Thanks for checking into my blog!

As a "recovering" middle school teacher with a unique outlook on life, I stopped active teaching in 2010 and moved into another career path... writing! Here goes! In addition, I am a travel buff, forever baseball addict, movie fan, music fan, foodie extraordinaire, NCIS devotee, gardener, and more.

Just love writing for kids, travel writing and basic journalism. Pretty unusual, since I taught Home Economics! But there's a story here too - a non-fiction one or more...

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Planes, Trains OR Automobiles?

Rule #13 – Push the limits of your comfort zone.

To fly or not to fly, that is the question.
Whether ‘tis better to suffer the gropes and wandings from the TSA for convenience sake,
Or to drive, perchance to train to your destination, thus seeing more of the landscape, yet taking more time from the ultimate destination…
     Many apologies Mr. Shakespeare. But those who fly regularly know exactly of what I speak. Just the thought of stuffing yourself in an aluminum tube cattle car with 300 of your closest “friends”, flinging yourself to the upper reaches of the atmosphere, praying that God doesn’t call the pilot’s number, and then making first contact with earth on the wings of a few Goodyears… flying is now a true act of faith. That’s after you get on the plane and after you get through security checkpoints.
     This past March, I decided to check another item off the Bucket List. I went to Sarasota specifically for spring training games. I also got to visit former neighbors and friends down there, but the starting reason was to see the baby O’s hatching in their spring nest. Planning the trip was interesting, since I was constantly questioned “Why are you driving? Why not fly and rent a car?” Well, I could have but… who knows if my flight would be on time; who knows if my luggage will be diverted to Havana; who knows if I’ll get sick again, like I have on every other flight. I wasn’t in the mood to deal with TSA on this trip.
So many games and teams - only so much time
      So I planned to drive down. First thing I did was call AAA travel desk. They were incredibly helpful with one glitch – the lady I talked to was in Northeast Philly’s office. When I said I was heading to spring training in Sarasota, she reminded me that the Phillies train in Clearwater. A quick conversation about where I grew up, where she was located, and where I am now located, and we were busy booking travel and hotels. She made sure I had a TripTik and maps for the entire I-95 route. Since I had my own car, I could pack, unpack, over pack, and repack as I wanted.

