Sik-ADE-ahs

Cicada was a word I’d only met in books for a long time. I wasn’t really sure what a cicada was, and I certainly wasn’t sure how to say it. SIK-ah-da? KIK-ah-da? It was a small animal, maybe. A bird? Some sort of a part of nature, anyway, that they had in warmer climes than Ireland.

(This reminds me of the katydid that was mentioned in the very beginning of What Katy Did. I’ve only recently learned that a katydid is a … quick look at wikipedia to remind myself … oh yeah, a cricket that looks like a leaf. I thought it was a frog or toad for a long time.)

Anyway, I thought I’d tell you about cicadas so you’d be better informed than I was. And because we have ’em. Lots of them but not as many as we’ll have in 2021 when brood X comes out and they’re ankle deep here … but I’m getting ahead of myself.

So you pronounce it [sik-ADE-ah] with the emphasis on the middle syllable there. And it’s a large winged insect related to the cricket. At the end of summer they sit in the trees and make this amazingly cacophonous electronic-sounding buzzing noise that rises to a peak and then tails off again. It’s the quintessential sound of summer nights in hot places – if you’re Irish it’s the sound of summer holidays somewhere really nice (i.e. warm).

So you can read about the life cycle of the cicada at places that will give you more accurate information and lots of other gross/cool photos (also this page is cute because the cursor turns into a cicada when you mouse over a link), but I’m here to be your reporter on the ground, if you like, with actual footage from actually where I live. A couple of evenings ago some local friends were remarking on Facebook that the cicadas were coming out. The next day I went on a field trip with the second grade and realised too late that I should have brushed up on my cicada facts because we were all full of questions. Today there are even more of them, with discarded shells around the base of many big trees, so I decided it was time to write the big cicada post.

After a certain number of years underground – anything from 2 to 17 depending on the brood – the cicada comes out when the weather gets warm. It finds the nearest tree (probably the one it dropped out of as a baby), climbs up it, and sheds its exoskeleton. Near any given tree in the right area you’ll find a bunch of empties under the leaves or fallen on the ground below – I just went outside my house and hey presto, found this one for a photo.

Shed cicada exoskeleton attached to a tree trunk

You can see where it burst out, just like the creature in Alien. Only more slowly. More of that below. These are apparently Brood X stragglers, they’re not the whole big deluge we’re expecting in 2021. Washington Post is also on the story today. I’m so current.

When they come out they’re all white and grub-like, but after a while in the sun they colour up nicely.

Here’s one in the very act of emerging. Come on, buddy, you can do it. (It happens verrry slowly. I didn’t have to be quick to catch this. I went home, got my camera, and came out again.)

Here’s one proudly posing by his discarded exoskeleton. “That old thing? I don’t need it any more.” I’m not sure he realises the “tree” he’s on is actually a telegraph pole.

Here’s a finished product we found on a bush on our field trip. Look at his freaky red eyes. He’s about 3cm long.

Now look at the next picture and be a little freaked out, because there are suddenly more cicadas than you realised. I count six or seven here. There were more than that on the bush, and plenty more on the rest of the bushes too.

Then they go off into the trees to be eaten by birds and/or find the cicada of their dreams to make baby cicadas with, to grow up underground, possibly for another 17 years.

They don’t bite or sting, so they’re totally harmless to people – though I was just told to watch out for the giant brown hornets called “cicada killers” that go after them. Roger that.

The wonders of nature, eh?

Day of Mothers

I feel lucky today, because my husband isn’t merely smart enough to have a PhD in physics; he’s also smart enough to know that when I said I didn’t know what we were having for dinner today and I wasn’t planning to know, that meant dinner was in his hands. And that when I said “I don’t mind, you choose,” it wasn’t some sort of cruel test wherein I expect him to magically divine my wishes and conform to them: I just want someone else to make the decisions. Because it’s mother’s day, and this is what I get.

I also got a lie-in until after 9am (after getting up to feed the cats at 6.30 and having a small person crawl into bed with me an hour later, but who’s counting) and an opportunity to go and buy myself new knickers at Kohl’s on my own this afternoon, so it’s a good day.

But in general, for so many people, I think this day is awful. The assumptions, the expectations, the pressure, the impossibility of it all. Played out in full public view in brunch venues and on Facebook all over the country. Americans set a lot of store by Mother’s Day. I’m sure many Irish people put a bit more into it than my family used to – a home-made card, a flower picked out of the garden maybe, a hug; if we were doing something nice we’d ascribe it to the day, but we’d have done it anyway – but I don’t think it’s such a production as it is here.

