Sunday, March 30, 2008

What's a woman to do?

Just about anything she sets her mind to, from what I can see.

Last week I had the most amazing opportunity. I spent a few days in Toronto with the five winners of Harlequin's More Than Words awards. Trust me when I tell you that these are women of action, women who saw a need in their communities and stepped up to fill it. As I chatted with them, I was in awe. I think you will be, too.

Each year Harlequin Enterprises solicits nominations from the U.S. and Canada of women who are making a difference in their communities. Five are chosen to receive a $10,000 award for their charity. In addition, five authors are selected to write fictional stories inspired by these women and their great organizations. This year's More Than Words anthology is being published in hardcover for the first time with stories written by Linda Lael Miller, Curtiss Ann Matlock, Jennifer Archer, Kathleen O'Brien and me. It should be in stores any day now and all proceeds go back into Harlequin's charitable foundation to honor future recipients and causes that are important to women.

The winner to whom I was assigned was the energetic, enthusiastic founder of Inside the Dream, based in the Peel region of Canada just outside of Toronto. Ruth Renwick, a native of Peru and a social worker by profession, was asked a few years ago to help a teenager who literally would have been unable to participate in her senior year prom or graduation without the proper clothes to wear. Ruth found her one dress. When that didn't fit, she went home, opened her own closet and that of her daughter, and took more dresses over until the perfect dress was found to give this young girl her Cinderella moment.

From that single incident, Ruth saw the impact that such an act of kindness could have on a young person's self-esteem and ability to have important memories from high school. With the help of her daughter, colleagues and her husband, she founded Inside the Dream. In just a few short years more than 350 teens -- girls and boys -- have benefitted from this program, winding up high school standing a little taller, going out into the world with a little more hope.

Though I had spoken to Ruth before writing my story -- "Black Tie and Promises" -- meeting her proved everything I'd felt when speaking to her and reading the material that had been submitted by her husband when she was nominated for the award. Every teenager could use a fairy godmother like Ruth. This is someone who simply doesn't take no for an answer, who has boundless energy and commitment . . . to say nothing of eyelid tattoos so she'll never need eye make-up again. Those of us who are constitutionally incapable of putting eyeliner on straight were in awe. I'm still trying to convince Harlequin to fly any author who wants to go to see Ruth's plastic surgeon who accomplished this magical feat.

The other four winners were equally remarkable -- a single mom who'd struggled to put food on the table for her own kids then launched a program for others in similar situations; a charming, soft-spoken woman who founded a theraputic riding academy to honor her daughter, who suffered from Down's Syndrome and died at 15; a doctor dedicated to autism research and programs; and a woman who used the occasion of her wedding reception to launch Bears Without Borders by asking friends and relatives to donate a teddy bear. Those bears -- and many more -- have made their way into the hands of children around the world.

So, despite temperatures in Toronto in the 20s and ice on Lake Ontario, I came home with my heart warm. Meeting these women lifted my spirits and inspired me to look beyond my own routines to see what I, too, can accomplish in my community. Find a copy of More Than Words, whether the edition in which my story appears, or one of the earlier volumes. I hope you, too, will be inspired to make a difference. It's amazing what one woman with determination and a dream can do!

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Friday, March 21, 2008

The evolution of the Easter egg

Don't be scared. This is not some scientific treatise on the Easter egg. It's just a bunch of random thoughts about how times have changed for this holiday tradition, specifically in my life.

Remember way, way back when moms would bring a dozen or so eggs out of the refrigerator, along with one of those special kits with little images of bunnies or Easter lilies that could be transferred onto brightly colored eggs? Hopefully someone remembered to boil the eggs first, but then we'd spread colored dye from one end of the kitchen to the other trying to create the perfect eggs to fill those baskets that the Easter bunny left on Easter morning. There was an artistic satisfaction to the creation of those eggs.

Then, in later years I joined friends every Easter, arriving early in the morning to hide eggs for their five children. By that time, plastic eggs were starting to be in vogue, eggs filled with candy or money, and hidden in such a way to keep the kids hunting for hours while the traditional Easter ham baked in the oven. We still tucked a few dyed eggs around the yard, but that had turned into a risky business since we couldn't count on the kids finding them or us remembering where we'd put them.

About that same time, an old friend in Virginia had little kids of her own. Not only did she do the whole Easter egg thing in style, but she'd dip her fingers in flour and leave "bunny tracks" through the house for her girls, leading them to eggs and hidden treasures.

