Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A Hero in My Eyes: Shannon Watts, Founder of Moms Demand Action

I remember where I was when I first saw the “Breaking News” on my iPhone: there had been a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.  I was sitting in an elementary school classroom with a cadre of teachers—we were there to learn new strategies for teaching reading. 

I remember how my heart sank. I remember what it felt like to be a mom wondering how those moms—and dads—of the fallen Sandy Hook children could possibly cope with such broken hearts. I wondered how I could live in a country that lets massacres like the one at Sandy Hook happen, and Columbine, and the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and all the countless other tragic places that shootings have happened.

Apparently another mom, in another city, had the same reaction.  But she turned her shock and horror into action. That mom is Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Shannon, who lives in the Indianapolis area, is a mother of five. A former communications executive for high powered companies, she was at the time of the Sandy Hook shootings a stay at home mom.

In a recent interview on the Katie Couric show, Shannon described how she started what would become a national grassroots movement by simply posting a page on Facebook.  I remember seeing that page when it had only several hundred likes. Now it has over 152,000 likes, and the non-profit organization Moms Demand Action has a webpage and chapters in every state of our nation.

And it turns out that determined Moms can have a very powerful voice.  When visiting the nation’s capitol building in Washington D.C. Shannon and her fellow Moms realized that when they had diaper bags and strollers in the hallways, legislators couldn’t get by without talking with them and listening to their concerns. “Stroller Jams” are now a strategic tool to get lawmakers and other stakeholders to listen.

When they learned that Starbucks had banned smoking outside their restaurants, but were allowing people to carry guns inside, the Moms mounted a successful campaign to pressure Starbucks to change their gun policy.

And more recently, the Moms’ voices were heard by Facebook, which agreed to block postings of gun sales that don’t require a background check and to block minors from seeing postings of gun sales. 

Shannon says she isn't out to take guns away from people; she supports the Second Amendment. But she is adamant that “with rights come responsibilities.”  There is an “epidemic of gun violence in this country,” she says. The stark statistic is that eight children and teens are shot and killed every single day. With this in mind, her goal is to change easy and unregulated access to guns with common sense laws.

But it’s not just Shannon’s fervor and organizational skills that make her a hero in my eyes. This woman and others in the organization have faced physical intimidation by armed bullies at rallies and when meeting in restaurants.  I guess you know you are making waves when the opposition turns out toting AK47s and rifles to face you down—you with your strollers and diaper bags.

For one minute after the Sandy Hook tragedy I thought that maybe this country was doomed. But now I know different.  Shannon Watts and more than a hundred and fifty thousand Moms have decided they will not live in a country filled with gun violence. And they do not plan to leave.  They plan to make change.

Check out Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. If you are a Mom, you might want to add your voice to theirs. And if you are not a Mom, but want common sense gun laws and an end to the epidemic of gun violence in America, I’m guessing they won’t turn you away. 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Henry S. Miller's 2014 Happiness Calendar

The 2014 Happiness Calendar below came to my email in-box as a free blog post to promote the book The Serious Pursuit of Happiness by Henry S. Miller, a motivational speaker and consultant.  I did not write it.  But I like the concept of a monthly focus on emotional wellness. Mr. Miller proposes a strategy of daily goal setting; but even if we only attend to each of the monthly themes once or twice during that month--that could still take us a long way on the road to happiness and inner peace.  I offer it to you, my readers, to take from it what you will.

The 2014 Happiness Calendar
By Henry S. Miller, Author of The Serious Pursuit of Happiness

Amp up the amount of happiness in your life each and every month of the year by intentionally focusing on 12 strategies that the science of happiness and well being has proven can increase your feelings of happiness and satisfaction. Even better: know that, if you add these actions to your life, your feelings of increased positive emotion can last for days, weeks, and even months!

If this is the year you decide to get serious about adding happiness that lasts to your life, here are 12 happiness strategies for 2014 and suggestions to make them work for you:

January:  A Month of Hope and Plans
The beginning of the year is traditionally about new years’ resolutions. This year, write one positive goal you have for the coming year down on your calendar each morning of each day of January. Also write your plan to make it a reality. Then, resolve that you will intentionally invest your time and energy to work on your resolutions during the year and to live a happier life by implementing these 12 happiness strategies – one each month.   