And there’s the wishing. Wishing other people a happy mother’s day. Honestly, the only person I feel I should wish a happy Mother’s Day to is my own mother. The only people I think should wish it to me are my own children. (Maybe my husband, if he’d like to. I’m not fussy.) Of course, today, when other people have wished me a happy day I’ve said thank you, and wished them one back when they’re my mom friends. But random salespersons wishing every adult female a happy Mother’s Day? That way nervous breakdowns lie. (I’m happy to report that the cashier in Kohl’s today did not say it to me.)

Even if you have everything you ever wanted, and everything you ever wanted was a happy family with x number of children, you’ve still gotta set the bar of your expectations low today. (It’s okay, you’re a mother. You’ve learned to do that.) And somehow, how well your children behave or how loving and grateful they are to you, today of all days, is a direct consequence of how well you did your job of being their mother – so you’re well aware that if your day is ruined, you’ve only yourself to blame. It’s simply nature’s judgement on you. What sort of a cruel universe invented this day?

Another way I’m lucky is that I don’t have to split my day between being a daughter to a mother and being the mother of my own children, because Mother’s Day in Ireland and the UK is in March. This means that, at least in theory, I can relax and enjoy my own day without rushing around making the day special for someone else at the same time. I highly recommend this method to all of you who are wishing you could just stay at home with your own kids rather than having to host/attend/organize a brunch for your own mother today. Though I’m not sure how you can go about arranging it at this point. You could encourage your children to emigrate to the other side of the ocean, I suppose, so as not to face it in the future; but maybe there are reasons you’d rather not do that.

 

Mabel's poem (spelling preserved): "Magnifacent Cakes / Orders things./ Treats are sweet./ Hevenly cookies. / Elegant cloths./ [...]'s Mom." And a picture of flowers.

Mabel wrote me a poem at school, which I had to go and root out of her backpack just now as she was not interested in giving it to me. But I’m happy that I have elegant cloths, so everything’s good. And my garlic naan bread is nearly here, so we will draw a veil over the less good parts of the day and move on optimistically towards days that are more regular and less fraught with ridiculous expectations.

I hope your day was nice, wherever you are, and whether it was just a regular Sunday for you or a special one. The sun came out here for the first time in about a week, so that was something for everyone to celebrate.

Books and bases

I am proofreading my book, which is a fairly soul-destroying job. It’s that point where you are only meant to make the smallest and most imperative of changes, but you decide it’s all crap and you want to rewrite it all. But you can’t, because otherwise this will Never End and you’ll never have a book out there at all, so you just have to put up with it, and keep believing that your perspective is not the most unbiased right now, and it’s probably fine.

Also, it’s really boring because I’ve read it a million times, so I keep not wanting to do it, but I have to do it or it will never be done, because the only person standing between me and publication right now is ME.

But when it’s done, then I will be a twice self-published author, which is maybe twice as legitimate as a once self-published author, and may help me feel less like I’m faking it and more like I’m really doing it, which I suppose is the aim. Also, then I can get back to finishing draft 1 of book 3 before all hell breaks loose – I mean, before the kids are finished school for summer.

Mabel walking a stuffed dog in the parade

In the baseball parade, back when it was sunny

The weather charged straight into summer, I pulled out all our summer clothes and switched out the down comforter for the summer bedspread, and now it’s done a u-turn back into cold and wet. This happens every year; I’m not even surprised. At least we managed to fit a nice weekend in for baseball opening day, and Dash got to play in the first game, and even though his team were thrashed he was front and centre and doing well the whole time.

I used to bring a book and happily ignore the games until he came up to bat once in a blue moon, but I don’t think I can do that any more – if he’s not pitching he’s catcher, or on a base, or at a base (very important distinction I didn’t know before – one is a fielder guarding that base and the other is running around on his way to (hopefully) score a point; but TBH I can’t tell you which is which) or something else important. The great thing about the sad fact that all his team’s star players aged out last year is that with another year to go after this, Dash is a senior member and will get a ton of experience this year Doing All The Things.

Meanwhile I will sit on a blanket on a ground under the shady tree and chat to the moms, and Mabel will bring a book and then ignore it to go have playground conferences with the other sisters of players (yes, girls do play and are welcomed in the league, but nonetheless it’s mostly boys) and then come back and demand my money for ice pops and packets of chips and ring pops, and I will give in or hold firm depending on the day.

That is, if the rain ever stops again.

 

Some birthdays are better than others

I don’t know whether I’ve documented every one of Dash’s birthday parties here, but I know I’ve done a lot of them. Last year, the big One-Oh, seemed like the culmination. Dash had been planning it since before he turned nine, all the kids I thought wouldn’t be able to come showed up, and it was a giant, crazy, over-the-top ball of mayhem.

