Author H.L. Stephens

What is Written In the Stars

For millennium, mankind has looked to the stars for answers. We have sought guidance for our future and validation for our decisions going back as far as our written records can capture. It is an age old habit. Even in this modern era of iphones, tablets, social media, and instant communication, we still look to the stars to validate our worth, and we use the same stars to validate the worth of others. If you don’t believe me, go to the nearest big name online store, and see if the stars don’t tell you something.

As a writer, I know the stars have value. I am not talking about horoscopes and fortunetelling. I am talking about those wonderful star reviews that are attached to every published work. Every writer who puts their work out on the market watches those stars as if their very life depended upon them. In some small way, it does. The life of their work depends upon those stars. Poor reviews can break an author, just as much as great reviews can make them. Every author hopes for 5 star reviews. We shout to the world when they come in. We are slightly less enthusiastic when the number reduces to 4. We are delightfully silent when the number of stars falls to 3 or less. To most authors such lackluster reviews are hardly worth mentioning. In fact, many believe they should be hidden in some dark corner of the world where no one can see their dim light. But I say, there may be something written in those stars that is worth our notice.

Back during the gold rush, everyone was looking for the giant hunk of gold that would make them instantly rich. Few people paid much attention to the tiny flakes of gold that drifted by on the currents of the rivers and streams where they panned. Those flakes and specks were hardly worth mentioning. They were hardly worth the effort to chase after them. After all, what could they possibly be worth?

The industrious few who had the gumption to sift through the muck for the gold dust and gold flakes others ignored or rejected were able to make a comfortable living for themselves. They weren’t afraid to accept a less than perfect outcome, and they didn’t give up. They may not have “struck it rich”, but they did well for themselves.

I still remember the first time I got a 4 star review. When I read what was written by the person giving the review, their praises were so glowing, it made me wonder why not 5 stars? Then I decided to see what was written in those stars. I looked at the other reviews the person wrote. What I saw surprised me.

The ratings this person gave were very dim elsewhere. 2 and 3 stars were the most this person ever granted. I received the highest rating for any book or product. Those 4 stars were a precious gift….the highest compliment that reviewer could bestow. I felt the full measure of that honor as I once again poured over the words that were written about my book. It didn’t matter how many stars were there…it was what was written in the stars that counted. I was humbled. I stopped counting the stars and started reading their message from then on.

Later on, after my first 4 star experience, I was searching for a book on a particular topic. Research for another novel. I found a book that seemed to have exactly what I was looking for, but it only had a single review. It was a 1 star review. I had learned my lesson, and sought what was written in the stars. As it turns out, the reviewer loved the book! They had accidentally hit one star instead of 5, and the system would not allow the person to change it. They wrote the most glowing review. Had I not looked beyond the number of the stars to the message behind them, I never would have seen what I needed to see. I wound up buying the book, and I celebrated that decision when I read it.

I have received several 4 star reviews for my first novel, and so far, that is the lowest I have received. I do not expect however to remain unscathed by the disgruntled reader who does not like what I have written. If I have learned nothing else in life, I have discovered you cannot please the world, and in a day and age of social media, the world has the right and the empowerment to make their opinions known. The best thing I can do is receive it graciously.

I have grown to celebrate each review for the gift that it is. Evidence of one more reader who took the time to sit through my work; whether they liked it or not. Whether they could follow the language of my novels or not. The fact that they made it to the end of the book is a joy in and of itself. They finished it. They didn’t throw it away when they reached page 10. There is something to be said in the completion of a book.

I welcome the stars in all their number. Even a single star sheds light on the world. Never forget that as children, we wished upon the first star of the evening. We weren’t afraid of the solitary star, shining all alone in the sky. We shouldn’t be afraid of it now. It has so much to tell us.

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Rediscover the joy of reading with The Case of Jack the Nipper available on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. The Case of the Wayward Fae is coming soon!

Finding the Beauty In Numbers

In this world, we put a tremendous amount of emphasis on numbers. Whether it’s a corporate business or the world of marketing and selling a book, it is all pretty much the same. The numbers are what we tend to focus on. They are the lifeblood of what we do, or so we tell ourselves every day as we pursue them. The bigger the numbers, the better we feel about things. More twitter followers. Bigger book sales. Higher ratings. The list goes on. We get so wrapped up in the numbers, however, we begin to lose sight of what those numbers are made up of. We forget that each hash mark on our tally sheet represents a soul…a living person.

In my day job, I have been buried by someone else’s numbers; someone else’s goals. There have been days when I have wondered how I was going to keep my head above the water, much less find time to do the one thing I love to do above all things. Write. It was an impossibly bleak situation, or so it felt. I will not recount how many tears fell for me; I admit only that they came and with abundance. I felt a sense of despair overtaking me, and I did not like it. I thought all was lost to me, until I was saved by a number of my own. It was a single, solitary boy.

A friend of mine from high school bought my book “The Case of Jack the Nipper” for his young son to read. His boy loves mysteries and he loves cats, so my book was the perfect gift to give. My friend is currently serving in the military overseas so his time with his family is currently shared over Facebook posts, Skype, and video clips. My friend posted on my Facebook page a video of his son reading the first few paragraphs of the first chapter of my book. His words were halted as he sounded out vocabulary that was unfamiliar to him, but as the sentences unfolded, something incredible happened. I found the burdens on my heart lifted.

I always thought the greatest gift I could receive as a writer would be a prestigious writing award or my name on the New York Times Best Seller List. Those aspirations are wonderful, and I look to them as future goals. They are part of the numbers game every writer plays a part in. When I played the video of my friend’s son reading the first few paragraphs of my book, it ceased to be about numbers and became something more. I had received a greater honor with this young boy’s introduction to my book. He was not just another tick mark on my tally sheet. He was a soul…a person. He represented the very reason why I write. The inspiration behind my words. He’s not a number to me. He can’t be. Not now, not ever.

As a new author, my numbers are small. I am not afraid to admit it. The world is just beginning to open for me, and I am just starting to navigate the waters that are required for my craft. Readers and fans are starting to find my book, and as I add to my list of offerings, that number will grow. Today, however, in my smallness, I find myself grateful for my adversity in someone else’s numbers. It helps me to remember how precious each person is who adds to my own.

