The Fourth Annual S3Q2 & Friends Retreat

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It’s been a while since I posted … I took a break to focus on the launches of DON’T TOUCH and THE GAME OF BOYS AND MONSTERS, but now both of my beasts are out in the world.

And in between those launches, I took a much-needed breather at the FOURTH ANNUAL S3Q2 & Friends Retreat! We returned to good old Beverly Shores, Indiana for a third year.

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We being S3Q2 (that is, original members of the VCFA class known as the Super Secret Society of Quirk and Quill) …

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… and Friends (that is people we love who’ve been kind enough to join us for one or more years of retreating):

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That’s right. The friends now outnumber the Quills! This year’s Quills included Ginger, Larissa, Varian, myself and Jen, and the Friends included Amy Rose Capetta, Mary Winn Heider, Rachel Hylton, Katie Bayerl, Marianna Baer, Steve Bramucci, and Carol Brendler.

We also made friends with a peacock who wanted to come inside.

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I think he blessed us with good luck, but we did worry about him running into the spooky coyote pack that we heard while lounging in the hot tub.

Per usual, we enjoyed dining at Bartlett’s …

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And cooking for ourselves!

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Steve was our newbie, which worked out well since he stressed to impress with some amazing cuisine …

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Mary Winn led us in a productivity workshop with some inspiration from Jeff VanderMeer’s The Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction and the Pomodoro technique, which many of us are still using daily.

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We wrote all over the place …

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Carol can be seen here giving the evil eye to snap-happy Varian during a Pomodoro.

Some of us took breaks to stretch …

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I can be spotted yoga-ing in the background.

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… or to visit the beach …

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… and when we tired of all of that, we got really goofy …

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This is me wearing Varian’s shoes, or, as I prefer to call them, clown shoes

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Mary Winn and Carol sizing each other up

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Larissa testing the capabilities of Varian’s smartphone camera.

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This is either another camera test or the cover for Larissa and Varian’s new chamber pop album

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Again, Steve was new

At one point we were even haunted by the ghost of a last-year Friend, Trent Reedy aka The Phantom, who sent each of us a mysterious message. Hylton (aka the plucky Final Girl) and the Phantom traded a series of ominous messages.

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And, of course, we took lots of pictures of each other in our many and varied groupings…

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The pics in this post were all taken by Varian and Amy Rose!

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FIVE of us are Sara Crowe clients

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Two of us belonged to the Cliffhangers class

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Three of us used to have a Chicago writing group called TOOCF (aka The Other Other Chicago Fire)

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Three of us were more recently at VCFA together, write together virtually …

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… and MIGHT secretly be triplets separated at birth.

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All of us, but especially this one, are prone to mischief.

As you probably can tell, we love each other lots and miss each other terribly.20140920_140214

Chat with Larissa Theule, Author of Fat & Bones

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Larissa TheuleI have the great pleasure of interviewing my friend, Larissa Theule, author of the newly released Fat & Bones: And Other Stories, illustrated by Adam S. Doyle, (Carolrhoda Books, October 2014). I asked her about this delicious collection of interconnected stories set on a farm that is rife with tension, feuding and sacrifice, and the perfect dose of humor in the most surprising places.

Fat & Bones CoverLinden McNeilly: This is a collection of interconnected stories about those living on a farm that is falling apart. Why did you choose that structure, rather than a novel form, to tell this particular story?

Larissa Theule: The first story in the book was written a year before the others. It’s the story of Bones the farmer and Fat the fairy who hate each other. One of the lines early on says, “Their hatred had grown dense and deep, too thick and round not to roll over everything in its path.” The idea that their venomous dislike for each other wreaks havoc on the world around them seemed like a great opening for other stories. Hatred is never without collateral damage and I wanted to explore how their personal war directly or indirectly affects other creatures on the farm. The short story format allowed me to move the spotlight around the farm and train it on other characters, giving them undivided attention so that they live for a moment with a fullness that would otherwise be denied them in a novel.

LMc: Did you work with the illustrator, back and forth? Or did he do his work after you’d done the final?

