5 Good Things That Happened in 2020

By the time this post goes live, Christmas will be over and we’ll all be muddling through that weird final week of the year where we’re not sure what day it is, we’ve eaten too much rich food, and we’re waiting to ring in 2021.

Like most everybody else, I am sending 2020 into oblivion with hopes that the next twelve months look brighter and happier for everyone. While I know that the change of the calendar isn’t a magic wand that will make everything shitty suddenly go away, I’m trying to stay hopeful that we can put the ugliness of this year behind us and move forward to a more positive, inclusive, and healthier way of life.

That being said, I do want to take a moment to reflect on the fact that there were a few good things that managed to happen in 2020. These are the things that kept me going over the last twelve months, and I invite all readers and bloggers to reply or re-blog with the little things that kept them going in these unprecedented times.

  • I finished my manuscript!
    January of 2020 started with a slap in the face for me, and this was way before the word ‘Coronavirus’ was a thing. I wrote here about losing my (completed) 90,000+ word manuscript that I’d been slaving over for YEARS thanks to a USB crash. Also on that flash drive was the first draft of another novel in progress, as well as countless other short stories and nonfiction articles. I was devastated. I cried for two days and sulked for another week. But then I opened up a blank Word document and started all over again. Admittedly this was infinitely easier thanks to a very early draft that my friend (and lifesaver 10X over) had saved in her email, and I used that to rebuild the entire thing over the next couple of months. Being quarantined for spring and summer definitely helped the progress along, and I spent the second half of the year getting feedback from beta readers and editing. I plan on 2021 being the year of the query and already have my first five perspective agents picked out! Wish me luck!

  • We rescued 2 doggos!
    As if 2020 hadn’t started off crappily enough, and as if the beginning of the ‘rona pandemic weren’t scary enough, J & I lost our fur baby Comet in April. Saying goodbye to our fuzz bug was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, and having a house devoid of any paws or barks or clumps of fur was beyond depressing — especially in the middle of quarantine.
    The silver lining to having a fur baby cross the rainbow bridge is, of course, welcoming a new one into your home. J and I happily welcomed Miss Kitty into our home in May, and Ghost joined us in October. It’s been a crazy ride with quite a few struggles, but overall I’m so happy that we have two crazy mutts sharing our home. Kitty is the epitome of a rescue dog — she was found lactating and emaciated on a four lane highway near San Antonio, TX, and clearly had a history of abuse and abandonment. Seven months in, she has made SO MUCH progress and is quite simply the sweetest girl ever. Ghost still has a lot to learn (we have puppy classes scheduled for January!) but he too has made lots of progress, including learning how to ‘give paw.’ Watching these two play and snuggle together absolutely warms my heart and I cannot say enough about how good it feels knowing you saved a life (or two) by adopting rescue dogs.
    If you’re searching for your own companion, may I suggest God’s Dogs in Texas? https://godsdogsrescue.org/
    Both Kitty and Ghost were adopting through this nonprofit and they were awesome every step of the way. If you prefer to meet your 4-legged friend before adopting, I highly encourage you to visit your local shelter or rescue. There are so many animals out there who need homes!

  • I had 2 poems published!
    While I am most certainly a writer, I wouldn’t exactly call myself a poet. I dabble from time to time, and a few years ago wrote a couple of pieces about the Outer Banks. This summer, Capsule Stories published those two poems in their print journal, and I was super excited to be able to share my love of the barrier islands with strangers and other writers.
    Capsule Stories is a refreshing, accessible literary journal that actually publishes in print, so check them out if you’re looking for something new to read: https://capsulestories.com/
  • Joe Biden & Kamala Harris won the election!
    I still get emotional when I think about that day that my husband texted me the news — I was standing in line at the deli at the grocery store when I learned that love, peace, and integrity had triumphed once again and that Joe Biden & Kamala Harris would be the next pair to occupy the White House. While Biden wasn’t my ideal candidate and I know that his presidency won’t solve all the issues in our country, I am beyond relieved that we won’t have to suffer another four years of hate and lies. It is also incredibly refreshing and encouraging to see how much diversity Biden will have in his cabinet, and I look forward to seeing his efforts on bridging the massive divide that currently separates this country.
    Love trumps hate. Love trumped hate. Love is love.
  • We went on vacation!
    When our friends moved to Holland last year, I was hopeful that J & I would get to visit them sometime in 2020. Of course those plans derailed like a train running on moonshine, and god only knows when we’ll ever get to go overseas again.
    However we did manage to make it to the Outer Banks for the first time since 2017, and though this vacation looked different than any other, it was nice to get out of our zip code and feel the sand and sea on our skin, especially when we were so desperate for some type of peace and relaxation.
    I’m keeping my fingers crossed that travel won’t be out of the question for the rest of my life, and in the meantime am having fun living vicariously through books and movies and Facebook posts.

So did anything good happen to you in this mess of a year? Please share, even if it’s something as simple as buying a favorite shirt or learning to cook a delicious batch of cookies. Stay safe, stay healthy, and here’s to a better 2021 — whatever that means!

Outer Banks 2020

Well, peeps, I’m only 2 months late, but here it is — my recap of our vacation to the Outer Banks, 2020 edition.

Better late than never, I guess, and I figured most of us could use a dose of the beach considering winter is rearing its frigid head in most parts of the world right now. Plus, I know it’s been hard for a lot of people to travel what with the pandemic and all, so if you haven’t been able to leave your zip code in the last eight months, I hope this post helps you live vicariously through the Internet for a few minutes.

This trip was originally supposed to take place in May, but got postponed because of COVID, so our vacation looked nothing like we initially anticipated. Virus aside, we planned this excursion with every intention of taking our dog Comet, of course having no idea that he’d end up passing away in April. We ended up taking our new fur kid, Kitty, and as an added surprise our latest (and a bit unexpected) addition Ghost came along too. Considering virus precautions and having two new dogs in tow, my anxiety was pretty high in the weeks leading up to our departure.

