Monday, March 29, 2010

More on Maddy's Men: Mark Donnelly and Tag Russell

In Maddy's Men, I explored the fictional male characters Maddy dates before and after Ken's entrance into her life -- all of whom were based on actual people and circumstances. With this follow-up post, I want to touch upon one not previously mentioned, and expand upon one I already covered, Mark Donnelly, since the character merits more than two paragraphs. Ironically, he is also connected to Tag Russell, both in real life and fiction. It's only through flashback however, that readers learn of this association.

Chapter 26 opens with Madeline approaching the Guard Gate at Journey's End, a lovely community of single-family homes in Lake Worth, Florida. Her dear friend Audrey Solomon (based on an actual person, my treasured friend Martha J. Solomon) has arranged a luncheon in Maddy's honor, to celebrate her new work promotion as a Content Manager for an e-marketing firm in downtown Fort Lauderdale (in another post, I will explain how this is a fusion of fact and fiction).

Being in the neighborhood again reminds Madeline of another joyful memory -- that of her 40th Birthday Party, which took place in the Journey's End Clubhouse:

Though initially not quite thrilled about reaching that particular milestone, Maddy perked up when she and Audrey developed the celebration's original theme, incorporating a lifetime of the birthday girl's most cherished things, from the Philadelphia Eagles to Italian wedding cookies. The catered event also included a deejay and personalized decorations, including Madame Alexander dolls, original "books" written by Madeline as a child, and even well-placed packages of Tastykakes.

And yes, the above paragraph is true-to-life; Marti (Audrey) gave me the idea for the party's theme as we sat around the kitchen table over coffee one night at her house. As one creative idea led to another, I kind of got over the significant "number" aspect of the birthday, choosing instead to celebrate all of the people, places and events that had shaped my life up to that point. Besides, a girl can never get tired of hearing people say, "You're how old? You look like you're about 28!

Also true: my collection of Madame Alexander dolls; two journals I'd used to write my first "books" as a nine-year-old, complete with illustrations; Philadelphia Eagles & Phillies memorabilia, Tastykakes, soft pretzels, Italian wedding cookies and photos in Lucite frames everywhere.

More on all of this in another post, including the female friendships of Water Signs. But back to the men.

As she continues through the entrance on her way to Audrey's, Madeline also remembers the recent past, specifically Tag Russell, a man she'd met soon after purchasing her new condo in Boca Bayou. A loan officer at the bank for which she worked at the time, Maddy knew him for nearly a year before ever actually going out with him:

For almost twelve months, she regarded his constant flirting as nothing more than a pleasant workday diversion; after all, Tag never behaved inappropriately, nor did he initiate any gatherings outside the office.

Here's where a significant public event makes a personal impact on Maddy's life. When the horrific events of September 11, 2001 unfolded, she -- like so many others -- was engaged in what she thought would be another typical day at the office. Overcome with emotion, a hysterical Madeline seeks out the comfort of Tag's embrace. In the aftermath of lingering fear and worry about the future -- coupled with an intense desire to have someone special in her life -- she embarks upon an ill-fated romance with the handsome charmer, who in the end breaks her heart:

The relationship's failure had mainly been a function of Tag's inability to move beyond the dissolution of his marriage and an early childhood tragedy -- two events that had rendered him emotionally unavailable. A handsome man with wavy brown hair, blue eyes, a mischievous smile and ready sense of humor, he and Maddy shared an intense chemistry, along with a mutual affection.

...But no amount of concerts, Marlins games, Harley rides or pool-playing sessions at Gatsby's could save this doomed relationship. Whereas Madeline fell in love with the highly successful, hard-working loan officer, the most he could offer was an occasional good time -- on his terms of course. And when his insecurity about being twelve years her senior finally got to him, he ended the dalliance altogether.

This is all very reflective of real life, down to the physical description of the character. There were moments -- albeit fleeting ones -- when this guy would let his true feelings out, which, while indicative of genuine affection for me, were also admonitions to run as far away as I could, since he would only end up hurting me.

I should have listened the first time, but unfortunately an intense physical attraction tends to obscure the underlying, critical facts.This is also where Tag Russell and Mark Donnelly have much in common.

How else to explain why Madeline (like me) even has anything to do with Mark after he stands her up for a SunFest date he himself initiates just the night before? Well that, and being just too damned nice to begin with. But I digress.

That "Hey, I changed my mind about taking you to SunFest" scene in the novel mirrors my real-life experience, happening just around the time the married guy at the pool asks Madeline if she would go out with him if not for the small matter of his lifetime commitment to another woman (sorry to say, also true). At that point in my life, based on my dating adventures both in Pennsylvania and in Florida, I was beginning to think all men were vile creatures -- with the only exceptions being my father, brothers, assorted family members and friends. To some extent, I still feel this way, although thanks to having a solid foundation of faith and engaging in constant spiritual development, I've managed to keep from turning into a bitter man-hater -- something I once feared might happen.

While I could find lots of women (and even men) to validate such a personality transformation based on legitimate grievances, the last thing I would ever do is give anyone else the power to change who I am. Not even a man who has hurt me deeply and in most cases, unnecessarily.

But back to the connection between Tag and Mark. Through Maddy's reflections, readers discover that Tag and Mark had once worked together many years prior, and it is this acquaintance that ironically solves a mystery for her:

...Maddy had briefly reconnected with Mark Donnelly, who at first appeared to be very impressed with her budding banking career and obvious maturation. However, after three wonderful dates wherein they shared meaningful conversation as well as endless, passionate kisses, he disappeared again from her life. No goodbye call or farewell visit -- just an abrupt departure after promising to contact her upon his return from California, site of his "all-boys" motorcycling vacation.

In an interesting twist, Tag had unknowingly referenced Maddy's former flame many months later when the two of them attended that year's SunFest (another irony right out of real life). Turned out, Tag and Mark had worked together in the lending department at First America Bank. And as Tag and Madeline browsed the multitude of artists' tents at the West Palm Beach festival, he told her all about his unexpected run-in at Publix with the newly engaged Mark, who'd happily announced his impending fall wedding. Though she did not disclose the details of her brief romance, Madeline silently pondered if Mark's fiancée had been the real reason for his disappearance the second time around. If so, it was certainly a strange and recurring pattern.

Interesting Side Note: Over a year ago, I met "Mark's" first wife on Facebook via some mutual friends. And after getting to know her, I am still scratching my head over why he'd ever leave such a beautiful, vivacious woman in the first place. I don't think I will ever figure out some men and I have given up trying. Learning the other side of the divorce story and tales of the various other women he's hurt over the years (much more deeply than me) was rather eye-opening, to say the least. But as with "Tag", I do wish him well.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Maddy's Men: A Comparison and Contrast

I've noted in other posts and places the dire cultural consequences we're currently dealing with as a direct result of the so-called sexual revolution and women's liberation of the 1960s. In a two-part column entitled Cyberspace and the Single (Conservative) Girl, which appeared on Parcbench, The Republican Temple and Palin Drone, I explored the ramifications of the "turbulent" decade for traditional women like me, based on a real-life experience with a guy I'd met online last year.

Sadly, for those of us who were raised to actually demand respect from men, believe in the joys of sex within the confines of a marital -- or at the very least -- an exclusive, committed relationship, and appreciate such antiquated courtesies like a man holding open a door, picking up the tab for a meal or offering his seat on a bus, dating in the contemporary world is daunting at best, and depressing at worst.

