Fabulous Fiction and a Forever Friendship

“Keep your thoughts positive because your thoughts become your words. Keep your words positive because your words become your behavior. Keep your behavior positive because your behavior becomes your habits. Keep your habits positive because your habits become your values. Keep your values positive because your values become your destiny.”  –Mahatma Gandhi

Jenny TropeaSome years ago I walked into my classroom and was met by one of the brightest smiles I had ever encountered.  Her name was Miss Tropea then, and she exuded from the moment we were introduced such grace, poise, and passion.  We taught English together–and though it was not for as long as I might have liked, our bond has remained.  Her soul is gentle and kind, and her positivity is unparalleled.  I feel honored to call her my friend.

To know Jenny is to know goodness, to know thoughtfulness, determination, and empathy.  So, when she emailed me recently to share some very big news, I smiled–a lot.  My faith in the universe is continually restored when good things happen to good people.

Please allow me to introduce to you Jennifer Tropea O’Regan, author of “Confessions of a Bookaholic,” who is sharing here a dozen books that need to make their way into your beach bag this summer!

Thank you, Jenny, for sharing your love of reading with others, for your friendship, and for supporting women at every turn.

Confessions of a Bookaholic: Your Essential Summer Reading List

Dishing, musing, interviewing, and promoting the HOTTEST NAMES in women’s contemporary fiction

by Jennifer Tropea O’Regan

Whether you yearn for a tearjerker, thriller, or are simply a chick-lit devotee, my list of awesomely addictive books will keep you enthralled through Labor Day. My recommendations cover a gamut of page-turners, including Allison Winn Scotch’s soon-to-be-adapted hit and Emily Giffin’s unconventional story of love and loyalty.

Emily Giffin, the beloved author of such novels as Something Borrowed and Where We Belong, returns with an extraordinary story of love and loyalty—and an unconventional heroine struggling to reconcile both. The One & Only is unequivocally Giffin’s most cinematic novel to date. Friday Night Lights meets When Harry Met Sally  . . .  (I have high hopes George Clooney will play hunky Coach Clive Carr on the big screen!) ;)

All Fall Down is the story of a woman’s slide into addiction and struggle to find her way back up again. With a sparkling comedic touch and tender, true-to-life characterizations, this tale of empowerment and redemption is Jennifer Weiner’s most poignant, timely, and triumphant story yet.

Tempting Fate has been artfully described as a Scarlet Letter for the 21st century. Jane Green expertly depicts a woman trapped between contentment and temptation, crafting an insightful look into married life . . . A spellbinding triumph!

The Theory Of Opposites follows the trials and tribulations of Willa Chandler-Golden, daughter of a top self-help book author, as her marriage, her job and almost everything else in her seemingly stable life goes off the rails. Allison Winn Scotch’s sharp and witty sensation has been picked up by Jennifer Garner’s production company. A must-read before it hits the big screen!

The Matchmaker is a touching new novel from bestselling author Elin Hilderbrand in which a woman sets out to find love for those closest to her . . . before it’s too late. Hilderbrand’s up-front style pulls the reader into the minds of her gorgeously nuanced characters leaving us longing for more.

Internationally bestselling author Sarah Pekkanen delivers a lively, compulsively readable novel about the intricacies of marriage and commitment–and how small kindnesses can restore familial bonds after an estrangement in Catching Air. (Devoured this gem in 48 hours!)

Emily Liebert has a gift for constructing true-to-life, humorous discourse. You Knew Me When is an authentic novel full of nostalgia–the perfect read for anyone who has ever longed to reconcile with an old friend. This novel resonated with me long after finishing.

Internationally bestselling author Catherine McKenzie’s latest book may be her best yet. Hidden explores the interconnecting lives of a man, his wife, and a woman who may or may not be his mistress. Filled with nail-biting tension until the very last page, the ending will leave you speechless!

Someone hand me a tissue, please… Balancing sorrow and humor, In the Mirror is an exquisitely poignant novel and an evocative homage to the things that matter most: family and friends. Kaira Rouda‘s novel resonated heavily after my husband’s plight with cancer.

