When It Rains, It Pours

This weekend, we celebrated my younger brother and sister-in-law’s silver wedding anniversary with “a party of special magnificence.” (If you’re up on your fantasy novels, you’ll know that reference. If not, scroll down to the end of the post to find out where this quote came from.)

Yet the joy of the celebration was tempered not only by those who were invited but couldn’t come for various reasons, but especially by the arrival of Hurricane Harvey and the flooding of Houston. My parents and older brother and sister-in-law live on the outskirts of Houston. A tornado recently hit that area, thanks to the hurricane. Also, the sister of a friend lives in Corpus Christi where the hurricane landed.

After some phone calls, I’m relieved to mention that all are safe. Yet so many people are struggling right now, as you can see on the news, thanks to the rainfall.

My cousin, who had come to celebrate with us, mentioned that her husband is preparing to head down to Texas for storm duty. He works for an insurance company, so he has long hours of work ahead of him.

As the party wound down, we stared at all of the pans of untouched food, wondering what to do with them. My brother and sister-in-law finally decided to take the food to a nearby homeless shelter. Wouldn’t you know it? When they walked in, the workers told them that a record number of people had shown up that day and they weren’t sure what to serve them. In walked my brother and sister-in-law with the solution.

I sat outside after returning home from the party. The gray sky had a bruised sort of look to it, almost like it too mourned what was happening down in Texas. And I felt sort of bruised too. Bruised, but still hopeful.

Life certainly has some highs and lows, doesn’t it? From the wonder of the solar eclipse to the horror of Hurricane Harvey. There’s also the unrelenting sadness of homelessness. But as we saw on the news, people reached out to rescue those in Houston who were trapped in flooded homes. And a homeless shelter in Illinois was able to serve those in need, thanks to some party guests who didn’t show up.

P.S. The quote at the beginning is from the first paragraph of chapter 1 in The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien.

Photo by L. Marie.

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Life Off Camera

Happy Eclipse Day—the first total solar eclipse in 38 years that we’ll be able to see here in the States! Some friends traveled to Carbondale, Illinois for this occasion since that’s the place where it can be viewed the longest.

Try as I may, I’m not always able to capture, via my phone’s camera, all of life’s amazing moments. Like the time aliens took over New York, but were stopped by the Avengers (thus freeing us to all have shawarma at the end). Or the time when the evil peace-keeping robot (what an irony) threatened to destroy the world, and the Avengers had to help out again.

Okay, those events happened on the big screen, instead of in real life.

But I can’t help thinking of last week when I witnessed a territorial fight between two male hummingbirds. I immediately thought of Jill Weatherholt, a blogger/author you undoubtedly know. Lest you get the wrong idea, I didn’t think of her because of the fight. Jill has shown me photos of the hummingbirds around her house.

I was seated near the balcony at the home of some friends after their hummingbird feeder had been refilled and placed on the balcony. The usual ruby-throated hummingbird soon landed on the feeder. Let’s call him HB-1. I mentioned “usual,” because one of my friends told me this hummingbird usually came to the feeder. But this day, a rival came too—HB-2.

Oh no, he didn’t!

Oh, yes he did!

Pretty soon, tiny wings beat the air even faster, while long beaks jabbed. After a bob and weave, HB-1 got the better of HB-2 and forced his rival to fly away. Sadly, my phone was nowhere near me at the time, so I did not get pictures.

Nor was I able to capture something that happened at a birthday party I went to recently. The birthday child was a little girl who turned one. Over forty kids were present. One of the games they played was one involving a box wrapped with about fifty layers of wrapping paper. The kids sat in a circle and passed the box around, each unwrapping one layer, hoping to be the one who reached the last layer. That kid would have the privilege of claiming what was inside the box.

The kids gave that box the care and attention a neurosurgeon would give a patient. Every time the kids thought they’d reached the end of the wrapping paper, still more layers would appear. Without knowing what was in the box, they were fully invested in solving the mystery of what was inside. I was the one tasked with picking up the discarded wrapping paper, so I didn’t have a free hand to snap a photo. But I loved the fact that the kids were riveted by a wrapped box, rather than some expensive video game. (Lest you think I dislike video games, let me admit to you now that I play them. Just sayin’.)

Neither of these moments has the awe-factor of a solar eclipse, I know. But life has these little moments of mystery and wonder—moments too quick or too powerful to capture on film. Like the time a two-year-old hugged me around my knees. Like the laughs I shared with friends last week. I’m glad I was fully present, enjoying those moments, instead of fumbling for my camera.

But I was able to capture this butterfly not too long ago. He sat still, allowing me time to photograph him (though I wish I’d managed a closeup).

What moments have you enjoyed recently that took your breath away, but that you weren’t able to record on your camera?

Solar eclipse image from Wikipedia. Avengers poster from nzgirl.co.nz. Hummingbird from free-background-wallpaper.blogspot.com. Wrapping paper from zazzle.co.uk. Monarch butterfly photo by L. Marie.

