Monday, April 18, 2016

In Which Keely Keeps Her Pillow, So There

Every so often, I get on a Walden Pond tear and decided it's time to declutter (why dictionaries don't yet recognize that as a word is something I don't understand). I winnow out my clothes, chase down tchotchkes, renew order to closets. Of course there are sacred cows in my home, things that remain safe from the chopping block year in and year out. Including the subject of today's post. 

I’ll let you in on a little secret. I have a throw pillow so beyond “tired” I hide its original casing under a more respectable cover so it won't freak people out when they visit. 

Respectable Outer Wrappings by J. Keely Thrall

In the weeks before heading off to my first year of college, my stepmother and I were shopping in one of those discount stores that carry STUFF. Cool stuff, useless stuff, wearable stuff, edible-if-you-don’t-care-about-expiration-dates stuff. Potential this-needs-to-come-to-college-with-me stuff. 

We walked past an end cap and there it was. The Pillow. Ugly-cute. So many light-years away from my style, it still amazes me that it landed in our cart. It matched nothing in my burgeoning suite of heading-to-school items. Tacky, I thought. Cringe-worthy, I feared. Eyebrows-raised-what-was-I-thinking-recrimination-worthy, I knew.

But bloody hell, I fell for that pillow, hard. 

Grumpy pillow! Photo by J. Keely Thrall
So hard, I still have it nearly thirty years later. Today, the spun fiber filling is clumpy and unfluffable. The beige background has some suspicious staining. It's missing a lot of its surface stitching. 

But that face. That grumpy-before-Grumpy-Cat-was-cool face. That not-found-in-nature eye color. That This-Deserved-Velvet-attitude of the portrait’s subject.

How, I ask, can I throw that away?

I can’t.

And since it still give me a spark of joy, Marie Kondo (mistress of tidying up) says I don't have to. 


What about you? Are you a tosser or a keeper? Do you have the equivalent of a security piddow whose super powers you hide in Clark Kent style outer garments? Or is that just me?

Monday, April 11, 2016

90 Pounds and Counting: Just Keep Swimming

Wow, it sucks to write this, but it's true: I have gained more weight. Sigh. I wish I had some deep insight or reasonable explanation, but it's just the same old, same old. I don't mind saying that I'm a little discouraged. But it ain't over! My plan is to follow the advice I've given myself in previous posts, and just keep at it. I'll be back on May 30th, and we'll see how things are at that point.

Two titles I had considered for this post were: "I Got Nothin'" and "WTF?" but instead, I went with "Just Keep Swimming," because sometimes, that's all we can do. So here's a little bit of Dory from Finding Nemo, singing my personal anthem. I hope that where every you are in your personal journey(ies), you are also swimming forward towards your goal! See you in a few weeks.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Beauty and The Beast and The Rockville 8

Question: who loves fairy tales more than romance writers? Answer: pretty much nobody. And one of the most enduring and romantic fairy tales is Beauty and the Beast. So today, we at the R8 thought it would be fun to discuss our favorite versions of this multi-faceted and much-loved fairy tale.

Misha Crews

Which version is your favorite? Like everyone, I adore the 1991 Disney version (a book-loving Beauty, plus Jerry Orbach and Angela Landsbury? What's not to love?). But I think my favorite is the 1978 book by Marianna and Mercer Mayer.

Why this one? It's the first time I remember being exposed to this story. And even as a child, I was touched and fascinated by the idea that even the meanest, creepiest beasts might have a tender side. Maybe there's a reason why they roar and rampage. In addition to the romance, this story helped teach me to look past the exterior and realize that with everyone - beauties, beasts, and betweeners - there is always something going on underneath.

Mackenzie Lucas

Which version is your favorite?
Really, the only version I know is the Disney version. I'm sure there is a Grimm Brothers version or a Hans Christen Anderson version, but I've never read any of them or really seen any other versions televised on in the movies. So I'm sticking with Disney's Beauty & The Beast.

