Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Succumbing to What Is

It's no secret that I am not a fan of where I live. It is convenient and makes sense, but in many ways, it is stifling. Mostly, it stifles me professionally. There aren't the professional outlets for publishing that I would want. It is void of the writing communities that I hear about in larger cities. When it comes to meeting people in book publishing, there is zero, nada, nothing here, especially in the YA arena. As I've mentioned in past posts, I have tried the local writers' groups that concentrate on writing for children and young adults and while everyone was very nice, there was not a lot of openness to new writers to be part of writers' groups or many opportunities to workshop writing. It was disappointing, to say the least. 

But, it is what it is. I am in this city and I have incredible support for my daughter and me. I don't foresee us leaving anytime soon, although it is always in the back of my mind. We live a very comfortable life where I don't have to worry about some of the things others do, like paying for private school education, traffic delays, high crime, and lack of activities. The city has grown a lot since I moved here in 2001 and is a good value in terms of high quality of life for low cost of living - it just depends on how you define the quality. 

Since I am here for now, I decided to make the most of it and get to know this state. Over Memorial Day weekend the BF and I headed northeast to bike along the Mississippi River. It was the first time I've ever done something like that. I love to bike but have never dedicated a trip to it. I wish I had done this a long time ago. 

What a wonderful way to get to know an area. The trails weren't as hilly as I thought they would be, and the sights were far more interesting than I expected. The architecture of this river town was different than what I'd seen in other parts of the state and it felt like I was on one of the coasts. Being near the water was calming, even if there were no relaxing waves to listen to as I drifted to sleep.

Aside from the sights, it felt amazing to combine activity with vacation. I am an active person. even on vacation. I like to keep busy from the moment I wake up until I collapse from exhaustion at the end of the day so I can experience as much as possible. My BF likes to relax when he vacations. We joke about how different we are when it comes to leisure, yet how we are able to balance our likes and make it work. 

Exploring parts of this state gave me a sense of reason. It reminded me that while my career is not where I want it to be, there is more to life than how I make a living. I have a job I can more than tolerate that allows me to give my daughter and myself a life that allows for getaways like this one. Not everyone can say that. It was a bit of a wake-up call to quit my bitching and stop seeing the glass as half empty and be glad I have a glass to fill.

Sights along the Mississippi River:

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Making and Breaking My Story

I have often heard that writers have something to say. I agree with this in theory. If you ask my mother, she will tell you that I always had something to say, since I uttered my first word at eight months old. When I start a story, I feel like I know what I want to say. As I get into the heart of the story that feeling gets stronger. However, it starts to fade just after the climax. Once I have tortured my characters as much as I can, I am so spent emotionally that all I want to do is fix everything for them and tie it up neatly into a happy ending. 

But, happy endings are boring. They aren't how we live in real life. Real life is messy. We resolve one thing while another is rearing its nasty head. We can be happy one minute and fearful, sad or angry within seconds. We can love fiercely and be disgusted by the same person. It's never black and white. That is how writing a novel is. No matter how much I want to mimic a fairy tale, I can't. It doesn't feel natural. I feel like I am cheating my characters, my readers and myself out of the true story. 

My MFA advisors would agree. They all told me at one time or another to raise the obstacles, stakes, and consequences for my characters. It was difficult to do that to them for several reasons.
  1. I loved my characters. I felt like their mom, so why would I want to hurt them?
  2. I thought that I had been as harsh as I could but my advisors wanted more. I always struggled with what more I could do.
  3. The more complicated and dire I made their situation, the harder it would be to resolve.
I have blogged about reasons 1 and 2 before but haven't really touched on 3. Loving my characters is easy to wrap my head around, but resolving some of the issues they face is much more challenging, even if I created them.

I don't always have experience with their struggles. For example, when my protagonist was dealing with a drug-addicted mother who made her home life unstable, I drew from the mothers I knew through my time as a foster parent, not as a survivor of that environment. Those are two completely different points of view. My character was living it, whereas I only knew a by-product of that life from kids much younger than my character. In order to be authentic, I had to imagine life from the inside though I had never lived it. Pulling the emotions that would come from that POV was challenging and I feared that I might do the story an injustice if I over-simplified the outcome. That would have been disappointing to readers, especially any who could relate to the character's life and expected to a true depiction of their feelings along with an example of how someone in that situation can overcome. 