In a fit of nostalgia maybe ten years ago, while visiting my dad, my cousin and I decided we absolutely had to dye Easter eggs. We ran around to every store in town --all five or so of them -- looking for an Easter egg coloring kit or even some food coloring. Nothing. On the eve of Easter, the shelves were bare. Back at the house, disappointed, we told my dad where we'd been. He simply shook his head, walked into the kitchen, opened a cupboard and handed us food coloring. Trust me, it had been there for a very, very long time, but the stuff did the trick. Our eggs weren't fancy, but they were bright and cheery. And he, of course, got to gloat that he'd had that dye all along.

A couple of years ago my goddaughter was visiting here in Florida around Easter, just in time for the annual Easter egg hunt on the village green. We took her two sons over there. While the oldest, who was about 10 at the time, gathered with others his age awaiting the start of the hunt for that age group, the rest of us waited with the one-year-old for his "hunt." It was especially aimed at toddlers. Parents were advised to stay outside the circle, where dozens of plastic eggs and small toys had been scattered for easy retrieval by the tiniest hunters. Within seconds of the official start, parents were on their hands and knees grabbing everything in sight, ruining the event for the kids and for the few parents -- my goddaughter and her husband among them -- actually trying to follow the rules. It was one of the most offensive scenes I've ever witnessed with adults pitted against toddlers, leaving many in tears. The next day we staged another hunt in my apartment to give the kids a fair chance to win a few prizes and find a few eggs.

The last time I tried to decorate a few eggs in the Easter tradition, it was ... Christmas. What, you've never heard of Christmas eggs? It was part of a joke gift for a friend this past holiday season, brightly colored red and green eggs with Merry Christmas, Mark written on them in crayon, along with a bit of decorative holly. I even took one to my breakfast place on Christmas morning to wish the cook/owner a happy holiday, mainly because he'd thought I was insane when I told him what I was doing. He's probably still a little uncertain about my mental health.

At any rate, with Easter almost here, I couldn't help thinking about the old days with parents and kids, eggs and a messy kitchen. The plastic eggs filled with treats may be easier, they may last from year to year (in fact, I think there may be one or two rolling around under my sofa even now), but it's just not the same.

None of this, of course, has a thing to do with the meaning of this holiday in a religious context. It is, however, all about tradition. I wish we were a little more intent on passing that along to our kids, spending that little bit of extra time with them, indulging their creativity, mess or no mess. Think about it next year when you're about to buy another bag of colorful plastic eggs for the kids' Easter baskets. Give them the gift of your time instead.

Meantime, I wish you all the true joy of this season.
Sherryl Woods

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

Guilty, soapy pleasures

For the past couple of months I've been totally obsessed with how TV's soap operas were going to negotiate their way through the disaster of the writers' strike. Why, you may well ask. Because one of my guilty little pleasures for many years has been watching the daytime soaps.

It may go back to childhood when my mother listened to a couple of soaps on the radio before I started school and she went back to work. Or it may go back to my years as a TV critic in Ohio when I broke my ankle, had a cast up to my hip in the middle of winter and was stuck in the house with soap operas to entertain me. I wrote a whole series of columns on the soaps and got hooked all over again, especially on The Young and the Restless, As the World Turns and The Guiding Light. My favorite story from that time was mentioning in a column that I just couldn't figure out the convoluted relationship between two characters on As the World Turns. By Monday morning I had a stack of mail on my desk explaining it to me . . . and every version was slightly different.

Over the years soaps have been maligned by critics, denigrated by TV snobs, and treated shabbily by networks and local stations who cut into them at the drop of a hat for "Breaking News" that usually isn't worth the airtime it wastes. With viewing patterns changing and soap ratings falling, I wondered if the writers' strike would be the kiss of death for this form of daytime entertainment.

When the strike began, word was that most soaps had sufficient scripts to carry them into February. Just in case, I hoarded my daily tapes, allowing myself to watch only the occasional hour, staving off the day when they might be forced to air reruns.

And as February neared, viewers I think could begin to see the very clever ways that the shows were trying to grapple with a dwindling supply of words for their characters to utter. Some shows had more than usual musical segments...meaning music played while characters interacted without speaking. This entailed long, meaningful looks, strolling hand in hand, rolling around in bed or anything else that could occupy the screen while music substituted for words. Some shows resorted to many, many flashbacks, weaving old clips into the story which could easily extend one new script into two days worth of shows.

