Wednesday, May 9, 2018

a book and an interview

On the River
At last it's in print! The sequel to Across the River. The Amazon links aren't quite ready, but I'll update information as I get it. Meanwhile, I'm happy to fulfill orders by shipping copies, so message me at mwestemeier@melwestemeier dot com. $15/copy, includes s/h.

What's it about? It's 1985, the winter is lingering and the folks in Bassville are itching for spring. Maw Cooper's trying to swindle a documentary filmmaker about how his minnows are bred. Mona Butterfield's got a big decision to make about her relationship with Jake. June Butterfield gets caught up helping a neighbor. And a mysterious death rocks the town to its core. 

Here's one generous reader's comments: "In her new novel, On the River, Melissa Westemeier has created an entertaining world of living, breathing folks you'll feel like you've known forever. They'll make you laugh and cheer and cry--and worry about them when your own living, breathing people demand you put down the book and find them some dinner! I so enjoyed my time in Bassville, Wisconsin, and I know you will, too!"  Becky Ramsey, author of French by Heart: An American Family's Adventures in La Belle France  and The Holy Eclair.

But wait! There's more!  Claudia Hall Christian interviewed me here:
I talked about writing and teaching and books. Give it a listen!

Friday, April 27, 2018

UntitledTown wrapped, new book unwrapped

Last Friday I trekked to UntitledTown 2018 with a posse of high school kids to hear R.L. Stine tell stories about being a rock star horror writer. Before joining the throngs to swoon over the Goosebumps dude, we sat in the front row at a workshop and took notes while Joyce Burns Zeiss and Patricia Skalka talked about writing.  I returned to Green Bay's amazing book and writing festival Saturday and Sunday, binging on the conversations and camaraderie this sort of event creates. I presented a workshop on injecting humor in writing and participated in a panel discussion about writing Wisconsin as a character in fiction (doesn't that sound all literary and brainy?). The panel discussion was interesting. I struggled to say intelligent things because I got so wrapped up in what the other people were saying. I felt humbled to sit at the smart kid table.

Me, trying to come up with clever things to say while sitting next to Christi Clancy who is effortlessly elegant and clever. Photo credit to Amanda Jo Danihel and Dan Moore, UWGB Marketing and University Communication 



The best session I attended was on writing flash nonfiction. I didn't even know what flash nonfiction was, but for a while I've been chewing on an idea I'd like to write about and submit to This Wisconsin Life. The workshop I attended gave examples and walked us through the process of writing what is essentially a really tightly focused memoir essay. I left with a rough draft and an idea of how to replace the dreadfully tired personal narrative assignment I use with my seniors. The latter was an unexpected win. I feel grateful to have an idea with better structure and a way to craft my description of an idea into a more palatable story. My sister attended the workshop with me, and while she's not a writer, she found the experience worthwhile and interesting, too. 
My students enjoyed the weekend, one read some of her work at an open mic event and discovered a couple of equally talented writers to network with. It made me happy to see her approach these other two high school kids tentatively and within minutes chatter away enthusiastically about their shared passion: writing fantasy fiction.
And I convinced Mr. B to tag along to the final event of the weekend: an evening with the hilarious and bizarre Christopher Moore. He claims it was "pretty good," high praise coming from a kid who isn't terribly keen on reading.
My brain and heart were equally full when I returned home Sunday night to finish the regular routine of laundry-grocery shopping-etc. Without missing a beat the week got full of a visit from my dad, two track meets, trying to teach 2 cats to use their new cat door to the basement, convincing Rose to stop peeing on the hamper of dirty clothes in the laundry room, enduring an afternoon in-service, grading a stack of AP arguments about Buy Nothing Day, locking down a caterer for the senior class picnic, evaluating the progress of my English 12 students' Genius Hour projects, and getting a huge step closer to launching this:


It'll be for sale soon, hold tight!

Friday, April 6, 2018

fool

It's April and our school called a snow day this past week. The following day we got a 2-hour delay because of Winter Storm Dan. Today I woke up to the trees flocked with snow and while it looked really pretty, I feel annoyed. Christmas break offered nothing but a frozen crust of turf and temperatures in the negative digits. I never pulled out my snowshoes or skis because we never had enough snow to make a decent go at playing in it--and the two weeks when we did have snow, the temperatures plummeted below zero. Now I'm ready for spring and we've got snow, snow, snow and more in the forecast.

I'm kicking myself hard for not insisting on a vacation this winter. I honestly thought we could hunker down and deal with winter because I assumed winter would last from December through March. Turns out winter won't leave, this lame, snowless-until-the-last-minute-but-wicked-cold-anyway winter and I'm looking at still wearing my knee-high boots when I'd rather be wearing capris and flats without socks.