If I were writing from an adult perspective, there would be more options. But kids and teenagers are limited in what they can do. They don't have the money, means or resources necessary to make problems go away the way adults can. They also lack the experience and cognitive problem-solving skills that we develop as adults. I have to take all that into account when I think about how my teen protagonist is going to solve her dilemma when she doesn't have a car, an income, or the independence to exercise free will. Also, that age group is all about exerting their independence. They want to be the heroes of their stories, not have an adult save them. The resolutions have to come from them. I can't have a parent, teacher, coach, etc. swoop in and make everything better. That would insult my readers and sends them the message that they do not have control over their own destinies. Reading for kids and young adults is often aspirational. I have to make sure not to take that from them when I calm the conflicts they face. 

I wish I could offer some magic formula or tip for getting past this because I know I am not the only writer facing this challenge. The only thing that has helped me is by reading a lot of books to try and get a sense for how other writers tackle this. I look for how other authors bring their MG and YA characters back from despair and horrific situations. Unfortunately, this approach is not a fail-safe solution. Even after reading brilliant examples from Junot Diaz, Rita Williams-Garcia, Matt De La Pena and others, I struggle. Since each story has unique barriers for each of my characters, I don't anticipate this aspect of story-telling getting any easier. Good story-telling is like solving a puzzle but before you can do so, you have to create all the puzzle pieces yourself. Along the way I have to develop the setting, supporting characters and abilities in my main character that equips them to resolve whatever I unleash on them. Sometimes this means going back and writing something earlier in the story that turns into a tool they can use later. Other times it takes redeveloping or creating a character to be part of the resolution, while still honoring my protagonist as the ultimate hero of the story.

These techniques don't always come as a clear path to the right answer and it can lead to frustration and writers' block, which are fueled by my fear of failing to write a good story. That is most often my biggest obstacle. That is why stories take time. They are rarely linear and smooth, which reflects life and makes writing one of my biggest headaches and passions all in one. But, it also means that I will keep growing as a writer and appreciate stories that much more, which is not only exciting but also a great consolation.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

New Decade, Same Issues

Thalia Anguiano
Up until October of 2016, I was the director of a program designed to empower and nurture Latina leaders. Each cohort dedicated nearly a year of Saturdays to coming together to learn how their culture and values can be assets to them as leaders in all realms. One of the graduates of Class of 2016, Thalia Anguiano went on to become the first Latina Student Body President at Drake University. She was not only the first Latina elected to that position, she was the first woman of color. 

That was quite a feat and I am so proud of her for achieving that. I kept up with her presidency, mostly via social media and she was always leading and supporting several initiatives. She also gave credit where it was due and through her, I learned about a lot of other leaders within her university. But, as with all leadership roles, it did not come without some struggles. Thalia eloquently and candidly shared these in a blog post. When I read about how she had been slighted, not given credit for her work, and excluded from events it struck a cord with me. I became angry. I felt for her because she did not deserve the mistreatment and I was angered for the women of color who face those same scenarios every day. I am also doubly proud that Thalia handled the challenges and microaggressions with such grace, and wrote about her experience so openly and candidly.

Throughout my career in corporate America, I was one of those women. I didn't realize how many times I had been overlooked, underestimated and not been offered a place at the table until my second job out of college. It was an exciting opportunity to be the second in command for H & R Block's multicultural marketing division. I got to travel, produce commercials, create marketing plans and lead marketing and recruitment teams throughout the US and Puerto Rico. It was a fun, fast-paced job and my immediate supervisor was Latino. It was a dream job. Eight months after I started, my supervisor was fired. I never found out why, and I didn't have time to investigate. I was thrown into his role from one day to the next. I began reporting to the Director of International Marketing, a white male, as were all but one of the directors and C-level executives of the company. We had a common run-of-the-mill relationship. I checked in with him on a regular basis, sought out advice when needed and made sure I was meeting and/or exceeding expectation. This new role required a lot more analytics than I had ever done, presentations to stockholders, and much more travel. I welcomed it all and continued to love the position, even though I was working insanely long hours and my apartment became more of a storage unit since I was only home once or twice a week. Along the way, I was told that the company was going to hire a replacement for my old boss. At first, I was pleased. That meant I did not have to take on the role of two people for very long. It was also an opportunity to prove myself and move ahead in the company. However, I wasn't sure if I was ready, and it took months of fulfilling the role before I felt like I could (and should) move into the role.

