Near Death, Divine Providence, and Mining the Past

Ford Fairlane 1964

photo credit: DSC03226 via photopin (license)

When I was 12 years old, I nearly died.

At the time, my two older sisters and I lived with our mom in the San Bernardino Mountains, about 2 hours east of Los Angeles. It was Easter Sunday, and we’d gone to visit my grandmother in L.A. for Spring Break. Grandma and Papa had dropped us off at the bus station in downtown L.A., and Mom came to pick us up at the bus depot in San Bernardino.

Mom 1970sMy mom, God love her, was a terrible driver. She was a lead-foot, not only on the gas, but on the brake as well. She drove “down the hill” (from nearly mile-high Blue Jay to San Berdoo’s thousand foot elevation) screaming around those mountain curves, most likely with her foot on the brake most of the way.

She picked us up at the bus depot, me and my sisters still wearing our Easter dresses. We tucked our luggage and our basket of Easter eggs in the trunk, then Mom headed back up the hill. My older sister Debbie sat in the middle of the car’s bench front seat next to Mom, and I sat next to Debbie by the door. Our oldest sister, Linda, sat behind me in the back seat.

Mom might have used less brake going up, but the brake drum nevertheless got hotter and hotter until about halfway up the hill, the heat actually blew a tire. We pulled into a nice, level turnout and a kind passerby changed the tire for us. The gentleman told my mom she better let the brakes cool before continuing on home. We sat around for what Mom thought was long enough, then pulled out again.

Stier Sisters Late 50s

Me, Debbie, & Linda celebrating Linda’s birthday with a Barbie doll cake.

I don’t remember if there was a smell, or Mom could feel the heat through the brake pedal. In any case, she decided to pull over into another turnout and let the brakes cool again.

Except this turnout was sloped. The car started rolling backwards. The brakes were well and truly fried and no amount of stomping on Mom’s part would get that car to stop. The car just kept rolling toward the edge where the mountainside plunged down a couple hundred feet of steep embankment.

For some reason, Mom didn’t think to try the emergency brake. I suppose it might not have worked anyway. She was struggling to put the car into park. When that didn’t work, she jumped out and tried to stop the car with her body. The car knocked her down and partially rolled over her. Not with its full weight because at that point, the rear of the car was already over the edge, so the front end was partially off the ground.

While Mom was fighting to stop the car, Debbie had gotten the passenger side door open and was yelling at me to get out. I remember sitting sideways, my feet hanging out of the car, watching the pavement roll by under my feet. But I was frozen. Debbie couldn’t get me to budge. All the while, Linda kept yelling from the back seat, “I can’t open the door! I can’t open the door!”

We were all about to die. And then a miracle happened.

The car stopped. Linda got her door open, I finally scrambled out of the car with Debbie close on my heels. When we turned back to the car, we realized it had stopped with one front tire hooked to the berm that edged the turnout. That berm wasn’t even a foot high.

Mom was banged up but nothing was broken or needed stitches. We three girls were perfectly fine. The car was towed out of its predicament, and it went on to suffer through more of my mom’s abuse. The Easter eggs ended up rotting in the trunk because we all forgot they were in there, a fact that we girls chortled over for years to come.

Yeah. A miracle. That my mom wasn’t hurt more badly. That we girls didn’t flip right over the edge, none of us seat-belted into that pre-airbag car. That Debbie and I didn’t bail, and the car didn’t flip with Linda trapped inside. All those possibilities make me shudder now.

Oddly enough, as dramatic as this experience was, I’ve never used it in a book. I’ve probably used the fear, the panic, the horror of it without consciously realizing where I might be pulling it from. It became a story that we all found hysterically funny because it did have a happy ending.

In this case, reality was much better than the what-ifs. Thanks to God and miracles.

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Just Another Day in Paradise

Maxx Trail2Yesterday we had the kind of weather California is famous for. Gorgeous. So what could be lovelier than a trail ride soaking up all that wonderful sun?

