Friday, September 27, 2013

The Becoming

Friends, I've been feeling a little odd this week. Tears spring to my eyes at the slightest provocation. I suddenly can't help asking strangers to tell me their deepest, darkest secrets. And I've had the irrepressible urge to dress exclusively in jewel tones.

Just as I was about to go to the doctor, I realized what was wrong with me, and canceled my appointment. Because no doctor can cure what ails me.

I am becoming Oprah.

There's no sense fighting the transformation (and really, why would I, when clearly I'm on my way to becoming queen of a multi-million dollar empire?) so, in keeping with my new self, I've decided to run the first of hopefully many My Favorite Things sweepstakes.

Here's how this is going to work. About once a month or so, I'm going to be hosting a Rafflecopter giveaway here on my blog. The winner will receive two ebooks. One will be my own book, Blind Study. The other will be a book that I'm head-over-heels in lurve with. (You can tell when I really love something, because it's not love, it's lurve.)

This week, I'm going to be giving away a copy of Sarah Rees Brennan's Untold, the gorgeous follow-up to her brilliant Unspoken. If you haven't yet read Unspoken, and would prefer to receive that instead, let me know when you win--but it's one or the other, kiddos. Those millions my new destiny has promised haven't started rolling in yet. Also, remember you're competing for a digital copy, not a physical book. Sorry, but Jackie doesn't do USPS. Ain't nobody got time for that.

Enter below, and good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Skill Sets

This is going to be a weird one, but hey, my freak flag has always waved proudly from the very top of the flagpole.

I like to learn stuff. All sorts of stuff. Not only because that stuff helps you have a better understanding of related stuff, but because it often helps you with unrelated stuff. For a simpler, less weird metaphor than the one I'm about to unleash on you--mechanics. If you know a little something about cars, chances are you'll be able to figure out how to get a balky motorcycle or boat motor going.

There's one skill I really never thought I'd use again, at least not on a regular basis, and that's horseback riding. For almost ten years, I took weekly English riding lessons. I went to horseback riding camp, too, where my skills were tested to the limit by a horse named Razzle, a half-Thoroughbred, half-Welsh pony who was the chosen mount of Satan (Those of you who know anything about horses are probably shaking your heads right now, wondering what crazed sociopath decided to put that horse in the lineup at a children's summer camp.). I also worked for a summer as a trail guide, where I was further tested by a scrappy little mule called Rosie (why does everyone always give me the difficult horses?) while trying to keep shrieking tourists from New York in their saddles.

Never, though, did I ever expect horseback riding to so fully prepare me for jogging with my dogs. There are so many parallels and applicable lessons, though, it's amazing.

Hold the reins properly. A lot of people hold their leashes with the end closest to the dog coming down through the top of their fist, or worse, wrapped around their hand. In horseback riding, you learn that your ring finger is the strongest, apart from your thumb. So I hold my leashes exactly as I hold the reins, the end closest to the dog looping up between my pinkie and fourth finger, through my fist, and out between my thumb and first finger. It's the safest and strongest way to grip.

Keep your elbows in. You're not going to stop a horse, or a large dog, just with the strength of your arm. Keeping your elbows close to your sides allows you to use your core strength as well.

Watch the ears. When you look at your horse's head while riding, what you want to see are ears that are cupped loosely back toward you. That means he's paying attention to his rider. Follow those ears. If those ears suddenly prick sharply forward, there's a good chance you're going for an abrupt and unexpected ride. Same thing goes for my dogs--I've averted many disasters simply by watching the direction of their ears.

If the worst happens, choke up the reins and sit down. I may have mentioned this incident in my "Things I'm Good At" video blog, I'm not sure. Once, my dogs spotted a loose dog at the bottom of our street. I wasn't watching their ears and I didn't have my elbows in, so they caught me off-balance. I ended up running at top speed to keep up (and keep from falling) until finally I threw myself backward and sat down. I rashed my leg on my impromptu baseball slide, but it stopped them pretty much dead in their tracks and allowed me to regain control, the same way I stopped Razzle and Rosie from bolting, oh, about a hundred times. A day.

