Friday, May 11, 2018

Challenge Accepted

I’m not a big believer in setting resolutions at New Year’s. Probably because the term “resolution” strikes me as fixing a perceived negative, such as losing ten pounds, dumping cigarettes, etc. There’s an element of punishment to it. I prefer to think in terms of goals and striving for a positive. For me, that goal could be learning a new skill, tackling a writing project, or taking concrete steps to improve my mental and physical health. 

This year, I set several writing goals (more on those in future blogs), and a big physical one. Author JF Penn (aka Joanna Penn) invited her Creative Penn podcast listeners to join her on an Ultra Challenge: a two-day, 106 km circumnavigation of the Isle of Wight. Entrants could walk, jog, run, or crawl to the finish.

For those of us who are metrically challenged, 106 km is 65.9 miles. I know because when I heard Joanna mention it on her podcast, I plugged it into the calculator to see.

I contacted Joanna and joined Team Creatives. Tackling 106 km was an audacious goal, but one that excited me. A positive. I started planning my training runs that day, searched out marathon preparation sites, and booked my travel to the UK.

Team Creatives - ready to roll!
In the end, six of us made up Team Creatives. Thanks to Jo, the team also consisted of Ali Ingleby, Guy Windsor, Jane Steen, and Donna (DJ) MacKinnon. At the starting line, we were nervous but excited. While we all started together, the plan was to each go at our own pace and to tackle our own distance goals. The course was planned so that entrants had the option of completing a Quarter Challenge (25 km) or Half Challenge (52 km.) As I stood in the starting pen, reading the bibs on the entrants around me, I realized that a few years ago I’d never run a 10 km race. When I’d decided to try that 10 km, I drove the course first. Even in the car, it felt incredibly far. Yet here I was surrounded by people whose bibs declared they were going 25 or even 52 km—further than a full marathon—and I’d registered to do the full 106. 

One step at a time, I told myself. I'd trained for months. I could do this. We strapped on our backpacks and were off.
The view from the top

The Challenge was unlike any road race. The first indication occurred around the 3 km mark, when I spotted a huge backup in front of me. Those who’d started in an earlier group were at a standstill, looking down. I soon discovered the reason: the trail narrowed to a set of muddy stairs that required a slow, single file descent. I waited nearly twenty minutes for my turn, then was off again. Over the rest of the first day, there was mud—over my shoes, at times—lengthy hill climbs, and more than a dozen fences to clamber over as the trail traversed farmers’ fields. I hadn’t expected the fences. The first time I saw a runner in front of me go over one, I assumed he was diverting from the course because he couldn’t wait for a porta-potty. Nope. He was following the marked trail up and over the fence, through a field, then up and over a second fence on the far side.
Happy pub sign

Okay, I thought. Up and over! To my surprise, I found I liked the fences. There were other good surprises along the way, often found in difficult situations. The giddy laughter as racers stopped to help each other retrieve lost shoes from the mud. The calls of, “Keep going!” and “Well done!” from locals as we made our way through the twisty roads of coastal villages. The stunning sights of mustard fields in bloom and bright sea cliffs that spread out like a movie cinematographer's final shot after we'd climbed a steep hill just before the day’s midpoint. The unexpected pub sign near the day's finish that welcomed goats…a sign I would’ve missed if I hadn’t been compelled to slow down as I rounded a tight corner in Cowes.
Day one mustard field

I made it to the 52 km stop at the end of day one muddy, bloody, and sore…but immensely happy. Some of my teammates were compelled to drop out due to blisters brought on by the heat, but they too made it down the mud stairs and over numerous fences. We all agreed that the views from the midpoint hill had been stupendous and worth the long climb. Each of us had accomplishments to celebrate. I wasn’t sure my shaky legs could take a second day, but I was determined to do my best and walked--slowly--back to my bed & breakfast.

Day one mud
At 52 km...after washing at the 35 km rest stop!

Essential travel item - The Stick
I spent the evening cleaning my mud-encrusted shoes, drinking as much tea and water as I could manage, and using a travel size massage stick on my legs to ease my tired muscles. Despite my exhaustion, the day’s events left me so wound up I couldn’t sleep. I managed maybe two and a half hours, then stared at the ceiling, wide awake ten minutes before my alarm sounded. As concerned as that probably should have made me, I felt ready. Just go, I thought. If I could drag myself to Northwood House, the starting line for the second leg, I could finish.

Ali Ingleby and I met at 5:20 am to make our way to the start. We recapped the previous day’s events as we walked. We each had blisters, we were tired, and we still had race nerves, but we were ready to go.