NYT-bestselling author Sarah Jio delivers an invigorating blend of mystery and romance! Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown (Goodnight Songs) is an adored childhood classic, but its real origins are lost to history. In Goodnight June, Sarah Jio offers an enthralling and earnest take on how the “great green room” might have come to be. Delightful and uplifting, it lingers long after the last page . . .

Gone Girl meets Gossip Girl in Tatiana Boncompagni’s Social Death, a breathless thriller about the murder of a beautiful socialite and the scandalous secret she dies trying to reveal. Money and fame can conceal all manner of deceit, but only for so long. This riveting page-turner will keep readers up well past bedtime . . .

When a 14-year-old runs away, her parents turn to social media to find her–launching a public campaign that will expose their darkest secrets and change their family forever.  Don’t Try to Find Me is a suspenseful and gripping debut for fans of Reconstructing Amelia and Gone Girl. A transfixing, emotionally enthralling, and chillingly plausible read, Holly Brown is an up-and-comer!

Additional authors I recommend without reservation: Stacey Ballis, Caprice Crane, Amy Hatvany, L. Alison Heller, Liz Fenton & Lisa Steinke, Jen Lancaster, and Susan Wiggs.

In addition to fostering a love of literacy within her unprivileged high school students, Jennifer has many noteworthy philanthropic accolades. During her husband’s plight with cancer – she single-handedly raised over 3,000 books for the Johns Hopkins Hospital Oncology Patient Library. Jennifer is now sharing her unbridled passion for reading via Confessions of a Bookaholic–a page dedicated to celebrating female authors. Follow her on Facebook (Jennifer Tropea O’Regan) and Twitter (@Jenny_Oregan).

And Another Door Opens

I was there one strange night in New Jersey when he had to hand over a roll of film to officials after photographing a series of smokestacks that he may or may not have been authorized to photograph.

I have stood by his side in the bracing cold on the streets of New York City so he could get the perfect shot of a doorway or a window or a shadow on the sidewalk.

I have drifted off to sleep at night as he has slipped outside to photograph our own city streets.

I also watched him gently fall into call center work to pay his graduate school bills.

And as he rose through the ranks to program and project manager positions, earning enviable salaries commensurate with his work ethic and smarts, I saw his love of photography move to the proverbial back burner—never leaving his side but relegated to a mere avocation as the demands of work necessarily enveloped him.

And then a layoff.

IMG_4333A recalibration.

A hearty and heartfelt discussion of what is truly important, of what we ought to do with the very short time we are given, of the advice we’d give to our own children in a similar situation.

Remembering the adage, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”

I have always known Don Farias was a photographer.

And now he is Don Farias, Photographer.

His business.

His life.

One of his great loves.

Now center stage—his and ours.

A Day in My Life: January 2014

Though my photography skills are amateurish at best, I was intrigued when Clair Dickson, editor of The Creative Mama, asked if anyone might be interested in this project.

The details are fairly straightforward: Each month capture 14 images from any one day in your life and post them (with as much or as little commentary as you might like) on the 24th of that month.

I like this idea so, so much.  So often the photos we choose to share, while often lovely, poignant, and even at times breathtaking, are regularly posed, carefully selected, and heavily edited.  This project challenges you to document an ordinary day–which, of course, is laden with the mess and minutiae of life.

And while photos such as these will never replace the beauties hanging on my walls, they will offer something equally breathtaking to my children: accurate, authentic glimpses of our very real life together.

[Please click here to visit another take on this project--Jhona Oberholtzer's blog We Weirdos Need to Stick Together.]

Early morning time on the Kindle

Early morning time on Oscar’s Kindle

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Two new cookbooks to peruse as dinner gets planned

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Breakfast is finished, and they are off to play.

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There is no reasoning with a cat.

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Life is expensive.

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The new table gets a dose of mineral oil.

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A digital native at four

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Minecraft

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Guitar in the morning with Dad

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Picking up contributions for our local food pantry in the pouring rain

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At least it’s not snow!

