The Honor is Mine

This week found me in a very grateful place.  Yesterday, I was pleasantly surprised to learn I was nominated for a film industry award in Chicago for the music I wrote for the film work of film maker, Josh Roger.  Last night, I had the honor of playing my harp at the local Fireman's Ball.

In both of these occurrences, music has played an important role in combining art and enjoyment together to others.  Who could ask for a better line of work?  I can't think of a better way to make a living.  

The honor is mine. 

Harp Haven is the Heart of Clawson, Michigan and now the World!!

The Michigan Harp Center was started 35 years ago as a place for harp enthusiasts and professionals alike to have access to affordable harps and harp accessories.  'Back then,' recalls owner KellyYousoufian, 'everything was hard to get for a harp.  I saw a real need for affordable harps.  More and more people wanted to play and there was an increased demand for better folk harps.'

Now, the Michigan Harp Center sells single strung, double strung and cross strung harps as well as classical pedal harps.  She offers in person as well as Skype appointments to review her stock. With Skype appointments, Kelly can place orders, give advice about harp care and help with string replacement.  The attention to harp students and harp customers has gone global thanks to the new technology.

Her devotion to the harp and its patrons began when she attended Interlochen High School Arts Academy.  She was offered a scholarship for harp at the Salzedo Harp Colony after she graduated from high school.  She took time to study at the colony is Camden, Maine.  She recalls that time with fondness, 'I walked two miles to lessons, each way.  Salzedo wanted the residents and natives to see the harpists walk through town.  I practiced six hours a day.  When I returned home, I studied folk harp after studying the classical harp.'  

With such a versatile background, Kelly and her Harp Center add a personal touch to the harp purchasing process.  She often sends replacement strings for free to cover the cost of any strings that might break during transport.  She is available to answer questions via phone, email or Skype.  She has experience in globally transporting harps at affordable prices with some of her harps shipping as far away as Japan.  

The Michigan Harp Center also hosts one of the most expansive harp sheet music collections. Kelly has recently started Michigan Harp Center Publishing and has been buying the publication rights to rare music.  She is making elusive and beloved harp music arrangements available to harpists everywhere.  Check her website often as titles are added regularly.

Be it a pedal harp, folk harp, rare sheet music or harp supplies, Kelly and the Michigan Harp Center can be reached at:

89 West 14 Mile Rd., Clawson, Michigan 48017, phone: 248-288-4277

or globally at

website: www.michiganharpcenter.com,   email: michiganharpcenter@gmail.com

   

 

What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing Writing Horror Stories?

 

I never knew my biological father really.  I only have two memories of a man and I'm not sure he's really my father.  But that's another story. There are memories there, never the less.  Before I go on about them, I would like to add this disclaimer.  It is absolutely and emphatically terrible of me to give so much credence to two measly memories when so many other people in my immediate family consumed my day to day life.  My family worked hard to care for me as a premature baby and continued to work tirelessly to get me back to health before starting school.  In those formative years, I am sure my life was filled with joy and healthy routine and meals and stories and love....a lot of love.  Unfortunately, it's the rare, chance encounters of people who ignore you that stand out in ones mind.  In that respect, I feel as though the human mind and its capacity for memory is logical but never the less, profoundly unjust.  That being said, I move along with the story.

 

The first memory is me sitting in his lap, peering over a thin, pearl steering wheel driving down the street leading to my grandmother's house.  The sun is shining on the red interior of the car and I can't wait to show my mom that I'm "driving".  I could not have been more than three years old.  As an adult now, I can see that this is a standard "man trying to be a cool dad" kind of thing.  I can still recall the thrill as he let go of the steering wheel and for once in my very short life, I had control of something....dangerous and larger than me.  The feeling was terrifying and sickening and fantastic all at once.  As quickly as we arrived in the driveway, he was sadly, gone.  He did not show up for what, by childhood standards seemed like eternity.  Which brings me to my second memory.  The second memory is more important and vastly more vivid.  

 

I was a little bit older and he showed up out of the blue and with apresent under his left arm.  My grandmother hadn'tsaid anything about anyone stopping by.  There was no small meal prepared like she would do for a friend or a guest or a neighbor.  Part of me still wonders if I was not the only one surprised.  The man said the box was a going away present and he wanted me to have something of his before he left.  This news should have made me ask questions about where he was going or if he was coming back but it didn't.  I was a kid who was used to his absence and I gotto open a present on a day that was not my birthday or Christmas.  Tearing the ribbon and opening the box, I had no idea what on earth it was.  

 

This memory stands out so clearly because at that moment of confusion, I stared up at him.  My memory of my probable, so-called biological father's face made flashed like a mental photograph or imprint in my mind.  His face is happy yet serious.  I can still see the deep lines carved around his eyes.  They weren't gentle lines like that of my grandmothers face.  The lines were so harsh that for a moment I was lost in them, wondering how they got there.  He stared back at me and explained that this was chess and it was all he had to give to me that was his.  I looked down at the gift.  

