Monday, September 20, 2010

Book Review for the Mystery Lovers

Tide Water Talisman
A Luanne Fogarty Mystery
By Glynn Marsh Alam

This author’s mysteries are listed as the Luanne Fogarty Mystery series – but don’t be deceived, the main character as in all eight of her books is the Florida swamp. I came to this series when the first book was fresh off the presses. I have enjoyed every book since.

Perhaps I’m most engaged when the author sends Luanne into the caves and hidden spaces beneath the Palmetto River and ‘totally immerses’ her in the swamp. At those times you can see the ghostly Spanish moss swaying from skeletal trees, hear the insects’ songs, and feel the heavy humid air pressing against you like the spirit of the swamp looking over your shoulder. And the water, always the water, moving on never stopping, lazily accepting everyone and everything that falls into it.

Tide Water Talisman gains relevance in today’s world of post-Katrina recovery. Refugees from that devastated area have set up a small enclave of businesses and trailer homes near Luanne’s swampy home. But they start turning up dead.

Luanne and the Sheriff’s department for which she works part time as a ‘civilian’ when not teaching linguistics at the nearby college, rely on Pasquin. This eighty something neighbor is part of the local grapevine and knows all of the stories, all of the people, and most of the swamp’s secrets. The secondary characters are so colorful in this series that often Luanne seems to blend into the background and they take over. But it is her voice that narrates the novel, so she is never far from the reader’s thoughts.

There are many ways to die, as we learn from this book, yet all come as a surprise. Put death in a swampy Florida river and you’ve got a mystery with atmosphere so real you’ll smell the earthy lagoons, and hear the buzz of mosquitoes as you turn the pages.

The read is all too brief. I always wish her books were longer. LONGER! Hear me Glynn???

Monday, August 23, 2010

Media for Women doesn't help me fix my AC

This headline from the Guardian popped out at me this morning: "Tomorrow's media needs to be wired, inspired and for women".

What exactly does that mean?

It appears that women's lit defines novels for women as dealing with feelings, love, romance, body image, hormones, fight against aging, and internal angst. If the media defines 'women's media' that way, I will be forced to join the good old boys club. I haven't read a 'women's magazine in years. They are so bland and are saying the same things they said 50 years ago. Some may actually use vagina and penis these days as opposed to skirting the issue as in the 50s and even 60s, but it is the same old same old! Does Good Housekeeping discuss water sports? No. Not even the water skiing kind of water sports. Do they actually tell a woman what HAPPENS to her during menopause or simply make a joke about the hot flashes and mood swings that accompany it? Same with adolescence. Do we really know what is happening to make our bodies morph into strange beings?

Do I really care whether my tablescape is inviting or I'm up to date on the latest recipes or foodie indulgence? I like beauty and I love to eat, but when I read a magazine I'd really like to come away with information that makes me feel wiser, educated, better able to make a reasoned and reasonable decision.

Do I want to read a comparison of products? Yes. Do I want to know what the latest products are? Not really, unless they are so unusual, much improved, new technology, and actually are what they say they are. I'm so sick of hype and exaggeration and manipulation that I don't pay much attention to any advertising other than to ask, "What are they not telling me? What is the truth? Can I even find the truth in their advertisement?"

What, for heaven sakes is the point of 'Zoom, zoom.' Does it tell me about the quality of the car? The facts I need to know to make a major investment? Would I purchase stock in their company with so little information? Can you imagine stock market advertisements "Invest in utilities -- Zoom, zoom." So Mazda supports racing, embraces speed. But can they stop? Do the brakes work? That would have been good to know when buying a Toyota.

What would I enjoy in women's media, if there must be a separation, what are the best articles I've read lately? It wouldn't be found in any of the seven sisters -- or is it six or five? How many of those women's magazines are left? Right now I would like to read about how to fix my central air/furnace. The company who installed it has decided that it is lack of maintenance that caused the problem. We have had service men coming out to work on this almost every two to three months -- how much maintenance does it need?

I want to know how to deal with a company that sells you a lemon and doesn't want to make it right.

I want to know how to get satisfaction and good service and how to get past their CYA and lip service and get someone who actually knows how to fix the product.

I'd also like to trust what I read somewhere! I'm so tired of spin and hype and half truths or total lies. I want to know the ingredients in the make up I smear on my face and what animals or plants or ecosystem was harmed in the making of the product.

I'd like to understand where my recycled items go, how they are used, and who benefits or not. Where is my garbage dumped? Is my trash sold to another country?

I want to know what no one is talking about. I want to know the story behind the story. I want to know why decisions are made, not just the decision and what they were wearing the day they announced their decision.

I want to know the truth about birds and wind turbines.

I want to know why the words "I'm sorry" have been added to the 'do not say' list for fear they will mean an admission of responsibility and lead to a lawsuit.

After talking with the department head of the air and heat company servicing my machine, I felt like I needed to take a shower and get the filth off. He spouted party line without any ounce of regret for leaving us with a $5000 investment in their product which does not work! Why do I always think there is a human behind the voice, someone with a heart, with a conscience, and who is driven by something other than profit. Why do I constantly forget that the company cares less about my satisfaction and more about my pocketbook. I go into a business to produce a product I'm proud of -- I forget that too many companies do NOT! They go into business to make money. There is a reason that old Biblical verse about 'love of money is the root of all evil' continues to be true today. Some things never change. Why do I forget that?

I want to know what happened to customer service?

I want my women's media to help me deal with these sleazy corporate heartless types and help me find the right words to get the kind of customer service I can live with. Perhaps all I really want is a lawyer right now and a victory over the company who was my friend until they took my money and have been an adversary ever since.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Noble: a word or a way of life?

Seems like I live my life in a defensive posture. Crouched and ready to lunge like some lineman in a football game waiting for the ball to be snapped. The tension is intense. Always on guard.

On guard for the next blow, the next cruel attack. I could lay blame for the life lessons that brought me to this position. But I'm struggling to rise above that blame game.

Recently I reviewed a book written by an author who most evidently lived in a similar posture. I didn't like what I read. It was negative and bent on laying blame for his misfortunes and missed opportunities and failures on the people, institutions, and situations around him.

As we grow, one of the major signals of maturity is the end to the blame game and the acceptance that it is our lives to make or break as we choose. Even in the most dire of situations we have the power to choose how we will perceive, react, use, and grow. Too often I'm crouched, ready to spring on whatever assails me. I'm more surprised when someone does something nice, than if they do something hurtful. I expect the worst and suspect everything else.

I recently read a quote from John H. Dietrich. John is NOT the political writer. He was a minister who lived from 1878-1957 and thought and taught, according to his online bio, that "humanist thinking was the true foundation of religious liberalism."

Truthfully, I'm not quite sure I understand what that means. But towards the end of his life he said, "[My] philosophy and religion have undergone considerable, if not drastic revision. I realize now how my utter reliance upon science and reason and my contempt for any intuitive insights and intangible values which are the very essence of art and religion, was a great mistake; and the way in which I cut mankind off from all cosmic relationship was very short-sighted and arrogant."

I read that to mean that he finally found a greater being, God if you will, to be relevent. As one who loves words and fiber art and the beauty and symbolism of both, I had to smile. Apparently he finds God is the essence, not only of religion, but also of art. Yes, I can see that. Most artists marvel at what they create. Some even wonder 'where did THAT come from?" Now we know, as Mr. D states it -- their 'cosmic relationship.'

Even if Mr D had been misguided during his search for truth earlier in his life, he was right about another thing he said. "The highest and best thing that people can conceive is a human life nobly and beautifully lived."

I mentioned on my Subversive Stitchers: Women Armed with Needles facebook page that I stood up to defend my husband by calling a driver an asshole. The studly man was sitting in his bright yellow sports car basically toying with my wheelchair bound husband as he rolled along the crosswalk in front of this man. The driver revved his engine and started rolling forward, grinning, as my husband rolled directly in front of the car. All of the fury that I harbor against the unfair disease and situation that assails my husband erupted from my mouth in that one word. I think I have scarred for life the poor bag boy helping us with our purchases. The anger was almost tangible and the driver quickly stopped grinning and looked at me in surprise.