Welcome to Georgia
Welcome to Florida (You mean the state might be closed?)
      The drive down was pretty stress free. I bypassed Washington DC by taking Rte. 301 south. Once into Virginia, I stayed on 301 through Ft. A.P. Hill, and then picked up I-95 in Carmel Church. Once past Richmond, traffic wasn’t bad at all. I made it as far as Florence SC in one day. Found myself a MicroTel, got some dinner, then it was take it easy and get some rest. Day 2 had me hitting some serious traffic around Jacksonville FL. Someone told me that was a normal thing. But I got past it, got onto 301 south again, and got as far as Bushnell FL before it was time to stop. Another MicroTel in another town, and a place to put my tired head down… I found some nice digs for a night. All the way down, scenery was great. You know, we really do live in a beautiful country and each area is unique. You just have to slow down and look at things.
In the land where palm trees sway
Oh, yeah! I'm in Florida!
      The third day I drove directly to Ed Smith Stadium. I watched the Phillies win over the O’s (yeah, fans, the Phillies won). My AAA agent got me a room at the Hampton Inn and Suites right where University Blvd. meets I-75 in Bradenton. I enjoyed some temporary luxury while I bopped around Sarasota.
My spring time home
Facebook Feetie pic - proof I was there
Hampton Inn and Suites King Suite - a place for snacks...
...and a place to hang out with friends
     Now it took me 2-plus days to make an easy drive to Sarasota. I was not much for another 2-plus days going home. So, I had my AAA agent book me a seat on Amtrak’s Auto Train. It took me two and a half hours to get from Sarasota to Sanford in FL, where the Auto Train station is located. By the way, Orlando has DC beat on the insane traffic meter by a bunch!
Amtrak Auto Train Terminal - Sanford FL
      Here was a portion of the trip that was pure rookie experience. I pulled into the checkpoint and showed the attendant my ticket. She then handed me some small folders, one to leave with the car, and one to keep with me as I checked in inside the terminal. My beautiful blue Ford got a number put on its side. I pulled up to the terminal, got out what I needed for the night, then headed into the reservation check in while a valet took the car and put it on the car carrier. At the check in desk, I got my train car and seat number plus my meal times. Then there was some chill time until we got the call “All aboard”.
Conscious coupling of car carriers
      We got to our car and were greeted by an attendant, just as if we were flying. She helped everyone get settled in their seats and explained just how the cars were being connected and the process for dining and entertainment. While she spoke, the Amtrak crew was busy getting every car connected in its proper order. Then exactly at 4 pm, we pulled out. I saw great scenery and I didn’t have to worry about keeping my eyes on the road.
Somewhere in Florida from the train
      We had a real dinner with real food in the dining car. Not many airlines feed you fresh food anymore. I sat with three other people I never met before. During dinner and drinks we discussed our Florida trips, where we were from, and what we did, among other things.
My beef tips, garlic mashed potatoes, and seasoned green beans
     I wandered to the lounge car later in the evening. When I walked in, I felt like I stepped back into the 1940’s. The layout and d├ęcor was art deco. The only nod to the present was the 8 video screens and DVD player. We watched “Gravity” from any seat in the lounge car. Some people preferred playing cards. Others actually had a business meeting. Beverages of any proof were served. Coffee and tea were available for free. It was a great place to hang out. Some of the funnier moments were listening to those “seasoned travelers” who did a lot of kvetching about small stuff. Some people are never satisfied.
Lounge car bar, from my perch right near the bar
Lounge car lower level
     I booked a coach seat on the train, which meant I had 2 side-by-side seats plus the leg lifts all to myself. When it was time to sack out, I tried to get comfortable and get some sleep. I can’t say that I slept well that night. But, I got enough sleep in two and three hour increments to be able to drive safely in the morning.
Enough physical space
      The train started coming alive around 5:45 the next day. My breakfast time was at 6 am and I got to the dining car to find a really enjoyable continental breakfast set up for us all. Again, I sat with three strangers, who were not as talkative as the dinner friends (the hour of the day maybe?). But the selection of foods and the amount served was delicious. Fresh fruits, cereals, yogurts, bagels, coffee and juices were all served with a smile.
      At exactly 9 am we pulled into Lorton VA station. The cars were all consciously uncoupled (sorry, couldn’t resist) and we all moved into the terminal to wait for our cars to be unloaded. From the time we arrived until I got my car and got on the road, it was about one hour and fifteen minutes. Not bad, considering the train was really full. From the station, it was an easy jump to I-95 and the trip home.
Amtrak Auto Train Station in Lorton VA - just off I-95
      The train trip really pushed me out of my comfort zone. Really, I think it just stretched my comfort zone. I will definitely use the Auto Train again. Next time I may pay extra for a berth or compartment, so I can stretch out through the night. But, considering everything, it was a fun way to end a great trip.
      I never mind driving, and now I look forward to train travel. I have to fly to Milwaukee soon…. Let’s see how that goes.

All photos are the property of Marge McGugan. All rights reserved.
Portions of this post are also used in the Arden-on-the-Severn Newsbuoy "A View from the Passenger Seat" by Marge McGugan

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Writer's Spirits - Revised and Renewed

Rule #20 – Draw inspiration from anywhere and everywhere.

