Heather Smith
Way back in the year 2008, I posted a blog entry called "A Face Only A Mother Could Love". It was an homage, of sorts, to ugly actors on TV. And that got me thinking about singers ... because, just as it is refreshing to see an actor in a leading role with a face like a blind carpenter's thumb (see British telly, any programme), it's a welcome break from the Britneys and the Christinas to hear a singer with a 'six pack a day' voice (think Leonard Cohen).

The likes of Neil Young and Shane McGowan seem to be a thing of the past. Turn on the radio these days and you'll hear range, resonance, and runs. Quite the contrast to the monotonous crooning of the above mentioned Cohen.

A voice like a bucket of rusty nails may be grating at times but it's never boring. If anything, it adds character.

So I wonder ... is there a current popular singer on the airwaves today with a voice only a mother can love? I can't think of one.

And I wonder still ... what does Willie Nelson keep up his nasal passages?
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Heather Smith

What's great about pajamas is how different they are from anything else in your wardrobe. Think about it. What else comes close? You might say 'well, they're pretty similar to my velour track suit'. That may be true, but is your velour track suit printed with Hello Kitty?

The thing about PJs, besides their undeniable comfort factor, is their ability to allow a grown woman (or man) to wear childish prints - when else is it acceptable for someone over the age of six to wear Elmo?

I would never wear a shirt adorned with a Muppet but I'd kill for an Animal nightshirt. And if footed pajamas came in adult size, I'd buy a pair in bubblegum pink ... printed with bunnies ... with a flap on the bum.

I know what you're thinking. Where the hell did the velour track suit reference come from? I dunno. I think they were popular, like, ten years ago. You could get them with things written across the bum, like Juicy and Luscious. I'd never wear anything written across my bum in public, but I'd consider Snoozapalooza across the arse of my jammies ... I'm sure it would fit.

These are my random thoughts on my favourite article of clothing, scribed at 7:30 pm, as I sit in my easy chair, already wearing my 'slices of cake' pajamas.

I know what you're thinking. Who the hell says 'easy chair'? Apparently I just turned into a seventy-five year old man, in which case I need to get myself off to Sears for a pair of button down pajamas, tartan, flannel, and with a matching robe.

I might even get myself a night cap.
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Heather Smith
My friend, Nan, will appreciate this post because what I'm about to rant about happens to her all the time.

Whenever I tell people that I write for children and young adults, quite often the response is "Oh, I'd like to do that, if only I had the time."

I think the next time I meet a surgeon I'll say "Wow, what a great job. I'd like to give that a bash, if only I wasn't so darn busy."

Okay, perhaps I'm stretching the argument. But for someone to flippantly suggest that "time" is the only thing keeping them from being the next JK Rowling is, frankly, bloody annoying. And not only is it bloody annoying, it's insulting. If it's all as easy as they suggest, what does that say about my writing and the fact that it's yet to be published?

So, for all those people out there who have yet to put pen to paper, but have written their Giller Award acceptance speech, realize this: writing for children and young adults ain't easy. Believe it or not, it actually requires talent beyond Dick and Jane.

Becoming a successful writer means more than sitting at Starbucks scribing a masterpiece over a Skinny Vanilla Latte. There are cover letters to be written ... plot synopses to devise ... author's bios to embellish! Becoming a successful writer is hard work - and if the rapidly depleting printer toner doesn't kill you, the rapidly growing stack of rejection letters will.

As a mother of three children, aged 11, 9, and 3, the whole "if only I had time" thing doesn't fly. If you really want to do something, you find the time.

And now I must leave you. There are only so many hours in a day, and that Master of Surgery thesis isn't going to write itself.
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Heather Smith

I like my life. I like what I do and I like where I live. But isn't it fun, every now and then, to imagine yourself somewhere else, doing something different? For some people it may be a tropical paradise they dream of .... for me it's the Yorkshire Dales.