I heard my husband chuckle. I think he enjoys my Mama Bear mode.

But it is taking a toll on me that I really didn't appreciate until I read Mr. D's words. I hadn't realized that I had gotten off the main journey I was intended to travel. I should be living a "life nobly and beautifully lived." Calling a stranger in a souped up car an asshole somehow doesn't sound very noble.

Of course, noble does not mean silent and long suffering either. So maybe there was a tinge of nobility for at least speaking up, pointing out an injustice, an inhumane behavior. We should live to edify not just ourselves, but to help others which is perhaps the best part of Mr. Dietrich's quote:

"The highest and best thing that people can conceive is a human life nobly and beautifully lived — therefore their loyalties and energies should be devoted to the arrangement of conditions which make this possible. The sole issue is how to make this world a place conducive to the living of a noble human life, and then to help people in every possible way to live such lives."

I think of all of the leaders who make decisions controlling lives and wonder just how nobly they are living. Perhaps the question we should ask our politicians is: "are you living a noble life?"

If one must find a way to 'justify' one's actions, then perhaps there is a bit of nobility lacking. Perhaps if it only benefits the one rather than the many it isn't noble. Or if it hurts others in the process of gathering something you want -- it isn't noble.

We all know noble when we see it. It doesn't require an explanation. Noble doesn't need to wear a white hat or a wimple or a cross, or even a military insignia. Those symbols do not make a person noble. Nobility comes from within. "Noble implies a loftiness of character or spirit that scorns the petty, mean, base, or dishonorable: a noble deed."

If ever I were going to tattoo something on my body -- I think it would be a reminder. "Noble." A one-word nudge to not just live, but to live so that someday someone might come to associate the word 'noble' with my name. It is a word that loses its meaning when describing oneself as noble.

Noble should be spelled with an 'i' in it for a major component, I think, of the term is 'integrity.' But 'ethics' works well, too. The dictionary has such a lovely list of synonyms I just had to list them here:

august, beneficent, benevolent, benign, bounteous, brilliant, charitable, courtly, cultivated, dignified, distinguished, elevated, eminent, extraordinary, first-rate, generous, gracious, grand, great-hearted, high-minded, honorable, humane, imposing, impressive, liberal, lofty, magnanimous, magnificent, meritorious, preeminent, refined, remarkable, reputable, splendid, stately, sublime, supreme, sympathetic, tolerant, upright, virtuous, worthy....

People remark "oh if there was only someone who would ...." or 'if only there were more good people in the world who do....." "We need visionaries; leaders; right-minded thinkers...."

Maybe the lack of doers, thinkers, good people and visionaries is because we have lost our way and we are playing defense, rather than offense in this game of life....

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

First Lines: It was the best of 'lines,' it was the worst of 'lines'.

When you first meet someone, or even less than meet --encounter-- a stranger, what do they tell you?

Sure the first words are usually, "Hi!" or "Hello" or if it is customer service, "May I help you?" Although I find less and less that customer service has anything to do with helping me and more about helping the service they represent, but that's another story.

Driving home today along our quiet little residential street, I 'encountered' a man on a bicycle. What did he tell me? Without an opportunity for conversation -- me in my van, he on his bicycle -- he told me quite a bit. I recognized him as a neighbor who seemed to have few boundaries. This was the man who decided to comandeer my garbarge bin, fill it with his own assorted cans of paint and other disallowed hazardous materials and set it out to the curb in front of MY house. Luckily we caught his duplicity and unloaded the contraband near his own trash can. My tight smile as greeting today probably told him that I hadn't forgotten the incident. The fact that I waved (half heartedly) and he acknowledged it and me with a nod, tells me that we are not enemies -- yet.

His shiny silver metalic sweat suit told me that he was attempting (again) to lose weight and his dark locks (not a  gray hair in sight) gave me the idea that perhaps there was a new 'love' in his life or someone he wished to 'love.' His ear buds and the dangling wires told that he was not in the mood for conversation with anyone.

The opening line of a book should be as informative as a brief encounter. It should invite you to want to know more, unlike my neighbor. Often the first line introduces something you have in common, or a common event. People you meet at an accident often establish a bond immediately. Or standing in a checkout line and you overhear a conversation that has you itching to join in. Or you see a couple in a doctor's office and read by their body language just how serious the visit is and you feel their pain.

At the least, the novel's opening should prepare the reader for what is to come.

Finding the right opening line is alot like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. One may be too big, too small, or just right. In the book "Tom Sawyer in Hell" by Peter Black he writes: "I had it made."

Too short. Do you really care why he thinks he had it made? After the second sentence do you feel invited in or are you already tossing the book aside? "I graduated from a competitve science/math high school, aced the PSATs, SATs, and had an A- cumulative average." What may possibly make you read further is the strange title of "Tom Sawyer in Hell." Yet that opening does not sound like any Tom Sawyer Mark Twain ever knew.

But then, you might argue, short can work. The shortest line of scripture springs to mind: "Jesus wept." Yeah, even if it is Jessica or Morris or Satan who wept, I want to know why, what caused the tears, what's the story?

In Roslyn Paterson's novel "Overtures" she writes: "Fiona walked out of the bustling train station in West Berlin and scanned around her for the signs directing her to Checkpoint Charlie, the portal into another world, and another time, which was Communist East Germany."

Too long. She gives us information. Who, what, where, and maybe a little glimpse of 'time travel.'  But does it invite you in? She also demonstrated that she could use another edit for tighter writing. The setting is somewhat intriguing. The second line tells a rather mundane description of her holding her passport and standing in line. I'm not curious, are you? And yes, yes, too long can work. So why isn't this one working?

What about: "I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of gods."

Ahhhhh. Just right. I want to read the next line. It is a negative. Writing instructors include in their long lists of dos and don'ts that one should not write in the negative. It is harder to understand. The author must have missed class that day.

"I have no husband nor child, nor hardly a friend, through whom they can hurt me."

I am not one who chooses to read about gods, myths, sorry old women, yet I am almost unwillingly reading on. There's a mystery in these few lines. There is a person who draws me in to hear her story. Have you ever seen a face and immediately thought, "What a life they must have had!" This old woman is giving me that kind of thought. Just let me read another line or two.... But this author is a pretty crafty fisherman. He's setting the hook deeper and deeper. By the second paragraph, I'm hooked and he's reeled me in. "Being, for all these reasons, free from fear, I will write in this book what no one who has happiness would dare to write."

I picked the books at random. The third book is a novel by C.S. Lewis. "Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold." It is first person, so maybe that makes the opening stronger than Paterson's novel which is third person or omniscent. Yet, Black's book is first person. So point of view doesn't seem to be the point of strength for C.S. Lewis's opening. He's painting a character we may recognize, even relate to, but yet, out of the norm. She has a story I want to hear or at least I think I want to hear more.

What if the first line doesn't introduce a person? What if it goes on for a couple pages, several pages, and doesn't formerly introduce the character. Would you read it? Would it work? Why? Perhaps the place is a character?

First line: "Jail is not as bad as you might imagine."

Do you want to read the second sentence?

I do.

"When I say jail, I don't mean prison."

This requires clarification, so we really must read the third sentence, which leads to the fourth, which leads you to wonder who is telling us this and why and why are they so obsessed about jails? Another good fisherman. The hook is set. This comes from Anna Quindlen's novel, "One True Thing."

When writing for a daily deadline at a newspaper, I found that the part that took the longest was the opening hook. Often we'd write the rest of the article and realize that the last line was actually the first line -- the words that would draw the reader in and cause them to continue reading.

Let me return to Mr. Black's book. Remember the short first sentence he wrote: "I had it made." I flip to the last page (before the Epilogue) and read the last line. "Looking at the river is peaceful, and the reflections on the water are like the reflections on my life." Ehhh well, a little melodramatic and perhaps you've seen that before in some navel gazing overwritten book.