“No more!” we said, spent, forgetting that Dash would continue to have birthdays every year. This April rolled around and we realised that we would not get out of hosting some sort of party, because he is the polar opposite of his sister who really only wants a trip to Build-a-Bear with one or two friends. I tried to convince him to do a destination event – the really cool climbing wall place, perhaps, that he’s wanted to go back to for ages – but no. It had to be a party at home.
“I’ve always had a party at home, except that one year when we went to Pump It Up and I didn’t like that. It has to be at home.” He was not for turning.
“But Daddy and I are exhausted. We can’t come up with more party games. Your friends don’t want to play lame party games made up by you and your parents. It’s chaos. It’s anarchy. And it’ll probably rain. We can’t do it,” we said. Impasse.

Then, salvation arrived in the shape someone who mentioned that they’d had a laser-tag birthday party at their house. A guy had come along with a van full of laser guns, showed the kids how to use them, and then run the games for two hours. All I’d have to do was feed ’em. (I can do that. Though I always underestimate how much other people’s boys can eat.)

I was sold. I got the contact details and booked it. We capped the invitees at a smaller number than last year. Everyone was happy. I forgot to obsessively monitor the weather forecast because I was busy being busy with other things, and we just threw a party two weeks ago (for B’s birthday). Suddenly, the day before the day was upon us, and I had to plan the party food, shop for the party food, make the party food, clean the house (a very little bit), and make sure the sun was going to shine.

The weather forecast was not good. In fact, there was a 65 to 85% chance of rain during the time of the party. Dash and I went to the supermarket on Friday after dinner and bought everything we could possibly need – except butter and chocolate chips, which I had to send B out for as soon as we got back – and I made the cake.

On the morning of the party my luck was in and Mabel’s soccer game was cancelled because of all the rain on Friday. Dash went to baseball practice and I sandwiched the three layers of chocolate cake (as requested) together with lovely chocolate buttercream, and dredged some icing sugar on top. As, I thought, requested. Then Dash got home (practice cut short due to rain) and announced that it was meant to be vanilla icing, and it was supposed to be on top as well. It was ruined. I was the worst party mom ever, he said sadly. I always get something wrong, he told me, neglecting to remember all the things I got right that he didn’t even notice. I felt somewhat under-appreciated, though it was true that he’d said vanilla and I’d forgotten.

Three-layer chocolate cake with chocolate icing in between

Cake: first incarnation

We both retreated for a little while to lick our wounds, and then I suggested we could make some vanilla icing and put it on the top, since the icing sugar that was there already wouldn’t hinder that. He agreed it would be better than nothing. (I thought it would be just that bit more cloying, but it wasn’t my cake.) He helped, and did all the spreading. (Exhibit B, below.) Then he helped make lemon scones too, since there was still plenty of time. He’s a man of tradition, and if a party doesn’t have chocolate cornflake buns and lemon scones and pigs in blankets, it’s not a party. (Actually, he just likes plain blankets, with no pigs.)

Triple-layer cake with white icing on top and some smeared messily down the sides

Cake: second incarnation. I didn’t know he was planning to put the vanilla on the sides as well, but then he did, and here we are.

The rain had been coming and going all morning, but mostly coming. I thought it might let up in time for the party. The guests were a little late and the laser-tag guy was late too, because the Beltway was chockablock of people driving to or from or to avoid the March for Science in DC. It didn’t matter. He got them all fitted out with their guns and they ran around playing various games of team-based laser tag for an hour and a half, mostly in the pouring rain. I looked out the window and was mildly concerned, hoped their mothers wouldn’t hold the weather against me, and went to find a pile of towels.

Four boys with laser tag guns in front of houses

Trying out the guns. Once they started playing there was a lot more running and hiding. Also more rain.

Eventually they all came in, shedding muddy shoes and towelling off their wet hair at the door, and descended on the table like the proverbial locusts. Dash got to light his candles – at least the first few – and blew them out in one go. Parents arrived and removed their damp progeny, leaving behind nothing but tumbleweeds of tossed-aside wrapping paper, the tracks of wet socks, and tortilla-chip crumbs on the floor, and everyone said they’d had a good time.

Dash blowing out his candles

Eleven candles.

I would have liked some wine at that point, but first I had to take Dash down to the urgent care, because he’d managed to bump his chin off the laser-tag gun right at the start and give himself an oddly deep cut. It needed three stitches, which was a first for both of us, but there was no wait and the tetanus shot was much better than he was anticipating. The doctor asked me about my brogue, which is never a good word to use to a suburban Dubliner, but she didn’t know any better. I distracted us all with stories of Dash’s birth in Texas eleven years ago tomorrow, and if he does have a scar it’ll be a handsome one that makes him look like Kirk Douglas (if you like that sort of thing; my mother would frown and say “Oh, he was never my cup of tea”).