Before one of our check -in meetings I decided to tell the director why I was ready to permanently move into the position I had been doing for the last nine months. I created talking points with evidence of my successes and examples of how I had gone above and beyond to complete both roles. I had done so with a smile and co-workers had told me how impressed they were with my work. He listened intently and nodded as I spoke, which I took to mean agreement. I ended my talk with my desire to take on the role of manager and help in finding an assistant manager to fill my original role. His response barely took a thought. He told me they were looking for someone with more experience and invited me to be on the search team to find the person to fill the position I had just asked for. 

That should have been enough to spur my resignation but in all honesty, I was dumbstruck. I did not expect to be brushed off so easily without a consideration to my accomplishments. I had grown up believing that you got what you worked for and I had worked my butt off in two roles while having the lesser title and no increase in wage. My doing two roles for almost a year saved the company thousands of dollars. I led the multicultural marketing initiative for a global company and managed a multi-million dollar budget with little to no training or guidance. Yet, I was written off without hesitation.

Two months later a white woman was hired to be my boss. I was asked to "bring her up to speed," which is code for training her to do the job I had done for the last eleven months. Being the pleaser that I am, I did as expected. Never once were my achievements recognized. When the company won an award for the marketing campaign that I spearheaded and managed while in the dual roles, she was the one invited to the awards ceremony and treated like a VIP. When she got overwhelmed with all there was to learn, she pulled me aside to an empty conference room and cried in frustration. I listened and reassured her that she was doing fine, and got her spirits up so she wouldn't look weak to the men in charge. When she floundered in meetings I saved her ass. She never acknowledged that, nor did anyone else in the higher ranking positions.

My peers noticed. They often asked me how I could do my job so readily and with a smile after being treated with such little regard. I brushed it off and changed the subject. I knew better than to bad mouth the higher ups. That didn't save me. Less than three months after my replacement was appointed, I was called into the director's office. Someone had told him that I was unhappy with my new supervisor. I was shocked. I hadn't said anything to anyone about my feelings of resentment. I had pretended every day that the injustice didn't bother me because I still enjoyed my job and most of the people with whom I worked. I didn't like the situation, but I was always on the road and didn't have to see my boss or the director very often and that made it bearable. Again, I felt defeated. His reiterating the lie that I didn't have the experience they were looking for to do the role I'd successfully done for nearly a year was him putting me in my place. It demonstrated that there was no future for me in that company. There were very few women in roles above mine - I think there were less than five. Not a single one of them was a woman of color. Males of color didn't fare much better. Shortly after that meeting with the director I resigned and have not worked in corporate America since.

Instead of giving me props for grinning and bearing an unfair situation, I wish my white peers would have spoken up and been allies. Where was their concern when it was decided I would be overlooked to receive the award for my marketing campaign? Instead of telling the director that I was unhappy with the new boss, how about challenging him on why I wasn't in the role? Why not thank me for piping up and keeping meetings moving forward when it was clear my new boss didn't have a clue what was going on and I did? Those were the times when their voices could have affected change, not just for me, but for those women and people of color who came after me. That's when they could have been allies instead of silent and complacent bystanders to injustice.

In all honesty, I miss the rush of travel and the pace of working for a Fortune 500 company. It angers me that what started as a dream position left such a sour note in my life due to no fault of my own. My barriers were not because of my poor performance, lack of results or my unwillingness or incompetence at doing the job that was expected. My talents, skills and experience are valuable and I have a lot to offer companies looking to meet the needs of various markets but I am not ready to give of my all when we haven't come very far in terms of offering women of color a place at the executive table.