Ready for day two!
On day two, I kept a good pace to the first rest stop, at the 66 km mark. I refilled my water bottle, drank a cup of fruit juice—which I rarely do—and took off quickly. Most of the day’s course followed cement and hardtop road along the seafront, which became hotter and hotter as the day progressed, cooking my feet. What little mud I found on the trails occurred in small enough patches to be jumped over or jogged around, and there were few fences. There was, however, a long hill prior to the 83 km rest stop. More than once, I moved to the side of the trail, put my hands on my knees, and sucked in three or four deep breaths to rally myself for the rest of the climb. Later—somewhere around 90 km, I think—a set of stairs took us from the seafront to the top of the cliff. I made it about 2/3 of the way, then turned and sat on the stairs for a solid thirty seconds before gathering my energy to move ahead. I'd seen only a few bibs since the 80 km mark. Being alone for such long stretches was simultaneously disconcerting and peaceful. It also meant that if I took a few breaths to rest, no one knew but me. I entered the 96 km rest area triumphant. I’m going to do this! Only 10 km left. It wouldn’t be long and I could drop my backpack, take off my overheated shoes, and enjoy the lasagna dinner the organizers had promised to all finishers.

I stayed at the rest area the minimum amount of time necessary to refill my water and visit the porta-potty, and I was off. I could feel the finish line waiting for me. When I passed the 100 km sign, I smacked it with my palm. Yes!
Surprise behind a wall

Afternoon view
At 102 km, an ambulance idled at the side of the road with two medics sitting beside it. They asked if I was doing all right or needed extra water. I assured them I was fine. “Only four kilometers to go, right?” I asked. “Yes, you’re nearly there!” one assured me. I think I clapped as I passed them. My brain was so fried I wasn’t sure. 

Then disaster struck. At a roundabout in the village of Niton, I couldn’t figure out the signs. I saw another person wearing a race bib heading up a hill, in the direction I was pretty sure the signs indicated I should go. I followed her, passing her halfway up the hill. I was all the way down the other side when I hit an intersection. I couldn’t find any signs. That’s when I realized I hadn’t seen a sign since the roundabout, and that at least twenty minutes had passed since I saw the ambulance.

I backtracked part of the way uphill and didn’t see the woman I’d passed. However, there’d been road signs pointing toward Chale on a road that angled to the left and backward from the intersection. She had to have taken a path that went through the houses to that road. I pulled out my phone, did my best to zoom in on the map provided in the race app, and still couldn’t figure out where I’d gotten lost. It looked like I was right on top of the trail.

Almost there!
The road I’m on and whichever trail that woman took have to meet up on the other side of this hill, I told myself. So I went back to the intersection, took the left, and wound around a bunch of houses to the other side of the hill. The road signs indicated that Chale was ahead, so I figured I’d come across the race trail soon.

Ten minutes later, I realized I should’ve backtracked further. A lot further. Road traffic forced me to ditch into the high grass repeatedly as I made my way back up the hill I’d just gone over, albeit on a different road. No paths emerged from between the houses, though, and I started to worry. The village faded into a series of mustard fields, but still, no race trail. The coast was off to my left, and I knew the trail followed the coast, so I had to be close. I stopped and checked the app again, but still couldn’t tell where I was missing the trail. Finally, at the top of the hill, I spied a pair of men jogging on the far side of one of the mustard fields, close to the cliffs. When I reached a safe crossing, I sprinted across the road and squeezed between the mustard plants and a stone wall until I reached the trail where I’d seen the men. A pink marker indicated that it was the race course.

I won’t lie. There were tears when I realized I’d finally, finally found the right trail. I wasn’t sure how I’d missed it, but I’d gone so far on my detour that I knew the finish line had to be just beyond the stone wall.

I followed the pink markers through the opening in the wall and along a grassy trail…then saw a sign that said 104 km. I still had two kilometers to go.

Just. Finish

I said it to myself over and over as I ran the last two kilometers. Don’t think about the missed signs or the fact I should’ve finished nearly a half hour earlier. Just go. Finish.

I’ve never been an event person. I like running or walking on my own. But crossing the finish line and hearing my name announced was fantastic…a high I’d never anticipated. The congratulatory champagne nearly toppled me, but I found myself laughing at my bobble. I was that person who did 111 km to get to 106 km, but I was okay with it. It wasn’t long afterward that Ali messaged the group that she’d crossed the finish line, too. Even better was the note a short time later in which she waxed poetic over the finish line lasagna.

Mud, blood, heat, hills, and all, the journey was a positive one.  Even if I hadn’t finished, it was a worthy goal. Much gratitude to Joanna Penn for pitching the idea to her audience of writers and other creative entrepreneurs. I wouldn’t have attempted it without her.

As a PS: Never have I enjoyed a breakfast so much as the one served the next morning at my bed and breakfast, The Caledon House in Cowes. Perfect poached eggs = perfect reward for a goal met. Thank you to Mark and Andrea for being such wonderful hosts.