I'm aware this post has been a little silly, but bottom line? Learn everything you can. You never know when or how it'll come in handy.

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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Exercise, Part 2

Last week, I talked about all the tools I used to help me get in shape. This week, I'm going to talk about how I changed my outlook on exercise to make those tools work.

In my experience, there's one single, simple obstacle to getting your workouts done, and that's excuses. In this post, I'm going to go down the list of my excuses, and how I tore them down.

Disclaimer: I'm not terribly nice when I give myself these little pep talks. Don't feel like I'm screaming at you as you read; this is all from me to me with love. Further disclaimer: I'm not a doctor, so all that stuff about pain is my own personal feeling, and not medical advice.

1. I'm really tired, and I just exercised yesterday... Well, you just slept yesterday, too, so you shouldn't be tired. And you ate yesterday, so I guess we won't be doing that today, either. New day. Get up and get out there.

2. But I'm so sore! Suck it up, princess. There's a difference between muscle soreness and actual pain, as you know full well. Muscle soreness isn't something to flinch from; it's something to revel in. That pain you think you're feeling is actually the sensation of new muscles growing. Stop training them, and they'll stop growing. Pop a couple of ibuprofen and lace up your shoes.

3. I just don't have time today. You make time to eat, to sleep, to shower and to brush your teeth. Exercise is just as essential to your health as any of these things. Sure, you might not have as much time as usual, but I think you can find twenty minutes to squeeze in a kickbox workout. The more consistent you are with it in your daily routine, the easier it will be to keep up with it.

4. This isn't working. Try something else, then, dumbass! You're a weirdo, which means that the stuff that works for everyone else probably isn't going to work for you. Hell, the stuff that worked yesterday might not work today. There's no law that says you must do exactly the same thing over and over again. Tweak it till it works.

5. Argh, I'm bored. See #4.

6. I did a lot of work around the house/yard! That counts as exercise. Well, of course it does, sweetie. Poor baby. Why don't you just lay down on the couch and take it easy!
Or you could stop being a whiny, underachieving baby, handle your shit like a grownup, and then at the end of the day, when your house is clean and your yard is neat and you've run two miles, you can sit back and relax and actually deserve it.

Six excuses, six smackdowns. Your excuses may be different than mine. If you like, leave them in the comments and I'll be happy to yell at you like I do myself. ;-) Honestly, though, it's fairly easy to do yourself--just treat your own excuses like they're someone else's.

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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Exercise, Part 1

Way back in March, I embarked on a diet-and-exercise kick. I had two reasons; first, that I was sick of looking at my chubby ass in the mirror.

The second is silly, but oddly enough has been the one that's kept me going more than anything--the fact that I could not possibly survive an apocalypse, zombie or otherwise, at my current level of fitness. I mean, have you watched these movies? Those people are running all the time. Back in March, I would have made it maybe a block before I got eaten by a zom or swallowed up by the giant flood of lava or something. Bottom line, I have this image of myself as a badass that my level of physical fitness just wasn't matching. I decided to change that. Six months later, I'm still doing it, and it worked.

Now, six months does not an expert make, by any means. But I've tried and failed often enough to know the difference now between this winning program and the losing programs I've tried before. Only about half of it has to do with what I'm actually doing; the rest has to do with the way I've changed my attitude toward diet and exercise. So I figured I'd put my little tips down, and if you're struggling, or mulling a plan, maybe it'll help you. Today, I'll cover the tools which helped me do what I've done.

I've always wanted to be a runner, even though I considered myself to be exceptionally bad at it, so that was the first part of my program. I did a bastardized version of the Mayo Clinic's 5k prep program.