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For our local food pantry–two shopping carts full

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My favorite candle on a cold, rainy night

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A multiplication game fascinates and delays bedtime.

To Another New Year

IMG_3718I am no Pollyanna, barely even hopeful most of the time.  I try to dwell somewhere in the realm of realism and function best when my sense of humor, if not the absurd, stays firmly intact.  But, as 2013 draws to a close, like many, I tend to reminisce and become a tad introspective.

To make this exercise a largely positive one, I thought about listing all that was good about 2013, all that was affirming, noteworthy, and ultimately memorable.  I scanned my calendar and felt fortunate that I could come up with a hearty, if not incomplete, list.  But as I started to write, it became apparent that for everything that was good about the outgoing year, there was plenty that was not.

And it would have been easy, so easy, to stubbornly inhabit that space—to focus on the negative as I squarely kicked 2013 out the door, determinedly declaring “good riddance.”

But I don’t want to bid adieu to 2013’s challenges.  The challenges of 2013, indeed of every year previous and every year to come, are what define me, what make me better, stronger, smarter.  A life of nothing but pleasure and ease, while perhaps initially intoxicating, is not a life.

We are here to learn and to grow and to become the best versions of ourselves possible; and to do that, I believe, we can’t always get what we want when we want it; it means that sometimes we are dealt a hand we weren’t expecting, never even saw coming.  It means we have to struggle and to cry and to feel pain and negotiate loss.

So, I will not start 2014 with a belief that it will be the best year ever—because it won’t be.  It will be a year, like every other year, with a balance of tears and laughter, sickness and health, struggles and comfort.  Some moments may be devastating and some may be astounding.  But if I am lucky, it will be a year of learning and growing; and instead of seeing the new year as a “fresh start,” I hope what I have learned will ultimately help to shape what comes next and that I will carry 2013′s lessons with me.

I am here and you are here.  To 2014, a year like and paradoxically unlike any other, and to all it holds and can hold—the good, the bad, and everything in between.

What’s Our Excuse?

I am late to the Maria Kang debate.  I guess I could say my excuse is I’ve had pneumonia; but, more accurately, it’s taken some time for this all to sink in and for me to get my bearings and cultivate what I want to say.

Maria KangIf you don’t know what it is (or was) all about, the accompanying photo here says most of what you need to know.  Former beauty contestant now-business owner and fitness aficionado Maria Kang created quite a hubbub when she posted this photo of herself with her three young children.  Criticism has run the gamut, of course:  the way she’s dressed, the question she poses, the feelings she has incited in viewers.

Her picture doesn’t provoke me nor does it inspire me.  Instead it strikes me as yet another example of an individual shedding clothing, coupling their bare skin with a provocative statement, and waiting for his/her resulting five minutes of fame amidst the cacophony that is the internet.   Nothing new to report.

What does give me pause is her question, What’s your excuse? which, since she posed it, I imagine I should answer:  I wasn’t aware I needed one.

If you peruse Ms. Kang’s website, you will read details of loss in her young life that led her to dedicate herself to health and fitness.  Like many of us, she was inspired by her early experiences and is trying to make the world a better place and save others the pain and suffering she knows all too well.  It is a commendable if not familiar path.

She chose her line of work just as I’ve chosen mine and you’ve chosen yours.  I became a teacher because it was my education that lifted me from my own tumultuous and unhealthy childhood.  I write because I see human beings’ ability to communicate and be understood as our greatest gift.  She is proud of her work as I am of mine.

The issue then becomes Ms. Kang’s question: What’s your excuse?  I will stop short of analyzing the tone because, as we all know, as much as we aim to be clear in our communication, misunderstandings are rampant.  It would be wrong for me to assume what she was thinking or intending when she wrote it.

What I will say is this:  It is pretty easy to see, despite her or her supporters’ protestations, why people might view her query in a condescending or menacing way when it is coupled with that particular image.   By putting the two side by side, she is saying, “What is your excuse for not looking like me?”

