It Was Raining in My Kitchen

A friend recently sent me a Modern Love piece by Cindy Chupack from the New York Times.  I was surprised I missed this one from last year as I always read those posts. It certainly struck a chord.

For those of you who have read The Reverse Commute you know about the squirrels in Sophie’s bathroom. For those of you who know me well, you are aware of the fact that little story is advice taken from Hemingway. Write what you know. Yes it is true, one morning while sitting on the toilet seat cover waiting for the water to warm in the shower, I watched three squirrels playfully run along the rafters of the addition we were building off the back of our old house.

There were so many stories about that house along the river at the end of a dead end road. The property was beautiful, the sunsets were breathtaking. It was a lovely place to raise children. We had no keys to give the new owners at the closing because we never locked the doors. When my younger daughter left for college, she struggled to open the door to her dorm room and turned to me and asked, “How come you never taught me how to use a key?”

Tolstoy once wrote in Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This could be said about houses today, all those cookie cutter McMansions built on what was once farmland. All perfect with their granite countertops and shiny new appliances. All a theme on the same style architecture, painted in approved shades of taupe, sage and slate. Nothing like an old house with slanted floors, drafty windows, and ghosts.

Yes, we had a ghost. A peanut butter ghost. The soul of a little girl who died in the late 1800’s and stole the peanut butter late at night. It is true peanut butter would disappear but I suspect it was my husband spreading it on top of his chocolate chip cookies.

We lived among the Northern white pines, a tree that self prunes, littering the yard with fallen branches each winter. They can’t handle the weight of heavy wet snow or ice, begging the question why did they settle here in the frigid Northeast? It wasn’t just branches in our yard, it was entire trees, tall trees. They can grow to be 150 feet tall. We once had three trees come down in just one storm.

The yard was a small arboretum. We had blue spruce, lilac, apple, pear and larch trees. But it was the quaking aspen that took out my van during a violent summer thunderstorm, minutes after the entire family made a run for the house.

When I moved to Florida, people asked, “Aren’t you worried about hurricanes?” I replied, “No, should I be?” At least with a hurricane you have advance warning.

There were so many stories. Mice in the kitchen, bats in the bedroom, a Mama raccoon and her babies in the chimney. Then there was the weekend I went to Rhode Island with my oldest daughter who was just beginning to walk. We were concerned about lead paint so my husband was staying home to redo the window trim.

I arrived home to discover a mess in my living room because instead of painting window trim he took the ceiling down. “She’s not going to chew on the ceiling,” I screamed at him. In the end I forgave him because he had exposed some beautiful original beams from 1728, the year the house was built, and my children never did chew the woodwork or get lead poisoning.

But the best story of all was the day it rained in my kitchen. It was another weekend when I headed to Rhode Island to visit friends and family, this time with two babies in tow. I forget what he was supposed to do that weekend, the projects were endless.

My cousin Kathy loved telling the story of that Sunday afternoon when she stopped by to drop something or other off, let herself in the kitchen door (remember there were no locks), and was blinded by sunlight. My husband was on a ladder outside, looking in. She stood in the kitchen gazing up at the blue sky, and asked, “Does Sheila know about this?”

No, Sheila did not know about this. Apparently he always had a vision of a cathedral ceiling with exposed beams, he just never mentioned it to me. The project took longer than anticipated, as these projects always do, but he assured me the forecast called for good weather all week. He covered the unfinished roof with a bright blue tarp to match the sky that day.

Let me remind you of something here, the house was in New Hampshire where 75% of the time the weatherman is wrong. The next evening I was in the kitchen cooking dinner when another summer storm came out of the west, picking up steam as it barreled down the Squamscott River and into our back yard, blowing the blue sky tarp off the roof and exposing the forbidding dark clouds that began to pour rain on my old linoleum faux red brick floor. I don’t remember what I thought as I looked up at the sky and felt the rain soak my face. “I would like to kill my husband” might have flashed through my mind.

Luckily he was close by. He ran up the ladder and secured the tarp to the exposed beams as lighting ripped across the yard. I was reminded of the time the giant larch tree was struck by lightening, leaving a corkscrew scar along the trunk of the tree, bark mulch covering the ground and a shattered old redwood lounge chair nearby.