Reading Thalia's post, it saddens me that over a decade removed from my experience, Latinas are still fighting this battle across sectors. I wish she could have been spared. I wish we lived in a time where women like us can be valued for all that we have to offer. I second her decree that those in positions of voice need to speak up. When you see someone being taken advantage of don't whisper about it among yourselves, point it out for what it is. if someone is being left out, be the one to challenge that. People of color and women shouldn't always be the ones expected to speak out against what is happening to them and others. We're not the only ones who see it. Everyone needs to be active, especially those who have historically had a voice for change. When people of color or women defend ourselves, we are often ignored, blamed, labeled as angry, or demeaned and told we are playing the race or gender card. We all play a card, but sadly, not all of us are allowed to play the game at the same table. 

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

New Look, New Home

Last month, my boyfriend and I gave my kitchen a facelift. Aside from the gratification of doing something that was long overdue, it was a new adventure for us as a couple. I was nervous about it. I recalled from the early days of home ownership that working on a house is stressful. That is why I had been avoiding it for so many years. This is hard enough when you are dealing with a marriage and a shared bank account, but how does it work when two people have ideas but ultimately one person shelling out the dough? I weighed that thought for a bit while thinking about the project. The good thing about my relationship is that my boyfriend and I have good communication. I was able to relay this worry to him and we talked about it. Once aired, it wasn't as complicated as I had made it out to be in my head. That helped me put the whole project into perspective. I made some decisions to ensure that the experience would be a positive one for both of us. 

I value my boyfriend's opinion. Trusting him and creating an open dialogue for idea sharing was key. I trusted that he not only wanted the same results I did but that he wanted us to enjoy the process together. It was the first time he was attempting home improvement with a girlfriend and he was excited about what it would add to the relationship. His enthusiasm was contagious and I am glad that I allowed myself to share in that. Not only did it ease the stress of the whole situation, it helped reinforce that there is still a lot to experience together and that thought in itself is exciting. Once I aligned myself with that mentality, it was easier to focus and feel comfortable about what we were taking on. It grew my trust for him in areas that extend well beyond my kitchen.

This project was about more than a kitchen remodel. It was a chance to be creative together. We shared ideas and talked through challenges. I saw how comfortable he is in a space that had been created with another man, and yet I never felt that he was trying to wipe that away. On the contrary, I felt his respect for what had been built. Unbeknownst to him, it helped me feel closer to him. Accepting a person's past is difficult. I struggle with it all the time. Yet, something that I love about my boyfriend is that he has always been supportive and loving when it comes to that. His acceptance created one of the most endearing moments in our relationship during one of our first dates.

He knew I was a widow but didn't know anything about what happened or who I was married to. I had mentioned Warren's name once or twice but was careful about it because I didn't know how it would be received. He said, "I have to tell you something." Right away I thought the worse: "This guy is going to tell me that he's married or has a prison record." I braced myself.
"I Googled your husband."
I was dumbfounded. I didn't expect that at all. The first thing that struck me was that he called him my husband, not my ex-husband as some people had done. For the record, a deceased husband is not an ex-husband. We did not break up. But, I digress.
"I hope I didn't overstep, but you talk about him with so much love and admiration that I wanted to know more about him but didn't want to ask in case that would be too painful or weird for you. I hope you don't feel like I violated your privacy."
I did not. I felt touched in a way I hadn't in a long time. I didn't know what to say, so I asked what he found.
"He seems like he was an amazing guy. I wish I had met him. I would have liked to be his friend. I could have learned a lot from him."
His response was one-hundred percent genuine and honest and it moved me. I saw him in a different light. I felt safe and consoled in his presence and thankfully, these feelings haven't faded in the two years since that conversation. 

Since then, he has accompanied me to receptions where I accepted awards in Warren's honor, has been a part of my family's Day of the Dead celebrations of Warren's life, and has been tender and understanding on the tough days like anniversaries and holidays. He has never once made me feel restricted in talking about, missing or acknowledging Warren's place in my life and isn't weirded out by the photos of Warren and I that adorn my home. 