Yes, I can see me now, drinking tea by the open fire inside my thatched cottage, while my three children, with their windswept hair and ruddy cheeks, chase the chickens around our extensive acreage. "A lovely day for a jaunt," I think. So I hop on my bicycle, say Cheerio to the children (it's the Yorkshire Dales, they'll be fine) and ride toward the village shops. Being neighbourly, I stop by Fred and Flossie Thompson's farm. You see, their only son, Frederick Jr, tired of the farming life, went to the big city to work as a barista in one of those new fangled coffee shops so I thought I'd see if Fred and Flossie (an elderly couple) would be needing anything while I was out. They did ... but first, we had tea. (I drink lots of tea while living on the Yorkshire Dales.) We chat for hours. (The kids are fine). Then Fred and Flossie give me their list:

tea, English Breakfast
tea, Orange Pekoe
tea, Earl Grey
sugar, 2lbs
milk, lots
white bread, one loaf
butter (creamery whipped), 4lbs

Apparently that's all they need to survive. I hop back on my bicycle and head to the village, hoping my quaint wicker basket on the front is big enough to hold the load. I wind down country roads breathing in cow manure. Ahhh, this is the life. I come across a pub. Three pints of ale and a Ploughman's lunch later I'm back on the road, but I don't know where I'm going or why. I find my way back to the cottage. My husband greets me at the end of the lane and asks me where the hell I've been - the kids have been stuck in the henhouse for hours and the thatched roof almost went up in smoke due to the unattended wood fire that had been raging out of control.

Hmmm. Perhaps such dreams are best left to a less overactive imagination.
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Heather Smith
I’m a wannabe hippie. I eat granola-topped pro-biotic yogurt every single morning. I am addicted to green and ginger tea. I practice yoga and meditation (my New Year's resolution to do so daily). I am currently on my on again-off again vegetarian diet … and nothing makes me happier than pouring some Omega 3 wild fish oil down the ol’ hatch … to maintain overall health and support cognitive and cardiovascular health.

Knowing of my crunchy-granola aspirations, good ol’ Santy Claus stuffed a Real Simple magazine in my stocking. The blurbs on the cover left me wanting more: feel calmer now, make dinner faster, make your clothes last longer, simplify your beauty routine. Sounded like a “simple living” magazine to me. Great – I looked forward to ideas on how to de-clutter my life and live greener. Well done, Santa, and how nicely this magazine will complement my other magazine subscriptions - Body and Soul and Yoga Journal. Hippie wannabe indeed.

I couldn’t wait to settle in and read the thing from cover to cover … but the conditions had to be perfect. I needed peace and quiet. I needed a big chunk of uninterrupted “me” time. So Real Simple sat under the Christmas tree, untouched. It was as if I was half starved to death with an amazing feast in front of me that wasn’t mine to have … I drooled at the sight of this magazine … but there never seemed to be time.

Then, the hectic pace of the holidays slowed. It was time. I filled up the bath, adding soothing lavender bath oil to create the perfect, calming atmosphere in which to discover how I could make my life outwardly more simple and inwardly more rich (the mantra of Voluntary Simplicity proponent Duane Elgin). Perhaps I would even learn how to make a blanket out of belly button lint.

I started to read. Seemed decent enough. But then I got to the simplify your beauty routine page – and – EGADS – they’re recommending disposable make-up wands to remove mascara clumps deftly from lashes! Plastic wands that you just chuck out every time you apply mascara?! I was beginning to wonder if I’d missed the point of this magazine. Maybe it should be entitled Living Conveniently because Living Simple, to me, conjures up a different idea as to the inside contents. Or maybe I’m just a dumbass.

The make your clothes last longer bit was pretty good, though, with handy tips on washing and storing clothes in order to extend their life. Perhaps the disposable mascara wand thing was just a little inconsistency. But then I moved on to make dinner faster. I was hoping to learn how I could grow my own vegetable garden on my front step or make one chicken stretch into fifteen different dishes to freeze for future meals. Instead I learned how to buy a frozen pizza and stick a few “at hand” ingredients on it.

Next was the fit your figure article. Apparently I am an hourglass. Apparently I could pull off a pair of high-waisted pants from Neiman Marcus for $225. I WANT TO BE OUTWARDLY MORE SIMPLE GODDAMIT!

The lavender did not work. Santy Claus now knows that reading Real Simple will not lead me down the path to hippie goodness, it will only lead me down the road to a landfill filled with disposable mascara wands … and that’s just not good for my inner chi.
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Heather Smith
I love old biddies, especially eccentric ones, so it’s no surprise that many old biddy characters show up in my writing. Writing an old biddy, or an old geezer, for that matter, into a story makes writing just plain fun. Their unpredictability and wackiness make for humorous moments and, in young adult writing, the old biddy/geezer can be a great source of understated wisdom for the younger character.

I have just recently added a new character to Ballycatters and Bugs. Although Great Aunt Edna spends a lot of time in the background in this book, she always adds greatly to the scene.
In this excerpt, teenager Alistair Stephenson faces his parents after being beaten up the night before by his “best friend”, Jumbo McBain. (BTW, constructive criticism on my writing is always welcome!)