We survived the storm. I washed the kitchen floor. It seemed like the perfect time to do it. I think we ordered takeout pizza after the storm passed.

It is amazing how time shapes memory. We look back fondly at those twenty two years in the old house with the unlocked doors by the river. The day I drove out the driveway for the very last time was bittersweet. I knew I would miss the years we spent there but would I miss the house itself? No, I was ready to say goodbye.

Happy Holidays from my old house to yours.

Tree in NH

Walking ~ Day 186 The Jumping Teddy Bear Cholla Cactus

Sheila Blanchette:

It’s that time of year when everyone’s making lists. Best movies, best books, best viral videos. So I’m making a list of my own. My most popular blogs over the past two years I have been blogging.
Let’s start with #1. It will surprise you. It surprised me. I wrote it in November 2013 and it still gets hits just about every day.
I assume most people who come across it are looking for information on Joshua Tree National Park. A lot of them are looking for information on the Cholla Cactus but I did get a lot of Ted the movie fans following me over at Twitter for awhile. It’s amazing how many Twitter accounts are dedicated to Ted.
My webpage gives me key words people used to find my website. Yesterday there was this: “My big fat ass.” So here it is. My #1 blog. I can’t say I’m really happy about this but like I said at the time, it’s all for the sake of my art.

Originally posted on Sheila Blanchette:

I took a long walk today, over the Woolbright bridge, along Route One then back across Ocean Road Bridge. I walked for over an hour with plenty of time to think about what I would write.

This guy passed me on the return bridge:

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I passed this guy:

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With a light breeze in the air, I actually wished I had a sweatshirt during the first half hour of the walk. My mind wandered to the desert and  a trip I took a little over a year ago to Joshua Tree National Park.

It was 105 degrees when we visited, a dry 105. Seriously, I’m not kidding. I didn’t mind it. I’ve experienced more uncomfortable weather on humid days in New Hampshire, New York City and Florida.

Our first stop was the Information Center. I should have taken it as a warning of things to come.

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I found it odd that…

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Not Everyone’s Laughing HoHoHo

This year I set out to enjoy Christmas. I haven’t enjoyed the holiday in a long time, probably since my children got older and Santa Claus no longer slid down our double chimney. My girls would ask “how does he know which chimney to come down?” Each passing year brought increasing bills and less time. I swore I would save money for gifts but then I needed snow tires or the oil burner blew up, so out came the credit cards.

The last four years in New Hampshire were rough. I was working fifty weeks a year forty five minutes from my home. I had been on unemployment for fourteen months, making Cobra payments for health insurance. The job was boring, a dead end job but I was sitting for health care. Depending on the day of the week Christmas Day fell on, I could be working on Christmas Eve, often driving home for over an hour in the snow.

But when I got home we always made the traditional lobster and raw oysters. Lobster is cheap in New Hampshire, one year I got if for $3.99 a pound, and my husband dug the oysters from Great Bay. One year he went out there in five degree weather because it was tradition and we had to have those oysters.

I still wrapped the presents in Santa paper. On Christmas Day, the wood stoves burned and the tree lights were on all day. We rarely left the house. Eggnog French toast for breakfast and standing rib roast for dinner. Traditions are important and food is always a part of that. But I stopped putting candles in the windows and cut back on lots of decorating. I just didn’t have time and dreaded putting it all away which was always harder. I was right back to work after the holiday. I had those credit card bills to pay.

Last year my husband and I were alone for the very first time. It was strange but not awful. I found a local fish market that carried Maine lobster for a lot more than $3.99 a pound and Publix had a sale on standing rib roast. We didn’t decorate but I wrapped the girls’ presents in Santa paper and mailed them in time to reach Colorado before Christmas Day.

So this year I decided to be a little more festive. I bought two poinsettas for my deck and we’ve strung lights along the railing. I’m listening to and sharing Christmas carols. I’ve been very into photography since I discovered Instagram and I’m posting #25photosofchristmas over there.

Tonight’s the Christmas Boat Parade along the Intracoastal and we’ve invited another couple to join us. I’m making shish kebobs for the grill, steak and shrimp, and the Rangpur Lime Cocktail from the Bonnet House.