I look over the paragraph and find his opening. This would draw me in. "Nobody wants to help you unless there is someting in it for them."

I want to know how this person came to such a negative outlook and at the same time I realize that I have that same thought surfacing in my own brain now and then. I can identify with the thought and at the same time I am curious as to who this person is. And I really want to hear the story that involves this attitude.

Not only do opening sentences draw in the reader. They set the tone of the book -- not only for the reader, but for the writer. If that first sentence doesn't work, the writer has not found his or her story, yet. Often it takes alot of prewriting, rewriting, screaming and crying, and desperate days to find that first sentence.

Here are a few more firsts for you to decide for yourself whether they work or not:

1.  "Forgive me my denomination and my town; I am a Christian minister, and an American."

[A Month of Sundays, by John Updike] How often do you see a novel begin with an apology?

2.  "Shoot, birthdays, they ain't no big deal."

[Lyin Like a Dog, by R. Harper Mason]

3.  "It happened every year, was almost a ritual."

[The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson]

4.  "The housekeeper is ironing and I am lying on the floor beside her, trying to secretly look up her dress."

[Joy School, by Elizabeth Berg]

Each opening sentence has just enough there to grab you and just enough missing to keep hold of you. And that, I think, is the secret of novel writing -- well, at least writing the first sentence. But remember, by the time you find that perfect first sentence -- you have probably already written the book at least once to find it. Once you've found it, now you can 'rewrite' the book, making it what you were meant to write all along!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Fearful isn't Living

You will be relieved to know that I finally finished the review of "Stuff" and am stepping away from my obsession with the obsession of hoarding.

Before I put the book on the shelf, I managed to de-clutter my office. That is to say, I moved the containers of papers that need to be looked at and properly filed. I moved them into the guest room.

I like a room without clutter which is why eventually the guest room will get cleaned as well and the filing done. Oh and I actually threw away quite a few items that had just been sitting around gathering dust.

This concern with things seems to stem from fear. Norman Vincent Peale said, "Fear can infect us early in life until eventually it cuts a deep groove of apprehension in all our thinking. To counteract it, let faith, hope and courage enter your thinking. Fear is strong, but faith is stronger yet."

He's right you know. Fears we learn as children or adolescents can color our world for a lifetime. My parents are good examples of the work of fear. They came of age during The Great Depression and experienced the loss of any and all security. My father's family were impoverished to begin with. His father worked building oil rigs. He was a master carpenter, but then someone invented metal derricks and he was out of a job. The boys started working as mere toddlers. Dad was shining shoes at the age of four with his older brothers. As he grew the jobs changed. He sold newspapers on street corners and biked around town delivering telegrams in all kinds of weather. He understood how precious everything was. His Christmas -- if it was a good year -- was an orange and new underwear or socks or maybe gloves. I hadn't realized that poverty had left a mark on him until after I had left home and happened upon an article about the effects of malnutrition.

Dad's front teeth looked strong enough, but there was a groove that ran horizontally across them. It is the result of malnourishment when he was a child. Dad would never have told us that and maybe like most children, he just thought that the way he lived was the way every one lived. But Dad would always dislike Christmas and the pile of presents under the tree. He also never wanted to amass things; but rather invest in a secure life and independence.

Mom lived on a farm so they grew their own food. They were not malnourished, but they couldn't buy anything. No new clothes or shoes. She'd find a dime now and then and go with friends to the movies -- an escape for sure. Compared to Dad she had an easy time during the Great Depression. At least until her father lost his farm to the Insurance Company/Bank/Mortgage lender. It was the beginning of the end for her father. He was a broken and angry man after that. So, fear formed my parents, Mom more than Dad. He learned to survive and he had brothers and sisters to share the situation. They were all in it together. Mom was alone with her parents in a position where she was powerless to do anything other than domestic chores.

She raised her children with this fear of loss. The fear to try something. Her father had placed a mortgage on their farm in good times so he could fix it up, make their home more beautiful and comfortable. He lost everything.

There are other fears that may seem harmless, but will leave lasting scars. Children can do such harm --playmates, siblings. Behaviors can be shrugged off as 'child's play' or 'boys will be boys' or 'sticks and stones.' Recently a conversation turned from soccer matches to sports related traumas. One woman pointed out that the kids quickly learned that she was an easy target in dodge ball. She still remembered the humiliation. Another remembered a track experience. Jumping hurdles, falling, getting up, falling, falling, falling. Public humiliation at its finest.

Sometimes siblings are the worst. You love even adore them and they take advantage of that love. One woman recalls how her brother took advantage of her trust. It seems that every woman has a story of sexual assault by someone she knew or trusted. Some learn to deal with it. Some never do. But they all remember the incident. It colors their lives.

Fears guide our decisiona and choices. Ever wonder what you would do if you were fearless? The question was posed to a group of fabric artists. Some said 'sky diving' and 'rock climbing.' Others mentioned travel. This woman who had been sexually abused as a child added, "Love unconditionally."

Looking back on one's life quickly points out how short our lives truly are. Letting fear rob us of what little time we have seems like an unspeakable crime. We can't always protect that little vulnerable self that sits at the center of our being and shivers in fear. There comes a time when we must nudge her out into the light and encourage her to take those first steps toward growth and actualization. Who is the real you? Shrug off that cloak of fear and see who you were created to be. No fear.

What would I do if I had no fear? I have this fear of failure and this fear of success....without those, I'd jettison that self censor and write my book. Write my books! I listen to authors who have actually written a novel. They have found their voices. Fear no longer silences or stifles them.

What about you?


Saturday, June 5, 2010


I'm reading a book titled "Stuff: Compuslive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things" by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee. It is an assignment from The Internet Review of Books site. I am to review it for an upcoming issue. Actually, my deadline has passed. But I have reasons for not meeting it....

It is a difficult book for me to read. I can't read it in the family room because my eyes keep wandering. I will read a sentence such as "possessions become part of an individual's sense of self...." Next thing I know I'm staring at the overstuffed bookshelves lining the wall of my family room and my thoughts turn to the boxes full of books that can't be displayed because I have no more shelves. Do I think to get rid of the books? God no!

I try to figure out how to slip the cost of more bookshelves into the family budget.

I definitely can't read this book in the craft room, affectionally called the 'crap' room. [Note: photo above of just one tiny portion of the room. Everything stays, except the cat can come and go at will.]

I'd never get through the book's descriptions of 'stacks of boxes' or 'amazing junk.' Anyone who accumulates odds and ends to use in their multi-media or mixed media or eco-friendly art or craft will feel the pinch as I did when I read "Irene put pieces of broken toys, packing material, and the like in a box she labeled AMAZING JUNK." The difference between my multi-media artist friends and me -- they actually make something out of the 'junk' -- I am still in the accumulation phase.

If I read this book in the kitchen, I am reminded that I really should clean out the cupboards. The bathrooms -- I can read there. But then I realize it has been too long since I gave it a thorough cleaning. Reading in the dining room makes me aware of another problem I have: nibbling. Reading and nibbling go together like Abbot and Costello. Can't have one without the other, especially in the dining room. I'm running out of rooms. The bedrooms are adjacent to closets -- also in need of good cleanings -- and full of who knows what stuff. Weren't closets designed to hold 'stuff' that you don't want anyone to see? The clutter you pick up when preparing for guests?

Yesterday I finally cleaned the screened in porch. Vacuuming away the cat hair, washing down the grill. Rearranging furniture and reacquainting my potted plants with the sunshine out there. A clean little oasis. Other than the 90 degree temperature and the 100 percent humidity, a perfect place to read about Stuff.

I may not meet deadline for this review.