*****************************************************************************

I go to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. My parents read the Saturday morning papers, a carafe of coffee between them. Sitting in the corner, sending vibrations through the floorboards as she sways rhythmically in her rocker, is Great Aunt Ivy. As soon as my mother lays eyes on me she jumps up from the kitchen table and comes to examine my face. “Oh my God! Alistair!”
“I’m fine, Mom.”
My mother runs to the refrigerator and throws open the freezer door.
“Just look at you, Ally. What a state,” Dad says.
My mother rummages through the freezer, frantic.
“What’s all the commotion?” croaks Great Aunt Ivy.
“When will ever you learn, Ally?” Dad says.
My mother grabs Tom Smallwood’s giant frozen codfish from the freezer, the one he gave my parents as a thank you for helping him pull up his turnips when his arthritis was acting up.
“Are they dropping bombs?” yells Great Aunt Ivy.
“I have a good mind to call that boy’s father,” Dad says.
My mother puts Tom Smallwood’s fish on my face.
“Most people use a bag of peas,” I say.
“Why? Ally? Why?” my mother asks.
“Because it molds to the shape of your face better than a codfish,” I reply.
“Quick to the shelter!” yells Great Aunt Ivy.
“I lose sleep over this. I really do. I can’t stand it,” Mom cries.
She moves the fish from my fat lip to my swollen eye and I’m thankful not to have to look at her directly.
“For the love of God, Beth, get that goddamn thing out of his face,” my father snaps. “It will do no good ten hours after the fact.”
“The Germans are coming, aren’t they?” asks Ivy. “That’s what this is all about isn’t it?”
“I’m getting frostbite,” I say.
“For God’s sake, Beth, take the fish off his face,” says Dad.
“It’ll reduce the swelling,” says Mom.
“Not now it won’t,” says Dad.
Great Aunt Ivy starts singing one of those old war tunes of hers. I start to laugh. Dad slams his fist on the table.
“This is not funny, Alistair! We’ll leave MacEvoy’s Cove, you know. If you can’t stay away from him, we’ll move, I mean it! He’ll kill you one of these days.”
I don’t yell because what I want to say to my father is too important. So I keep my voice steady and even. “No,” I say “No. You’re wrong. Jumbo would never hurt me.”
My father jumps up from the table and grabs me by the arm. I try not to flinch as he presses on the bruises hiding underneath my shirt. He pulls me away from my mother and pushes me into the front hall.
“Look at your face, Ally,” he yells as he stands me before the hall mirror.
I look down.
My father puts his hand under my chin and gently, but firmly, pulls my head up.
“Look at your face, Ally,” he says, softer now. “How can you say James McBain will never hurt you?”
Great Aunt Ivy’s voice floats out from the kitchen.
“Keep the homes fires burning, while your hearts are yearning.”
I reach up and touch my eye. “This means nothing, Dad. Jumbo is more than this.”
I look at my father in the mirror. He’s no longer staring at me but at his own reflection.
“Though your lads are far away, they dream of home.”
The telephone rings. Ivy jumps up from her rocker and assumes a tae kwon do fighting stance. “Is that’s an air raid siren I hear?” she yells.
No one makes a move to answer the phone. Neglected, my father’s answering machine message kicks in. Jumbo McBain’s voice follows: “Bugboy? It’s me. Meet me at my place. ASAP. We have some exploring to do. You’ve got about ten minutes to get your arse here or I’m going without you. Oh, and by the way, your dad sounds like a homo on that answering machine message.”
I cringe.
“Please, Alistair,” pleads my mother. “Stay home. Look at the state of you. Your father’s right – he’ll kill you one of these days.”
“No!” I shout. “He won’t. He protects me. I’d be toast right now if it weren’t for Jumbo McBain.”
Ivy’s singing resumes. “There's a silver lining through the dark clouds shining.”
My father speaks without looking at me.
“Don’t go, Alistair. Make a clean break right now. You don’t need him.”
But I do need Jumbo McBain. And he needs me. So I walk out the front door and leave my father in the hallway, his head hung.
“Turn the dark clouds inside out till the boys come home.”
As I head down the hill to McBain’s, I look back and see my mother in the doorway, hugging Tom Smallwood’s codfish.
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Heather Smith
When I was in grade six my evil math teacher thumb-tacked my math test up in the highest traffic area of the school – the hallway. She wrote on my test in big, red letters: “This is Heather's work”. Apparently the mid-nineties score did not impress this woman. What did impress her, and not in a good way, was the way in which my equations were written – somewhat untidily. A quiet word on the matter would just not do for this uptight, power hungry, polyester slacks wearing schoolmarm. No, I needed to be taught that good marks were not enough … I needed to realize the importance of presentation … and what better way to teach me this lesson than to post my private test sheet with its blotchy eraser marks and slanted-up-the-page equations for the viewing pleasure of the entire school population. The humiliation tactic was in full effect … until my father showed up and, quite rightly, demanded it be taken down.