Numbers are important in this great, big world of ours. We live by them. We die by them. In the world of books, the bigger your numbers, the greater your chances of success. I understand the mechanism behind the numbers. We don’t have to be blind to what’s behind the numbers, however ~ the individual souls who take joy in the stories we weave for them. I will forever keep the image of my friend’s son before me, struggling through the words of my book, seeking to lose himself in the world I created. I never want to forget that with each book sold, there is a heart behind it, longing for escape….longing for entertainment….longing for a connection to the world they have yet to visit. Or better yet, longing to reconnect to a world they lovingly visit over and over again.

Click here to read The Case of Jack the Nipper by H.L. Stephens. Available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other fine book retailers on the web.

Food For Thought ~ The Bread of Life That’s Gluten Free

We all know the saying ‘a man cannot live on bread alone’. With as true as this adage is to those of us who know its source, there are many in this beautiful world of ours who are denied the enjoyment of bread every day. I speak of those who suffer from Celiac disease or who are gluten intolerant. For them, bread is like poison, and it begins to work its evil mischief within minutes of consumption.

Now one might ask why a writer would be blogging about something like Celiac disease. I could respond by saying I just felt like it, but in truth, this blog is a promise kept to a lovely young woman I had the joy of meeting through twitter. This young woman suffers from Celiac disease, and though I do not bear the burden of the affliction myself, I have a deep love for a sister who does. When I made the connection with this young woman on twitter and discovered she longed for yummy, squishy bread that was safe to eat, I knew I had to share a few of my secrets I had uncovered over the years.

Ever since I was a little girl, I have had a love affair with cooking. I used to sit and watch cooking shows on PBS (mainly Julia Child) before there was anything called cable TV. For me, there was something magical about taking a host of ingredients, putting them together in a bowl, mixing them up, and turning them into something completely unique and delicious. I savored every culinary victory, and I learned from every mishap or mistake. In my family, bread has always been an integral part of every meal. There was hardly ever a meal without it. For me, making something delectable for my family was the greatest way for me to say ‘I love you’, so with bread being our favorite side dish, I was determined to be its master.

 

I pulled out all the stops and purchased a master baker’s instruction book. I learned about texture and how to impact the crumb. I studied sour doughs and sponges, and the chemistry behind the breads of the world. I was elated with my artisan breads, paninis, baguettes, and sweet rolls, but just as I was ready to crown myself an amateur master, I began to notice something. Every time my sister ate one of my creations, within 15 minutes or so of consumption, she would be racing to the bathroom with horrible, gut wrenching pain. It never failed.

She had never had a problem with bread before when we were growing up, but in her adult years, my sister became gluten intolerant. It was rare for it to strike in later years, but strike it did. She could no longer eat the foods that had been her favorites. They were now a poison to her system. We bought her all of the gluten free foods we could find here in the mountains, and with their high prices came the let down and disappointment that comes with eating hardtack and cardboard. The gluten free bread we could find was awful and hard as a stone. I think she cried the first time she ate it.

I laid my bread books aside, and took on a new mission of love. I would learn everything I could about baking gluten free and give my beloved sister bouncy safe bread she could love again. It wasn’t enough for it to be safe. It had to be fun to eat with a yummy fun texture. Oh the failures I went through and the thousands of hours of reading I did to find out where I went wrong. I cried and prayed and tried again so many times, I lost count. I thought I would never get it, until one day……SUCCESS!!!!

It has been many years since I first began my journey down the gluten free baking road. My failures have helped others I have met along the way, and I hope to eventually write a cookbook of some of my best recipes……the ones that have passed the test of tricking others who have no idea they are eating gluten free breads. In honor of my twitter friend, I am sharing two of my gluten free recipes – my squishy buns recipe and my pumpkin gingerbread muffins. Enjoy!

For sources on some of the hard to find or specialty items, I am providing source links for convenience. I always comparison shop so feel free to do the same. The links just make it easier to identify products and places to find them.

SQUISHY BUNS

Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees
Prepare a regular large cookie sheet by placing a sheet of parchment paper over the entire length of it. ** Don’t use air bake cookie sheets. Don’t even go there. Smack your hand away and just say no. If you use them, you will end up with gummy buns. Been there. Done that. Mistake 358. Don’t cover the cookie sheet with aluminum foil. Mistake 273. Don’t use Pam cooking spray. Mistake 194. The best buns cook on a plain sheet of parchment on a plain Jane cookie sheet.

Ingredients:
3 Slightly rounded cups of Featherlight Rice Flour Mix (Authentic Foods)
2 teaspoons xanthum gum
1/4 teaspoon ascorbic acid (Excalibur Foods) – This doesn’t go bad and a little goes a long way.
1/4 teaspoon ginger
   NOTE: The ginger and the ascorbic acid replace dough enhancer and are more effective. They also don’t contain hidden soy, which dough enhancer does.
2 envelopes of Knox unflavored gelatin (or 2 teaspoons) (Amazon)
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
7 Tablespoons white sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons Rapid Rise yeast granules
2 eggs
1/4 cup canola oil
2 cups warm water (Should be the temperature required by the brand of yeast you are using)
(Makes about 12 buns give or take)

In a large mixer, combine together all dry ingredients including yeast. With the mixer on low, add the eggs and oil. Slowly add the warm water to the flour/oil/egg mixture. At first, the flour mixture will form a ball and pull away from the sides of the bowl. As you continue to add water, the mixture will once again begin to stick to the sides of the bowl. You want this to happen. Once the water has been added completely to the mixture, stop the mixer, scrape the bowl, and then turn the mixer on high and mix for 3 minutes straight. Don’t skimp on the time. This three minutes does a few things. It adds air to the dough, which adds fluffiness. It also ensures the xanthum gum is well distributed throughout the dough which is important since the xanthum gum acts as a substitute for the gluten in making a tender piece of bread.

Check the consistency of the dough. The batter will be sticky. Remember, this is nothing like making regular bread dough. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you too will reach success. The batter/dough should be like a thick, heavy cake batter. If it is watery or runny in any way, add an 1/8 of cup of the Featherlight flour at a time to the mixture and beat it until the proper consistency is reached. Wet a scraper with warm water and scrape the sides of the bowl. The batter should look like the batter in the photo below.

