Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Trick or Treat

by Tory Butterworth

Now that we've officially moved on from Halloween to All Saint's Day, I feel I have license to complain about the holiday without spoiling it too much for anyone else.

I don't have a very good relationship with Halloween. Apparently it started before my birth.

The story my mother tells is that one faithful Halloween night she was pregnant and threatening to miscarry. She was under strict doctor's orders to remain horizontal. My Dad had a bad case of the flu. He was on the phone with his mother when he passed out.

My mother described crawling around on the floor, trying to get a blanket over him. Meanwhile, the neighborhood kids arrived in a steady stream chanting, "Trick or treat, trick or treat!" I guess the good news was that Dad recovered, Mom had her baby, and undoubtedly the children's health was improved by one less treat.

My own personal Halloween story happened at age thirty, while moving from Michigan to Pittsburgh. That morning I awoke to a sign: bloody entrails strewn across my bedroom floor. A heart here, a liver there. It was my cats' present of a mouse (I think it was just one.)

My original plan was to start driving before six and arrive by noon. At a rest stop off the Ohio Turnpike, I tried to fill my gas tank and the liquid poured onto the pavement. That was my second clue that the day was not going as expected.

After a four-hour detour into farm country to get a new part, I once again resumed my journey. I got into Pittsburgh at rush hour. Lets just say I wasn't used to those narrow, windy roads, particularly driving a moving van. I did okay until I turned into the driveway of my new apartment and the van's bumper wedged into the wheel well of a parked truck. It was positioned such that moving my van forward or backward was likely to turn minor damage into major body work.

My frantic search for the truck owner was punctuated by shouts of, you guessed it, "Trick or treat, trick or treat!"

This fiasco was not without its up side. Two friends of mine were coming to help me unpack, but lost the address of my new place. One remembered it was in Bellevue and called the local police department, who reported an obstruction created by a moving van on Sprague Street.

Any other Halloween horror stories out there? Or is it just me?

Monday, October 30, 2006

Scared to Death

By Nancy Martin

Every summer, my parents took my brother and sister and me to our summer house on a Canadian lake that is so far from civilization that some weeks we never saw another human being. It was--and still is--a beautiful place. The large "cottage" had been built my our logging relatives over 100 years ago, and it is located in a forest of fragrant pines only a few steps from a lake that is very clear and very, very deep. (Did you know that one measure of the purity of water in a lake is the size of the leeches?) Due to logging in the area, the bottom of the lake is crowded with trees that had been submerged when whole rafts sank in bad weather, became lodged and turned--essentially--to stone. It makes ideal habitat for fish.

The decomposing logs have also turned the lake black.

One year after my grandmother died, my grandfather came with us to vacation. He was a gentle soul and really more of a berry picker than a fisherman, but he decided to try his skill at trolling for bass. For several mornings in a row, he got up before dawn, climbed into a leaky boat and puttered out into the deepest channel of the lake to drop his line. As the sun came up, he was a small, solitary figure shrouded in morning mist.

My mother and I were in the habit of getting into the old canoe for a pre-breakfast paddle around the lake to look for birds, bob cats and (for me, anyway) the occasional Boy Scout troop that might be camping in our wilderness. Later, I realized our morning canoe excursions were a way for my mother to stay within rescue distance of my grandfather without embarrassing him.

One morning, as we padded around "the point," a tree-studded penninsula of land (where--according to family lore---our great-great grandfather had sat in a sauna every afternoon drinking whisky and avoiding his Bible-reading wife) we heard my grandfather's wavering voice in the distance, calling to my mother.

"Baaarrr-bra! Baaaar-bra!"

We skimmed across the lake to reach my grandfather, who was so shaken he could barely hold onto his fishing rod. He had hooked something and tried to reel it in, only to discover a hideous black monster coated in slime had clamped onto his lure.

I took one look at the hulking thing and choked down a scream. It was a primordial throwback--some kind of mutated sea creature--stinking of putrefaction and surely evil. My grandfather was nearly fainting with fear.

My mother ordered me into the boat with him in case he collapsed.

And she set about disentangling his fishing line from . . . well, what turned out to be an ancient trea limb he'd managed to drag up from the bottom of the lake, encrusted with black goo and bubbling with decay.

It wasn't anything to be afraid of. And yet, I'm sure my grandfather never recovered from the fright. He died within a year, of a heart attack.

Researchers believe that some people can be so terrified by an experience that they are literally frightened to death. (Which is a feeble effort to turn this post into a Halloween blog!) In the fight-or-flight syndrome, a bad scare can send so much adrenaline coursing through a person's veins that he can die.

Later that summer, my mother took my siblings and me across the lake to the "diving rocks"--huge granite cliffs that we climbed and dove from. When we'd had enough diving, she told us we were old enough to swim back to the cottage---across that deep, black channel of water where my grandfather had been so terrified. We were strong swimmers, so the distance (about a mile and a half) didn't worry us, or the speed of the current or the cold temperature of the water.

But I reached the middle of that channel, and my imagination began to conjure up the denizens that might lurk in the depths below me. I imagined demonic creatures with fangs and fins with claws. Surely at any moment, one of them was going to surge up from the blackness and devour me.

It's the first time I remember being truly frightened for my life. Yes, it was all in my childish imagination, but the physical response was the same as if I'd been menaced by a monster alligator in the Amazon river. My heart felt as if it might burst. My hands and feet froze like blocks of ice. I couldn't suck any air into my lungs. Stars exploded before my eyes until I nearly blacked out.

As a writer, I've used that memory dozens of times. Trying to transplant our feelings into the minds of characters is work we do every day.

I'm betting this group of writers can remember the first truly terrifying experience of your lives. How about sharing?

Bumper Biography

by Brenda Roger

Recently, while sitting in traffic, I was contemplating what about Americans makes them want to post information about themselves on the arse end of their cars. I live in the ‘burbs, and so I am assaulted by this information for two reasons. I spend a lot of time in the car driving to the city, and people in the ‘burbs are particularly fond of bumper biographies.

Am I just paranoid, or is it a REALLY bad idea to post the names of your children, accompanied by a megaphone or a soccer ball, on the back of your car? Wouldn’t that give a child predator an advantage if he could approach little Susie or Johnny and use their names and ask them how cheerleading or soccer is going?

The “support our troops” ribbons even bother me. Even if you are against the war, could anyone really be against people brave enough to go to Iraq and fight for their country? It isn’t the troops that people have the problem with. Also, I suspect, most of the people with a yellow magnet on their trunk have done ONLY that in order to “support” the troops. They must not realize that they have actually just supported the dollar store.

When I was in college, I had a friend, we’ll call her Jane. Jane had a very conspicuous yellow car with a vanity plate bearing her first name and last initial. She drove quite a bit for her job and the toll taker on the turnpike would frequently call her by her first name. Even though she knew that came with the decision to have the vanity plate, it still caught her off guard and made her uncomfortable. Also, the staties pulled her over on a regular basis, and when they were unable to actually name any traffic violation, they would ask her things about her wheels or engine. They just wanted to see who was driving that car.