While the men who engage in bad behavior are by no means unaccountable, their confusion is certainly understandable. Women who claimed to speak for their entire gender -- people like Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda and Betty Freidan -- made it crystal clear through their activism that "girl power" meant having meaningless sex with multiple partners, procuring abortion on demand for any ol' reason (no matter how dubious), diminishing the important role of fathers in the lives of children, condemning all acts of war regardless of the facts, and overall zealously subscribing to the gospel of liberalism.

Never mind that that female pioneers like Susan B. Anthony were staunchly pro-life and pro-family, with a focus on holding men accountable to their crucial roles as husband, father and family provider.

Having been raised in a traditional home with parents who fall somewhere in-between the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers, I am eternally grateful for my upbringing and for my first-hand observation of what it means to have a loving, respectful marriage and household. Unfortunately, it also meant that I was in for a very rude awakening when it was time to participate in the dating rituals of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries.

Without rehashing the Evolution of Water Signs here, I will just note that when the flood of memories initiated an almost out-of-control stream of consciousness that demanded the creation of a novel, I realized just how dramatically different my experience with the real-life Ken had been from just about every other guy I'd ever dated. Therefore, I purposely included many of them as fictional characters, for the purpose of setting up a contrast to the Ken character, and to assist (no matter how painfully) in Madeline's personal growth and spiritual development.

So let's take a look at them in-depth, shall we:

Jake Winston - Jake is modeled after a guy I'd dated after college, my first "long-term" boyfriend. Although in reality, this relationship lasted about a year-and-a-half, in the book I changed that to two years. More than any other non-Ken suitor, Jake is also an embodiment of the novel's theme of forgiveness, and the sole non-Ken suitor with any real redeeming qualities. Like his flesh-and-blood counterpart, he is overly and cruelly critical at times of Madeline's appearance, as well as her family's cherished customs, including getting dressed up for holidays. Thanks to Jake, Maddy's insecurities have been intensified to the point where it's all but impossible for her to trust in Ken's sincerity during their first go-around. But to his great credit, this character (like the real man) eventually undertakes a self-imposed, spiritual housecleaning, prompting him to call Madeline out-of-the-blue to genuinely seek her forgiveness years later. Although there's no desire on her part to reignite that relationship, she truly appreciates and respects his courage in taking such a bold action, and offers her complete absolution.

Gary Snyder - Gary is also inspired by a real-life character I met while conducting outside sales calls for an employment agency in suburban Philadelphia. Like so many I've encountered, he committed the ol' bum's rush, apparently noticing (and liking) me as I gave my best sales pitch to the receptionist at the insurance company whose business I'd been seeking. Although I saw him pass by briefly, I'd hardly given him a second thought -- that is until I received an unexpected delivery of white roses upon my return to the office. Actually, that's how it went down for Maddy in the book; in real life, it was quite a comedy of errors as he'd inadvertently sent the flowers to the wrong woman. However, for both Madeline and me, the rest of the story is the same: after a few good dates where we'd seemed to connect well, we made plans to meet up at the Jersey Shore. But when I showed up at his rental in Ocean City as agreed upon, he couldn't get rid of me fast enough. And that was the extent of my interaction with Gary "white roses" Snyder (and yes, I did change his name for the book).

Jim Russo - Ah Jim, bless his heart, another high-powered businessman I unknowingly attracted during yet another outside sales call when his friendly, gate-keeper receptionist took my card and promised to call if they ever had a need for a temp. And just like me, Maddy follows up with him the next week with a promotional gift. That leads to the flirtatious Jim asking her out, initiating series of lunch-only dates and cutesy faxes to her office but curiously, no after-hours get-togethers. In the book, a suspicious Maddy finally gets to the bottom of it via Jim's receptionist, who informs her that he not only has a serious girlfriend, he's about to get married; in real-life, I never did get a straight answer out of the guy and thus, ran as far away as I could. Real name changed for the novel, although most everything else is true to life, including the upscale lunch at the famous Duling-Kurtz House. And yes, my sister-in-law (Vanessa in the book) was very impressed by his choice of venue, though not so much his behavior.

Mark Donnelly - Next to Jake, Mark is probably the most significant non-Ken suitor. In a slight departure from real life, this character is the very first guy Maddy dates in South Florida (in real life, I'd gone out with a quite a few guys, though nothing serious, before meeting him) -- right around the time Ken breaks her heart by announcing his engagement to Erin. Physically, Mark shares many of Ken's characteristics: six-foot, masculine build; blue eyes; sandy blond hair; and an irresistible smile. These similarities prompt her to project many of her true love's qualities onto him. Like Ken, he's also quite charming and initially, very persistent in his pursuit. And just as it went down with the others, Maddy is tending to her own affairs, participating in a business networking function where she unknowingly catches Mark's wandering eye. True to reality, when he calls her at the office to ask her out a few days later, she cannot for the life of her remember even meeting him, in spite of the fact she'd written him a follow-up note.

Like the others, Mark also comes on strong, then abruptly disappears, although the circumstances are a bit more complicated. In contrast to the other suitors, he's the first divorced man with children that Madeline dates, causing a great deal of sexual tension, thanks to the intense, mutual attraction they share. And while it's safe to say he's quite curious about Madeline's moral virtue, unlike Ken it's not something he respects or is willing to deal with for any extended amount of time. This is after all, South Florida, and if Maddy thought other women were way ahead of her up north, it was about one-hundred-thousand times worse in paradise -- where pretty girls are not only a dime-a-dozen, they're more than willing to put out for a successful guy with the means to afford fancy cars, boats and designer clothes.

Mark's penchant for breaking engagements and loving-and-leaving-'em is regrettably an accurate reflection of the actual person. And although this character's time in Maddy's life is short, it is pivotal in her character development, serving as another descriptive example of the conflict between normal, human desire and ingrained morality -- but this time in a scenario lacking in any genuine feeling on the guy's part. To Mark, Maddy is just another attractive girl in a sea of hotties. In fact, their 10-year age difference, coupled with Madeline's innocence and insecurities, leads him to view her as a "babe in the woods", not a serious contender for a real relationship. Yes, his name has been changed. And yes, Chapter 23 is -- well -- an embarrassing, albeit instructive, experience straight out of real life. Enough said.

Well, this post has gone on a bit longer than intended and I still haven't discussed the characters of Ray Smith and Tag Russell. To be continued.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Panic and Anxiety Disorder in Water Signs

Without a doubt, the most difficult part of the Water Signs writing process was incorporating my real-life bout with panic and anxiety disorder into Madeline's experiences as my fictional counterpart. While overall, this book literally flew out of my imagination and memory and onto my computer screen -- seemingly with a life of its own -- choosing to include the darkest period of my life into the story presented its own unique set of challenges.

No, I never faced the dreaded "writer's block" at any point along the way, but I did have to overcome some serious resistance to pulling out and perusing some very old journals chronicling that entire, frightening phase. As strange as it may seem, while I was at my lowest point in the battle, I'd journal every day without fail -- but I would never go back and read the previous day's submission. I'd just turn to a fresh page and start writing. And when I'd fill up a book, I'd put it away with all of the others, never to be opened again. Or so I believed.