Why this one?
What's not to love? Dancing candle sticks and clocks. Plates and forks and teapots that sing? It's magical. Seriously. And the beast is a good guy underneath his bluster. Plus, there's just something attractive to me about a man who needs to be tamed. And I think Belle does a mighty fine job of it in this version. I also adore that she's bookish. ;0)

What one thing (if any) do you wish that version had handled differently, and why?
I wouldn't really change anything about this version. The part I personally had the most anxiety over was when Gaston leads the whole village to rise up against the Beast. For some reason that kind of injustice tweaks me the wrong way--kind of a falsely accused trope that I really hate. Jumps all over my sense of justice nerve.

I do believe that the Beauty and the Beast trope is a core story I use often in my own fiction. Sometimes the woman is the Beast and sometimes it's the man. Either way, love heals and tames all. Gotta love it.

Lisa McQuay

My Favorite Version:

My favorite version is the first version I saw, starring George C. Scott and Trish Van Devere (real-life husband and wife).

Why this one?

Trish is so luminous in this version and George is appropriately prickly and ill-mannered as the Beast. I liked the moody and mystical quality this production had.

What would I have handled differently?

I remember being slightly disappointed as a young girl that George wasn’t younger and more of a Disney-like hero. As an adult, I see that there’s a sexy quality and intensity to him that is quite attractive. I wouldn’t change a thing.

J. Keely Thrall

Which version is your favorite?

Well, I adore the Disney version. A heroine with brown hair like me! And she reads! And what a cute beast. Love your whiskers and your library, dude! But for this occasion, I’m going with Beast by Judith Ivory. It’s an historical romance, but set around the turn of the 20th century, still not an era often visited in romance. Its heroine is Louise, a young woman so beautiful men go slack-jawed when they see her. Our hero is Charles, a French sophisticate who is blind in one eye, scarred, and walks with a limp. Definitely a little beasty boy in the looks department.

Why this one?

Ivory’s writing style is lush and textured, her conflicts heartfelt yet emotionally grown up. This couple’s issues are not easily solved “if only they would sit down at talk it over.” Their HEA is hard fought, passionate, and satisfying.

What one thing (if any) do you wish that version had handled differently, and why?

I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m a consummate re-reader of books. I will read a story into the ground if I love it hard enough. But the opposite is true for me, too, and this book falls in the latter category. I was so entranced while devouring Beast that I knew reading it again would be like trying to get back-to-back holes-in-one on the golf course. Sure, the second ace is cool, but that sense of surprise, awe, and uniqueness is somehow lessened with the repetition.

For nearly 20 years I’ve held my full immersion into Ivory’s world locked deep in my heart, a “pure romance” epiphany that needed no further enhancement (for this same reason I’ve not been able to re-read Lord of Scoundrels [another iteration of Beauty and the Beast, perhaps??]. Thinking about Beast for this post makes me wonder: with 20 years more reading and 15ish years of writing under my belt, is it time to take Beast off the shelf and see whether it continues to live up to my hype?

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Easter That Wasn’t Easter

This was a weird Easter. I didn’t do all of the normal things I do each Easter. Instead, my daughter returned late last night from a three-day school trip to New York. She saw three plays and did a tour of the city. It was the first time she has been away from us other than staying with friends and family. She’s been talking about all of her adventures, excited and happy about her trip and proud of herself for navigating it without her parents.

I wasn’t as nervous about it as I thought I’d be. Yes, she was being chaperoned. But it was more than that. I had faith in her. I knew that she’d take care of herself. Her father and I have tried to instill independence in her. However, she is innately self-reliant.  Even when she was a toddler, if she fell or hurt herself, she generally wouldn’t cry. She just wanted to get back to what she was doing. She learned to put her own seatbelt on in the car seat and would get angry if I tried to do more than check it at the end. As soon as she could walk she wanted to push the stroller rather than ride in it. Her mantra was “I do, I do, I do!”