We did have a few hiccups along the way — somehow missing the exit for our first traditional rest stop and driving an hour out of our way & Kitty nearly jumping out of the car unleashed — but the journey went relatively smoothly, all things considered. Finding food and bathrooms during the six hundred mile trek required a little more planning with COVID shutdowns, and we had to be hyper vigilant and cognizant of hand washing and sanitizing and pay attention to the differing restrictions in each state. Once we reached out destination, we found that North Carolina’s restrictions were very similar to those in PA. We had to wear masks everywhere we went, capacity limits at tourist attractions were small, and restaurants only offered take out or sparse outdoor seating. Still, I felt safe all week and following these extra safety steps were in a beach town didn’t take away the relaxing and freeing feeling of being on the coast.

The only major disappointment was our beach house. After two decades of visiting the Outer Banks and staying in everything from mansions to modest cottages, this place was probably bottom of the barrel. The house was old and in dire need of dozens of repairs, and I was not impressed by the cleaning staff, COVID aside. Still, we made it work as best we could, and the drawbacks at the house did not detract from the stunning views and quiet, peaceful location in the southern town of Frisco. We spent hours wading, discovering seashells, watching pelicans and dolphins, and marveling at the stunning sunrises and sunsets. We took the nearby ferry across the Pamlico Sound to Ocracoke Island twice, where we made sure to patronize local shops and restaurants effected by Hurricane Dorian and the virus, and walked the haunting trail at Springer’s Point, where Blackbeard’s body is said to have been thrown after his last battle off the coast. Our dogs particularly enjoyed the sugary soft sand, where they dug holes and chased birds.

Back in Frisco and Buxton, I explored a beautiful church, Our Lady of the Seas, to get inspiration for a pivotal scene in my WIP, Ocracoke’s Daughter. I browsed a cool little bookstore called Buxton Books, housed in a pre-civil war building with each tiny room dedicated to a different subject. We made plans to attend a ghost walk on October 30th, but it ended up getting cancelled due to high winds and power outages from a storm off the coast (2020 strikes again). We visited the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, where I did some additional research on Blackbeard, again for my WIP, and as usual spent my last night walking solo on the beach, feeling the rush of salt water run over my ankles and wiping my tears as I said a temporary goodbye to the sea once again.

This vacation was definitely different from any other I’ve had in the Outer Banks, being in a much more remote location on the southern beaches as opposed to the more populated, touristy spots further north. Still, the whimsy of the island did its job in healing my world weary body, mind, and soul . . . and I already miss it.

Les Sigh.

Guess I’ll have to live vicariously through my WIP until I can return.

Updates Available

Hello, all. I just wanted to pop in and share some updates with the blogosphere. My last post focused mostly on all the writing projects I’ve been working on recently, and I’m really proud of myself for getting so much accomplished in this dismal summer/year as far as my craft goes. I realize that my blogging hasn’t been as consistent as it once was, but of course the entire world is a dumpster fire right now so what IS ‘normal’ in 2020?

Certainly not the last few weeks of my life.

After giving the rundown of my writing projects in my last post, I felt really motivated and was looking forward to getting back on track at blogging weekly or bi-weekly. And then the universe laughed.

My mom had a mild heart attack on September 22nd. The doctors said that this kind of heart attack is very common in kidney transplant patients, and she was only in the hospital for a few days for observation and to have a stent put in before she was back home recuperating. Aside from a nasty reaction to one of her new medications, she’s doing pretty well. With her medical history, this mostly just seemed like a bump in the road, albeit a scary one, but it definitely knocked me for a loop.

J and I have also spent the last month or so becoming more annoyed and frustrated with our disrespectful neighbors and our neighborhood — so much so that we met with a family member who is a real estate agent and discussed the first few steps of selling and buying a house. While we’re more optimistic about our options, we have A LOT to do before these plans can be put into motion, so we have to bide our time for at least another 6 months. Unless we hit the lottery of course.

The BS at work exploded with MAJOR changes two weeks ago, and it’s wreaked havoc on my mental health and confidence. I won’t go into too many details, but I will say that I still have a job, although nearly every single thing about the position looks differently than it had for the past six and a half years. Some days I feel really optimistic about where I’m headed at my 9-5, and other days I feel like my brain is going to leak out of my ear. I have no idea where this is going.

Our dog, Kitty, is going to be a big sister.
I temporarily lost my mind a few weeks ago and agreed to get a second dog. J and I had talked about it after Comet passed, and before we adopted Kitty, but I kept saying I wasn’t ready. But then one day J sent me a picture of an adorable pup from the same rescue organization that Kitty came from, and I started crying as soon as I saw his face. So. We’re getting a second dog. I’m excited for Kitty to have a companion, but I’ve never lived with 2 dogs before and it’s definitely going to be a big adjustment for all of us. Plus, he’s coming 2 weeks before we go on vacation . . . so we’ll have 2 dogs in the car with us on a 10+ hour drive to the beach. I’m sure there will be plenty of blog posts about this to come.

So, yeah, in the midst of all of this, I’m trying to get ready for vacation . . . without really getting ready. This trip was initially planned for May, but COVID ruined that, so we postponed until now. With the way 2020 has been going, I’ve done pretty much NOTHING to prepare for the trip, which goes against everything my type A personality believes in. Normally I’m making color-coded lists and tossing items into suitcases a month beforehand, but this time I’m trying to fly by the seat of my pants. Because again, who knows what is or isn’t going to happen at this point.
Except, you know, there’s 2 dogs going with us.

Any positive/happy vibes you could send would be appreciated.


Featured

Whatcha Writin’ About?

Ever since COVID hit the US and changed everyone’s daily life, I’ve been doing A LOT of writing. Since I’m no longer working my second job and I can’t go to the pool because it’s STILL closed thanks to both construction and this pesky virus, I’ve been spending so much time behind a computer screen I’m starting to think there’s going to be an actual imprint of my ass on my dining room chair.

Anywho, I realized that despite all this writing that’s been going on, I haven’t really talked about it at all on my blog. Which I totally should be doing since, you know, I am a writer and aside from blogging about mental health and connecting with other mental health warriors, I also want to connect with other writers.

So what kind of ventures are in that folder marked “current writing projects?”