Cloudy with a Chance of Awesome

If you were a kid like me, cloud watching was an integral part of your day. But when adulthood beckoned, bills and boys and benchmarks and a plethora of worries crowded out the cloud-watching habit. I have since discovered the error of my ways and returned to cloud watching.

I’m so glad I did. Clouds are beautiful masterpieces painted on a heavenly canvas each day. And they have been really interesting lately. Like these clouds below. They look like letters to me. What letters, if any, do you see?

    

Or how about this one? I see one letter just above the tree at the left, in the center of the photo. Do you see it?

For some reason, this one gives me a Cinderella-going-to-the-ball vibe. It’s actually the first “letter” in the first photo before the clouds shifted a bit.

I see numbers in the photo below. Do you? The cloud at the left looks like a 4 or a 1 and a 7. The middle one could be another 7 or a 1. The one at the right looks like an upside-down 2, or even a Z. What do you think?

This one looks like a heart (top center) surrounded by a larger heart:

This one has a cloud that looks like a hand (at the right):

Here are some others. For the second one, I think, “Sheep May Safely Graze.”

   

Clouds remind me of infinite possibilities—of creativity and wonder. Honestly, I’d rather watch the clouds than continue to watch recent news events, which have frustrated and angered me, and nearly driven me to despair.

That’s why I look up. I can dream of a world where hate has no place; where fingers aren’t angrily aimed at people in blame; where voices are raised in praise and gratitude, rather than in fury.

That’s why I’m also grateful for authors like Steve Bramucci, who write books to take kids and adults on an adventure. What a positive goal! (How’s that for a segue?)

This is as good of a time as any to announce the winner of The Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo! by Steve Bramucci. (For the interview with Steve, click here.)

   

The winner is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

S. K. Van Zandt!

S. K. Van Zandt, please comment below to confirm. Thank you to all who commented!

P. S. Keep looking up!

Book cover and author photo courtesy of Steve Bramucci. Cloud photos by L. Marie.

Check This Out: The Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo!

Ahoy there, mateys! Glad I am ye stopped by today. With me on the blog is the awesome Steve Bramucci, who is here to talk about his middle grade adventure novel, The Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo! ’Twas illustrated by Arree Chung, and then published by Bloomsbury on August 1. For a synopsis, go here.

 

Steve is represented by Sara Crowe. In a few minutes, I’ll tell ye all about a giveaway for The Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo! But first, let’s have a chat with Steve!

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Steve: Random facts? Book related facts? Important life facts? Orangutan facts? I’ll try one of each!
1. Even though I write about exotic food, my all-time favorite meal is just rotini overloaded with parmesan cheese. It was my favorite as a boy and the draw of “flavor nostalgia” still gets me at least once per week. I was traveling around the world a few years ago and missed pasta with parmesan so badly that I had a friend bring me some Kraft parmesan when we met up in Cambodia.


2. The first page of The Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo!in which the narrator introduces himselfremains virtually unchanged from its very first incarnation, written during a break at an SCBWI conference. Everything else has changed drastically from those early days.
3. My dad died two weeks after the book sold.

El Space: So sorry. You have my condolences.
Steve: He was such an amazing guy that I’ve always worried I won’t be able to measure up to his legacy. That, really, is the theme of the book: One boy’s longing to impress his parents and step out of their giant shadows.

4. Orangutans are a truly astounding species and critically endangered due to habitat encroachment. A portion of my proceeds from the book go here. Anyone who decides they want to donate to that charity, or any other orangutan initiative, can email me on my website for some free Danger Gang swag!

El Space: Awesome! You wear a lot of hats, including managing editor at Uproxx, and you’ve written travel articles for many publications. How did you come to write children’s books?
Steve: I’m actually surprised that more travel writers don’t start writing for kids. Travel is basically the real life incarnation of our childhood fantasies about adulthoodthe way that we thought adulthood would feel when we were young. For me, travel writing is the chance to live out my boyhood adventure dreams, and writing this book was right in line with that.

Photo credit: Jake Anderson

The journey to writing for kids was actually a little longer than me just pivoting all at once. I’ve been telling pirate stories to kids at schools and events near my home for more than a decade now, I’ve been involved in SCBWI, and even written another, unsold, novel. It wasn’t until I went to the Vermont College of Fine Arts that all the pieces congealed.

The author, livin’ the life

El Space: The Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo reminds me of the fun of adventure stories like the Indiana Jones moviesat least the earlier onesand The Goonies. What was the inspiration behind it? How did your main character, Ronald Zupan, come to be? Why was a pet cobra an ideal pet for him?
Steve: I definitely wanted the book to feel pulp-y, like an old-timey serial. The Indiana Jones connection was obviously intentional and you can see that in the way the book is packaged. Semi-side note: For me, modern technology rarely serves adventure, so Ronald and his friends sort of exist in a vague pre-tech era (50s? 40s?). You won’t see cell phones or computers or… I actually made great efforts to avoid mentioning any plastic objects all together.

The Goonies is a huge reference point too. I love stories where the basic pitch is: “Kids go on an adventure and learn stuff along the way. Also, there are mean bad guys with bad oral hygiene.” Bloomsbury calls the book Indiana Jones meets Lemony Snicket which is the most flattering “blank meets blank” analogy I could ever hope to receive.

