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Monthly Archives: August 2016

How Do You Name Your Characters?

How Do You Name Your Characters?

I’m pregnant with my first child, and in only a few weeks my husband and I will find out whether it’s a girl or boy. I can’t wait. I think knowing the sex will make the whole thing feel more real to me, and I’m tired of referring to my unborn child as “it.”

Besides, it will help us narrow down the name choices!

My husband and I have a girl name we’re pretty happy with, but we haven’t been able to agree on a boy name. I went through the entire boy section of a baby name book and made a list of forty different names I like or would at least be okay with. Paul vetoed every single one of them. Of course, I vetoed all of his suggestions, too.

Paul is one hundred percent against my favorite boy name, Milo. He says it reminds him of Miley Cyrus. I say it’s like Milo from the Descendents, but he doesn’t care about eighties punk bands nearly as much as I do.

It makes me sad that we won’t name our son Milo, but at least it’s not my only naming opportunity. I’m a writer, so I get to name people all the time!

 

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The cover for the 1982 Descendents album, Milo Goes to College

 

Naming characters is a very interesting task, and I’m not sure I’m very good at it. Sometimes the name comes to me with the character as a fully formed package. But, more often than not, I have an idea for a character and then I have to figure out an appropriate name. I end up spending way too much time looking at baby name websites… not for my actual baby, mind you, but to find names for my characters.

I know I should put in a placeholder name and continue writing. Come back and decide on actual names for the characters later. But names are powerful and informative. (Like the Ursula LeGuin quote, “Who knows a man’s name, holds that man’s life in his keeping.”) Character names can often reveal age, ethnicity, socio-economic status, and hint at a person’s childhood, their background. A character named Tatiana Baptiste is going to be an entirely different person than Sarah Miller. Often the name can inform the character.

But since I don’t like to disrupt the flow of my writing, I will sometimes pull from an internal list of stock names when I have a minor character who needs a quick name. A country farmer? I’ll name him Bill. A cute guy at school? Travis will do. A bitchy cheerleader?  Jessica.

Where I’ve been getting into trouble lately is that my internal list of stock names doesn’t quite work for the middle grade contemporary novel I’m currently writing. Because while the kids in my day were named Travis and Jessica, now middle schoolers are named Jack and Emma and Mateo and Mohammad. Names change with the times. If I’m writing a middle grade novel set in the present, I’m probably not going to name my characters Sally or Ethel either.

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What’s in a name?  A lot, actually.

 

And I haven’t even touched on the trouble of coming up with last names. Sometimes I try to think of my character’s background to help with the naming process. Is he Irish? His last name shall be O’Conner! Is she Indian? How about Patel! But I worry that’s too obvious. In the cultural mixing pot that is our world, last names aren’t so obvious anymore. I know a child who has a very German-sounding last name even though he’s half Mexican, and another child with a Taiwanese last name who is more Scottish in heritage than Asian. As for my own baby, he/she will have an Italian last name but be less than one-fourth Italian.

What I’m saying is, coming up with names is complicated. I’ve tried various online name generators, but I’ve been less than pleased with the results. At Name Generator , you put in a first name and get a random last name. When I tried it three times in a row I got: John Saetren, John Raposo, and John Wasowksa. I guess those are actual last names.

Fake Name Generator is a little better because you can choose an age range and the country of origin. But, when I searched for a twelve-year-old American girl name, the first option it gave me was Vicky P. Rickards, which I’m not crazy about.

Maybe the most fun one is the Character Name Generator. You can put in  ethnicity and the decade of the character’s birth, and not only do you get a name, you get a Myer’s Briggs type with a full personality description. When I asked for a Hispanic-American girl born in the 1990’s, I got Veronica Menendez, an ISTP.

And when all else fails, I go to my naming fall-back:  a nice stroll through the cemetery.  It’s a great way to pick up last names, at least.

What about you guys?  How do you name your characters?

I definitely don’t have it figured out, but I’m glad that, while I’ll only get the chance to name one or two babies (probably), I will have hundreds of characters in my lifetime who I get to name.  Don’t be surprised if I name one of them Milo.