For starters, I managed to completely rebuild the 90,000+ word manuscript that I lost back in January thanks to a USB crash. Luckily one of my friends had the first draft saved in her email and I rewrote the entire thing from that in 4-5 months.
The Month of May follows Ella, a young woman who unexpectedly inherits her grandmother’s house and must return to her hometown of Pittsburgh where she is overcome with both beautiful and horrible memories of her first love and her late grandparents. As Ella navigates these complicated emotions in the steel town that raised her, she ultimately has to decide if she’s strong enough to let love in all its forms back into her life again.
I sent it out to 2 beta readers who were actually helpful, and am going over their comments before making some ‘final’ corrections and touch ups. I’m hoping that I can start querying again by the end of the year and keeping my fingers crossed that I can come up with a 280-character pitch to participate in my very first #PitMad on Twitter on December 3rd.

While May was out to the betas, I turned my attention to another manuscript I lost in the great USB crash of 2020. At the time, Ocracoke’s Daughter was 30-40,000 words, another contemporary fiction novel that I’ve rebuilt to around 55,000 words.
Here’s a pitch I randomly wrote — Adopted at birth and raised by strict conservatives, Sarah Sullivan always thought she was destined for two things – to marry the boy she met in middle school and raise his children. But after a decade of miscarriages and indifference from her overbearing husband, she files for divorce and travels to the Outer Banks of North Carolina to find her biological parents and herself. On the serene shores of Ocracoke and Hatteras, Sarah befriends a man with his own secrets, and an eccentric woman who claims to be her aunt – and the descendant of one of history’s most notorious pirates.
I’m really happy with the progress I’ve made with this one too, but I’m feeling a bit stuck with certain aspects, particularly those that require lots of research — and possibly involve traveling to parts of North Carolina that isn’t really plausible right now with budget and travel restrictions. Thanks again, COVID.
Basically I need to do a bunch of historical research on Blackbeard the pirate and should probably travel to the town of Bath, NC, which I have no idea if I’ll ever have the opportunity to do anytime soon. Fingers crossed that I’ll get some research completed when we (hopefully) vacation near Ocracoke this October.

I’ve also got a handful of other smaller projects I’ve been toiling with —


Summer Essays — Since this summer was essentially void of any typical summer experiences, I lamented those warm, sunny hours away by tapping away at my keyboard on my porch. Instead of lounging by the pool, riding roller coasters, or attending concerts, I wrote about past summers instead and came up with a series of ‘Summer Essays’ that I hope to find a home for someday. These include summers in my parents’ backyard pool, long days exploring the hills at my grandparents’ house, four years of band camp, decades of long weekends at a friend’s cabin in the mountains of northwestern PA, memories of dozens of vacations on the Outer Banks, and the summer of 2003, when my life changed forever.

Lunch with Miss Kitty — This is a piece I’ve been working on that I hope to pitch to a handful of dog-focused publications, this one in particular about my new fur kid, Miss Kitty, and our developing bond as she adjusts to her new life in her forever home. I’m pretty happy with it but am struggling with an ending.

Sweats — I decided to try my hand at a flash fiction piece that is told from the view point of a hoodie that a tourist buys on Westminster Pier while vacationing in London. I actually love 2/3 of this piece, but again am struggling with the ending. It took on an entirely different direction than I initially intended, and I’ve always had a hard time wrapping things up in less than 1000 words, so this one may take a while before I’m ready to submit it.

I’m also still trying to find a home for the following — Light of the Fire, a short story I wrote about the bond of female friendship after one of my friends lost everything in a house fire last year; Comet is Cupid, a non-fiction narrative about how our late dog Comet brought me and my husband together; and a short poem called Stained Glass Window about how people in my life who used to be my biggest cheerleaders faded away when I finally began standing up for myself and pursuing my dreams.

Bridges to Beaches — Aside from the novels, this is probably the project that I’m most excited about, yet is the least complete. Right now it’s just a cluster of unorganized ideas in a Word Doc that have been floating around in my head for a few years now.
I love writing about traveling and visiting lesser-known places in and around my hometown, so I decided that I wanted to start a travel blog from a local and down to earth perspective. So many travel blogs seem focused on unattainable destinations — far away, exotic islands, expensive hotels in European hot spots, or remote, sometimes dangerous villages in the middle of nowhere.
As someone with a limited budget (and travel anxiety), I want to write about accessible, affordable, and unique experiences that the average person can enjoy.
Since I’ve lived in Pittsburgh my entire life, I figured I’d start with my hometown. Everyone knows about our champion sports teams, our three rivers, and our myriad of museums, so my blog would focus on the hole in the wall, best keep secrets of this thriving, revitalized steel town. The best places to go kayaking. A tiny, but impressive collection of antique cars and carriages. A $10 tour of one of the MLB’s most beautiful baseball parks. Farmers markets. Secluded walking trails nestled amid the campus of The University of Pittsburgh. Fascinating historical spots.
The blog would also include write ups about nearby destinations perfect for day trips or long weekends, like Lake Erie and Presque Isle, Columbus, OH, Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands, Lake Canadohota, and New York City.
Since North Carolina’s Outer Banks are a popular tourist destination for Pittsburghers (and it’s my favorite place on earth), I also wanted to include a section dedicated to vacationing there. Again, anyone can find articles about the beaches, the popular museums, and typical tourist attractions, but I’d want this part of the blog to focus on insider tips, hidden gems, and best kept secrets of this whimsical chain of barrier islands.

Just last week I had an idea for a fourth part of the blog, and that would be a section focusing on small businesses in the Pittsburgh area — a real estate agency, a salon, a photographer, painters, musicians, restaurants, non-profits — the possibilities are endless. I think it would be a really exciting way for independent entrepreneurs and artists to make connections and get their names out there.

Wow. Sometimes I get overwhelmed at all the ideas my brain can conjure up. It’s exciting, but it’s also intimidating. I still work a 9-5 job and though it no longer controls my everyday life, my anxiety is always at the back of my mind telling me that I’m being overly-ambitious or that I’m not good enough to have any success with these projects. I’m also still struggling with the technical aspects of ensuring that any of these ventures are a success, like social media presence, SEO, and being relevant on the internet, but hopefully I’ve recently found some resources to help with such obstacles.

