Sunday, May 23, 2010

Up Penny's Nose

I can’d breade.

I was so looking forward to the spring weather, after all that rain in our Valley. I couldn’t wait to go outside, enjoy the sunshine and smell the roses. Now I’m afraid to step foot out there for fear of breathing all that toxic air. I’ve never been this stuffed up. The culprit: Super Pollen.

Right now I’m living on Mucinex, Flonase, and Hall’s cherry menthol throat lozenges. My eyes are as red as a demon’s and they itch as if I have poison oak. My nose glows like Rudolph’s and drips faster than a leaky faucet.

My throat is so scratchy, I want to shove a back-scratcher down my craw. Every time I sneeze, the sound scares young children and cats, and the spray soaks my “Life is Good” t-shirt so much, I have to change it each time I have a blow out. I’m on my fourth shirt today.

Apparently this is just the beginning. Allergy season is supposed to be worse than ever this year, especially in our lush, green valley. The experts say we’re dealing with more pollen because of that seemingly endless wet winter.

I recently learned that a simple oak tree produces up to 6,000 particles of pollen per cubic meter – whatever that means. But I can do the math when I hear it only takes ten particles to trigger an allergic reaction. Since all the plants held off blooming this year, they decided to pop out all at once, sending the pollen count into the stratosphere – literally and figuratively. When the wind comes along, it blows that pollen right up my nose.

These days I read “Pollen Reports” in the newspaper before I read the front page. Right now the pollen count is “Level Orange” and the pollen alert is for “trees, grass, dirt, mud, flowers, weeds and dust bunnies.” No doubt tomorrow they’ll have added “streets, buildings, land masses, and the planet in general.”

I’m glued to the TV news so I can watch “Pollen-Tracker Devastation.” As soon as the show is over, I close the windows, bolt the doors, and hide under the bed, since I don’t have a basement to escape to.

Someone said I could take steroids to cope with the symptoms, but I’m afraid of bulking up my arms too much and trying to explain the stuff when it’s found in my urine at airline checkpoints and Olympic events. Besides, I don’t want to go through all those skin pinpricks, only to find I’m allergic to everything from my cats to my husband. (Which I already knew.)

If I go out to the pharmacy to restock my meds, I’m supposed to wear sunglasses to protect my eyes, a bandit handkerchief over my nose and mouth to block out air, and a haz-mat jumpsuit over my shorts and tank top. It’s also recommended that I vacuum the rugs, wash the bedding, and clean the house frequently to suck up the varmints in their hiding places.

Like I’m going to do that. I’d rather sneeze to death.

Luckily there are still lots of meds I can try—Zyrtec, Claritin, Sudafed, Allegra, Chocolate. Meanwhile, I’ll put on my burka when I go outside, try not to breathe too much while I’m under the bed, and just be thankful spring has finally sprung.

Could be worse. Could be raining.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

“It was a dark and stormy night…”

I love beginnings, and boy, that’s a classic. I love the promise that beginnings offer—from the first day of class with a room full of new students to a new book with a story full of new characters. I especially love writing the beginning to my next book, and watching the story unfold right under my fingertips.

While beginnings are exciting to write, they’re also a little terrifying. I know that if my first string of words on page one doesn’t catch an agent, editor, reviewer, or reader’s attention, it doesn’t much matter what follows. By then I’ve already lost the opportunity to take someone on my story ride.

They say you should face your fears, so following that advice, I studied the craft of creating a compelling opening line by reading the beginnings of my favorite books. Over the years I’ve learned what really grabs me from that first line, and keeps me reading until that last line.

Here are some examples of my favorite beginnings and clues to why they’re so compelling.

#1. The mystery is puzzling and the reader wonders what’s going to happen next.
“Sheriff Dan Rhodes knew it was going to be a bad day when Bert Ramsey brought in the arm and laid it on the desk.” - Bill Crider, SHOTGUN SATURDAY NIGHT
Okay, Crider, I’m hooked. You’ve got me wondering where that arm came from, why Bert Ramsey laid it on Sheriff Rhodes’ desk, and what’s going to happen next. And I’m not going to stop reading until I find out.