Once the batter is the right consistency, you are ready to form the buns. I have tried every way to form this dough, and so far, the following method is the best and easiest way to go. Its messy but effective. Any other way, and you will wear the sticky dough from head to toe. Turn on the hot water to a trickle. You will need it while you are forming the buns. Wet your hands completely, front and back. Grab a handful of dough and form a ball, using the moisture in your hands to smooth the lumps. Try not to make the balls too big. They will rise in the oven. Trust me on this. The size in the picture below is a great size for sandwich buns or hamburger buns. I have small hands so you get an idea of the size.

Place the completed ball of bun on the parchment and completely rinse any remnant of dough from your hands. This is important. Otherwise the next bun will stick to your hands. If it starts to stick, rinse your hand under the water. Form another bun, and repeat. Try to keep your hands as clean as possible in between buns by rinsing off residue of the dough of the previous bun. You can make sandwich buns, hoagie rolls, or hot dog buns with this batter. It just depends on the shape. When the last bun is formed, scramble an egg in a bowl and brush the egg gently over the buns.

This egg wash will help provide a beautiful golden brown color on the finished buns. Let the buns rise for 20 – 25 minutes on the counter before baking. Place the buns in the oven and bake for 18 – 20 minutes or until a nice golden brown. Remove the buns and allow them to cool completely on a rack before trying to cut into them.

Variations: It can be fun to liven up this bread by adding herbs and spices to the dry ingredients. A few tablespoons of Parmesans cheese with Italian herbs can be a great addition to spaghetti night. Just decrease the sugar to 3 Tablespoons. Otherwise the sweetness will overpower the savory. Experiment with other herb blends at leisure.

One of the great things about both these buns and the following muffins is that they both can be frozen successfully for long periods. To process, Cool completely, then simply wrap each bun/muffin in Glad Press and Seal and place the wrapped items in a Ziploc freezer bag. Put the bag in the freezer and remove the contents at will. By wrapping each one individually and then bagging them, you prevent them from getting frostbite in the freezer. To warm them up, take them out of the freezer, wrap them in a paper towel, and pop them in the microwave for 10 – 15 second intervals until they are warm and soft. Then enjoy. It is that easy.

Heavenly Pumpkin Gingerbread Muffins

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees
Butter the cups of two regular size muffin tins
(makes 24 muffins)

2 Cups canned pumpkin
4 eggs
1 1/2 cups white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
8 Tablespoons butter, softened (real stuff no imitations – you sacrifice enough already)
1 Tablespoon Vanilla (real stuff no imitations – you sacrifice enough already)
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon xanthum gum
3 1/3 cups Featherlight Rice Flour Mix
2/3 cup of water

In a large mixer, combine the first 13 ingredients (up to the xanthum gum) and mix well. With the mixer on the lowest speed, begin adding flour 1/2 cup at a time. Do this very slowly. Flour will fly everywhere if you don’t. Between each addition of flour, add a little bit of the water. Again, do this slowly or you will wear it. Allow it to mix thoroughly between each submission. Once all of the flour and water has been added, turn off the mixer, scrape the sides, turn the mixer on high, and mix for 3 minutes. At the end of those three minutes, the batter should look like thick, fluffy cake batter like the photo below.

 

Pour the batter into the prepared muffin tins. Place the tins in the oven and bake for 25 minutes. Allow the muffins to cool in the tin for a few minutes before removing them to a cooling rack.
 
 
Now you are ready to munch away on muffins that are as fluffy as they are flavorful. Just prepare yourself, however. You might not be able to eat just one! Bon appetite!

Life Lessons From My Dog ~ Simple Kindnesses Go a Long Way

Sometimes the simplest gestures make the most profound impacts……

Somehow we have developed this misconception in our society that in order for something to matter….in order for it to ‘count’….it has to come in some grandiose package. Whether it is buying a gift for someone we know, making plans for that special night out, or making the right first impression, we think bigger is always better. We tend to apply the same mode of thinking when doing things for others, and unfortunately, our grand schemes tend to trip us up. Before we have a chance to be a blessing to someone else, we have talked ourselves out of whatever it was we were planning because it just got too hard. I am just as guilty as the next person for wanting to do too much and finding it impossible to live up to my own expectations. I have learned from watching my little Peanut, however, that simple kindnesses can go a long way in blessing the lives of those around me.

I know what you are thinking. How can a dog show kindness, much less teach others how to show it? I am reminded of a story about a man named Lazarus who sat by a city gate every day. He was ignored by all who passed him because he was disabled and riddled with sores. The only souls who showed him any compassion were the little dogs, who took pity upon him and licked his sores. I know. Gross, right? It was a simple kindness that was profound enough to be recorded in the pages of the Bible. Pretty impressive when you think about it, and pretty humbling when you remember what a simple gesture it was to give poor Lazarus comfort in his suffering.

My little Peanut is an amazing little girl, and yes as her mommy, I am extremely partial to her in every way imaginable. She marvels me every day, however, in the way she is with people. I learn from her so often by observing her and how other people respond to her. When I fell in love with Peanut as a puppy, it wasn’t because she was the most playful, licky puppy in the bunch. She actually was the most quiet, thoughtful one. In fact, as I sat there on the floor amongst her yappy little brothers and sister, Peanut sat there on the floor watching me, as though she was deciding something about me. When she had made up her mind, she walked over to me, through the throng of siblings. She put her two tiny paws on my knee, never once taking her eyes off of mine. It was as if she was asking me to bring her closer. I of course obeyed the silent command, and brought her near. I could smell the sweetness of her puppy breath as she sat there regarding me. She sat there silently, staring into my eyes, as though she sought the very center of my soul. She put her little muzzle to my lips and bumped me, and I knew she had chosen me at that moment. I knew I couldn’t live without this incredible little girl. Peanut was four weeks old, yet I felt the magic in her even then.

So what does all of this have to do with simple kindnesses? Everything! What makes dogs so special…..what makes my Peanut so special is the fact that no matter who you are, no matter where you came from, you are never invisible. Peanut acknowledges everyone around her. When I take her out shopping, she greets the world with her eyes and her cheery face. Every person is worth her glance and acknowledgement. You can see it in their faces as Peanut rolls by, flashing her sweet little toothy smile – each person feels special. Now admittedly, from time to time, there are people who have triggered the growl in Peanut. (I call it her inner bicious. It’s vicious…only grittier.) It doesn’t happen often, but I usually trust her instincts….that she is detecting something about a person I can’t detect myself. When these moments occur, she still is acknowledging the person, even if she is not welcoming them to come say hello.