In addition to all of these projects, I’m still trying to educate myself about being relevant and present on Facebook and Twitter, and I’m seriously considering starting a Linked In page for my writing. And holy crap WordPress has been telling me about its new formatting and offering me tutelage for months now but it’s finally here and now I have to figure out all this new crap on my own. Oops. (BTW does anyone know how to link prior blog posts on here? I found the “embed” button but can’t figure out how to change the text of the hyperlink).
I’ve also GOT to figure out how to link my blogs to Twitter. In the words of Kimmy Gibbler, Sweet Cheese.

With any luck, and a lot of hard work, I hope at least two or three of these projects see the light of day in the coming months or years. I’d love to hear what you guys think of any or all of them, and would also love to hear what you’ve been working on! Feel free to comment with a link to one of your projects if you’d like.

And as always, thanks for reading and commenting.

some (publishing) news!

Good evening, bloggers!

Just wanted to take a few minutes to let you know that I recently had two poems published by Capsule Stories, a print literary journal that publishes once every season.

I’m proud to be featured among dozens of other talented writers, especially in an issue that’s all about “Moving Forward.”

Check out the Summer 2020 edition and their website at https://capsulestories.com/summer-2020-edition/

My poems that are featured in this issue were posted several years ago on my blog Outer Banks Poems.

Enjoy! And let me know what you think!

journal

 

Places I’ve Been, Part 5 (Erie, PA)

 

Commie Erie beach

Lake Erie, PA and Presque Isle State Park are popular destinations for travelers looking to spend time enjoying one of the Great Lakes.

The first time J and I took the three hour drive north, it was an impromptu decision several years ago, where we hopped in the SUV with our dog one August day and really had no plans other than to get to the lake. Once there, we were pleasantly surprised by the size of the park itself and the beauty of the day. While it was exceptionally windy and the lake’s usual calm waves resembled violent ocean waves, the sun was shining brightly through the clouds and not many people were out and about. We quickly found a beach that welcomed puppers, and spent time walking through the sand, picking through bountiful driftwood, and trying to convince our Comet that the water was nothing to be afraid of. Mission not accomplished. We did, however, snap the adorable family photo above, and vowed to come back for a longer stay sometime in the future.

erie 1

erie 2

We got that chance in June of 2016, when we visited for a long weekend. The place we chose to stay was called Light on the Lake, located directly on the coast in nearby Northeast, PA.  (NOTE: Google lists the B&B as “permanently closed,” and I couldn’t find the website, but there is an active Facebook page so I’m not sure of its current status).
The location was spectacular, offering unbelievable views of the lake and a nearby marina. Delicious breakfast was provided, and we spent some time exploring the rocky shore and driving through the miles upon miles of grape vineyards. I didn’t realize until this visit that Northeast, PA is an extremely popular spot for wineries, and is even home to a jam and jelly plant.

The bed and breakfast was a nice place to stay, quiet and homey and ideally placed. My only complaints are that the building where guests stay is the same building where the owners live, which made me feel a bit awkward. The décor in the room was also quite dated, making me feel like I was staying in my great-aunt’s old house. (NOTE: the above mentioned Facebook page boasts a remodeled room, but it’s a different suite than ours. So some updates have been done since our stay).
Still, it was cozy and clean, and I’d definitely recommend this is a good stop for travelers.

erie 3

erie 4

During our stay, we spent the day at the Erie Zoo, which I was pleasantly surprised by. The zoo is small, but there’s a wide variety of unique animals to see, and it’s really beautiful. My favorite animals included the otters, capybaras, penguins, the red panda, and the leopard who was snoozing snugly in a plastic tub, just like a house cat might. There were plenty of flowers and plants throughout the property, and I especially loved the hanging baskets that decorated a small bridge visitors passed over.

red panda

leopard

penguins

flowes

We also spent a day on one of the many Presque Isle beaches, but unfortunately we hadn’t brought our bathing suits. It was early June, and the weather report hadn’t been promising, so we didn’t think there’d been any opportunity for swimming. Of course when we actually arrived, the weather was clear, sunny, and hot, and there we were, on the beach, fully dressed, unable to enjoy the water. We did some wading, though, and it’s always relaxing to sit with your toes in the sand, listening to the crash of the surf.

erie 5

erie 6

One of our missions during our mini vacation was to find a bar or restaurant where we could have dinner that would be broadcasting the Stanley Cup playoffs. When we planned the trip several months prior, we had no idea our Pittsburgh Penguins would be vying for Lord Stanley’s Cup. But since the Cup playoffs are on such a national stage, we didn’t think it would be an issue popping into a bar to catch the game – especially because if the Pens won, it would be for all the marbles. Unbeknownst to us, we were staying in a town that didn’t even seem to acknowledge hockey’s existence. And we didn’t realize that we were closer to Buffalo, NY and their Sabres than we were to our Pens. So when we meandered into a sports bar for pizza and fried pickles, we were perplexed that the bar staff didn’t even know which channel the game was on. And once they found it, no one in the entire bar was paying the least bit of attention. After we’d finished eating, we rushed back to the bed and breakfast to watch the rest of the game on a tiny, old-fashioned TV that was so small and had such poor quality we could barely see the puck or the scoreboard in the corner.  Luckily, we lost that night in spectacular fashion, so we were able to see them win the Cup a few days later in the comfort of our own home.

Before leaving, J and I briefly stopped in the “downtown” area of Northeast, where we took a short walk through a pretty little park, complete with fountains and war monuments. The town mostly consisted of antique shops, craft stores, and family-owned businesses. We also popped into the closest winery for a quick tasting. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the name of it, but vineyards and wineries are plentiful in this part of Pennsylvania, so if you ever choose to visit, I promise that finding one will be easy.

This vacation was a quick and quiet one, the highlights being the zoo and the unexpected good weather. If we were to return in the future, we’d definitely bring our bathing suits and the kayaks and spend more time on the water and hopefully explore more of what Erie has to offer.