The car was gorgeous and a convertible. We had great fun in it, but I can’t help but think it was a liability where her safety was concerned, especially with "JANE B" on the plate. Although, the staties one time asked her if she was allowed to drive the car because her father’s name was on the registration, and she was able to reply with “my name is on the license plate!”

I’ve been known to enjoy a bumper sticker or two. Like the one on the back of a municipal construction vehicle that said, “I’d quit my job, but I need the sleep”. My aunt used to have one that said, “My other car is a broom”. Some of us who have seen her in a mood found that particularly hilarious. My favorite one lately was not on a car, but in a store. It said, “I have the perfect body, but it’s in the trunk and it’s starting to stink”. Maybe it is to a person's advantage for those around them in traffic to know that they have a sense of humor.

I’m not against bumper stickers. I just find it fascinating that people want everyone on the road to know something about them. Traffic is a place where anonymity is my friend. You never know what kind of weirdo aspiring writer is sitting behind you at a light reading your bumper biography.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

We Writers Can Grieve Pretty Quickly

by Brian Mullen


IT CAME! Itcameitcameitcameitcame!

(Envelope ripping, paper rustling)

Dear So-Called Author:

We received your query letter and we all had a good laugh over it. Unfortunately, the only contract we would consider is one we would put on any of your characters who survived to the end of your novel. Please see (and honor) the enclosed Police Restraining Order. Thank you.

Sincerely yours,

Hope Crusher
Literary Agent (But not yours)

P.S. Sorry for sending you a form letter.

No! No, no, no, no, NO! There must be some mistake! They must have read some other author’s query letter and not mine! It’s Grisham, isn’t it? He’s always trying to sabotage my work because he knows I’ll write rings around him if I ever get the chance. Well, that’s fine you stupid idiots. I wouldn’t let you represent me if you were the last literary agency on Earth!

(Phone rings)

It must be THEM!

(Picks up phone)

Look, you have to give me another chance. I can make your agency millions! Maybe if you read my query letter again while I massaged your feet you would…what? Oh, hi, Mom. No, nothing’s new. Yes, I’m eating right. Yes, I’m washing behind my ears. Okay, bye.

(Hangs up)

Oh, who am I kidding? I couldn’t write my way out of a paper bag! I should just give it all up and become a medical test subject! Maybe they’re accepting applications on-line.

(Turns on computer)

DING! "You’ve got mail."

This is an automated message generated by “PUBLISH ENVY: The Website for Writer Wannabes!”

We’ve added a new listing to our literary agency.

Oh, yeah, baby! This is it! This is the one! I know exactly what to send them. I need an envelope. I need STAMPS! I wonder what their name is?

Shatter Your Dreams Literary Agency

I’ve got a good feeling about them!

Friday, October 27, 2006

Relaxing? Vacation

by Meryl Neiman

I'm posting from San Diego. My children are quiet, asleep in their beds. My husband is also asleep (although decidedly not quiet -- he snores!). For the first time in days, I have a moment to myself.

I'm on vacation. Or am I?

I'm in San Diego -- land of sun, water, and postcard perfect vistas. Since we arrived late day Monday, my kids and I have done it all.

We went to Sea World and marvelled at Shamu's athletic process. We fed fish to dolphins and patted their smooth heads (they feel like hot dogs, one child announced).

The next day it was on to the San Diego zoo. The polar bear amused us as he played with a traffic cone. The pandas endeared us (until momma panda had a non photographic moment -- a biological event that happens about 25 times a day now that pandas are vegetarians). One of the giraffes amazed us as she wrapped her snakelike tongue around a leaf.

This morning we took the trolley to Old Town. We visited San Diego's first public school and my children saw their very first dunce cap. They got to dip their own candles and learned about chamber pots! After returning to the hotel, we caught the water taxi to Coronado where we lunched at the beautiful Hotel Del Coronado and frolicked on the expansive beach. And don't forget the daily late afternoon swim in the resort's pool.

My husband's here for a conference. It's the American Academy of Child Psychiatrists. He's busy most of the time with meetings and presentations. So I've been doing a lot of single parenting. Trying not to raise my voice too loud when my son pushes extra buttons on the elevator. After all, I'm single parenting in front of a hotel full of child psychiatrists! They might not find my threats of lost dessert up to par with the latest child development research.

In the midst of this single parenting, I'm also juggling a variety of social expectations. My father in law is also a child psychiatrist and so he and my mother in law are here for the conference as well. Although my in-laws live in Pittsburgh they live in the South Hills, and rarely venture into the city. They want some quality time with their grandchildren. Friends of ours who recently moved to Ohio are here for the conference. Their daughter and my son grew up together and all four kids are very close. Clearly, we want time with them. And my sister who lives in San Francisco happens to be in San Diego for her law firm's annual partner retreat. She's single, without kids, and for the day she had free she wanted the undivided attention of her niece and nephew.

And, of course, none of these people want the kids without me. They don't want to parent. They don't want to remind my seven year old that utensils were created for a purpose. They don't want to be the one to tell my kids that it is time to leave the pool. Or that sightseeing is not about accumulating souvernirs, but enjoying the experience. They certainly don't want to be the one nagging my son about the pile of school work that he hasn't touched.

The parent job is left to moi. And so I'm tired. I'm in beautiful San Diego and I'm tired.

But yet, I got to see my children touch a dolphin for the very first time. I got to watch my son try out his spanish on Dr. Boris and my five year old daughter crack her first crab and proudly wear her bib as a superhero cape. And so it's a good kind of tired.

I can get some rest when I'm back in cold and dreary Pittsburgh, my kids have returned to school, and my butt is back in my chair where it belongs.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Evolution of Yoga

by Annette Dashofy

When I started teaching yoga years ago, the ancient practice was often considered foreign and…well…weird. Some folks thought it was a dairy product sold in small containers with fruit on the bottom. But now every fitness center, spa and YMCA offer classes of varying styles. You can find yoga combined with Pilates (Yogalates). You can find yoga with weights. You can even find Disco Yoga.

My classes have changed very little during this evolution. I’m stuck with the pure thing. Even then, there are many, many styles of purist yoga. Have you taken a class and didn’t like it? Try another class with a different teacher. Odds are your experience will be different as well.

A couple thousand years ago yoga was created for teen-aged Indian boys as a method to rein in all that raging testosterone and prepare those youngsters for long spells sitting in meditation. That explains some of the poses you see in yoga books and magazines. I teach yoga for mostly middle aged Americans, who spend too much time sitting. What a difference two thousand years make.

I’ve noticed that quite a few writers practice yoga. This is understandable. As writers, a job requirement is to plant our bums in our chair and sit for hours with occasional breaks to refill our cups of caffeine. Not a particularly healthy lifestyle.

Yoga offers relief for sore backs and stiff necks. There are even wrist exercises to stave off Carpel Tunnel Syndrome.

A couple years ago I was scheduled to teach a Yoga for Writers class early Saturday morning at a writer’s conference. No one showed up. Not one solitary soul. Too much partying and networking Friday night to get up early for yoga. I really wasn’t upset. I had an excuse to not offer that class again, so I can party and network on Friday nights, too.

Writing conferences may not be the best location for a yoga class. But I know of several writers who tote their yoga mats to conferences with them and practice (probably later in the morning) on their own.

