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Warning: This post contains Naughty Tomato pictures.

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I did warn you.

I have a black thumb. Dr. Stevens, however, is a masterful gardener (hold on a second…I think I’m seeing a new hero’s career in my imagination…) His tomato patch this year has been unusually fertile. UNUSUALLY fertile.

This is not the first tomato-with-a-penis I’ve harvested this summer. Oh, no! See?

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Lest you think we’ve found some mutant breed breeding in our garden–this little fellow was on a totally different plant!

Not only are we growing phallic fruits, but we are overrun with the regular kind. I pick three or four huge bowls full of tomatoes each day. I’ve been blending them up in my super-duper-take-your-arm-off-if-you’re-not-paying-attention blender and freezing the puree in zip-lock baggies. I’ve been serving my family spaghetti (with homemade tomato sauce) chili (full of tomatoes), and BLTs every meal for weeks. And we haven’t even reached peak harvest yet.

I’ve taken to hauling bags of tomatoes with me wherever I go. I’ve become That Woman–the one who shoves her bag of excess produce at you with a manic smile, so that you’re afraid to tell her you’ve got a garden of your own. I take extra trips to the library, the bank and the post office just to hand my favorite tellers tomatoes. Every teacher at my sons’ school has gotten their fair share.

And still the suckers keep growing.

Frankly, the teenie-weenies worry me. I’ve seen LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. I peer through my bedroom window in the middle of the night, staring down at that tomato patch. Did that vine twitch, or was it just a trick of the moonlight?

Maybe I should stop eating them, after all.

Elly May Goes to the Get-Together!

…okay, so, not really. If you were one of the 500 people at the Annual Reader-Author Get Together two weeks ago, you may have thought you were seeing her:

But in reality, you were seeing me:

I put my hair in pigtails because I knew I’d be stuffing goody bags. 500 canvas bags full of swag–bookmarks, postcards, pens, roses from Author Island, books, post-it pads, you name it! It was two hours of hard, sweaty work, and a great time. But I needed my hair off my neck. When I wore my hair differently the next day, many people, most of them total-to-former-strangers asked me, “Where are the ponytails? I liked the ponytails!”

Who knew? I always thought it was slightly silly of Donna Douglas to try to pull off that hairdo at her age (and definitely silly to try to pull it off at mine), but it turns out it’s a “thing”–a memorable piece of identification that had more people than ever speaking and greeting me through the weekend.

Another “thing” I tried was reading Tarot cards at the digital book sale and signing. Because I cannot retail my own books (I didn’t publish ’em so they aren’t, technically, “mine”) and because my book is digital, I needed something to do while I sat there. Last year and at other “digital signings” I’ve stared at the author across from me, made hand-shadow puppets on the walls, and eaten all the Hershey’s Kisses from the authors to my right and left while nobody stopped by to see me at all. Turns out quickie Tarot reads are just the ticket–I was busy the whole time and the hours flew by.

This reader-oriented event is like that. You can wear jeans and casual hair. You can read tarot cards and chat with your friends. Don’t feel like going to a workshop? No worries, no guilt. The price is easy and the workload is light and the people are friendly, passionate readers. I’ve been to the two biggest conventions in the business and some regional ones–and this is, in my humble opinion, the best deal and best time for the money.

And this year was especially joyful. Twice I had readers come up to me and tell me they’d not only read, but enjoyed my book. The first time I honestly looked over my shoulder to see who she was talking to. The second time I bit down on my tongue before asking, “Are you sure you mean me?” I was a good girl–I did not stalk them through the weekend. I did not sit at their tables at each meal or insist on getting my picture taken with them again and again beside the big plastic fern near the elevator. But I wanted to.

It turns out writers go “all fangurl SQUEE!” too–over readers.

What about you? What’s your “thing?” How do you stand out from the crowd (accidentally or on purpose?)

Summertime, and the living is…easy?

Today is the last day of the school year. I’m so looking forward to summer break. I’m so dreading it.

