Léna is also a Regional Manager for Writopia Lab whose mission is to foster joy, literacy, and critical thinking in kids and teens from all backgrounds through creative writing.

"Well, the question is, what do you want to believe? Do you want to live in a world where things are possible, or in one where they aren't?" Cin, Edges.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Irene, Black Out and Community

Human beings don't like the feeling of dependency - it makes us cranky, so it's no wonder that many of us in my little corner of the woods have been cross-eyed for the past few days.

Irene - the hurricane-that-wasn't - came and went late last Saturday night and into Sunday morning, forcing many cancelled weekend plans (including for me a trip to Albany for a reading/signing at Flights of Fantasy) AND on top of that, it seemed to have taken our power with her as well.

It was only a Tropical Storm and not the big monster hurricane the media used to raise their viewership, but it was enough to take down neighborhoods in Northern Westchester for over 72 hours, through picture perfect sunny days, and pitch black dark nights.

Power: electricity, hot water, wi-fi. Small things. But we all realized that we were entirely too dependent on these items for our well being. Nobody wants to feel too dependent on anybody else - we lose our sense of self, and end up resentful.

We were lucky - our basement didn't flood, and no trees fell on our house. We only have a pile of branches in our backyard to get rid of.

We got through it by being together, and being in community. A friend of mine was one of the few who had power, and generously opened her home the past two nights to several families - and we all brought over whatever food we had in our fridges or freezers that we would have had to throw away. Talk about turning lemons into lemonade: we feasted, we talked, commiserated, and got to know each other better. We were all in it together.

And now that our power is back on, look at me, I'm back on my computer, hooked up to the internet. Yes, however tempting it may be to "go off the grid", I still get sustenance from having an on-line community as well.

I just wish that I could be a little more interdependent with electricity, but I have to face facts: my refrigerator really doesn't need me, nor do my lights.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Thinking Chocolate & Decision Fatigue

Here lies Thinking Chocolate, so dubbed by this week's group of young Writopians, who after an hour or so of character hijinks and plot shenanigans, need to resuscitate their writing mojo with a snack.

Fortunately, The Voracious Reader doubles as a tea shoppe and is happy to oblige their whimsies. It takes energy and brain power to create and brainstorm these fantasy stories.

Last Sunday, there was a fascinating article in The New York Times Magazine entitled: Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue? discussing studies on how we get mentally exhausted from all of decisions and choices we are faced with. By the end of the day we are worn down and more apt to have poor impulse control and less will power. (As writers, we are constantly making decisions when we are creating new worlds.)

Now it has been proven that a little bit of glucose will replenish your mental capacities, and help you make better decisions.

Thinking chocolate:  not too small to make you want more, and not too big to make you sick. Just the perfect amount to stimulate the brain.

Here they are, modeling with the chocolate: Sam, Claudia, Meagan, Johnnie and Peter. After a dose of thinking chocolate, they are able to dive back into their tales with gusto.

We are only together three hours each morning, and when 1PM rolls the kids can't believe how fast the time has flown. "Can't we write all day?"

With thinking chocolate, anything is possible.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Last Friday Night: An Homage or Warning about Binge Drinking?

The tears in my eyes surprised me when the song Last Friday Night came on the radio the other day as my son was flipping through stations. Pop and strong emotion usually don't hold hands, do they?  Katy Perry is fun, but I never thought she would make me cry. But this time I actually listened to the lyrics.

This song been criticized as an homage to binge drinking, but that's not what I heard.  I heard a FANTASTIC explanation of teenage addiction wrapped up in bubble gum pop. You do all of these stupid, embarrassing things: "stranger in bed", "smell like a mini bar", "kicked out of the bar", "broke the law", yet can't wait to do them again. Pictures of last night, Ended up online, I'm screwed, Oh well, It's a black top blur, But I'm pretty sure it ruled. Ah, the irony of thinking that being a mess is the bee's knees.

As I write this, I have watched the video, searched for reactions to it, and found one on The Drinking Diaries that sees it as a problem. Now I get it - partying eighth graders. The video is a send up of early '80's videos (yes, my era) but Ms. Perry is playing the role of a geeky thirteen year old who uses alcohol to make herself popular. (Hey that's what I thought I was doing too!)

Thirteen. Raging hormones and insecurity. I remember it like yesterday, and that's when I started drinking. However, I am listening to the lyrics from my perspective as 43 year old woman who has been sober for all of her adult life. I've been there and it's not a joke. I'm not looking at it from the perspective of a thirteen year old who doesn't have any point of reference.