 

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Baby on Board!  ETA:  February 4, 2017

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead on Eva & Meagan’s Middle-Grade Bookshelf

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead  on Eva & Meagan’s Middle-Grade Bookshelf

This post is the first of my new monthly feature, Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf.  To learn more about this feature — what it is and why we’re doing it — read here.

Meagan & Eva’s Middle-Grade Bookshelf Presents…

GOODBYE STRANGER, by Rebecca Stead

Published by Wendy Lamb Books, August 2015

A NYT Editors’ Choice and NYT Notable Children’s Books of 2015

suggested age range:  10 and up

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SUMMARY:

When Bridge was a kid she got hit by a car.  She spent a long time in the hospital and she nearly died.  Now she’s in middle school and wondering whether she’s alive for a reason — whether anyone is alive for a reason — or if life is just one big accident.  At least she’s still part of a “set” with her best friends:  Em (with her “curvy new curves”) and Tab (who is “kind of a know-it-all”).  In seventh grade, Bridge and her friends face big decisions, big mistakes, first crushes, and new identities.  And the strange new teens they are in the process of becoming must say goodbye to the no-longer-familiar kids they once were.

IMPORTANT TOPICS AND THEMES:  Goodbye Stranger touches lightly on the topic of sexting, but it’s in a middle-school appropriate way.  The book also deals with friendship, divorce of grandparents, first crushes, and growing up.  

 

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Eva & Meagan

So, what did we think?  

Meagan:  Overall, I loved this book.  The author has painted a painfully true picture of what it’s like to be in middle school.  The concrete details and well as the emotional details all feel super-realistic.

 

Eva:  I totally agree.  The book worked so well because it was true-to life:  specific yet universal.  The characters were fully-formed (and quirky).  The dialogue was spot-on for middle school.  The book was definitely character-driven, but even though it wasn’t a race-to-the-climax plot, I was never bored.  And speaking of character, I LOVE that Bridge decides her “thing” is going to be wearing cat ears every day:   

The cat ears were black, on a black headband.  Not exactly the color of her hair, but close.  Checking her reflection in the back of her cereal spoon, she thought they looked surprisingly natural.

I was so impressed at how Stead kept me engaged without a traditional plot.  And yet, there WAS some tension-building in the main plot as well as a triumphant and satisfying ending that I don’t always find in character-driven novels.

 

Meagan:  Right, it’s not what anyone would call a plot-driven, but the everything-is-high-stakes setting of middle school helps this work and still feel about as engaging as a more plot-driven story.  To me it sometimes seems pretty daunting to think about writing “literary” (vs. plot-driven) work for kids, but Rebecca Stead has clearly figured out how to do it.  I read another of her books, When You Reach Me, a while back.  It was great (and a Newberry winner). This is possibly even better, in my opinion.

 

Eva:  Yes, I remember reading When You Reach Me and enjoying it, but I might say Goodbye Stranger is more memorable, if not better.  Overall, I was very impressed.  The only thing I DIDN’T love about the book were the short sections that were written in second person.  For example:    

You paint your toenails.  You don’t steal nail polish, though.  Vinny calls you chicken:  all of her polish comes from the six-dollar manicure place…

The reader doesn’t find out until the end who these sections are about, and I have to say I found the mystery a bit confusing and unnecessary.

 

Meagan:   I actually liked those sections.  I thought they created a fun mystery for the reader to puzzle over, simply by withholding information (the identify of one of the narrators), but giving you enough detail that you could eventually figure it out.

 

Eva:  It was a gutsy move on Stead’s part to use second person, and I wonder about her decision to include this certain character’s story.  The sections DID add a layer of mystery, but I didn’t think the mystery was needed because there were so many other interesting storylines.  

Come to think of it, there were a lot of B plots in this novel, and I wonder about Stead’s decision to include them all — they certainly weren’t all necessary to the larger story.  And yet, they totally worked (except for the second person one, in my opinion).  It’s interesting to me how she so deftly crafted the novel with so many storylines.