It's kind of hard to create a compelling narrative without the use of proper description, which mandated pulling out all of those handwritten journals and figuring out which elements to include in the book. But even though by that point I'd been free and clear of panic and anxiety disorder for well over a decade, I encountered tremendous internal resistance. For anyone who's already read the book and remembers this portion of the story, it's probably easy to understand why.

Eventually I worked up the courage to do it, but not before playing an emotional game with myself whereby I actually skipped ahead and literally wrote the happy ending -- which was a bit tricky from an editing standpoint when I then had to go back and fill in several earlier chapters. I suppose my unorthodox method worked because every time I'd read a particularly heart-wrenching entry in my journal, I'd remind myself of two things 1.) No matter how horrific it got, it was in the past and it could no longer hurt me; and 2.) I was working my way up to a magnificent conclusion, which in order to retain an air of unbridled triumph and victory, had to be preceded by a tough, seemingly hopeless struggle, a "dark night of the soul" kind of thing.

Still, reading those journals and being hit with the stark reality of just how bad things were at one point in my life was jarring, to say the least.

One thing I've learned from the countless readers who've come forward to thank me for writing about panic disorder in the book, and to share their own battles with this emotional menace is that it seems to be an intensely personal experience. That while there are common symptoms -- racing heart, pounding head, feeling of wanting to jump out of your skin -- others are not shared by all afflicted.

In my case, one of the strangest and scariest was described in Water Signs like this:

But most distressing was a new and chilling sensation she could only describe to her father as a 'tightening of my spine'. During these frequent and unpredictable moments, her legs and arms would suddenly feel limp and lifeless, though still fully functional. This was preceded by a palpable sensation at the base of her neck, whereby she'd swear some invisible "puppet master" was literally pulling her strings and forcing her into submission. All of these symptoms were now accompanied by vivid nightmares that typically featured disturbing images -- from snake-pits and fire-breathing dragons to evil men in masks wielding AK-47s.

It might be of passing interest to note that at the time (1996), I was not really up to speed on radical Islamic terror, though I certainly knew about the unrest in the Middle East and remembered significant events like the Iranian Hostage Crisis. And although I didn't include this in the book, somewhere around that time I had an awful nightmare in which my oldest brother Mark and I were captured by terrorists, who forced me to watch while they murdered him. Like I said, chilling stuff.

Another point of interest in my experience with panic and anxiety disorder is that although most people associate it with acute, intense attacks, they were typically rare for me. Did I have full-blown anxiety attacks? Absolutely. But unlike many others, mine occurred maybe about once a year throughout the entire five-year duration. But when they did happen, they came on with a vengeance as described in Chapter 18:

But soon after they'd arrived, the pulsating rhythms and flashing strobe lights suddenly changed from energizing dance accoutrements to instruments of torture. In reaction to these typical club stimuli, Maddy's heart began to race out of control, vying for first place with her head, which pounded ferociously. These sensations were accompanied by that frightening fight-or-flight response, compelling her to run as far and as fast as she could to some unknown destination. On this particular evening, Maddy followed her impulses back to the parking lot, oblivious to the freezing temperatures.

Her dance partner had trailed right behind and insisted on taking her to Shore Memorial, where a nurse attached a clip to her finger and proclaimed that Maddy was getting plenty of oxygen, despite her protests to the contrary. And though she saw the blinking green indicators that confirmed this sound medical opinion, she remained unconvinced. That belief only intensified with the nurse's subsequent announcement that the patient was suffering from the flu -- perfectly understandable given the recent outbreak.

There's nothing quite so frustratingly embarrassing as trying to convince a medical professional that --while it might not be of physical origin -- something is seriously wrong with you. In this particular instance, as with most others, I usually nodded right along with them, temporarily accepting the fact that no one ever would understand exactly what it was I was grappling with. For a while, it just seemed simpler and easier to concede.

But as I said, hyperventilating attacks were not a common occurrence for me, thank God. However, the symptoms I dealt with on a daily basis were not exactly fun either:

But even though the acute onset of symptoms seemed to have subsided, a persistent general feeling of uneasiness had taken over, accompanied by relentless headaches, stomach pains and occasional bouts with alternating sweats and chills. All of this continued apace without regard for the fact that she'd dutifully gone back on the Pill at her doctor's insistence, thus experiencing regular, if false, periods.

While hormones no doubt did play a part in this unwanted drama -- exacerbated by the Pill, which at the time was the apparent cure-all for everything -- ultimately panic and anxiety disorder is an emotional problem, not a mental or physical one (although the emotions adversely affect the physical body). Years later, Arbonne's natural progesterone cream solved every problem I ever had of the female variety; if only I'd discovered it sooner. Better late than never, though, and I am thankful for happening upon such a simple solution by the time I hit my early 30s.

As for the panic phase of my life, encountering the "remote viewer" I discussed in a previous post was an absolute Godsend. But just as the problem affects everyone differently, its solution may also be unique to each sufferer. That's why my advice is to never give up, to keep seeking out potential solutions and trying everything that has the potential to help you without actually hurting you. Far be it from me to encourage anyone to see a psychic if that conflicts with their religious beliefs; I can only honestly report how my real-life story went down. I long ago made peace with the fact that my cure came from an unlikely source, one I will never believe came from a place of evil.

Perhaps when I get to the end of my life, I'll find out differently (I pray this is not the case). For now, all I can say is that thanks to a psychic, I said good riddance to panic and anxiety disorder forever.

Monday, March 15, 2010

God and Spirituality in Water Signs, Part Two

In Part One, I discussed the prevalence of faith, God and spirituality in Water Signs, and the important role they play in the development of the plot and characters. Coming from a traditional home and raised in the Catholic Church, it never occurred to me that everyday activities -- like reading my daily horoscope with my mom every morning before going to school, and later, starting each day with a passage from the Daily Word magazine -- could be perceived by many as "anti-Christian, or anti-God".

Neither has ever changed the fundamental beliefs with which I was raised. Nor did the supernatural experience I had with the "remote viewing" psychic who turned out to be the only one who could rid me of the menacing panic and anxiety disorder that plagued me for many years.

When choosing to make some of my own trials and tribulations public knowledge via the character of Madeline Rose, I also strove to uphold traditional faith. In the Prologue, readers discover that the two main characters are taking marriage vows at St. Ambrose Catholic Church in Deerfield Beach, FL and throughout the book, attending weekly mass is an integral part of Maddy's life. In fact, much of her role as a catalyst for Ken involves helping him find his way back to their shared religious faith, although Maddy accomplishes it strictly through example:

"Hey Maddy?"


"What time is mass tonight at St. Augustine, do you know?"

"Um, I am pretty sure it is still 6 p.m. on Saturday. Don't think they've gone back to winter hours yet. Why?"

"Because I'd like to go with you before we have dinner."

"Really?" Maddy was happily surprised by his request. Although she was a regular churchgoer, it had never been her style to force anyone else to adopt her habits; as long as a man respected her right to attend mass, she was fine with him staying home. Much more important to Maddy was the way in which he conducted his life. After all, Jake knelt in a pew every Sunday, and it hadn't prevented him from mistreating her.

"Sure," he said softly. "You inspire me, Madeline Rose. I want to do everything the right way."

And of course, at this phase of the book, "the right way" also entails waiting until marriage before consummating their relationship, just like God intended -- something Ken is more than willing to do, having realized from the start that Madeline is no ordinary woman. But such high ideals also cause complications in the relationship, not simply due to normal, raging hormones, but also to each one's nagging insecurities.