LT: Adam S. Doyle is the illustrator and I’m so glad he worked on this book. We didn’t work together but I think we might have had fun if we had. Adam’s illustrations would be beautiful as stand alone works of art but they also serve the book by visually communicating the stories’ strange balance of gravitas and whimsy. Here is his Leonard Grey III who is a terrible excuse for a spider and while going on an adventure loses a great deal of blood to knife-wielding Fat.

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Isn’t he perfectly, charmingly ridiculous? Aren’t you appalled by the thought of anyone hurting him? I don’t like spiders but I like this one.

LMc: Can you explain the part self-sacrifice serves in this book?

LT: I’m really glad you asked this question because I think of self-sacrifice as the heart of these stories. Fat and Bones is said to be bleak and cruel. This is true, because war is bleak and cruel and the farm is at war. What interests me more than the war, however, are the choices characters make to either add to the chaos or fight against it. Plenty of characters add to the chaos in sometimes funny and naïve ways, but there are three characters that risk everything for a feeling of rightness they don’t even really understand or have words for.

One of my favorite characters is the vengeful pig Esmeralda. This one horrible pig with a heart full of bitterness makes a spontaneous sacrifice for someone she despises. When writing “The Dance,” I remember feeling amazed and proud of Esmeralda for the choice she makes. If a creature as awful as she is capable of such tender sacrifice then even when all the world seems bleak, still there is room for hope.

I can’t resist the urge to share another of Adam’s illustrations. Here is Esmeralda, horrible, wonderful pig.

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LMc: What surprised you as you worked on this story?

LT: I was surprised by the humor that popped up. This is a little bit of a trivial example but I’ll go ahead with it anyway: Many years ago I was living with my best friend in an old brick apartment building in Chicago and the man I thought I was going to marry had just broken up with me. My friend and I sat at the front window talking it out and at some point I said, “Well, I guess it’s back to square one,” as if finding love is a game of Candy Land and I had been kicked back to Start. This struck us both so funny that we laughed until we cried, and the laughter softened the hurt a little. I adore irony and silly physical humor and unpretentious make-believe and when my kids are hurt, after the band-aid has been applied, we try to make them laugh. Humor brightens the darkness, and so every time a moment of funny popped up while writing Fat and Bones, I was delighted and grateful.

LMc: Readers will expect this type of flavor in your next book. What do you think of that?

LT: You will be either disappointed or relieved to know that in the next one not a single drop of blood is shed. It is a picture book titled How Do You Do? (Bloomsbury), about friendship and exploring the world. There is sunshine, and a goat.

LMc: Thank you spending time here, and good luck on the release of Fat & Bones, available at booksellers and through Lerner at https://www.lernerbooks.com/Search/Pages/results.aspx?k=yqzpdka

Some Dessert Books

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In keeping with Joss Whedon’s “eat dessert first” philosophy of writing, I’ve been dipping into some books that approach writing from a different angle: visually. Here are a few that have intrigued me.

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Betty Edwards.

“A course in enhancing creativity and artistic confidence.” Truly a course in perception, this is a fascinating look at how the two modes of our brains — the verbal, analytical mode and the visual, perceptual mode — work as we create. Edwards asserts that when we draw (a task best left to the visual, perceptual mode), our stronger verbal, analytical mode takes over. She takes the reader through various exercises, teaching anyone (and I do mean anyone) how to tap into the visual, perceptual mode and perceive what’s before him, and then translate that to paper.

While engaging with this text may seem to negate all the verbal stuff we do as writers, I think it actually brings a new dimension and a balance to our words. I find that it’s also relevant in thinking about drafting (creative, visual, perceptual) versus revising (verbal, analytical).

The Trickster’s Hat: A Mischievous Apprenticeship in Creativity, Nick Bantock.