 

Meagan:  What did you think of the title?  I normally don’t think much about titles, but this one stood out to me.  I think for a young readership, it does a good job of pointing to the book’s deep theme, without coming right out and saying what the theme is.  The transition from child to teenager is so huge that “goodbye” is not a bad way of describing it, and “stranger” is just about right for describing the person you are/were on the other side of the teen/child divide.

 

Eva:  I’m kind of dumb sometimes, so it took me a while to figure out how the title related to the book.  But once I got it, I loved it.  I remember being a kid and thinking how weird it was that I was going to become an adult who would essentially be a stranger to my kid self.  I’m not sure that middle school kids would get all the themes on their own, but this would be a great book to discuss with a group of kids.

 

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The Middle Grade Bookshelf

 

THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:

A Judy Blume book because it goes through the realistic, day-to-day life of specific characters and touches on a hot button issue.    

In this case, the hot button issue is sexting.  It’s addressed in a serious, yet middle-school appropriate way (not too graphic). Still, I probably wouldn’t recommend this book under sixth grade unless the reader’s parent is ready to talk about this topic and feels their child is ready as well.  

 

THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:

  • Realistic contemporary middle-grade
  • Close 3rd person voice
  • Use of second person voice
  • Fully-formed characters
  • Character-driven plot
  • Weaving of main plot with several B plots
  • A difficult topic handled in an age-appropriate way (sexting)

 

FINAL TAKE-AWAYS:  

Eva:  John Hodgeman once said “specificity is the soul of narrative.”  This is a specific story about very specific characters, and yet it feels universal and totally relatable.  I really enjoyed it.

Meagan:  As a writer, I could imagine coming back to this book for a closer read if I decided to tackle a contemporary, realistic fiction project (especially if I hoped for it to be more on the “literary” side).  Stead has done that so well here, I think there’s a lot I could learn from as a writer if I were to reread this and study the way she develops her characters and plot events.

 

A New Monthly Feature: Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf

A New Monthly Feature:  Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf

I am excited to announce a new monthly (or potentially bi-monthly) feature on In the Garden of Eva!

As many of you know, I am an aspiring novelist. And though I never quite intended it, nearly every time I write a novel these days, it comes out as middle grade. For now, I’m just going with it!

My friend Meagan Boyd is also an aspiring middle grade author. We have a mini writing group in which we give each other feedback and discuss books we’ve read… And naturally we read a lot of middle grade books.  Hence, the idea for Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf was born.

At first, it was going to be a podcast. (And it might be someday!) But Meagan has a toddler, I’m about to have a baby, and neither of us is particularly savvy in the technology department. So instead of figuring out a new medium, we decided to use the tried-and-true blog format for now.

Below is more info about this new feature.  And you can look forward to reading our first full-length post tomorrow, in which we will examine Rebecca’s Stead’s Goodbye Stranger.

 

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Eva and Meagan with a few of our favorite MG books!

 

MEAGAN & EVA’S MIDDLE GRADE BOOKSHELF

 

Who Are Meagan & Eva?

Two aspiring novelists currently writing middle-grade books and hoping to get them published. We are also both former teachers and graduates of The College of William & Mary (which is how we met). Meagan has a degree in English, and I have an MFA in Fiction Writing.

 

What Is a Middle-Grade Book?

A book written for the 8-12 age range. Think Harry Potter, Charlotte’s Web, and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Except those books are old news. If you’re interested in writing (or reading) middle grade fiction, you should be checking out new stuff!  And Eva & Meagan’s Middle Grade Bookshelf will help you decide what new MG novels to read.

 

What Is This Bookshelf Exactly?

In an attempt to learn how to write middle grade fiction, Meagan and I have been reading A LOT of (relatively) recent MG books. We then discuss what we notice from a writer’s perspective. For example: “this book has an interesting point of view” or “this book is a great example of a character-driven plot.”