This morning I realized I forgot the prosciutto for the shrimp kebobs so I walked across the street to the Winn-Dixie and was greeted with large yellow and red signs announcing Store Closing. I knew this branch wasn’t doing well, it was never crowded. There’s a lot of competition around here and a lot of the more well-off people along the coast prefer the new Whole Foods or Fresh Market. I was even happy to see Trader Joe’s open. Even today with the 20% off perishables there were few customers at the Winn-Dixie.

Store closing

The employees were glum, chattering amongst themselves, and who could blame them. They’d lost their jobs two weeks before Christmas. They had lots of questions. “Do you know if we get our vacation time?” “I don’t think so, if you’re part time.” “Make sure you get your packet before you leave today.” “Did you get a transfer?” “No, did you?”

Stores are always busy at Christmas time. They couldn’t stay open until the end of the month? As Sam in my upcoming novel says after he loses his job just before Christmas, “It must have been some year end, bottom line, numbers not people sort of thing. Best not not think about the casualties of executive decisions.”

Mitt Romney was wrong, corporations are not people.

A lot of talking heads are wrong. They will tell you discussions about income inequality are just divisive politics. But they are the divisive ones. They pit middle class people just barely hanging on against those who have fallen off the edge. Here in South Florida, I can drive two miles from the palatial mansions along the ocean, cross the railroad tracks running along the Dixie highway, and find myself in the other America where many of the people who work at the Closing Today Winn Dixie live. You have to be an ostrich with your head in the sand not to believe there are two Americas.

I’ve been really putting it out there this week. Promoting my book, working social media, writing blogs. I’m trying to bust down my own doors and make it through the hallowed halls of publishing in a dog eat dog business where the game is rigged. So I wasn’t going to blog today. I have a dinner party and a boat parade to get ready for.

But once again, I was reminded there is always someone suffering here in the land of plenty.

Despite my efforts at enjoying Christmas this year, I know I will still get cranky at the corporate driven spending madness of the holiday, the traffic at the mall, and the lines at the grocery store.

I will be slightly nostalgic for Christmas past, when my kids were young and would wake us before sunrise to run downstairs and see if Santa had already visited our house. I miss my girls, who are in Denver and Boston. But in this year of posting gratitudes, it is also important to remind myself of others who don’t have the right connections or the right education or just plain bad luck.

There are no blame games here. Most people I meet are down on their luck due to circumstances beyond their control. The  people you hear about on talk radio are a small minority. Income inequality is very real and getting worse. Take a drive outside your neighborhood one night to a place you rarely visit where people with far less are still stringing Christmas lights along the roofs and fences and shrubs of their front yard and trying to recognize gratitude in much more difficult circumstances. We’re a better nation than the one we’ve become. Let’s hope the New Year brings peace and prosperity to all but I am no longer counting on it.

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FREEDOM TO CREATE

This past weekend we visited the Bonnet House in Fort Lauderdale. The weekend festivities included an orchid sale and gourmet food trucks.

Orchid Sale

The house was built in 1920 by the hardware distributor and Chicago artist, Frederic Clay Bartlett, and his wealthy wife Helen who’s father Hugh Taylor Birch gave them the property as a wedding gift. Birch was a wealthy Chicago attorney and general counsel for Standard Oil. By a stroke of luck he met Henry Flagler. If you live in this part of South Florida, you are very familiar with the Flagler name. It’s everywhere.

Flagler was a railroad tycoon who turned to real estate and began to develop South Florida. The two men met on a train traveling from north Florida to Hobe Sound. Birch wanted to travel further south and Flagler lent him a small sailboat. I guess that what’s wealthy people do, they borrow each other’s boats. Setting off alone, he was caught up in a storm and sought refuge at an inlet where he eventually bought the land where the Bonnet House was built.

Sadly, Helen died of breast cancer five years after they married and Frederic rarely visited their Florida home until he met Evelyn Fortune Lilly. A fortuitous middle name indeed. She was the daughter of Eli Lilly, yes that Eli Lilly of Big Pharma. After marrying Bartlett she took up painting and many of her still lifes are on display in the former guest room.