February:  A Month of Gratitude
Gratitude is the antidote to greed, envy, and jealously. We feel much happier when we are being grateful for what we have, rather than envious of what we don’t. Remember, no one has everything! This month, each night before going to bed, take a daily gratitude inventory. Write down three things you are grateful for about your life – your relationships, your work, your character, your family, your country, the world around you, your life. 

March:  A Month of Kindness
Plato said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” And, if you look around, it’s still true today. This month, find one opportunity each and every day to perform some kind act for someone else – even the simplest act of holding a door open for another will do. And, each day, after your act of kindness, enjoy the feeling that, for at least one shining moment, you are the personification of all that is good about the human race.

April:  A Month of Optimism
Each day this month, be more conscious of your negative thoughts – if you have any. And every time you do, immediately “dispute” it by intentionally replacing the negative thought with a positive one. Do this each time you think a negative thought for a month, and notice how your thinking might change.

May:  A Month of Friendship
Close relationships are one of the longest-lasting of happiness-increasing strategies. But, sometimes, we take our friends for granted – or are “too busy” to see them. This month, at least one time per week, reach out to a friend and arrange to spend time with them. This can be as simple as a walk, a meal, coffee, drinks – whatever you choose. But find the time to visit with your friends face-to-face this month.

June:  A Month of Love
Traditionally, June is a month of weddings – and love is all around us. Each day this month, call, write, or email someone you love or care deeply about – one per day – and tell them how much they mean to you – and how happy you are that they are a part of your life – even if you haven’t been the best communicator up to now. Notice reactions – yours and theirs.  

July:  A Month of Spirituality
Studies have proven that people who have spirituality in their lives – whether it’s their own secular belief system, their own faith, or some organized religion – are happier. We don’t know if it’s because of the fellowship of a caring group of like-thinking folks, or the spiritual beliefs themselves. This month, make a conscious effort to spend some moments each day – perhaps during lunch – repeating to yourself at least one “prayer” or belief you hold.

August:  A Month of Health, Fitness, Skill
Summer is a great time to focus on increasing your health and fitness – and on using your skills and abilities to their max. This month, begin some daily fitness regimen (check with your doctor first if needed) – even if it’s only walking. In addition, make a list of your top skills, talents, and abilities and assess if you are using them to their fullest. If not, take one step per day to begin doing so.

September:  A Month of Contribution
Making a meaningful contribution to make the planet a better place is one of the longest-lasting, happiness-increasing strategies known. What are you contributing? This month is your chance to decide what difference you’d like to make in the world. Spend a few minutes each day at lunchtime and write down ideas about how you can make a positive difference in the world. At the end of the month, decide on a plan of action – and begin! The world needs you and your contribution!  

October:  A Month of Savoring
Fall is a season to enjoy the changing foliage in many parts of the world. Consciously spend at least five minutes each day focusing your attention exclusively on something of beauty outside – changing leaves, trees, clouds, sky – something. Five minutes of complete attention to savor the beauty of life around you – each day, every day.

November:  A Month of Forgiveness
Forgiveness is a powerful, although a slightly more complicated, happiness strategy. We forgive others to make us feel better. This month, examine your life and see if there are any lingering resentments you are holding on to that are holding you back from joy. If so, do two things: First, write the apology letter you would have liked to have received from the person who has wronged you. Second, rise above your desire for revenge, and write your letter of forgiveness to them. No need to mail it, just recall the hurt or violation, write about your feelings. End the letter with your statement of forgiveness. Just this simple act of writing a forgiveness letter can often grant you freedom from your negative thoughts and give you increased happiness.

December:  A Month of Generosity
The end of the year is a time for giving – a time to donate your time, your money if you can, your skills, your positive energy, your attention – to others to help make their life a little better. Each day, find one opportunity to give something of yourself to help another – and notice your feelings.

In Conclusion
For the best results, remind yourself of each month’s happiness strategy by adding these topics to your calendar – every day of each month. Then, each day of the year, find creative ways to act on these strategies – and enjoy your reactions and your increased feelings of happiness. You’ll notice that these feelings will last far longer than the happiness you feel from just partaking of the pleasures of life – and will be more meaningful to you.

