Thanks, Winter!

Here in the Midwest, you get used to the temperature changing in the blink of an eye. One day you might have 50-degree (10 Celsius) weather; the next, a steady snowfall with a temperature of 24 (-4 Celsius). I can thank my friend Winter for that.


Thanks, Winter, though you’re not officially due till next month. But it’s nice that you made your presence felt over the weekend. There was nothing gradual about you, was there? No, you kept snow falling late Friday night and practically all day Saturday. And you’re still here, clinging to the grass, trees, sidewalks, and streets with your icy sheen. I slipped on some ice Sunday and narrowly avoided a face plant, thanks to the quick thinking of a friend who grabbed my arm.


But, Winter, I can thank you for the way you lace the trees with snow. On my drive to church Sunday, the trees on both sides of the road were so beautifully dressed. I couldn’t get a photo of them because (a) I was driving at the time and (b) my phone had died. But the scene was like a postcard. Perhaps memories like that were simply meant to be savored in the moment and not shut away in a computer the way my other photos are.


But Winter, with the dichotomy of your hard edges and soft surfaces you remind me to be thankful for the way life is sometimes. Especially this year. I’ve endured the hardness of failure and a parent’s serious illness as well as the softness of caring people. But winter has taught me to find beauty in barrenness. Branches shorn of leaves wear the close-fitting garment of snow much better (IMHO) than evergreen trees. Winter’s barrenness makes spring’s renewal all the more vivid and celebratory. This makes me think that the barrenness of dashed hopes may someday give way to the celebration of a victory wrought by persistence. One can only hope.

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So with Thanksgiving rolling around and you as an early guest, Winter, thanks for the reminder that seasons change. And in the changes, good and bad, I can still give thanks.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

Happy Thanksgiving 14

Thanksgiving sign from Other photos by L. Marie.

The View from the Waiting Room

phcc_waiting_roomOkay, once again I disappeared from cyberspace! Perhaps you wondered what happened. Last week I headed to the Houston area to be present for my mom’s surgery. (If you’re wondering why she needed surgery, click here. I avoided taking photos for the sake of privacy.)

Last Tuesday, bright and early, my dad, my older brother, and I headed with Mom to Memorial Hermann Hospital for the procedure, which took place in a surgical center on that medical campus. Yes that’s right. A surgical center. (Have you noticed that lately more and more procedures are done outpatient than in? I certainly have.)

Mom squeezed my hand as the nurse called her name, as if I were the one in need of reassurance. (She was right.) As she followed the nurse to get ready for the procedure, she seemed calm—totally ready to get the thing over with.

After Mom was prepped, her surgeon came out to the waiting area to talk to us about the procedure. I liked her immediately. Her warm, compassionate nature makes liking her easy. After looking her up on Google, I learned the inspiration for that compassion. When she was 13, her mom died of breast cancer. That gave her the impetus to pursue not just medicine, but breast cancer as a specialty. In fact, she’s one of the first surgeons in Houston to make breast cancer a specialty.

While we waited, we knocked back cup after cup of hot apple cider (my older brother drank that, since he gave up coffee) and coffee (Dad and I) thanks to the Keurig in the waiting room. Since I seemed to know what I was doing with the Keurig, I had to help others who were a little mystified by cup sizes.


While my dad dealt with paperwork, my brother and I slipped easily into a conversation with a man who waited for his mom’s surgery. That’s what happens in waiting rooms. You meet other people who would rather talk than sit there anxiously twiddling their thumbs.

Two hours later, out came the surgeon again with good news: the procedure went well. The tumor was a bit larger than she’d anticipated, which meant Mom had to have a drainage tube for a few days to prevent swelling. It came with a clear plastic grenade-shaped container that would have to be monitored and emptied every few hours.

When we took Mom home, monitoring and emptying that container were my tasks. But it was a privilege to do even that for the woman who did much more than that while raising me.

Having surgery was not the kind of birthday celebration I could have wished for Mom. But the procedure at least ensured that she would have more birthdays. After she heals up, she’ll undergo radiation to make those birthdays even more possible.

Watching Mom deal with cancer reminded me of the fragility of life. And soon after I returned home and the news broke about the terrorist attacks in Paris, I was reminded of that even more.

Cancer and acts of terror can cause us to push the panic button. But instead of giving in to helplessness and hopelessness, we can do what we need to do. Pray and take care of the people around us.


Waiting room from Cup of coffee from Pray for Paris image from

Bring Back the Joy

If you stopped by out of curiosity about who won the tea, I’ll get to the winner in a minute. (Click here if you’re not sure what that statement means.) But first, I have to mention something I read today. You might have heard about the Florida teacher whose resignation letter went viral. Click here for that story. Now that I’m in the middle of a curriculum assignment, I pay more attention to articles about teachers.


On Facebook, the teacher expressed an increasing frustration over a joyless education system, which led to her resignation. Well, the fact that she recently had a baby who will one day be educated in that same environment also played a factor in her resignation.