 

My childhood brain jumped to a line in the song The Little Drummer Boy about being poor and having nothing to give. It was my Grandmother's favorite Christmas song and so the importance of the generous moment some how wasn't lost on me.  I matched his demeanor and returning my gaze to the board, it seemed to shimmer in the afternoon sunlight streaming through the bay window.  He helped me to set up the board.  As he showed me how each piece moved , I memorized it.  I memorized it because there was this feeling like he was desperately converting some crucial information to me.  I picked up each piece and mimicked the movement like he did.  He smiled when he saw that I could remember the right moves.  

He stood up from the floor, towering over me and the board like a giant peering across a valley.  As he stepped away from me, I felt very small.  As quickly as he arrived, he said he had to go.  It was another flash appearance and disappearance.  He messed up my pony tail and told me something I wish I could recall.

 

Throughout the rest of my life, three coping mechanisms emerged when I felt trapped or under immense stress.  Writing, music and chess.  When my mother found some of my teenage writing hidden in a notebook, she said it was too upsetting to read.  It was too scary and in her view, inappropriate for a young girl to be writing. Fortunately, it scared her and deterred her from rifling through my room again.  When writing horror at home became banned, I took solace in a neighbor who knew chess and would play on Sunday afternoons.  Both writing and chess gave my logical mind ways to escape the aches and pains of being a teenager, to find a solution to my problems or just feel accomplishment in a world in which I had little say.  

 

In 2000, I started setting aside time each day to write.  The horrors of my teenage era stories were gone but I still enjoyed the complete freedom of the genre.  Eventually some short stories were published.  My personal life fell apart a few years later and I took solace in writing my first long piece of horror fiction.

 

My first two novels were successfully published because they were hack and slash.  The horror novel publishers liked more gore and less intelligent plot.  The writing had been therapeutic but I was short on cash and extra time.  If writing were going to be a hobby, it had to pay something.  Anything.  

 

I wanted so much to be published that I did what the editors told me to do.  I wrote for the marketing trend and for sales and I thought I would enjoy the benefits.  Selling out though still meant small to nil in royalties as I was still new to the playing field.  Little money, reworking a story until it wasn't really mine anymore on top of a rough patch in my personal life made me miserable.  I wondered what it might be like to write something just for myself.  Could I get a publisher to believe that horror could be clever as well as exciting?

 

As an experiment, I wrote the short story, "Death Match", an intimate story of two Detroit juvenile inmates forced to play chess to the death.  Much like Poe's 'Pit and the Pendulum,' intensity rises as the situation becomes more and more inescapable for both players.  "Death Match" proved chess could be an exciting driving force to move a story along.  From there, I spent the next two years, teaching music by day, performing in Detroit on weekends and writing, "Eternal Kingdom" by night.

 

"Eternal Kingdom" brings together individuals trapped in life, at death's door or ruined by circumstance.  They are given a chance to play a life size, gladiator style version of chess.  The winners are granted immortality.  The losers are put to death.  Much like my own life, chess is a way for both sides of the board to find a way out of their misery.  Writing this book gave me the chance to ask moral questions like, what is life really worth?  What would a person risk to have the chance to devote their eternal lives to their work or vocation?  If tomorrow were the end what would you do with today?  I was taking a risk making a horror novel a work of intellect but to my surprise, it was well received and published.

 

I have since lost the chess pieces and board that my genetic donor left with me.  Somewhere along the way, I realized the gift he gave me wasn't in the box but rather in the game.  As I stare at the cover of Eternal Kingdom, I wonder if he's out there somewhere. Did he read it?  Would he care?  I wonder if he will ever know the part he played in the making of a novel.  

 

The rest of my family and friends have contributed so much to my life.  Everyday, every week, every month, they've been there.  Their steadfast generosity is a constant stream of helpful spoonfuls.  So why didn't all that dedication make it into my book?  Why do writers find inspiration in the rare cases?  I've given this a lot of thought and here is my best conclusion.  When there is a meteor shower, the tiny rocks falling to earth may or may not become newsworthy.  The small stream of rocks make small but steady impacts on the surface of the earth.  But if a meteor the size of a car is headed towards earth, the rarity of the event and the impact crater that it leaves behind is noticeable, not just for what it leaves behind but also for what it blasts away.  The mark it leaves is so significant that it never completely returns to how it was before.  Good or bad.  Right or wrong.  Justified or not, it's the stuff that inspires due to our humanity.  

When Buying Musical Instruments for Holiday Gifts, Only the Real Deal Will Do

The holidays are a perfect time for parents and grandparents to introduce the joy of music to the next generation.  As a music teacher, I have one huge favor to ask.  Please do not be tricked into buying toy versions of the instrument of your choosing.  

