Merry Christmas from the Cabin in the Woods

Well, we finished the replacing the flooring in our house (wood) and we finally cleaned things up a bit so that we feel like we’re living like normal people, not out of boxes and all, and so we also spent some time decorating for Christmas. There is a tree in almost every room of the house! (I think the only rooms lacking a tree are in the basement and the master bedroom bath.)

So I thought I’d share some pictures of our (mostly Crow’s) handiwork…

Tree in the main bathroom.

Tree in the main bathroom.

Please pardon the mess in our office. We have ordered some nice hardwood desks and still await their arrival. At least we still have a nice blue tree to match the nice blue (Behr “Windjammer”– Crow’s pick) room.

The tree in the office.

The tree in the office.

Our first live tree together… And the most important as it is the one under which we place our presents.

A live tree in our living room.

A live tree in our living room.

Some ornaments we purchased in Frankenmuth…

"Merry Christmas" auf deutsch.

“Merry Christmas” auf deutsch.

A little southwest to warm the season.

A little southwest to warm the season.

"The Bebe's" first home (Our nickname for each other is "bebe"--like baby only faster.)

“The Bebe’s” first home (Our nickname for each other is “bebe”–like baby only faster.)

Let’s have a look at those presents!

Presents under the tree!

Presents under the tree!

Our main tree from further back and on the other side.

Our main tree from further back and on the other side.

No Christmas is complete without Dr. McCoy decked out in his best festive attire!

Dr. McCoy still lives here.

Dr. McCoy still lives here.

And, of course, our “pop culture” tree appropriately in the library. This tree contains all of our goofy pop culture ornaments, many of which make sounds and/or perform an action. This is the fun tree where you get to go press buttons on all of the ornaments.

The pop culture tree in the library.

The pop culture tree in the library.

The pop culture tree in all its glory.

The pop culture tree in all its glory.

Something to make me think of "home" over the holidays.

Something to make me think of “home” over the holidays.

And let’s not forget the kitchen.

A Charlie Brown tree in the kitchen.

A Charlie Brown tree in the kitchen.

No post on the internet is complete without a cute picture of a cat… So my Nicki will do the honors…

Nicki believes herself to be the best present I could receive.

Nicki believes herself to be the best present I could receive.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays to everyone!! With lots of love from me and Crow!

Who is Mars Girl Again?

I don’t know if anyone noticed, but under the “Mars Girl” title on the right-hand side of my blog page, I have made a little change… The description used to read:

Who is Mars Girl? I’m a young widow, avid cyclist, sometimes amateur astronomer, world traveler, and relisher of red wines.

It now reads (changes in bold):

Who is Mars Girl? I’m an avid cyclist, sometimes amateur astronomer, world traveler, and relisher of red wines and craft brews.

Well, it’s true. I’ve recently developed a taste for craft beers.

Oh, yes, and I’ve dropped “young widow” from the list of items describing me.

I decided it was time to stop identifying myself as a young widow. I’m not in a state of denial about my past. My new love and relationship doesn’t erase the pain of the past. Crow does not replace Mike in my heart. (He has his own place in my heart.) However, my world has changed. It’s undeniable. In a little over 7 months, I will be married for the second time in my life. I won’t be widowed, technically, any more. I will be someone who was widowed once. Someday, the one-time widowhood might be “a long, long time ago.” Hell, it already feels that way. This is good.

I thought about changing that paragraph to describe this scenario–something like an allusion to a phoenix rising from the ashes. Well, maybe not that dramatic. But I wanted to find words to describe what I feel I am: someone who prematurely and tragically lost the first love of her life, suffered a lot of pain, went through a lot of self-reflection, healed herself through avid cycling and the passage of time, learned to love life for herself by going out into the world and doing what she wanted, and then just so happened to find a wonderful man and fell in love again. But that’s a mouthful. And, also, it sounded too Hallmark channel for me. And a part of me is still sensitive to a recently widowed audience who would maybe have been a little disturbed by the language. I know it used to make me feel as if I couldn’t relate to the widow if they were finding themselves in a new relationship or getting remarried.

It is what is it is, as they say. I don’t want to be the voice for anyone else’s experience but my own. I’m glad I have a happy new beginning to my life. But it’s really just another of many new beginnings. Everything that happens to you in life is an opportunity for a new beginning. Even the tragic loss of a spouse. Some beginnings are happy, some are sad. Hopefully I’ll be lucky enough to have many happy new beginnings with Crow.

I’m lucky. Or fortunate. Whatever you want to call it. And I don’t for one second take any of that for granted. I’ve been given a chance to share my life with someone and I’m grateful.

