Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Amazng File

Years ago (as in thirty years ago),  my friend Jackie Crowley gave a seminar for her colleagues at Houston Community College. TAF stood for The Amazing File, and the idea was for us to create a file and fill it with photos, letters of accolades, awards, and other things that documented how uniquely wonderful we were.

Jackie gave each of us a red file folder labelled "TAF 101."  ("So you can find it quickly among all those manila folders in your filing cabinet," she explained.) She had her own file to show us--although it was an expandable file because she'd had it awhile and needed more space for her documents.

I came across my file recently. Here's what is in it:
  • a photo that Jackie took of me in a hotel room reading the New York Times, documenting the time she and I had been sent by the college president to a national marketing seminar that ultimately led to my doctoral dissertation;
  • a letter from my son expressing his love and belief in me;
  • a thank you card from a colleague for helping her get funding for a project;
  • an honorable mention from Southwest Writers Conference for the opening chapter of a novel;
  • birthday cards from friends and family with personal notes written inside telling me what a fun and caring person I am;
  • a letter from the United Way thanking me for chairing the campaign for the college district;
  • a transcript from Texas A&M University showing heaps of A's earned in grad school;
  • pictures of Christmas parties I hosted over the years for friends who couldn't go home for the holidays;
  • certificates of appreciation for service work on various community and  college committees;
  •  pictures of Ireland from my first trip across the Atlantic that I took with my cousin "Bubbles";
  • a letter from my dad conveying his delight and pride in being my father; and
  • my beloved Trixie Ann's dog tags.
Going through the file always gives me such a warm feeling because I can see clearly that my life matters, not because of the job I have or my job title, but because of who I am as a person.

It's good to have a file where I can go and be reminded of my value because, unfortunately, there are days when I am so depressed and discouraged that I need to see concrete evidence that tells me I'm not a failure.

If you don't have a file on yourself, I highly recommend that you begin building one.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Love Story

I think it's important that we share the stories that make up our family history, for it's those stories that keep us rooted in our relationships. My sweetie and I did that last night. I started it by making a request: "Tell me your favorite Ronnie and Joyce story."

He didn't have to think about it--his response was immediate. "The first day I met you... we had lunch at Saltgrass Steakhouse, and I'll never forget that beautiful smile on your face. I knew then that you were someone special."

We traded stories for the better part of the evening. We remembered how I left for Dallas to spend a week with my brother and sister-in-law immediately after that lunch meeting. He called me every night I was there. He said he didn't want me to forget about him... And I didn't. In fact, I started looking forward to his call.

Our official first date was July 4, 2011. He picked me up on his Harley trike, and we rode the freeway that circled downtown, pulling off to watch Freedom Over Texas, the fireworks extravaganza flashing from Eleanor Tinsley Park and exploding over Buffalo Bayou. The official first date ritual is repeated every year... Last summer we celebrated by riding the trike to College Station to watch the fireworks being launched from the George Bush Presidential Library. Instead of staying on the trike, we hauled camp chairs out on one of the Aggie soccer fields and held hands while we oohed and awed at the splendor.

Our first kiss was in a Houston parking lot in front of a Souper Salad on West Gray. I'd been giving him a hug and a peck on the cheek for several dates in a row, but on this particular night he was pressing for the real deal. So... What can I tell you? Souper Salad is now closed on West Gray. (Honest.) To give you more details might be TMI. However, we love retelling that first kiss story to each other.

Our first fight.... Okay, you get the idea. No need for you to know the details of every story. You can know this: Ronnie and I  remember not only the fights, but more importantly, the lessons we learned from those careless misunderstandings and humongous arguments we've had.

We have three years worth of Ronnie and Joyce stories, and we're adding more every day we're together. It's our personal narrative.

Why do we take time to remember them and retell them to each other? It allows us to reflect on the development of our relationship, the progress we are making as a couple, and the evolution of our love for one another. I think it's important for couples to do that so they don't get too settled and take each other for granted.