Who knew it would be so difficult to read about stuff and compulsive accumulation and shopping.... did I mention that the Discover card bill arrived in the mail yesterday? But really now. I haven't purchased new clothes in years and it has been even longer since I fed my fabric stash. So those were all necessary purchases.... I still need new shoes. Imeda Marcos (who apparently had the compulsive buying aspect of the compulsive hoarding disease) I am not! One pair of dress shoes (at least 10 years old) and one pair of sneakers at least 2 years old does not make for a hoard. Thankfully there is something I show control over. Anyway, fabric is NOT 'stuff' it is art, beauty, -- potential.

But, just in case, I'm backing away from online shopping....

Another aspect of this hoarding compulsion seems to stem from low self esteem and perfectionism. And that may explain why I have the parts, pieces, tools and books that tell me how to make something out of all of the accumulated fabrics and embellishments. And why I never seem to get around to making or finishing the projects. I feel the need of a psychiatrist or therapist to get me straightened out. But the expense of the treatment....

Perhaps the cure is to simply stop reading this damn book! I think I feel better already. Of course, I won't throw it away or give it away. I will find a tight little space on my overstuffed bookshelves and cram it in with the rest of the books I should read.....

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

June and all of its baggage

It is the first day of June. In Florida, that means the first day of hurricane season. For many it is the first day of summer vacation. I can always tell when summer has arrived with the blooming of the first dandelions. It seems appropriate they would bloom today, for it is the anniversary of my father's death.

He had a love-hate relationship with dandelions. Everyday since he retired he would be out in the yard with a tool he made from an old hoe. He had shaped the end to fit around a dandelion plant so that when he thrust it into the ground it would wedge the root between the prongs and he could flip the dandelion out of the ground. It would most of the time just break off the tap root, so the dandelion would simply grow a new top, but Dad took great satisfaction in the pile of plants and leaves he threw on the compost pile at the end of each day. He would mow, hoping to clip off the flowers before they went to seed. Sometimes he mowed every other day. Some might think he was obsessed. I will always see him grinning up at me from the middle of his lawn, holding aloft a particularly healthy specimen. He fashioned similar but smaller tools for my two sons who took pleasure in helping Grandpa fight the flowers.

June 1 is the day Dad officially stopped breathing and was 'declared' dead. But the man who was my father had begun to disappear more than a decade before that final June day.

He was diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer's Disease. They couldn't say definately which, but he followed the same path of far too many of our loved ones. One day he was driving his car, taking Mom and I out to lunch -- something he adored doing since his retirement. He stopped at an intersection and turned to Mom. "I don't know which way to go."

Today I want to shout "Don't go that way!" It was as if he had reached a point where he must shift directions from the strong, take charge, angry man who made me feel totally secure and protected to someone lost in a fog and totally dependent upon strangers.

Mom put the gear shift into park and she and Dad did one of those Chinese fire drills. I looked on in silence. We went out to lunch and he seemed subdued but okay. Mom drove home. He never drove the car again. His world soon shrank to the inside of their home. He would sit in the front room watching TV, think of something he needed in the kitchen at the back of the house. By the time he walked to the half-way point, he had forgotten what it was he needed or where he was going. We tried to laugh things off. He would answer the telephone when it rang, talk to the person calling, chatting away in the inane way people do. The moment he hung up, it was as if it never happened. Mom would ask, "Who called?" He would turn those confused eyes in her direction and ask, "Called?"

My young sons who had worshipped their grandpa were the most confused and frightened. We tried to help them understand that it was a disease, but they wanted their grandpa back. I wanted me father. Mom wanted a husband who didn't think she was his mother or worse yet, think she was keeping him from the people he loved.

But it has been a couple decades since that June day. I try to see instead the burly man who worked in the anealer room at the local steel mill. The man who loved Phil Silvers television show and dreaded Christmas. The man who had beamed with pride whenever he saw me and my two sons and who quickly accepted my husband as another son. I wonder at times how our lives might have been different if he had not wandered off down that dark and foggy path to dementia. Would my sons have learned important man lessons from him? Would he have taken pleasure in his retirement with my mother? What I do know is that even when he was suffering and in pain with the cancer that sneaked in when he wasn't looking, he was there when I needed him most.

He was in the hospital. Asleep I thought. I cried silently by his bed. He had not been my father for several years and didn't know who I was only that he thought I was a nice person. He looked over at me and said, "Don't worry, it will be alright." For that lucid moment he was Dad. I told him that I missed him so much. I wanted him back. He held my hand and smiled a tired smile. As he patted my hand, he disappeared back into his fog. It wasn't enough. It wasn't nearly enough. But it would have to do. He was still in there somewhere and on rare occasions he would find a way to peek out at us. I'd see a flash of him peering out of his eyes and he'd start to say something, but it would pass too quickly for words.

So, June first is a bittersweet day for me. Perhaps as you work in your lawn, eradicating a few dandelions, you'll think of my dad.

Benjamin Franklin Stump.

For those of you who enjoy fabric art, or like to create fabric art, the AAQI auction is open from now through the 10th. Proceeds go to fund research to find a cure for Alzheimer's Disease. Maybe if we can cure Dad's disease, the research will lead to a cure for my husband's disease -- ALS.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Monday is a good deed day

It is Monday. Here in Florida it is a rainy Monday. A much needed rain. It may be the perfect day to do something unexpectedly nice for someone.

A fellow quilter mentioned that she saw some children sitting on a little ride at the mall. It wasn't running and they didn't have the money to make it operate. She drew a couple dollars from her purse, walked over to the ride and inserted the money. Then she stood back and enjoyed their smiles and laughter for a few minutes before continuing her day. She explain her action away with "its because I don't have any grandchildren...."

What did her two dollars buy her? Smiles and laughter. A moment of childish delight. A feeling of stepping outside her day and doing something sponateous. And perhaps the priceless gift of passing on an act of generosity that the children will emulate. She has no idea how far this little act of kindness will travel.

Another quilter mentioned "change your thoughts; you change the world." Not just that 'I think I can' attitude, but also the way one looks at the same thing day after day. Instead of looking at the top of the table, get down and look at the underside. Instead of seeing the frown on your neighbor's face, notice his hands -- what do they tell you about him? And what does that motivate you to do?

Make a vow to do something unexpectedly nice today. It can be as simple as a smile or wishing a service provider a good day or simply looking them in the eye and saying a 'from the heart' thank you.

Maybe send a card or letter or email to someone you think about but don't often reach out to.

Maybe cook a special food for your family. Fix Sunday dinner on Monday and gather everyone together for the meal. Or maybe have a carpet picnic.

Donate to a worthy cause.

Visit your neighbor.

Say positive reinforcing things to coworkers.

It doesn't take a Pollyanna attitude to change the world. It could also be something like speaking up against a wrong.

Each good deed brings good back to you. We are all connected in this universe, so send out a few good vibrations into the stratosphere and enjoy the rain! It washes away, renews, stimulates growth, and makes the sunshine even brighter.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Entitlement or Simply Blind

The Chinese tell of a man of Peiping who dreamed of gold, much gold, his heart's desire. He rose one day and when the sun was high he dressed in his finest garments and went to the crowded market place. He stepped directly to the booth of a gold dealer, snatched a bag full of gold coins, and walked calmly away. The officials who arrested him were puzzled: "Why did you rob the gold dealer in broad daylight?" they asked. "And in the presence of so many people?"

"I did not see any people," the man replied. "I saw only gold." -- Louis Binstock

Do you ever think that this is a tale of the corporate world? I have been traveling daily back and forth from a center where businesses seem to have congregated and formed a little citadel of commerce. Everytime my vehicle gets close to the area, I feel like I have entered an 'entitlement' zone. As if rules that apply to the normal citizen no longer need to be heeded there. The first clue is the way people drive.

I've been driving for a number of years, okay a number of decades, and I can't recall (no it isn't Alzheimers) ever being cut off so often, people changing lanes willy nilly, someone speeding at twice the legal limit weaving in and out of traffic. Speed signs being used as 'only a suggestion.'