This book begins with a dedication: “For the wide-eyed wonderers.” While Bantock may have specific “wide-eyed wonderers” in mind, I’d like to put myself in the category of wide-eyed wonderer, wouldn’t you? After the dedication comes a warning: “If you want a shortcut to originality…this isn’t the book for you. On the other hand, if you’re wiling to be led hither and thither down unlikely paths by a fellow of dubious reputation, if you’re prepared to keep a sense of humor and not be fazed when he plucks the unexpected out of a mischief-stuffed hat, if you’re ready to zigzag, detour, and wander if search of a better understanding of your artistic core, then please feel free to slip-slide further into these pages.”

Again, this is a book that begins with artistic creation, but continues into both visual and verbal meaning. And he uses “hither and thither” in the second sentence.

Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction, Jeff Vandermeer 

“[T]he history of the world could be seen as an ongoing battle between good and bad imaginations…. Your imagination and your stories exist within this wider context, and sometimes you’ll find you need to break free of other people’s imaginations to allow your own uniqueness to shine through.”

Wonderbook is a dense book, full of images, stories, exercises, and wisdom. It turns to visual art in order to understand how to create fiction.

Picture This: How Pictures Work, Molly Bang

“Our feelings arise because we see pictures as extensions of the real world. Pictures that affect us strongly use structural principles based on the way we have to react in the real world in order to survive. As soon as you understand these principles, you will understand why pictures have such specific emotional effects.”

This is a brilliant little book (and the only book of the four that I’ve finished so far, seeing as how it’s only 96 pages and mostly illustrated). It analyzes the reasons why shape, color, and composition evoke certain emotions.

Even if you feel like you don’t have an artistic bone in your body, I recommend checking these books out. They provide an antidote to BIC, and give your brain something new to chew on: dessert.

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WIP: Blog Hop // Steve Bramucci

Disclaimer: I am probably the worst blog hopper ever. Mostly because I accepted Adi Rule’s invitation when I don’t actually have a blog. Also, because after being tagged roughly a decade ago, I am just now getting around to this.

Fortunately, the crew at Quirk & Quill took me in like the starving internet-urchin that I am. They gave me a blanket, a crust of bread, a platform for posting, and a deadline. So many problems solved so quickly!

Onward!


 

ABOUT THE PERSON WHO TAGGED ME: Adi Rule is a writer/cat lackey from New Hampshire. Her [TOTALLY AWESOME! -ed.] YA novel STRANGE SWEET SONG is out now from St. Martin’s Press, with [TOTALLY AWESOME SOUNDING! -ed.] REDWING forthcoming. When the cats approve, Adi also sings in the chorus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra/Boston Pops.

Which is all fine and well and clever. The bio writer chose to focus on Adi’s cats more than one might expect, but so it goes—no bio writer is perfect. My bio writer once called me a “writer of ‘some’ renown” when clearly what was intended was “internationally beloved man of mystery whose books you should purchase by the truckload.” I could deal with the slip-up, but the ironic quotes around the word ‘some’ were not appreciated.

CAMERA WHIPS TO ADI RULE: All cats aside, Adi is truly one of the most gracious writers I know. And talented to the extreme. I once heard her read a scene that included the sentence “What ho, Hat?” I have no idea how to punctuate that, but it was a boy talking to a hat and it was the funniest scene I’ve ever heard aloud and if Adi will just send it to me, I will print it up on a t-shirt and wear it at all times.

Lastly, DAMN! Adi’s book Redwing sounds awesome.


 

MY WORK IN PROGRESS: No Quarter Given

WHAT DOES THE TITLE MEAN? In pirate speak it translates to “we will kill you instead of taking you captive.” The black flag is the visual embodiment of this concept. In publishing speak it translates to “no one knows what it means and you might have to change it.”

Pirate Flag

WHAT IS THE NAME OF YOUR CHARACTER: Virtually all of my characters lie about their names at some point, so listing them would be futile. The most interesting name is probably “Death’s Abbot”—a pirate who got his name by surviving a poisoning by the plant monkshood. He is not historical but if he were and he met Blackbeard, there would be a fight. Blackbeard would leave the encounter in a wheelbarrow.

WHEN AND WHERE IS THE STORY SET? The story is set on Isla sin Nombre—whose inhabitants simply call it Sin. The island is made up, but certainly inspired by my career as a travel writer and my travels through the tropics.