Acknowledgement is important. We all crave it. We need it as validation of our existence in this world. It hurts when we feel invisible. It is so easy to lift the cloak of invisibility for another person simply by saying hello or offering a smile as you pass by. Think about it. How often do you greet the greeter at the local big box store? How often do you smile at or say hello to the person cleaning the bathroom at your office building? Do you even know their name? Have you ever said hello to the Salvation Army bell ringer at Christmas when you didn’t have any change? It is a simple kindness to do these things, to acknowledge the hidden masses of people around you and let them know they aren’t invisible. It takes no effort at all.

Many times when I shop with Peanut, it is like running the gauntlet. I cannot take very many steps without someone coming up and asking to pet her. I love it because it is one of the ways I can show kindness to others by allowing them to share some of the magic of my little girl. Peanut is always so gracious and gentle too. She responds to others’ gentleness as well, and will often lick the hand of those who treat her with a soft touch. It is her way of saying ‘thank you’. It is a simple kindness, and its effect on people is as extraordinary as if she gave them the key to the city. Better even, because I don’t think the city could hold the same appeal. We have lost the habit of saying ‘thank you’ to each other. We tend to take things for granted. We expect things from people because it is their job….because they are supposed to do whatever it is we think they are supposed to do. Serve us, give to us, entertain us, clean up after us. There is magic however in those two simple little words when said with a sincere heart. Thank you. Thank you for putting this report together. Thank you for making my stay so pleasant. Thank you for standing out in the cold and pumping my gas. Thank you for your service. Thank you for doing what I could not or did not do for myself. Thank you just because. You can transform a person’s day with a simple thank you. It is the simplest kindness imaginable and perhaps one of the most powerful.

I could go on and on with examples, but I think the point is made. A simple kindness is something anyone can do. It takes so little effort but can have a huge impact on those around you. It is so easy, a sweet little dog can do it. What holds us back so often is our fear. Fear of rejection. Fear of making a fool of ourselves. Fear of making a mistake or getting it wrong. There is always a chance our kindness will be rejected. It is the risk we take in life every time we step outside our door, but we lose nothing when we reach out to our fellow man and acknowledge in some small way that he or she matters. It is a cup of water to a parched soul. If my little Peanut can boldly approach each day showing simple kindnesses to everyone she meets, the least I can do is try and live by her example. Thank you friends for reading to the end!

When Love Breaks Your Heart ~ Saying Goodbye To My True Sir Happy Heart

There is a saying that behind every myth or legend is a grain of truth; no matter how small the grain may be. The same may be said for every story conceived by the heart of man. Somewhere between the layers of fiction and fantasy…..amid the fanciful scenery and unknown realms…..wrapped inside the quirky habits and eccentricities of the characters that draw the reader ever deeper into the story they enjoy lays some truth about the writer’s heart. Whether it be a writer’s love of the history so artfully woven into a historical novel or a striking resemblance of a villain to a writer’s own real-life nemesis, reading an author’s stories will tell you something about them, no matter how insignificant the revelation may be.

To read The Chronicles of Mister Marmee will reveal much about me and my heart, for it is a tribute to one of the greatest love stories of my life. It is a love story that will forever shape and influence me no matter where my life may lead me. It is a love I cannot and will not ever forget. On Tuesday, February 19, 2013, the real Sir Happy Heart – the inspiration for the Sir Happy Heart in the Chronicles of Mister Marmee series – died. He would have been 15 years old February 22.

Sir Happy Heart

Sir Happy Heart, or Happydog as we were prone to call him, was a miniature black and tan dachshund. He was a small dog – about 15 pounds – but there was nothing small about this bighearted little boy. In so many ways, he was a giant even among giants.

Trying to capture the essence of my Happydog in words is like trying to capture the magnificence of the universe with a single photograph. It is a task which is impossible to accomplish because the tools are inadequate for the task. Oh certainly, he was as much a down-to-earth dog as the next spectacular canine companion, but there was something about Happydog that made him different. It was his spirit, and anyone who ever had the privilege to meet this little dog felt it as clearly as one feels the sunlight on their skin on a warm, summer day.

Happydog survived demodectic mange, 2 serious back surgeries (within a month of each other), and a host of other illnesses that would have put any other dog down. We jokingly called him our million dollar dog because we spent every penny we had and maxed out every credit card to save him each and every time. Had he been any other dog, he would have succumbed to one or all of these physical battles, but Happydog was a fighter that wouldn’t give up, so we didn’t either. And he pulled through, every time. I thought he would live forever. He marveled his vets and the specialist who worked with him. He humbled them when they said he might never walk again and he did within hours of the surgery, but that was just the way my little miracle boy was. His spirit wouldn’t let him give up. He kept fighting, right up to the very end.

Happydog wasn’t just a fighter. He was a soul mate, and not just to me but to each member in my family. Happydog was my momma’s dog, but I guarantee if you were to ask anyone in the house who his favorite was, they would whisper behind their hand (or paw), “It’s me!” He just had a way of making you feel like you were the most important person in his world when he was with you. When I had my tonsils removed and had an arterial bleed…..twice….Happydog lay with me and never left my side. For six weeks, he lay on the couch with me watching and waiting for me to get better. In 2011, when I ended up in the ER where doctors found massive tumors in my abdomen, and we feared it was cancer, after the surgery and for two months during my long recovery, Happydog lay in bed with me watching and waiting for me to get better.

It was just his way to always be there, like my beautiful black and tan guardian angel. When I was in school, he did homework with me and when it was time for a break, we played. Is it any wonder that such a glorious heart would become the breath of inspiration for The Chronicles of Mister Marmee? Oh yes, I know, Mister Marmee is a cat who tells the tales of his adventures with his beloved friend Sir Happy Heart. But if you listen carefully, as you read the words of the story, you will begin to hear the melody of the heart of my boy in the tenderness and charming refrain of Mister Marmee as well. For I can no sooner separate the voice of my boy from my two favorite characters than I can remove the love I have for him from my heart. He is everywhere within the pages of my books.

Through every word of the Chronicles of Mister Marmee ~ The Case of Jack the Nipper and through most of the first draft of the Case of the Wayward Fae, my own Sir Happy Heart lay with my little girl Peanut Pumpkin Pie and watched me write his adventures.