My favorite, though, has been All My Children. Now some of this was, I'm sure, planned even before the writers' strike. The return of beloved characters Angie and Jessie -- never mind that he died onscreeen years ago -- could well have been in the works all along, but it has allowed somewhat conveniently for many, many flashbacks. In addition, they brought back the "real" Greenlee -- Rebecca Budig -- for an amnesia storyline about her old love Ryan, which has -- you guessed it -- allowed for the use of many, many flashbacks. They couldn't have pulled that off with the new actress in the role.

In general All My Children and the three CBS shows I tape have weathered the strike mostly with aplomb. After all, many of these seasoned actors spend their spare time on the New York stage and are used to live performances that require them to roll with the punches when the unexpected happens. They mustered on no matter what material they were handed. Only on rare occasions have I gone, "Huh?" when a storline or character veered wildly off-course.

Thank goodness, though, that the strike ended when it did. Had the strike gone on and necessitated the kind of scheduling disaster that occurred in primetime, it might have been the death knell for the soaps. And as someone who not only loves the genre, but also writes connected books because of an affinity for stories that return to the same world again and again, the loss would have saddened me. Now if network executives could muster up the same amount of respect for these venerable old shows, I'd feel even better about their future.

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Saturday, March 1, 2008

How parents fit in at school

Yesterday at a Miami high school there was a melee involving students, teachers, the administration and police in what looked to be a scene of total chaos. As of this morning some of the students were reportedly still in juvenile detention. What struck me as I watched the breaking news reports yesterday was the reaction of some of the parents on the street outside the school.

Let me start by admitting that any parent discovering that their child's school has been surrounded by police and that students are being taken away by ambulance or in handcuffs has every right to be distraught, especially with a complete lack of accurate information being passed along to them. I get their dismay. I really do.

What I don't understand is the immediate and unequivocal declaration that everyone with the possible exception of their child is to blame. People were ranting about the conduct of the police, about the school administration, about other kids. Nothing feeds hysteria more effectively than a vacuum and the lack of information clearly created a situation that frustrated and angered the parents.

The irony, of course, was that having no information, they somehow knew without question how innocent their child was. In many, many cases, I'm sure that stance was entirely accurate. In others, quite likely it was flat-out wrong. Someone had turned what had reportedly started to be a peaceful demonstration into a virtual riot. And at that point, no one outside of that building had a clue about the details of what had happened.

Yesterday's situation, about which details are still in short supply, reminded me of conversations I've had with my cousin, who's been teaching for around thirty years now. She's one of the best. Clever, imaginative, beloved by her students and her co-workers. And yet she admits to a certain hopelessness when it comes to dealing with disciplinary issues in today's school environment. We've discussed this in the context of everyday problems between students and as it relates to bullying.

The problem is that too often out of some misguided sense of family loyalty, guilt over not being around enough for their kids or whatever else might cause it, parents leap to the defense of their kids despite whatever evidence the school or teacher might present to the contrary. This is not an isolated incident. It's so widespread that there have been prime-time TV episodes devoted to it and storylines on soap operas, which mirror real-life far more often than most soap detractors like to admit. It's little wonder that teachers hesitate to make accusations in an environment in which they're likely to become parental targets. The threat of a backlash can be overwhelming.

Of course, not all kids are bad kids. An accused child may not be in the wrong at all. But parents don't do them any favors by ignoring reality and leaping to their defense before facts are known. When children claim to be innocent, they should be heard and defended in the context of the situation presented. Teachers and school administrators and even police should be heard with an open mind, as well.

Over the years I've seen too many kids bailed out of jam after jam by indulgent, well-meaning parents. They grow up with little sense of right and wrong, little sense of responsibility and, too often, a very misguided sense of their own entitlement.

So, by all means, support your children, be there for them, love them, but don't turn a blind eye to their failings. Especially listen to those who spend hours of each and every day trying to help them learn, not only the facts of history and geography and math, but the lessons needed to become a better person, a responsible adult.

The ranting, the vigils, the protests all need to wait until facts are known and justice can truly be served.

If you've had experience with an incident at your child's school or an occasion when one of your children was unjustly accused, share it with us by clicking on comments below. Feel free to agree or disagree with anything I've written.

And if you have another topic you'd like to have discussed on here, something you and your friends have been talking about, let me know about that by emailing me at I'd love to hear from you.

Sherryl Woods

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