The doctor said he can’t do gym or sports and has to stay away from situations where balls might fly at his face (yes, she actually said that, but I didn’t point out that she was quoting Clueless). He’s very miffed that he’ll miss baseball all week, including his team’s first two games – but on the bright side, all the rain also caused them to postpone today’s season opening day ceremonies, and the big game between the winning and runner-up teams from last year, until next week, so he’ll be able to play in that.

I got my wine when I got home, but it wasn’t very nice and it gave me a headache this morning anyway. Tomorrow he turns eleven. It wasn’t the best birthday celebration day ever, probably; but the big day is still to come. There’s a giant Nerf gun and some Lego Technic waiting for him, which I think he’ll like even if it isn’t a Playstation. We’re not the greatest birthday parents, but we try, every year.

Learning curve

I’ve been busy. I am busy. Busy is good, right? I have an editing job on at the moment, I’m trying not to lose the impetus I have with writing the third book of my trilogy, I’m promoting the first (in my own slow, awkward and ill-informed way), and on the cusp – the very CUSP, I tell you – of publishing book two. Also, it’s spring break for child #1 this week, which makes all that a bit harder to get to. Next week will be spring break for child #2, but she’s all set up with a camp that will essentially remove her from my orbit for exactly the same amount of time as if she were at school.

Why yes, it would be more convenient to have them both on break at the same time, but no, that is not my life this year. We also had a houseguest last weekend and the weather is right there changing from spring to summer (that is, what I think of spring weather – nice – to summer weather – too hot) outside my window. Time once again to regret my sandal choices and wonder what I wear when it’s too warm for jeans.

I have to tell you that baseball is much harder than it looks. Dash has had me out throwing and catching with him today and yesterday, after chivvying me to finish my work so we could do something fun (i.e., throwing and catching), and yesterday there was a lot of missing and dropping on my part; today not quite so much. But my hand stings because he’s got quite an arm on him and even under a too-big softball mitt, when I catch one straight to the heel of my hand it makes me wince. In general I throw the way you might say a girl throws if you weren’t a feminist who knew better than to say that. I also catch that way.

The cats’ current nickname is Squoodleperps. I address them both as Squoodleperps. They seem fine with that, so they probably like it, I think.


Last week I went to talk to the local homeschool co-op (yes, you can homeschool your kids and still have to be somewhere on a rainy Tuesday morning, which some might say defeats the purpose) about my book and being an author and things like that, she said self-deprecatingly. One thing I’m starting to get through my thick skull is that I have to stop with the self-deprecating stuff because as far as other people are concerned the fact that I self-published rather than having a publisher is of very little import, and while it might make me feel like a fakey mcfakerson because all I did was put a bunch of words together and whistle up some online magic and hey presto I have a book that I say is good and you should read but nobody of real worth has said that so why would you listen … sorry, where was I? I mean, even if I think that’s not the same, as far as most people are concerned I’ve written a book and here it is, it looks great, they’d like to buy it and read it and maybe they’ll love it. And maybe they will, I’ve heard from people who do. (I love those people.) And me being all cutesy shy and self-deprecating about it is just confusing, as far as they’re concerned, so I need to stop it. Slap me if you see me doing it.

Another thing I have to do is come up with an answer to “What’s it about?” that’s not “Well, it’s about a girl, who goes to school, and … stuff…” because that’s not going to make anyone think “Hey, that sounds like a book I’d like to read” or “I should buy that for my granddaughter because she’d really like it.” One pithy elevator pitch for potential readers, stat. Saying “Just read the back” is probably not what I’m meant to do.

And I need to work out answers to frequently asked questions like “Did you always want to be a writer?” and “Did you always write?” so that I’m not sitting there gazing into space all, “Well… yes… no… yes … sort of… I suppose I did.” I can come up with something better than that. I just have to write it down first. Because yes, I always have been a writer of some sort, somewhere, even just inside my head.

It was fun, though. I chose a passage to read aloud (which I probably read too fast; slow down, Maud), and I think they liked what I said. Luckily there were several parents on hand to ask questions, because the kids didn’t have a lot (they were a mixed-age bunch, which was a little tricky to keep engaged). I’d do it again. In fact, I e-mailed the local public school to see about doing just that, maybe.

So I’m learning a lot, is what I mean. It’s good.

Maud on a chair beside a table with books on it, with a colourful and institutional-looking wall as background.

Me, beside a table full of books I didn’t write, about to talk to the homeschoolers.

 

Things the cats are fascinated by, a partial list

The basement stairs, which are way more exciting than the regular stairs.

