Tuesday, December 20, 2016

So this is Christmas

Do you have certain traditions that your family enjoys every year? We have several, but the majority of them are connected with Christmas:
Birmingham's German Market
  • Walking round the neighbourhood posting Christmas cards 
  • Hiding in the bedroom to wrap presents 
  • Decorating the tree while listening to Garth Brooks Christmas songs 
  • Colour coding the wrapping paper for prezzies under the tree 
  • Making dozens of mince pies and three Christmas cakes 
  • Watching a family movie with mulled wine and roast chestnuts 
  • Playing Poker, Scene-it and a host of other team games 
  • Eating a full Turkey dinner with crackers and all the trimmings
And the real family highlights: a trip to the German market (oh those bratwurst), singing Christmas carols outside Warwick castle (more wine/chestnuts), and one of the best, when the whole family walk round the local fields, wrapped up against the crisp December chill on Christmas morning. A quick straw poll had all five family members picking something different, most people torn between two or three.
Carols at Warwick Castle
I could only find a couple of tasks which weren’t fun: the annual argument about how to construct the base for the 7ft tree, and painstakingly replacing each bulb in the multi-string lights to find the duff ones. However, even for the total Christmas addicts (like me), there's always the danger when the genuinely fun activities are repeated year after year, that the novelty wears off. People may become less willing to engage, doing it out of a sense of duty/just to please, when they'd rather be playing with some electronic gadget.

Every new addition to the family brings with it a new energy, a different viewpoint. This year we're joined by my son-in-law, a Ukranian guy who’d never set foot in the UK before this month, let alone been faced with a plateful of mince pies when he entered the house.

A Winter Wonderland
He is enchanted with every aspect of our country/home and family, taking great pleasure in many things we've taken for granted for so long we rarely give them a second thought.
It’s an absolute delight to experience everything through his eyes, re-discovering the many joys this season brings.
Thank you, Artem, for helping us to reconnect with the awe and wonder of Christmas.

What about you? Do you have special family traditions? We'd love to hear more about your celebrations.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Pizza Bombs and Other Truths

The kids ate chocolate before breakfast. And we celebrated the first snowfall of the season with pizza bombs and hot chocolate with marshmallows for dinner. Oh, the kids ate chocolate as part of their after-school snack as well, because we celebrate the season with an Advent calendar that contains sweets. They also each had a jellybean after dinner. Because we have two different Advent calendars.

On the flip side, St. Nicholas, who brought us the morning chocolate in the shape of golden coins, also left us oranges, which were eaten with a balanced breakfast. For lunch, the kids ate self-packed healthy food. No treats for school meals, mama’s rules. Snack in the afternoon contained a fruit and dairy. And the pizza bombs were accompanied by fresh salad and fruit.

I try to balance it, keeping the treats just that—treats. To be eaten on rare and special occasions. But anyone who knows me knows how much I love my Lindt Lindors and Jelly Bellies. Anyone who knows me also knows the gym is essentially my “place of work.” I go for about two hours a day to get my brain in working gear so I can function for my kids at my best level. It’s had a side-effect on my body, making it leaner, more muscular, and faster than any other time in my life.

The point?

Anything taken out of context or seen without all the pieces, is not the truth. You can’t take a snapshot of my kids eating 7:00 AM chocolate and berate me for being a terrible parent with kids who have uncontrollable sugar issues. Nor can you take a picture of me running a sub-six minute mile or curling forty-five pounds of iron and claim I wouldn’t touch candy or pizza. Using one piece of knowledge to prove a point serving your own agenda is not telling the truth. In fact, I would call it lying by omission. Or just straight-up lying.

And that’s how a lot of news stories seem to be running right now. And how a lot of political figures seem to be talking. People say, “Well, you have to look at the source. You have to do your own research.” And I’m stuck there, a little glassy-eyed, wondering how on earth I’m to know what source is putting what kind of slant on any information. Clouding issues is social media—essentially anybody has a platform on which to speak their opinions as fact, and truth can easily become lost in the random murk of deception.