For me, the tears were for gratitude to not be in that place:

There's a stranger in my bed,
There's a pounding my head
Glitter all over the room
Pink flamingos in the pool
I smell like a minibar
DJ's passed out in the yard
Barbie's on the barbeque

There's a hickie or a bruise
Pictures of last night
Ended up online
I'm screwed
Oh well
It's a black top blur
But I'm pretty sure it ruled

Last Friday night
Yeah we danced on tabletops
And we took too many shots
Think we kissed but I forgot

Last Friday night
Yeah we maxed our credit cards
And got kicked out of the bar
So we hit the boulevard

Last Friday night
We went streaking in the park
Skinny dipping in the dark
Then had a menage a trois
Last Friday night
Yeah I think we broke the law
Always say we're gonna stop-op

This Friday night
Do it all again
This Friday night
Do it all again

Do it all again, and again and again. It's AWFUL. Trust me. And back then I didn't have the extra atrocity of pictures ending up on-line, like teens today do.

So what do you think? Do you think the song is an homage or a warning? Katy Perry is married to a recovering alcoholic herself, so I doubt that she is saying that blacking out is cool. Puking isn't cool, waking up with a stranger isn't cool - nor is breaking the law or getting kicked out of a bar. TRUST ME. I've been there.
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Friday, August 19, 2011

Writing with Tweens

The summer has been a hiatus from my own writing, but that doesn't mean I haven't been playing with words, plot and character development all along. Since the end of June I have had the privilege of instructing kids, tweens and teens all day long in the art of fiction writing, and Writopia in Westchester has quadrupled with the addition of our Larchmont location, hosted generously by Francine Lucidon at The Voracious Reader.

This has been a week of amazing 12-13 year olds, who type faster than I can think. We have some beautiful edgy realistic fiction, science fiction, fantasy and fairytales - even a mystery is being constructed. On Wednesday we were interviewed by Brian Donnelly of The Daily Larchmont, and he wrote an article called: Bookstore Lab Molds Young Readers into  Writers that came out yesterday.

These tweens will finish their short stories or the first part of their novellas today, and I look forward to working with them more during the school year.

And my new wordy addiction? Move over Scrabble, Lexulous, it's time for Whirly Word! (It's on my I-phone - I am armed and dangerous!)
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Monday, August 15, 2011

Dressing Up

Have you ever met someone, or gone somewhere, and felt that you had been missing him, her, it and that you are meant to be together? I felt that way about Italy when I was 15, then my BFF in college, moving on to my husband and Moab. And - I almost can't believe I'm saying this - but I feel the same way about The Renaissance Faire.

I only need to go once a year for one day, but I feel that it MUST be an annual event, it must be a ROY tradition.

I can't believe I missed out on the Renaissance Faire for most of my life, but better late than never. Saturday was only our second expedition to the festivities in Tuxedo Park, New York. It started 35 years ago, and I would have LOVED it as a child, a teen, a young adult, just as I love it now.

Last year I was in so in awe that I determined that it would only be better dressing up, so I lay down the big bucks and bought some Renaissance attire: a gold skirt, a long billowy periwinkle shirt, and a simple gold-ish bodice to go with it. See? Nothing too royal or peasant-ish or wenchy - a citizen's clothes.

Later, at home, I felt a little silly, and the clothes were thrown in a bag to be resuscitated this summer.

Now I am glad.  I imagine myself to be a rare breed of female merchant - in the silk trade of course.
My husband had the pleasure of sealing me into my bodice - so tightly that I could barely breathe. (You can't wear a bra with these things - the bodice acts as support.) We joked about me sporting a rated R look, but my kids would have been MORTIFIED, so we stuck to PG, knowing that we would see all sorts of versions and ratings at the fair.

It's the one place I've been too where 75% of the people were dressed up too. If people dressed up and played along at other places too, it would make our experience that more the richer. (Harry Potter World should have the Robes of Requirement. Each person who enters should have to wear school robes - that is part of the price of admission.)

But we do it already, don't we? We mold ourselves to the different environments we are in. We wouldn't wear our pajamas to a meeting at a corporate office, or a swimsuit to a PTA meeting, or sweat pants to the opera.

We want to play along to get along, which definitely has it's pros and cons. Conformity can lead to lack of personal identity. If we are just being like everybody else, who are we? Where are we?

But things like the Renaissance Faire bring out an aspect of communal fantasy that is just spectacular. Those of us dressing up are in the act of choosing to say "yes" to that part of our souls. I am celebrating a part of myself by entering the fantasy, by suspending my disbelief.