And never have I seen so many people stop at stoplights and then just sit there after it turned green. Of course they are chatting on cell phones or doing their makeup or eating their breakfast or reading the newspaper or texting someone, but you'd think they'd notice the traffic moving around them. Get into the parking lots and it is worse. Just trying to make a turn into a parking lot can be life threatening.

Yesterday I wheeled my husband's big green van into a wide turn in order to fit it into the handicap slot that has been assigned him by the front door. No one behind. No one in front. I began my turn and my husband yelled. A red car had turned off of the main road and at killer speed zipped right past me as I'm turning across her path. I slammed on the brakes. My husband was jettisoned out of his wheelchair and landed on his knees between the two front seats. As he knelt there he was the poster child for seat belts.

He had been preparing to get out of the van, who knew someone would feel the need to 'slip past' while I'm parking. We thought the risk was on the road to this little oasis. He was hurt and a bit humiliated and stunned as three volunteers maneuvered him back into his wheelchair. I was angry that such a 'me first' attitude, disregard for others, not to mention stupid unsafe behavior, had caused him such pain.

It seems like just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to entitlement based upon an overwhelming need to get ahead, get more money, get promoted, or simply get away with something.

I recently posted a little saying that seems to take on new meaning every time I venture out into the world.


I do so miss courtesy, consideration, love of fellow man.... Perhaps that is what was so poignant about the three men who came to rescue my husband. One was head of security, one was a dear friend, and one a stranger with a cast on his foot. They didn't hesitate to assess the situation, show a little sympathy, and then set to work to right the wrong. They all cared about giving comfort, making sure no one was harmed, wounded, or uncomfortable. All three wanted nothing more than to help. The help continued as we found a first aid kit and I bandaged the gash on my husband's leg. And people were considerate of him and his feelings, letting him regain his composure and get on with his day.
I still wonder about that woman who found her path so much more important that she put us all in harms way. She even had a choice to not come down that aisle. She could have seen us blocking her path and turned. Instead she made the choice to push her way through. Thoughtless? Clueless? Stupid? Unthinking? I don't know what to attribute her actions to. She may think nothing happened, no big deal. Maybe she went on with her day feeling entitled to what she had done. She got away with it. She wasn't held responsible. Forced to face the consequences of her actions....
But the action I took to avoid collision with her, since I was clearly the only one who could avoid the collision, caused me to harm my husband. Caused me to put on the brakes and throw him to the floor. Caused him to bleed.
I drive a big BIG green van and on the way home I envisioned that scene from the movie Fried Green Tomatoes where the Kathy Bates character rams the hell out of the two sweet young things in a VW with her bigger heavier car. All I could think was how satisfying it would be to be empowered and take matters into my own hands and stop following laws and being courteous and caring about others. It is such an inviting thought.
But then I realized -- I would be just like that woman in the red car. That is NOT someone I ever want to be.

For more about wheelchair safety visit and or go to my blog list and click on The Traveling Wheelchair blog and then scroll down to the appropriate story on his site.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Entering the Dark Ages: More Funding Cuts for the Arts

On April 14, Georgia legislature contemplated not funding the Georgia Council for the Arts. In essence, Georgia would be the only state without funds for the arts. It is still undecided as of this writing.

No funding for creativity. No encouragement to express oneself, experiment in various mediums, no art for government buildings, no budding artists programs.

But why should this be any different? Education funding has been cut and the curriculum dumbed down. Library budgets are non-existent and commissioners who determine those funding amounts are saying things like, "libraries are a waste of money. Everyone watches TV. I don't like to read, never been inside of a library and look at me...." The last sentence was said to me by our local county commissioner and it was all I could do not to laugh and say, "Well, you are our poster child for what happens when one doesn't read."

No vision. No wisdom. Very little knowledge. And so set in the past that he can't see past yesterday!

Free thinking seems to be a form of anarchy. Look at this explosion of tea party activists who are simply people afraid of change. Afraid of the light since they've lived in the dark for so long. Afraid of tomorrow. They are not looking to the future, they are clinging to the past.

Have we reached that point where we have so many comforts that we can no longer take a risk, watch and wait and see what happens? Why does the immediate reaction to any change have to be hysterical denial and name calling and death threats and labeling and words like 'undemocratic' and 'traitor' and worse....

I remember growing up in a time when tomorrow was bright and full of experimentation. OK, I'm a product of the 60s, and no the experimentation I was thinking about wasn't drugs or free love. I was thinking of the space race. The space exploration, the call for people who could not only build a space craft, but could also envision what to do with it. Where have all of those men and women gone? Is that why our space program is doomed to extinction? All of the visionaries are retired or dead? Who is rising up to take their places?

Most recently our experience has been in the healthcare field as my husband battles a rare disease. When in a hospital, rare is not good. No one seems able or willing to veer out of the normal protocols or to look at the patient instead of the monitors. His breathing problem is muscular not cellular, yet they treated him as if his lungs were diseased. They are healthy. Not the problem. It took a frantic wife with a whole lot to lose to convince them otherwise. It took persistence and tears; anger, yelling, begging, pleading, demanding, and finally my husband rising up out of his bed and refusing treatment.

Maybe that is what reasonable people must start doing before the opportunity for change is lost. We can begin in our own homes, teaching our children what isn't being taught in the schools. We can teach our children problem solving skills, step-by-step processes to get from point a to point z. How to 'see' something that is not conceived. How to turn an idea into reality.

And you know the very best ways to teach children these things? Yeah, you probably guessed it: ART!

Math and music go together. Teach a child music, and his math skills will improve. Fact.
Art and spacial skills improve. Hand-eye coordination grows more adept. Verbal skills and reading skills improve as children are encouraged to use their imagination and express themselves. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but usually within those pictures, the budding artist feels the need to use words for further expression. Sewing improves just about every aspect of life, and makes it possible for a child to make things for himself whether utilitarian or strictly ornamental or a bit of both. Cooking -- self preservation and self care as well as math skills, science, nature, and a bit of nurture as an added sprinkle on top.

Georgia produced some of the finest writers in America. Is there no pride left? No hope of producing more Erskin Caldwells, Pat Conroys, W.E.B. DuBois, Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Connors or Margaret Mitchells? (Just to name a very few from a long list.) Or artists? Or visionaries?

Perhaps if those legislators had spent more time working on creative projects, they could be more visionary leaders, finding ways to balance budgets and grow their states, meet their citizens needs. Instead they resort to cutting off funding, depriving their citizens, and then running for re-election on their lack of vision by saying, "We closed libraries, cut funding to the arts, and dumbed down schools. But, we balanced the budget...."

I do so miss people who can reason and think, solve problems and see risks as opportunities.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Dream BIG! Then Make It Happen!

Today I made a little tiny comment on my Subversive Stitchers: Women Armed with Needles facebook page. I simply wrote: I should be in Paducah!

The tiny, shriveled, pessimistic, Scrooge-pre-epiphany side of my brain said, "You? You'll never get there. You'll never have anything accepted into the show. And you certainly will never have a book to sign or sell at any quilt show."

This is how I talk to myself. I wouldn't treat anyone that ruthlessly and negatively -- but I do it to myself whenever an opportunity knocks.

In contrast, an art quilter told about a midnight epiphany she had concerning some African batiks that she had purchased and been unable to find the right project in which to use them. Instead of talking herself out of it, she arose from her bed, went to her design wall and got to work. Her middle-of-the night project looked good by daylight, too. She continued to work on it, following her inspiration until she now has a series of four art quilts, one already finished and entered in a contest.

This isn't her first successful quilt project. But perhaps it explains how she comes about achieving these successes. She values her muse. She values her 'what if' inspirations. She trusts herself enough to put actions to those thoughts. And she follows through to complete the projects.

Sometimes I daydream of winning a best of show at the Houston Quilt Show and selling my best selling book while I'm there. In my dreams it seems like such a possibility. Of course if I do nothing. Nothing will come of it. But if I work my way toward that goal -- make little projects to hone my sewing skills and techniques. Pay attention to what others in the quilt/fabric art world are doing. Watch what is winning. Find my own voice in the cloth and trust it -- it could happen. It will take time and effort and trial and error and yet, if I do nothing I am guaranteed failure.