If you enjoyed reading about this adventure, you might also like …

Places I’ve Been, Part 1 (Laurel Highlands, PA)

London, Part 2

Places I’ve Been, Part 3 (New York City)

erie 7

erie 8

 

Places I’ve Been, Part 4 (Southern Caribbean)

 

CIMG0648CIMG0693

For our honeymoon in November of 2013, J and I hopped aboard Princess Cruise Lines for the second time in our relationship and explored the islands of the southern Caribbean aboard the Crown Princess.

The ship was as beautiful as its sister we sailed on in 2009, but it was almost an exact copy, so there was no surprise or new things to explore. From what I understand, all Princess ships are pretty much mirror-images of one another. While this might make navigating your way around the ships easier if you cruise with Princess more than once, I think it would be fun exploring the newness of a vessel each time you vacation. Still, we had a comfortable room complete with a balcony, and J’s mom had sent us a surprise bottle of champagne to mark the occasion.

 

moon 1moon 2

Our first port of call was again Princess Cays. Unlike our last visit, this time J and I decided to try one of the excursion adventures and rented one of those giant floating bikes with the brightly-colored wheels. I always thought it looked like fun – but I was a bit wrong. The seat on the bike is metal, and what happens to metal when it sits in the scorching hot Caribbean sun all day? Yeah. It gets painfully hot. I’m pretty sure I lost a layer of skin off my ass and my thighs when I sat down. The other issue with this giant floating bike is that pedaling is HARD. I’m not the most fit person in the world, but I thought I was more than capable of peddling a bike. Unfortunately, getting enough momentum to your bare feet against giant pedals isn’t as easy as you may think, especially when the ocean waves are bobbing you up and down unpredictably. And finally, doing any sort of manual labor in ninety degree heat is only made worse when you’re wearing a bulky life vest. While I was sadly disappointed that our floating bike adventure was less than relaxing, we did manage to snag some beach time and swung by a few shop to add to our Christmas ornament collection.

Since the next islands on our itinerary were quite far south, we spent the next few days “at sea,” where we whiled away the hours playing hilarious and challenging games like trivia and bingo, enjoying the pools and hot tubs, sipping fruity drinks, and watching movies “under the stars.” Unfortunately, we ran into some rough waters for a day or two – bad enough that they closed a few of the upper decks due to high winds and the ship deployed its outriggers in order to try to keep the boat from rocking in excess. At night, you could definitely feel the ship swaying, and I experienced some mild seasickness for a few hours.

As we reached the island of Curacao, J and I watched as we cruised by dozens of oil rigs, which is apparently the island’s biggest export. Once ashore, we spent the morning shopping and exploring the old ruins and markers of famous battles, marked by aging cannons and crumbling forts. Our initial plan was to go back on the ship and change into our bathing suits, then hit the beach, but it was so incredibly hot that we ditched the idea and just stayed on board to enjoy one of the pools. Curacao’s coast was quite rocky, which meant we’d need to take a taxi to a more accessible beach. Since we hadn’t booked a cruise-approved excursion in advance, we erred on the side of caution and just hung back. This ended up being one of our most relaxing and quiet afternoons aboard the ship, as most people were off exploring the island.

curacao

curacao 2

curacao 3

The next day we arrived in Aruba, catching a glimpse of the coast of Venezuela as we made our way to the dock. I was thrilled to be far enough south to see another continent, and my excitement only grew as we got closer to our next destination. Aruba was absolutely beautiful. From its brightly-colored coastal buildings to its pure white sand beaches and crystal clear water, it was truly a slice of heaven on earth. And while the weather was of course hot, it wasn’t unbearable thanks to the trade winds. These winds not only make the environment comfortable, but we quickly learned that they are also responsible for the tilt of the famous Divi Divi tree, a large shrub that always leans to the southwest and are found in abundance on this beautiful piece of land.

We’d booked an excursion for this island, and it was money more than well spent. We boarded a refurbished school bus with no windows and painted in bright, funky colors with a giant banana on top. Our driver was a happy-go-lucky local with a huge personality and a wealth of knowledge about his native land. He spoke five languages (Dutch, Spanish, English, French, and Papiamento), and kept us laughing as we sped down the coast. Along the way, I marveled at how clean and modern the island and all of its hotels and restaurants were. Everything from Holiday Inns to Ritz Carltons were stunning, and each eatery and shop boasted bright, inviting colors and often upbeat music. I very quickly came to understand why Aruba’s official slogan is “one happy island.”

bus

divi divi

Aruba 1

The first stop on our tour was the California Lighthouse. Here, we learned the history of the structure, posed for pictures, and sipped coconut water right from the source. I was truly impressed (and a bit terrified) as I watched two local men hacking the fruit apart with machetes and almost no effort.

Further down the coast, we stopped at Moomba Beach, where we’d have several hours to enjoy the scenery before the bus returned to take us back to the ship. Moomba Beach was absolutely stunning. Besides the picturesque landscape, there were beautiful ships anchored nearby, everything from touristy pirate ship recreations to bright sailboats and speeding jet skis. There was also a small cluster of shops and restaurants, complete with a cigar shop and tiki huts. Light fixtures made of glass bottles hung among the palm trees as did old anchors and thick ropes, making me feel like I had stumbled onto the set of Pirates of the Caribbean. After J and I did some swimming, he somehow convinced me to rent a jet ski, and we spent an hour speeding through the water. Once my initial panic wore off and I loosened the death grip on J’s life vest, I actually managed to have a pretty good time.

aruba 2

aruba 3

 

All too soon, our tour guide arrived to whisk us back to the ship. He blared The Beach Boys’ Kokomo from the bus’s speakers, and made us dizzy circling three times through a roundabout before getting back on track. When the bus came to a final stop at the dock, I actually had tears in my eyes. Falling in love with Aruba didn’t take long.

As our ship pulled away from the most beautiful island I’d ever visited, J and I waved sadly from our balcony. But Aruba had one final surprise – we somehow managed to spot a shark swimming alongside our ship just before he disappeared beneath the waves. Though we were safely several dozen feet from the creature, it was easy to tell he was quite large – at least ten feet if I had to guess – and I shuddered to think that we’d just been swimming in those very waters.

aruba 4

aruba 5

The last few days of our honeymoon were “at sea” again as we made the long trek back to the Florida coast. J and I passed the time playing board games in the library, lounging on deck, drinking more alcohol, and enjoying a Coldplay concert broadcast on the giant outdoor movie screen. We even splurged on a couples massage to top off our relaxation.