Yeah, I know, those of you still shivering in the clutches of winter are probably scowling at me. And some of you might be saying, “What? She has a horse? Some people have all the luck.”

Yes, I’m majorly lucky. That little guy I’m riding is Maxx (two X’s since he’s extra special), my new Morgan gelding. Adorable to the…max. And super-fab as a trail horse.

Fiona HeadThat round, beige thing at the bottom of the picture, by the way, is Fiona’s butt. Fiona is a Haflinger. She belongs to the friend who went with me on the trail ride. Here’s Fiona’s other end.

Yes, I feel blessed. By the beautiful day, by the cute little Morgan I’m riding, by the chance to ride out on the trail with a friend.

I hope you’ve got some blessings to count too.

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Alpaca, Get Yer Alpaca Here!

Alpaca CropSince I live out in the boonies, and countryside even boonier is close at hand, I have the opportunity to see plenty of critters that all you city folk don’t. For instance, I regularly see deer (aka, rodents with hoofs), red-tail hawk, the rare bald eagle, beaver, wild turkey, and peacocks. Okay, that last one is just a bizarre fluke since they don’t really belong in my boonies, they’ve just been brought in and set loose by someone.

In addition to the wild critters, there are any number of domesticated and semi-domesticated animals close at hand. Horses and cattle and goats, of course, but also emus, a zebra, bison, and lovely little alpaca.

Trebuchet sideGood friends of mine own a ranch called Bluestone Meadow up in an area of Northern California known as Apple Hill. They grow pumpkins in the fall and scrumptious, fragrant lavender year-round. They’re developing a Christmas tree farm. They have this amazing trebuchet they use to fling pumpkins with during pumpkin season.

They’d been wanting to add alpaca to their farm, and found four females at a ranch where the breeder was selling out her stock. I was about to sell my horse trailer, but I took it on one last haul up to Grass Valley.

Alpaca TrailerIt was very entertaining watching them wrangle the “girls” onboard. Alpaca don’t exactly lead as willingly as a horse (at least these didn’t–they were a bit rusty). But what’s cool is that when alpaca ride in a trailer, they “cush” (if I’ve got the spelling right). They lie down, which makes them much easier to transport than horses.

Once the first two were in, the second two should have been a piece of cake. But while the third alpaca hopped right in, the final one had to be persuaded. It took a little wrassling, lifting her front feet onto the trailer bed to persuade her back feet to follow. But then even she was inside, and we were ready to head out.

Alpaca FieldThey traveled pretty well (although a few times, I wondered if one or more of them had un-cushed because the trailer was rocking) and after backing the trailer into the pasture gate, they all exited and explored their new digs. I took a couple of videos, one of them wandering about, and one of the smallest girl, Foxy, meeting Jake, one of their the Bluestone Meadow dogs.

http://youtu.be/oUZiqJtcmXY
http://youtu.be/21x9DOLZrtg

A footnote about Jake. He was obsessed with these new giant creatures and managed to make his way into the pasture while my friends were away. When my friends found him and got him out again, he was covered with stinky alpaca spit. I hope he learned his lesson.

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Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide

hp photosmart 720

L-R, my mom, Barbara, and my grandma, Pauline.

January 16th would have been my mom’s 83rd birthday, so my sisters and I were sharing memories of her that day. My mom was a hoot–wacky, creative, and with a great sense of humor. She’s the one who invented our imaginary family friend, Henry, and she introduced all of us to the Tilly Williams Club.

But a common thread in my and my sisters’ reminiscences was Mom’s oft-repeated advice: Let your conscience be your guide.

We all admitted that when Mom said that, we’d always feel a tug of guilt inside. Probably because she knew that we knew what the right decision was to make, even though we really wanted to choose the wrong (easier) path. Mom didn’t judge us for that desire to make things soft for ourselves. “Let your conscience be your guide” was just her way of reminding us to make the moral choice rather than the convenient or self-indulgent choice.