Now that my Happydog is gone, there is a void in my spirit that defies description. I did not know I could feel such pain as this. I know in part it is magnified by the loss of my beautiful Jessie Bess in November of last year, just three short months ago. He was another glorious dog who left me way too soon. For Happydog, there is a special sense of emptiness for he gave life to the stories I love to write so much. For a time, I feared his voice would be silent forever, buried beneath a grief I could not overcome. This weekend however, I dared to try…to face what I feared the most…..the unbearable silence of my boy’s stories. I am still working on the ending of the Case of the Wayward Fae, and I need to finish it for Happydog. I need more than anything for his story to continue. For it to end would be like losing my Happydog all over again. The most miraculous thing happened as I once again looked upon the written words that represented in some small measure the spirit of my boy……his voice once again came alive in my head.

I may have lost the precious Happydog that brought such joy everyday to me, but I still can celebrate and share the spirit that gave him life. Sir Happy Heart…..my Sir Happy Heart…..will live on in the pages of each new novel in the Chronicles of Mister Marmee series. It is the greatest testament to his love for me and the greatest way I can honor him for 15 years of selfless love and devotion. I know one day I will see my boy again if God deems me worthy to run among the angels, for surely that is where my Happydog is. He was an angel come to earth for a time who has returned back to heaven. Run free my little love. I will miss you, always.

Chipping Away At the Fiscal Cliff One Book At a Time

The Fiscal Cliff. It is a term we have all heard a million times before. It is the proverbial dead horse that has been beaten and ground into the mud so many times, there is little left to look upon but a greasy smear. I certainly have grown weary of the debates and the raucousness associated with those two little words. I had pretty much decided to move on with my life and ignore the Fiscal Cliff – that is until I found myself pushed over its edge. 

I got my first paycheck from my day job for 2013 the other day, and I saw in bright, undeniable terms just how real the Fiscal Cliff was to me and how real it would be to millions of Americans across this great country of ours. Frankly, it hurt me in the pocket book. My check was smaller…..much smaller. I discovered to my horror I was bringing home less money than I did when I started my job some 5 years ago. I found myself scrambling to redistribute money I had already budgeted out for bills, groceries, and, yes, the occasional moment of entertainment with a now more anemic pot of money, just to get me through another two weeks before my next anorexic paycheck was direct deposited, so I could start the process all over again.

I resented this process and the shock my sudden fiscal misfortune caused, but it got me thinking. As I worked through the devastating effects of the Fiscal Cliff reality on my life, I knew there would be others who were battling with the same predicaments I was, and they would be asking the same question I found myself asking as I looked through my list of wants and needs, determining what I could actually afford. What expendable item should I cut from my budget first? I knew the answer before I even asked the question. Entertainment items would be the first thing to go. The fun things are usually what suffer in times of financial crisis. The more expensive the fun thing is, the more likely it is to be cut from the list.

It is a shame when you think about it. The fun things suffer when hardship comes. In hardship, aren’t we most in need of something to distract us and take our minds off of the difficulties we face, even if it is for just a brief moment? As I thought about this conundrum of finances versus entertainment needs, I thought about my writing and my first novel. I want more than anything to make a living doing what I love to do. In order to do that, I have to have an audience for my first novel. If I have an audience for my first novel, as I work diligently on my second novel, it will create (hopefully) an automatic readership for it. The key to this happening is for people to buy the first book and fall in love with what they read. If the country is locked in a financial crisis where most families are faced with the same dilemma of a limited budget, the likelihood of my first novel being included as part of that budget dwindles.

The thought was pretty disheartening at first; this idea of my potential success as a writer being affected by circumstances in Washington that were out of my control. Then it hit me. I may not be able to control what happens in Washington or even what choices people make in regards to what stays on the budgetary list and what does not, but I can make my first novel more affordable and more accessible to the average reader on a budget. And that is exactly what I have done. I have permanently lowered the price of The Chronicles of Mister Marmee ~ The Case of Jack the Nipper eBook from $4.99 to $2.99.

When I was a kid growing up, we didn’t have a lot of money. In fact there were most weeks where we spent the last few days before payday on a wing and a prayer. I babysat, did mail in rebates (when they were still offered in the coupon section), collected aluminum cans…..you name it…..just to bring in a little extra money to help my family make ends meet. I never thought of us as poor. I just knew we were cash deficient. My one big treat every now and again was a trip to the used book store that was down the road from our house. It was back in the day when a new paperback book was under $3. This bookstore sold used books for half off the cover price, and I could usually afford to spend $3 every other week or so. I would scour the shelves for my hidden treasures and would carefully count out the change to the man who owned the store when I found exactly what I was looking for. Somehow it always came out just right. It never went over the $3 I carried in my pocket. There was always some ‘special deal’ that kept me from having to part with one of my treasures and put it back on the shelf with the hope it would still be there the next time I came to call.

I have often thought back on that time and the used bookstore I loved so much. I believe in my heart of hearts the owner knew my financial situation and always managed to find a way to work out the price of my treasures so I could afford to have some distraction in my day to day life. He knew I needed to have those worlds to lose myself in. Those wondrous worlds found only in the pages of my beloved books. I don’t think he ever made much money off of me, but I think he gained a lot more from the experience than could ever be deposited in the bank.

In my small way, just like the man at my favorite used bookstore, I am taking a stand for my readers. It is a small gesture I know. It won’t make much of a dent on the Fiscal Cliff, and it won’t change the reality that so many families will be facing throughout this next year, but it is a chip nonetheless. A single chip that in its smallness, weakens and marrs the face of what had once been a seemingly impervious and unmarred cliff face. And who knows…..perhaps my small act will inspire others to chip away at the cliff as well, remembering always that we rely upon each other to get through this life in one piece. If enough chips are made in the cliff, perhaps it will crumble, and we will discover that together, we can weather the worst. Perhaps we will be scraped and bruised but never overcome, as long as we chip away at these cliffs together.

I know……it sounds like a tall order for a small chip, but it has to start somewhere. Someone has to strike the first blow, and today, my hammer swung. Perhaps tomorrow, you will have the courage to pick your hammer up and see where it lands.