The blogosphere has been generous in responding to this iteration of her question.  For me, it’s pretty straightforward: Ms. Kang’s life’s work is physical fitness.  She spends hours helping others, I am sure, but also hours on herself.  If I had to guess, she probably spends roughly the same number of hours helping others as I do with my students and as many hours on her own personal workout as I do slogging at the keyboard to improve my craft.  She has her priorities, and I have mine—but priorities we both have.

What separates us is the fact that she put her accomplishment out there and asked the world why they haven’t accomplished the same.   I have resisted the urge.  Putting an image up of an “A” on a grammar test or a recently published article and asking the world why they aren’t doing the same makes zero sense—not to mention it wouldn’t get a whole lot of hits compared to a scantily clad young woman.

To expect the world to reach the same heights we reach in our particular fields sounds noble, but it’s not.  It’s boasting–saying that what we do is superior to the work of others, telling people to stop doing the work of their hearts and minds and do what is important to us.  Here reside elements of selfishness, misguidedness, and, ultimately, insecurity.

A well-known Spanish proverb says, “Tell me what you brag about, and I’ll tell you what you lack.”  I’ll let the author of the proverb tell Ms. Kang –or the rest of us, for that matter—what we lack.  I’m not qualified.

But maybe there’s a better idea.  Perhaps we should all stop telling—or showing–each other what we lack.  Maybe if instead of challenging one another to be like us, to do as we do, we look at and appreciate each other’s differences and celebrate one another’s accomplishments.  Maybe then people’s insecurities and their resulting and often unfortunate choices would not take center stage.

We need this shift now more than ever.

What’s our excuse?

Another Kind of Jeopardy

The story of a Connecticut eighth-grader who feels he was cheated in Jeopardy recently popped across my monitor and caught my attention—as a teacher, yes, but as a parent as well.

The answer to the Final Jeopardy question was “Emancipation Proclamation.”  The young man spelled it “Emanciptation” Proclamation.

The spelling is incorrect—and more than a simple misspelling, it creates a new, pronounceable word; so, it’s impossible to know if the young man thought this is how you spell “emancipation” or if, in fact, he believes the document is called the “Emanciptation” Proclamation.

As an English teacher, I would tend to side with the judges on the game show.  A simple misspelling—where he wrote, perhaps, “’Emmancipation’” Proclamation” might be a tougher call.  But this young man’s answer was wrong.

It was wrong.

And the fact that it was wrong is okay.

What’s not okay is that his response—not to mention the response of many, many adults—is that he was cheated.

IMG_1834As the mother of three children, I can say with confidence they make mistakes.  I make mistakes.  You make mistakes.  We all do.  But when we stomp our feet and blame others, then say we were cheated, we miss the opportunity to learn from our mistakes.

When we say we were “cheated,” it implies we have done nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong, and that the fickle finger of fate has somehow selected us for a moment of bad luck.  But ask my husband about the time he was pickpocketed in Paris and he will tell you he should not have had his wallet in his back pocket.  Ask me about my camera being stolen in Athens and I will tell you I should have had my hand on it the entire time I was on the train.

To my children, I try to impart that no matter whatever hand life deals us, we always bear some responsibility—sometimes in the event itself, other times in how we handle it.  It’s a question I regularly ask them after they lament the latest injustice that is plaguing them: “What part did you play in this event?”  If the answer is “none,” we dig a little more deeply.

No one is doing this young man—or the young men I am raising—any favors by allowing him to think himself blameless.  His public proclamation that he can make a mistake and still be entitled to the prize sets my children up for disappointment.  They will see him here in this moment; and when their moment of loss comes, they will wonder where the public’s, indeed their mother’s, sympathy is.

But sympathy plays no part.  What does is the type of adult I want to send out into the world:  an adult who can say “I’m sorry” and mean it, who can accept responsibility for his transgressions, who can learn from his mistakes, who can maintain his dignity in the face of loss.

Anything else is the real jeopardy.