I got all uppity over Easter break (the 2 days I had off of work before Easter weekend) and cleaned out the garage, hung up window screens and started tidying up the gardens. Now the garage floor has a fresh layer of salt brine beneath where the cars park and those clean windows are streaked. Plus I never did get to air out the house by opening the windows because it never got warm enough. We've still got the heat on here.

Nothing says "Hello, Spring!" like a down coat and gloves, right?

And because my friends and family are really funny, they keep tagging me with this picture on facebook:
Hilarious.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

indulgences

It's a sleeting, slick and slothful day here in northeastern Wisconsin. Ice is dropping from the honey locust tree in our front yard, chipping off like intermittent hail. Everything got cancelled and that, friends, is AWESOME. (Except that I left all the papers I need to grade back at school. And it's midquarter this week with parent-teacher conferences scheduled tomorrow night. Whoops.)

A whole day stretches before me with only two actual chores: 1) bake cookies for Mr. B and Mr. D to bring to the State Wrestling Tournament Thursday and 2) write some pages of my next book. It's luxurious to get this chunk of free time after a total grind of a month has chopped me up and spit me out feeling wasted and wanting. Instead of writing about events that have devastated my heart, today I take the unusual turn of writing about STUFF that make me feel happy.

1. SmartWool socks If you don't own a pair, get some. They last and last and feel so good and never stink. They also never bunch, sag or get holes.
2. Lash Boost by Rodan + Fields I've used their skin products for a long time now and my consultant talked me into trying this magic eyelash growing elixir. It works. People have complemented my long lashes several times in the past two months. In case you are old like me and didn't get the memo, aging means you grow hair in strange places (hello, 3-inch-long eyebrow hair!) and lose it in more desirable locations, like your eyelashes become sparser and shorter. Fun fact: a tube of this product lasts almost 5 months before you require more.
3. The Winter Olympics I park my butt in the recliner every night to tune in. The skiing, the racing, the figure skating, the snowboarding--all of it enchants me. Bode Miller's commentary is riveting and I adore that people know so much about obscure sports and are able to share their knowledge with amateur fans like me in an intelligent way. Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir make me feel like a skating expert because thanks to them I drop terms like "twizzle" and "axle" sounding soooo savvy. It's wonderful how by the end of one week the athletes become so familiar. I can't understand why anyone would waste their time watching anything else while there are Olympic Games to watch on TV.
Maé-Bérénice Méitér rules the ice.

4. Polka King Porter by Door County Brewing Co. My new favorite winter brew. Flavored microbrews have become a thing that I can't get behind, so I'm glad to have discovered a non-coffee/berry/chocolate tasting beverage.
5. Tessa Hadley is fan-freaking-tabulous. Go get her books. If you're a fan of Elizabeth Jane Howard or Rosamund Pilcher, writers who master the character-driven family drama, she's your new favorite author. I don't know how her work slid under my radar until now, but my friend Heidi Honeyman, AKA small town me, led me to her and I am grateful.
6. Target's Dark Chocolate Himalayan Salted Almonds I keep a bag in my desk at work and eat them every day. Addicting little buggers. Salty, crunchy, sweet and just a touch of bitter. Do try them.
7. UntitledTown Green Bay's annual book and author festival is coming in April and the anticipation has me babbling about it to everybody. Mary Roach will be there! Christopher Moore! It's going to be LIT!
8. Lit The slang definition is "exciting" or "excellent" and since we know it's awful when old people use the hip words, of course I have taken to saying it ALL THE TIME as an English teacher. We just started a sci fi unit in English 12 (literature units are rare in Room 212, I'm much more comfortable teaching writing). I greet my students every day lately by cheerfully declaring, "This class is LIT!" 

This past month has reminded me that life is short, the little pleasures matter because they make the hard parts more bearable. Spill it, reader. What indulgences can you recommend?

Saturday, January 13, 2018

a few words about the girls in room 212 this year

For the last couple of years graduation has loomed on the horizon and I've thought, "I'll never enjoy a class of girls as much as this year's." Caps and gowns get donned and summer passes, fall arrives and in files in a brand new class of seniors. I find out I do like the next crop of senior girls just as much as the previous year's.

But this year--this year these girls make my day job such a pleasure. They are smart. Nerdy delightfully brilliantly smart. They make clever observations and thoughtful insights during class discussions. They've pulled out subtleties in the assigned readings I've never caught before. They text each other pictures of the books they're reading over the weekend. They know all the words to Hamilton and have strong opinions on the founding brothers, the power of leading with a concession in an argument, the behavior of Abigail Williams in The Crucible. One girl spent hours researching breeding habits and temperatures for the Round Goby to complete her informative essay. Another switched her paper from George Washington to Thomas Jefferson because "I hate Jefferson, so I figure this will push me." (For the record, she ended up in love with Jefferson, too.) None of them require hounding after for missing assignments, the consistent effort they put towards English class impresses me. A lot of these girls read the commentary and footnotes. Yeah, they're that kind of girl.