Grandma's Yearbook InscriptionWhile I was mulling over my memories of Mom, I happened to pick up my old high school yearbook. To my surprise, I found an inscription from my grandmother. I had no memory of her writing in my yearbook. It’s great advice, and such a precious gift to have it written in her own hand.

So many people are generous with advice whether we want it or not. But when counsel comes from someone who we know loves us and wants the best for us, it’s good to pay attention and give it more weight.

What good advice have you gotten over the years, either from your parents/grandparents or friends? Feel free to share in the comments.

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Taxes, Books Read, & Diversity

3 CoversI’m having a grand old time getting my taxes organized…perhaps not. But in the course of said organization, I made a tally of books read in 2014. The bulk of what I’ve read were ebooks purchased from our Beloved Overlord, er, Amazon, and since they send an email for each book purchased, it’s easy to count them up.

Print books I purchased at either my local Barnes & Noble (the only big-box bookstore still in my area), my local IBS* (we have a few very nice ones) and my local UBS* (again, a couple great ones) are harder to track. I’d have to (a) remember that I read it or (b) stumble across it on one of my myriad bookcases. Much trickier. Also, there are a not insignificant number of picture books I bought for my granddaughter. I include a couple below, but can’t recall all of them.

So I won’t claim this is a complete list of the books I read. I have eliminated those I bought and started, but did not like well enough to finish. First the Amazon list:

12 Years a Slave
Sand Omnibus
The Rosie Project
Odyssey
Hercule Poirot & the Greenshore Folly
Pines
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret
Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities
Typhoid Mary
The First Phone Call from Heaven
A Monster Calls
Prophecy
Fake ID
Blue Boy
The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf
Openly Straight
The Living
Boy Meets Boy
The School for Good & Evil
The Great Greene Heist
The Summer Prince
Magic Under Glass
The Miseducation of Cameron Post
The Chaos
The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Things
The Only Thing to Fear
Charm & Strange
Underneath
Hollow City
Ship of Souls
Cryoburn

And the print books purchased from brick and mortar stores or other venues:

Fat Angie
Ball Don’t Lie
Yacqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass
The Beast
Brown Girl Dreaming
Each Kindness
The Other Side
Dragonwings
The Star Fisher
Prodigy
Shadow Hero (addition)
El Deafo (addition)

I’m pleased to note that of the 41 43 I could account for, 31 33 were books either by diverse authors and/or featured diverse main characters. Apologies for not including author names–I have a new resolution to make my blog posts quicker and simpler. If you can’t figure out the author, ask me in the comments.

So for those who might be thinking diverse books are hard to find, do the math here. A full 75% of my reading material this year (possibly more since there might be a few I haven’t accounted for) is diverse. And there are many more I’m eagerly looking forward to reading, both new, and classics.

Happy reading to all in 2015.

*IBS – Independent Book Store, such as my local fave, Face in a Book.

*USB – Used Book Store, such as my local faves, The Almost Perfect Bookstore and The Bookery.

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Innate Identity vs. Imagining the “Other”

Rebellion Final Cover medWith all three books of the Tankborn trilogy completed and released into the wild, I’m doing as a writer does and working on my next project. Not to give too much away, but it’s a dark fantasy YA with a multi-cultural cast. No elves/orcs/wizards, but my own invented world. I’m on solid ground with my world-building, because it’s not based on anything except my own fertile imagination.

But what about creating that multi-cultural cast, or more importantly, my main character? She’s Alejandra, a 16-year-old, 2nd generation Mexican-American girl who’s Catholic and lives in Reno, Nevada. She and her mom aren’t below the poverty line by any means, but they struggle a bit financially. She’s not a super-genius, but smart enough to get a scholarship if she works hard.