We wanted to share what we’ve been noticing and learning with other middle grade writers (both aspiring and established).  I think this will also be helpful for parents and teachers looking for books for their kids/students. Our hope is to create a resource of sorts; writers can use our posts as a way to find books they’d like to read as well as books that are good examples of whatever area of craft they are working on.

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What Will I Find in Each Bookshelf Post?

Each Middle Grade Bookshelf post will discuss one book and include following:

  • A brief summary
  • A list of important topics and themes in the story
  • Our thoughts and comments (but no spoilers!)
  • A few short excerpts to give you a taste of the writing style
  • What “classic” children’s book(s) the novel reminded us of
  • The areas of writing craft that this novel is a good (or interesting) example of
  • News and resources for MG writers
  • Our final take-aways on the book overall

 

Meagan & Eva’s Bios:

Meagan Boyd studied English and Theatre as an undergraduate at The College of William & Mary and has her M.Ed. in Elementary Education from The George Washington University.  A former fourth grade teacher, Meagan is now a full-time mom of a toddler and an aspiring novelist.  She loves middle grade books with a passion she can never quite muster for a adult books.  Some of her favorites are A Wrinkle in TimeCoraline, and Ender’s Game.

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Meagan Boyd

 

Eva Langston received her MFA from the University of New Orleans, and her fiction has been published in many journals and anthologies.  She is the Features Editor for Compose Journal and the leader of an adult writing workshop about YA and middle grade fiction.  A former math teacher for students with learning disabilities, she now tutors part-time.  Two of her favorite middle grade books are  Holes by Louis Sachar and Blubber by Judy Blume.

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Eva Langston

 

Come back soon to read our first full-length feature!

 

How Will Having a Baby Affect My Writing?

How Will Having a Baby Affect My Writing?

I have been keeping a secret from you, dear Internet. But now it’s finally time to share… I’m pregnant!

I’m into my second trimester now, and little Bebe (as we are calling him/her) is approximately the size of an apple (more than 4 inches long and approximately 2.5 ounces in weight). I’m due in early February, and needless to say, I’m VERY excited. I’ve always wanted to have kids, and now it’s finally happening!

But I have to admit, every now and again I worry: how is having a baby going to affect my writing? I know that for the first few months I can pretty much kiss writing goodbye. I’ll be busy breastfeeding, bathing Bebe, changing diapers, doing laundry, and catching up on sleep. Not to mention trying to find the time to feed and bathe myself.

I’m very lucky in that I work from home, so I will get to stay home with Bebe. Technically I can take as long of a maternity leave as I want, but in reality not really. Because Bebe is going to be expensive, and Mama will need to keep bringing in the dough.

Right now, I spend my mornings writing and doing writing-related activities (like this blog!) Then, in the afternoons, I tutor, create math curriculum, and do freelance writing and editing. My husband and I count on the money I bring in from these jobs to help us do things like pay the rent.

So the plan is this: when the baby is about three months old, I’ll go back to work. While Bebe is down for a nap, not only will I be throwing in loads of laundry (we’re going to try for cloth diapers – are we insane?) and doing crunches to try to get back in shape, I’ll also be making worksheets about dividing fractions and maybe even doing some Skype tutoring.

The question is: when will I be writing? The answer: I’m not sure.

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Bebe on board!

 

Maybe I’ll wake up early in the mornings (unless I’m already up with Bebe?) and try to get in forty-five minutes of writing time. Maybe I’ll wait until my husband comes home from work, slap Bebe in his arms, and then try to eek out a little prose. But I think the reality is this: I’m not going to be doing a lot of writing. Not for Bebe’s first year, I’d imagine. And that’s definitely scary to me.

In fact, I’m not even sure what will happen with this blog.  Will I have time to continue writing it?  In the small amounts of time that I will have, might I rather write in my journal about the craziness of being a new mom?

All of this is a little worrisome.  BUT, I have a plan. And the plan is this:

Step 1: From now until Bebe arrives, I am going into hyper-productivity mode. I’ve already started on a new novel, and my goal is to finish the first draft before my due date. I also want to revise a draft of another novel I’ve got sitting around before my due date. That way, I can relax when Bebe arrives and feel like I deserve (and perhaps need) a break from writing.