And that’s that. I’m no longer a young widow, but soon-to-be a (not as young) wife.

Lessons Learned from NaNoWriMo

Well, the good news is that I did complete 50K words and am therefore considered a NaNoWriMo winner!!

The bad news is that what I’ve written does not in any way constitute an actual novel. If I do want to do something with this story (ie, self-publish or publish), I’m going to need to do some major reworking. For one, in its form, my “novel” is basically a random collection of scenes with no real action taking place. I have a lot of speeches, a lot of character development, and a pretty good ending scene which I wrote on the last day to get my 50K with a sense of closure.

The problem is, I went into this challenge with a very small scattering of an idea for a story that needed to be a lot more fleshed out. I should have thought the whole thing through and wrote an outline–at least mentally. I don’t usually “write” an outline; it’s usually in my head. But I didn’t even have that. But in reworking this story, I definitely plan to write an outline. More on that in a few paragraphs.

When I started NaNo, I was sure everything would just start to flow out of my head. The first couple days were easy because the only thing I had for this story were what I considered then to be the opening scenes. I gathered from the immediate surge of words from my fellow NaNos that this is generally the case for everyone in those first couple days. Most likely, most writers have the start and end for the story already, too; it’s how to get from the great opening scene to the awesome ending scene that is often the murky area.

It was a struggle for me to get the 1,600 word count at first, though, because I was still trying to write like every single word counts. Which is how I always write. Which is probably why nothing I start ever gets done. That internal editor always nags me about word choice while I’m just struggling to get an idea on “paper.” I think a part of me always feels like every thing I write–from shopping lists to this blog–has to have substance and be brilliant.

The internal editor really restricts more than it allows you to create. And I know this from my writing classes in college. From reading the patron goddess of creative writing, Natalie Goldberg, I know that I’m supposed to just sit down and let ideas spew out of my head unrestricted, that doing such freewriting daily will actually build my writing muscle and free me from blocking myself with criticism.

But did I ever let myself actually write that way? Well, to some degree on this blog, in the entries I wrote in my journal when I had one in the past, and letters to my pen pals Sarah and Mr. Kincaid. And that’s because I’ve allowed myself to let go in those forms because it seems “okay” whereas when I’m trying to write a story it does not seem “okay.”

It took me about a week to figure out that I needed to say goodbye to my internal editor. She’s good for helping me craft my words, but she’s really lousy when it comes to trying to write 1600 words every single day. So every day that I sat down to write for NaNo, I had to come to terms with the fact that whatever I felt compelled to write at that particular moment was going into the word count regardless of quality. To do this, I had to give myself permission to write something that I knew might only help me understand the characters and may not ever be used in a finished final product.

I can’t describe to you how hard it was for me to do just that apparently simple task. It was a real struggle to tell myself I could just write a bunch of scenes because I was inspired to write them and it didn’t matter if I’d used them later. Of course, to a writer, these characters are real. So I had to remind myself that whether or not these scenes are usable, my characters were channeling through me events that really took place in their lives. It’s my job to sort through the rubble to string together a story.

I really am impressed how well I managed to keep it going despite the fact that I had no direction and I got behind twice for several days. As you can imagine, 1,600 words is not a lot by itself; however, two days behind puts you 3200 words behind. It adds up FAST. And before you know it, you feel overwhelmed. It’s when you’re behind that you really have to tell the editor to take a vacation so that you can just write.

I managed to write through Thanksgiving which was a real challenge. In my past as a single woman, Thanksgiving weekend was a big break for me to relax and enjoy myself. I usually wrote my annual Christmas letter and designed the card I would use. I would turn on a tv channel playing Christmas movies and start decorating my house. It was laid back and relaxed. But now that I am engaged (to a wonderful man, let us not forget), I must visit both my own family and his. Since his family lives near Bowling Green, approximately 2 hours away from home, a visit usually involves staying a few days.

I started that weekend behind (for the second time). But I was determined to drive up my word count and have fun visiting our families. So on Thanksgiving Day while Crow was driving from my parents’ house to his family’s house, I was typing away on my computer in the passenger seat. I wrote Friday evening after an entire day of shopping. I wrote on the way to and from Frankenmuth. I not only caught up, but I got a little ahead. And I never got behind again for the rest of the month. I’d say that was an accomplishment. If anything, it was a real testimony to my determination. At least I have that, if not actual talent!