The negatives this time around were minor, like the unbearable heat and unsightly oil rigs in Curacao, and the excessive rough weather the first few days. We also felt a bit more “buying” pressure from Princess this time. For example, after our massage, we were taken to a “recovery” room, which basically consisted of the masseuses giving us water, then trying to sell us exorbitantly priced lotions and oils. When we declined, they kind of grilled us as to why we weren’t interested, and that rubbed me the wrong way (no pun intended). We also had an unpleasant incident where J and I wandered into an area of the ship called “The Sanctuary” and made ourselves comfortable on lounge chairs in a cabana. After sitting there peacefully for ten or fifteen minutes, a steward came up to us and asked if we had reservations. When we looked at him like he had two heads, he explained that the cabanas had to be rented – at some absurd rate of around $100/hour. While I understand that certain amenities cost extra, there was no indication that any part of “The Sanctuary” required reservations or additional funds.

But the ship was beautiful and the majority of the staff pleasant, and we enjoyed some amazing meals and incredible sights throughout the week. Our honeymoon cruise was one to remember, and I am so grateful we got to visit Aruba. If we ever come across the funds, I would not hesitate to spend an entire week there.

aruba 7

aruba 6

Summer Reading!

summer reading

Well, summer is in full swing, and for us readers and writers, that means taking our beloved books outside to enjoy by the pool or hammock . . . or in my case, snuggled under the comforter while the AC blasts on ‘high.’

I feel like bloggers and writers are always getting asked about their favorite books and who their favorite writers are, so I I wanted to have some fun sharing some of my faves.

In no particular order . . .

  • Jennifer Weiner
    My favorite author for years. I remember reading this woman’s books in my late teens and early twenties and thinking, “Wow. This is something I can identify with. And this is how I want to write!” Reading novels like Good in Bed and In Her Shoes were the first time I really felt like I was enjoying something written by or for a friend. Her talent goes beyond good story-telling; the characters are real and flawed and you can’t help identifying with them. And I find myself laughing out loud several times in most of her books. She also wrote an autobiography a few years ago entitled Hungry Heart that made me love her even more. I absolutely cannot wait to get my hands on her latest release, Mrs. Everything.
  • Sophie Kinsella
    Another writer that makes me laugh out loud. Her characters are usually quirky or awkward, which I can definitely identify with! She manages to weave complicated plots and deep-rooted story lines into the everyday occurrences of her characters’ lives, teaching them and the reader lessons along the way. My favorites include Undomestic Goddess and her latest, I Owe You One. Ms. Kinsella also writes under the pseudonym Madeline Wickham, so be sure to check those books out too!

lake reading

  • Emily Giffin
    When I first read Something Blue back in the early 2000s, I remember absolutely sobbing at the end. This is a writer that gives you all the feels and sets the tone for dynamic characters. When I read the recently released All We Ever Wanted, I was seriously impressed with how she managed to cover very-relevant and difficult topics like white privilege and the #MeToo movement with the perfect balance of raw emotion and sensitivity.
  • Beatriz Williams
    Hands down my “new” favorite writer. I discovered Ms. Williams’ last summer when I read Summer Wives and felt like I had literally been sucked into the book a la Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. I then proceeded to read every single thing she’s written over the next couple of months and found myself absolutely transported to another time and place with every plot and cast of fascinating characters. I even cried at several of them. The passion she evokes is some of the best writing I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. Her love stories (and scenes) are beautiful and emotional. I am practically drooling waiting for The Golden Hour to be released.
  • Philippa Gregory
    I’m not sure Ms. Gregory’s writing can be classified as “light summer reading,” but I do love her historical fiction novels. Most of her books hinge on heavy, historical events like the War of the Roses, Henry the VIII and his six wives, and the role of Elizabeth I. The stories are complete with adultery,  beheadings, and medieval battles that will entertain any history buff. Her writing is so rich and descriptive it’s like you’re actually on the battlefield at Bosworth or in the Queen’s chamber listening to her ladies-in-waiting giggle and flit about.

anne-1297149_960_720

  • Gregory Maguire
    Mr. Maguire is the only man to have made it onto my list and for good reason. While I’m not a huge fan of fantasy novels, his Wicked series features some of the best re-imagined tales I’ve ever read. Wicked, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, and Mirror, Mirror are “prequels” to well known stories like the Wizard of Oz, Cinderella, and Snow White. The books explore the realm of possible answers into questions like “why was the Wicked Witch of the West Wicked?” and “Why did the Stepsisters hate Cinderella so much?” This is truly compelling writing that may leave you feeling just a bit sorry for all those fairy-tale villains you grew up being afraid of.
  • J.K. Rowling
    Do I really have to explain this one? If you somehow haven’t read any of the HP books, I beg of you to give them a whirl. And if wizardry, friendship, mystery, adventure, and epic battles of good versus evil truly aren’t your thing, check out Jo’s other writing, including A Casual Vacancy and Very Good Lives. The former is jaw-droppingly different from the boy wizard series, and the latter is her 2008 Harvard graduation speech that makes me cry Every. Single. Time I read it or hear it. Jo has also written several novels under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.

fantasy book

  • Rochelle B. Weinstein
    I discovered Ms. Weinstein’s books through a Facebook group called Women Writers, Women’s Books, and the first one I read, What We Leave Behind, absolutely spoke to me on a personal level. Not only is the story beautifully told, but I feel like the plot and the characters had the ability to connect with readers on a personal level. Most of her books focus on those deep, dark secrets of your life that have shaped you as a person but are too terrified to let anyone see. The stories are  poignant reminders that no one is exactly as they seem.
  • Lucy Dillon
    Lucy Dillon is a relatively new name to my bookshelf, but I fell in love with her writing style and characters as soon as I opened one of her first books, Walking Back to Happiness. I am slowly working my way through all of her novels, but unfortunately having a bit of a tough time finding libraries in my part of the States that carry this British author’s work. Still, Ms. Dillon’s stories, which center on female characters in the midst of some sort of life crisis, have made me realize that there is a market for novels like my WIP (The Monthy of May) that center on mental health, grief, and major life changes. Most of her books also have subplots involving dogs, which I absolutely adore. You can’t go wrong with feel-good stories that feature pups of all shapes and sizes!
  • Diana Gabaldon
    Oh, Jamie Fraser. He may be my biggest literary crush ever. Even if Starz had never brought him to life in the form of the drool-worthy Sam Heughan, I would have fallen for him just from the pages of the Outlander novels. In this expansive time-traveling series, twentieth-century main character Claire goes on countless journeys with the sexy Scottish rogue in the 1700s. I don’t want to give too much away in case you haven’t had the pleasure of reading the books or watching the series, but these books (especially the first 3 or 4) are some of the sexiest, most captivating reads I’ve ever had the pleasure of completing.