Pallette

The museum guide in that particular room told us one of her Palm Beach girlfriends once criticized her work and she stopped painting. I loved her paintings and as a writer who has been on the receiving end of criticism I wish I could have told her that woman was no friend and you can’t let the critics hold you back. I am not sure why people spend their time criticizing other people’s efforts but you need to ignore them. Their criticism says more about them than you.

Bonnett House Kitchen

But this is easier said than done. I understood her reaction to the critics. It was just one of the things I liked about Evelyn. The other thing I liked was the casual elegance of her home. The plantation style house was built around a central courtyard.

Bonnett House Courtyard

It’s an eccentric design, none of the rooms are connected, you enter through doors off the courtyard. Whimsical artwork is everywhere.

Ostrich

I couldn’t stop taking pictures. There was something to look at everywhere I turned. I loved these colorful umbrella shutters.

Umbrella shutters

It was outdoor tropical living at it’s best. A rambling house that fits in with the landscape of sea and sand and tropical flora.

Mrs. Bartlett lived to the age of 109 and many of the guests that day marveled at her longevity. “How did she do it?” they asked. My theory is she lived a charmed life in a beautiful home by a tropical beach and had the time and means to pursue her passions. I envied her pursuit of her art without the mundane worries of middle class life in the 21st century.

There is one more thing I admire about Evelyn Fortune Lilly Bartlett and that was her foresight . The City of Fort Lauderdale aggressively pursued the Bartletts for years, trying to purchase this piece of property for development. In the present day gilded age of new wealth and robber barons, I can tell you there is very little public beach front left in this part of South Florida. Highrises and mansions that rival the Newport of the roaring twenties block most of the once scenic route along Route A1A. When Evelyn first expressed concern about this she had no idea what South Florida would look like in 2014 and I am grateful she saved this beautiful piece of property for all to enjoy.

“There is nothing left along the shore. There is nothing left except this place from Miami to Palm Beach. I don’t want it to change.” ~ Evelyn Fortune Bartlett

Bonnet House exterior

There might be another secret to Mrs. Bartlett’s longevity. She enjoyed entertaining and had a bar that I covet.

Bonnet House Bar

Some people attribute her health to the house cocktail she served but others say she never drank it herself. Her cocktail of choice was a gin and tonic. Either way, the house drink sounds like a delicious combination of New England meets the Tropics and I am definitely going to be making it for this weekend’s Christmas boat parade. Here’s the recipe:

RANGPUR LIME COCKTAIL

4 parts Barbados Eclipse dark rum

1 part fresh Rangpur lime juice

Sweeten to taste with Vermont Maple Syrup

Combine the rum and lime juice in a pitcher and mix well. Add enough syrup to sweeten to taste. Chill, covered, until ready to serve. Pour over crushed ice in a short glass.

If you’re ever in the greater Fort Lauderdale-Miami area, directions to the Bonnet House are here. It is without a doubt an afternoon well spent.

#BuyaBookforChristmas

Are you looking for Christmas gift ideas? Books always make a great gift.

Not sure which books to buy? Need some help? Well, of course there’s always The Reverse Commute or Take Me Home, both by that little known but up and coming author Sheila Blanchette.

Oh, you’ve already bought those and recommended them to your friends? You need more ideas? I recently discovered these very fun ladies, Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke, and their entertaining blog. In addition to their own book, Your Perfect Life, they have Liz’s Best Books of 2014 List on their webpage. Check it out.

Here’s my top ten list list of the best books I read in 2014:

1) Someone: A Novel by Alice McDermott

2) These Things Happen by Richard Kramer

3) The Possibilities by Kaui Hart Hemmings

Some short stories I liked:

4) Dirty Love by Andre Dubus III

5) Middle Men: Stories by Jim Gavin

These I re-read:

6) Rabbit Run by John Updike

7) The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

I tried a few memoirs that I enjoyed:

8) Son of a Gun: A Memoir by Justin St. Germain

9) Half A Life: A Memoir by Darin Strauss

And an invaluable book for the writers on your list that helped me get to the finish line when writing Take Me Home.