Reward time!


Thursday, April 5, 2018


Bright and early last Saturday morning, my phone went into a public toilet.

It wasn't on purpose. It happened while I was traveling, attending an event at Atlanta's convention center. I entered the public restroom and--as one does before using the facilities--was juggling several bags to keep them off the floor when I heard the splash. Horrified, I fished the phone from the toilet (no, don't try to imagine it...), wrestled it out of its case, and attempted to dry it with paper towels. I told myself to be thankful it was early in the day and the restroom had just been cleaned. There were plenty of towels and the toilet situation could have been far worse.

Surely the phone would be fine. Right? Wrong. It died immediately. As it was a holiday weekend, there was no help to be had. Any fix would have to wait until Monday morning, after my return to Boston.

First thing Monday, I took my phone to the local Staples, who'd replaced the screen for me only five days earlier. A phone I'd had for two years with no issues, and now I'd had two horrors in a week. The screen fix--while not cheap--had been quick and easy, so I hoped this would be, too.

No dice. They changed the battery, used a special dryer, and basically did everything possible to fix my phone, but the damage was too extensive.

The upshot: I ended up going four full days without a phone. It isn't until you're without one that you realize what you do--and don't--miss.

I didn't miss Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, or any other social media. There was one photo I wanted to see that a friend posted to Instagram, but someone was kind enough to send it to me via email.

What I did miss: the ability to check the weather (especially since I was traveling), having my airline boarding passes handy, and having the electronic ticket to the event I was attending in Atlanta. I figured out workarounds for the tickets and passes. Once the weekend was over and I was in the midst of the can-it-be-saved process at Staples, followed by the order-a-new-phone-and-wait process, I missed other things. No audiobooks or podcasts while walking my dog or driving, and no ability to sign up for my gym classes using the app on my phone.

My biggest surprise came on Tuesday morning, my last phoneless day. I always carry my phone while I'm running and debated whether I should go without. I like having it for safety, but I love having it for the music. When the sun emerged, however, I decided to lace up my shoes and run. I had no music, no audiobook or podcast, and no Map My Run to give me my time and distance. I expected a rather boring outing, given that I was completely disconnected, and figured I'd go a couple miles at most. I ended up running nearly six miles, and the time flew. It had been so long since I'd run in silence that I found the routine noise of the neighborhood and sounds of my feet hitting the pavement and trails meditative.

Lesson learned: running without music or GPS can be bliss.

I'm a big believer in disconnecting from technology from time to time. It reduces the noise in my brain and helps me think more clearly. When I travel, I don't buy WiFi on the airplane because I like having a few hours where I'm completely cut off from the Internet and social media. I've taken vacations to places without Internet or cellular service and relished those days. Having an unplanned disconnect--one where I couldn't even listen to a book or music--was an entirely different experience, but a good one, I think, even if it made the trip home from Atlanta more challenging, since I didn't have my boarding pass or access to airline updates. It made me realize that I need to disconnect more often.

On that note, I was fascinated by this article I read recently about Silicon Valley engineers who've chosen to reduce or eliminate their social media and their positive reactions to doing so. Great food for thought here:

Our Minds Can Be Hijacked: The Tech Insiders Who Fear a Smartphone Dystopia

Have you disconnected recently? What was your experience? Was it planned or unplanned? Would you do it again?

I don't recommend throwing your iPhone into a toilet--particularly given the expense--but if it happens, take advantage of being disconnected. It's not all bad.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Oscar Predictions 2018

I've been on the road for much of the last month, so I'm posting this year's predictions close to the wire. However, if you're heading to an Academy Awards party tonight and filling out your ballot at the last minute, you could do worse that cribbing my picks, as I finish near or at the top of my pool each year. The trick is knowing the contenders in the so-called little categories such as Live Action Short or Documentary Feature. Get a few of these, or the sound categories, and you'll be leaps and bounds ahead of those who focused only on the acting categories when making their predictions.

My picks for tonight are in bold. Where I've gone against the consensus of those who do this professionally--say, the gurus at Variety or well-known film critics--I've made a note. Good luck, movie lovers! (And be sure to count the number of Moonlight vs. La La Land envelope jokes tonight. My prediction is four.)

Timothée Chalamet, Call Me by Your Name
Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread
Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out
Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.

- The heavy favorite here is Gary Oldman. I’m taking a serious flyer on Timothée Chalamet. If you want the safer pick, go Oldman.

Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project
Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water
Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World
Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water
Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Margot Robbie, I, Tonya
Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird
Meryl Streep, The Post

- As close to a lock in an acting category as you’ll get tonight. 

Mary J. Blige, Mudbound
Allison Janney, I, Tonya
Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread
Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird
Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water

- My heart says Laurie Metcalf, because she is AWESOME. My head says Allison Janney. Want victory in your pool? Janney's your more likely winner.