sam

  • Honorable Mentions:
    • Elizabeth Cunningham
      If you’re not easily offended by creative takes on biblical characters, check out the Mary Magdalene series. These fictionalized accounts follow one of the most (in)famous women in history through her life before, during, and after her time with Jesus Christ. Fair warning: there is plenty of sex, violence, and blasphemy.
    • Kathleen McGowan
      Ms. McGowan’s books are along the same lines as Elizabeth Cunningham’s, but not as dark. They center around the idea of the Sacred Feminine and the possibility that Jesus may have had children and that the search for the Holy Grail is actually a search for a holy blood line. If you liked Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, you’ll enjoy The Book of Love series (although I still can’t quite figure out why Ms. McGowan seems to have a vengeance against Da Vinci. Her novels center on the artwork of Boticelli instead of Leonardo, and she doesn’t paint the latter in a very positive light).

 

So there you have it — a pretty exhaustive list of all the books and writers that have made my imagination sing over the last ten to twenty years. Let me know if you’re fans of any of these authors or if you have any suggestions of new ones you think I might like.

As always, thanks for reading!

Like me on Facebook

Follow me on Twitter

pool-2217508_960_720

 

Places I’ve Been, Part 2 (Eastern Caribbean)

ship 1

Good day, Blogger Friends!

For the second edition of “Places I’ve Been,” I’m turning the clock back to October of 2009 to revisit the very first cruise I ever took.

Unlike me, J had been on plenty of cruises with his parents growing up. But this was his first experience with Princess Cruise Lines, and my first experience period.

While I was absurdly anxious about the details of cruising (as with travel in general), I have to say Princess made all the logistics from start to finish relatively smooth.

The ship itself was stunning – I remember how my jaw dropped the first time I stepped onto the vessel as I marveled at the sweeping staircases, twinkling lights, and glass elevators. Inside the central courtyards, relaxing piano music wafted through the atrium. On deck, a live band played upbeat tunes and a steady stream of servers were all too happy to place a brightly-colored adult beverage in your hand. By the time we made it to the balcony of our suite, I was giddy with excitement and J has me on camera saying how I was “actually speechless.”

The food, of course, was also phenomenal – everything from pizza to filet melted in your mouth, and I recall having an absolutely heavenly serving of raspberry sorbet for dessert at one of our Captain’s dinners. I also distinctly remember these exquisitely beautiful little fruit cups served in a crusty pastry with just a touch of sweet vanilla cream that were available at the “snack” counter. I must have eaten about five of them a day.

DSCN0477

stairs

pool

Our first port of call was Princess Cays, the cruise line’s private island, and it’s everything you want a private island to be. The beaches are lined with sugary white sand and crystal clear blue green waters. Everywhere you go you can hear the notes of a steel drum band and smell tropical island breezes mingled with the scent of a nearby pig roast. There’s also plenty of shopping, and Princess staff are always nearby to provide you with drinks – even ones wearing faux tuxes who come right into the water to serve you alcohol out of coconuts.

J and I spent most of our day swimming, getting sunburned, drinking, and spending way too much money on souvenirs. More fast-paced activities were of course available, like volleyball, snorkeling, or renting one of those giant floating bikes with the brightly colored, buoyant wheels.

pc

pc2

Our next stop was St. Maarten – the first foreign country/territory I visited that wasn’t Canada. For the first part of the day, we decided to go shopping, browsing the crowded shops situated on narrow cobblestone streets, ducking into every kind of establishment from seedy shacks selling woven bracelets to the brightly lit and hideously expensive Diamonds International. Once our wallets were a bit lighter, we spent the afternoon swimming in azure blue waters. As I basked in the scorching sun, I remember getting a bit emotional as I realized how grateful I was to have the opportunity to visit such a stunning place.

sm

sm2

The next day took us to St. Thomas, where we decided to take one of the cruise line offered excursions to Magen’s Bay. The journey involved climbing aboard an altered pick-up truck with open-air benches that careened up and over the mountain, taking hair pin turns on precariously narrow roads at high speeds. I remember marveling at the buildings we passed on our way – every other one seemed to be nothing short of extreme poverty or extravagant luxury. Once we were safely delivered to Magen’s Bay, we spent the afternoon darkening our tans and cooling our bodies in the ocean.

MB

MB2

Princess definitely saved the best island for last – Grand Turk was by far my favorite island on that first cruise. Here we discovered the bluest water, the softest sand, the best shopping and music, plus Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville. The restaurant was an open-air establishment with Buffet’s best songs blaring from the speakers and brightly-dressed, always-smiling staff serving the food. There was even a pool inside with a swim-up cigar bar where customers enjoyed their drinks and smokes in their bathing suits. By far, Grand Turk offered the most fun and relaxing atmosphere of any of our ports.

GT

GT2

GT3

Overall, our experience with Princess was a good one. While they are certainly not known as a “party cruise” line, and can tend to be a bit on the expensive side when it comes to extras like excursions, spa treatments, and special services, they live up to their slogan of “escaping completely.” This is made even more true by the fact that Princess attracts a bit of a different customer than some other lines. The running joke on Princess is that it’s the cruise line for “newlyweds and nearly-deads,” and I can say with absolutely certainty that the vast majority of our ship mates were well over sixty – and some even into their eighties and nineties. Still, you can find this elderly crowd dancing well into the night and laughing it up at the line’s Newlywed Game, which you absolutely must attend if you ever cruise with Princess. I’d also definitely recommend this line to a couple on their honeymoon, considering there were very few families and probably less than a dozen children on the entire ship.