No matter what your situation, remain hopeful about increasing your happiness. The truth is that no one is ever out of the game when it comes to living a happier and more fulfilling life! As the months of this year unfold, continue all of the 12 strategies that work best for you. If you do, a year of happiness can be yours. 

About Henry S. Miller
Henry S. Miller is the author of The Serious Pursuit of Happiness:  Everything You Need to Know to Flourish and Thrive, and Inspiration for the Pursuit of Happiness:  Wisdom to Guide your Journey to a Better Life. He is also the creator of the online membership program Get SERIOUS About Your Happiness:  20 Transformational Tools for Turbulent Times. As President of The Henry Miller Group (, he is a speaker, trainer, and consultant helping organizations improve engagement, performance, and productivity specifically by increasing employee well being. In prior careers, Henry was a Senior Consultant for the Tom Peters Company training and coaching senior management teams worldwide in leadership and his initial career in corporate America was with IBM.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Mystery Writer Christine DeSmet Doesn’t Fudge When it Come to Research

Set in a combination live bait and fudge shop in Wisconsin’s vacation wonderland, Door County, filled with quirky, likeable, and energetic characters, and…oh, did I mention?...mouth-watering!  That’s the new novel by Madison, Wisconsin author Christine DeSmet who decided to make her mark on the mystery writing world by whipping up a batch of fudge.  And not just any fudge.  Cinderella Pink Fudge.  Which, unfortunately, becomes a murder weapon in her newest book First-Degree Fudge.

Now, the interesting thing to me is how someone who admits upfront that she isn’t much of a cook and who doesn’t live in Door County can write such an awesome book about, well, fudge and living in Door County.  The key ingredient here, according to Christine is research. 

I had the opportunity to interview the author recently and here are some of Christine’s thoughts on how research can bring a book to life.  Oh, and yes! If you go to her book signings, she does bring fudge—homemade fudge. Murderously delicious fudge…

MCW:  What role does research play in the fiction you create?

Christine:  Research creates my stories. I start out a story with a sketchy outline, and I know in general what the story will contain, but then after I do research I find many, many new angles and facts that change or deepen my plot, characters, and setting. There are also many facts that go into writing fiction; you have to get the facts right. My protagonist in First-Degree Fudge (Book 1, The Door County Fudge Shop Mystery Series) for example, enjoys chemistry and science, though she has no college degree in science; she’s just fascinated by what makes the world run. But to write about fudge in a scientific way, I interviewed the head of research and development at DB Infusions Chocolates in Madison, Wis., for example, and watched their process of making chocolates. I asked questions about how to handle the “crystals” that make up chocolate. That crystallization information became a clue in my mystery plot.

MCW:  Do you enjoy doing research or is it just part of the job for you?

Christine: I love it because it’s like mining for gold and always finding nuggets. I feel rich and enriched by research. I actually get very nervous writing too much of a novel without doing research because I know I’m wasting my time and getting something wrong that I’ll have to change later. Story quality and character quality always go up when you do research. I’m constantly tinkering on my stories as a result of my research.

MCW:  What is the most amazing thing you learned or the most unique experience you have ever had doing research?

Christine:  There are many amazing things! One thing that’s amazing about Door County is that it has one of the largest populations of Belgian immigrants in the United States, and everybody in Door County has an opinion on what makes good boo-yah and beer. I also got to look inside a roadside church while there; I’d never done that before. Those tiny churches—big enough to hold two people maximum usually—dot the countryside in Door County. The local people are restoring them and creating bus tours in an effort to preserve the Belgian immigrant history.

Christine also told me that since starting her new mystery series, she has learned to make fudge. She experiments and tries out all her recipes—which are included in the back of her books—on people she trusts to give her honest feedback. And she hasn’t killed off any of her taste-testers yet. So if you are looking for a rollicking fun read, that tantalizes and intrigues, and you’d like some sweet recipes to tempt the taste buds, check out Christine DeSmet’s First-Degree Fudge, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and in bookstores just about everywhere. 

A writing teacher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Christine’s first published novel, Spirit Lake, was an award-winning, best-selling novel for publisher Hard Shell Word Factory/Mundania Press. Also a short fiction writer, her humorous romantic mystery series set in Wisconsin appears in two volumes: Mischief in Moonstone and Men of Moonstone from Whiskey Creek Press as well as in several anthologies. First-Degree Fudge is the debut novel for her Door County Fudge Shop Mystery Series.