This isn’t the first post I’ve seen where someone expressed frustration or disgust over the current education expectations. But the fact that an excellent teacher was left disheartened made me sad. Since the letter went viral, others must share her frustration.

I don’t plan to argue for or against Common Core. In fact I can’t help thinking about another article I read, which explained why the answer to a math problem was marked wrong despite the fact that the answer was indeed right. (You can read that article here.) While I understand the author’s explanation, I can see a child’s or a parent’s confusion with it, especially if the goal for learning this way seemed convoluted or wasn’t explained at all.

I’ve heard experts say that “we have to be competitive” due to advances in technology. But if kids, parents, and great teachers are frustrated enough to want to quit, I have to wonder if we’re going in a good direction.


When I was a kid, I loved school. I had joy in learning new skills. Because of that, I try to instill the joy of learning in the activities I write for kids. But as this frustrated Florida teacher mentioned, for some the joy seems to be gone.

I’ve seen this kind of disillusionment in other fields where assessment rubrics have increased exponentially and employees are bogged down in paper work.

Is it any wonder that the video game industry has proliferated? A video game provides a means of escape—a way to wind down. Books can provide that too. Yet lately, I’ve read but did not finish several books geared toward kids that seemed as joyless as the education system seems to that teacher. Where has the joy gone?

In the past few months I’ve heard more kids say, “I want to be a video game designer” than I’ve heard say, “I want to be a teacher.”

Food for thought.

Speaking of food, let’s get to the winner of Trader Joe’s Harvest Blend Tea and the crocheted leaves.

Without further ado, that person is . . .


Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Penny of Lifeonthecutoff Blog

Penny, please comment below to confirm. Then please email your address.


Education clip art from and

Suits Me to a Tea

I’m a coffee drinker for the most part. But I love a good, hearty tea when the autumn weather turns nippy. How about you? A new favorite is Trader Joe’s Harvest Blend.


Recently, a friend and I conducted an informal taste test of herbal teas. Among the cinnamon tea blends, we concluded that Trader’s Joe Harvest Blend was the best tasting. This is our opinion, of course. Yet others who tried the tea quickly headed to the store to buy it. They then gave tea bags to other people who then bought their own box of the tea. Yes, my friend and I are tea pushers. The first bag is free. :-)

Isn’t it interesting that something steeped in hot water can produce such a rich, memorable flavor? Sounds like life, doesn’t it? (Work with me here. It sounds like life, doesn’t it? Just nod your head.) When we’re in hot water—troublesome circumstances—the flavor of our character is revealed. Are we bitter, as some tea is when steeped too long? Or do the “hot” circumstances bring out the best in us?

The subject came up as I recently pondered my reaction to disappointing expectations and problems. As others announced the joyous news of book deals, I contemplated the lack of positive news in my mailbox (including a no for the YA book I queried earlier this year). I soon realized that a thread of bitterness had crept in and wound itself around me, leaving me complaining and paralyzed. Kind of like a mummy in a sarcophagus. Only . . . mummies don’t really complain, do they? And if they’re of the undead variety, they’re not really paralyzed either. Instead, a mummy might break out of his or her sarcophagus and lurch about, terrorizing villages. So that metaphor is a bit labored. But you get what I mean.

A couple of quotes struck me recently:

Tom Ed quote 1-07-Harriet-1024x703

I guess it’s time for me to stop whining and do what I know to do: write and keep going. To celebrate the power of persistence, I’m giving away a box of this Harvest Blend Herbal Tea and some crocheted leaves. (If you want to know more about these leaves, click on crocheted leaves to get the pattern, which was designed by Michelle at The Painted Hinge blog.) I’ll choose a commenter at random. Feel free to comment on a tea you love or some aspect of autumn you love. Or talk about which quote above speaks to you. Perhaps you have another favorite quote about persistence. Winner to be announced Friday, November 6.


Thomas Edison quote from pinterest. Harriet Beecher Stowe quote from

The View from the Deck

Trip Photo 6 011

Hey, it’s been awhile. Sorry about that. I’ve missed my routine of posting and reading the posts of others. But my stress points had begun to stack up like billiard balls before the break. I needed to get away. So I headed to central Pennsylvania for a retreat—the perfect antidote for stress, thanks to the gracious hospitality of a friend. I wrote, walked, hung out with classmates, ate lots of good food, and made new canine friends. (Sorry. I don’t have permission to share photos of them. Suffice it to say that I enjoyed being with them.)

The sunrises and sunsets were glorious over the hills. Each day I enjoyed watching the poetry of the sky, a meter measured by my lowered heart rate and quieted spirit. You can’t buy this kind of peace, people.

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If you’ve been through Illinois, you know how flat the land is here. So the sight of any hill is a treat.