     Ahhhhh – Spring! 
     According to the calendar, it arrived on March 21. The weather goddess didn’t quite get the memo, since the Mid-Atlantic region got snow on March 30. Some areas still have cruddy snow piles just melting away slowly, like the Wicked Witch of the West.
     This year especially, spring has everyone ready to break out of the winter doldrums – break out the shorts for warmer weather, break out of the house and get more outdoor exercise, break out the cleaning tools and sweep winter away. This writer needs to break out the axe and start decluttering the office area again and chopping away at the mental blocks to her writing. It is time for me to dust off the shelved manuscripts and see how they will fly to publishers.
     On March 29, our regional SCBWI chapter helped me do just that. The MD/DE/WV regional group hosted a conference titled “Spring: Nature’s Revised Draft”. The goal was to help writers and illustrators clean out our personal slush piles, revise the manuscripts and kick them out of the nest and into the hands of publishers. 
Conference check-in and picking up materials
     The day started with check-in at registration and networking with a writer’s best friend – coffee. Many got to catch up with friends they see only online or at conferences. Old friendships were renewed; new ones were made. Then it was off to the keynote session.
     After welcoming all participants, Sue Peters, regional co-director, introduced Leslea Newman, who took us through her journey writing October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Sheppard. She took us back into her life and the controversy sparked with her book, Heather has Two Mommies. Leslea is not just writing now; she is writing with an advocate’s passion. She challenged all of us to imagine a world that is perfect, with peace, with no hatred, and then make a commitment to make it happen. 
Leslea Newman describing her research into Matthew Sheppard's murder
     The morning break out sessions gave everyone a chance to learn from the pros. Guiseppe Castlellano gave artists and illustrators an inside look into the world of the art director. Alex Arnold shared tips to get plots perking on paper and not just in your head. Tara Lazar showed participants how to take a picture book from a flat manuscript to a dummy book, and why that process is so critical to a story. Debra Hess gave us important tips on non-fiction – what it is, what it isn’t, and all those fine lines in between.
      Lunch time gave us a chance to shop in the book store. It was a great time for a book collector like me to buy books and have them signed by the author.
Book store is a busy place between sessions

Tara Lazar (foreground) and Leslea Newman sign their books for fellow writers
     Afternoon break out sessions focused more on specific how-to skills for writers. Sara D’Emic and Rori Shay showed their audience how to use Facebook and Twitter to build audience and promote books. Alyson Heller discussed the importance of those first chapters with her group. Christa Hescheke mapped out the route in fantasy writing that helps writers build their world and, then, sell it. Shelley Koon shared her easy methods for authors to build websites. Sara D’Emic and Rori Shay were back later in the afternoon showing their audience how to query and find an agent. Leslea Newman was back also, discussing her methods of developing characters and finding the real person in them.
     All session leaders took questions during their instructional time. But there are always some last minute questions for everyone. The all faculty panel gave the entire speakers group a chance to address questions to everyone, all at once.
     We all left the day inspired, energized, and, thanks to Shelley Koon, connected to a critique group. The chance to improve our writing will continue as we meet with other writers and revise our stories.
     On a personal note, this day was critical for me. I needed to participate, not just for the energy, but for more personal reasons. Two years ago, I was working with my critique group and got two manuscripts together. One was ready for query and the other was very close. I even had some publishers lined up for the query. Then, my husband became suddenly ill and passed away. It was a dark time for me in my mind, and my soul. Every time I thought of those stories- or if someone asked about them- I went back in my mind to those dark days of grief. I couldn’t talk about the stories at all, until recently. As part of my grief therapy, I forced myself to pull both stories out of the hard drive. I read them both. At first I felt myself going back to those dark days. I had my weepy moments and then I put them back in the drawer, not quite ready to let them go. This happened several times through the past two years. But, on that Saturday, March 29, I pulled both manuscripts out and carried them with me all day. The load was lighter. I didn’t head back the dark rabbit hole of grief. I made it through the day without crying – then or later.
     Thanks to all the help I got at the conference, I can now kick these manuscripts out of my nest. I can let them fly off to publishers.

     It’s time – time to clean out my nest and fly.

All photos are property of Marge McGugan and may not be reused or copied without written permission.