Just the Two of Us

Some time ago, I was asked to write a five-part series for our adoption agency, Children’s Friend and Service, entitled “A True Tale of Adoption.”  The idea is that the first installment would be about life before children, then an installment about each of our sons, and the final installment about our life as a complete family.

Here, with permission of Children’s Friend and Service, is Part I of the series . . .

I suppose we have Hurricane Gloria to thank. In September 1985, when I was a senior in high school, I had applied for two part-time jobs to supplement my nonexistent income. Wind damage had knocked out the power at one of the businesses to which I had applied—a local grocery store around the corner from my home—and they needed immediate help to retrieve the items from their freezers and save their stock. They called and told me I was hired and asked if I’d be willing to help out. With motives more financial than magnanimous, I eagerly accepted the job and skipped on down to lend a hand. And that’s when and where I met my future husband—though he didn’t know it at the time.

He was 24 years old, so definitely (to my 17-year-old self ) fascinating by virtue of his advanced years, and he was handsome and a guitarist in a band. Enough said. I was in love. We worked together and became friends until that fateful night in November 1986 when my appearance and corresponding nasal sound effects revealed I had a bad cold. Don came through my line at the store with water, cough drops, and a small orange juice. I rang up the items, not thinking a whole lot about them, until he said, “Here. These are for you. Feel better.” Now, of course, it was clear to me that he too was in love.

Photo Credit: Jan Armor

On December 13, 1986, this grocery store held its annual Christmas party—and both Don and I decided we would attend . . . well, we’d meet there. It wasn’t a date or anything. Except by the end of that evening, which we count as our “first date,” it was clear that this was one love story that was meant to be. Eight years to the day, on Tuesday (yes, a Tuesday), December 13, 1994, we were married.

Both Don and I were deeply entrenched in our education for a very long time—he pursuing his Master’s in Musicology at Tufts and I, a full-time public high school English teacher, a Master’s in English at the University of Rhode Island. We both started our Ph. D. programs—he at Brandeis and I continuing at URI. We also traveled—a lot: London, Paris, Budapest, Vienna, Helsinki, Prague and destinations throughout the United States. The world was our classroom, and we were avid readers and explorers.

The idea that we would ever even want to have children didn’t really pass through our shared consciousness. We saw ourselves as one of those “sophisticated couples” who would spend our luxurious days taking classes, eating exotic meals, traveling to distant locales, seeing independent films, and strolling through museums.

Then one afternoon in 1995, Don and I were out on one of our sophisticated dates—a movie . . . Babe . . . yes, the movie about a talking pig. We sat through the credits (mostly, I’m sure, to consume the last vestiges of our exotic bucket of popcorn) when the name Oscar Farias, a production assistant on the film, appeared. That’s when Don—Don Farias—turned to me and said, “If we ever have a son, can we name him Oscar?”

If we ever have a son . . .

We See What We See

When you have to keep a six-year-old child up until 2 AM–especially a six-year-old child who loves to sleep–you have to get clever.  Of course, because it is a six-year-old child, you can only get SO clever.

Edgar’s sleep-deprived EEG scheduled for 9:30 AM on Friday morning meant that he could get only four hours of sleep on Thursday night.  So, where do all the cool six-year-olds hang out in the wee hours of the night?  Wal-Mart and Stop & Shop are open until 10 PM and midnight respectively, which left us with two hours to finagle. 

We landed at Ma’s Donuts–a local 24-hour eatery–a little after midnight and selected any number of high-calorie treats and sat down. 

As Edgar and I were talking–about school, about his upcoming visit to the hospital, about Halloween–I removed the cover from my hot tea to let it cool.  He stared in amazement at the steam, and I could see the proverbial wheels turning.  He removed a flashlight he had procured at Wal-Mart two hours before from his pocket and asked, “Mom, what would that steam look like if I flash my green light on it?” 

He turned on the light and aimed it at the steam, marveling at the swirl of green fog and remarked, “Whoa . . . It looks like special effects.”