While Ken is thrilled by the prospect of someday being Maddy's "first", he fears the fact that he's been with other women somehow diminishes her opinion of him. In Chapter 6, during an intimate moment, he flat-out asks if she's bothered by his past:

"Does it bother you that I've been with a woman before?"

"Kenny, no," she sighed. "No...I don't judge you for that at all. I mean, it's completely normal. It's just that...well...I wish we were on the same level playing field in that regard, that's all. I know it's probably too much to hope for with any guy, but it kind of makes me feel bad, like I'm not being fair to you."

"Shh," he replied softly. "Madeline Rose, I am here with you because I wanna be. There's no one else like you out there. And if I have to wait to marry you before I can be with you, then that is exactly what I'm gonna do."

And while Catholic faith and family upbringing are motivating factors, there's also a much deeper psychological reason for Madeline's reticence -- the devastating duo of fear and insecurity. But try as she might, she remains frustratingly unable to express her true feelings to Ken who, as a result, spends a great deal of the book hurt and confused by her actions.

For Maddy, it went far beyond the "your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit" teachings of the Catholic Church, repeated so often throughout her schooling she could almost hear them in her sleep. She'd long ago accepted the validity of these words; indeed, she took them to heart and wanted nothing more than to give herself to her husband -- whoever he might turn out to be -- for the very first time on their wedding night. It was simply that, as she grew older, she realized how few people, good people, had practically applied the same beliefs.

In Part Two, as Maddy is adjusting to life in South Florida, coping with the news of Ken's engagement to another woman, and running into some pretty dishonorable men (I will devote another post to the exploration of the minor male characters of the book, deliberately created as a contrast to Ken), her faith in God is the one constant in her life, aside from the support of family and close friends.

Moving through these difficulties compels her to develop a deeper understanding and relationship with her Creator, an effort that is eventually assisted by Ann Claire and Unity Church. However, Madeline never once renounces the tenets of the faith within which she was raised, perceiving these new insights simply as methods for breathing life into her belief system. As a result, she's a stronger, more emotionally mature and spiritually advanced woman by the time she and Ken reunite toward the end of the novel.

For his part, Ken has also done quite a bit of maturing by the end -- mainly due to the responsibilities of fatherhood, the pressing demands of a successful career, and the struggle to save a marriage which, in the end, fails in spite of his best efforts. Still, the process of honoring his commitments makes him a better man. And it is not until his divorce is final that he and Madeline even come back into each other's lives -- a reunion that is guided along by the advice of a psychic.

To emphasize the characters' closeness with their respective mothers and to bring their spirituality full-circle, I purposely created Chapter 31 to center around a Mother's Day celebration at the home of Carl and Paula Lockheart, Ken's parents. He and Maddy have just spent a platonic night together in Madeline's home, after having spent an entire day rediscovering each other and clearing up the misunderstandings from the past. I will delve more into the specifics of this mutual emotional release in another post, but it is no coincidence that their forgiveness of each other's previous transgressions and reaffirmation of their love for each other is confirmed through their attendance at mass the next day:

"Standing in the pew with him again, reciting familiar prayers and singing timeless church hymns had been such a powerfully emotional experience -- and yet another example of having come "full-circle". There were several moments during the service when she found herself dabbing at her eyes with a tissue, thoroughly overwhelmed in the best sense of the word. It was during those times that Ken would look over and smile, or squeeze her hand reassuringly."

This divine experience is followed by Madeline finally meeting Ken's parents after sixteen long years -- a delightful scene that unfolds over dinner and karaoke at the elder Lockhearts' Royal Oak Hills home, where among other welcome news, Maddy learns that Carl and Ken have also reconciled their past differences and now share a close father-son relationship. This scene also marks the first time she has sung in front of audience in quite some time, another example of coming full-circle.

Both characters also acknowledge the hand of God not just in their much-desired reunion, but along the broken road that ultimately led them back to each other.

Coming Soon: more fact versus fiction, thoughts on the character of Erin and a look at some of the other men Maddy dates.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

God and Spirituality in Water Signs

As in real life, faith and belief in God and spiritual growth play a major role in Water Signs, particularly in the character development of the book's heroine, Madeline. Like me, she was brought up in a traditional, Catholic home where the family attended weekly mass together, celebrated sacramental milestones (First Holy Communion, Confirmation, etc) and sent their children to parochial school. One of the things for which I am most grateful to this very day is the solid foundation of faith my parents gave me -- along with clear boundaries of discipline. While I never thought of them as being overly strict or too lenient, my guess is that by today's standards, most kids would view them as "out of touch".

Given the prevalence of current cultural problems like drug and alcohol abuse, sexually transmitted diseases and generally out-of-control, irresponsible behavior, I consider myself very fortunate indeed to have grown up with parents who cared enough to set and enforce the rules. This responsibility mainly fell onto my mom, since my dad's work as a surgeon often kept him out of the house during the after-school hours of dinner, homework and play time. Being a strong, independent and determined woman, mom was never one to scold, "Just wait until your father gets home!" when one of us was in need of severe reprimanding. Whenever there was a need for punishment (which, in truth, was rare as we were all pretty good kids most of the time), she had no qualms dispensing it. For me, one warning look from my mother was typically enough to change my behavior. I knew she meant business.

But I also knew her as not only disciplinarian, but as ever-willing helper with school-work, homeroom mother, Home & School Association President, confidante and comforter. Perhaps most importantly, she was also my first spiritual guide who taught me how to make the Sign of the Cross and recite prayers like the Our Father. And the values imparted in the home were reinforced through 18 years of Catholic schooling -- from Montessori to university.

However, our traditional beliefs never stopped us from doing something that I now know many Christians consider the work of the Devil -- reading a daily horoscope. Along with the crossword puzzle, my mother and I used to take great delight in checking out that day's forecast for Aries and Pisces, our respective signs. Never did either of us think of it as anything more than fun entertainment, kind of like a thought for the day. And in no way did it change our beliefs about God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit; it was simply an enjoyable activity that became part of our morning routine.

In the novel, the same is true for Madeline. Thus, when she unexpectedly makes Ken's acquaintance at the Somers Point dance club in Chapter One, she takes no offense when he expresses his delight upon discovering that they are both Pisces. He's further intrigued to learn that not only do they share the same sign, but also the same exact birthday, down to the year. As an author, I gave my two main characters the same date of birth to enhance the "star-crossed", "soul-mate" aspect of the novel, as if to suggest that God purposely brought these two souls into the world simultaneously so that they could experience life in a physical body and aid in each other's spiritual growth while on Earth. Once they'd finally met each other for seemingly the first time (at least at the physical level), this purpose could be fulfilled. In real-life, "Ken" and I are both Pisces born in the same year, but about two weeks apart.

The Pisces symbol also reflects real life significance in terms of Madeline's grandmother. In a previous post, I revealed that March 7 -- the shared birthday of Ken and Madeline -- was actually my maternal grandmother's birthday. I'd enjoyed an especially close bond with her, having been born several months after my grandfather's death and thus provided her a much-needed, joyful distraction from bereavement and sorrow. According to my mom, it was almost as if I were her baby, given the way she constantly doted over me. Although she died quite traumatically a month before I turned seven, my remembrances of her are crystal-clear, thanks to the close bond we'd shared, and the many wonderful hours we'd spent together. "Nanny" epitomized everything a grandmother should be: loving, warm, caring and comforting. A stickler for looking her best, she always had her hair done, and wore nice dresses with matching pearl necklaces and earrings. Her best accessories, however, were her ever-present smile and joyful disposition.