My teacher’s pathetic attempt at teaching me a lesson failed. I did not learn to be neat and tidy with my math work. Instead, I learned to be afraid of my teachers. I learned to second guess everything I ever handed in, wondering if it would ever be good enough. I also learned to never raise my hand to answer a question, offer an opinion, or share an idea … because if I said something wrong or stupid who knew how the teacher would react? Another humiliation tactic?

How many teachers does it take to screw up a child? Only one I’m afraid. One teacher has the power to suck every ounce of self esteem out of a child, sometimes with one swift move.

Thankfully my children will never have such a demeaning experience. Why? Because teachers today understand the importance of building up self esteem not squashing it. Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that all teachers of yesteryear were like my demented grade six math teacher – I am sure there were some real gems out there somewhere – I just never had the pleasure of knowing one.

I recently found my old report cards. How different they are from the ones I find myself reading three times a year now that I have two school age children (grades 4 and 6). The comments in my old report cards are bland, formulaic, and generic. Heather is progressing quite favorably. Heather’s work is satisfactory, Heather needs extra help in writing. These types of comments give no real feedback. They gave no indication as to what kind of a learner I was. Why might I need extra help with writing? How could I improve?

Here is a line from the comments section of my son’s report card: - integrates learning from various subjects and effectively uses information, - has made great gains with regards to taking risks during class discussions.

These comments are insightful, enlightening and useful. The teacher that wrote these comments obviously took the time to think about my son as an individual and thought to write more than “he’s progressing quite favourably” before robotically moving on to the next report. There are often other meaty tidbits included in my children’s reports as well. For example, if there’s been a loss of focus in a certain area, an explanation as to why that may be the case is provided so that we can find a way to help him/her get back on track.

My kids trust their teachers and, what’s more, they like them. My daughter ends each and every school day with her arms wrapped around her teacher. The only thing I would have wrapped around my grade six math teacher is my hands around her neck.

Teachers these days seem to really want their students to do well, not only in school but in life. There is also a focus on building self esteem. An example: my son is not a sporty kid. Let’s just say that gym class is not the highlight of his day. Last year, during summer vacation, he received a card in the mail with some reassuring words from his former grade five teacher. She wrote: You’ll find out later that your talents in life as an adult rarely have anything to do with how good you were at sports in school. These words meant a lot to my son … and to me … wow, a note from a teacher that’s not scrawled viciously across the paper in red pen … how novel.

It could be argued that today’s kids are mollycoddled by their teachers, too easily given positive reinforcement … but I’d take a pat on the back over a smack on the head with a grade eight history book for “daydreaming” any day. (It's called concentrating, Mr. Evoy!)

Anyway, I am so over my school experiences. Really, I am. I like to think I did well in both school and life, in spite of my teachers. My children? They’ll do well in both school and life too, with the help of their teachers ... because when you genuinely want someone to do well, your influence on them, without question, will be positive and long lasting.
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Heather Smith
Picture my family, out for a jaunt.
It’s Christmas, it’s snowing, what more could we want?
We’re belting out Jingle Bells; the van’s filled with cheer,
When what to my wondering eyes do appear?
A Christmas tree, curbside, dejected and wet.
It’s December 28th, you can’t throw it out yet!

My droll little mouth was drawn up in bow
As I started to shout “NO NO NO NO NO!
It’s the fourth day of Christmas, you dumb, stupid turds!
You should be awaiting your four calling birds!
Not taking down trees … not yet … it’s not right!
It should be kept up until the twelfth night!

But there it lays, broken. A sad, sorry lump.
Crumpled. Rumpled. Awaiting the dump.
And here lies the problem – now listen real close
It’s time for your little reality dose:
You were too damn impatient – don’t you remember?
You stuck your tree up on the first of November.

You’re sick of it now – it’s dusty, it’s old.
So you've chucked it out early, right into the cold.
Instead of savouring the whole of the season,
You’ve cut it off short and for no good reason.
So while you’ve ended Christmas, before it began
We’ll cling to it tightly as long as we can.
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