Time and again, Ronnie and I recount for one another the favorite chapters of our love story. He's no Prince Charming, and God knows, I'm not Cinderella, but I surely do like where the story is headed.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Writing in Alpine

I spent last week in Alpine at a summer writing retreat, sponsored by the Writers League of Texas. Writers swooped down on the tiny town from all corners of Texas and parts of Louisiana and Oklahoma. They were writers of fiction, non-fiction, memoir, and poetry, and like me, they came to explore their craft--with each other and with the pros who make up the WLT faculty.

This is my third year at the retreat. My sweeties comes with me every year and hangs out while I'm in class. At night we go out and do fun things... for me anyway.

The first evening we gathered at a writing instructor's rented casita and watched the sky turn orange, red, purple, deepening to navy as the sun sunk behind the Davis Mountains while a version of King Ranch casserole cooked in the oven. We listened to the night birds, watched billy goats across the road, slapped at biting mosquitoes, and talked about the juicy alchemy of Alpine on the writer's soul.

The second evening a panel, comprised of the WLT faculty, fed our curiosity with details about their successful writer lives. Although these journalists, authors, and poets seemed to have fallen into their writing careers by accident or the intercession of a benevolent Fate, Joseph Campbell would be proud of their heroic quest to become noteworthy. We listened, infatuated by their stories, and yearned for our own benevolent Fate to favor us with the Holy Grail, a publishing contract.

The third evening three of us drove to nearby Marfa and sat on the patio of the Hotel Paisano where Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, Natalie Wood and other cast members stayed while filming the movie Giant. We watched other tourists and a couple of ranchers and their families enjoy the cool desert evening and a fine meal. We had the restaurant's signature entrĂ©e: pistachio crusted fried steak, garlic mashed potatoes, and fresh string beans. If you want to know how to charge $16 for a chicken fried steak, I just told you. Alas, even though it was past eight o'clock when we headed back home, it was too early to see the Marfa lights.

The fourth evening we met up with 2008 Texas Poet Laureate Larry Thomas and his wife Lisa in the Holland Hotel bar. My sweetie and several writer friends are partial to the margaritas there. Larry, an Alpine resident transplanted from Houston, pumped us for city news while we envied his and Lisa's languid life in the Big Sky Country. Afterwards we went to the public library to hear fellow workshop participants read their work. Yes, I was the designated driver, and happy to be of service.

The fifth night we fretted over our approaching departure. This annual summer retreat is grueling work, but I am so viscerally affected, being among this tribe of writers who migrate to the desert every August, that I feel a deep sadness when it is time to leave.

Sunday, August 3, 2014


Let me say upfront that I don’t believe in writer’s block. However, I do believe in being stuck. 

Chuck Sambuchino recently tweeted a column he wrote previously for Writer’s Digest about finding ways to increase writing productivity by focusing on brainstorming. The advice includes excellent ways to get unstuck.

He lists five brainstorming opportunities: while driving, while doing chores, while falling asleep, while cooking, and while waiting (in line or in the reception area of the doctor’s office).

Two of his five are favorites of mine. I especially like to “sleep on it” when I’m having problems with a scene. Sambuchino writes: "Think about your novel as you fall asleep, envisioning scenes as if they're in a movie,"  and I do exactly that. I play different scenes in my head and rewind and edit and replay until I figure out what my character does or says next. 

I also "daydream" about plot twists and scene sequels while I'm waiting to see the dentist or the dermatologist or the physician. (Amazing how many doctors I have to see on a regular basis now that I'm on the north side of sixty.) 

His other suggestions are not on my list. I need to pay attention when I'm driving, especially on Houston freeways. Getting lost in thoughts about my novel could be as risky as texting. As for cooking, I prefer getting lost in the creative process of making a recipe my own, so I leave story-crafting outside the kitchen.

Doing chores? No, thank you. I pay other people to do those bothersome but necessary chores. Doing so leaves me more time to write.