There is one more excellent reason to fit a little yoga into your writing day. Stress. Does anyone out there NOT experience stress? If so, please drop me a line. I’m always interested in meeting a one-of-a-kind person. For the rest of us, yoga has evolved into a non-narcotic tranquilizer.

My Afternoon of Restorative Yoga was last Sunday. Only four women showed up. I guess the rest of the population was stressing over the Steelers-Falcons game. (Personally, I think Ben Roethlisberger needs to attend one of my restorative classes.) Those four women came in looking tired and drained by life. Three hours later, all four wandered out of class wearing blissful smiles.

Whether you’re an over-stressed writer sitting for long hours before a computer screen or a teen preparing for a life of meditation, yoga has something for you. Whether it’s restorative or yoga aerobics, find a class and give it a try.

And if you happen to run into Big Ben, give him my number. I’ve got a class just for him.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Serendipity and Agents

I know I promised part two of my Toffee Taboo, Bob Sendell post... but I can't divulge the ultimate recipe until the issue comes out in December. Yes. I have the Stollen recipe. I'm soooo sorry. Ethics are my downfall. And chocolate. But if you want to storm the house ... I've left copies on the front porch. I also can be bribed. Hmmm the cost? Chocolate or Manolo Blahnick shoes.

On to another topic related to our profession. A story:

Last month my son emailed me a Craig's List ad asking for journalists/ videographers who specialized in travel to send them videos for a future "a la You Tube" website. My son emailed me.... "MA... this is what you are doing!"

I thought about it and considered the chances that it was a group of San Fran wanna be's but hey. I didn't have anything to protect. I sent them some VERY rough video of my trip to Naples and then to China. They posted it.

I noted and wondered why most of the posts were professionally produced. Unlike UTube which accepts everything and anything, they were being staid. I thought ... oh well... boring.

Now I find out that this is a Beta MTV site and I'm in on the beginning ... along with the 20 something 'GO TO GIRLS' ... read Playboy meets wetsuit.

Only bad news is they are paying a liscencing fee for the babes and I'm giving mine away for free. Hmmm. Where is my agent?

Check it out at www.travelistic.com and look for Glamgal.

Off on Thursday for two weeks in Australia. More video to come.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Progress for Some

In 1984, when I was 26 and newly married, my doctor found a lump on my breast. I was totally freaked, after all I’d seen Love Story. I just knew I was going die and I was terrified I wouldn’t be brave and noble but sniveling and craven, which was, for some reason, more important than dying.
I rushed off of West Penn Hospital and my first ever mammogram. As frightened as I was I would have agreed to just about any medical procedure--leeches included, to survive.
However, after my first session with the Lucite plates; the squishing, the pain, the surreal flattening of that which is suppose to be round, I thought: “You have got to be joking.”
Fortunately, for me, it was all good news; no further tests, no prescribed treatment. So long, toots.
Twenty glib years later my doctor finds a lump and I’m back at West Penn and I am flabbergasted when they present me with the same ridiculously inept contraption I met in 1984.
Just to give this some perspective:
In 1984 the fax machine had just arrived on scene and was the latest in workplace technology. It was an imaging amazement and we would all gather around to watch the curling pages of “facsimiles” from across town or even across the country. Twenty years later the fax machine is all but obsolete.
In 1984 I was the envy of all who needed to communicate via words because I had an IBM Selectric. The Selectric held up to 20 pages of text, which could be edited on a 1 inch by 7-inch screen, two lines of copy at a time.
These marvels of technology from 1984 are long gone, replace by even more fantastical things like world wide email, full color high speed copiers, scanners, and desktop computers that can hold thousands of pages of text and images.
And yet there has not been one innovation to the mammogram? Not even heated Lucite plates? The mammogram, the most vital screening test for a deadly disease that is a risk for half of the human race --and nothing?
Millions of dollars are spent annually to exhort women to get a mammogram. But how much money goes to making this test less miserable and more accurate?
They were able to successfully launch a rocket, guide it all the way to Mars, drive a car around on the surface of a freezing planet, pick up rocks and look at them, but not one of these rocket scientists has figured out how to look at breast tissue that’s right here on earth?
When I was pregnant they did a weekly sonogram that allowed them to count the chambers of the baby’s heart, measure leg bones, and determine gender but sonogram technology is not available for breast examines until after you have endured and “failed” a mammogram.
And mammograms are not just painful, they are not especially good at distinguishing between harmless abnormalities and deadly cancer. I’ve known many women who have endured biopsies, physically and mentally torturous, only to find the procedure was unnecessary. And, because they’re so relieved, they don’t complain.
I’m sure I have some of the science wrong here, but I don’t think I’m wrong about the neglect.
So, during this month of awareness, every time you’re urged to get a mammogram, scolded for putting it off, and, before you chastise yourself for being recklessly neglectful, write a letter to American Cancer Society and ask them how they’re coming with finding a better tool than the mammogram for detecting breast cancer.
I apologize for getting political in this space but a dear friend of Pgh Sisters in Crime is fighting round two with breast cancer, and...well, it's on my mind as she's in my prayers.
Pat Hart

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Making a Difference in the World

by Gina Sestak

One summer I worked painting walls.

If you've ever done physical labor, you know how liberating it can be. The repetitive motion of raising and lowering a paint-laden roller engages your body while your mind runs free. The dress code called for paint-stained shorts and T-shirt, and ran the mile and a half to work every day, never needing to shower before starting the job. As one of two women on an otherwise all-male crew, I was privy to a world few other women see.

The crew was made up of students working for the summer, plus two permanent employees. Those guys didn't want us working too fast, lest they be held to the same standard year round, so a pair of us would be given two days to double coat a room. That was the fun part. You always begin by scraping off whatever is loose on the wall or woodwork. Lesson Number One: Paint will not work like glue to hold down loose fragments. In fact, as it dries, it will make everything come loose. Once you've scraped off the loose old paint and wallpaper, and gouged out the cracks in the plaster, you apply spackle. [Isn't that a great word? Spackle. Like speckle with an "a."] Spackle is a patch material that comes in cans and has the consistency of cookie dough. You use it to fill the cracks and holes, let it dry, then sand it smooth. Only then can you begin to paint. The paint came in 5 gallon plastic buckets that we had to lug to the rooms. I learned that this is easier if you carry two at once because it balances your shoulders, but you end up feeling inches shorter afterward. We used rollers on the walls and ceilings, but brushes played a major role. There were big fluffy dust brushes to get loose particles out of the way, wide brushes for painting small but not tiny areas, and narrow brushes for cutting in around the woodwork and ceiling. No masking tape for us. We made straight lines with steady eyes and hands. I learned to move furniture and large appliances (refrigerators, washing machines, dryers) by pushing from the hip, and to lay drop cloths effectively. My ladder skills improved tremendously, and I found that you can keep your balance in precarious positions by putting one hand on the ceiling, even though there's nothing there to grab.