The Chronicles of Mister Marmee ~ The Case of Jack the Nipper can be purchased for $2.99 from the following retailers:

Amazon
Apple iTunes
Kobo
Smashwords (all formats)

Pricing will be reflected at other retailers (Barnes and Noble, Diesel, Inktera, etc.) over the next few weeks as the distribution lines are updated.

The Next Big Thing…Blog Hopping With H.L. Stephens

Hello friends! Today is a bit of an experiment for me so bear with me as I muddle my way through it. I was graciously invited to be part of THE NEXT BIG THING blog hop by Vicki Taylor, a fellow novelist and all around generous soul, who coordinated all of this so the rest of us could share our newest projects with the rest of you. Here is how Vicki describes the purpose of the blog hop: 

“THE NEXT BIG THING” is designed to raise awareness of our work, or work in progress. We do that by answering ten questions about it. We graciously thank the person who nominated us, and tag four to six other authors whose work could very well be THE NEXT BIG THING.
So having made the introductions, here we go:
 
What is the working title of your next book?
The Chronicles of Mister Marmee ~ The Case of the Wayward Fae
Book 2 in the Chronicles of Mister Marmee Series
Where did the idea come from for the book?
The idea of the Wayward Fae popped into my head one day when I was showering. (For some reason, I get a LOT of ideas when I shower. Some people sing in the shower; I apparently write. Go figure.) There is a story from my mother’s childhood I have always loved. She was a precocious little girl and extremely bright which is reflected in the events of this particular story. I had been reading quite a bit about fairy lore; more specifically about the historic references to ‘encounters’ with fairies and the like. I started thinking about the story of my mother and about the things I had read involving these encounters. I suddenly had this idea begin to weave itself in my mind, and within a short period of time, the Case of the Wayward Fae took shape. It was rough but that is how it came to be.
What genre does your book fall under?
The Chronicles of Mister Marmee series falls into the crime/mystery genre but with an unconventional twist. It is set in Victorian Era London and in some ways has a Holmesian vibe, but toss out what you know or think you know about this writing style. I like to break the rules a bit.
As far as age group, I don’t write with a specific age group in mind. I view my audience as ageless, if that makes sense. I would hate to tell a child in middle school they couldn’t handle Pride and Prejudice or an adult they aren’t allowed to enjoy Harry Potter. I think each person can decide for themselves whether my novel is something they would enjoy.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Although I had not contemplated it before this blog hop, I will take a stab at casting the lead characters ~

Mister Marmee: (voice) Sir Derek Jacobi
Sir Happy Heart: (voice) Orlando Bloom
Lady Jasmine: (voice) Kate Blanchett
Doctor Stephen Hanover: Colin Firth
Charles Hurst: Jude Law
Amelia Hurst: Mia Wasikowska
Inspector Hyrum Farley: Chris Hemsworth

 
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Upon retreating to the country for a much needed holiday, Mister Marmee and Sir Happy Heart’s investigative skills are pushed to the absolute limits when a series of fanciful fairy encounters are complicated by two suspicious accidental deaths, two attempted murders, an arson, and the disappearance of a young girl who no one knows is missing.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
The search is currently underway for appropriate representation for this work.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
Mister Marmee has been an old friend of my imagination for many years now. My first novel in this series, ‘The Case of Jack the Nipper’, was an act of love which took the better part of six years to complete from start to finish (including editing and release). I was going to school full time and working so I crammed in what I could when I could. The second novel is much the same. I will note it is still a work in progress, but I got the idea for the second book two years ago while I was still neck deep in the first one. I guess if you pushed together all of the hours I have written on the second book over the last two years and viewed it as if I were writing it on a full time basis, it has taken me a few months to get where I am in the manuscript.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I honestly don’t know of any books that are like mine, although I have been told there are mystery books with cats in them. From what I understand, mine is a unique concept, but The Art of Racing In the Rain by Garth Stein is a book that has the similarity of being told from an animal’s perspective.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
If a picture says a thousand words, then, here are four pictures that speak to the amazing little boy who is my Sir Happy Heart. Fifteen years ago this February, we brought this amazing little boy home, and he has taught me so much about the spirit, ingenuity, loyalty, and love these little creatures have. My Sir Happy (or Happydog as we call him) has gotten me through some of the best and worst times in my life. He has been a faithful friend and as true to me as any person I have ever known. There is no greater inspiration I could have for the Sir Happy Heart in my story. Mister Marmee in truth was the perfect compliment to my little boy. I never planned on writing a novel really but I wanted something that would be a lasting testament to the amazing individual Happydog has always been. I wanted to honor him for his love and friendship, and so I started to write the story of a dashing young dachshund who could solve any puzzle and sniff out any clue; a perfect reflection of my little boy.

 

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
The Case of the Wayward Fae is more fast paced and action packed than The Case of Jack the Nipper was in many respects. The main characters are well established, and so I was able to do more with them, pushing them to greater depths in this novel than I could in the first novel. There are moments which will leave you reeling from unanticipated twists and turns, yet I promise you, every time, you will find yourself coming back to discover what happens next. This manuscript has been thrilling to write, and I believe it will be equally thrilling to read…..or so says my muse Happydog.
* * *
Here are the fabulous authors I’ve chosen to tell you about their Next Big Thing!

Life Lessons From My Dog: Taking Joy In the Little Things

All it takes is one look at my little girl Peanut to know she has a happy life. She beams her joy from every tuft of hair on her body. It is as unmistakable as the smile on her face. I wish I could take all of the credit for her exuberance in life, but it would be like me taking credit for the brightness of the sun or for the sparkle of an expertly cut diamond. My baby girl shines as brilliantly as she does because she takes joy in the little things in life, and she actively seeks it with every ounce of energy she has.

My little girl can take the mundane in life and turn it into something marvelous. She writes about it on her blog. It doesn’t matter to her if I buy her the most expensive toy in the store or the most dazzling haute couture on the web. She is just as easily entertained by a ‘happy sock’ pulled from the laundry basket (clean or dirty – it makes little difference to her), and she acts as if she is adorned like a princess if she is wearing an ugly sweater I crocheted myself. Don’t worry, it is not a task I attempt often. The point is, Peanut finds everything in her world to be marvelously made and wondrous to behold.