Children as young as four can play a real piano, a real violin and a real guitar.  Shop at your local music store or ask your public or private school music teacher where to find the instrument.  Just don't buy a toy.

Toy instruments are often impossibly to tune.  The strings break very easily.  Children learn notes that are off and out of tune.  If you think spending a couple hundred dollars is too much, rent one.  Harps, violins and some pianos and keyboards are all available for rent.  If purchasing a starter instrument from a music store, most places have a buy back program.  Instruments that are well-cared for hold their residual value and can be sold for nearly their initial investment if the child doesn't like it or out grows it.

Here are some reputable names and deals to help you make that instrument purchase this holiday season:

Lyon and Healy harps: www.lyonhealy.com

Lewis Creek Harps: www.lewiscreek.net

Pianos of all kinds: www.pianomart.com

violins and guitars: www.guitarcenter.com

Already purchased an instrument and you have a specific question about it?  Ask me here in the comments.  I will be sure to answer as many questions as possible.

How to Smash the Internet...and #SMA in 2 Easy Steps

Remember what you were doing at this time last year?  Along with raking the leaves and debating over which pumpkin spice variation of coffee to order, there is a very solid chance that you were also participating in or filming an ice bucket challenge to raise awareness for ALS.  ALS in its simplest form, is the deterioration of muscles throughout the human body.  

SMA, Spinal Muscular Atrophy is the pediatric version, effecting children just as they are starting off in life. It is the leading genetic cause of death in children.  Presently, there is no cure.  Now comes the part where, together, we can all do something to change that.    

The good news is that there is something simple and easy that you can do to get a very, very effective treatment for SMA in the hands of the kids who need it so desperately.  The World Health Organization has said that SMA is closest of all the neurological diseases, to be cured.  Are you ready to help?  

Step 1: On October 10th (this Saturday) at 10:10 am, (10-10-10-10) pick up your cell phone and type in the #SmashSMA and #SMAshTheInternet on your Facebook, Twitter or other social media feed.

Step 2: Hit send/post.  It is the hope of the Scarlet's Smile Foundation that this simple, instant act, if done by enough people, will raise awareness of the disease and get the conversation rolling...and perhaps, #SMAsh the internet in the process!  Only awareness and funding will get the clinical trials pushed through the final hoops and the new effective treatment to the children suffering from SMA.  Want to help more?  Visit www.scarletssmile.org.  

Oh yeah!  There's one more thing.  You can take a video as you #SMAsh something of your own.  Share the video with the #SMA in your post on Facebook.  Send it to the folks at Scarletssmile.com.  If enough folks #SMAsh the internet, maybe the year 2015 is the year we cross SMA off the list of fatal, childhood diseases.  

Women In Speculative Fiction...or the Lack Thereof

Let's play a game.  take the nickname that your mom called you when you were two.  Add to that your favorite band when you were fifteen.  Then, for added measure, add to that the precious stone connected to your birth month.  Add all of those together and that is now your pen name.  For men, this is absolutely ridiculous.  Sadly, for women, your odds of submitting a manuscript under a made up name like mine (Sunshine Police Amethyst) up the chances of getting published.  Why?  That pen name, while absurd, is gender neutral.  If a woman conceals that she is a woman by changing her name or writing under a pen name, her chances are far greater of publication.

In June of 2015, the Guardian newspaper published a series of articles regarding the Crisis in American Literature.  They reported that The Bailey, the literary award prize for women, was created in the last twenty years in response to the male dominated Booker prize.  Judges argued that there was no malice or intent on excluding women.  They only read manuscripts that publishers submitted to the contest that year.  The most the Booker prize ever received in one year was 40% of the total submissions by women.  If women were not being published out in the world, their lack of representation would drastically effect their chances of finishing strong in the Booker competition.

I had a similar experience.  Before submitting my first novel, I had been writing short and flash fiction stories for a web based magazine.  I used my real name and the publisher, a woman, promoted my work.  Conversely, when I began to submit to print publishers, I received the same standard letter over and over again.  "Dear Ms. Roger, we feel as though your work is good but will not meet the current demands of our core readership."

Core readership? At the time, I didn't understand what that meant.  Later, I learned that marketing and research had suggested that men made up the largest percent of readers of science fiction, fantasy and horror.  It was suggested that men required strong male lead characters, something that publishers felt women writers were not capable of writing as well as male authors.

In an act of desperation, I heard there was a publisher known for being cantankerous with new writers who published out of Boston.  His press was small but had a well known following  I decided to try that route.  I sent him my manuscript and a few weeks later I received a phone call.  It was the editor and owner.  The conversation went something like this:

"You're a new author and I want to explain some things to you.  This and this and this are wrong with your manuscript.  Frankly, I don't think that your story will sell because it it require too much thinking.  That's not what horror readers want.  If I publish you, the royalties will not be enough to take your family to McDonalds once for lunch."