And this is also what we do when we read and write, yes?

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Writers are Observers

How can we enrich our stories through observation? Writers of all ages have a keen interest and curiosity in the human condition. Learning to observe and be present in different environments is a muscle that needs building and takes practice. I have to work on it all the time - I've always been a daydreamer with a strong imagination, but it is constantly learning how to be present that has taken my writing to another level.

Many of you know that I complement my passion for writing with teaching kids, tweens and teens, and that I have been building Writopia Lab, a NYC based award-winning program out in Westchester. (We run week long 3 hour writing intensives during the summers and holiday breaks, and weekly 1.5 hour sessions during the school year.)

This morning I took my young 9 and 10 year old Writopians on a field trip (with parental permission of course) around our lovely town of Katonah for an hour this morning. Notebooks and pencils in hand, we started on a patch of grass near the Katonah United Methodist Church where we are holding workshops. We warmed up by making up a story together about an old man in a wheelchair and his undying love for lizards.

As we sat in the grass, enjoying the gentle breezes and warm sunlight dappling through trees I asked the kids to jot down words and phrases that they associated with the environment, with being outside. Next I spoke a little about character building through observation of atmosphere.  "How would your main character feel in this moment?" We have to know absolutely everything about our characters, even if a little detail about whether or not they like the smell of fresh cut grass never makes it in the story.

Wednesday's are the beginning of the middle of our camp-like workshops, and the perfect opportunity to discuss character. These Writopians have found their story and the beginnings of a narrative arc. Their plots have been sketched out, but now is the time to see how their main character will drive the plot forward.

We imagined the ways in which our characters would walk and look at the world. Are they loose? Are they tense? Are they happy? Sad? Bewildered? They giggled as we walked and I explained how scrunching our shoulders or loosening our knees can make a difference in how people feel and behave.

We walked around town with the notion of observing our own thoughts, and then maybe exploring what our main characters might be thinking. We went into four different stores, enjoying the bewildered and amused looks we got from store owners when I asked if these young writers could practice their observation skills. It was fascinating.

Our first stop was Noka Joe's, a wonderful treat and novelty store. The kids took notes, and I made suggestions for how their observations could be incorporated into their stories. Next was the Katonah Barber Shop - the barbers really didn't know what to do with us, but they didn't say no. (It is beautifully air conditioned and smells lovely, and each of the four barbers have their names on plaques by their stations.) Next was another grooming place, but for dogs. It is a two-week old store called: Must Love Dogs, owned by Jessica Rina, and she let us come in and watch her blow dry a labra-poodle. The kids loved it. Our last stop was Kellogg's department store, where we all grooved on it's old-timey feel.

We came back to the church and opened our computers, but before we went back to our stories, I asked them to string some of the words they had written down into a piece of prose or poem. (No, it doesn't have to rhyme!) The kids spent ten - fifteen minutes choosing some of their words and composing atmospheric pieces. Heaven!

They were able to go back to their fiction with increased vigor and sense of fun and discovery. That's what writing is all about, isn't it?

Monday, August 8, 2011

Love is a Ford Galaxie 500

This was my first car - a 1964 Ford Galaxie 500 that I bought in the summer of 1996 and owned for about a month. It was as impractical as it was impulsive, being too high maintenance for a gal like me, a gal who had never driven or owned a car, yet it totally screamed "Léna!" It's FOR SALE sign taunting me the first couple of weeks I lived in Moab, it's price of $1500 too hard to resist. It was in mint condition inside and out: gleaming red on the outside with red seats and red and black fixtures on the inside. Dang she turned my head.

It was a veritable love machine, and I christened her Venus. The first night she was mine, I took her up to the Sand Flats with my future husband and we lay back on her hood and watched the shooting stars so prevalent in the August sky. Magic.

But it was the car that was so big I couldn't park, the car I backed into my colleague Martha's office, the car that broke down along the Colorado River, the car where I got pulled over by local police because I had run a red light. I was giving a ride to a teen from the youth hostel. "Are you holding?" I asked him in a panic. He nodded. I had just gotten a job at the local mental health center, starting up a teen outpatient program. The headline flashed through my mind: NEW TEEN THERAPIST A DOPE. I was relieved as I got my first traffic ticket. (Well, my second. But more on that later.)

"Thank you officer!" I said, a little too happily. "It won't happen again!"

I wouldn't be giving any more rides: it was all a risky business.