As for the cobra, there are a few big reasons:
• I’m highly allergic to cats and house dogs, so I always had reptiles as pets. My dad would take me to a farm and let me keep whatever snakes I could catch.
• Indiana Jones hates snakes and I love them, so I wanted to give that massive series a little poke in the ribs by having Ronald be a snake lover.
• Ronald would never have an ordinary pet, so the choice feels very natural for the character.
• But mostly, it just came to me and people laughed. When I read something and people laugh, I suddenly become very attached to that bit.

EPSON MFP image

El Space: Are you a pantser or a plotter? What’s your writing process?
Steve: I’d say I’m … a little of both. I’ll outline, but if some idea strikes me, I’m quick to ditch my notes. I’ll follow whims without much convincing. I also don’t outline before the first major turning point. I like to keep the early pages moving and full of that electric energy.

In this series, Ronald and I are so similar in mindset that most of the time I just have to ask: “What would I do next in this situation?” By following that thought process, I manage to get Ronald in a lot of trouble.

El Space: You’ve traveled extensively. Of the places you’ve visited, which is/are your favorite place/places to return to again and again? Why?
Steve: I get asked the “favorite place” question a lot and my answer hasn’t changed in a long time now: Madagascar is my #1 place on earth. It’s just … for the adventure traveler, it’s really perfect: Affordable, exciting, not over-touristed, and unique, with incredibly kind people and a fascinating local culture. Also, the whole mini-continent has a rich pirate history and, as you know, I love pirates.

As for a place to return to, I’m going to say the American Southwest. It’s just so iconic, so different from citified-America, so full of sprawling landscapes and potential for adventure. Every few years I go to Canyon de Chelly and ride Navajo ponies through the canyon for a few days. That’s one of my favorite shorter trips on earth.

El Space: You’re going around the world, but can only take three things besides a passport. What would you take and why?
Steve: Objects? A surfboard, an iPod without internet capability, and a good bookmaybe a compendium of Twain or a copy of The Princess Bride. With that set up, I could travel for a year without much complaint.

El Space: What will you work on next?
Steve: I’m finishing the edits on The Danger Gang and the Isle of Feral Beasts right now!

Thanks, Steve, for being my guest!

Where in the internet world is Steve Bramucci? You can find him on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Uproxx.

The Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo can be found at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Powell’s. But one of you will find a copy of it at your doorstep—or tablet if you prefer—simply by commenting. Winner will be announced on August 14.

Photos and book cover courtesy of Steve Bramucci, with the exception of the Canyon de Chelly photo, which is found at galleryhip.com, the rotini photo, which is from 34st.com., and The Princess Bride book cover, which is from Goodreads. The Goonies movie poster from movieposter.com. Pirate from clipartlord.com.

All Together Now!

I was driving by a church one day last week, when I saw a crowd of people, some standing, some sitting on the steps of the church. Thinking they awaited a service or were the members of a wedding party, I continued on my way. But I happened to glance at my phone, which had the Pokémon Go app (developed by Niantic, Inc.) open. That’s when I realized why the people huddled on the church steps: a Pokémon raid was about to happen. They were trying to catch a legendary Pokémon. (For more information on legendary Pokémon, click here.)

The church is a Pokémon gym, a site where Pokémon Go players can battle, and hopefully catch, the legendary Pokémon released in the game after the Pokémon Go fest held in Chicago last month. I parked my car and joined the crowd in front of the church. We exchanged cursory greetings, then got down to the business of beating Lugia (see below), the legendary Pokémon that had taken over the gym. We had to work together—you need a crowd of players to beat legendaries, since legendaries have ridiculously high CP (combat power)—much higher than that of the Pokémon an average Pokémon Go player might have (for example, 2000 to 3000 CP as opposed to the 41,000 CP a legendary might have).

We cheered each other on. The battle took a while, but we were victorious. Once that was accomplished, we each had the opportunity to try to catch Lugia. Once more, we cheered each other on. Some were successful. I was unable to catch him, sadly.

By now, you’re probably wondering why I’m telling you this, especially if you could care less about the game. I can’t help thinking about how few social interactions I have had with total strangers outside of random encounters at the library, on the commuter train platform, or the occasional quick conversation in checkout lines at stores. I can’t think of any other time recently when I worked together with a crowd of strangers to accomplish a goal.

Protests over rights violations or times of fear and sadness have brought people together over the years. In recent years, you’ve undoubtedly read stories of strangers working to rescue others after terrorist attacks or uniting to comfort those who grieve. Some of you have participated in those events. These stories remind us of how much we need each other. They remind us of our humanity—that we’re not just avatars on the internet.

That’s why I chose to write about that experience playing Pokémon with a group of strangers. I left pumped that day, despite my failure to catch the legendary. Though we hadn’t done anything earth shattering, a group of strangers and I had made a connection, even for a brief time.

What social interactions have you had with strangers lately? What did they mean to you?

Lugia from sonicpokemon.wikia.com. Pokémon raid images from gosunoob.com and itechpost.com.