It is set in an ambiguous time period during which bounty hunters roam the sea on giant turtles and oversized rogues keep snarling hyenas as pets. There is no WiFi.

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WHAT SHOULD WE KNOW ABOUT THE PROTAGONISTS? Nick and Sophie live in a den underneath a gnarled oak. Their father, a famed pirate, left them with a map, a key, and two throwing knives. In the book’s opening pages, a one-eyed man finds them and offers a simple trade: in exchange for the map and key, he will sail them to Sin and show them the man who killed their father. By the end, the siblings will need every millimeter of those two throwing knives.

WHAT IS THE MAIN CONFLICT? If there’s one thing this project has an excess of, it’s conflict. The main emotional conflict is between Nick and Sophie as they each separately wrestle with the idea of revenge, what it means, what its ramifications are, and if it is worth seeking in light of the fact that the entire island is trying to capture them.

WHAT IS THE GOAL FOR THE MAIN CHARACTER? Nick and Sophie’s goals often diverge. Nick wants revenge. Sophie wants to stay alive. These two goals are often in conflict. As they evolve and new information comes to light, their goals change dramatically.

WHEN CAN WE EXPECT THIS TO PUBLISH: Tomorrow? Next week? Tough to pin down. But I do know that my incredible agent will be receiving a draft very soon.

ANYTHING ELSE YOU WANT TO SAY? Yes, please! I have another book—much lighter in tone—called Ronald Zupan and the Pirates of Borneo! (these are more whimsical pirates) which comes out from Bloomsbury in fall 2016 with a sequel the following year. I really hope you read it, because I think it’s funny.

Also, I’m on Twitter. www.twitter.com/stevebram

NOW I’M TAGGING…

Pending. I forgot about the tagging part. Anyone want to be tagged?

 

Want versus Want

One of the standard questions writers ask ourselves is: What does my character want?

As we design our plots, we come up with answers: A friend to trust. The elimination of a disease. Equality. Healing from loss. Parental approval.
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Asking my characters what they want, and finding the answer has been in my author toolkit for a long time. But I’ve gotten predictable results, which has made me decide to look at the idea from a different angle.

First, let’s start with precision of language. When I say I “want” a cookie, I am really saying that I desire a cookie. To go deeper with our characters, many writers have learned to ask: What is her heart’s desire?

Hearts desire many things. Most of them are intangible. The kid who wants a friend to trust desires safety and companionship. The teen that wants the disease to go away desires physical wellness and the ability to be “normal.” And so on.

These kinds of desires drive much of kid lit plotting, including my own. But today I am thinking of wanting from the point of view of lacking, rather than desiring. And I am seeing it from behind a longer lens.

The main character in my work-in-progress is really different from most everyone in his backward little village. He wants to belong, to be accepted for who he is. So what does he lack, other than a sense of belonging and acceptance? If I think more deeply, I find that he lacks skill in adapting to his village’s prejudices. He lacks the strength required to be different, to be rejected. These lacks are driving my plotting. I need to give him opportunities to try to adapt (and fail, of course). I need to put him in circumstances in which he can learn (painfully, of course) strength in the face of rejection. He may or may not get what he desires, which is acceptance. But if I give him enough opportunities, he will evolve into someone who can live through that.

Looking at characters from the point of view of what they lack, rather than what they desire, can help writers go deeper and help their characters evolve in unpredictable ways. If you plot this way, or want to try, I’d love to hear from you.

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Unremembrance

The following is the introduction to a longer piece that I wrote in 2011.  I’ve never had an outlet for it, nor have I been ready to share it, but I think it may be important for the people of my generation to know they’re not alone.  We were on the brink – somewhere between child and adult -, and what happened on September 11th, 2001, kept us there.

September 11, 2011

The media has forgotten us.

We’re not the babies born to those lost in the tragedy. We’re not the family, the friends, the heroes. We didn’t grow up thinking of Osama Bin Laden as a monster – we were barely even aware of who he was.  Ten years ago, we were old enough to understand why people hate the country we live in. We didn’t condone the attacks, but we didn’t think war was the answer, either.