What happened to honesty? Why purposely print misleading and incorrect information? When you get in front of a microphone, why change your numbers or your promises, or hide your intentions? Shouldn’t we be able to trust our media? Or the leaders of our country? At what point are we allowed to collectively shout: “Enough!” Because I’m there. I’m ready. I want to know what’s really going on in the United States and the rest of the world. I don’t want information purposely sugarcoated or beefed up. I don’t want it purposely tarnished or spun with negativity. I don’t want lies. The whole picture matters more than judgements based on ratings and political rants. I want the whole shebang. The pizza bombs and chocolate, along with the gym time. Everything.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Music was my first love.

If you were asked to name the one thing that defines you, what would you say? Most people might say mother/father, or maybe some other kind of familial relationship. Then they might say something about what they do: mine would be writer, healer, teacher and engineer - in that order. But peel away those onion layers (I know, I've been down this path before), and what's left starts to get to the real essence of you. Try it. I'm guessing that somewhere soon, you'll hit on a hobby - maybe a sport or craft into which you regularly pour your most creative energy. As I've hinted at before, I don't function well (which means at all!) without music. Like my mother, "she shall have music wherever she goes." It used to be turning the radio on in every room, now I can carry it with me on my iPod. Problem solved.

So now, this love of music is entering my writing. As well as creating a soundtrack to each book (full of Journey, Queen, Bowie, Thin Lizzy and a hundred other fantastic artists), one of my characters (Carrie, in Wolf in Sheep's Clothing) mentions some of the soundtracks to her life throughout the book. That was great fun, and people who follow me closely will know that a fair proportion of my chapter headings in all my books are indeed song titles. But now it's taken on a new dimension.

Journey have been my favourite band since the early eighties when I danced round the front room to “Escape,” drawn to the superb story-telling in every song. In 2008, I spent a week in hospital, recovering from an operation, and needed to occupy my time, so I wrote a musical (as you do!) based on twenty of Journey’s greatest hits. I’ve always had the idea of turning it into a story.
I wrote it originally with all songs taken from the Steve Perry heydays – from Escape, Frontiers and Raised On Radio. After the Newcastle gig in 2008, I spoke to Jon Cain and he suggested they might be interested if I put some new songs in. So I re-wrote it with songs from Arrival and Revelations. It’s kinda sat on the back burner since then, but I’ve thought about doing something like this many times.

The story of the musical is “Faithfully” tailored to the sentiment of each song, and the main characters are determined by the situations suggested by the lyrics. Finding a credible setting for the diverse story threads to intertwine might have proved challenging, but the diverse nature of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival adds a quirky element so often found in jukebox musicals like “We Will Rock You” and “ Rock of Ages.”

As Journey fans will know, relationships are at the core of their sensitive, emotional ballads, so it’s no surprise that this is a character-driven story exploring three contrasting relationships. The way the three stories intertwine highlights the differences in attitudes between a couple meeting for the first time, another trying to patch up a dying marriage and a third who are tentatively rekindling an old passion. This stretched my experiences to their limit, but I know enough people struggling with long distance relationships to get ideas, and the lyrics were a huge help.

Part of my research included reading Neil Daniels’ excellent biography, “Don’t Stop Believin’: The Untold Story Of Journey,” and I contacted the music journalist for advice. He was incredibly helpful, particularly about the stringent copyrighting issues, and agreed to read a copy. I'm absolutely thrilled by his endorsement in the front of the book.

I was a little concerned that people might not appreciate this ambitious project; it was especially tricky to conjure the essence of each song without breaking copyright regulations, particularly when two of the characters are writing songs, but my biggest hope is that someone will like the idea enough to collaborate in bringing this to stages in the West End and on Broadway. I can dream, can't I?

Released on November 11th, “Don’t Stop Believing” is available at the discounted price of $1.99 (or £1.63 in the UK), but only for the next week – it will be back up to normal on 18th November.

Monday, September 26, 2016


Words have meaning. They have power. With them, worlds can be created or destroyed. And so can the humans within those worlds.