When it came to dating as a widow it was scary terrain. As most things in my life, I didn't set out to find a long-term boyfriend when I met him. I didn't even know if I could be a part of something that involved love. However, I developed feelings that were a force to be reckoned with. Aside from feeling loved and supported again, he makes me laugh on a daily basis. He is wonderful with my daughter and the other little people in my life, as well as with my mom and sister. He has become friends with my brother and I like that they have so much in common. 

These positives were on our side when we started transforming the kitchen to make way for a space we would both enjoy. We laughed at our mistakes and worked together on the challenges that slowed us down. But we also got a high from successfully completing various little projects we had never done before. It felt beyond gratifying to share those accomplishments with each other and know that we were rooting for the other's success. In the end, we shared in the pride that came from what we had done together. It helped that he has a great eye for home decor and functionality. His vision helped turn a useless space into a breakfast nook that I love. 

Cheers to reinventing a home, while learning how to love in a way that was wildly unexpected and brought with it a kick-ass kitchen.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Eat It

Warren and I personified the saying, "Fat and happy." In case you're not familiar with the term, it usually applies to a person who is in love and therefore puts on weight from all the date nights and cuddle time. In our case, it was pretty accurate, even after seven years of marriage. We were an active family, but we spent a lot of time celebrating around food. Plus, we were involved in so many community efforts that eating out was a very common occurrence. In short, while we spent a good chunk of time at the YMCA, we did not eat the best foods on a regular basis.

Fast forward to 2013, a year after Warren's death. I was working out with a trainer and trying to get healthy again. Part of that was changing my eating habits. I did it slowly. First, I cut white bread, pasta, potatoes and white rice from my diet. Over time, this helped me curb my sweet tooth. Once that became easier, I cut out all non-fruit or vegetable carbs after 3 PM. That was difficult. My mom lived with me at the time and would get frustrated that I only ate vegetable omelets, salads, or chicken and beans for dinner every night. I explained to her that I did not want to eat for the sake of eating, I wanted to eat things that would help me meet my goals with my trainer. I was paying too much money for her services to let it be in vain over what I ate. I never called it a diet and still do not.

In my life as a fattie, diets were unsustainable. The only thing that ever worked for me was changing what I ate. I changed the way I thought about food, too. Instead of asking friends to go out for drinks and dinner to spend time together, I suggested a walk around the lake or roller-skating with our kids. If I was going to an event where food was involved I checked out the menu ahead of time and made a plan for what I could eat, and made sure to have a snack before going so I wouldn't be starving and make poor choices. As changes began to feel more natural, I added some and relaxed on others.

After three years, I don't look at it as a stream of changes anymore, it's simply the way I eat. As I became healthier I became more flexible, but most of the things I stopped eating aren't even desirable to me anymore. For example, chocolate was my weakness. I used to have some every day. Warren was a chocolate-lover, too so we always had some in the house. I told my trainer that I would never give up chocolate and she said I shouldn't. However, as I started to cut sugar from my diet, it didn't call to me like it once had. I could be in a room with it and not want it at all. If I did crave it, one or two mouthfuls was all I could stand because it tasted too sweet to me. I switched to dark chocolate and even then it is rare when I feel like having any.

Folks have asked me to share what my meals and snacks are like, so I'll try to shed light and share some of my tips and advice.

Grocery Shopping: I shop the perimeter of the store. It helps me not buy processed and sugar-filled food when I don't see them as I shop. Everything I need on a regular basis is found outside of the center shelves and in the freezer section. Staples I buy weekly or in bulk include:
  • Bagged baby spinach and/or kale
  • Frozen pineapple chunks and/or strawberries 
  • Greek yogurt
  • Cheese sticks
  • Carrots
  • Apples
  • Bananas
  • Frozen artichokes
  • Chicken breast and chicken tenders
  • Eggs
  • Skim milk
  • Mini red, yellow and orange peppers
  • Ground turkey breast
  • Mushrooms
  • Onions
  • Peeled garlic
  • Cottage Cheese
  • Avocado
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Bagged salad mix
  • Whatever seasonal veggies and fruits are on sale
Hard boiled eggs, ready for the week
Meal prep: I don't do as much as I used to, but one thing I like to do is boil up to ten eggs at a time, peel them and divide them into containers I keep at work and at home so I always have an easy protein source. I sometimes go through two dozen eggs per week. I eat an omelet at least once a week for dinner and boiled eggs are my go-to snack throughout the day.