Trip Photo 13Trip Photo 11

Trip Photo 12   Trip Photo 2

But I’m glad to be back home in my familiar routine. By the way, Mom still awaits her insurance’s okay for treatment. (Very frustrating.) And I’m still waiting for other news too. If you have no idea what I mean, click here. I hope to return to my regular blog reading soon. :-)

Beaver Stadium at Penn State University

(not far from where I stayed)

Trip Photo 1

Woods near where I stayed

Trip Photo 4  Trip Photo 5

View from above (going home)

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First, You Cry

Isn’t it interesting how a piece of news can set your life on a course like a river rushing around a bend? I received two pieces of news recently. An agent asked for a full on my middle grade manuscript. (Please comment below if you aren’t sure what that means.) So awesome. I was totally over the moon. But then on the day after I turned in that manuscript, I received the other piece of news—one that immediately colored everything.

Mom had called to tell me the results of her recent MRI after two biopsies. “It’s cancer,” she said.

Everything within me shuddered to a halt. Cancer has a way of doing that, doesn’t it? It takes on gigantic proportions like darkness covering the sky.


I totally lost it on the phone. Now, imagine telling someone you have cancer, and as a result, that person bursts into a flood of tears so hard, you’re the one who has to comfort him or her. That’s what Mom had to do. But that’s what parents do. Though they’re the ones with the problem, the parent genes kick in and they do what’s necessary to comfort their children.

I couldn’t help being reminded of a book I read many years ago—First, You Cry by Betty Rollin. In it, she discusses how she dealt with having cancer. Well, here’s my process. As the title says, first, you cry. Then you get angry. Then you cry some more. Then you pray. Then you get angry. Rinse. Repeat.


After Mom’s consultation with the oncologist, I learned that Mom has a rare form of cancer—sweat gland cancer. Which means surgery again (yep—been there done that) and possibly radiation or chemotherapy. By the way, this is Mom’s third bout of cancer. I’ll let that sink in. Amazing isn’t it?

When someone you love has cancer, you can’t help seeing that some things in life aren’t really worth dwelling on. Arguments over who said what. Popularity contests. Power plays. They’re just so much noise. So much wasted energy and time.

I’ve wasted so much time worrying over stuff that doesn’t matter in the long run. What matters is what I have now. I have a mom who is a fighter. She’ll do what it takes to win the battle over cancer. The dark cloud might be here. But in the distance, light glimmers.

God has come.

Book cover from Goodreads. Cloud images from and

The Pros and Cons of Self-Checkout

Yes, today is a book giveaway. But first . . .

Have you noticed more and more self-checkout lanes recently? I have. I used to think self-checkout lanes were the next best thing since the invention of Reese’s peanut butter cups. After all, I could check my groceries quickly and go home to eat my Reese’s peanut butter cups. (Who am I kidding? I usually start on those as soon as I reach the car.)

walmart-self-checkout Reeses

But Self-checkout Lanes, I’m no longer feeling you, know what I mean? Because now I wonder if your population has increased to allow a company to get away with hiring fewer employees or laying off some. :-(

I recently walked into the branch of my bank and saw three employees. This branch had five times that amount a couple of years ago. Of the three, one quickly steered me toward using the ATM to make a deposit, instead of expecting him to do it. I’m not sure what else he planned to do, since I was the only customer in the bank. Perhaps give his full attention to the businesses making deposits in the drive-thru? Only people with business accounts are allowed to use the drive-thru. Makes me feel like a valued customer.

ATM Machine

Afterward, I shopped at a store with a ton of self-checkout lanes. The express lanes were closed to push people toward the self-checkout lanes. Meanwhile, a dozen employees raced about. Some stocked shelves. Some simply stood there, speaking into walkie-talkies. But none asked me if I needed help. So if the self-checkout lanes were set up to allow employees more time to help shoppers looking for items in the store, well, let’s just say I found Siri to be more helpful. I’ve had retail jobs. I know how difficult working with the public can be. But when a store seems to go out of its way to avoid dealing with me, I’m tempted to shop elsewhere.

The library installed more self-checkout machines. A librarian quickly pointed one out when I approached the circulation desk. I wanted to ask her, “Are you trying to point your way out of a job?” But I decided not to. I’m fairly certain I would be told how much more important other tasks are than checking out books. But if checking books out for a patron means one more librarian keeps his or her job, I would be all for that.

(By the way, I am aware of how hard librarians work. I have friends who are librarians. Believe it or not, I have applied for jobs at libraries and would have been more than happy to be the book checker.)

I’m reminded of a scene in the 2005 movie adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In that scene, Mr. Bucket lost his job to a machine at the toothpaste factory.


If you’re thinking, Don’t guilt trip me. I love using self-checkout lanes, rest assured that no one is interfering with your right to use those lanes. Labor-saving devices may save time and money. But I have to wonder if in the long run they’ll cost us more than we save.

Now let’s move on to the winner of Kate Sparkes’s fantasy novel, Torn. Click here for the interview with Kate.

torn_full  Kate author photo 4

That winner is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Charles Yallowitz!

Congrats, Charles! Please comment below to let me know if you’d like a print copy or an ebook!

Thank you to all who commented.

Peanut butter cups image from Wal-Mart self-checkout lanes from Noah Taylor as Mr. Bucket from Rotten ATM machine from classroom