When Carol Soderlund started working on her best of show quilt, she couldn't find the fabrics she needed to make what she envisioned. (See photo: Covenant.)

Did she give up? Whine? Well, maybe a little.

But then she bought some white fabric, some dyes and began making what she needed. Her quilt went on to win Best of Show in Houston. She went on to teach one of the very best cloth dyeing workshops in the nation, maybe the world. And she continues to make award winning quilts.

What about my best selling book? The same goes for the book. If I just think about it and do nothing. I'm guaranteed failure. What's that scripture? Faith without works....

We dream too small. Lately I've just wanted to get through each day. Fulfill the current deadlines. And keep my husband's health in check. I'm dreaming way too small. I see women traveling the globe, sharing their art, teaching their craft, gathering awards for the works they made. Works that originated in their brains and made with their own hands.

Why is that not a possibility for me, too? Why have I spent my life saying, "I can't."

What will I lose today if I begin to say, "I can!"

Maybe that is one of the benefits of being the age I am. Failure pales in comparison with a life unlived. And I don't have that many more years to turn my act around. So those day dreams and what ifs are going to the top of my to do list. And words such as "can't," or "don't be silly," or "you aren't good enough" are excommunicated from my vocabulary.

Oh, and in response to my little mention on the facebook -- several responses. One that said, "I'll start saving today...." Little steps. One at a time lead to that goal, that success that seemed unattainable.

Once I thought I would never be published. Once I thought no one would ever see my writing as valuable. Once I thought I could never earn a living at writing.

I was wrong. Those goals have been met and exceeded. So what's stopping me now?

Action. That's what it takes! ACTION!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Brains on Books

As a woman, wife, mother, daughter, homemaker, writer, business woman, chauffer, cat caretaker I never seem to have enough hours in the day to get everything done. Even with reading and reviewing books as part of my work load, I feel guilty sitting down to read. No multi-tasking, just sitting and reading. Seems decadent, especially when the long list of chores remains undone.

But then I read an article in the New York Times about scientists studying the brain and what happens to it while people read. They approached the subject from both directions. The brain on books, so to speak, by watching it via MRI while someone is actually reading. And another group of scientists look at how books influence thought. “It’s not that evolution gives us insight into fiction,” Mr. Flesch said, “but that fiction gives us insight into evolution.”

He went on to conclude:

"Fictional accounts help explain how altruism evolved despite our selfish genes. Fictional heroes are what he calls “altruistic punishers,” people who right wrongs even if they personally have nothing to gain. “To give us an incentive to monitor and ensure cooperation, nature endows us with a pleasing sense of outrage” at cheaters, and delight when they are punished, Mr. Flesch argues. We enjoy fiction because it is teeming with altruistic punishers: Odysseus, Don Quixote, Hamlet, Hercule Poirot."

Perhaps a childhood spent at the library or reading in my room explains why I view the world in a much different way than my extended family. I've often wondered how we can be so totally different in our perspective of the world. Maybe reading has made the difference. I've come to realize that books greatly influence my mood. If I'm reading something dark and foreboding, depressing or tragic, I carry that with me. My life is colored, darkened. The world is more frightening. I fight with my husband....

But if I'm reading about someone who has found success, happiness, love, made right choices, saved a life even their own, I see potential and optimism and goodness at every turn. It carries over into movies and television, too. Right now I am obsessed with the series, The Closer.

It stars Kyra Sedgewick (Kevin Bacon's wife) and an ensemble of great, individual characters. I look at the various personalities brought together in each show and marvel at how well the writers defined the characters and gave them quirks and tics that in themselves made them unique. The program solves a murder with each show. Death and dying and torture and violence are their daily lot, but what I like about the program is the problem solving, the way the character draws from daily life, unrelated events and finds solutions. It fits well into my interest in synchronicity.

I'm also delighted in the quirky, almost autistic, personality of the main character: Brenda Leigh Johnson. The creator of this character took an only child raised by a charming southern belle who holds a black belt in manipulation and a controlling, but adoring father -- a military man. They traveled as military families travel from base to base and assignment to assignment. This child, very intelligent, learned lessons well from both parents and her life situation and uses them to bully her way past every impediment to the goal of closing her case. She's flawed. She is devoted to her parents, but sees no conflict between loving them and manipulating them for her own gain. Same with the love interest in the series.

Anyway, while watching the Closer, I see a role model of a successful, devious, loveable, frustrating, problem solving woman who leads a group of mostly men who have come to respect and like her. They are loyal to her. No, not in a sexual way at all at all. About as close to sex as she and her group get is that one detective remarks, "I'd recognize those legs anywhere...."

Brenda Leigh Johnson -- don't you love what that name says about the character?

She uses every trick at her disposal, but we see that the manipulation and deviousness are tools and underneath all of her 'tricks' is a steel will and a woman who will not deviate from her core values or her goal. She does not do anything for personal gain. It is about achieving her goal, not getting rewards, earning money, etc. It is purely altruistic. Good overcoming bad. She could and sometimes does fall off into an unlikeable, self centered character. But she is found out, corrected, made to feel 'just awful.' She never falls away from her pursuit of good. I feel like I am a better person just by spending time with this character.

I'd make a great test subject for these scientists. So maybe a lifetime of reading isn't such a bad life or a waste of time. Books may be mind altering -- better than chocolate as a mood enhancer -- definitely great for one's sex life. Ask any woman how sexy she feels after reading a few of those bodice ripping romances.

Fiction writers serve the greater good. Keep writing!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Trust Your Reader!

One of the most frequently committed amateur writing errors is to TELL your readers what you want them to take away from your writing. It can occur as the 'show don't tell' rule. Instead of saying "She was frustrated and angrily shouted." Maybe "She stomped her feet, scowled and leaned forward into his face then bellowed, spit flying everywhere...."

I like allowing my readers to see the actions and feel the emotions that rise from those actions.

But sometimes I enjoy a lovely story and I don't care if there is telling or showing. I received a touching story today. My cousin fears her life will end if she doesn't pass on everything that says 'pass it on.' So I get lots of emails that have been circulating through cyberspace. Today it was the Shay Story. The father is a speaker at a school fundraiser and tells about his son who suffered disabilities.

The father said, 'I believe that when a child like Shay, who was mentally and physically disabled comes into the world, an opportunity to realize true human nature presents itself, and it comes in the way other people treat that child.'

It can be interpreted many ways. Some may see it as degrading to children or even adults for that matter, who live each day with courage and perseverence and with disabilities. I thought it a bit melodramatic and dripping with too much description. The author didn't quite trust his audience to get it, so he poured on every trick to manipulate.

And then the real turnoff. The chain mail threat and guilt message. Another blog reacted the same way I did. And she included the whole message. I try not to copy other people's writing without permission and I don't really know who to ask permission for this message.

Anyway, I was thinking of forwarding the message. But the author didn't trust his audience enough. So he threw in this: "AND NOW A LITTLE FOOT NOTE TO THIS STORY: We all send thousands of jokes through the e-mail without a second thought, but when it comes to sending messages about life choices, people hesitate. The crude, vulgar, and often obscene pass freely through cyberspace, but public discussion about decency is too often suppressed in our schools and workplaces. If you're thinking about forwarding this message, chances are that you're probably sorting out the people in your address book who aren't the 'appropriate' ones to receive this type of message...."

My first reaction was to think: "Who does this person think they are? They don't know me? Or they would not be threatening me or assuming things about me that are incorrect...."  I thought a few more unkind thoughts and reached to hit delete. Then I decided to write this blog.

Writers can learn alot from this Shay email. Just write your story. The deeper the emotion, the simpler the delivery should be. Don't pound it in. Be gentle. Don't tell a reader how to interpret it, write well enough that they'll get it and then give them room to enjoy, experience, digest what you've written.