Here are the benefits of this plan--you do not destroy yourself on day one. Most people, myself included, when they decide they want to start running, will run as far and as fast as they can, until they've got a stitch in their side and they're dry-heaving on the pavement. Wake up. The whole reason for getting into shape is you're not in shape now. If you wreck yourself on the first few days or weeks, the chances of you sticking with it decrease exponentially.

I also bought two workout videos, both of which are available on Amazon Instant Video: Jillian Michaels' 30 Day Shred Level 1 and Jillian Michaels Kickbox FastFix. I did one of these pretty much every day, because they're only twenty minutes, and they worked out all the parts of me that the running neglected. Workout videos are boring, so I suggest you keep them short, and get a couple so you can rotate them, like I did.

I found a few apps for the iPhone which are really helpful, too. Top of the list is MyFitnessPal. Weight loss is simple math, and MyFitnessPal does the math for you. The app is free, and you can calculate calories burned in the app, scan foods in with the barcode scanner or search by keyword. And they have everything. Seriously. Once, I swallowed a bug on my run, and looked it up in MyFitnessPal as a joke. And:

I also like to track my runs with an app. I used to use Runtastic, but got really turned off when I started using the "share to Facebook" feature. Runtastic posts the map of your run. To the internet. No, no, hell no. Don't do this, ever. Posting maps of your runs, especially if you're female, is basically posting a nice big neon sign saying, "I will be here, between 5:30 and 6:00 every day, come and rape me!" I switched to NikeFit after that--same features, but they give you the option to publish without the map. Also, free.

There are two more tools I use, and without a doubt they are the most crucial in my toolkit.
 They are my dogs, Sirius and Dobby (right to left). I started out on the run/walk program with them in March. Thanks to them--and their enthusiasm for going fast--I'm now running seven days a week. They are the most ball-busting trainers in the world. Too bad if Mommy had a shitty Monday and wants to take it easy. They want to go, and they don't accept excuses. So if you have a dog--and please be reasonable about your dog's physical ability, do not attempt to take your Pomeranian or Yorkie or seventeen-year-old Labrador on a jog--get them involved. You won't miss a workout, I promise you.

Next week, I'll be back with more on this, focusing on the attitude changes; the internal cheerleading, if you will. See you then!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Bad Book Choices

Today, I'm going to tell you the story of the worst book choice I ever made.

The book itself wasn't bad, mind you. It was the timing that sucked. Back in the summer of 2000, I worked at as a camp counselor at a Girl Scout camp in Illinois. My future husband was going home to Sweden during summer break from college; this gave me something to do, and maybe a little bonus adventure. Unless you count the first two years of my life, I'd never lived anywhere but Pennsylvania. Illinois isn't exactly exotic, but it's not spelled P-E-N-N-S-Y-L-V-A-N-I-A, either.

Problem was, I didn't know anyone in Illinois. That meant I had two choices during the one-or-two day breaks between sessions--stay with a host family, or stay in camp alone.

There was never really a choice for me. As a socially-awkward introvert, the simple thought of staying at a strange family's house, eating their weird food, making polite conversation and hanging on as an extra wheel in their weekend family activities, was enough to make me shudder. So I told the director I preferred to stay at camp. I was the only one who did.

And I. Loved. It. Loved it. After a week of screaming, crying six- to thirteen-year-old girls, it was bliss. I was alone in the woods. Miles from civilization. It was so quiet. I could get up at whatever hour I wanted, read a book, use the payphone to call my parents or fiance and stay on as long as I wanted, raid the kitchen for whatever I wanted to eat, lounge on the staffhouse get the idea.

So, preparing for one of these blissfully quiet weekends, I caught a ride to Walmart and bought a book.

It was a new Stephen King, one I hadn't read yet. And, being Stephen King, I didn't even glance at the back cover copy before I bought it; it was a default decision. I didn't give it a second thought. Horror doesn't really creep me out; mostly I find it more exciting than scary.