When my third son was three, he began to bring up death-and-dying subjects. A lot. It was a bit out of the blue, I thought, though it wasn’t overly concerning to me. Yet. One day he asked when I would die. Another day he asked me if I was going to hold his baby brother when he died. It all became clear to me when he posed this question: “So, after Easter, then we’ll die?” He asked so honestly and openly, without any sign of concern. And it hit me. For the past couple of weeks we’d been talking about dying eggs for Easter. He had been hearing our words and making his own interpretations based on his knowledge experience. He knew about death. He didn’t know about this holiday tradition. Feeling horrible, I explained that we meant we would color eggs for Easter, and that none of us were going to actually die.

We come into situations carrying our past. Simple words can morph into an entirely different context, based on whatever we’ve faced in life. This is why it is so important to slow down and really understand what is being said. To understand the intent as well as the message, before responding. It’s easy to feel defensive, belligerent, or hurt. It’s easy to hold onto past grievances and form grudges. It’s easy to act on those feelings. But what if we took the time to find out where the other person is coming from? What if we could separate our prejudices and preconceived ideas from the person standing in front of us, and base our communication within the context of “now” balanced against the knowledge of “before”? 

We have so many words thrown at us over social media, within news platforms, from political persona, sports players, movie stars, and the average Mary and Joe. Everyone believing in their own story, and wanting all of us to follow their lead. Well … what is the reality? Isn’t it always more than one-sided? When we don’t question the source, when we don’t know the intent, when we make assumptions, we are missing an opportunity. With understanding and knowledge, we can break through biases and fears.

Taking the time to listen and understand doesn’t mean we have to agree with one another. It just means we don’t get to jump to conclusions and be mean to each other. Using our words to build our relationships and add more truth and hope to each other’s stories will strengthen our communities. With stronger communities, we have hope for a peaceful and respectful coexistence. One where people can live fearlessly, dream endlessly, grow exponentially, and love absolutely. Regardless of backstory. Regardless of disagreements. Regardless of differences.

Take the time to listen. Words matter. The humans behind the words matter. And sometimes all it takes is understanding to change death to life.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Do we measure up?

Every year around the anniversary of 9/11, my daughter’s school does a “Patriotic Chapel.” The choir sings songs like God Bless America, America the Beautiful, Proud to be an American and, of course, The Star Spangled Banner. I attend this chapel every year as my daughter is one of the singers.
I have to admit that I love it. I love the music, the pictures, the symbolism, and the message of pride in our country that fills the auditorium. I love the stories from our history that are told, even when they’ve been slightly embellished. I love that for one hour, our children are reminded why they should be thankful for the lives they live and to not take a single moment for granted.

I love all of that. What I didn’t particularly enjoy this year was another message one of the speakers put forth. Perhaps it was unintentional, I can’t say one way or the other. Regardless, it came across loud and clear.

Image result for teenagers saying pledge of allegianceThis speaker discussed how she felt that the younger generations weren’t as patriotic as the older ones. She gave examples of young people in schools mumbling through the pledge of allegiance as though it meant nothing, and of an Olympic athlete not placing her hand on her heart during the playing of our National Anthem.

First, when did it become okay to measure another person’s love for their country based on symbolic gestures? Teenagers will mumble through anything that doesn’t involve a video game or their latest crush. That might mean that their priorities are askew, but it certainly doesn’t mean they don’t love and respect their country. 

Image result for gabby douglas hand heart anthemAs for the Olympic athletes “disrespecting our anthem” by not covering their hearts with her hands (Gabby Douglas wasn’t the only one), I’m more than a little tired of hearing about it. The hand-over-heart gesture is required when saying the Pledge of Allegiance, but standing at attention is the norm during a rendition of our National Anthem. Some choose to also place their hands over their hearts, and I think that is beautiful. I don’t think, however, that it means they are more patriotic or respectful than those who don’t.

And second, since when is this kind of lack of symbolic gesturing something only the younger generation is afflicted with? There was a whole lot of gesturing going on in the 60s, and I don’t recall any of it being particularly patriotic.

I guess my point is this: Perhaps we should place less importance on symbolism and more on what’s in a person’s heart. If we are so hell-bent on measuring people, let’s do it based on their character, on how they live their lives, and on how they treat others.

Come to think of it, that last bit works for far more than measuring patriotism.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Over this summer vacation, I ...