I may not remember the Shay story, but I will still feel the disgust and anger over the stupid message at the end. Who are we to assume what others think, feel, do, or who they are!? Just write your story. Let the readers do the rest.

And do you ever wonder if any of these chain mail messages are for real? Well, this site evidently has checked out the Shay message and have a few interesting tidbits to add.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Writers! Stop writing CRAP!

We're watching television. The Ford Focus commercial comes on and the female driver says something about how she doesn't go to the gas station so much. It saves her time. Maybe money, too. So now she thinks maybe she has time/money to do something for the kids or get a manicure. End of commercial.

I'm left with this horrible feeling that the world has just seen a representative of the female American population as a superficial non-contributing member of the global network. She things of shopping and manicures?

Why does this bother me?

That concept began with a wordsmith, a writer. Who writes the screen play or script? A writer.

Why choose a woman perfectly dressed, every hair in place, flawless makeup. Trendy jewelry. Why not someone who gets her hands dirty? Why not someone who is busy living her life and now she has more time for the important things in life -- taking her neighbor to the cancer center for a treatment or delivering gifts to the church members at the nursing home. Or maybe bringing materials to the local school for an in-school art day where she's the visiting artist.

Why is it some Stepford Wife type of female that is the image in a Ford Focus?

Where is the imagination that made our country great? Where is the imagination and the guts to portray people doing vital or moral or civic responsible things? No wonder people just sit around and wait for someone else to take care of the world. They don't see role models. They do not see HOW others might possibly do things they never considered.

No, the woman didn't need to be conquering Mount Everest. But she could have been contributing something besides money at the mall or the beauty center. Do we really think that all we can contribute to this world is consumerism?

Where are the writers who can promote world peace in a Pepsi commercial? Or why don't we see a photo on TV like this one above from Gandhinagar, India: Women from the Jain community attend prayers for world peace. 

Look at the women's hands in the photo -- do we care if they have a manicure or not? What do their hands express?  I want to know.

Isn't it more inspiring than the manicured shot of a manicure and a high heel shoe -- what symbolizes female as useless beauty as this last photo?

Writers need to change the message. NOW!

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Connect and Reconnect and keep swatting away those Gnats

The voice message light blinked on my phone in the dark of my bedroom. I had just entered, dropping off the bags of ephemera that my husband accumulated during his almost two week stay in the intensive care unit of the hospital. He was weak, he was battered, but he was HOME!

My body stiffened and I tightened my jaw. Would it be yet another phone call from his officious manager where he had been working full time until this medical crisis?

I couldn't stand her insincerity, her obvious joy at an opportunity to remove an employee with disabilities from her roster. I wanted to fit my hands around her throat and squeeze. If I heard her voice I knew I would throw the phone against the wall and maybe pound my head a bit, too.

But then, it could just as easily be a worried family member from back home. So I pushed the play button and stood uneasily waiting to hear the voice.

An unfamiliar voice.

It sounded friendly and definitely not that whining voice of his manager. We call her The Gnat always darting into people's faces, annoying, keeping them from work, complicating every process, infuriating with her touch and random acts of frustrating interaction.

Yet wait, I've heard this voice. I recognized the New England accent. And then she gave her name and said, "I hope you remember me...."

I did! We had had such a great working relationship -- editor and writer -- while she and another talented editor ran one of my favorite writing markets. I knew that the two had been forced out of a magazine after they had built it to a well respected publication. Now some member of the same sisterhood to which The Gnat belonged had begun undoing everything they had worked so hard to do. I saw the latest issue and could only feel pain for the loss.

But the voice was saying something about working for another publication and .... what did she say?

I rewound the message and played it again. She wants me to write for her again. And she wants me to write the kind of articles I so enjoy. AND she wants me to begin with one of my favorite fabric artists! AND she wants me to pitch ideas that she will happily assign to me and pay me a decent wage.

I sat on the bed and stared at the phone. There isn't much of anything I could think of that would sound better (other than that my husband was cured).

Today I began preparing questions for that first interview. I started by reviewing some of the entries blogged and written online about the artist. One site said she was influenced by Alfonse (sic) Mucha. Well of course I had to find out who that was.

Turns out he is a Czech Art Nouveau painter best known for his images of women. Today there is a museum and foundation named after him and just about anyone who has ever seen any Art Nouveau posters or images, have seen his work.

So why include this trivia tidbit in this blog?

Because I took a look at a timeline that was included on the Foundation's website and realized that Alphonse had his Gnats, too. His father sent him to be trained by the church and found him a job as a church clerk. Makes me think of that adage, "poor as church mice..." But Alphonse had other ideas for his life and applied to the Prague Academy of Fine Arts in 1878. "His application is turned down with the recommendation: "Find yourself another profession where you'll be more useful".

Sounds like not only today's writers receive rejection with a twist of malice and elitist intent. But, he doesn't give up. He travels to another city and becomes a scene painter. When he's let go from that job because their biggest client goes up in flames -- literally -- he moves on and begins painting portraits. There he meets a wealthy man who wants him to decorate his whole castle. And in 1885 he begins studying at the Munich Academy of Art.

I feel a connection to Alphonse. He believed in his doodlings. If he hadn't persevered, believed in himself and his 'need' to paint, he would have frittered away his life in a 'job' rather than follow his calling. He wouldn't have become a famous artist who influenced a whole art movement and a now famous fabric artist, and I would not be writing this article. Of course if I had not believed in myself, taken the steps I have taken with my meager little writing career and had not written that first (now rather pathetic) query to the magazine years ago, I would not be sitting here preparing questions for an assignment that may make up the difference in lost revenue caused by The Gnat and her infernal need to grow her own career.

Notice in this fable that the people who stand in the way of art usually remain nameless and fade away into oblivion. They are the dust that covers the floors in human history.

Also notice that Alphonse did not travel his path alone. There were people who hired him, mentored him, sponsored him, and believed in him. Maybe the Gnats of the world are simply the things that make us stronger so that we can lift our chins, square our shoulders and prepare to fight for our words, our lives, our birthright. Or maybe they are the offsprings of parents who did not chose wisely and accepted the church clerk calling rather than fight for who they truly wanted to be, passing on their frustration and fears to their baby Gnats....

Enough about Gnats. I have a profile to write! And then another. And another.

If your phone isn't ringing, take time to reach out today and say hi to those favorite editors. You never know what they'll reply.

PHOTOS: Alphonse Mucha's Art Nouveau images

Saturday, January 30, 2010

I'm a bookless writer, how pathetic!

Photo: Tracy Cavelli Trussell, Christian book author at a signing in Arizona.

I just read a cute essay in the latest issue of Foreword Magazine about being bookless. Lisa Romeo hit every hot button of being a writer who has not produced a book. It is probably why I always hesitate to describe my work as writing. I'd almost rather say 'housewife' than writer. I expect to be dismissed as a 'housewife.' BORING!

But when I say, "I'm a writer," it opens up a whole line of questioning that I'd rather forego.

"Ohhhh you're a writer? What books have you written?" It is like an inquisition. I need to prove I am a writer. When my husband says, "I'm an accountant." No one asks him for verification. No one asks what accounts he has balanced, what software he's proficient using, or whether he's saved the company millions of dollars. They just accept that he is a professional and unless he's talking to another accountant, the conversation usually stops there. I think maybe 'accountant' is as boring a title as 'housewife.'

But writer. I cringe as soon as the word is out of my mouth. I want to add. "Don't ask me what I write or what I've written. Don't ask me where I get my ideas. If I knew where I got my ideas I would go there more often. Because frankly right now I am idea-less. Not a single thought or gem or nugget. I think about what's for dinner. That's about as creative as I get these days. So I imagine I will remain 'bookless' for quite some time.

For years my husband indulged me. I devoted time to scribbling on pages and he was okay with that. Did he think I was a writer? No. Did he care? No. What he cared about what us being a couple and me being happy. We were, I was.