Step 2: From now until Bebe arrives, I am going to work my BUTT off doing math curriculum and tutoring. I have to admit, sometimes I’m lazy about math curriculum because it can be so boring. But now I have an incentive: bring in as much money as possible now so I don’t have to be stressed out about money when Bebe arrives.

Step 3: When Bebe arrives, enjoy him/her and let my whole focus be on becoming a mother. I will always have writing. I won’t always have a newborn baby to marvel at.

Step 4: When Bebe is little, there are lots of little things I can do that are related to writing. For example, I can read while breastfeeding, and since Bebe will be breastfeeding pretty much constantly, I can get a lot of reading done. I can also send out the first draft of the novel I will have completed (see Step 1) to beta readers and wait for their feedback. I can also query agents with the novel I will have revised (see Step 1) and wait for their responses. Just because I won’t have chunks of time to sit down and write doesn’t mean that I can’t do things to help my writing career.

Step 5: At some point, maybe when Bebe is five months old or so, I hope to start doing a baby-swap  with other moms in the area. I will find other stay-at-home/work-from-home moms near me. (I know of one already, and maybe I’ll meet more in prenatal yoga, birthing class, or my midwife’s community care group.) Two afternoons a week (or whatever we decide) I’ll take Bebe to another mom’s house where she will care for my baby and hers while I go off to write and do yoga and grocery shop. Then we’ll swap, and I’ll take her baby two afternoons a week so she can go do whatever she needs to do. Basically, I’m going to figure out a way to get some alone time so that I can get in some writing.

Step 6:  Assess what’s to be done with my blog.  On the one hand, I might really want an outlet and blogging will be just what I need to stay sane as I’m surrounded by baby poop.  On the other hand, it might be too much, and when I start having time to write, I might rather work on fiction than worry about keeping up with a blog.  Or, I could find a middle ground.  Post once a month.  Anyway, I can decide later, and the important thing is not to stress about it.

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Here’s me, not stressing.

 

All in all, I think it’s a pretty good plan, but I also know that babies are unpredictable, and I have to be okay with the fact that things might not go according to my plan. I have to be okay with the fact that I might not be able to get back into a regular writing schedule for a while. But I’m okay with that. Because I’m going to have a BABY! And having a child will give me a lot to write about…when I eventually get the chance to do so.

 

What I’ve Learned from Agent Rejections

What I’ve Learned from Agent Rejections

Two years ago, I got an agent. He loved my middle grade fairy tale novel. While we worked on edits, he asked me, “so, do you have any other middle grade fairy tale retellings?”

“Um, no,” I said. I had a YA book that needed revisions, and an adult novel I was working on.

“It would be good if you could write one. It doesn’t have to be a sequel, but something similar to your first book. Publishers want to know you’ve got something else coming down the pipe. Maybe we can get you a two-book deal.”

Sounded good.  So I took his advice. I wrote another middle grade fairy tale retelling.

Seven months later, we finished revisions on my first novel, and my agent drew up a submissions list of New York editors from all the big publishing houses.

Then, he had a mid-life crisis. Or something. I don’t know what happened exactly, but he went incommunicado on me for months, and when I finally heard from him, he told me he had quit his job and was no longer agenting. He suggested I find a new agent.

And for the past year, that’s what I’ve been trying to do.

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This is face I felt like making when my former agent told me I needed to find new representation.

 

I suppose you could say it has not been going well. After all, it’s been a year and I still don’t have a new agent. But, instead, I choose to look on the bright side. I’ve had a lot of interest from agents. My query letter is obviously working because I get a lot of partial and full requests. And my rejection letters are usually quite encouraging. In fact, I’ve been noticing something similar about my rejections lately.

Let’s take a look, shall we?

 

Dear Eva,

Thanks so much for sharing YOUR NOVEL with me. I really enjoy your writing style and think it’s spot-on for middle grade readers. Unfortunately, I’ve found the fairy tale retelling cannon to be so saturated of late. I simply don’t think I can sell another retelling right now unless it’s wildly different from the pack. I’m sorry not to have better news about this project, but if your agent search persists, I’d be delighted to consider any other middle grade or YA projects that you might have. Please keep in touch!