It gives me a pang to think about her leaving home. The next few years are going to be a transition to preparing to eventually turn over the reins of her life to her. I’m learning to be ok with that. But I’m glad that it isn’t happening tomorrow because I’m not quite ready yet. But I’m working on it.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Finding Peace in the Midst of Chaos

A few weeks ago, I had an epic meltdown. Let me back up a moment. I’m not one given to drama. I don’t do Diva. I don’t do personal meltdowns. I handle life as it comes. I weather through. Usually quietly. Often confidently. Pushing ahead and never looking back, I take one day at a time as it comes and plow through the tasks ahead of me. Yet, there, on a quiet Saturday afternoon and into evening, I found myself in the middle of the perfect storm of gargantuan meltdowndom. Ugly cry, sobbing meltdown. To be fair, I was at the point of exhaustion. I had a big test coming up in two days and felt ill-prepared. I hadn’t finished judging all my RITA books. I had a to-do list that stretched across my desk--the biggest of which was to pull together my tax information in order to do taxes. Heck, that would stress anyone out, right? This was so unlike me. I had no clue what was going on. But as I sat there doing the ugly hiccup sob, I finally came to the realization that I felt totally alone in the world. I was lonely. While I had a million things to do and I was alone in my house, a meltdown held me captive because I was ALONE.

What? Yeah, the realization slapped me up alongside the head, too. For years, all I’ve wanted was to be alone. To find one moment to myself. Away from the chaos of being a working mother and a wife and a writer. And now that I find myself with time to call my own, I’m struggling with the idea of a lonely road stretching out ahead of me. The path is not an easy one for me to contemplate.

As I’ve talked in previous posts, I’m in transition. My nest is emptying. The second of my three sons leaves for college in August. So my house has gotten quieter and quieter. My sons need me less. Or less in the way that they’ve always needed me. They’re more self-sufficient. They make their own meals. Get themselves to practice and school. Do their own laundry. Have their own social lives. I know, I’ve raised good, self-sufficient modern men, right? Yes. Perfect. Good job, mom. So why does this leave me feeling empty? It could be because I also find myself alone a lot more than I’ve ever been. And when you’ve been used to chaos and busyness for the past twenty years, it’s hard to downshift to a slower pace of home life and not feel it in your gut like a sucker punch.

And, really, it’s not like the pace of my work life has slowed down at all. I basically work three jobs besides my job as mother. I am busy. Yet, my axis has shifted. My world no longer revolves primarily around my kids and their well-being and activities. While they are still a huge part of my life, and thus in the same orbit, they’re no longer the big focal point. Everything does not revolve around them. So what do you do with that, when suddenly your time is your own and you find yourself alone? Not only alone, but lonely?

In that moment, that night, all I could do was cry. When I’d cried all I could, I took a hot bath, had a stiff drink, then crawled into bed and flipped on the television. One of my favorite new shows, Lucifer, was airing. So while I lay in bed, trying to catch my breath and breathe, I also crawled out of my own head--stopped navel-gazing--and submersed myself in someone else’s story. It didn’t take long for me to fall asleep. Yes, by shortly after nine o’clock on a Saturday night, I was fast asleep. By one-thirty in the morning I woke up and felt so much better. Like myself.

I took four important lessons away from my meltdown. This may not be a roadmap to peace for everyone, but it was a roadmap to my peace that night, and you might be able to use it as well.

One, during my meltdown, my girlfriends texted me. Kismet? Serendipity? God? Call it what you will. But in the middle of one of my darkest moments to-date, my friends who were getting together without me that night, reached out to me. They tried to cajole me to come join them, but I couldn’t. I was a puddle. A hot mess. Unfit for company. But what I did gain from that interaction was assurance that I was loved. Truly loved. I have great friends. Friends who often tell me they care for me and love me and who back it up with actions. So while my emotions told me I was physically all alone at that moment, I was reassured that while miles and miles away, my friends loved me, were thinking of me, and were connecting with me.