Did you ever have that assignment at the start of school- Write about something fun you did over the summer? Oh God, the INSTANT anxiety. Something fun? And summer is over? Then add the fact that this usually involved some kind of presentation to the rest of the class? Just put me out of my misery, please!
As a "grown-up" (ha, me a grown up? Sure), I always feel a little bit of the same lingering anxiety at the end of the summer. Although fall is my favorite season, when the weather begins to change and the leaves start to turn, I can't help but look back at the summer with a bit of a judgmental slant. Did I do enough? Was it fun? Could I PROVE to someone that I had a summer worth living? It seems like such a simple, innocent assignment. But why do we spend so much time trying to impress other people with our lives?

I'm trying really hard not to be in that mindset anymore. To live the life I've been given with gratitude, while also finding my own happiness day by day, in a way that doesn't require approval from anyone else. Now before I sound too preachy and full of myself- WHY IS IT SO HARD?
You know what is easy? Negativity, selfishness and always expecting the worst. Some days, framing your experiences in a positive way seems impossible. So I try to remind myself of the pay off. Fear and negativity hold us back and prevent us from living the lives we deserve. But if a positive mindset can give me the courage to reach for my dreams, while making me happier about the life I already have, that seems like a goal worth fighting for.

I've recently been training for a big obstacle race in September, and I've been working with a trainer to help me get physically stronger. She's also been helping me improve mentally too. Let me tell you, making your mind healthier is just as difficult as making your body healthier. It's a day by day battle to chose healthy mind and body choices, but it's a battle I'm dedicated to win.
It's a lot of time and hard work, but I know it's worth it. I also hope that gaining confidence in other areas of my life will help me come back to the words and stories that have seemed a little stuck lately. Just a little secret between you and me- for some reason, a sequel is a million times harder than the first. So for anyone who has been waiting- I am trying to get back to writing, and thanks so much for your patience. The final destination is still to be a full time writer. But right now, the daily goal is to run 6 miles. I promise, those goals are connected! JD logic may not make sense to everyone else, but it does to me!

Thanks for spending some time with me and my thoughts. I enjoy sharing my journey with all of you and I hope it helps someone out there. And if not, here's a picture of my kitten. Because who doesn't like kittens? 

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

It's a Shame

That's me at 13, in the middle.
I remember, back in junior high, running for PE class. Scrawny-skinny, I had bad skin and permed hair. I liked running and was in decent shape for a thirteen-year-old, since I walked almost an hour to school every day, but I was on a medication (for that bad skin), and it made my face look almost moon-like in its roundness. This particular morning, we were running laps on the blacktop, and a “real” runner girl, coming towards me, smirked and said through laughter, “I can see your cheeks jiggle when you run!” Not knowing what type of response I was supposed to give, I laughed back and said, “I know; I can feel them!” She gave me a funny look and ran past me.

I wasn’t self-conscious, but it was a moment in my life that (obviously) has stuck with me for many years. What if I had been self-conscious? What if I struggled with the way I viewed myself, viewed my body? With how I felt treated by my peers? If cell phones were available back then, would a slow-motion image of me, cheeks wobbling up and down like Jello in a bra, have been plastered on some social media page? Captioned with a snide remark? Would that image have been a turning point in my life, making me feel isolated and humiliated? I don’t know. But I certainly wouldn’t want to find out. Even with a healthy sense of esteem and body-worth, a public ridiculing would be hard to take. What kind of person does that to someone else?

Of all the ways people can interact with each other, why would anyone choose shaming? Whether it’s about weight or parenting, lifestyle or whatever. Why does an outsider have any right to take a superficial glimpse at someone and blast them on a random, split-second judgement? How does a stranger have any background knowledge on this person’s life or situation? Plainly, the stranger doesn’t.

Me, now, with my own 13-year-old daughter.

My junior-high-self learned an important lesson, one that I have hopefully passed on to my children: I never want to make a person feel bad about who they are or what they look like. To me, it makes much more sense to find something positive to say, to boost someone up, and keep them going strong. The world is a tough place, and you never know what someone is facing. Why spread negativity?