Ten years ago, I had just started my last semester of college.  I don’t think people realize the impact the attack had on those of us about to leave childhood and enter into a scary, new world. Everything we had hoped for, for ourselves and our futures, had to be reevaluated.

We had many questions that no one could answer. What would it mean to enter a world where terrorism was tangible? How could we seriously think of careers when our worlds had fallen apart? Was what we were deciding to do with our lives meaningful? And if there was another, even greater tragedy in the world, would the careers we chose be vital?

Many of us wandered aimlessly after graduation. We stayed at part time jobs we hated. We went to grad school because we weren’t ready to enter this world yet. We lived like we had in college – with roommates and cheap rent and spending weekends in oblivion – because we couldn’t be part of the grown-up world yet. In a way, we still can’t.

Sure, we’ve got real jobs now, and real apartments. Some of us are married. Some of us have kids, cars, mortgages. But in our heads, I can guarantee, we’re all having a hard time accepting this grown-up thing. We don’t feel like real adults, and we don’t want to.  We don’t want to own this world the way it is.

Why are some of us still wandering aimlessly? Where’s the report on that? Where’s the news article on the stifling of lives, lives that were just about to begin, as planes crashed into our safe, little world?

Everyone wants to remember, but I wish I could forget. Just for one brief minute. I want a moment where the heaviness that sits on my chest, the anxiety that courses through my system, and the panic that has made it self a constant just isn’t there inside of me.

I want to unremember the moment that has shaped the last 10 years of my life more than anything. But I can’t.

None of us can.

Dance Like Olivia

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In Ian Falconer’s Olivia and the Fairy Princesses (Atheneum, 2012), Olivia spurns being a fairy princess ballerina because everyone wants to be one. She says she is “trying to develop a more stark, modern style.”

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I love this page with a deep and abiding passion because Olivia’s stretching limbs and contorted face mirror how I have felt being a writer at home with small children. Martha Graham, the dancer whose “Lamentation” Olivia tries to emulate, did not dance for beauty but to challenge and reveal the parts of us that cannot be communicated in words, the angular and pin-sharp feelings that have no clear expression.

The world of writing at home with small children has no clear expression, except to say that it is not unlike dancing inside a large sleeve of stretchy material that moves with you and against you at all times, often starkly. One can hope for modern. 

My youngest started preschool full-time last week. I kissed her and hugged her and loved her. After drop-off I sat in my car for a long time. I danced a little in my seat.

A happier dance by Martha Graham is called, “Every Soul Is a Circus,” which feels completely true.

Livestock

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IMG_6287Farming is not for the faint of heart.

We leapt in to the farming life last year, building a chicken coop and purchasing eight hens. Our plan was to teach the gingerbread boys responsibility and business acumen, letting them sell the dozens of eggs that we envisioned they’d collect. We counseled them not to name the chickens so as to prevent emotional attachment. These were livestock, not pets.

Then one pullet died out of the blue, leaving us with seven.

That’s alright, we said. Chickens die.

Another sickened and died. Then another. We borrowed a dog crate from a friend to quarantine the next sick one. She died, too.

Every time we put a hen into the crate, she would die. We began calling it the Dog Crate of Death.

Gone were the dreams of dozens of eggs. Most of the chickens died before they even started laying. A couple of them had coccidiosis. One died from external parasites. One had the big daddy of all poultry diseases: Marek’s.

By early winter, we were down to three hens, one who has never laid an egg in her life and doesn’t appear to want to start any time soon, and two reliable layers.

Our plans of teaching our boys responsibility and business acumen dwindled. We were lucky if we got three eggs every two days. The coop my husband built seemed like an empty castle with its six nesting boxes and repurposed stained glass window.

In February, we ordered sixteen female chicks. One of them died en route to us. Another of them got pecked to death. For the most part, they grew into sturdy, healthy hens. One laid a tiny egg at 10 weeks. Another lays eggs with double yolks.