I was working for the University of Pittsburgh, painting dorms that were empty for the summer. We found a lot of pornography abandoned by students who were apparently reluctant to take it home. These were the days before the internet; most of us hadn't seen this kind of thing before. It became common for one of us (always one of the guys) to read some of the grosser passages from the Marquis de Sade aloud at lunch. Sick but interesting. Lunch was usually brought from home and eaten in a lunch room provided for that purpose. On payday, though, we'd go out and have beer. [Most of us were over 21 or had ids that said we were.] Hot and thirsty as we were, I found that I was the only one who relished beer-and-vanilla-ice cream floats.

What did I learn from this job? The ability of physical activity to clear your thoughts, for one thing. The comeraderie that comes from sharing a job with a work crew. That some truly sick and poorly written things do manage to get published - I remember one book that had a passage three pages long in which the main word used was "ung," as in "Ung -- ung -- ung" during a sex scene. And, since we repainted areas that hadn't been repainted in at least a dozen years, I found that you can make a difference in the world with just a roller and some paint.

Friday, October 20, 2006


by Rebecca Drake

You, grasshopper, are a writer. You’re compelled to write. You don’t major in biology or computer science or business in college. While your friends go off to work at jobs that will allow them to take the European vacations you always dreamed of, you console yourself with the knowledge that you’re doing what you love. You repeat that many, many times a day. Sometimes you’re mumbling it to yourself when your long-suffering partner pries your hands from the keyboard at 2 a.m. and hauls you to bed.

You realize you need to work—you know nothing, you haven’t read enough, everyone else is better at it than you are. You work really, really hard, often nights and weekends, until every story your children tell includes the tag line, “Oh, that’s right, you weren’t there. You were working.”

Finally, finally you break through that door into the Emerald City: Published. You have done it. You have written a book and it will appear in a bookstore.

Strangely, you’ll be happier when you find out that your book will be sold in a discount chain next to toilet paper and three-for-a-dollar bags of cat food. Your secret fear has been that you’ll be spending your denture years greeting customers at this chain. Now you assume that they’ll be greeting you, lining up to buy your book.

Just when you thought that you could sit back and enjoy scribbling and never, ever again have to hear some gum-chewing friend say, “So, you published that book yet?” that’s when they send the suitcase.

It’s a pretty cheap little affair. Faux cowhide with single thread stitching. A plastic handle that’s seen a lot of wear. In faded gold letters on the side is printed, “Acme Authors, Inc.” Inside is a pamphlet. In Courier 12 point it says, “The sound of one book being stripped.”

You pick up the suitcase, join the legion of other authors heading upstream, and ponder the meaning of this amazing koan.* You will get used to hearing, “No, I don’t read mysteries. I like [almost anything but your book].” You will have to talk with them anyway so that they might consider giving/selling the book to old Aunt Sally who doesn’t share their discriminating taste. Occasionally, you will meet someone who says, “Wow, it’s so cool to meet a real author!” You will have to fight the urge to laugh.

After four weeks of nonstop hustling, you’ll pass by the mirror and seeing stooped shoulders and rictus grin have your moment of transcendence. You shriek, “I’m Willy Loman!”

Thus, grasshopper, does the writer achieve enlightenment.

*Satori - in Zen Buddhism a state of spiritual enlightenment that is a spiritual objective.
*Koan – A Zen Buddhist riddle used to focus the mind during meditation and to develop intuitive thinking.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Does It Really Matter?

by Kristine Coblitz

I never set out to be a technical editor.

A few years out of college and desperate to get a job in the journalism field where I could actually put my degree to use, I answered a classified ad looking for a news editor for a trade journal about the thermal-processing industry. Granted, I knew absolutely nothing about the thermal-processing industry (or engineering, for that matter), but I got the job, was promoted to managing editor three years later, and spent almost eight years editing press releases and articles about heat-treating furnaces, steel, and powder metallurgy.

(Still with me so far? Don’t quit reading yet.)

Now I’m a home-based freelance writer and editor. My biggest job is working as the editor of--you guessed it--yet another engineering magazine, this one dealing with fluid power.

It seems I’ve found my niche.

When I tell people what I do for my day job, I watch their eyes glaze over when I talk about thermocouples, hydraulics, and die casting. Several of these well-meaning people ask how I can stand to do something so BORING. I mean, who cares about furnace installations and packaging machinery, right?

I often wondered the same thing when I was starting out, especially when I was under tight deadlines and pulling my hair out over typos and production snags. My perspective changed, however, when I met a few of the engineers and company executives who actually read these magazines. They care. A lot. Keeping on top of what’s going on in the industry and reading articles about emerging technology is the foundation of their businesses…and their livelihoods. This is how these people earn their paychecks. It’s not just a magazine to them.

Talk about a wake-up call! Never again did I question the validity or purpose of what I did for a living.

I’ve carried this valuable lesson over to all aspects of my technical and fiction writing career. I have a responsibility to my readers, and they deserve my respect. It’s my duty to give them what they need—either by getting the facts correct in a technical article or by providing a credible escape when they flip open the cover to a mystery novel.

Does the hard work really matter? You bet it does.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Good Body

by Tory Butterworth

Sunday I went to see Eve Ensler's play, "The Good Body," at City Theatre. Eve is the author of, "The Vagina Monologues," and this play had the same range of dramatic emotion her last one did: much humor, but also pain, anger, passion, redemption, you name it.

Apparently, the inspiration for the play was Eve's obsession with the size of her post-40 stomach. As you might expect, this conflicted with her identity as an activist and feminist. So she wrote a play.

After Sunday's matinee, the YWCA Women's Counseling center organized a community dialogue, "Women's Bodies: War Zone or Sacred Ground?" I was excited how articulate the audience was, how accepting of the basic premise Eve Ensler summarized for the program. "Be bold and LOVE YOUR BODY. STOP FIXING IT. It was never broken."

Sunday's discussion brought to mind a host of experiences from my own life. As a teenage, I was angry about how my friends couldn't love their bodies. (I wasn't so hot at it, myself, but I could still be outraged.) I discovered that some woman bond through criticizing their bodies, and if I didn't accept that basic premise, I was left out of the club.

The play also brought to mind the far-out therapeutic training I took in my twenties in (of course) California. It was based on the work of Wilhelm Reich, who was trained by Freud and was far ahead of his time in many ways. He believed that all bodies were pleasurable. His idea was that society's basic purpose was to repress pleasure. Presumably, if everyone was feeling too good, we wouldn't get enough work done. By labeling bodies as "good" or "bad" we reduce pleasure. Then, we can only enjoy "good" bodies, and we criticize or cover up "bad" ones.

I'm not sure I believe society's function is to reduce pleasure. Still, I remember sitting on a nude beach in California, watching the bodies there with a fresh eye. Flab, wrinkles, scars are all very interesting and, yes, enjoyable when you get rid of the mindset of comparing them to fashion magazines. Think of them as a photo or an abstract work of art. I came home and quickly forgot this lesson, but when I remind myself, I notice how enjoyable people watching becomes.

In the play, a 74-year-old African Masai woman urges Eve to see herself as a tree. "Look at that tree. Do you say that tree isn't pretty because it doesn't look like that other trees? We're all trees. You're a tree. I'm a tree. You've got to love your body, Eve. You've got to love your tree."

I'd like to love my tree. I'm still working on it. But I'm getting better every year.