My sons are on two different schedules (one half-day kindergartner and two middle schoolers). Because of some…ahem…”issues” I’ve ended up driving them to and fro rather than putting them on the bus I paid for with my property taxes fueled by the gas I paid for–but I digress. They’ve had track, band, academic team, robotics, music lessons–all of those things I swore when I wasn’t yet a parent that I wouldn’t let them get into so that they could “just be children.”

As a result, most days of the week I haven’t had more than two or three consecutive, uninterrupted hours to do anything. My days are as broken up as the stale spaghetti noodles I poured into the pot for dinner last night.

Writing is actually easier when they are all at home. Or it should be. The older two (in theory) can feed, clothe, bathe and watch the youngest. Everyone can call 9-1-1 and the pizza guy. I should be able to lock myself in my office with my laptop and my imaginary friends and enemies in my imaginary town.

Before I was a parent, I chose myself a good man. A mellow man. A quiet man. A peaceful, calming person. The Spawn of Stevens look like him. They make his gestures and repeat phrases that have come straight from their father’s mouth.

SO WHAT IS WITH ALL OF THE BICKERING? Zom-GEE!

They LOVE each other. We had them so that long after we’re gone, they’d have each other. They cuddle together on the floor beside the bed when they’re asleep (because sleeping bags are always more fun than beds.) They drown army men together in the sandbox (which is full of mosquito-larva-infested water). So why won’t they stop with the bickering?

I make them stay on separate floors. Behind separate doors. I fine them for speaking to each other (I’ve made back most of their allowances). I make them hug and kiss one another when they fight. Nothing, but nothing creates peace.

Advise me, those of you who’ve been trapped shared halcyon summers with your offspring, the sun glinting on their hairs as they frolicked in slo-mo through non-wasteful sprinklers. I need you. My children’s lives may depend on you.

Caffeine-Free Convention

Did I meet you at the Romantic Times convention last week? Forgive me if I’m vague about this. You see, I made the brilliant decision to decaffeinate.

Yup. No caffeine for a week before (or during) the entire convention. If I DID meet you, I told you this. Repeatedly. In fact, if you’re not sure who, exactly, I am, I’m the one who told you, “I gave up caffeine for morning cardio!”

I was so self-righteous. Someone should have slapped me. Perhaps someone did. I’m really not sure.

Two former Misters Romance (Len Gunn and Charles Paz) et moi.

See that picture in which I objectify men? I repaid them the kindness of taking that photo with me by describing–in detail–life sans caffeine AND my kids’ track season so far.

I attended parties. I danced. It wasn’t pretty:

See that expression? That's decaffeinated dancing folks. I don't advise it.

I attended Jade Lee’s WEDDED IN SCANDAL wedding only to realize that these people were only pretending to get married. I cried anyway.

I spent a little time (okay, a lot of time) at the bar with friends old and new. The next day, perfectly lovely strangers came up to me and said, “You were so funny last night!” Um…was I? What did I say? What did I do?

Samhain Publishing threw a party. That's all I have to say about that.

And yet…and yet…this was one of the best conferences I’ve ever attended. Because I knew I wouldn’t have four “energy drinks” a day to sustain me, I decided at the outset to be gentle with myself. If I didn’t want to attend a workshop, I wouldn’t force it. If I wasn’t enjoying the moment, in the moment, I would walk up and leave. One day, I took two naps. TWO! Did I miss the

Most Important Workshop on Writing and Social Media EVAR?

Yeah. Probably. But there’s so much of that information at my fingertips every day. This time I wanted something different. I decided my overarching goal was to enjoy my friends and make a few new ones. That’s it. No deal-making. No pitching. Just…play time.

In passing, I sold a couple copies of my book. A bookseller asked me to come do a signing. And I showed off my crappy tattoo.

Pretty successful, I’d say.

What about you? Do you attend conventions and conferences? What do you hope to get out of them for the time and money you spend?

Dancing Crone

Once upon a time I was 19 years old. On a Friday night (and sometimes even a Thursday) I’d pour my skinny little self into a teal-green tube dress, back-comb my spiral permed hair, layer makeup onto skin as fresh and dewy as my future babies’ butts and go out dancing.