10) Still Writing by Dani Shapiro

And let’s make this a dozen with my writing friends’ books:

11) Carol White who has several great books

12) Just What I Always Wanted by Nancy Roman

Don’t forget: My book made the Coastal Star’s 2014 Holiday Shopping Guide,  and I’m sharing the page with Coach Schnellenberger’s book Passing the Torch for all the football fans out there.

Happy Holiday Shopping and Go Pats!

Share your favorite books in the comments section below.

God & Miniature Golf

To you, I’m an atheist. To God, I’m the loyal opposition. ~ Woody Allen

It is well known in my family that I am not an athlete. Early in my relationship with my husband, on a trip to Steamboat Springs, I broke my tib-fib in a butterfly fracture that put me in a full length cast for three months, followed by another three months in a walking cast. This happened while cross-country skiing BUT we had been in the hot springs, it was getting towards dusk, and the trail was steep and VERY icy.

So when we decided to go mini-golfing on Hilton Head over Thanksgiving I was not expecting much.

“Is man merely a mistake of God’s? Or is God merely a mistake of man?” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

There were three courses on the island to choose from. It was a damp foggy day so we vetoed the pirate themed course and went with the one with lots of trees overhead, assuming if it started to rain we would have some cover.

“Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe there are fairies at the bottom of it too?” ~ Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

mini-golf landscaping

We immediately noticed something strange. At each tee there was a placard with a quote from scripture. Nowhere was there a sign warning us this was a Christian golf course. Not that they necessarily had to tell us but it felt odd and strange. All four of us were a little uncomfortable with it. “No swearing if you end up in the drink,” I said. There were a lot of difficult water obstacles on the course. The girls and I were in trouble by the second hole. When my ball splashed into the water, I was the first to say, “Oh, shit.”

balls in the water

The Bible has noble poetry in it…and some good morals and a wealth of obscenity, and upwards of a thousand lies.” ~ Mark Twain

My husband brought his putter and his own ball. We at first thought this might give him an unfair advantage. He definitely thought he was going to win.

Rich at mini-golf

“It’s a big mistake to think that your own cause, or your own country, or your own side has God in its corner. For one thing, it commits the sin of pride.” ~ Christopher  Hitchens

After the second hole, my game picked up. I shot a total of four birdies despite the signs that guided my way through the course and sort of rattled me. It bothered me, this let me preach my religion while you golf sort of thing, because of course I wondered, what if someone wanted to open a Muslim golf course? Could such a thing exist here on Hilton Head Island?

golf and god

Freedom of religion only goes so far. Of course the furthest reaches are atheists. I once heard it said that we would see a Muslim elected president before we ever see an atheist take the oath of office. I am not sure if that is true, but George W. Bush once said, “Lincoln said you cannot be President without spending some item on your knees. I have repeated that and a bunch of atheists got all over me. Wait a minute. Does that mean that you cannot be President if you are an atheist? I say yes that does mean that.”

But what did Lincoln mean by item? I have never heard that expression before. Could spending some item on your knees have meant gardening, as in communing with nature. I’m with Einstein on this one.

“I don’t try to imagine a personal God; it suffices to stand in awe at the structure of the world, insofar as it allows our inadequate senses to appreciate it.” ~ Albert Einstein

I was raised a Catholic, most of my family still practices religion. I have no problem with religion but I have to wonder why you need to profess your faith at a miniature golf course where people from many walks of life  holding different beliefs are just trying to enjoy a little family time. This is the proverbial slippery slope. I began to imagine my own mini-golf course. I Googled quotes for the placards at each of my holes and am sharing them with you. I wondered if I could ever get it past the planning board.

“We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.” ~ Richard Dawkins

‘Tis the season for wishing folks a Merry Christmas, but during this joyful season there is always that noisy, Scrooge-like crowd who are offended and outraged at the simple cheerful greeting Happy Holidays. They feel stores should require employees to say Merry Christmas. They have forgotten we are a diverse nation founded on the principle of freedom of religion. Maybe they should do all their holiday shopping at Hobby Lobby.

When Christopher Hitchins was dying from cancer many people were waiting for his deathbed conversion. He made this observation, “It’s considered perfectly normal in this society to approach dying people who you don’t know but who are unbelievers and say, ‘Now are you gonna change your mind?’ That is considered almost a polite question.” He wondered what would happen if a group of non-believers went around the hospital telling you the jig is up, there is no God. “I don’t think it would be very ethical, it would be a breach of taste. But if it’s in the name of God it has a social license,” he said.