"The Good Body," will be playing at Pittsburgh City Theatre until October 29th. I recommend it for anyone who doesn't love their body and would like an alternative point of view.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Fighting the Good Fight

by Mike Crawmer

Tacked to a wall in my work cubicle is this Calvin & Hobbes comic strip. It pretty much sums up the dilemma I face in my job.

Calvin: I like to verb words.

Hobbes: What?

Calvin: I take nouns and adjectives and use them as verbs. Remember when “access” was a thing. Now it’s something you do. It got verbed. Verbing weirds language.

Hobbes: Maybe we can eventually make language a complete impediment to understanding.

That strip appeared in the 1990s. If anything, understanding is harder to come by today than it was then.

In my job as an editor in the publications department of (ready for this?) an international human resources training and development consulting firm, every day I battle the forces of evil in an attempt to slow the sad decline of the English language. Some days I win, some days I don’t.

For one thing, my “axis of evil” won’t play by the rules (of good grammar or good common sense). The folks in Marketing seem duty-bound to manipulate and mangle English in their drive to persuade. The consultants—over-credentialed but amazing undereducated—treat words like annoying children they are happy to dump onto the nanny (me and the other editors). Then there are the clients, who live by the motto: “I want it yesterday, quality (that is, good grammar) be damned!”

Yet, the challenge of battling these forces can be invigorating and, yes, sometimes even fun. The keys to surviving and thriving are a sense of humor and taking the long view—I’m the first to admit that English is ever-evolving, but there’s also this: Some day in the not-too-distant future I’ll retire and saving the language will be somebody else’s problem.

In the meantime I nit and pick at such delightfully clumsy constructions as “I’ll flip chart that” (as in “I’ll write that on a flip chart”) or “He was very planful.” (If “wasteful” and “dreadful” are legitimate words, why not “planful”? Yeah, right.)

These I could edit, but I can only do so much. I can’t edit what people say (that’s my 85-year-old mother’s job!). So, I put on my actor’s mask and barely blink when a co-worker blithely spits out “Let’s action that.” “Let’s action that”—I have to repeat it in print, like pinching my arm to make sure I’m not dreaming. I thought about sending the Calvin and Hobbes strip to the person who uttered that statement, but decided against it because (1) she probably wouldn’t get the point and (2) she’s the daughter of the owner of the company.

So, I look forward to the evening hours when I wallow in the utter delight of creating another world peopled by characters from my own imagination. Plugging away on my work-in-progress is the perfect therapy for the post-traumatic syndrome that comes from a day spent on the front lines fighting the good fight for the beauty and integrity of English, our (more or less) common tongue.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Cold Snap

by Brenda Roger

Last week the “Working Stiffs” were on the topic of full time volunteer jobs. Well, thanks to my husband’s real job, I got myself a doosie of a volunteer job. Last Spring I was recruited by the Women’s Committee of the Carnegie Museum of Art. The very day that I officially became a member, I took on a large job --decorations for the annual Founder-Patrons Gala.

Now, that sounds simple, right? You meet with the florist a few times and tell him what color the flowers should be. Not so fast. We decided that with our limited budget and lofty expectations, it would be really beautiful to paint mylar sleeves for glass cylinders. These sleeves would be painted to resemble Tiffany glass and thereby coordinate with the exhibit “Louis Comfort Tiffany: Artist for the Ages”, which would open on the night of the gala.

Painting began in August. The painting sessions took place in the CMA. These sessions involved me dragging a very heavy roll of mylar and a rolling suitcase full of supplies through the bowels of the museum, setting up work stations and conducting tutorials on the process. Well, lots of great and interesting ladies showed up and pitched in. The act of painting a lantern was labor intensive and time consuming. However, before the end of September and six weeks before the event, we had twenty-nine lanterns and our goal was only thirty. Whew! Home safe!

Wrong again. No one thought to tell the newbie that the museum continues to take reservations up until the day before the event and over the course of a few weeks, eight tables were added! Every time the table count went up, the newbie in charge of lanterns had to run home from her other museum job (where she had just taken on additional responsibilities) and paint more lanterns! I felt like Michael Corleone, every time I thought I was out, they’d pull me back in.

Well, the event was this past Friday. The lanterns glowed in the center of tables draped with iridescent taffeta, while party goers dined on lobster bisque and filet mignon with truffle sauce. The lanterns were a raging success and much admired by the three hundred and eighty people in attendance. I have an overwhelming sense of relief. I find myself actually enjoying this cold snap because it means that winter is coming and the fall social season will soon be over. The holidays are usually a quiet time for us. My hibernation is set to begin.

The WIP that has been neglected can be resurrected from the bowels of my hard drive. Where did I leave my knitting, anyway? There are two juicy biographies of Thomas Eakins sitting on the workroom table just waiting to be pealed open. Oh, and there’s that husband guy I was so fond of before iridescent glass paint entered our lives.

For a while there, I was wondering who was going to have a cold snap first, me or the weather.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Nature versus Nurture

By Susan Helene Gottfried

I am a novelist. This fact, even though I don't have a novel in print and on bookstore shelves and available at Amazon, is indisputable.

Notice of this problem of mine began when I was a graduate student. An MFA candidate in creative writing, I'd walk into our writer's workshop armed with what I thought was a kick-ass short story. I'd hand it out the week before it was due to be critiqued by my program-mates; nine other hand-picked students of varying ages, backgrounds, colors, religions, and mindsets.

Invariably, the comments were the same. Lukewarm, at best. The structure was bad. The pacing was off. Where was the epiphany at the end? Didn't I know, there was supposed to be a mind-blowing epiphany?

One day, in a fit of pique, instead of handing around my latest attempt at a story -- a form that never felt natural and, frankly, still doesn't -- I handed around something I'd been working on in the privacy of my basement apartment.

It was the opening of a novel. Not my first attempt at a novel, either. No, my first attempt had been shelved after one of my undergrad professors had liked it so much, he'd sent it to his literary agent -- only to have it come back with the message that my talent needed to mature.

This was my third attempt at a novel, as my second attempt was well on its way to being my Master's thesis and therefore something I had to keep away from the prying eyes of my program-mates. Third time's a charm, the cliché goes, although in most cases, it's not true.

It was this time. Everyone loved it. The students told me they hated workshopping novels in class, but they'd rather see my novel-in-progress than another lame story. My professor told me I was clearly working within my talent. I was, he proclaimed, a novelist. He told me to go forward and not look back. I fully intended to.

Summer intruded, and with it the chance to enroll in the poetry workshop. Summer was the only time that fiction writers got to try their hand at poetry, and that poets got to get wordy with short stories. I was hoping to learn different poetic forms. Instead, we were just to write poems.

So I did. And what do you know, but the criticism I got was exactly the same.

In confused voices, the poets informed me that my longer poems, broken down into shorter stanzas, read like novels. They'd give each other quizzical looks at my peals of laughter, not sure if they had offended or needed to call the nice men with leather restraints and sedatives. I'd reassure them it was all good, but they, too, were relieved when fall came and us fiction writers were returned to our wordier forms.

Since then, I've worn the mantle of novelist quite comfortably, maybe a little bit proudly, even. After all, why fight your nature?

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Psychic Writer

by Cathy Anderson Moffat

Doing massage (my day job) makes you more intuitive; your psychic powers increase until soon you can predict how much your tip will be.