I looked great. I felt great. I danced great. Within three bars of Morris Day’s “Jungle Love” my work and class woes melted away, as did my awareness of everyone and everything else. Then and now dancing puts me into a blissful fugue state that no other form of meditation can touch. You could watch me. You could dance with me. But for pity’s sake, don’t bother me or require my attention. Can’t you see I’m dancing?

Last Friday, I went out dancing again with Toni Blake, Lindsey Faber and Melissa D. Unlike those halcyon days of youth (and someone please remind me to look up “halcyon”) this took weeks of planning. I had to schedule it around my sons’ science fair and the potluck at church. I had to work in a nap so I could stay up past midnight. And then I had to get ready.

First, the skin. I exfoliated my elbows so they wouldn’t snag the sleeves of the dress, and I layered on the tan-in-a-bottle so my bare legs wouldn’t glow in the black light.

Secondly, the foundation garment. I tried on three different ones. The full-body singlet disguised most of the back fat dripping out from under my bra, but I’ve given birth thrice since those halcyon days (What IS “halcyon”? A color? A mood?) and I knew that I’d need to pee. And pee. And pee again. In the interests of peeling down quickly in the ladies room and not being hobbled in my squat, I gave up on the singlet.  I tried belly-and-thigh constricting underpants, which required twisting and jumping, both to get on and get off.

Again—three babies. NO Jumping, ever again.

I settled on black tights (which, I must say, slid on nicely over my freshly-tanned legs) and changed my dress, which meant changing my footwear. Instead of flats, I went with boots—the low-heeled pair, but heeled nevertheless. My rule of thumb is one ibuprofen per individual inch of heel, so of course, I took two immediately.

For hair I chose a ponytail. I knew better than to leave it down. “Sweaty Slattern” is a sexy look in a 19-year-old. At 41, however, it becomes “Over-The-Hill Hooker.”

We met up for dinner at Panera, which is more stressful now that it used to be. Once upon a time, I ate what I wanted, when I wanted. These days, however, I must consider carefully. Black-bean soup? Gas on the dance floor.  Roast beef on the sandwich? Indigestion and belching.  And then there is the careful calibration of the diet cola. Too little and I’ll be sick with dehydration. Too much and I’ll be in the bar bathroom every half hour.

But the biggest stress of all was when we hit the dance floor. I’d forgotten how much work it is to NOT make eye contact.  With anyone.  Ever.  I’d been so good at it when I was younger.  Fortunately, I had my girls with me. We make our tight little circle just as we’d learned to do in junior high and with a touch to the elbow and a  glance, we steered each other through the crowd and away from the number of couples (my age and older, yo!) grinding booties against groins and making out on the dance floor–which was, OMIGOD, SO not halcyon of them!

But the music pounded as the music will and my sore feet and tight calves moved in spite of themselves. Thanks to the cleansing sweat of a good workout, I only had to pee every hour instead of every half.

I can’t wait to go back.

Pleasurable Plots

A writing professor once told me there are only two plotlines: “The Quest” and “A Stranger Comes To Town.” Since I consider the latter to be the reversal of the former, in my highly erudite and intellectual opinion there is, in fact, only one plot.

Given that, I don’t get real worked up when naysayers claim that romance novels are predictable. So what? I can predict that the key parties will find lasting love with one another. This brings me pleasure (Unlike stories about dogs or movies starring Sean Penn, which, I can predict, will always end badly.)

But the quest for love, and the consequences of the hottie coming to town, are always unique journeys, no matter how often I read them. During the holidays, especially, I snuggle in for certain habitual reading rituals and stories which bring me pleasure…

Holiday novels and movies. From Toni Blake’s new classic Holly Lane to the eternal heartthrob that is the “Buffalo Gals” scene of It’s a Wonderful Life, I love reading and watching stories that feed my sense that in the darkest time of the year, people seek and share love.