Our evening continued, and I finished my tea.  Edgar asked to see my tea bag–and before I could explain how steeping works, he had the teabag open and was arranging the damp tea leaves on a plate, creating a city with buildings of varying height.

By 1:15 AM, our remaining crumbs attracted the attention of the resident fruit fly.  While most people would shoo the creature away, Edgar invited it to join us, was sad when it momentarily flew off, and was anxious to talk to it.  When it eventually returned and perched on his plate, he looked at it with what I can only term love and said, “Guess what, fly?  Tomorrow the doctors are going to look at my brain!  Isn’t that cool?”

As I sat there at in the middle of the night at a mom-and-pop donut shop and stared in awe at my beautiful boy, I thought about what the doctors are going to see when they “look at [his] brain.”  And I realized that no matter what they see, they won’t see what I see–a creative, compassionate boy who can see theatrical effects in a cup of tea, a city sculpture in a pile of tea leaves, and a confidant in a fruit fly.

There is no one like Edgar.  How could there be?  And while an EEG and neurologist will see much, they won’t see that.  And I realized at that moment how very lucky we are.

It’s the Chicken’s Fault

Approximately ten years ago, on a pre-movie dinner date at a quiet restaurant in Providence, I ordered, without much thought, a shrimp and pasta dinner.  Instead of eating the shrimp, however, I opted to push the critters to the side, out of my way, and probably even put a few on Don’s plate.  And as I ate the pasta, it dawned on me:  I didn’t have to eat the fish.  I didn’t want to eat the fish.  After thirty-plus years of eating meat and fish out of mere habit, I could make the decision to stop. 

And so I did.  Right there in that restaurant–and for the next ten years.

Admittedly, I’ve probably been more of a carbotarian (if that’s now a word) than a vegetarian (though there really are plenty of vegetables I like); but as far as meat and fish–none, not for a decade.   I made an exception when my unfortunate genetics required my adding a fish oil tablet every day (along with a potent high blood pressure pill) to my diet.  And even though my doctor suggested eating tuna–and I tried–that was short-lived (as in one sandwich).  I couldn’t.  I wasn’t ready, and it wasn’t time.

But something changed this summer.  And though I’d love to brag that I made a conscious decision to eat meat and only meat that is raised on happy farms, it wasn’t quite like that.  It was a crockpot full of chicken teriyaki, the smell of which I had bonded with throughout the entire day.  When it was time to taste-test, instead of giving some to my friend, who was willing and able to try it and offer her opinion, I grabbed a fork, fished for a cube, and, to her horror, I think, popped it in my mouth.  And it was good.  And probably not raised on a happy farm. 

So for the last few weeks I have been dabbling–slowly, but most definitely surely.  And my cooking life has become easier in ways I never could have imagined.  I can actually make the same meal for everyone–no variations on a theme required.  And when you’re cooking for five, anything that makes life easier is welcome.

And I am at peace with this decision.  We aim to avoid attaching much emotion to our eating and try to teach our children that you need to listen to your body in terms of food–eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full.  And I think the same is true of what kind of food one eats–eat meat if your body is asking for it; stop if it’s asking you to stop (or to take a break). 

But stay away from that siren that is crockpot chicken teriyaki.  It has power enough!

Just Curious

Hi there!

Today WordPress let me know that since this blog’s inception     nearly three years ago, it has had over 25,000 “hits”–a bit of a milestone.  The one thing WordPress can’t tell me is who’s reading.

So here I am–curious and not a little nosey–wondering who it is who is checking in. 

I think in the world of blogs, they call this a “roll call.”  Would you mind commenting on the blog and letting me know who you are, how often you check in, and, if you’re inclined, why you check in?  Are you a family member or friend?  Fellow adoptive parent?  Have we ever met? 

I write for my sons, but I am also aware that I am writing for others–some of whom I know, and some I don’t.  As a writer, this is interesting territory, and one I am only beginning to learn to negotiate. 

So, if you have a moment, say “hi” through the blog’s commenting feature and let me (and the boys) know who you are!

Thanks so much,

Samantha