The process of scooping and disposing of their poop, which they have to run over and supervise whenever I do it (where supervising = getting in the way).

Pens, especially if on the table. A pen’s proper place is on the floor, of course.

What the humans are eating and/or drinking. Best examined from the vantage point of the table.

Human feet, under a duvet, at 5am. Pounceable deliciousness.

My hair.

Tails, which are a constant mystery, in spite of having one each.

A piece of dry cat food that has accidentally skittered across the kitchen floor and is much more alluring than all the rest of the cat food in the bowl.

The breeze coming through an opened window.

The bath, empty (for playing in) or occupied (utterly flabbergasting).

The toilet, ditto; they must come over and inquire into exactly what I might be doing if sitting there.

The inside of the dishwasher.

The inside of the clothes dryer.

Drawers – how they work, what’s inside them, what might be behind them.

The freezer, on the bottom of the fridge, the most mysterious drawer of all.

The sliding closet doors. They clearly operate by witchcraft and must be stopped at all costs.

Empty tissue boxes, to be examined closely, from within, at a cat’s peril.

Shopping bags: enemies, to be defeated.

Napping. More investigation required. Haven’t got to the bottom of this yet. Will get back to you with our results.

The annual curmudge

I’m a big old St Patrick’s Day curmudgeon. This is not news to anyone who was here last year or any other year. I don’t want to wear green today or get drunk today (well, sure, but children) or set up leprechaun traps today or listen to traditional Irish music today and I’m only just getting over the mortification of having to see Enda Kenny visit Donald Trump today.

When the word went out that this year’s international dinner at Dash’s school this Sunday would have live Irish music and dancing, I went from vaguely wondering if we could get out of it to deciding that I really didn’t have to show up to everything they put on.

Old map of Ireland, framed, from unusual perspective.

No, it’s not sideways. That’s the way they drew the map.

Then I wondered if I was really a terrible person, denying my children access to their heritage like that. Am I like one of those immigrants who refuses to speak the language of the old country to their children so that they’ll assimilate better, thus taking the wonderful benefits of bilingualism out of their family’s grasp?

Actually, no. I don’t like traditional Irish music or step dancing. It’s part of my national heritage, but it’s not something I feel any personal connection to. Same goes for GAA (that’s hurling and Gaelic football). And we’re not even Catholic any more. But you know what my kids will grow up with?

  • A Hiberno-English vocabulary that they can turn on and off at will.
  • A bookshelf full of books by British and Irish authors many of whom are less well known here, from Oliver Jeffers’ picture books to Joyce’s Ulysses and a lot in between.
  • Knowledge of the canon of Father Ted, Monty Python, The Two Ronnies, and various other bits and pieces of nerdy 80s trivia befitting children of Irish people our age.
  • A better grasp of Irish and European geography and history than many Americans.
  • An understanding that other countries are just as valid and real as the USA and that normal is an ever-shifting concept.
  • Familiarity with the Dublin Monopoly board.
  • Access to plenty of excellent Irish hits of the 80s and 90s, should they choose to indulge.
  • Their grandfather’s watercolours of Irish scenes and historical maps of Ireland on the walls.
A pile of books by authors including Marian Keyes, Kate O'Brien, James Joyce, Julia Donaldson, Liz Nugent, Flann O'Brien.

Not all Irish authors, but all from that side of the pond

And then there’s that book I wrote, too. It’s set in Ireland.

I think they’ll be secure enough in their cultural heritage even if it doesn’t extend to a spot of the old diddly-aye.

Framed watercolour painting of a Galway hooker with brown sails on the water

An Irish painting of an Irish boat

Snow-day thoughts in March

Last night it was cold, so we lit the fire, which is a wood-burning stove. Then one of the cats jumped up on top of the stove and hurt his paw and I spent the rest of the evening stressing out in case the other one did the same, now that it was even hotter and would probably burn all the flesh off his little pads. Of course, since they’re not used to there being a fire there, they’ve come to think that the stove is just a fun place to jump up and play on, and have no idea why it should be any different just because there’s a bright orange light behind the glass. So I guess we can never light a fire again. Oh well. I’ll just drink wine to keep warm.

Because. This entire winter has been a damp squib, more like a practice for winter than actual winter, where it got chilly for a few days and then stopped. We’ve had no snow days and only the barest sprinkling of snow. Social flakes, I think they call them, because it’s enough to chat about but nothing further. Now that it’s mid March, though, we’re expecting a doozie and we’ve forgotten how to deal with that. I’ve been thinking about sandals – I am not up for a snow day.

Snow on road under lamplight

There appears to be snow.