I enjoyed being in a car, I just didn't enjoy driving one. Perhaps I had learned too late in life - perhaps I would never enjoy it.

My driving history isn't long. I didn't get my license until 1995 when I was 27 years old, and that was just as a rite-of-passage, an adult ritual that I needed to undertake. I wasn't very confident, or very good, as my friends who had been driving since their teens quickly learned.

"Come on, you can do it!" They would cheer. I went to Puerto Rico with a friend who after five minutes told me for the love of God to pull over and let her take over.

"See?" I smiled.

Then the first time I went to Moab with my BFF, same thing happened.

Both friends were shocked when I announced that I wanted to move there.

"Bu-bu-but you can't drive!" They splurted. "Um, no offense."

A month later, I was testing it out by flying to Salt Lake City by myself and renting a car. I arrived late at night and it took me an hour to find the airport hotel because I drove in the wrong direction. The next morning I steeled myself for the four hour drive to Moab. I had never driven on a highway before, and I did pretty well for the first couple of hours. Then: SMACK! The car got sideswiped, and I didn't know to pull over to the side of the road - I just kept driving. Then I noticed that I had no side-view mirror: I should pull over, but where? Where do people pull over if they have an accident? I could have died!  (I almost had died getting hit by a car when I was nine years old. I was in a coma for two weeks - broken femurs, ribs, cracked jaw and skull.) 

I soon found out, because I heard a siren, and a cop car showed me how to pull over . . . by nudging me over. The driver's side of the car was completely dent in and damaged. An inch more - oh, dear, it could have been much worse. They asked me if I had been drinking and I started giggling. Of course I wasn't drinking. But I sure as $%#@ was freaked out. Traumatized. Playing dumb, which - hey - I really was in this instance - didn't work. I got a ticket, but I couldn't melt down, I had to keep driving.

But I got to the dizzying mountains of red clay, where my driving hijinks became legend, and then back to NYC only to return again, even though - maybe especially because - I would have to drive. I knew that there was a part of me that needed to grow up out there.

I needed a car so I bought Venus, thinking she was my next right thing. I bought her from an elderly man whose wife wanted him to quit his "hobby".  Fortunately, when it became evident that Venus and I ultimately weren't a good match after all, the elderly man was eager enough to buy it back from me, and I was able to buy a used Ford Taurus which got me around on the open highways quite nicely. I was comfortable behind the wheel as long as there were no cars too close to me, as long as nobody was telling me to speed up or pull over if I was too slow.

However, when my husband-to-be and I left Moab for San Francisco and then back to New York City, I stopped driving completely, and I trapped myself in the belief that I was too anxious and incompetent a driver to bother learning. We are what we think: we become our self-fulfilling prophecies.

But y'all know the happy ending, right?  We moved to the 'burbs last summer and I can't believe how much I love driving now. I am not holding onto the old belief of stupidity and incompetency: I have proved myself capable of handling a large, powerful vehicle.I am driving on highways and merging with traffic, and enjoying the artistry in driving. And I am constantly grateful that I never drank and drove. I fear that if I had, there is no way I would be here now.

And fifteen years later, I LOVE that my bad twenty-eight year old self had the chutzpah to call an awesome 1964 Ford Galaxie 500 her first car. No regrets, people.

Next up: putting my face in the water whilst swimming.

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Friday, August 5, 2011

I Am Who I Am

Summer is supposed to be typically slow and lazy, right? Sleeping late, reading lots of books, time by the pool, maybe even napping in a hammock.

What planet am I living on? Maybe that's great for a weekend, but a whole summer? Not with three kids!

If you read my blog then you know that I happen to be busier than ever, running and developing Writopia in Westchester.  My time is being divided between running groups in both Katonah and Larchmont, with beaucoup time spent on the computer emailing parents. We just came out with our fall schedule! So I haven't had much time to blog, let alone write my own stories. But I'm not complaining! I love teaching - I consider this as part of my life's work, and I feel incredibly blessed. Working with kids is so inspiring, and I am being constantly reminded to put my money where my mouth is. I am living with both integrity and creativity.

And honesty, transparency. I am who I am.

I didn't blog this week because any extra time I had was spent thinking about the interview questions for the Drinking Diaries. They are pretty intense! What do I want to say? I have to write the truth of my experience. My one pause is being googled by one of my ten-year-old students. (Or the parent of a ten-year old for that matter.) As a YA author, I want to believe that my honesty will help and not hinder  my audience. My interview is scheduled to come out on Wednesday, September 14th, so I suppose I have time to chicken out.

But then again, I am who I am.