Which brings me to perhaps the most controversial element of the book, which is also an event straight out of real life. While still battling panic and anxiety disorder -- in spite of embracing just about every known remedy from prayer and meditation to Yoga and exercise -- I bumped into a very interesting woman at a monthly business/networking meeting. Trained in what is known in military circles as "remote viewing", she was in reality what most civilians call a psychic -- and many Christians a "Handmaiden of the Devil", although upon first sight, she looked like just another no-nonsense businesswoman.

When Maddy meets Ann Claire in the novel, it's an accurate retelling of my own experience. Thus, when Ann accurately calls out Maddy's guilt for "leaving behind a middle brother who is handicapped" (my brother Ralph who is in-between oldest son, Mark, and youngest son, Paul), and notes that she is still "in mourning" for a grandmother who'd passed away over 20 years prior, it's an example of fact that has only been fictionalized marginally. I might have changed the names and altered the descriptions a bit, but the basic events are 100% true, including the fact that Maddy awakes one morning -- six months after a private reading with Ann -- to discover that for the first time in years, her head is clear, her stomach is calm and that the black cloud that seemed to relentlessly hang over her head has completely dissipated:

And exactly six months later, Maddy awoke with a clear head, a calm stomach and an overall feeling of excellent health for the first time in nearly eight years. It was as if a black cloud had finally been lifted, leaving a clear, blue sky and a brilliant rainbow in its place. Overcome with sheer gratitude, joy and relief, Madeline called Ann to share the wonderful news, exclaiming,

"Ann, thank God I ran into you that night! I don't know what I would have done if I hadn't -- I was at my wits' end!"

"Madeline," she replied dryly, "You manifested me into your life, don't you know that? God led you to me, based on your own intentions."

As was true for me at the time, Madeline doesn't quite grasp the meaning of that statement until much later, when she takes a course at Unity Church in Delray Beach. She'd been reading Daily Word faithfully for years, having been gifted a subscription by her mother, and had even called their toll-free prayer line on many occasions, without really knowing anything more about the organization. That would change upon meeting the local minister and taking a few classes.

More thoughts on God and spirituality in my next post.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Is Professionalism Passe in Cyberspace?

I interrupt my regularly scheduled book blogging to opine on a related matter that has been bugging me for quite some time -- namely, the lack of professionalism in cyberspace. Ok, I could go on and on about the lack of it in real life too, but for the purposes of this post, let me stick to upholding the internet as an egregious example of what can happen when adults behave like children.

After having viewed some pretty idiotic, infantile twitter updates and blog posts from allegedly professional, busy and successful members of the business community, I've concluded that it doesn't seem to matter how educated, knowledgeable or hard-working some people are; in their minds technology, unlike real life, simply does not demand a certain set of standards.

For example, why is it that we'd never purposely spell a word incorrectly in a business correspondence, personal letter or even an email, yet some of us think it's cute (or worse, cool, as if middle-aged men should still be concerned with such things) to do so in a 140-word character status? I am not quibbling with the necessary use of abbreviations when limited to such a low word-count -- I am talking about deliberately misspelling common words.

Case in point: A guy whom I know for a fact to be a full-grown adult, constantly uses werkin instead of working to describe what he's doing at that specific point in time.

Perhaps he's attempting to be humorous; perhaps he's going through a mid-life crisis, but whatever the case, it's an unappealing use of language. Why not abbreviate as workin if hard-pressed for characters, instead of presenting yourself as an immature surfer dude pretending to be a formidable businessman? Maybe it's the English Major in me, but in an age when we're already dealing with the consequences of a dumbed-down population, the least intelligent people can do is set a good example.

Which leads me to another quibble with another supposed grown-up, a woman who describes herself as an advertising professional and award-winning graphic designer. While I understand the valid point she's attempting to make when discussing the importance of a logo for branding purposes, somehow titling a post "Don't Screw with the Logo" seems to negate her purpose and detract from her character. Why not something along the lines of "Don't Mess with the Logo"? It makes the same point without being crude and insulting.

But judging from the lengthy tirade she launches against a competitor in the body of her post, perhaps that was her intention. While the author of the blog probably believes otherwise (and I do credit her for not actually naming the competition), she comes across as petty and petulant -- hardly someone with which any reputable organization would want to do business. There's a fine line between promoting one's own talent and skill, and presenting oneself as an entitled recipient of clients, based on a subjective opinion. Thus, the legitimacy of her premise is lost amid the snarky tone of her piece.

Or is it just me?

I had a discussion with another adult professional, a friend for over 15 years, who told me about the use of the word "dude" in a marketing email she'd received. Since the product had been aimed at both a male and female demographic, she took issue with being addressed with a term typically reserved for males. When I questioned the credibility of "dude" for marketing purposes even for males over a certain age, she felt it was still appropriate, that her only problem with it was the gender factor. I respectfully disagree, believing that "dude" is a juvenile title best reserved for kids under the age of eighteen. It's also a symptom of the larger cultural problem of an over-extended adolescence. No wonder style trumped substance in the 2008 presidential election!

Other inane twitter updates I've seen include such gems as "getting ready to strangle mom in law" (wonder how that went over with the wife?), descriptions of the number of times an owner's dog did his business during a walk and the urgent need for holding a beer in one hand while grilling with the other. Ok, the latter two are lame attempts at humor, but really, the mother-in-law comment? Very bad taste, no matter how justified (if at all) the author might be.

And in an especially egregious status update given the state of the economy, a small business owner with pressing deadlines laments about being summoned for jury duty when so many others are unemployed, implying that those apparently lucky (in her eyes), jobless souls should be the ones inconvenienced by civic responsibility, not important people like her. Pardon me, but if you're an overworked entrepreneur during a difficult recession with over 10% unemployment, I'd say a little gratitude -- not to mention, tact -- is in order. Yes, jury duty can be a detriment to the bottom line, but creating a status update bemoaning a minor obstacle while simultaneously taking potshots at others in retaliation is just plain rude and insensitive.

As is the case with real life, there are times when silence -- or in the case of modern technology -- a silent keyboard, is golden.

Or is professionalism passe in the world of social media?

Monday, March 8, 2010

Creating Ken, Part Two

The process of transforming a real person -- in this case, a former romantic interest -- into a heroic, fictional character was quite interesting, to say the least. As I noted in Creating Ken, Part One, memory can be a tricky mechanism. At first, when the floodgates had unexpectedly burst open in my mind, overwhelming me with thoughts of the real guy and what had taken place sixteen years earlier, the way he'd treated me, the things he'd said, the way he'd looked, etc. all I could think about were the good times, and all I could do was cry over what might have been.

I remembered our unusual meeting at the club, his initial attraction to my statuesque girlfriend and the means by which we ended up spending the night dancing and laughing until the 2 a.m. closing time. I cracked up reminiscing about going around the traffic circle to The Point Diner with him afterwards as a compromise, since I'd rebuffed several offers to go back his place for coffee (I didn't write this dialogue in the scene in the novel, but I was apologetic, explaining that although he didn't look dangerous, I couldn't take a chance. He just sort of made a funny face in reply, prompting more laughter).