Ironically, on the last day of writing, a real plot burst through my muddled brain for the first time since I started NaNoWriMo. The new idea actually invalidated how the novel started and many of the scenes I’d written during the month. I actually wasn’t depressed about this development because I think that the exercise of NaNoWriMo showed me that the direction I was going with the novel was not going to work. The new plot with the new setup I imagined is a lot more exciting, fun, and thrilling. I can’t believe it never occurred to me in the first place. And now, honestly, I can’t wait to start writing this novel again.

I wrote the ending scene as though the first half of the novel had actually been written with the new plotline. When I validated my word count online after writing that scene, I found I was just 200 words short of 50K. So I then wrote a scene for the very beginning of the novel using the new plot. That got me across the finish line with words to spare.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to work on the novel since. I had a lot of catching up on housework to do since my absolutely wonderful, sweet, supportive fiance took the brunt of the labor for the entire month of November. I love him for not begrudging me or making me feel bad about not pulling my weight with getting the house together. To top it off, he kept telling me NOT to quit. He gave me the confidence I needed to realize I could finish NaNoWriMo. And I love him so much for wanting me to succeed as a writer because he knows how important this dream is to me. Crow is not a man who believes that goals are impossible; he’s the type of person to just do what he wants, which is evidenced by the fact that he’s self-employed running his own business. He’s reminding me that dreams are still attainable and that if I want something badly enough, I really can reach for it. Where has this support been all my life? I’m so glad I’ve found it in him!

I also found a great support network in joining the local Akron NaNo group for write-ins. We’d go to Panera Bread on Mondays and Nervous Dog (a local coffee house chain) on Wednesdays. I missed all of the weekend write-ins due to commitments with the house, but one weekend Crow and I both sat in a Panera–he worked on stuff related to his job while I wrote–for several hours after running errands. It was so refreshing to be around other writers. We speak the same language! (Which primarily consists of talking about our characters as though they are real people which is crazy-talk to non-writers.)

At one of the last write-ins I attended, we had two writing “sprints”–10 and 20 minute time periods where we just had to write without thinking at all about content to boost the word count. It was a lot of fun and, again, a lesson in just getting the scene out of your head instead of toiling over every minute detail.

We also had a Facebook page where we cheered each other on virtually. That was great too because I was able to get ideas from other writers. One fellow writer even came up with the name for the rival band in my story! If I ever do get something published, I definitely have to write a dedication to these people because they helped me so much with just their conversations, questions, and often panicked chatter. Whenever someone felt down or defeated, and they posted on the page, everyone chimed in to motivate them to keep going. It was a real group effort to get us all to keep going and I was also motivated to get keep writing as I saw each of them hitting the 50K finish line.

Another inspiration I’ve had along the way is a band called Blondfire. I downloaded their Where The Kids Are EP and played it repeatedly for the last two weeks of NaNo because for some reason their sound really reminds me of how I envision the band in my story to sound. The lead singer is female–as is the lead singer in my fictional band–and she just has the sound of a space-age singer. The words to Where The Kids Are and Hide And Seek both sound kind like the kind of thing a young band would write about: hopes and dreams and trying to accomplish stardom. That EP got my juices flowing and still does when I play it. Music and writing to me go hand in hand; I’ve always been inspired to write from certain songs and albums. Music draws pictures in my head. (Past influences for stories I’ve written have been Depeche Mode’s Policy Of Truth and Duran Duran’s Rio! These both inspired novels I wrote in high school.)

So. Lessons learned? I think next year (oh, yes, there will be a next year for sure, this was too much fun) I will come into NaNo with a better developed story. I will need to think about my story longer, perhaps in October, and then start jotting down some notes. I think I can do a better job of actually having something somewhat coherent if given a complete plot. If I had used NaNo to write my rock star story (which, incidentally, was left unfinished at 27K words), I could have probably finished the whole novel, though, of course, it would have required some heavy editing. But the full story would be there.

Also: Next year I will hopefully not have major upgrades to do on my house. And I cannot book up my schedule very much in November.

Whether I ever write anything that is publishable is not the point. The point is, I had fun. And I finally stopped bemoaning the fact that I want to write and I actually sat down and wrote. That was definitely worth the whole exercise. I needed NaNoWriMo to motivate me to make action out of my talk. And now I can say I’m a novelist and no one can dispute it. Yup. (Published novelist, however, is another thing all together.)

Black Friday & Frankenmuth

Crow and I spent Friday and Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend in Bowling Green visiting his mom and step-dad. We had dinner on Thursday night at my parents’ house, then drove up to his family’s place for the remainder of the extended weekend.