You can find out more about Christine at her website, Christine DeSmet: Author.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Glass Ocean by Lori Baker: a Review

Czech glass makers Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka were so taken by the ephemeral, translucent nature of marine invertebrates that they use the art of sculpted glass to capture the essence of these complex sea creatures.

American author Lori Baker was so taken by the story of the Blaschkas and their work creating glass replicas of underwater life that she used fiction and the art of the sculpted word to capture the essence of their complex 19th century lives.

Setting her book, The Glass Ocean, against the backdrop of Victorian England, a time of great discovery and exploration but also of upheaval both physical and emotional, Ms. Baker created characters as complex and ephemeral as the underwater creatures represented in glass by both the real and her fictional glass makers.

Told from the point of view of Carlotta Dell’oro, the daughter of glass maker Leonardo Dell’oro and the beautiful but egocentric and untouchable Clotilde Girard, who never stopped mourning the disappearance of her adventurer/collector father Felix Girard, The Glass Ocean is a study in character. 

Lori Baker’s prose is poetic, dreamlike, mesmerizing. A work of literary fiction, this is not a summer, read-at-the-beach kind of book by any means.  The narrative is dense, and what little dialogue there is is embedded in the narrative using italics rather than quotation marks to signify its presence. The first few pages captivated me. Then I began to wonder, can this author sustain the intensity of such a poetic style?  Can I sustain interest?  

In fact, Baker does sustain her intensity. And just about the time I started feeling antsy with the story, it took a right turn in terms of plot and I was captivated all over again.

I use the term story loosely here, as the Glass Ocean is not so much a story in the traditional sense, the way a mystery or romance novel might be plotted, but rather Baker’s is a study in character.  The glass in her Glass Ocean is a metaphor for the intricate fragility of her characters’ psyches.  It’s as if she spent the 330 plus pages sculpting her characters, much as the glass figurines in the story were sculpted.  

The Glass Ocean is not a book for everyone. Those who love literary fiction, who enjoy crafted writing, unique styles, complex and multi-layered characters will appreciate Baker's work.  But I recommend that anyone who loves to read give it a try, because even those who prefer more plot-driven stories may be surprised and find they can’t stop turning the pages.

Author Lori Baker has taught fiction writing, journalism, and composition at Brown University, Boston College, and Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts.  She currently lives and works in Providence, Rhode Island.  The Glass Ocean is available through and well as other online vendors and bookstores.

The glass works of Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka can be viewed in various locations on the Cornell University campus

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Pages for Peace: The Biggest Book in the World (Almost)

Imagine a book with pages 10 feet wide by 12 feet tall. Imagine that people from all over the world contribute content for that book on one subject: peace. Now imagine a group of kids who work for eight years to make it happen.

Three years ago I wrote an article for the online website about a group of middle schools students from the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District in Massachusetts who were working to create the biggest book in the world with the hope of making it into the Guinness Book of World RecordsThey called the book Pages for Peace, and they called themselves the Bookmakers and Dreamers.

Under the guidance of teacher Betsy Sawyer, these students invited schools kids and famous adults from all over the world to submit letters, notes, poetry, songs and art about peace. They received entries for the book from the Dalai Lama, former President Jimmy Carter (a Nobel Peace Prize winner), author Helen Caldecott, the late Senator Ted Kennedy, NASA Astronaut Joseph Acaba, and skateboarder Tony Hawk among others. Students from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Liberia, Kosovo, Africa, and many other countries also contributed to the book.

What was cool was how they collaborated with a group of engineering students and professors at the University of Massachusetts Lowell Campus to design a robotic page turning device.  Yes, that’s how big the book is!  It needs a robotic page turning device.  And they convinced area businesses to donate the material, ink, and printing services to make the book into a reality.

In an interview with Boston’s WCVB news Betsy Sawyer said, “[These kids] say their mission is as bookmakers they want to break a Guinness record and make it into the Guinness Book of World Records, but as dreamers they want to make a difference in the world.”