On and on these wonderful mental recreations went, moving into our first real kiss at the top of the Taj Mahal; a weekend spent going to a dinner theater on Saturday evening, followed by an Eagles game on Sunday; hanging out at his place looking through photo albums from his time in the US Navy; and of course, fighting the internal battle between physical attraction and fear, desire and morality.

And just like Madeline, I simply could not express in words what I was feeling. Thus, the occasions when I'd make him drive me back across the 9th Street Bridge from his bachelor townhouse in Somers Point to my family's vacation home in Ocean City, where a houseful of people provided the comfort of knowing there would be no danger of caving in to temptation.

Then came the painful stuff: my mom's uncharacteristic meddling in the relationship simply because the guy had not yet completed his undergraduate degree (to be discussed in a future post) which led me to write a Dear John letter in spite of the facts that I 1) wanted to continue the relationship; and 2) had the support of everyone else in my family.

Ken, after all, had a wonderful sense of humor, an infectious love of life, a quick-wit and obvious intelligence. Moreover, he was cute, romantic, manly and apparently enamored of me. In short, since he was the polar opposite of the jerk who'd dumped me over the phone a few months' prior, I didn't quite know how to handle his penchant for regularly telling me I was beautiful, and complimenting me on everything from the way I was dressed to the way I spoke in enthusiastic energy bursts (especially when the topic centered around the Eagles/NFL football and politics).

Then came anger. Anger at myself. Anger that, in spite of years of dating, I'd not yet found, nor married anyone who'd demonstrated the same sort of affection and respect.

Anger at him for also being human and for doing some pretty darned hurtful and stupid things, like picking a fight with me one summer evening when I casually stated over the phone that I didn't "care" what time he got off from work -- that I would meet him whenever he was done for our date. What I'd meant was that I understood and did not hold against him the fact that he had to work a late shift, and although I perhaps could have stated it better, he did react immaturely. In the end, we made up at the same club where we'd originally met each other. And unlike the book, "Ken" and I danced to Eric Clapton's Wonderful Tonight that evening, whereas Madeline and Ken partake in a "dance" of a different sort while this song plays in the background in Chapter 34.

And -- lest I forget -- anger at him for standing me up for a ski date without so much as the courtesy of a phone call (to this day, I have no idea what really happened, but suspect he was already either living in Florida, or in the process of moving south); calling me out of the blue six months later to announce his relocation to The Sunshine State; and withholding the minor detail that his so-called "platonic female roommate" was actually his fiancée (not even coming clean after I'd finally declared my intention to make the move to Florida myself).

Was this payback for hurting him?

I'll admit, I folded to unfairly imposed pressure, which led me to cancel out on attending both a family wedding and a work party as his date, then subsequently break up with him (before we got back together in a sense, a month or so later). So it's fair to say that we each dished it out as much as we took it. Still, it hit me like a ton of bricks -- notwithstanding women's intuition -- the day he showed up at my apartment and confirmed what I already knew in my heart to be true.

This particular portion of the memory reel was akin to watching a tragic movie in which -- no matter how hard you might wish for a different ending -- the hero succumbs to his illness, or dies valiantly in a dangerous rescue effort on the battlefield. Shedding my selective, 14+ year-old, self-imposed amnesia was not only incredibly painful and ultimately fruitless on a personal relationship level, it was also quite healing and inevitably useful in a professional sense, as it led to the creation of Water Signs. As I've said, writing is therapy. And when people actually like what you've written, it's also unbelievably fulfilling.

While reliving the good, bad and the ugly, I realized that "Ken", like all people, had his faults. He was not above pettiness, nor was he immune to the foibles of human nature. When his heart and ego were bruised, he responded by bruising back in kind. I doubt he ever expected me to work up the courage to uproot my life "up north" and relocate to a tropical paradise where my only known contacts aside from him were former schoolmates of my parents I'd never even met, but who nonetheless opened the doors of their home to me until I could secure my own living arrangements.

I can only imagine what must've gone through his mind as another woman's betrothed, knowing that a former romantic interest would now be living in the vicinity, blissfully unaware of the truth. This is yet another example of something I had to completely fabricate in the novel -- thus fictional Ken embarks on a lot of soul-searching in the wake of Maddy's unsettling news, prompting him to meet his mother for a heart-to-heart at the Deerfield Beach Fishing Pier, during which he expresses his "torn between two lovers" dilemma.

Was this the case in real life? Did "Ken" experience an emotional tug-of-war, featuring conflicting feelings for two distinct women, or was it simply guilt for withholding important information from me? Who knows for sure, although in another entry I will share some real-life events and conversations that transpired as a parallel to the novel's manifestation. Suffice it to say, there are some occurrences in life about which we don't always receive clear, genuine answers, and that is certainly true to some degree in this instance. The best you (I) can (could) do is (was) learn from the experience and draw from it whatever is (was) helpful, uplifting and positive.

For me, that was creating an amazing network of friends and contacts in my adopted state, and writing my first novel.

More to come in another post.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Creating Ken, Part One

Although most of my Water Signs characters are inspired by and/or based upon real people I've known or met in my lifetime, at some point during the writing process, they took on rich, full identities that extended far and beyond their initial conceptions. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of my two protagonists, Ken (based on a man I met in my 20s at the Jersey Shore) and Madeline (based on me, and named for my grandmother and mother).

For the purposes of this particular entry, I want to focus on Ken as an example of how to incorporate some of the qualities, mannerisms and attributes of a real person into a fictional counterpart. To minimize confusion while simultaneously honoring copyright laws, I will use "Ken" when referring to the flesh-and-blood man, and Ken when referring to the character that turns Maddy's world upside-down in the novel.

Briefly, I met "Ken" when I was a young, somewhat naive woman of 25 (I know for some the "naive" part might be hard to fathom given the age, but I assure you, dear readers, it is the truth). Although I come from a loving, supportive and at times, rambunctious family that encouraged me to go for my dreams and believe in myself, I possessed stubborn, lingering insecurities over being "too fat", "not good enough" and even "undesirable", thanks to the normal slings and arrows of childhood and adolescence. Children and teenagers can be very unforgiving of things like an extra few pounds, especially teenage high school boys. Being a sensitive Pisces sort didn't help either, as I tended to internalize unpleasantness to the point where I would completely overlook reality.

Therefore, even after losing weight and becoming an attractive twenty-something, I still clung to an old, worn-out image of myself that no amount of positive feedback on any of my attributes could break. For example, I've been blessed with great skin, mostly due to the luck of the gene pool. But no matter how many times someone would genuinely compliment me on it, it was hard to absorb the truth in what they were articulating; in my mind, paying a compliment -- sincere as it might be -- was simply something people did to be nice. This tendency only got worse when my first boyfriend, immortalized in the book as "Jake Winston", continually criticized me for everything from my hairstyle to the way I looked in a bathing suit.

Needless to say, outside of my dad, brothers, other relatives and a few close family friends, I regarded men suspiciously. They seemed to be people who inflicted a lot of emotional pain, interested in only one thing (for which you had to have the "perfect" face and body to qualify). The summer I met "Ken", I'd just endured a pretty traumatic break-up with "Jake" and was still reeling from the hurtful things he'd said and done, not to mention the cowardly way in which he'd ended our relationship over the phone.