I cut and rinse mini peppers, package them in containers and use them to tame my craving for something crunchy. Sometimes I will scoop some cottage cheese in one and sprinkle a dash of cinnamon. Tasty and has calcium and protein.

I cook enough chicken for an army, using a variety of seasonings and I bag and refrigerate them. I don't always have an idea of what to do with all of it, but it helps to have it ready to go when needed.

Meals: I am not very good about breakfast and usually have what I call a piecemeal breakfast. I start
Typical lunch
with a container of Greek yogurt with raw almonds mixed in for crunch and added protein. About half an hour later I have a piece of fruit and a cup of skim milk. When I'm in a hurry I have coffee and a protein bar, or I'll put steel-cut oats in a slow cooker the night before and have some with honey and cinnamon. If I have some time, I like to make a spinach/pineapple smoothie. It packs protein and two cups of leafy greens first thing in the morning.

For lunch during the week I have a bowl of soup pretty much every day. I add extra chicken, tofu, boiled eggs, peas or edamame to almost all soups. I usually have that with a piece of fruit, or a cheese stick and water. It's also the meal with which I usually take my vitamins. It's a recent addition that my mom insisted on, so mom, when you read this, I hope you see that I sometimes do listen to you.

Like most working moms, I am often in a time crunch at dinner time. I don't "cook" as much as I "throw together" food to make dinner. For example, I had some grilled chicken breast, avocado pesto, spinach, some veggies and lettuce - Voila!

Chicken lettuce wraps
Spinach and kale omelet with jalapenos, Spring mix
salad with lime and white wine vinegar as dressing
Other nights, I have to use up salad mix and other veggies before they go bad, so mega-salads are what's for dinner. 
Mandarin oranges, spinach, sugar snap peas, grilled mushrooms and grilled turkey breast - leftovers from previous meals.
My boyfriend is teaching me how to grill and I love that it's so fast and healthy! We grill as often as we can. We often chop veggies, throw them in some aluminum foil with seasoning or garlic and onions and toss them on the grill. Adding grilled sweet potatoes and mandarin oranges to salads takes the place of dressing and gives it color and texture. Also, when it comes to salads I serve them on regular dinner plates because they're bigger. Otherwise, I serve my meals on salad plates or children's plates to keep the portions in check. 

I try for each plate to be half veggies.
Now that I am at my ideal weight and size, I have incorporated quinoa, whole wheat pasta, sprout bread, and brown rice into my diet, but eat them very sparingly, like maybe once or twice per month. It's not that I think they're bad for me, it's just that I have learned to navigate meals without them. When I have them, I keep portions to half a cup or less. 
Drinks: On days I work out I drink six to eight cups of water. That means I pee a lot. It also helps keep me full and I've noticed that my skin looks clearer, too. In the mornings I usually start with skim milk. When I go out, I choose unsweetened ice tea and sometimes add some lemonade. I am not big on alcoholic drinks but I do not deprive myself either. At home, I like a glass of wine with dinner once or twice a week, too. It's made from grapes so it counts as a fruit, right? 

If someone wants to change their eating habits the best advice I can give is to do it one change at a time until you get used to it. This isn't a race so don't put yourself on a timeline. If it is truly a lifestyle change, it is for life so take your time deciding what works best for you. Also, don't tell yourself that you will never eat something again. The more restrictive you are with yourself, the less satisfied you'll feel with the changes and they won't stick. Besides, deprivation is negative and in order for this to become a lifestyle, you should keep it positive. For example, I love Vietnamese baguettes. They are warm, buttery carb deliciousness sold at the grocery store within walking distance from my house. Even though I stopped eating white bread, I didn't think I would never eat one again. If the occasion to eat one presents itself, I share it with someone, or I cut off a piece and savor it, but don't eat the whole thing. If the whole baguette happens to make its way into my belly, so be it. I don't berate myself or give up. I lick my lips, enjoy the feeling of a belly full of yumminess and tell myself that my next meal will be a little healthier.

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