They build each other up and blend together with less regard to cliques and social grouping than any previous year I've taught. They write poetry and play sports. They tease and admire each other's haircuts, performances, test scores and class discussion points.

Their long hair brushes the edges of trigonometry and psychology worksheets as they lean towards all the things they might know. They carry three-ring binders to class, this particular school supply is all the rage this year. Their binders are decorated and personalized with artistic expression and make me smile. Clip art, sketches, stickers and graphic designs bring flair to their organization.

Did I mention how they read? And they press these read books into my hands. "Have you read this yet, Ms. W? I'll loan you this one!" Young adult, history, poetry, murder mysteries, J. R. R. Tolkien.

And they laugh. I'm not exaggerating when I tell you that my 7th hour in particular, which is all girls and only one boy, sounds like a party cruise when they enter and exit the room. This year's girl power blooms and throbs with energy. And they are fearless. They ask tough questions, blunt and honest questions. Most notably, after reading this article by Mark Edmundson, they prodded that poor sole male in the room about guys and their attitudes about homosexuality. (To his enormous credit, he enlightened us all.) These girls talk about failures and frustrations with so much frankness, their confidence makes me tear up. I think about how much self-loathing and insecurity I harbored at their age. How can they trust each other, love themselves, lack embarrassment to such extent? I don't know the cause, but if I'd have had a fraction of their moxie at age eighteen I think I'd have entered adulthood less damaged. God, if I could have believed in my self-worth more and doubted my prospects less!

I watch these girls--softball players, dancers, runners, clarinet players, drummers, singers, waitresses, cashiers, cattle-raisers, sisters, daughters, volunteers, sculptors, mentors--they gather together every day in room 212, brushing up against each other with so much mutual respect and humor. They wave and call across the room, giggle over their phone screens, puzzle out Spanish IV assignments. They settle into desks, some wearing sweats and Crocs, some wearing boho tops and rhinestone earrings. The bell rings. Phones get tucked away, those lovely three-ring binders hit the desks and those gorgeous faces, so bright and promising of a future run by strong, empowered and enlightened women, look up--ready to keep achieving.




Thursday, December 28, 2017

winning

First, The Holy Eclair is heading to Common Household Mom! Carolyn writes often and beautifully about matters of faith and God and spirituality. It's a match made in heaven, right?

It's halfway through Christmas break and my oldest is on the couch recovering after having all of his wisdom teeth pulled yesterday. He's never suffered pain well, this experience is proving to be no exception to the rule. I made him mac and cheese from scratch for breakfast this morning since he can't chew food or suck it through a straw. Lest I impress you with the "scratch" part, do understand we had no boxed version in the pantry.  It's -10 degrees and I didn't fancy another trip into town in a freezing cold vehicle so while noodles boiled I made a roux and added milk and cheese to make the sauce. This process didn't take much longer than making mac and cheese from a box, I was happy to discover.

It was impressive how quickly he got through the surgery, less than an hour and a half, that includes the time it took to get him out of sedation and wheeled to the car. Times have changed since I had mine removed. I recall my jaw locking wide open as it had taken nearly two hours to extract those teeth--and I was NOT under sedation, merely numbed.

Meanwhile, the middle kid has been living large this break, sledding in negative temperatures while wearing his new winter gear, practicing wrestling, hunting, building a sled, going to movies, shopping with Grandma's Christmas money--he never takes a break. The youngest has killed a fair number of virtual bad guys, shot basketballs and hung out with his buddies.

I've shuttled people to and from appointments and practices and got retested for Lyme Disease. I took my final antibiotic for that last weekend and my body is happy to get back to its usual medication-free state. Some of my dearest friends came over the day after Christmas and we sat around catching up, drinking coffee, eating, and basking in each other's presence. That was a great gift. 

My other great gift was season one of Stranger Things, my new favorite thing ever.

Image result for stranger things 

Have you seen it? You must. It's fantastic. Plus it came packaged as a VHS tape, which cleverly threw me for a loop when I looked at the box. Sneaky! It was really DVDs in a VHS-sized box. Mr. T watched with me and I convinced Mr. D he might like it. He agreed to try it, the following night sat down to pop in the second disc and today announced he'd buy season two for us to watch over New Year's.  I would watch the first season over again, though, because I feel like there were lots of little things I missed. A lot happens, plot intersections and so forth, plus I feel like season two will reference the first one a fair amount. I can't decide which character is my favorite, I've always had a soft spot for Winona Ryder, but the sheriff grows on you by the third episode and the children are delightful. It's scary without being dreadful or gory (which I can't stand), kind of a mash-up of The Goonies and The X Files.