"Ken" -- who was so full of life and energy -- completely blew me away. The night we unexpectedly ended up together at a dance club in Somers Point (yes, Chapter One is pretty faithful to reality) after my girlfriend "Carmen" (whose character is written exactly as I remember her) trotted off with another female friend and their two Iranian paramours, I amazed myself with my own words and actions -- not the least of which was announcing my intention to hang out with "Ken", rather than go home at 10 p.m. (the thought of being alone in a crowded dance club was tantamount to torture).

After all, he'd bought a long-stemmed rose initially for my exotic friend, not me, when we were shaking our booties on the dance floor to some high-energy tunes. I remember laughing with her as we moved to the beat, then -- as if out of nowhere -- seeing this hand in front of her, bearing the delicate red flower with the red devil attached to its stem. I visually traced the path from stem, to bloom to arm, until I finally noticed a tall, muscular, blond guy with a great smile nodding at her. She accepted the gesture, and as they began to dance, I headed back to our cocktail table, half-laughing to myself (knowing her date for the evening was set to arrive any moment), half-annoyed (she already had a date; why couldn't some cute guy buy me a rose for change?).

So in the parking lot moments later, in the wake of his clearly expressed irritation at "Carmen" (if you already had a date, you damn well should have told me!), it was as if someone else spoke through me when I suddenly 1) complimented him for bringing along an extra shirt, which we'd all just witnessed him change into; and 2) announced in no uncertain terms that I would not be a "fifth wheel", but would instead "stay here and hang out with Ken" for the night. It's a testament to my pathetic sense of self-worth at the time that I immediately followed that by asking if it was alright with him, and then breathed a huge sigh of relief when he agreed to the arrangement.

But from that point on, "Ken" was a charming, attentive companion, once I demanded (in a another surprising move) that either he stop complaining about my friend or I was "outta here"! And when he reacted with amusement, instead of annoyance, it intrigued me. In the instant he took my hand and playfully announced, "Then let's dance!" I knew the rest of the night would be memorable. I didn't bank on ever seeing him again, mistrusting his obvious interest in me, thanks mainly to the baggage I was still carrying around. And yet, true to his promise, he showed up at the beach the very next day, much to my amazement and my family's entertainment (Chapter Two humorously recounts the event in vivid detail).

So how does Ken differ from "Ken" and vice-versa?

In the beginning at least, "Ken" like his alter-ego, was incredibly complimentary, affectionate and respectful. He was also the first (and so far, only) guy to marvel at the small size of my hands. When we'd socialized together that night at the club, I remember him picking up one of my hands and kissing it, apparently fascinated. He'd often tell me how beautiful I was, and there were many occasions when I'd catch him staring at me (which of course, made me nervous since I still didn't see myself that way).

Both men are Pisces, although I changed the birthdays, giving characters Ken and Madeline a shared birthday of March 7, in honor of my late grandmother's birthday. My real birthday is March 14, but I thought it would be fun to add to the "star-crossed" appeal of the love story by bringing my characters into the world on the exact day, month and year. Thus, "Ken" and Daria are both Pisces, albeit about two-weeks or so apart, whereas Ken and Madeline not only share the same Zodiac, but also the same time of arrival on the earthly plane of existence.

Other similarities between "Ken" and Ken: US Navy service, working-class upbringing, Catholic schooling, close relationship with mom, difficult relationship with dad, desire for a better life, trailblazers in their families, passionate, patriotic, well-groomed, athletic, good dancers, fun-loving, smart, handsome, insecure at times, sensitive to a fault on occasion, hard-working, ambitious, strong, family-oriented and in possession of an ingrained sense of duty, honor and responsibility.

Both men hurt Madeline (and me) deeply, purposely and unintentionally, depending upon the circumstance. Both men confessed to "not wanting to live in sin anymore" as at least one motivation for marriage, and admitted (with obvious resignation) to "turning into my father after all". Both wanted to have their cake and eat it, too in terms of retaining a friendship with Maddy/me after withholding the truth about their commitment to another woman.

Perhaps due to the fact that I am working on a sequel, the differences between fact and fiction have become more pronounced. As Ken develops and expands as a character in Sea To Shining Sea, he gets further and further away from his initial inspiration -- a process that began somewhere in the middle of Water Signs. Quite possibly, this occurred somewhere around Chapter 30 or so, when the book started to dramatically transform from a fusion of fact and fiction, into purely fictional territory.

I'll discuss this in greater detail in the next post.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Fact into Fiction: Part Five

Reconciliation between Water Signs' two main characters, Madeline Rose and Kenneth Lockheart

As mentioned previously, when the story unfolds in 1992, the character of Madeline Rose is still somewhat naive and insecure, in spite of having grown into an attractive young woman of 25. She's just endured an incredibly painful breakup with her first boyfriend, and is reeling from the ramifications, in spite of the realization it was all for the best. Indeed, as the story progresses, readers learn via flashbacks and conversations among characters that Jake Winston's abrupt exit from Madeline's life -- while clumsy and cruel -- is also a tremendous relief to those who love her.

Unfortunately, having occurred on the heels of a difficult adolescence wherein dates were as scarce as 80-degree days in the middle of January in Pennsylvania, it wreaks havoc with her ability to see herself as a vital, attractive and smart young woman who is worthy of the good things in life.

When a twist of fate leads to a shared late-summer evening at a Somers Point, New Jersey nightclub with a fun-loving, intelligent and handsome former US Navy sailor -- who also happens to be her exact same age -- it never occurs to Madeline that the meeting will progress beyond a few laughs and couple of dances. Ken's impressive self-sufficiency and life experience are simultaneously a source of pride and conflict. On one hand, she's genuinely thrilled to know of someone who's overcome obstacles and admirably served his country; on the other, she cannot help but draw an unfair comparison between this new guy and her ex-boyfriend.

Will he, like Jake before him, resent her for not having to endure the same family and financial challenges? Worse, will he view her as someone whose physical appearance, while acceptable, still needs some improvement?

Of course, the fact that Ken initially makes overtures to her exotic, statuesque friend Carmen (with the purchase and presentation of a long-stemmed rose) lays the foundation for her erroneous belief that he is simply marking time by agreeing to hang out with her. While to readers it should become fairly obvious rather quickly that the US Navy vet is truly charmed by his unlikely date for the evening, thanks to Madeline's inability to let go of the recent past, she cannot quite accept that reality. Thus, several hours later, she's amazed that he actually followed through with his promise to meet her at the beach.

For his part, Ken is quite enamored of his new romantic interest, and her wonderful, welcoming family. However, due to Madeline's inability to adequately express herself, he's puzzled by her reaction to his sincere compliments and genuine desire to someday make her his wife. He's also intrigued by her innocence, and hopelessly enticed by the very real possibility of becoming her "first" and only.

But Ken is not without his own insecurities, the most insurmountable of which are his feelings of not being good enough for the daughter of a successful neurosurgeon -- a situation that is only exacerbated when Maddy abruptly ends the relationship because of maternal pressure. Seems Mrs. Rose, although she finds Ken to be a likable and mannerly young man, cannot get over the fact that he's not yet completed his college degree.