But here I was playing miniature golf with God by my side and I won.

scorecard

And you probably don’t care. As Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “An atheist is a man who watches a Notre Dame vs. Southern Methodist University game and doesn’t care who wins.”

ALICE COOPER GOLFS

Wednesday I had an interview with a local newspaper, The Coastal Star. Steve Pike called out of the blue on Monday and asked if we could meet before his Thursday deadline. Tuesday I was working in Pompano all day. Wednesday I had a bookkeeping appointment with a new client that wasn’t going well. A fussy man who likes to stand over my shoulder while I work, questioning every debit and credit I make.

I had already decided the job was not going to work out. I have better clients, fun and interesting people, like the builder in Pompano who likes to argue politics. People who go about their business and trust me with the bills and the bank reconciliations.

I didn’t sell everything I owned and move to Florida to feel tense and nervous over the classification of an Amex expense. I told Steve I could meet him at ten on Wednesday at Good Vibes, my favorite coffee shop in Lantana. I have a dream I am chasing. At fifty seven there is no time to waste.

Finn and Tara were happy to see me. They were excited about a visit from a newspaper reporter. It was an unusually gray, cold day in Florida, temperatures in the low 50’s. Finn got out the broom and swept the leaves that kept blowing in the door with each coffee drinker’s arrival.

I recognized Steve immediately, he was carrying my second novel, Take Me Home. The cover was bent, a good sign he was actually reading the book. We got right into the interview. I told him my story, the old house in New Hampshire, the dead end cubicle job, the empty nest. How the idea for The Reverse Commute came to me during my long forty five minute commute.

He asked where the idea for Take Me Home came from. I told him about the trip to Yellowstone and the Snake River in Idaho, how the breathtaking scenery inspired me. We got off on a tangent, talking about the Great American West and road trips. We’d both been to 29 Palms and Joshua Tree which led us to U2 and rock ’n roll which we discussed for the next hour.

Steve had written articles for Rolling Stone. He interviewed Johnny Cash, he’s visited the famous Muscle Shoals recording studio in Alabama. Do you remember the Lynard Skynard line? Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers/And they’ve been known to pick a song or two. That’s the place we were talking about.

We moved on to the history of music and musicians who influenced other artists which led us to Gram Parsons who is at the intersection of country and rock music and influenced countless musicians from Keith Richards to Emmy Lou Harris. After visiting Johsua Tree, Gram Parsons happened to die of a drug overdose in a hotel room in 29 Palms.

That brought us back to travel and golf and my book. Yes, golf. Steve now writes about golf. From rock ’n roll he moved on to golf which is not as big a leap as you might think it is. Steve has golfed with Bruce Springsteen, Glen Frey and Alice Cooper who is a very good friend of his. There are many other rockers who live in Florida and have golfed with Steve. I can’t remember all their names. I wasn’t taking notes. Neither was Steve.

Later that night, after a late afternoon round of golf, my husband and a friend arrived home and I made them turkey burgers while they discussed the perfect chip shot and the lost balls and the $1.25 beers. Over dinner I told them about my interview.

“What’s he going to say about your book?” my husband asked.

“Gee, I don’t know,” I said, a little worried about how far we had wandered from the subject of the interview. Me and my book.

Later that night Steve e-mailed me a rough draft of the piece he was submitting. It will include two other local authors he has met with and has a 250 word limit but somehow he captured the essence of me, Take Me Home, and the third novel I am working on. A story about the influence of rock ’n roll on our everyday lives. I liked his take away from our hour and a half conversation in a coffee shop in Lantana. I hope to meet him in Delray to catch some live music.

What was my take away from the day? Whether you’re a guy like my husband or more like Alice Cooper, at some point towards the second half of life’s journey you will find yourself on a golf course in Florida.

***My interview with Steve Pike will appear in the December issue of The Coastal Star. You will certainly hear about it here and in all the places you will find me from Twitter to Facebook and everywhere in-between. Take Me Home is on sale until November 30th for $1.99 at Amazon.

This piece also appears on the Huffington Post.