It’s tradition with Crow and his mom to go shopping on Black Friday. I can hear the hisses from my liberal friends, and the curmudgeons who hate the mass consumerism of Christmas, but I have to admit that it was FUN. Traditionally, Black Friday–being a day off of work–was my day to reflect on a year by writing my annual Christmas letter and creating my holiday photo-card. And then I just spent the rest of the weekend basking in the freedom of not having to go to work.

This year, however, I’m engaged and learning to start new traditions with my husband-to-be. Not to mention the fact that I have also been participating in NaNoWriMo, which has consumed more of my time than I ever imagined, and required my continued attention the entire weekend. This whole writing-life balance has been quite a challenge all month, to say the least. Exciting. But tiring.

Anyway, after visiting with my parents, we left for Bowling Green. With Crow driving, I spent the trip up typing furiously into my MacBook to get my required daily word count to where it needed to be to stay on time with completing 50K words by the end of the month. I’d started the day a little behind because I chose to go out Wednesday night with coworkers and then Crow and some friends instead of write.

Fortunately I hit my total and was able to get to bed when we arrived at his family’s place around 11pm. The next day, it was getting up reasonably early (for me, about 8am) and then setting off into the wilds of shopping on Black Friday. I ended up using some of those really great deals to buy more stuff for myself (needed new headphones, got a 3 TB backup external hard drive for $100 at Costco, some other odds and ends). Believe it or not, we were actually out from about 10am until 9pm! What a day! I enjoyed it, though. It was really fun to hang out with Crow and his mom. I like the way they shop — just go wherever you feel like at the moment, not so much a coordinated attack, and definitely not trying to get those crazy early bird deals. Though I’ve been told there’s generally more organization to their shopping but both were slightly unprepared this year.

After we got home, I, of course, became anti-social as I spent the next few hours furiously typing again on my MacBook for NaNoWriMo. I got a decent number of words down and tiredly called it a night.

The next day, we had to really get up early to leave the house by 7am (!!!!!) because we wanted to go to Frankenmuth, Michigan to shop at the Bronner’s Christmas Store. It was about a 2.5 hour drive to Frankenmuth in which I, again, spent my time writing my novel in the back seat while Crow and his mom played word games with each other in the front seat and chatted. I wanted to take part–especially on the way home when the game was to name a famous person and then name another famous person using the first letter of the previous person’s last name (ie, Fred Astair and Ashton Kucher)–but, alas, I was on a NaNoWriMo mission.

When we arrived at the Christmas store–which is just outside of Frankenmuth itself–the parking lot was full. Of course. I could tell it was a big building but clearly I was completely unprepared for the Christmas overload I was about to experience. While Crow was finding a parking space, I went into the store to use the bathroom. Between the crowded mass of milling people and the vast maze of the huge store, I nearly got lost finding my way back to the front door where Crow and his mom were waiting. Wow!!

Some of the decorations to admire (not buy) at the Christmas store!

Some of the decorations to admire (not buy) at the Christmas store!

We started shopping in a circular pattern from the “west” entrance. I think it took us like four hours to go through the entire store (with a stop for a snack at the snack bar in the middle). We let ourselves go off our budget for the day because we wanted to buy some special Christmas decorations for our first Christmas in our new home together. The bulk of the store is ornaments. And not just any ornaments, but ornaments of every theme or type that you could ever imagine! Crow pointed out some adorable ornaments with alien faces. I, naturally, had to buy one of those!

Cool alien ornaments: A must have for extraterrestrials. Or people who think they are extraterrestrials.

Cool alien ornaments: A must have for extraterrestrials. Or people who think they are extraterrestrials.

They offered free personalization for the ornaments so I got “Mars Girl” written on the back of the alien one. We also got a “Our First Home” ornament that we had personalized (using our nickname for each other “The Bebes”). Needless to say, we got quite a few interesting ornaments for our tree. In the Germany section, I picked up one that reads “Frohliche Weinachten” which is “Merry Christmas” in German. Lots of ornaments, some of which will surprise me anew when we finally go through the bags to put up our tree.

I splurged a little on myself. But these were items I could not resist, such as Rudolph The Red-nosed Reindeer socks (they are so soft and warm!) and a Santa purse. Yes.

The irresistible Santa purse!

The irresistible Santa purse!

I didn’t get the hat, though it was adorable as well; I had to draw the line somewhere. This past weekend, I took the purse out with me to two parties we attended and it was quite the object of admiration. So much so, in fact, that Santa Claus–who made an appearance at one of the parties–gave me one of the stuffed animal dogs he’d been giving the children. You know, some people just never grow up!

Crow, Santa, and Mars Girl.

Crow, Santa, and Mars Girl at a neighborhood Christmas party on December 1st. (I had the Santa hat before Frankenmuth.)