Monica's pride in her own father's accomplishment of having graduated from Temple Pharmacy School in 1919 (during a time when such an achievement by immigrants was nearly unheard of), becomes a source of heretofore nonexistent contention between mother and youngest child. Further, with the rest of her brood either married or on their way to the altar, the sticking point of a college education appears to be the only way to slow down a relationship that is moving much too fast for her liking.

Though she has the blessing of the rest of her family -- including Dr. Rose -- to continue the relationship, Madeline's utter distaste for conflict, particularly between her two parents, along with her own seemingly insurmountable insecurities, conspire to lead her to a series of very unfortunate actions. Among the pain and hurt she unintentionally inflicts upon Ken are her decisions to back out of being his date for a work party and a wedding, and ending the relationship with a Dear John letter.

And although the pair reunites shortly thereafter, Madeline's inability to communicate the motivations behind her actions, ultimately leads to more heartbreak. Perhaps unconsciously, Ken decides to inflict the same sort of heartbreak upon her when he stands her up for a much-anticipated ski date; months later, a phone call out of the blue adds insult to injury when he reveals he's relocated to Florida.

Several more months down the road, after a series of regular phone calls from Ken, during which he encourages and at times, implores her to join him, Madeline finally makes her shocking (to those who know and love her) and bold move to The Sunshine State, simultaneously wanting to be with Ken and frustrated with life "up north". She cannot seem to gain traction either in a fulfilling career or a loving relationship (though she's certainly given the dating scene plenty of tries); further, it has become increasingly difficult to watch her siblings' lives progress even as her own remains stagnant.

What she doesn't bargain for is the discovery that Ken's "platonic" roommate is actually his betrothed -- a suspicion that's confirmed by an in-person visit to her apartment not long after her arrival in South Florida. A humiliated, angry and devastated Maddy nevertheless takes the high road when Ken asks her point-blank how she feels about the news; in an Oscar-worthy performance, she leads him to believe she's moved on.

Thus when the two characters unexpectedly reunite well over a decade later, there is much to discuss, forgive and reconcile before they can renew and revitalize their relationship into something that far surpasses anything they'd experienced before. Both have grown and matured to the point where honest communication leads to genuine understanding and full release of the mistakes of the past. All is forgiven, and all that matters to them now is the present moment.

Coming soon: the mother-daughter bond, and the theme of reconciliation.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Fact into Fiction: Part Four

More thoughts on the reconciliation theme as it relates to real life transforming into fiction.

In my previous piece, I drew a comparison/contrast between the characters of Dr. Joseph Rose and Ken Lockheart, the two embodiments of The American Dream in Water Signs. Though generations apart, both Joseph and Ken overcome similar obstacles in their quest for a better life that expands far beyond their respective, humble beginnings. It should also be clear from that post, but bears repeating here, that although they rise above challenging material circumstances, both men retain the traditional values with which they were raised.

These values -- love of God, family, and country, and commitment to a strong work ethic -- transcend the financial, and thus are not dependent upon how much money a family possesses, although consistent adherence to them serves each of these characters well.

Dr. Rose moves from the poor son of a tailor to respected Philadelphia neurosurgeon, while Ken transforms from son of a blue-collar union worker (who takes great offense at his youngest child's ambitions) to successful corporate businessman. Yet neither loses their sense of gratitude for the United States of America and the opportunities it affords them, nor their ingrained belief in right and wrong.

Ken differs from Joseph in having the extra burden of paternal disapproval, a reality explored throughout the book with the ultimate result being the renewal of the father-son relationship. But that's not the only parent-child connection intertwined in the reconciliation theme. And there's also a thread of forgiveness surrounding other influential figures such as school teachers.

Like her suitor Ken, Madeline is the youngest child in her family, another sensitive Pisces creation who came into the world on the exact same day and year. She's also been raised in the Catholic faith and school system, which has had its blessings and disadvantages. In one scene, she confides in her new beau that as a first-grader, her teacher-nun made her life miserable from the moment she discovered Madeline to be the daughter of a doctor, branding her "a spoiled rich girl" . Whenever the six year-old would show up at school in a perfectly beautiful hand-me-down jacket from her older sister, the nun would inevitably sneer, "Oh, I see Daddy bought you a new jacket!", as if having a family that cared for their children's material needs was a bad thing.

These insults were usually accompanied by lectures about the poor children in West Philly, which apparently the nun believed to be the fault of a first-grader who didn't share the same hardships. And although this is not in the book, I remember that the First Grade Sister's favorite Bible quote was Jesus' admonition that is was easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than it was for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

In real life, I have vague memories of asking my father about that oft-quoted Bible passage, horrified by the prospect that a good man like him might not go to heaven because he had money (I should also point out that while my dad made a nice living, we were a middle-class family, nowhere close to millionaire status). He did his best to assure me that Jesus was not condemning anyone for using their God-given talents to bless the world and, in his case, help people heal.

Another memory that is mentioned in the book involves riding home from school in the car with my mother, after another day of lecturing about the poor, disadvantaged kids in Philly. As we passed the familiar waste management company on the right side of the road, I remarked, "Mommy, I wish Daddy was a trash collector instead of a doctor!"

My horrified mother looked at me briefly before reverting her eyes back to the road and asked, "Why on earth would you say something like that?"

My response: "Because maybe if he was, Sr. Timothy Ann would like me!"

She then instructed me that I should be very proud of my father, as he was not robbing banks, but helping people get well. He hadn't been handed everything on a silver platter; he'd worked hard for everything he had and shared with us. Being the protective (thank God!) "Mama Bear" she was, this little exchange resulted in a one-on-one visit with both the principal and the nun in question. To the best of my recollection, things did improve after that, but the damage had already been done.

As in my own life, the mixed messages Maddy receives about earning money contribute to her difficulties in achieving her own financial success as an adult. When she dates Jake Winston, her first long-term boyfriend, he reinforces the themes of the frustratingly misquoted "money is the root of all evil" (instead of "love of money is the root of all evil"). Years later, Madeline, through her own spiritual development, is able to forgive both the nun and the boyfriend by recognizing their own unique internal struggles that led them to inflict their pain and warped monetary outlook onto her.

In Jake's case, his resentment over his family's financial crisis -- a difficulty not shared by his then-girlfriend Madeline -- compels him to do and say hurtful things that ultimately doom their relationship. Regarding Sr. Timothy Ann, while there's no concrete information as to the circumstances of her upbringing, it is safe to assume that a misinterpretation of her voluntary vows most likely contributed to her nastiness toward an innocent little girl. In fairness, there were plenty of nice sisters who never resorted to these tactics, sticking instead to the fundamentals of teaching the Catholic faith along with English, Math, Science, Social Studies and all of the other critical school subjects.

Interestingly enough, I am currently towards the end of an eight-week course offered by Unity Church of Delray Beach called Five Gifts for An Abundant Life. My last two classes have focused on forgiveness of others and forgiveness of self. Years prior to taking this course and writing Water Signs, I'd participated in a 12-week course which was also sponsored by Unity -- Stretton Smiths 4T Prosperity Program. I credit the principles I've learned there -- particularly in the area of forgiveness -- with helping me to recognize and release the negative programming I've received, along with cultivating a compassionate understanding for the people who perpetuated it.

It's been a long, but fulfilling journey, and I hope by presenting these themes within the confines of an entertaining love story, others may find the same benefit.

More on reconciliation in my next post.

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