Two, you need to take care of yourself. Part of that self-care came in the form of soaking in a hot, lavender-scented bath while sipping bourbon. For some it might be eating ice cream. When we crave comfort, we need to find something that comforts us. Not something that works for someone else. But in a tiny way feed a need to be taken care of and treated to something special that we enjoy. Two of my favorite things are hot baths and bourbon. So, voila. Instant comfort.

Three, when you’re exhausted emotionally, spiritually, and physically, sometimes, the best thing you can do is go to sleep. Take a nap or go to bed early. Crawling into bed that early on a Saturday night is unheard of for me--I’m a night owl--however, it was the most helpful thing I could do for myself at that moment. Proven by the fact that after four solid hours of sleep, I felt like a brand new me. Yeah, can we say exhaustion takes an emotional toll?

Four, sometimes you just need to get out of your own head. Escape all the swirling thoughts. Read a good book. Watch a favorite movie or television show. Pull out your manuscript and work on your work-in-progress. Submerge your brain in someone else’s problems, in someone else’s story. When you come back to your reality, eventually, you’ll have given your brain a much-needed rest so that it can problem solve and find solutions for all those pesky, persistent issues that still nag at you.

I have no doubt that my days of meltdown are not totally behind me. I’ve got a long way to go in this transition phase as I face the emptying nest with milestones over the next five months and into the next two years. I’m working hard to keep myself healthy and strong, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. However, some days the perfect storm will hit. When it does next time, I believe I have a contingency plan. A way to find level ground and see my way free. I can’t promise I won’t go through it again, but, I can be confident that I’ll see my way though the chaos to a place of peace again because I’ve done it at least once before. Serenity hovers in my future, even if I am flailing in chaos because I've found my way through the chaos in the past and peace did return.

So tell me how you find peace in the midst of chaos when your life feels like it’s swirling out of control? I’d love to hear from you.

Monday, March 7, 2016

In Which Keely Fangirls over Kit Rocha and the Magic of Series in Romance

Like all avid readers, I'm always on the lookout for new-to-me authors, preferably ones with a backlist of titles that I can tear through like a hot knife through butter.

Even better are the authors who deliver consistent high-quality reads within a series. Whether it's continuing characters from book to book (like our own Nic's Jamie and Barrett or J. D. Robb's Eve Dallas and Roarke) or something else that holds the series together - a threat to society, a small town community, a family saga - there is something addictive about returning to the a specific world to get your fix.

The peeps over at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books send out an email on Fridays with a round up of romances that are sale (if you don't already subscribe, I totally recommend you do!). A couple of weeks ago, they recommended the first in a series by Kit Rocha called Beyond Shame. It sounded intriguing enough to give it a try...and at the time it was free (and as of today, it looks like it's still free). Nothing to lose but a little time if I didn't like it, right?

Nothing to lose but every single free minute from the last two weeks.

I read book 1. I devoured book 2. I bought the series bundles (there are three) and pre-ordered book 7. Today, I'm mourning the fact that book 8 doesn't come out until idon'tknowwhenboohoohoo.

Hot knife through butter.

So what caught me? Well, interestingly, it wasn't the sex. Which is plentiful (as befits an erotica) and h-o-t (ditto).

No, it was the community. Rocha builds a society of misfits who come together in adversity to build a family that isn't beholden to doing anything "the old way." Unlike in the ubiquitous motorcycle club titles on the market or some of the BDSM-leaning romance I've read, the protagonists in Rocha's books are fighting to make their world a level playing field for men and women. These stories aren't about humiliation, or playing by some set of hard and fast rules, or even equality.

Ultimately, for me, Rocha's world is about human dignity.

That sounds pretty heavy and I promise, it's not. If you simply want to read about a group of hard drinking booze smugglers who like to fight and have a lot of filthy, fun sex, you're in luck. You can have exactly that read. If you're interested in something a little more, a bit richer, well, damn, you've got a twofer going here, because it's not hard to glean Rocha's message of positive gender politics while enjoying a series of well written, whip-smart romance.