As a writer, this can come in handy. I've written about an assortment of protagonists who share these psychic experiences. Stephanie sees visions of a past life as a witch burned at the stake. Lilith sees and talks to fairies, even helps them with a mission. Suzanne crystal ball gazes and views a life ending in tragedy during the Big Band era. Each protagonist uses her gifts as an edge to defeat the bad guy.

A connection with the psychic can be observed when you explore a writer's creative process. Baroness Orczy, author of the Scarlet Pimpernel, has shared how her hero, Sir Percy Blakeney, first appeared to her. She "saw" him--a tall, commanding figure sprung from her mind--in the subway system of London near the tracks. The world gained a powerful story of selfless bravery, and it sure sounds psychic to me.

And consider the good fortune of the woman who makes more money than the Queen of England: J.K. Rowling. Her train was detained for three hours in the countryside, and while she waited amidst the rural landscape, Harry Potter and the other characters of her much-loved series were given to her. I can't claim this was a psychic vision, but this information was downloaded from somewhere (if I could just get in contact with her spirit guides, things would really take off).

A few years ago,I ran into a romance novel by Nancy Martin at the library. The heroine was a psychic, and Nancy's representation was very accurate. I asked her about it, and she said, "Oh, I just made everything up. It was a lot of fun."

But I've a notion that our Ms. Nancy is holding out on us. Could she have been so accurate because she's highly psychic? And doesn't even know it? I wouldn't be at all surprised.

So for those of you hoping to buff up your sixth sense, I'd be glad to help. You can come on over and give me a massage anytime. Great for your intuition. Glad to make the sacrifice. No need to call me, though.

I'll know you're coming.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Public School Parent

by Meryl Neiman

I left the practice of law to raise my children and write. Little did I know that the job of public school parent is almost as time consuming as the law.

My son began kindergarden and my daughter pre-K at a public Montessori school. I knew that the school had moved to a bad neighborhood in order to expand, but I didn't think my chidren would be in danger in the middle of the day. The school got off to a rocky start because the new teachers at the school were not montessori trained and lacked any montessori materials. This struck me as crazy so I began pushing the school district to provide training and materials. A few weeks into the school year, the dynamic, wonderful principal of the school was brutally murdered by her husband. The same woman who had turned my son upside down and tickled his tears away was gone. Meanwhile, gunshots were going off during the day and people were being killed not far from the school.

One day my son came home and announced he was worried about his coat. When I asked why, he explained that when they blew three short whistles at recess, he was to run to the nearest door to get into the school and leave his coat outside. That was it. My little kids weren't going to go to a school where they had to have gunshot avoidance drills. We pulled our children from the school.

Still wedded to the public school experience, we transferred my son to another city elementary school (that, in itself, was not without its travails -- but that's a story for another day). We loved the principal, the teachers, the program. All seemed good. In fact, the school was evolving into a K - 8. Even better, we would avoid the dreaded middle school problem.

But then there was the small matter of the size of the school. The district expanded the school, but hadn't fully committed to the addition necessary to house those extra children. We had kids in trailers (learning cottages, as the principal fondly called them), Spanish being taught off of carts, and a gym and cafeteria that were grossly inadequate. It was basic math. Add children to building -- need to add more classrooms. But, apparently, the school board wasn't as committed to basic math as they were to other political issues. Once again, I felt compelled to act and devoted much of last year to ensuring that the school district and the city moved the project forward.

This year, with the addition behind me, I focused on my true passion -- converting the barren asphalt lot behind the school into a playground and sports field. It was a huge endeavor, but motivated and talented parents began emerging from the woodwork to help out. One woman wrote a kick-ass letter to foundations, another spearheaded solicitation lists, etc. etc. All was going well.

Meanwhile, Monday morning was the official groundbreaking ceremony for the addition. I was asked to speak on behalf of the parents. I was to receive my golden shovel and hard hat in honor of the occasion. I decided not to attend. Sunday night I received a letter from the superintendent that suggested that the school district was going to make it onerous for us to donate a $175,000 playground to the school. Our virtually maintenance free playground would require a PTO funded maintenance program of about $25,000 a year. I couldn't stomach smiling nicely at these people who made my life miserable the year before and now apparently intended to do it again.

Yesterday's message from the district is that it was all a misunderstanding. I'm not sure. What I am sure of, however, is that being a public school parent is a full time job.

In case you're wondering, another parent picked up my golden shovel and my hard hat. The shovel is propped against the wall of my living room. Come by and check it out. That's my full payment for a year's worth of work.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Copper Capers

By Joyce Tremel

We don't always have what you would call a crime of the week, but we do have runs on certain crimes. Sometimes it'll be retail thefts, other times vehicle break ins. For some reason, most things seem to come in groups. Except domestics. They're an almost daily occurrence and usually more plentiful near the full moon. But that's another story.

The latest crime wave, not only in Shaler, but across the country, is the theft of copper pipe. Since the beginning of the year, there have been almost a dozen of these thefts in Shaler. Half of them were thefts of copper wire or scrap copper from businesses.

Lately we've had a rash of burglaries where the actors (in Allegheny County we call them actors, not perps), break into a vacant house and steal the copper pipe. In a couple of houses, the new homeowners were lucky--the water had been shut off. In one house the actors not only took the water pipes, they pulled the gas pipes out, too. When the homeowner came to check on his house, he not found not only extensive flooding, but a dangerous gas leak. In the last two burglaries, the thieves also took the water meters.

Other communities report that thieves are making off with aluminum siding and gutters, too. The price of aluminum is high, but not as high as copper. Local scrap metal dealers are paying between $2.00 and $3.00 a pound for copper, and expect the price to keep climbing. With the average house having over 400 pounds of copper pipe, that's a lot of money for the average heroin or meth addict.

Police in many cities are advising home sellers not to leave their houses vacant. If they must, take extra precautions. Have the water and gas shut off, if possible. If there is an alarm system installed, keep it activated. Keep the electric turned on and put lights on timers inside the house, and use exterior lighting as well. Although costly, it's not nearly as expensive as repairing the damage due to gushing water throughout the house.

So, if you see people leaving a vacant house carrying copper pipe, they ain't plumbers. I suggest you call the Coppers.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Trading Work Spaces

by Annette Dashofy

Every year, when the air turns cool and it becomes preferable to spend time indoors rather than out, my nesting instincts kick in. I start looking at my house and thinking about what I can do to make it more comfortable. Two years ago, we bought new living room furniture. Last year, it was new lace curtains. This year, I’m pondering my “office.”

Right now my so-called office is one corner of my living room. I have a space about five-by-seven that serves as my work area. Everything in this corner is all business. Bookshelves overflow with writing books, yoga books and computer books. There is a desk somewhere under this mound of papers. I have a small file cabinet and a junk drawer. And then there is my computer and phone and a lamp.

The only thing non-business in my space is my cat. But since my protagonist is a veterinarian and Samantha serves as inspiration for one of the cats in my novel, I could put up a strong argument for counting her as business-related, too.