Some of the cultural/identity elements of the character:

  • Mexican American
  • Catholic
  • Speaks a little Spanish (but not enough to carry on a conversation with her abuelita)
  • Lives in/grew up in Reno
  • Her family is little lower on the socio-economic scale
  • Very close to her mom
  • Hard worker
  • Not one of the popular kids

Some of my personal cultural/identity elements

  • Russian-Austrian-Italian-German-American
  • Catholic raised, Jewish heritage
  • Speak quite a bit of Spanish (I could carry on quite a credible conversation with Alejandra’s abuelita)
  • Grew up in Southern California/live in NorCal
  • Have relatives in Reno & have visited there often
  • My family was middle-class, but we went through some rough financial difficulties
  • I was very close to my mom
  • I was a very hard worker in school
  • Most definitely not one of the popular kids

Based on who I am, how well can I get into this character’s head? How authentically can I write her identity, her culture?

It might seem like I’ve got it covered since there’s quite a lot of overlap in our life experience. But there’s a very key area missing–she grew up Mexican-American, and I grew up as a white American.

People are people, you might say. We have more in common than we have differences. Absolutely. But if I want to write an authentic character, one with a different core identity than mine, who grew up immersed in a world different than mine, I can only imagine so much. And it’s possible that what I “imagine” about the character will come from my own ingrained stereotypes that will worm their way into my writing.

Rosary-sSo what do I not have to imagine? What have I lived? I’ve lived the Catholic upbringing. Catholicism is so rooted inside me that to this day I can’t walk inside the church without reaching for the holy water to dip and make the sign of the cross. Even though I haven’t attended Mass in years, I immediately feel comfortable inside a Catholic church, like I’m home.

By the same token, I often feel out of place during services at other Christian churches. And although I am Jewish by heritage from both sides of my family and am married to a Jewish man, I’m a complete fish out of water in a synagogue. I don’t know the prayers, in either Hebrew or English. I don’t know the songs. Judaism wasn’t part of my upbringing, so it didn’t get into my DNA like Catholicism did.

I know what it’s like to be the unpopular outsider as a teenager. After all these years, that pain still lingers. I know what it’s like to work hard in school. I lived through difficult financial times when I was a kid, where my parents’ worries filled me with anxiety. I know what it’s like to be female, to sometimes be slighted because of my gender, and to sometimes fear men.

But despite all that Spanish I learned over the years, despite living with many Hispanic neighbors in L.A., do I know what it means to grow up Mexican-American? No. Not in any gut way. I’m white, and I lived the white experience, with all its privilege and dominance, during a time when racism was far more accepted. I’ve experienced subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) bigotry and trivialization because of my gender. But it’s a white face I present to the world, and the world has treated me accordingly because of it.

So how do I authentically write Alejandra? To some extent, I use my imagination, but in the end, I need some expert input. A friend has been giving me advice about the Spanish that is sprinkled throughout the book. And before the book ever sees the light of day, I intend to find a Mexican-American beta reader to vet my cultural references and make sure I haven’t let stereotypes creep in.

Could I just decide to write only white characters in my books? I could. But I choose not to. And with that commitment to write diverse, comes the responsibility to make my absolute best effort to do it right.

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#LA14SCBWI: Schmooze, Learn, Get Inspired

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The view from my room at the Century Plaza #LA12SCBWI.

I’m really looking forward to my upcoming trip to SCBWI-LA, the annual summer conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. My flight down to LA is at a much less ungodly time than my usual trips–it leaves at a very civilized 10:15am.

Besides all the fun and inspiration of attending panels and keynotes and seeing author friends I only see at conferences, I’ll be seeing a couple of l*o*n*g time non-writer friends. We’re talking one friend I went to kindergarten with and another friend I met in college (which believe me, was a long time ago). I think my college friend and I haven’t seen each other for close to 30 years. I’m also going to be meeting up with a brand-shiny-new friend I met by chance at Burbank airport.

diverse-logo-sI’m also thrilled to be participating in a We Need Diverse Books™ poolside chat on Saturday (more info here). This will be my first time taking part in an “official” WNDB event, so it’s pretty cool.

Anyone else going to LA? Or any other conferences you’re looking forward to this year? There are so many great ones. Which are your favorites?

 

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