#2. The clock is already ticking.
“Arriving at my office in New Haven that sunny morning, I at once discovered three unwelcome facts: There was a dead man in my swivel chair. There was blood on my new green desk blotter. And my telephone was ringing.”- Mary Kittredge, POISON PEN
This opening line sounds so warm and cozy at first, but by the time we’re finished reading it, we’ve got a dead man in a swivel chair, blood on a blotter, and most importantly, someone on the other side of a ringing phone. Could it be the killer? The cops? Or just her mother calling to see how her date went last night? Inquiring minds won’t rest until that clock stops ticking.

#3. The reader can immediately relate to the character or situation.
“Smiling serenely in the September sun, Rose Bell strolled along Regent Street; mentally she was miles away, having her husband neutered like the cat.” - Peter Lovesey, ON THE EDGE
Any book that makes me LOL on the first line has got to be a winner. Especially if I can relate to the day-dreaming protagonist. (Or is she the antagonist?) I’m going to have to read the whole book to find out what’s up. I just hope the cat isn’t harmed any more than he…er, it… already has been…
#4. The beginning implies a crime has been or is about to be committed.
“The sexual tension in the air was so thick you could cut it with a knife. Unfortunately, all I had was a pair of chopsticks.” - Alison Gordon, SAFE AT HOME.
Been there. Know that feeling. Where’s a knife when you need one? I want to know a lot more about all that sexual tension, not to mention the chopsticks, and where it’s going to lead.

#5. The story begins in the middle of the action.
“I was trapped in a house with a lawyer, a bare-breasted woman, and a dead man. The rattlesnake in the paper sack only complicated matters.”- Earl Emerson, FAT TUESDAY
When I find myself in the middle of the story—at the beginning—I’m quickly caught up in those little complications that make me want to speed-read through the rest of the book. With a beginning like the one above, involving a lawyer, a half-naked woman, and a dead man, my appetite is immediately whetted. The snake in the sack is the frosting on the cake.

#6. The characters, setting, or plot are vivid and real.
“They were trying to kill me and I had to pee.” - Frank McConnell, THE FROG KING.
Wish I’d written that. I can totally relate. Not about the part where someone is trying to kill me, but I do know what it’s like to have to pee. Especially when I’m hooked on a book and can’t put it down, not even for a trip to the bathroom.

#7. The book begins with conflict, action, or a question.
“Thursday, March 17, I spent the morning in anxiety, the afternoon in ecstasy, and the evening unconscious.” - Dick Francis, RISK
To me, the master of the opening line is Dick Francis. In one opening line, he’s included all three elements—conflict, action, and a question. Frankly, I couldn’t care less about horse-racing. In fact, I avoid books with sports in them. But Dick Francis could hook me on his books even if he were writing about lint. He knows how to start a story with an opening line will have me leaping through the pages like a jockey on a winning horse.

If you have some favorite beginnings you especially love, feel free to share them. Unless, of course, you’re busy dealing with a rattlesnake, your telephone is ringing, or you have to pee.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Happy GRANDmother's Day

TODAY IS GRANDMOTHER'S day! Oh, it's not? It's Mother's Day? Well, it should be Grandmother's Day.

After all, we're the ones who brought those mothers into the world. Now that our daughters are mothers themselves, we Queen Mothers have been pushed to the sidelines while our good advice is ridiculed and our wisdom is ignored.

But where would our young mothers be without us? Aren't we the ones who baby-sit at the last minute when their regular sitters call in sick? Don't we fix those big family meals on Sunday evening that bring all the grown kids and grandkids together?

And aren't we the ones our grandkids run to when they need a new toy, a piece of candy, or a game of Chutes and Ladders?

I love being a grandmother. I get all the fun with little of the angst. All I have to do is act incompetent and the kids shake their heads and do all the dirty work for me.

I don't have to change diapers anymore, not since I put an extra-large on the infant and stuck the toddler's diaper on backward. Funny how I've forgotten how to do such a simple task.