Now it’s Tuesday and here I am making snow-day French toast for lunch. It’s a snow day, though the snow is mostly ice and not much fun for playing in. Dash is still in pyjamas and hasn’t been outside at all – but he did utter the immortal words “You’re right, Mom” a little while ago when he finally agreed with me that his ipad game would never end and he’d have to just stop playing it. It only took about two hours for him to come around to my opinion, so those were two hours well spent (by me alternately nagging/not nagging).

You can’t hurry French toast, as Phil Collins always says. I think it’s done now though.


Then some friends called for us and we ended up going out to sled on the big hill behind the school for an hour, which was much better than staying at home all day.

Did I have a point? Was it about the cats? So one cat now has a sore paw (he’s not limping at all but it looks nasty) and his brother looks like he’s gone five rounds with Mike Tyson because he has scrapes around his eye and something weird going on with his nose. And one of his ears has seen better days. We should’ve called him Rocky.

Life with cats goes like this: they sleep on the end of our bed, unless we kick them out. And it’s so sweet to have them there, purring away like little happy engines, a comforting weight by your feet, that we leave them there. Then halfway through the night I find that there are two cats right where my legs want to be, and I have to put my legs somewhere else. And at 5 am or so they wake up and think it’s time to play, or to climb on my head or knead their paws on my hair or pounce on my toes under the blanket, and then I lie there waiting for them to run off and thunder through the house instead, until 6:30 when they decide it’s breakfast time and someone has to feed them. (They were quite delighted with the time change that moved feeding time up an hour. They won’t be so happy in the autumn when we’re an hour late one day.)

Drops of ice on the washing line

Icy


After a glass or two of wine my fingers fairly fly over the keyboard; but they fly up to the delete button twice as often too. Still, as a method for getting my thoughts directly to paper, I have nothing but good things to say about typing. I really wish Dash would practice his keyboarding more because I think once he can type his writing will take flight. Also, his spelling will improve.

I should add that it’s after dinner now so my mentioning of wine is entirely appropriate. Merely mentioning. It came to mind for no particular reason.


Now we are waiting to see if the schools are opening on time tomorrow, since I’ve made a vet appointment for Birchyboo (not Oakiepokes – you can see how their full names are coming along) in the morning and I suspect I’ll have to bring at least one child along to it. It’s the child who wants to be a vet, so that’s okay.

I just read The Long Winter to Mabel, being the sixth of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. I know I’ve mentioned these before, because we’ve been reading the series since I happened on the first one when Mabel was four or five. I love going through it slowly like this – I just pick up the next book at the thrift store or the book sale, but we don’t rush to get it from the library to dash through the the way we do with other series. This means that it’s a slower process but much more part of her childhood instead of a momentary blip. And as I’ve never read this series before I’m enjoying it too.

Anyway, The Long Winter, as you might surmise, is about a particularly hard winter for the pioneer family, who have finally settled in De Smet, Dakota Territory, where the Little Town on the Prairie actually is. There are blizzards from October to April that year, they have to burn sticks of twisted hay and sit around the stove in the tiny kitchen all day, they have nothing left to eat but bread made from wheat they grind in a coffee grinder – and Ma still cares about getting the laundry done. I would fail Pioneer 101 instantly.

Happily, our one paltry snow day of the year comes with wine, Girl Scout cookies, and a fireplace we can’t light because of the cats but we still have central heating. I think we’ll survive.

Snowy sidewalk by road, child with sled

Coming back from sledding

Self-publishing: the hard part

So you thought writing the book was the hard part. And then you thought editing your own writing was the hard part. And then you thought that getting it all through the various self-publishing engines that kept rejecting it for no apparent reason was the hard part. And then having to proof it one last time and then finding all those typos because you actually never did bother to run spellcheck…?

Yeah, none of that was the hard part. The hard part about self-publishing is the PR. You have to be your own marketing machine, and if there’s one characteristic that is conspicuously missing from the middle of the venn diagram showing the personalities of people who like to sit alone at home writing all day and people whose job is literally about developing relationships with members of the public (yes – PR doesn’t just stand for proportional representation), it’s um, well, it’s probably most things. If you even got to the end of that sentence intact. My point is that writers tend to be introverts who don’t like to call people up and try to sell themselves or the very precious and personal fruits of their labours.

But if you self-publish and you’d like more people than your best friend and your parents to buy your book you have to be prepared to blow your own trumpet a bit. This is what I’ve learned about that part, so far.