The Boss Baby
The Breadwinner
Loving Vincent

- Closest thing to a lock you'll see all night.

Blade Runner 2049
Darkest Hour
The Shape of Water

Beauty and the Beast
Darkest Hour
Phantom Thread
The Shape of Water
Victoria & Abdul

- While I adored the look of Victoria & Abdul, hello…PHANTOM THREAD? About a costume designer? It’ll win this category.

Get Out
Lady Bird
Phantom Thread
The Shape of Water

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Faces Places
Last Men in Aleppo
Strong Island

- Take your pick between Faces Places and The Last Men in Aleppo. I’m going Faces Places.

Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405
Knife Skills
Traffic Stop

Baby Driver
I, Tonya
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

- Dunkirk is probably the favorite here, but I’m going to pick Baby Driver.

A Fantastic Woman (Chile)
The Insult (Lebanon)
Loveless (Russia)
On Body and Soul (Hungary)
The Square (Sweden)

Darkest Hour
Victoria & Abdul

- Darkest Hour, because everyone who knows makeup and hairstyling says so. Also, though Gary Oldman manages to transform into a different person with each new role, the physical transformation here is extraordinary.

Phantom Thread
The Shape of Water
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

- Because I love Alexandre Desplat’s work and frequently listen to his soundtrack for Girl With a Pearl Earring while I write, I’m going Desplat and The Shape of Water.

“Mighty River,” Mudbound
“Mystery Of Love,” Call Me by Your Name
“Remember Me,” Coco
“Stand Up For Something,” Marshall
“This Is Me,” The Greatest Showman

Beauty and the Beast
Blade Runner 2049
Darkest Hour
The Shape of Water

- This category is a tough choice between Blade Runner 2049 and The Shape of Water. I’m choosing the latter, but if Blade Runner 2049 has your heart, run with it.

Dear Basketball
Garden Party
Negative Space
Revolting Rhymes

DeKalb Elementary
The Eleven O'Clock
My Nephew Emmett
The Silent Child
Watu Wote/All of Us

Baby Driver
Blade Runner 2049
The Shape of Water
Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Baby Driver
Blade Runner 2049
The Shape of Water
Star Wars: The Last Jedi

- A heads up: Baby Driver could win either or both of Sound Editing and Sound Mixing. It’s a tight race (so to speak) between Baby Driver and Dunkirk. I’m going Dunkirk.

Blade Runner 2049
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Kong: Skull Island
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
War for the Planet of the Apes

- Not feeling it for the apes? Then go Blade Runner 2049. These two are in a tight race.

Call Me by Your Name
The Disaster Artist
Molly's Game

The Big Sick
Get Out
Lady Bird
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

- I’d love to see either Get Out or The Big Sick, but I predict the award goes to Get Out.

Call Me by Your Name
Darkest Hour
Get Out
Lady Bird
Phantom Thread
The Post
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

- The top contenders here are The Shape of Water, Three Billboards, Get Out, and Call Me By Your Name, probably in that order. Three Billboards has received a huge push throughout awards season, while The Shape of Water appears to be the favorite. However, I’m going out on a limb with Get Out.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

A Royal Scandals Family Tree

Calling for reader expertise! Many of you have asked for a Barrali/Cornaro family tree. I'd love to put one on my website, but am having trouble designing one that a) works for the web/is easy to read; and b) works for a complex family of fictional people. 

Many of the sites I see require birthdates, death dates, etc., which I don't want.

If you know of a good website or other resource where I can input names and design a family tree that would work for the Royal Scandals series, let me know. I'll get it onto ASAP.

Thanks in advance!


Saturday, December 2, 2017

A Royal Engagement & A Royal Giveaway

Who says I write fiction?

This week's big royalty news was the engagement of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. If you missed it, check out The Royal Family's Official Facebook Page for more details, or watch the video of their first joint interview here:

How much fun is this couple? I love to see a partnership between equals, and these two are both passionate about philanthropy, love travel, and have a knack for seeing opportunities to make the world a better place.

To celebrate the news, I'm giving away the last two uncorrected proof copies of my latest Royal Scandals novel, One Man's Princess, which tells the story of royal daughter Lina Cornaro and the man she loves, Ivo Zanardi. Ivo is biracial (Nigerian/Italian) and a Formula One driver...not exactly the image that pop culture portrays as marrying into a royal family. I loved telling their story and I hope you've enjoyed reading it.

I'll draw two names from random from subscribers to my email newsletter list. If you're on it, check your email to see if you've won. If not...I do these giveaways from time to time, so if you'd like your name in the hat, join the list! All subscribers receive a free copy of the novella A Royal Scandals Wedding (so really, everyone's a winner.)