Warmly,

Agent X

Dear Eva,

Thank you for your patience while we considered your work. In the end, while there was much to be admired, we did not fall in love with the overall execution in a way we need to take on a project, especially given this is such a difficult time for fiction.

For what it’s worth to know, we think you have talent, and would consider other works from you in the future. With that said, the problem with this ms was that while not bad, and definitely better than most we see– retellings are VERY difficult to sell… It’s a breezy and interesting read, but in the end we don’t think it’s strong enough all things considered, again, since it is a retelling.

With much respect,

Agent Y

Dear Eva,

Thank you for sharing your work with me– for your lovely note — and for your patience in waiting to hear back. You write well, but I’m afraid that I just didn’t have that “Yes! This is for me!” feeling–so I’m going to bow out.

That said, I’d be happy to hear about any future projects you may have.

Whatever happens, I hope you will continue writing and sending out your work.

Again, thank you for sharing this with me.

All best wishes,

Agent Z

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So they rejected me — at least they were nice about it!

 

And that’s just a few of the many nice rejections I’ve gotten over the past year. In a lot of ways, these letters are encouraging. In all of them, the agents say I am a good (or at least not bad) writer. That’s something to celebrate, right?

The problem seems to be that I’ve written something that is — at least for now — difficult for agents to sell.

It’s frustrating. It’s really hard to motivate myself to write a new novel when I have TWO completed fairy tale retellings just sitting around gathering dust. But as much as I want to throw up my hands and say “I give up,” I know I can’t. Because there’s something else those agents said: they would be interested in seeing other projects from me.

I guess that means I need to get busy writing something that ISN’T a fairy tale retelling. And that’s exactly what I’ve done. I’m 50-plus pages into the first draft of a middle-grade contemporary novel, and I’m feeling good about it so far.

I am sharing my rejections with you guys in part to show how difficult and fickle this business can be. Two years ago, my agent literally told me to write another fairy tale retelling. Now, agents are telling me that fairy tale books are nearly impossible to sell.

 

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Maybe I just need a little literary luck!  (Photo by Umberto Salvagnin)

At the end of the day, traditional publishing is about the market and about what will sell. But you can’t write to the market because it takes ages for a book to get published, and what’s popular at the moment might not be two years from now.  So basically I’m getting rejected, at least in part, because of something outside of my control. And as frustrating as that can be, I have to take comfort in the fact that at least I’m not getting rejected because my writing is bad. In fact, I’m getting told that my writing is good.

So I’ll keep writing. And I’ll cross my fingers that the next novel I create will not only be well-written but also something that an agent thinks will sell. I won’t try to predict what that might be. Instead I’ll write what I want to write, hope for the best, and accept the fact that the road to publishing is a long one.

 

Flashback to Shirtless Bros at Yoga

It’s flashback day here at In The Garden of Eva.

I was looking through old blog posts a few weeks ago and found this one about a yoga class I attended back when I lived in Seattle three years ago.  As I read, I found myself laughing out loud, thoroughly entertained.  It’s so great when you can enjoy your own writing!

I hope you guys enjoy it, too!

Shirtless Bros at Yoga — originally published Sept. 5, 2013

The other day, thanks to a recently-purchased Groupon, I ended up going to a class I’d like to call bro-ga. Bro-ga is what happens when guys who seem like surfers or extreme mountain bikers or fraternity brothers (and perhaps they are these things, too) do yoga. Bro-ga involves shirtless dudes showing off their tribal tattoos and competing for who can do the most radical head stand. It seems to be mostly a west coast phenomenon, and if you’re unfamiliar with the type, consider Bradley Cooper’s character in Failure to Launch, a movie in which I happen to make a small cameo*.

TO READ THE REST OF THIS POST, CLICK HERE.

 

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Here I am doing yoga on a birdbath!