Then I started making money with my writing. No one could have been more surprised than I was -- unless it was my husband. His view of me changed. Income producing work was a good thing. He bought me a pen. The next year he bought me a computer. And eventually an ergonomically correct chair. I probably earned enough in each of those years to pay for each item. But still no book.

Now my dear husband has come to expect income from my writing. And he has come to accept that I'm not an author. But I made the mistake of having friends who have written books, got six figure advances and he'd like me to do that. I would like that, too.

Is this the year I push past the blockage and just keep writing even if it is crap until I actually have something resembling a book? If so, I might even head to the next class reunion. Nah, let's not get carried away. That would require dieting AND publishing a book.

I hold out hope that my sons will publish. Both have books in the works. Hopefully they will succeed where their mother has failed and instead of facing people and admitting I'm a writer without a book. I can smile and reply, "I'm a mother of an author...."

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Books that make you hurl

Sometimes a book is so bad I want to throw it across the room. In fiction it is usually the amateur writing mistakes or lazy attention to detail or grammar or spelling. The stilted dialogue, the poor descriptions, the characters acting against type or out of character also drive me nuts. Or gratuitous scenes or elements that are there only because the author was not strong enough to kill of his or her darlings.

In nonfiction I tend to start tossing books that don't get it right. A recent read caused me to hurl (the book) when the author solved all of the world's problems in less than 200 pages including global warming, overpopulation AND the ongoing discussion of religion vs science. It was not at all what it was marketed as. It was in fact an old man's rant. An end of life attempt to get his say in while he could still say it. Yes that sounds harsh. I realize I should respect my elders and that some day I'll be where he's sitting. I want to be heard, too. I could have accepted it much better if he would have marketed it as what it was -- a rant!

Today I worked on a book review for a book of fiction where the author got it wrong. She, a perky, lean, blonde of unending enthusiasm wrote about a woman of obese proportions. Or as the author likes to refer to her character and all women of similar body types -- fat women. I keep thinking about (and grinding my teeth) the fight people with disabilities waged and continue to wage to be seen. Can you not see that is a man in that wheelchair? A father? A brother? A person who has been wounded and yet he gets out of bed every day and lives his life just like the rest of us? That is to say 'he lives the best that he can.' So why is this woman any less deserving of being seen despite the layers of fat that envelope her? Why is she first of all fat? Where is her heart? Her pain? Her motivation? The cause and effect of her situation and her image?

Yes, I'm royally pissed at the treatment of this fictional character because the author has chosen to make her inert and unloveable as a fat woman but suddenly transforms her into a loveable, interesting, selfless human being once she loses the weight. Stereotype! Perpetrating a myth to the detriment of all who must live it.

So, what is the author's responsibility to get it right. Should she have researched the causes of morbid obesity? Should she have delved into this character to understand what conspired, even in her childhood, to lead her to the choices that she made? Should the author have done more than talk to a bunch of women and conclude that she knew all she needed to know about the subject? Should she have written a solution to the woman's obesity was simply that she stopped eating? Would she have written a book about an anorexic girl who was saved because she ate more? Rather simplistic.

I'd like to write about alot of topics. But I want to get them right. I want to know everything I possibly can before I create a character and I hope to all the writing gods that I do not ever make such a pathetic one-dimensional character as I just read in this book that I shall not name because I don't want anyone to purchase the book or help this author make money on the backs of every woman of obese proportions!

Maybe painting people as freaks sells books. Maybe that is perfectly all right. But I pray never to be guilty of such a crime. And if I do include an outcast in my book, I intend to understand why she's outside of the norms of society and make sure my readers understand, too.

In all fairness, I will add that this novel does not suffer from the usual hurl-causing deficiencies. It is well crafted. Just not well thought out.  

Monday, January 4, 2010

First Rule of Fiction Writing: Be Authentic

One of the most endearing and perhaps the greatest strength of fiction writer Ann Hite's Black Mountain series is the authentic voices that Ann has given to her characters and narrator. They are so real it is as if they are standing right in front of you. I wanted to shake their hands upon introduction.

As Elizabeth Berg says, "The people who are the most irresistible are those who are most themselves."

We can actually 'feel' when they are not being themselves -- in real life and even on the page. You've met people who made you antsy, made you feel as if you are both sharing a secret and you've just met them. The secret of course is that you both know this person is not what he or she appears to be, or tries to appear to be. Of course this cover-up can make for an interesting plot development as the reader sees their 'persona' slip and eventually the character reveals his true colors.

But if this is not a plot device, then reader and character are both uncomfortable in this shared lie.

Berg says the best thing to do is to write naturally. "Using your own voice, try to think of what you are doing as dictation. Put down onto the paper the words you are hearing in your head -- literally."

For me that means writing in first person. When I begin saying 'he said, she said, and describing scenes with an omniscent voice, the distant widens to a deep chasm dividing me not only from the characters, but from the reader. I even feel isolated and removed from the scene.

Today I rewrote a scene, not a bad scene, but a ho-hum scene from a first person perspective. I chose one of the women in the room as my eyes and ears and let her tell what happened. It surprised me at how stilted some of the descriptions sounded now that I saw the scene through her eyes.

So first step in finding your authentic voice, is finding your narrator. As soon as I could 'see' my narrator, I could put perception, focus, and personality into the scene. It still isn't good.

Now I have fallen into the trap of reportage.

Trust me, anyone who has reviewed very many manuscripts or reviewed books whose authors have paid for the service are familiar with the amateur mistakes. The glaring amateur mistakes. Not so easy to spot is how the writer overcomes this awkward writing. But, just like authenticity, you know it when you see it and can relax and enjoy. Trust builds with an author who writes with 'authority' and 'authenticity.' Maybe that's why we're called: AU-thors!

Writing this bloggy advice, I see that it appears to be leading writers to an attitude of 'be more concerned with each word you write and be careful of reportage and stilted writings and to scrutinize each word placed on the page.'


Just the opposite.

Set the editor aside. Forget what everyone has told you about writing and for this first draft, this first romance with the page, just let the words flow. What I do advocate is getting to know your character so well that she speaks through you. As Berg said, "... dictation."

That is my mistake. I sit at my desk looking in through the window at my characters. I can't hear them very well from out here. My focus is distorted by the thick layers of glass between us. I can't use any other senses. I don't smell their perfume or musky odors or bad breath or the scent of the room. I can't taste Alma's homemade cookies or Rita's cherry jam. I need to open the door and move inside. Smile at the room full of women and see how they respond to me.

Getting to know characters may involve writing a long detailed history. Not only the parents' names, but the grandparents, where they were born, raised and which wars they fought in -- personal and militarily. It also means that you know if they are right or left handed, what their birthstone is and if they like having that birthstone. What scars do they have? Inside and out? What makes them stop and admire? Who attracts and repels them?

This also requires putting the editor out with the morning trash. Do NOT. DO NOT invite that editor back in until the first draft is completely written. Send that editor on a trip around the world. And while she's gone write. Write as fast as you can. And while you're writing visit with your characters. Get to know whether they prefer cherry jam to ham sandwiches or what their smile looks like. Get to know who is shy, who is bold, who is angry, who is frightened, who is carrying a heavy burden, keeping a secret, and who is just so happy they could sing.

It isn't only journalists who should be asking who, what, where, when, and why. Every writer, especially fiction writers need to ask. And don't forget how.

Diana Gabaldon (you knew I'd have to insert her in here some way) likes to tell the story of driving her daughter to soccer practice and all the time her mind was on her characters. She sees Jocasta reach for a cut glass goblet and watch her man servant push the glass just an inch so that her fingers close around the glass precisely. It is at that point that Gabaldon has the epiphany that 'Jocasta is blind!' and misses the turn off to soccer practice. Even in her anecdotes about her writing, Gabaldon has great timing and understatement. I admit that some of that was lacking in her latest book -- along with alot of other things I found endearing about her Outlander series. But I digress.

For me, at this moment, writing in first person works. Even if the final version moves back to third person, I will get to know my characters, remove stitled descriptions, and get rid of the barriers between me and the action through my narrator who is now my best bud!