  1. Have a product you’re legitimately proud of, from the outside cover to the inside writing. You can’t sell your work to someone if you’re saying “Well, I’d have liked it to be a bit better…” You have to go all out. That’s easier if you really do love it.
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask. Self-published is not a dirty word – many very well-regarded books are self-published these days. Many distributors take them on. Many bookstores sell them. It’s hard, but it’s not impossible.
  3. Places that are not bookshops also sell books, and might be easier to get your book into. Depending on the subject matter, think outside the box about where you might offload a few. I have a friend who’s selling his book in the tourist information office in his town. My neighbourhood supermarket has a local authors’ display right by the shopping baskets.
  4. You can build a relationship with someone over the phone or email – you don’t have to be there in person. Be professional and friendly and don’t burn any bridges.
  5. Order copies for yourself and sell them to your friends. They save on shipping charges and you can sign them personally for them, just in case you end up famous. Your friends are lovely people who want to help you. Don’t give all your copies away.
  6. Christmas is a really good time to remind your friends that you wrote a book, because they can buy it again for someone else.

I know there are a million blogposts out there telling me how to market my book. And being me, I haven’t read any of them. I’ve purposely ignored them, because I hate being told what I should be doing. (Who me? Like my daughter? I don’t know what you’re talking about.) This is what I’ve done so far, since first publication in July. (Sure, snail’s pace. Don’t give out to me.)

  • I happen to know someone who works in the county library system here. She offered to give a copy to her colleague who chooses the books. Her colleague put that one copy in my local library. Score.
  • I emailed the person in charge of choosing books for the Dun Laoghaire library system in Dublin – where I would really like to see the book available, to kids who live where it’s set. She told me to contact their distributor, which I did. After a long wait and much to-ing and fro-ing it turned out that he’d like to carry it but his contract was being given to a UK multinational so he couldn’t. Then he might, but he doesn’t deal with CreateSpace. Then the lovely woman in the library said “Never mind, I’ve just ordered six copies from this other supplier we have.” Done and done.
  • I contacted several local bookshops in Dublin – small ones, not big chains – to see if they would carry the book. Not a simple matter. Very few bookshops are truly independent, it seems, and they all told me that the book had to be distributed by Argosy Books or Eason Wholesale in order for them to be able to sell them. I sent a copy to Argosy but they passed. Eason wants to know all about my launch and publicity plans – which really isn’t something I can do much on, not being in the country, so I don’t think that’ll take off. You really do need a PR machine to get into bookshops, it seems.
  • I sent a copy of the book and an article about writing and books and being an emigrant to the Books Supplement at the Irish Times. They haven’t selected it for review (yet) but they did run my article in the online edition, which was nice. I don’t know if it translated to any sales, but it gave me something to tell the distributors about publicity. I should try to do more of this with the other Irish papers.
  • I submitted a the same article, more or less, to Writing.ie for their Writing & Me section, and I think they’ll run it soon. They didn’t mind that it had already been published elsewhere.

Being in a different place from where my target market is definitely hampers me. If I was in Dublin I could try to set something up in person with the library and maybe some local schools, and that might translate into enough local interest for the Argosy people to change their minds. Maybe I’ll manage that some day. I still do suffer from impostor syndrome to quite an extent, and feel that I’d be professing to be something I’m not if I did all that.

I think what I’m learning is that good writing might bring your readers back, but you have to set the machine in motion to get those readers in the first place. The distributors don’t read the book, I’m pretty sure: they look at it with a buyer’s eye – does it look professional (thanks to my awesome cover designer and CreateSpace, I have no worries on that front) and is there some buzz built up to get people to buy it.

This’ll have to be  more of a slow burn than a buzz. But it’s all part of the learning process.

One cat on a chair, one cat under the chair, bookshelves behind the chair

Cats and books and sunshine

Playlist of my Life

Another linky, but this time I’m partaking, not starting. Nicola at Simply Homemade wrote a totally irresistable post – I actually had to trawl my archives to make sure I hadn’t done this already, because it seemed so much like something I’d do. (I have a lot of archives. If I didn’t tag it properly I might never find it.)

The concept is simple: a list of the songs that have been meaningful through your life. The execution… this is going to take a LOT of thinking.

Nicola already used Boney M’s by the River of Babylon, which is one of the first songs I remember, so I’ll have to pick one of the others. I could choose Brown Girl in the Ring, which I certainly remember twirling around to while it played on the radio, but I think I’ll pick this one, which is possibly the cutest song ever (listen for the plot twist at verse three) and very very redolent of my young childood. I was three the year this was the UK Eurovision entry.

Oh good lord, I’ve just realised that I could do this whole thing through meaningful Eurovision entries. I’ll try not to, but I can’t make any promises.

Honorable mention for this one, from a few years later – 1980 when I was 7. I was just a smidge young for disco dancing to this (ahem), but it’s absolutely iconic.