I sat there dumbfounded.  "Uh, thank you for calling?"  In my head, I was thinking of the dreams he was crushing, blow by blow.  Why the hell didn't he just send me a letter.  This was a special kind of torture.

He continued, "That said, I want to offer you a contract."

Me.  "What? Why?"

"My wife likes it.  She reads a lot of the authors I publisher and said she likes your story.  That doesn't happen too often."

I remembered all the information that I had read about pen names.  Now, I had a contract, should I change it?  After all, it was only my name.  Steven King wrote under the pen name of Richard Bachman in his early work.  Louisa May Alcott wrote under the name of A. M. Barnard to get her foot in the literary door.  Charlotte Bronte wrote under the name Currer Bell in order to get Jayne Eyre published.

Yet, I heard myself reply no.  My name was my name.  I signed the contract with it in tact.  I continue to work with the same publisher who I find tough but helpful.  I am a better writer under his tutelage.  My books are selling slowly but surely.

Are more women reading horror?  Maybe.  What I hope is rather, more people, readers are giving the story the attention and looking less at the name or gender of the story teller.  

5 Simple Pleasures of a Musician and Writer

Sometimes I feel as though there are just not enough days in one lifetime.  I woke up this morning and realized that I had slept past my alarm.  I was going to go running with my cousin.  It would have been the perfect fall day for a run.  Instead, I slept.  I played harp at two outdoor (read: very chilly) performances yesterday afternoon, then played piano for a cocktail hour at a reception and finally treated my hubby and I to dinner after a long Saturday.  

It had been a few years since I had officially performed as a pianist.  The whole time I was playing, I kept asking myself, "why don't I play the piano more often in public?  This is great!"  The answer?  Time.  It's a simple joy in life to perform and do what I love and yet there aren't enough hours in the day to play piano and the harp and write and do ALL the many things I wish I could do.  

In a recent trip to Toronto, I indulged in a chicken curry pie at a new Kiwi pie shop, "Wisey's Pies."  It was delicious and comforting and silky.  It was everything that you might define as comfort.  Each bite of pie, followed by a custard square, was the epitome of a life lived well yet simply.  If there had been a flannel blanket and a good book, I might have moved in.  The food was that good.  Again, I asked myself, "why don't I do this more often?  Toronto is a short drive and this food is worth driving in for."  I heard the answer in my own head.  The answer is that weekends are not just for comfort food.  They are for working and paying bills.  What was the name of that book, "After the Enlightenment, the Laundry"?  I think I get it now.

Hence, I wonder what is the answer?  Some would say to live on less and work less.  Alas, there are a lot of people relying on me to not cut back on work right now.  Can I really complain?  I mean, my career is based on several things that I love to do.  Do I have the right to complain?  Or maybe not complain, maybe it's more, do I have the right to worry?  Yes.  Yes I do.  In theory, we only get one life and it is short and fleeting and worth an autumn walk and a custard square and dancing in the kitchen and lots of kissing and long Skype chats with family.  

I get it.  I just haven't figured out how to make it all happen.  Never the less, I am grateful.  Maybe that is the key, really.  Maybe gratitude and celebration of the small things in life are what keep us going when everything else is screaming for our attention.  So today, I am thankful for the following:

1. Red Wine: It lowers blood pressure (while enjoyed in moderation).  Might have some healthful things like antioxidants in it (seems science argues over the facts often) and it goes well with both a steak, ahi tuna and best of all, chocolate.

2. Music: cheaper than a therapist.  Accessible even at 3am.  Music has been scientifically proven to reduce stress, compartmentalize the brain and improve mood.  There is a reason humans love to drive down the highway with the windows down and the music blaring.  It just feels good.  Whether having a languid Sunday or a full on dance party on a Friday night, music feeds the soul and is a simple pleasure nearly everyone can enjoy.  

3. Books: the cheapest vacation you will ever take.  Reading them also combats dementia, depression and stress.  

4. Friends: sometimes better than family, real friends are the ones who have held your hair while you've vomited, know your darkest secrets, cried with you in the bad times and laughed till it hurt in the good times.  A good friend will bail you out of jail.  A best friend will get arrested with you.

5. Homemade Food: sometimes, in travel or just work overload, it is easier to eat out, eat carry-out or eat nothing at all.  Self love and care, along with the care of others comes in the form of cooking real food.  I am so grateful to come from a family of foodies where its not always about the most complicated dish but rather the people who join you at the table once the simple dish is ready to share.  I think world peace should not be negotiated in a congressional room but rather over a large table.  You have to LISTEN to the person you disagree with when your mouth is full.  Maybe we all could use a little less talking, a little more eating of good food and a LOT more listening to the people we are fortunate enough to spent our time.