbs of stew meat on sale from the store. It was fairly chopped, but I like my chili bite-sized, and my bite is considerably smaller than most people's. About half way through the chopping, I severely regretted my desire to slice it all up, but by then I couldn't turn back, and I had to finish. This is when the small part of personality that tries to be Type-A is really annoying. 

After I chopped the meat and the veggies were sauteed, we threw them in the slow cooker with the spices:

If you're thinking the slow cooker looks a little small, you'd be right.
We finished cooking up all the meat while adding the tomatos et al. to the pot. We realized that the pot was going to be far too small and so we borrowed another one from a local place in town. Small town life has it's perks. 

With the meat finished, we added everything (except the hotter peppers!) together and stirred, stirred, stirred:

Nom Nom. (and, yes, many Oreos were harmed in the stirring of this chili).
I scooped out some of this and added it back to the smaller slow cooker. We kept the smaller batch mild with very little spice (because I don't have the spicy-enzyme) and then added our hot peppers to the large batch. By this point, the house was smelling wonderful.

We came back about 7 hours later and feasted!

Getting ready to chow down with all the fixin's!

February Chili: success!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Brown Bread, Brown Bread, When Can I Eat?

Number 3 on my New Year's resolution list is to try a new recipe every month, and thanks to your input, I now have several new recipes to try and lots of groceries to buy.

For the month of January, I made Brown Bread:

Sent to me by my bf's mom, Brown Bread is a traditional dark bread that originated in Ireland during the famine (according to Wikipedia). My bf's mom is a fantastic chef, so I was pretty intimidated to try out a recipe from her family. Luckily, she has a keen sense of mercy and sent me an easy one:

Aunt Floss's Brown Bread (passed down from her grandmother's sister, Flossie Egan)

1/2 C. dark brown sugar
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. baking soda
2 C. whole wheat flour*
1 C. white flour
1/2 C. molasses
2 C. buttermilk**
1 beaten egg
1 handful of raisins (optional)

In a large mixing bowl, mix dry ingredients. Add wet ingredients, adding the beaten egg last. Don't stir too much.

Bake 1 hour at 350 degrees. Marks a large loaf, or two small loaves.

That's right--molasses. If you don't know where to find it, it'll be in the baking aisle or possibly near the pancake syrup.

With my recipe open, I mixed all the ingredients in my new blue mixing bowl that Santa bought me for Christmas and then hid in her closet and didn't give me until a few weeks later.

This is when I remembered that I was supposed to be taking pictures of my cooking process.

Thanks, Santa!
By this time, Hudson had figured out the molasses smells pretty great, so he had come over to investigate. There may or may not have been a few dog hairs in the dough. Sorry'boutthaat.

Once the dough was mixed and poured into the loaf pans, I slid them into the oven to cook.
In which the ham hangs out with the bread.
 I finished cooking the rest of dinner while the bread was baking, and it started to smell GOOD in the house!
Served on my Michigan bamboo board since that where my bf's family lives!
I served the bread as a side to a ham dinner along with garlic green beans and honey-glazed carrots. It was a big hit! Alternatively, serve during breakfast slathered in some cream cheese, and you are good to go!

So there you have it! January's recipe is done!

What kinds of bread recipes have you made from scratch? What should I make next?

*Note to eaters: If you are gluten free (as I am), please proceed with caution with this bread. It's super delicious, but it is made with whole wheat flour, and even after three bites, I could feel it in my tummy :(

**You'll have extra buttermilk. I recommend making this to use it up. You'll thank me later.