A really cool thing happened a while back. I am a “real” runner girl now. When I run on the track at the gym, I pass people. It’s a small track, and I can pass them a lot, which can be disheartening—I know I don’t like getting lapped. So, ages ago, I started making comments as I passed, like: “You’ve got great form; keep it up!” or “You can do this; you’re doing awesome!” I wasn’t sure if the comments were appreciated in the manner I intended, but I meant for them to be supportive. Well, I was out one day and a woman I didn’t recognize approached me and said, “You’re the girl who runs at the gym, right?”

“Uh, yeah,” I answered.

“Oh my goodness, I just have to tell you, you always seem to come around the track when I’m about to give up. I keep going because of you. Thank you for cheering me on.”

So simple, to help people find their own strength. Something that shaming will never accomplish. If someone is not as toned, muscular, or svelte as you—or appears in any way different from youguess what? You have two choices. Mind your own business or go over there and say "Hi." Make a friend. Connect with someone. Because what a person looks like doesn’t matter at all, shouldn’t even affect you—but how you act can change their world.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Who Will Win?

2016 has been quite the little bitch, hasn’t she? We’ve lost musical geniuses, been caught up in Brexit and a bizarre (to say the least) U.S. Presidential election, grieved over increasing violence and terror … some days it seems the whole world is spinning out of control, hatred begetting violence and violence begetting hatred ad infinitum.

I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve gone to sleep with a dull sense of dread, but I probably don’t need to. I’m sure I’m not alone. It seems every day brings more bad news: Orlando, Istanbul, endless others … this month alone there have been 199 terror incidents around the world. How do we not grow numb from grief? Sometimes the numbers are hard to process, or the violence seems so far away, or we just need to shut it out so we can keep functioning.

But let us pause and acknowledge one moment in the horrible history of our world:

Last night, while her parents took her two younger sisters to some planned activities nearby, a thirteen-year-old girl crawled into bed. What did she imagine as she lay her head on that pillow? Did she have plans to play with friends the next day? Go swimming? Read a book? Did she dream of horses or dancing or boys? I’m betting she fell asleep confident there would be a tomorrow. Because at thirteen, why would she consider any other option?

But a seventeen-year-old boy broke into her home. While she slept, he drew a knife and stabbed her. Multiple times. She was transported to a nearby hospital in critical condition, and died shortly after.

She was thirteen.

Let’s take a moment to let that sink in: She was thirteen. Do you remember thirteen? I do. I was into dance and soccer, wrote really bad stories about puppy love, dreamed about a boy I’d met at summer camp, wouldn’t admit I still played with my dolls, listened to Prince and Michael Jackson, traded Garbage Pail Kid cards … And yes, I had fears: I was pretty sure there was a ghost in my closet, and I knew about stranger danger and predators and Freddy Krueger. I’d stood in front of a bathroom mirror and whispered “Bloody Mary,” I’d played on a Ouija board. These were the scariest things I could imagine. But the possibility that a boy just a little older than me, fueled by hatred and rage, would break into my home and stab me to death … ? Unimaginable.

Now, if you’re paying attention to the news, you’ll know this happened in Israel’s West Bank—that the girl was Jewish and the boy Palestinian. I purposely left that information out until now. I wanted you to imagine this little girl without prejudice. Because today a mom and dad buried their daughter, and two young girls said goodbye to their oldest sister. Somehow, they’ll have to face a lifetime without her. Can you imagine? The fact that she’s a Jewish girl from the West Bank shouldn’t matter. It shouldn’t.

But –

Political agendas and misinformation and bigotry and anti-Semitism are thriving in our media … in our country … in our world. We’re being stripped of our humanity. We’re being taught that isolation and weapons and walls equal safety, we’re being radicalized in all kinds of ways. Hatred and evil are riding neck-and-neck with ignorance and intentional blindness. And this blindness: It’s born of laziness. More and more, we form our opinions without digging past the headline of a news story. We’re too busy to get informed. We’re too lazy.

And being blind and lazy allows hatred and bigotry to win. We need to educate ourselves. We need to read past the headlines, and do so with the knowledge that our news is not factual and unbiased, so we need to consider the source. And dig deeper. And read more.

Today, radicalized hatred killed a thirteen-year-old girl. But radicalized hatred cannot survive where education thrives.