The good news is they finished the book. And I’m thinking they accomplished their dream goal, if you can measure “making a difference” by the numbers of people, children and adults, who contributed to and were touched by the construction of this book, and by the education these students received along the way. The project took eight years to complete, and many of the students stuck with it the entire time. That’s some dedication. And passion. And optimism. And problem solving. You can imagine the kind of adults they will be in a few short years.

However, the Bookmakers and Dreamers did not meet their goal of making it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest book.  That record went to the Mshahed International Group of the United Arab Emirates.  Titled  This the Prophet Mohamed, that book is a compilation of stories about Islam’s Prophet and focuses on the positive influence of Islam on the international and humanitarian scene. A worthy topic in its own right.  

Possibly the most important lesson these students learned was perspective—how  to balance the disappointment of losing a competition with the pride of an accomplishment hard earned.

John Lennon challenged people to imagine a world of peace:
“You may think I’m a dreamer, 
but I’m not the only one. 
I hope someday you’ll join us, 
and the world will live as one.”
I'm guessing these remarkably tenacious students caused the world to move a little closer to living as one. 

Check out the Pages for Peace Project on their homepage and on Facebook.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Review of Chris Eischele's Garden Truths From My Family's Stories

I have to admit up front that I know nothing about gardening—I regularly cause silk flowers to die by over-watering them.  So it doesn’t take much for me to admire those who have the knack.  However, Christine Eirschele has more than a knack—she has achieved the status of a certified Master Gardener.

Author & Gardener
Chris Eirschele
Chris loves to garden and she loves to write about gardening.  Her awesome blog ranges from specific tips about container gardening and growing edible plants to reviews of public, private, and community gardens. She is a contributing writer at  and has also written for a variety of other online sites and magazines, as well as offering her expertise speaking to community groups.  A Wisconsin native at heart, Chris now resides in Arizona, and so her knowledge of plants spans a breadth of climates.

Now Chris offers her readers, gardeners, and memoir lovers like myself a new gift.  She has compiled a collection of family stories, memories, and gardening tips into a volume titled

It turns out that Chris comes by her gardening acumen via genetics—both her father and her mother were avid, if perhaps quirky, gardeners.  So, she begins her collection of stories describing her “Legacy of Growing up Gardening.” 
In the house I grew up, soil was never dirt and the scents of organic compost no more bothersome than the smell at my nose from a bar of soap.

Earthy memories mix with tender and often comical vignettes of collecting seeds, transporting fruit trees in the back of a Rambler (that will date you, if you know what a Rambler is!), and her father hanging oranges and a banana on his brother’s apple tree that was too young to bear fruit of its own.

I especially enjoyed the chapter “Leaving Babette for French Gardens,” in which she brings to life small moments like burying the family’s pet dog in the garden, “his grave planted over with red and pink sweet Williams.” Reminiscing about touring France as a child with her mother who grew up there, Chris marvels over French container gardens that contrast with “the formal symmetrical well-manicured gardens found around the castles and estates” of that country. 

Garden Truths From My Family’s Stories is a wonderful and endearing read. It is Chris Eirschele’s first e-book and is available through Amazon for those who own Kindles. 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

High Flight - a Memorial Day Tribute to My Father

My father, Walter Percy Joque, was an Air Force navigator/bombardier in WWII. He flew missions over North Africa and Italy, where he was shot down.  He spent the last year of the war in a German Prisoner of War camp.

Dad learned the High Flight poem and memorized it to recite at military and patriotic ceremonies in the small town of Escanaba, Michigan where I grew up.  In the years before he died—at age 95—when Alzheimer’s had robbed his memory of the war, his youth, and the names of my mother and my siblings and me, he still could recite this poem.  It became like a prayer to him, as he dramatized the final words, Put out my hand, and touched the face of God,”  reaching out with his own hand and topping off the poem with,“Amen.”

High Flight
By John Gillespie Magee

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air....

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
- Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

The poem is the work of American poet and aviator John Gillespie Magee, who died in a mid-air collision  while serving in Britain during WWII.  He was flying for the Royal Canadian Air Force at the time.  He was only 19.

Various lines of the poem grace the headstones of many of the aviators and astronauts buried at Arlington National Cemetery. 

High Flight will forever be a memorial, in my mind, to my father, a member of “The Greatest Generation,” who didn’t hesitate to volunteer to serve his country in its time of need.