I can let the grandkids get dirty in the mud, because I don't have to wash their clothes. I can serenade them with songs from the 80s and they don't even roll their eyes. I can give them a bite of my brownie without worrying about tooth decay or a spoiled appetite. And if they don't want to take a nap at grandmother's house, they don't have

Grandmothering has changed over the years. Back in the day — my grandmother's day — becoming a grandparent meant rocking chairs, knitted shawls, bunion powders, and blue hair tints. But grandmothers today are generally active adults who work, attend college, travel the world, and stay active — but who still want to spend time with our precious — and precocious grandkids.

What we bring is attitude. I think of myself as a subversive grandmother who not only likes to bake cookies and read stories to the grandkids, but who also enjoys playing with Slime, whipping up a Kitty Litter Cake, making up secret codes, dressing like a pirate, getting a fake tattoo, and dancing to the Black Eyed Peas.

We grandmothers are going to take over the world. In 2006, there were 80 million grandparents in the U.S. This year there will be 115 million! We're younger when we become grandmothers (49-53), we live longer, spending up to 30 or 40 years as grandparents, and half of us will become great-grandparents.

A bunch of us know how to tell the difference between a PlayStation and a Wii, why tattoos and piercings aren't signs of devil worship, how to operate an iPod, download on iTunes, use an iPhone, play an Xbox game, and even understand what ROTFLMAO means (Rolling on the floor laughing my ass off).

Sometimes we go by aliases, such as Big Mamma, Glamma, G'Ma, Queen Mother, or Moneybags, instead of using the "grandmother" title. Either way you look at it, we're here to stay.

So I'm celebrating Grandmother's Day today by trading the knitted shawl for a leather jacket, the fuzzy slippers for running shoes, and the rocking chair for a Mini Cooper — because I still rock.

Just remember, "What happens at Grandmother's, stays at Grandmother's!"

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Perfect Graduation Party from Kindergarten through College

By Penny Warner with Balloon Time Helium Balloon Kits

Parties are a great way to celebrate a graduate’s achievement with family and friends. Here are some ideas to help you host a party with lots of pomp and circumstance, whether your student is graduating from kindergarten, high school or college.

Grade A Invitations
Make a grad cap invitation from black cardstock tied with a tassel and write details in silver ink. Or, make personalized report cards with party details added. If you’re celebrating a little one’s graduation, use lots of block letters and a variety of colors – even let the guest of honor get involved in decorating the invitations with crayons or colored markers. For a high school graduate, including “Before” and “After” pictures of the guest of honor is a creative way to show the student’s progress throughout the years.

Use school photos to decorate the party scene. Then, enlarge one of the recent photos and add it to a “Class of …” banner. For added fun, have guests autograph the banner and add words of advice for the future.

You can also decorate the party space with balloons in the graduate’s school colors. Affix balloon bouquets and clusters to party tables, signage and tents.

Games & Activities
To celebrate the graduate’s achievement, invite your guests to help make a memory book. Have a table with craft materials and ask guests share a memory and decorate a page. Be sure to ask guests to bring photos and keepsakes from the years to include in the book. Then, use the pages to create a graduation scrapbook. Don’t forget to take photos at the party to capture all the memories.

When it comes to the menu, have some fun by giving each dish a school-themed name, such as “Chip off the old block,” “Honor rolls,” and “Brownie-noser.” And give your entrees names such as “Science Experiment Surprise,” “Biology Broccoli” and “Kindergarten Paste Pasta.”

Create “fortune balloons” by writing predictions and words of wisdom on slips of paper then inserting them into balloons and inflating. Give the fortune balloons to guests and have them pop the balloons to get their fortunes.

Penny Warner has more than 25 years of experience as an author and party planner. She has published more than 50 books, including 16 specific to parties. Additionally, Warner writes a weekly newspaper column on family life, penned a column for Sesame Street Parents magazine and has appeared on several regional and national TV morning programs. Her latest book, HOW TO HOST A KILLER PARTY, debuted in February 2010 from NAL/Penguin.