I have this weird random memory of being in a department-store shoe shop in London where this song was playing. (We would have been visiting my English relatives at Easter, probably.) It got under my skin and I found myself humming it for years afterwards, able to conjure up that exact moment with the chorus. I would have been 10 or 11, assuming it was playing on the radio as a new release. (This memory might be totally wrong. Maybe it was Switzers in Dublin.)

Honestly, I was never very much into music as a teen. I didn’t know where to find music, I had no older siblings to influence me, I went along with my friends’ obsessions but didn’t really find them hitting me as hard as they did them. My best friend loved A-Ha and Wet Wet Wet – I remember her playing a new album to me, me thinking it was okay but were we just going to sit around listening to it all afternoon? She also played me this old one, that her dad the Mary Black fan had introduced her to – and again, it’s a moment that has stuck in my mind, sitting on the floor in her darkened living room (curtains never to be opened for fear of fading the carpet) with the purple velvet sofa, trying hard but not quite managing to be moved by this. Apparently I had no soul.

I’ll spare you the songs I did gym routines to (though I can still name them); but I one of the first tapes I owned was Now Thats What I Call Music 10, which I played over and over. Really, though, it was a gem. At least, tape 2 was. At least, some parts of it were. This one: this one I liked a lot.

I really feel like I’ve written this post before. I bet it’s in here somewhere … anyway. One more from the school years, I think, before we go crazy at college. I could put in Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, because that was our Sixth Year song, or The Boxer, which we also sang at school, or all of Handel’s Messiah for that matter, but instead I’ll take you to the Gaeltacht where the Honours Irish class spent a weekend honing our conversational Irish before the oral exams. We went to Peig-land (i.e. the environs of Dingle) and stayed in self-catering cottages where we had a stereo on the mantelpiece and a constant argument about what music to put on. Mary Black and my George Michael album were about the only things everyone was okay with. I was very proud to be so generally acceptable.

I think we can move on up to the disco-attending years now. I should say nightclub, of course, because a disco is very naff and we were sophisticated young adults who could legally drink (at 18 in Ireland, Americans) and who went to nightclubs. I wasn’t a big drinker and I didn’t have much money, but Hollies was free for members on Wednesdays and Sundays, you could even take the Dart to Blackrock where there’d be nobody on duty to check for a ticket and walk up the long road to the Stillorgan Park Hotel, and four in a taxi back to Dalkey split up pretty cheaply. I wasn’t there for the shifting (generally speaking) or the drink, I was mostly there for the dancing. Sometimes we went to Stradbrook, and that was a rugby club disco, but you could walk home if you were really desperate and you were in a big group.

This one, which I had a lot of trouble finding because I call it The Elephant Song – for reasons that are lost in the mists of my brain – always says Stradbrook to me. And I like it better than the other absolute staple of those years, Right On Time.

I spent an Erasmus year in Spain – ’93 to ’94 – and I should probably illustrate that with The Macarena, but I’m definitely not going to do that. Let’s have some nice Crooded Hoosie (as the Spanish DJs called them) because I liked them then.

Sorry, I’ve just been lost in reverie for a while. There are an awful lot of songs I could put here for Spain – I suppose I met a lot of new people and was exposed to a lot of new-to-me, not to the world, music in that year – Neil Young, James Taylor, Pink Floyd … hmm. It was an interesting time.

I’ll put a song in here for the time when I was a young upwardly mobile professional in Dublin, during the Celtic Tiger years when all we had to spend our money on was dinners out in fancy restaurants and too much wine. And when we threw dinner parties we put on songs like this one:

B and I put together an entire CD of songs to be our wedding favors, so picking just one to stand for our relationship is tricky. I’ll go for this, which still manages to remind me of the cold-glistening Atlantic ocean off Lisbon, a mere week-long blip in our very very long-drawn-out courtship.

And, if you’ll humour me with another, our first-dance song:

Then came the extended new-music drought when I had small children and just wanted to listen to glorious silence in the rare moments when nobody was wailing or fighting, and when they would immediately yell at me to turn off the horrible music if I tried to play anything at all in the car. (The classical station got some airplay for quite a while.) These years are marked by songs we sang, in vain, to try to soothe the furious beasts. Like this one.

And gradually we emerged from that, all of us together, listening to the oldies station and the not-quite-such oldies station on the radio in the car, belatedly discovering the mainstream likes of Katy Perry and Adele, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift and Maroon 5 along with the much-overplayed soundtrack to Frozen and the odd other thing – Dash was obsessed with Steely Dan’s Haitian Divorce for a while back there. So I’ll pick the Cups Song – one of the first, and one we all still like.

I hope you got a nostalgia kick from a few of those. Now head over to Nicola’s and see what everyone else has chosen.