I kept myself busy throughout the first day alone, so I didn't get a chance to read until after the sun went down, and I was stretched out on my cot in my platform tent. I turned on my taplight and started to read. And realized what a terrible mistake I'd made.

The book was The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. It's about a nine-year-old girl who gets lost in the woods and is pursued by a monster. Definitely not the kind of book you want to be reading when you're alone in the woods. So alone that, before everyone leaves for the weekend, you're given a radio. On the other end is the park ranger, who's available 24-7--but that "other end" is three miles away.

Also definitely not the book you want to be reading on the night the pack of coyotes living behind the Pine Tree campsite one up from yours start a sing-a-long. Or the night when several raccoons/possums/some-damn-things are having a dance party out behind your tent. And certainly not on the night when thunder is rumbling continuously overhead, and the wind from the storm keeps snapping the heavy canvas tent sides inches away from your head.

But did I stop reading? Nope. Neither wind nor rain nor howling coyotes will keep me from a good book. I finished the book around 1:30 a.m., just when the storm hit full-throttle. Which was fine. I didn't get a whole lot of sleeping done that night, anyway.

Monday, September 2, 2013

How To Learn To Drive A Stick

Today, I'm going to teach you how to learn to drive stick.

Now, don't get too excited—notice I said how to learn, not how to. You might be wondering, though—why bother? I mean, isn't that the point of automatic transmissions, that they automatically shift through the gears? If that's what you're thinking, here are a few things to consider:

1. Manual transmission cars are significantly cheaper than automatic, so if you're looking to save money, learning to drive stick is a good investment of your time.

2. There may come a time when knowing how to drive manual will save your butt. Maybe you have to get an emergency rental car and all they have are manuals. Maybe a friend or coworker will have some sort of situation, or be too drunk to drive their manual transmission car. It's not terribly fun to grind and hitch through gears with a pukey drunk in the car.

3. Major cool points, especially if you're female.

Now that you have the reasons, let's move on to the technique. I consider myself something of an expert on this; not driving stick, but learning to drive stick. When my car in college died, the only one I could afford was a manual. I had to learn in about twenty-four hours to be proficient enough to drive myself 40 miles to college and work by myself. Here's how I did it:

Step One: Read the directions. I went to and searched on "how to drive a manual transmission," and found several great step-by-step entries. This was before YouTube, but I'd imagine there's probably a lot of great video tutorials on the subject as well. Basically, your goal is to learn the theory and the physical mechanics of shifting gears.

Step Two: Practice at home. Once I'd gotten the basic concept, I drew out the gear positions on a large piece of paper.


Then, I sat down on the floor, with the piece of paper under my right hand, and...practiced. Practiced coordinating left foot with right foot with right hand, shifting first through fifth and back down, over and over and over. This might sound unnecessary, but believe me, this is the step that counted the most. The coordination of feet and hands, the positions of the gears—being comfortable with that before I got in the car made a huge difference.

Step Three: Choose a teacher. If you don't know anyone who drives stick, you may have to go to a driving school. If you do know people, though, make sure you're selective about the person you choose. Example: my first attempt at learning to drive stick not only failed miserably, but gave me a near-phobia of trying again. That's because my ex-boyfriend taught me, and my ex-boyfriend was an asshole. However, when my then-fiance/now-husband taught me, he was patient and calm and kind. Don't pick a screamer, basically, is what I'm trying to say.

Step Four: Cut yourself some slack. You're going to grind gears in a parking lot right next to a restaurant's packed patio dining area, and everyone will stare. You will stall out in traffic and cause a gridlock. You will stall out at a traffic light on a hill, with some jerk pulled right up to your rear bumper, attempt the very complicated handbrake start in order to not roll backward into him, and stall again, just as the light turns red.

Relax. Try again. This is not something you're going to master in a day, or a week, or even a month. It's not a talent, it's a skill. Skills are learned through practice, and as long as you keep practicing you'll master it in no time.


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