Have any of you been on a cruise? I’d love to hear about your adventures!

 

 

Travel Conundrums

The traveling bug that has always been deep inside me, somewhat suppressed, has now been fed with a trip to London, and the damn thing is taking over my mind and body.

For most of my life, I’ve dreamed of visiting places like Alaska, Hawaii, Italy, and Paris. But the dreams were so unrealistic and seemingly completely unattainable, I gave them the same chance of occurring as becoming Gerard Butler’s mistress.

gerry 1  gerry 3 gerry 2

emoji
all photos courtesy of Google Images

But when J and I decided last year (rather on a whim) to take the leap across the pond and visit London, I was overwhelmed and in a state of disbelief for several months. Even after we purchased our airline tickets, I couldn’t quite believe that I was going to visit a different continent. I couldn’t believe I had somehow summoned the nerve to overlook my fear of flying and general anxiety towards traveling and throw some extra money behind an extravagant vacation.

But not that we’ve done it, I think my appetite for travel has been whet more than I would have expected.

It’s going to be a while before we have enough money (and nerve) saved up again to make a transatlantic flight and jump into the unknown. But J and I have started talking about all the other places we want to visit that are a little closer to home, and the sheer thought that some of these places are now actual possibilities is so exciting I can barely sit still.

But, like always, there’s a complication.

Money. That pesky crap that simply does not grow on trees.

financing-2380158_960_720

London was a splurge for sure. And although I realize we don’t have to do anything that extravagant every year, even a small vacation or long weekend can come with a hefty fee.

J and I initially discussed returning to our favorite place, the Outer Banks of North Carolina for a quiet, relaxing, off-the-grid vacation that would be a complete opposite from the hustle and bustle of a city like London.

I managed to find a cute little cabana in Hatteras, a subtle little town at the very edge of the Outer Banks that would only cost us around $500 – $600 for a week in October. It’s right on the beach, near great kayaking spots in the sound, and we could even bring our fur kid Comet.

But J was even uneasy about spending even that much after we’d gone all out for London, and he suggested taking a year off from travel in 2019.

The thought of not returning to my favorite place on earth for another long year brought tears to my eyes. I know it sounds ridiculous to cry over a place I’ve visited a dozen times before, but I cannot describe the impact the Outer Banks has on my soul. I’ve never been anywhere where I’ve felt more at peace and more content. And there’s nowhere else that gives me more writing inspiration than the shores of its quiet, secluded beaches that are riddled with history.

But like I was saying – there are so many other cool places to explore! So once I mourned my loss of the Outer Banks for a few weeks, I dove into the challenge of finding somewhere new to discover.

I’d still love to visit the coast of Maine, with its rocky beaches, picturesque lighthouses, and untouched forests. I’d love to cross whale watching off my bucket list and eat homemade blueberry pancakes from the cute little campground I found online. I want to kayak in one of their many rivers or lakes and marvel at the breathtaking stars shining down from the velvet black sky. But sadly Maine is extraordinarily expensive – almost as much as we spent in London, save the airfare of course.

I investigated nearby state parks like Cooks Forest, Deep Creek, MD, Hocking Hills, OH, Lake Erie, Geneva on the Lake, and Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands. But we’ve either been there, done that, or I’ve been shocked at how much it is to rent a tiny little cabin – almost as much as it is to go to Maine!

J is longing to visit the West Coast or the deserts and mountains of places like Colorado or Arizona – he wants to see the Grand Canyon, the Salt Flats, and the test site of the atomic bomb. While I’m a little less inclined to those destinations, I’d be willing to give them a shot for his sake, if only flying out there weren’t so damn expensive!

All of the above considered, I came to the conclusion that our best bet might be to visit our neighbors to the north, Canada. While most Americans balk at the suggestion of Canada as a vacation, I’m really eager to go. I’ve only been to Niagara Falls once, and that was when I was eight or nine, and J’s never been. I’d love to see the Falls again, ride the Maid of the Mist, and maybe explore the Cave of Echoes. I’d like to dine at one of the restaurants with spectacular views and maybe even pop into a museum or casino. I also found an adorable part of Ontario in St. Catharines and Port Dalhousie. The nearby towns are only 20-30 minutes from the Falls and boasts amazing views of Lake Ontario. The port has a charming beach and little park, complete with an old-fashioned carousel and the old timey Coney Island feel so many people in the States love. Plus, Toronto, home of the hockey hall of fame, is only an hour’s drive away. J and I are both huge hockey fans and seeing the Stanley Cup is on both of our bucket lists.

I managed to find two hotels and a bed and breakfast offering pretty good deals, and I figured we could tackle the Falls, Lake Ontario, and the Hockey Hal of Fame in 4 or 5 days as opposed to an entire week. But we’re still talking a few hundred dollars.

Typically no big deal, but we’re working on paying off a loan ASAP so I can get a new car, and we have some home repairs that need done that we’ve kind of been ignoring for too long.

Sigh.

globe-trotter-1828079_960_720

To make matters more complicated, we have friends that are moving to Holland in a few months. They’ve already invited us to come stay with them at some point, and while not having to spend money on a hotel for that particular vacation will be nice, the flights are always absurdly expensive and we’ll need plenty of time to save and plan.

I know it’s no big deal if we skip a year and don’t go on vacation, but I’m really hoping that somehow we’ll be able to tackle the “honey do” list at home and go on a little excursion, even if it’s later in the year than usual.

I get antsy being in the same place all the time, especially this time of year in cold, gray Pittsburgh. I want to get in the car and drive, see new things, new faces, and places. I want to eat different foods, see unique sights, swim in other oceans and lakes. I want to take pictures of stunning sunsets, get sprayed by a breaching whale, be in the presence of Lord Stanley’s fabled cup, be in awe of a moving glacier, drink coconut milk right from the source, lay eyes on a natural wonder of the world, oogle at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

I guess I’m just afraid that I’ll never get to do any of it if I wait too long.

suitcase-1488516_960_720