However, I’m beginning to feel a little crowded. My first thought was, “Hey, let’s give my cousin, the re-modeler, a call.” Add on a new room. Hard wood floors, lots of windows, a huge closet. Space for my desk and computer and office machines as well as space to practice yoga without moving furniture. I had it all figured out. Except how to pay for it. My hubby nixed the idea.

So my attention has turned to my spare room, AKA “The Junk Room.”

At about ten foot square, it would provide just enough room for all my business stuff and a little to spare. I could get a comfortable chair for one corner and have a quiet reading nook. It’s just on the other side of the wall where my computer sits now, so it would be fairly easy to move all the connections into the new office.

What wouldn’t be easy is finding a new “home” for all the junk that resides in that room. I am married to a pack rat and would love to blame all the stuff on him. But if I were to be totally honest, I must claim my own share of it. Where would I put my Pfaff sewing machine? Or the huge stash of fabric from my days of making quilts. Those days are gone, but I hate to part with all that gorgeous material. Then there’s my luggage. It’s definitely MY luggage. It’s a lovely shade of lavender. Hubby wouldn’t be caught dead carrying those bags.

It’s a mess. My old computer sits on a table where I used to cut out quilt pieces. Twenty years of journals totter on top of the my old quilt frames. There’s an antique steamer trunk where I store off-season clothing. Bulk-sized boxes and bottles of household supplies, courtesy of Costco, are stacked everywhere. My husband’s gun cases and shooting boxes clutter the floor.

Where would I put all this junk…er…stuff if I moved my office in there? A dumpster comes to mind. The basement could hold some of it, I suppose.

It’s tempting to see if I could really part with most of this clutter. I sense it could actually be quite freeing. So, I’m continuing to ponder the decision: to move or not to move, that is the question. Being able to close the door and work without distraction is strong motivation. However, being able to close the door on my cluttered life is difficult to give up.

What do you all think? Should I try it? Do you have a “junk room” and could you live without it?

And, hey, Brenda, would you want a whole closet full of 100 percent cotton fabric?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The dangers of being a journalist

by Judith Evans Thomas

Some journalists risk their lives in war-torn countries.

Anderson Cooper has my ultimate respect. He appears in the middle of the worst conflicts, wearing his flack jacket that wouldn't do a bit of good if a bomb exploded anywhere near his head. I don't even know what a flack jacket does other than make the reporter look cool. In Anderson Cooper's case, he is already handsome and intellectually fascinating and rich as can be. Does he need to look any more interesting than he already is?

But I contend that reporting on domestic issues is equally dangerous to a reporter's health. Imagine those who embedded themselves in the 9/11 rescue or Hurricane Katrina? I can't remember which reporter it was, but in order to get the Katrina story he plunked himself in the middle of New Orleans as the levees were breaking. "Look,viewers, the levees are giving way. Soon I will be stranded on this house." Huh? That's just stupid.

I for one am a coward, so it was to my great surprise that my latest reporting job for WQED (December cover story, Pittsburgh Magazine) turned out to be life threatening.

The assignment seemed innocent enough; I was to do a Christmas feature on Bob Sendall of All In Good Taste Production. Bob is an incredible event artist, producer, chef and all around entertaining guy. His parties are legendary and if you hire him you are guaranteed to get a unique event.

The editorial staff, with Bob's blessing, decided to feature his Christmas tradions. Bob agreed to decorate his home (in October) for Christmas and give us his menu for Christmas morning brunch.

I interviewed him before the shoot and decorations had begun. We talked about his German grandmother's stollan, growing up in Scott where four families would jointly decorate their homes with one theme, then do a progressive day of dining at each other's homes. His mother served the breakfast, his Grandmother made the stollan and thus began his tradition.

Just before I was leaving he said he wanted to show me his newest venture, a chocolate business called Toffee Taboo. Bob's signature dessert for more than 10 years had been this chocolate and at the urging of his clients and friends he finally decided to package and sell it. Bob Kolano did a fabulous box and orders were just starting to come in.

As I was leaving, he gave me a box and with a wink said. "I've been told it's addctive."

No problem, I thought. I don't like chocolate.I knew my husband would be thrilled however because he is a chocoholic.

With Route 65 being closed, the drive home became tedious. I eyed the box sitting beside me in the passenger seat. The metalic print "Toffee Taboo" twinkled in the afternoon sun.

I slid open the lid just a crack and spotted the nuts. That's good protein, I rationalized. I broke off apiece of cashew and popped it in my mouth. There was just the tiniest bit of chocolate attached to the nut, but it hit me like that first shot of heroin must hit an addict. I broke off another piece, this time with more chocolate. By the time I got home, I had eaten the entire top layer and was desperately trying to stop myself from starting on the second.

I rushed in the door holding the box as if it were a dirty bomb and threw it at my husband. "Hide it. Please. It's chocolate."

Steve gave me a puzzled look. "But you don't like chocolate."

He later told me I looked like a serial killer, only in my case there was chocolate, not blood smeared on my face and hands.

"Just hide it. Please."

I spent the next three days looking for that hidden box of chocolate. Thank God I didn't find it. By the time the photo shoot had arrived I was detoxed.

But that's not the end of the story. Tune in October 24th for "the rest of the story."

Here's a hint:

Monday, October 09, 2006

The Spider Ball will set you free

This is a creepy time of year--a creepy, crawly, skittering, slithering season. Every nook and cranny has been vacated and all the occupants, who usually have the decency to hide away their hideousness, are scooting, all thousand legs a pumping, across the kitchen floor or tethering down from the chandelier to dangle above the steaming dish of carrots and peas or drowsily buzzing in our ears and clumsily crashing into our faces. Centipedes, spiders, and sleepy bees are as part of fall as the dry leaves that blow across the street and sound so much like the feet of fiends rushing up behind your back.

But, at my house, fall is the time of the spider.
A dusty web with a tiny black speck sits in every corner and spider eradication, among a few other things, is my responsibility.

“Look, look, there’s another spider.” I say as I lay in bed, flattened by the day, a day full of work, kids, spider hunting.

“Yeah, that’s a spider,” my husband answers. He still has his glasses on, but he’s definitely tucked in.

“I should get up and get that,” I say. “That could be a pregnant spider.”

“It’ll be there tomorrow.”

“But it might not be… I should get up and get it.”

“Do you want me to get it?” he asks.

I know his offer is sincere. The offer is enough; to accept would be too much.

I get up and spin a few sheets of toilet paper off the roll.

I’m tall enough to reach the corner between the wall and ceiling. I squish the spider between my fingers. The wad of toilet paper does not mask the sensation of the spider’s body yielding, I feel a gooey extrusion and hear a whispered pop.

“Chairman Mao rid China of flies by making it a national priority,” I say. “We should do that here, rid the house of spiders, make it an official decree… Dinner in exchange for spider carci. I should get the boys going on that…”

“You should do that,” he says, reluctant to spend his paternal power on spider reduction.

“I’ve killed a lot of spiders. Every day I kill a bunch. I ought to save them, just to see. I should collect them all and make a big spider ball.”

I imagine the spider ball, a basketball ball-sized sphere with a short hairy coating of crooked spider legs.

“It would smell,” my husband says.

“No, dead spiders don’t smell.”

“A billion of them, in a ball, would smell.”