“Snowed in” stories. I love, love, love stories about couples stuck in close quarters during blizzards. Not only do they learn to rely on each other, but the lovemaking is as hot as the fire burning in the fireplace. Maybe they have to towel each other off and share body heat to stay alive. Maybe the warm whiskey loosens their inhibitions. Maybe they bicker, fight and then make up…excuse me, I need a moment to mop my brow.

These books are often a subset of one of my favorite storylines, the “too much too soon” tale in which strangers or long-lost lovers come together irrationally fast and must learn to develop an out-from-under-the-sheets rapport.

And, of course, you can always hand me a good “secret baby” plot (though I prefer the kid not grow up entirely with a single parent. So “secret pregnancy” works even better.) Once again, “real life” intrudes on the private romance, and the characters must learn to manage and meld both of these.

For me, true love does not and cannot exist in a vacuum. Sooner or later, the snow must melt and the couple must come out of the cabin. Momma Keri needs to see that these two crazy kids can hack it in the dark cold world. I need to believe that when the world throws rocks at my lovers, they’ll shield each other even after the last page closes.

What about you? What stories do you go to ritually, to snuggle up with in the dark of winter? Do you want novelty? Heartwrenching tragedy? The Bobbsey Twins? What?

Everybody Needs a Little…Bourbon?

When we moved to Kentucky a few years ago, I was surprised and delighted to find that Kentucky is the home of the USA’s only native spirit: Bourbon whiskey.

The story of Bourbon is an American romance of born ingenuity, hard-work and seedy, seamy sexiness: Settlers in the backwoods of Kentucky brewed up bourbon for their own use from secret family recipes–and in a few short years, business was booming. Liquor barges full of men paid in product floated down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to stock the bordellos and bars of New Orleans.  Great-Great-Grandpa went from sweating over a still in the woods to a name on the bottle.

Larry Kass, Communications Director of Heaven Hill Distilleries, shows off a bottle of "Eliijah Craig," named after the Baptist minister credited with creating bourbon whiskey.

Today, bourbon is elegant, classy: Willow-thin wealthy women in fabulous hats sip mint juleps made of top-shelf bourbon while watching their horses win the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. And thanks to Kentucky’s Bourbon Women initiative, I’ve gotten to dress up (in real dresses, yo!) and learn the intoxicating stories of Kentucky’s signature spirit. (Because that’s why I joined Bourbon Women. For the education.)

I'm just past Crys (the gorgeous one in green.) See my education face?

Last week, my oldest friend, Crystal of Murphy’s Cabins in Missouri, brought our mothers to their first Bourbon Women event in Louisville, KY at the historic Brown Hotel. We enjoyed a private dinner in the kitchen of Chef Laurent Geroli, who presented Not Your Mama’s Sunday Dinner–a five-course meal for 20 bourbon women.

Chef Laurent Geroli of the The Brown Hotel, Louisville

He gave us the recipes as well as cooking hints and tricks. I’d like to tell you I remember all of those hints and tricks, but while Chef was feeding us, the bar was presenting us with five different cocktails made from Heaven Hill bourbon products.

At first, I worried about which fork to use for my prosciutto-wrapped prawn. By course #3 (and cocktail #3) I was shouting down the table, “Mama, this sure ain’t your Sunday dinner.”

Better than the food and drink, however, was the cameradie. My mother, friends and I seldom take time together just to get out, get away and have fun. I’ll be talking about this event for years and years to come.

Crystal's Mama, Crystal, my Mama and me. Can you tell I've had five bourbon cocktails?

If you’re stuck next to me when I wax rhapsodic, have a drink to ease your pain. Order a Brown Russian–two ounces of coffee-flavored liqueur and 3/4 oz bourbon (and many thanks to @justaddbourbon on twitter for both introducing me to Bourbon Women AND chasing down the drink recipe from the Brown Hotel.)

What about you? Do you give yourself “me-time”? How do you and your girlfriends celebrate each other?

CONTEST TIME: A randomly-chosen commenter on this post will win two souvenir Elijah Craig cocktail glasses complete with autographed STONE KISSED coasters to tuck beneath them. Deadline is Sunday, 11/20/11, midnight!

Win the two glasses (sorry--bourbon not included 🙂

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