The gingerbread boys began selling eggs to neighbors. This was where the tide was going to turn, we thought. Soon we’d be getting about a dozen eggs a day, more if that one wyandotte would ever decide to earn her keep and start laying.

But then one turned into a big-combed, large-wattled, loud-crowing rooster. No eggs from him.

Days ago, our oldest layer, a Barred Plymouth Rock, began sleeping in the nesting box instead of roosting. We realized she had grown thin. We saw how walking was difficult for her. We suspected blindness in one of her eyes. Marek’s disease. Usually fatal.

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The Measure of Little Smiles

I had a baby four months ago. Since then, I have read half of a long book and all of a short one. I have binge watched my way through Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey, and Band of Brothers. (Did you know that it takes roughly 8 hours a day to feed a newborn? I didn’t. That’s a lot of sitting around.) I have walked out of a restaurant because my child was screaming – the purple, choking kind. (I ate my dinner out of a to-go box on a park bench while my child sat smiling at me.) Grocery shopping alone while my husband watches the baby is a peaceful release. (Long line? No problem.)

Being a mom is the hardest job I’ve ever had. It’s exhausting and the work never ends. Little smiles are the only measure of a job well done, and some days the smiles are outnumbered by tears. Even so, being a mom is my most favorite job. (And I’ve had a lot of jobs.)

Very often in life, the hardest things yield the greatest rewards. So it goes with writing. I’ve been working on the same book baby for years, telling myself the story over and over again. With each telling, I’m a little closer to the core of what I want to say, what needs to be shared. Like being a mom, it’s hard to measure the success of writing. It’s hard to say “job well done” when it’s not done. But in small ways – a book map completed – a new path defined – a character deleted, two others combined – in those ways, I see little smiles. I know that I’ve done something right. I know that I’m moving forward, that this hard thing will one day yield a reward. Until then, I’ll keep doing what I do with my son. I’ll keep trying. I’ll give it my all. I’ll try to enjoy every moment, even the ones that have me unexpectedly eating on a park bench.

New York, New York!

It’s massive tourist season in New York. Friends who grew up elsewhere have relatives visiting, and those relatives demand the experience of NEW YORK! I’ve lived in New York City my entire life, and I’ve taken in my fair share of exciting things that New York has to offer.

Growing up, I experienced a lot of what most tourists (and websites) would consider MUSTS. By the end of high school, school trips had taken me to The Museum of Natural History multiple times, the Bronx Zoo, the Brooklyn and New York Botanical Gardens, Prospect Park, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the New York Aquarium, Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, the Met, MOMA, the Frick, the Metropolitan Opera House, and many other destinations, including a Broadway show or two. With my family and friends, I’d seen the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral, seen the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and gone ice skating, wandered through the East and West Village, seen other Broadway shows, visited the World Trade Center, and window-shopped at Bloomingdale’s.

There are still many things considered must-dos in New York that I haven’t done, and visitors are always shocked at this, but as an adult, the last thing I want to do is take a crowded elevator to the top of the Empire State Building. I don’t want to battle the tourists waiting in line at TKTS or for tickets to see Shakespeare in the Park. I’m not about to be corralled like livestock while waiting to watch the ball drop on New Year’s Eve in Times Square. And I don’t want to ride the Staten Island Ferry because I’ll wind up in, well, Staten Island.

There are some nice, quiet things I’ve done in New York City that most tourists would probably never even think to do. I’ve walked the Salt Marsh Trail in Marine Park. I’ve collected old bottles at Dead Horse Bay. I’ve gotten lost in the ravine at Prospect Park. I’ve kayaked off of Valentino Pier in Red Hook. I’ve taken my bike for a ride downtown and returned via Furman St, a quiet artery that runs under the BQE along the water, before there was a new park right alongside it. I’ve also climbed the Alpine Tower at Floyd Bennett Field, strolled the Highline, and viewed the Bronx from Inwood Hill Park. I’ve even spent many afternoons strolling through Green-Wood Cemetery.

You’ll find some of these things on “Best Things to Do in NYC” lists, but the ones you don’t find on those lists are the ones you should definitely do if you ever visit.

 

 

 

 

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