Now I'll tell you about my greatest gift. This Christmas I made a deliberate choice to not do anything I didn't feel like doing. Not in a selfish way, mind you, but in a sensible way. I decided I wouldn't burn myself out in some kind of frantic Christmas Race to Fabulousity and Perfection. Now, this seems obvious, I realize, but moms and wives do experience a particular amount of social pressure to DO IT ALL. Bake, wrap, shop, decorate, plant surprises, plan parties, stage elves and photo shoots, attend events, etc. etc. I know for a fact that God did not give us Christmas so I could end up resenting it by making the entire celebration all about work and a to-do list seven miles long. Forced labor completely defies the entire gift of grace through Jesus, specifically presented so that we do NOT have to work, but just take the salvation and rejoice. When did humans pervert this great holiday and make it all about busyness and work? For that matter, WHY? (Let's face it, the busy-work-work-work of Christmas intentionally distracts from the real focal point of God sending His son to earth as a living sacrifice for us.)

I talked this over with God one afternoon this fall while hiking in my favorite local spot. He assured me the world wouldn't fall apart and I'd probably enjoy the holiday a lot more if I approached it this way. So I did. I decorated until I felt satisfied, then I put the rest of the stuff away--or boxed it up to donate. Our tree is regular sized and I like that it doesn't take up half of my living room. I'm not cursing and feeling crowded and anxious with the extra clutter because there isn't much extra sitting about. I hung some wreaths, set out a few items and that felt perfect. It's December 28th and I'm not feeling frantic to get it all put away, which is a nice change of pace.

I didn't bake a single cookie, didn't make a single candy. We popped a ham in the crock pot for Christmas day and I bought some of those frozen eclairs and cream puffs for dessert. Everyone liked it. No one cared that I didn't make "special" recipes and fifteen side dishes. Maybe I'll feel like it next year, maybe not. 

I bought exactly what I wanted to give. No one seemed dissatisfied with their presents, I didn't tear my hair out having to wrap stuff, agonize over what to get who, and track various packages' progress online. I mailed cards because I like to do that. Someone from the home and school group sent me an email explaining that they decided teachers should get a little gift each day of the last week of school.  As the 7th grade room parent rep I decided not to scramble for last minute little gifts and to stick to my original plan with one big gift on the last day of school and G's teacher probably wouldn't feel upset. To my knowledge she's fine.

Christmas was very pleasant this year. I burned candles and listened to music, I drank hot chocolate and spent time with my family. We went to church. We went bowling. I thanked God for the peace I felt mentally and in my heart. Why haven't I always celebrated Christmas by taking it more instead of making it more? It's silly how we pressure ourselves and complicate what should be simple. But that's human nature, I suppose. We think we're improving upon something when we add more to it, when really we should dial it back and quit distracting ourselves from stuff that really matters. 

I did what I wanted, I didn't do what felt burdensome and my cup overfloweth. Spill it, reader. What have you decided NOT to do this holiday season?

Saturday, December 2, 2017

blessings in a book!

My friend Becky Ramsey wrote another book!



I adored her first book, French at Heart, so I was super-pumped to learn she has written MORE about her years living in France. Don't we all indulge in that fantasy of living in another country for a stretch of time and learning how to become nearly "local?" Thankfully people like Becky let me have that experience vicariously. I assure you, reader friends, Becky does not disappoint. Her description of being the odd duck American learning how to live the French way is charming and self-depreciating. Characters from her first book return, including my favorite, Madame Mallet. Here's a little excerpt to give you a taste:

"Who is that handsome man that stayed in your house for two hours and six minutes?" asked my neighbor, Madame Mallet.
"He's my French tutor," I said. "He comes once a week."
"That's good," she said. "I would teach you myself, but you clearly need someone who can explain your mistakes in your own language. Don't you think he should come more often?"

I declare, Madame Mallet is France's most passive-aggressive neighbor lady.

Becky's humor, insights on faith and culture, and appreciation of la vie Francais delight. You could classify this book as a devotional, a travel memoir or humor, but however you slice this baguette of awesomeness, you need to get your hands on a copy.

Here's the good news--you can BUY ONE HERE or WIN ONE HERE! I'm giving away a free copy of The Holy Eclair to one lucky commenter. All you have to do is tell me your favorite saint (when you read the book, you'll understand why).

Spill it, reader. Who's your fave saint?   I'll announce the book winner next weekend and you'll have your copy in time for holiday reading!