And don’t make the mistake of believing my little girl is some ‘dumb dog’ who doesn’t know any better. She is in truth perhaps the wisest person I know, because she has enough sense to take joy in the little things in life and savor each moment as if it was a miracle. She performs this ritual of joy and joyness every day, in everything she does. She is the Martha Stewart of dogdom. She can make a toy out of anything….a used dryer sheet, a cardboard paper towel tube (or doopty-doo as we call them), a sock, a leaf, a tag from just about anything, a scrunchie pulled fresh from my hair. Each one has had their day in the spotlight. She can make a happy moment no matter where she is or who she is with. And so as I watch her and delight in her silly-billy ways as I call them, I learn from her and try to apply a bit of her joyful wisdom to my own life.

So what does that mean as a writer? How can I apply this ‘happy sock’ mentality to my every day living? Maybe it is not the best idea to pull my socks off in public and start whipping them around. That might be the moment they call the men in white coats to come and take me away. What I can do, however, is try to take the joy in the little things, and when the little joys seem few and far between, I can actively look for those joys and hunt them down if necessary.

I will give you an example….as practical an example as I can offer and one which came up just the other day. I was having a discussion with a writer friend of mine and made a comment about wishing my sales were better for my first novel, especially since there is no threat of me quiting my day job any time soon. It was one of those offhanded remarks, but the answer I received made me stop and think. He said, “the (sales) will ALWAYS be smaller than you like. I’m sure Stephen King wishes the other 20% of earth’s population would buy his books like the first 80% have. What matters is that you HAVE numbers. If you’ve sold one copy of your book to a total stranger who bought it because they were intrigued enough to part with real actual money, you’re a million light years ahead of the person who’s still fretting about whether or not they should write a book.” It was my happy sock reminder.

As a writer, there are times when I feel a little impatient for my happy-ever-after-someday to catch up to me. Any writer worth their salt hopes…….prays even……that one day, they get to  do the one thing they love to do for a living and actually make a good living doing it. No one wants to live out of a cardboard box while they are writing the next great novel. So it can be hard waiting…….. But there is joy to be found in the little things, like my Peanut has shown me.

Joy number 1 – I wrote a novel! Whoo hoo!
Joy number 2 – People are voluntarily reading that novel and paying good, hard-earned money to do so! (If that’s not a happy sock moment, I don’t know what is.)
Joy number 3 – The novel was good enough, they are asking about the second one! (It just keeps getting better and better!)
Joy number 4 – I can now afford to buy myself a few more happy socks and scrunchies for my dog to play with.
Joy number 5 – I have just begun my adventures in writing. It can only get better from here.

Life is filled with baby steps, whether you are venturing out into the world for the first time as a novelist, making preparation for a big presentation at work, or running for congress for the ninetieth time. The road itself from start to finish can feel like a daunting path, but there are plenty of joys to be savored along the way – little joys that help lighten the moments when our burdens feel heavier than we would like.

When my heart begins to feel the strain of the journey, I think of Peanut and remember to look for the little joys along the way. Some days it may be harder than others, but I have discovered, the more I seek my little joys, the more able I am to find them when I need them the most. And when I am find myself in greatest need, I look to Peanut….my greatest joy of all.

Goodbye 2012 ~ What a Difference a Year Can Make

As I look back over 2012 (as I am certain the rest of the world has already done a million times by now), I am blown away by how much has happened just in my own little life. Were I to try and enumerate the global ramifications of what occurred in 2012, we would be here…..well, through the rest of 2013. And the goal of this post is not to be a periodical to my few readers but more of a reminder to myself that things can change so quickly if you just give them time to do so.

In January of last year, I never could have imagined that by June, my first book would be published. I had been working on my book for many years already, and I had reached the point where I took its state of unreadiness for granted. It wasn’t that I didn’t put my full effort into it; it’s just that when you are going to school full time and then working full time at a job that is over an hour away from where you live, there is little free time to fit in the one thing you love to do. So I was like the whittler with the tiny pocket knife, scraping away tiny curls of  wood from the giant piece of oak. Finally, in 2012, the last curl fell to the ground, and I was finished. It was a work I could be proud of. It was a real accomplishment, and it was the start of a whole different type of journey for me that I never could have anticipated the year before.

I still have my day job and probably will for a long, long time. I still have work to do where my first novel is concerned. 2013 will be my year for agent hunting, publisher submissions, and probably more rejection letters than I care to think of, but I am ready for it. I have 2012 under my belt. It was a year I never expected. I published a book. A real, honest to goodness, full epic length, read-and-enjoyed-by-strangers-across-the-country novel, and that is something that no one can take away from me. There are people who loved what I wrote (and no…..they are not relatives although the three members of my family are very excited about what has happened.) They are actual fans who are anxiously awaiting the next installment of the Chronicles of Mister Marmee. And many of those fans have become friends during the wait. All I can say is WOW! I feel pretty humbled by 2012 and the blessings it has brought.

2012 has been a year of personal triumphs, but it has had its fair share of tragedies too for my family. Every family in the world has faced them, I know. The particulars are not as important in my mind as how I have chosen to view them in the end. It is so easy in the light of heartache and hardship to lose sight of the blessings (both large and small) that are sprinkled in between the hard times, but I chose to remember a very simple principle at those times when I find my heart failing me. A light, no matter how dim, will always burn brightly in the darkness if you open your eyes and look for it.

So as I face a new year with new possibilities, I am looking for the little sparks of light wherever I can find them. I don’t know what this next year will bring, but I am determined to illuminate it with whatever wondrous bits of light I can grasp. I wish you all a year of happiness and joy. I wish you all peace and safety, and most of all, I wish you many sparks of light to brighten up the darkness along the way. Blessings to you all my friends!

A Tribute To My Jessie Bess ~ When You Have To Say Goodbye To a Best Friend

The past few days have very hard for me….’impossible’ might be a better word. It is not because of the election or Hurricane Sandy or any of the thousands of other issues being reported in the news. I just had to say goodbye to a dear friend on Monday, November the 5th….actually I said goodbye to a best friend. His name is, or was, Jessie Bess. At least that is what I called him in my moments of affection. He was an Australian Shepherd mix who graced the lives of me and my family for 13 years. He was a silly, funny, gentle giant of a dog that we rescued when he was 6 months old or so. He was only supposed to be 40 pounds; at least that is what the vet said. He was saved from the side of the road with 6 other siblings when he was 3 months old, and we were assured he was going to stay the size he was. When Jessie Bess hit 85 pounds, we knew something big had gotten into the proverbial woodshed, but we didn’t care. By that time, Jessie Bess had already won his way into our hearts.