Have you read Rocha? Are there other series or authors you've sucked down in big greedy gulps?

Monday, February 29, 2016

95 Pounds and Counting: Backsliding, and Complacency vs. Self Esteem

So, yes, it's true: I have "backslid" to an alarming degree. And to be brutally honest, one of the reasons this post is late is that I wasn't sure what the heck I could say about the situation. Even as I type these words, I'm still not sure. Let's find out....

A Quick Recap

(You can find my previous weight loss posts at this link.)

In 2010, I weighed in at 365 pounds. Five years later, in June 2015, I had lost 100 pounds. I hit my lowest point in umpteen years on September 15, when I weighed 250. (Cue the happy dance.)

I regained a little weight after moving house in October, but when last I posted, I was maintaining my weight in the low 260s and feeling good about myself. Even after going on vacation over Christmas, I managed to maintain. Since returning home, however, I have gotten lax both with diet and exercise. Cue the frowny-face.

So What the Heck Happened?

This is the question I've been asking myself. And the rock-bottom truth is this: I got complacent. I allowed "feeling good about myself" to slide into "feeling so good about myself that I stopped taking care of myself," which is kind of a silly thing to do.

Wondering where the real difference between these two attitudes lies, I have decided to consult the dictionary (or at least, the online dictionary).

Complacency vs. Self-Esteem

Here's how defines self-esteem:

a realistic respect for or favorable impression of oneself; self-respect.

"Realistic respect." Nice, right? That's what I was feeling at the end of December, when I wrote this post.

So, now let's take a look at the other end of the spectrum. Here's the definition of complacency:

a feeling of quiet pleasure or security, often while unaware of some potential danger, defect, or the like; self-satisfaction or smug satisfaction with an existing situation, condition, etc.

"Quiet pleasure… unaware of some potential danger… smug satisfaction with an existing situation." Boom. That's my huckleberry. I've been a little too satisfied with where things are. I need to find my hunger for change again, instead of just my hunger for French fries.

So, How Do I Turn Things Around?

Ugh. I wish the answer to that question were "order a pizza," but that's kind of what got me here in the first place.

Really, the best place for me to go is back to my old stand-bys: walking and salad. It's funny to write that, it seems so simple, but those two little things lie at the core of the success I've had in losing weight.  But the tricky thing is that I'm now in a new place, with a new schedule, and am combatting both loneliness (I'm not afraid to say it: I miss my friends!), and a fair amount of boredom (I also miss my day job… or to be more accurate, I miss having a place to go every day). (Recently, the places I've been going on a daily basis all have calories as their final destination, which explains a lot.)

So, I need to take my old successful actions and fit them into my new life. And I can do that… I think. To make it official, though, I should really make a list. (I don't get much done unless I have a list.) Here goes:

  • Walk a mile, at least four times a week. I prefer to walk at night (it's the vampire in me), so I'll set my walking time as 8:00 PM.
  • Eat two salads a day. For some reason I've lost my taste for the usual leaf lettuce, so I'm going to try some chewier greens: romaine, kale, arugula, spinach. When my enjoyment of the lighter greens resurfaces (and it always does, eventually) I'll work them back into my diet.
  • Start counting calories again. I used to use an app on my phone for this, but to shake things up I'm going to record what I'm eating by hand for a while. Maybe that will make it more interesting.
  • Give myself some motivation: I will go ahead and buy some jeans in a size smaller than my smallest size. What fun it will be to fit into those!

Ah, Catharsis

Well, as usual, writing this post has been extremely cathartic! Thank you all so much for letting me ramble and vent. I hope you've found all this at least a little entertaining, if not helpful.

My next post will be on April 11. It will be interesting to see where my weight will be at that point!

And What About You?

That's enough about me. What about you? Do you have any stories to share? All stories - whether of frustrations or successes - are always welcome. Any inspiration for me? Commiseration? Advice?