By the time we left the store, I was utterly exhausted. Not only were there products to examine, but the store itself was elaborately decorated. It was overwhelming trying to take it all in while also dodging the mobs of people. Even though we tried to look at everything, I am sure we missed twice as much as we saw. I had a great time, though, looking at all the decorations and imaging the potential Christmas wonderland we could someday make of our house because despite all the decorations we already have, and the decorations we acquired this year, Crow and I have even grander visions. Oh yes.

We decided to go into town after shopping with the main objective of finding food. And then, of course, more shopping. I was tipped off by some cycling friends about the Frankenmuth Brewery so I kind of pushed for us to eat there. I enjoyed some brats and sauerkraut which were actually surprising good for pub-style dining. For beer, I tried a dunkel and a harvest ale. Both were pretty good, though I think I liked the harvest ale a little more. Having had real dunkels in Germany, my expectations were much higher. Dunkels are generally very spicy and this dunkel was a little weak. Hey, but that’s okay, I’m not complaining about a cold beer after four hours in a Christmas store.

The town of Frankenmuth is very European in architecture, clearly drawing from their Bavarian roots. We walked around to various shops admiring the many items available for sale. We stopped for some fudge and I found a vendor selling my absolute favorite snack: candied almonds! The best find, however, was when we walked into one of the shops below the Bavarian Inn & Restaurant. From the door to the shop, right before our eyes, was an entire wall full of ROSETTE IRONS!!

Last year, we went to every cooking and craft store in northern Ohio (both east and west) in a desperate search for rosette irons. It was a frustrating hunt and the harder those damned things were to find, the more I wanted to make rosette cookies. We eventually were saved by a friend who, hearing my cries of desperation on Facebook, sold me her set for $20. Our first attempt at rosette cookies was not entirely successful. But we decided this year when considering the cookies we were going to make for our cookie extravaganza that we were going to attempt them again. While we were no longer in a desperate need for rosette irons, we were drawn to this entire wall full of them because we had sought them for so long. Among the many shapes and sizes of irons, we found a book called The Art of Rosette Cooking! So we decided to buy that as well as an iron of Santa Claus (which we did not have in our kit) and a mold for a cup so that you can make a rosette cup in which to put little goodies like fruit and whipped cream!

The good news is that after perusing the book yesterday morning, I found where we had gone wrong in our efforts at making rosettes and I’m excited already to give it another try. The recipe book also includes tons of other recipes not only for rosette cookie flavors, but other food that can be cooked using rosette irons. So I might have a future in fancy fried appetizers… Stay tuned!

We couldn’t help but feel proud of our discovery. If only we’d thought to visit Frankenmuth last year! Naturally, the town known for having everything Christmas would be the rosette irons we sought. I guess from now on we’ll know where to look for usual Christmas-themed items when all else fails!

We left town around 7pm and I was exhausted. However, I pushed on to write more for NaNoWriMo, eventually ending the day with 2,500 words! That’s impressive for someone writing in a car before and after a long day like that. That night caught me up on my word count (I’d been desperately behind for days) and so I was able to relax the rest of the evening and into the following day where I spent the ride back to Akron just talking to Crow and being in the moment. I did not get behind on my words for the rest of the event which I feel was a major accomplishment.

We really did have a lot of fun. We might make it a tradition to visit Frankenmuth. There are still a lot of surfaces in our house that have space for Christmas decorations. I want to eventually get a Christmas village because it reminds me of the little villages my grandma E put out each year for Christmas. I was always fascinated by those little miniature versions of real life. Especially the little people she had set up on mirrors that served as ice rinks…. I wouldn’t mind having little worlds of my own, though I fear I would play with them like I used to play with my grandma’s little people (which I am sure drove her nuts). What did I say about some people never growing up?

We’re well on our way to be the crazy people who decorate their house like crazy. Crow has put miniature Christmas trees in our bedroom, the office, and our guest bathroom. We have a full-sized tree in our library for just our pop-culture ornaments. We still plan to buy a live tree–our “real” tree–for our presents which we will put in our living room. Crow bought a little nightlight for our bedroom that projects the image of a snowman on our ceiling. And the outside of our house is decorated with blue and white LED icicle lights with lighted candy canes lining the beginning of our driveway (my idea–I’ve always wanted them), a strand of blue lights and lighted snow flake ornaments in our Japanese maple. Yesterday I added a bow with bells and a wreath to the double-doors of our front entrance. We envision buying a huge wreath for next year to place on the bricks in front of our house and a spot light to shine on it.

Who’s got the Christmas spirit? We do!!