Jessie Bess was my dad’s dog, but like with any angel that is sent into your life, the magic he wielded ensorceled us all. He was so silly and fun. He bit his nails like a nervous teenager, spitting the tips out on the floor once he had managed to coax them free. He spit like a farmer, and you could hear it from across the room. Sometimes, he would toss a back leg over his back and chew his back nails that way. It was sure to bring a bubble of laughter from anyone who saw his silly ways. I think sometimes he did it just to make us laugh. He was just that kind of dog.

Jessie Bess had a hard beginning, and we had many issues which had to be worked through. The first part of his puppy hood was traumatic, and my dad worked tirelessly with Jessie to help the ‘good dog’ in him come out.  Jessie was scared of everything at first. I can only imagine what he went through before we met him. I tried not to go there because the thought of his suffering was more than I could bear at the time. I simply found myself thanking God that we had Jessie, especially with every triumph in his training and every obstacle he overcame.

 


Jessie Bess was very gentle, we found out and would play with his ‘big brother’ Happydog (a miniature dachshund) in such a way where Happydog would always be safe. Happydog took playing very seriously, and so often, Jessie Bess would let Happydog win at whatever game they played. It didn’t matter to Jessie. He just loved the play and loved his ‘big brother’. Jessie was just that kind of dog. When I got my little girl Peanut Pumpkin Pie, a tiny Pomeranian puppy that had captured my heart, Jessie was just as gentle and loving with her. They shared the dog beds and play time, and Jessie endured patiently any puppy tendencies that Peanut had related to him. Frantic lick attacks. Barks in the face. Feverish game of puppy tug of war. It didn’t matter to Jessie. He took it all in good strides. Peanut loved him so much and he her!

Peanut grew up with Jessie and over the 8 years they spent together, Jessie became her protector and ours. He saved my mom and Happydog from being attacked by a neighbor’s dog. He kept diligent watch when our area was overrun by coyotes looking for a meal. He was our strong boy when we were outside, and he was always on guard when we laid down at night, sleeping wherever he thought was the best vantage point. He was as faithful as it gets. For all his fierce protectiveness, though, Jessie’s sweet heart saw himself as a little dog who wanted nothing more than to crawl up in our laps and cuddle when all was well.

 


Jessie Bess loved to play, he loved his ‘pack’, and he loved his family. He was the best dog in the world. It felt like he would be with us forever. Where my books were concerned, I had it all planned out. Jessie Bess was going to make his debut in book 4 of The Chronicles of Mister Marmee. He was a perfect choice for the storyline. I never thought I would be writing his story after he was gone. I never really saw his age until the very end, when his body began to fail him, and my family and I found ourselves facing what no one ever wants to face…the loss of a best friend.

How do you say goodbye to a best friend? How do you come to terms with the reality that you will never, on this earth, see them again? We tried everything as poor Jessie Bess fought the ravages of age. We bought expensive medicines and tried supplements, bargaining for more time. We steadied his hips as he walked up and down the stairs to go outside. We cleaned up his accidents in the house when he started losing the ability to ‘hold it’, and we justified those times as being related to the medicine we were giving him. There came a point however when we realized that life had lost its joy for Jessie Bess. He could barely make it up the stairs, and there were times when he would simply collapse. He didn’t understand what was happening to him, and we couldn’t make things better no matter how hard we tried. Jessie Bess became lost and confused, and we knew he was reaching a point where he wouldn’t remember who we were anymore.

It was so hard to see that in his eyes and to know we had ran out of time and things to bargain with. It was the second worst day of my father’s life, the day he realized it was time to free Jessie from the darkness while Jessie still knew who my dad was. The worst day of my dad’s life was the day he said his final goodbye to his best friend Jessie. I would have given anything to spare my father that pain. My dad was doing the best he could for his faithful little boy, ensuring in his last hour that Jessie Bess was not alone. And now being on the other side of that final act of kindness, mercy and love, we all are suffering from shattered hearts trying to fill the hole where Jessie Bess used to be. It feels like the most unbearable grief, and I wonder to myself whether it will ever ease. I have wondered why it has to hurt so much to say goodbye.

Then I realized it hurts because it is supposed to hurt. I lost a part of myself when I said goodbye to Jessie Bess for the last time. Jessie had become integrated into the very fiber of being, and to lose him was like having a part of me ripped out. Jessie loved me for me, with no strings attached and no demands. He didn’t know any other way to be. Jessie’s love for me – in spite of all of my faults and imperfections – was a reflection of the kind of love God has for me. Selfless. Unconditional. Pure. Perfect. The pain of Jessie Bess’ loss reminds me I am still close to God’s heart. The pain I feel means I loved Jessie to the best of my human ability with the right kind of love. I responded to the God-spark in Jessie and embraced it with both hands. Without my passionate love for Jessie, there would be no pain in losing him. So maybe, just maybe, I have a spark of God within me, too…..some remnant of the time in the Garden when things were as God intended….before we got in there and messed it up.

Was it not God who took time to enjoy the beauty of all that He created? Was it not God who saved 8 people and THOUSANDS of animals during the flood? Was it not God who made a covenant with man AND beast after the flood waters receded? Is it not God who knows the name of every sparrow that falls to earth? That kind of love….God’s love….is immense, and it was God’s love of his animals….His creation….that was first instilled within Adam in the Garden of Eden. Did God not bring each animal to Adam for him to name them? Why would God have asked for such a personal touch on Adam’s part if He had not intended there to be a more intimate relationship between Adam and the animals under his care?

 


Perhaps I am over-simplifying things or perhaps I am giving myself way too much credit for the love I had for one faithful, loving dog, but I believe my sweet Jessie Bess has his reward now for living and loving so selflessly. And perhaps, just perhaps, God will deem me worthy enough one day to see my sweet love again in heaven. I think the key lies in living by Jessie Bess’ example – loving those around me without condition. After all, I spent 13 years observing a master of the art, and I am better for that time with Jessie Bess in the end, pain and all. I love you Jessie Bess. Run free and far in God’s Garden. Just please don’t forget me while you are there. I will never forget you!