Scientific fact.

“Things have to be wet to smell,” Another scientific fact. “Spiders are dry.”

“They would have to be wet to stick together. Spiders have wet stuff in them.”

“Hmmm…I bet we could get our spider ball in the Guinness Book of World Records.”

“I’m sure we’d have the only one,” he says.

“We could go on Jay Leno, or travel with the circus, or set up a roadside stand,” I say.

I read to my husband the hand written roadside signs I plan to construct to herald our great accomplishment:
World’s largest spider ball… 100 feet.
Ancient Egyptian spider ball… 90 feet.
Your future revealed by the spider ball Oracle… 50 feet.
Have your picture take atop the spider ball …20 feet.”

We could be “carny folk.” My sons would lose that Catholic schoolboy-look as their hair grows long and their ties are re-purposed as belts and their pressed dockers get torn out at the knees. The wind from passing cars would blow the false curl out of my hair and leave it lank and I’d take to wearing scarves and long strands of beads. My husband would take off his dress shirt and hang it on the side mirror of the rusty RV as he climbed half in the engine to bang and curse at the ancient motor.

“Spider ball exhibit closed by order of the health department,” my husband reads from an imaginary newspaper that he holds up in front of my eyes.

The roadside stand, the hand painted signs, the faded red curtain, and the dimly lit spider ball all evaporate. Our kids, with dirty faces and slightly buckteeth, transform back into uniformed, well-scrubbed, orthodontically improved Catholic schoolboys. I hang up my gossamer gypsy scarves and crimp my hair into a corporate coif. With a sigh, my husband tightens the silk tie around his neck.

The web of our daily lives and obligations remain unbroken.

“We got do something,” I say. “This life is killing me.”

Pat Hart

Saturday, October 07, 2006


by Gina

One of the many jobs I held as an undergraduate was Looper.

"Looper" sounds exciting. The word conjures images of aerial acrobatics in a bi-plane, or at least the common college passtime of getting looped. The reality was more mundane.

Loopers, essentially, make loops. We make them by twisting little pieces of wire. In other words, I made junk jewelry.

For those unfamiliar with the terms, there is "fine jewelry," which includes the high-priced diamond and platinum kind of stuff, then there is "junk jewelry," made with less expensive materials. "Findings" refers to the little pieces of wire and other materials that go into every necklace, earring, etc.

I worked for a company called Odyssey Creations in a windowless basement rank with sulfur fumes. Copper findings take on the appearance of antique gold when boiled in sulfur water. We were paid by the piece -- ranging from $0.15 for a pair of earrings to $0.30 for a complicated necklace -- so everybody worked intensely, looping as fast as humanly possible. Once you got the hang of it, you could make $5 an hour or more, decent wages for the early '70s. We weren't paid extra for new designs, but I'd create new pieces on occasion when I couldn't stand making the same old things a moment longer. After a few months, I could reach into a vat of earring wires (the little hooks that go through the holes in pierced ears) and pull out the exact number that I needed, six, three dozen, whatever. I would see heaps of beads and findings every time I closed my eyes. We worked with rosary pliers, small needle-nose pliers with a built-in wire-cutter. The wire would be threaded through beads or decorative metal pieces, looped, then attached to a chain or earring wire. Boring repetitive work. We had a tape of James Taylor's Sweet Baby James that we would play over and over again. I'm a steamroller baby. Yeah.

So what did I learn from this job that helps me as a writer? Aside from the technical terms defined above, I learned that creativity helps fight the boredom. I learned to sit in one place hour after hour, concentrating intensely. In other words, it helped me to develop "bum glue."

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Room With a View

by Kristine Coblitz

When I made the move from full-time office employee to home-based freelance writer a few months ago, I thought the transition would be easy. I’d jump out of bed every morning and work in my pajamas, sipping cups of herbal tea while the words flowed from my fingertips onto the keyboard. Daydreams of completed manuscripts danced in my head.

This was going to be great, I thought. No more 50-minute commutes in rush-hour traffic. No more sitting at a desk in a caged office counting the hours until quitting time. No more meetings about profits, sales goals, or teamwork. I became a corporate dropout and was damn proud of it. I still feel that way.

When reality set in, I learned that it takes a lot of discipline to be a home-based freelance writer and that there are all sorts of distractions (such as The Food Network and dirty laundry) available to pull me away from the computer.

Nancy Martin talked about “bum glue” in her post a few days ago, and Stephen King, in a recent article, said that the writing life consists of “basically sitting on your ass” and that the life of a writer is “about as interesting as watching paint dry.” This is especially true when editing articles about hydraulics and manufacturing equipment, which is how I spend half of my day. The other half is spent working on my fiction writing.

Making it as a freelance writer means dragging yourself out of bed when you want to sleep in, getting dressed when you want to stay in your pajamas for days on end, and planting yourself at the computer until you reach your page quota or finish the work needed to meet your deadline. It also means getting out in the world among other humans every once in while so you don’t become a hermit. The latter has been particularly important for me.

For a freelance writer, time is money. If I don’t work, I don’t bring in money to help pay the mortgage. I no longer have the luxury of a steady paycheck, and I’ve had to sacrifice a lot financially to make this move happen. But believe me when I tell you that it’s all been worth it, and those “necessities” I thought I couldn’t live without suddenly weren’t as important anymore.

So it’s not all bad. I count my blessings every day. My corner office with a view is now a spare bedroom I share with the dog and his toys. I can look out my window to watch the activity on my street in suburbia. When I get stressed out or need a change of scenery, I can play with my dog or take a brief walk. But I also have to fight the temptation to take those daily mid-afternoon naps (nobody would know...).

Do I miss the corporate world? Nope. Do I have more appreciation for full-time writers than I did before? You bet. I confess that some days I do work in my pajamas, but I always get dressed before making the trek outside to get the mail. I’ve got my standards, after all.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

How Real Life is Different from Fiction

by Tory Butterworth

Think of your favorite romantic novel, movie, or television show. Remember that scene where the hero or heroine, in a single moment, throws away everything they’ve worked for, pursuing, instead, the one they love? Most romantic dramas have it. My personal favorite is from the television show, “ER,” (I think it was season four or so.) Carol Hathaway (Julianne Margolis) leaves her nursing job in the middle of her shift, runs to the airport, and flies from Chicago to Seattle to check out if it could still work between her and Doug Ross (George Clooney.) You know what I mean.

I’m here to report that real life doesn’t always work like that.

Two weeks ago, the day I posted my last blog, I had an opportunity for such a, “Throwing caution to the wind,” moment. That day I received an official offer for the job I’d been waiting weeks to materialize. That day I also had a promising telephone interview for another job, with similar pay and benefits, but working on a different research project, also very interesting.

Enter dramatic elements of fiction writing. 1) Conflict: I can’t take both, 2) "Ticking clock": current job offer on the table, 2) Stakes: probably happiness for the next two years of my life.

How many times, at this climax, does the hero or heroine make the bold, dramatic move? How many times have we seen weddings decided (or undecided) at the alter? How many times does the protagonist walk out of their job and take the next available plane to Timbuktu?

A friend of mine who's a travel agent once commented, "Whenever I see those scenes I think about how much money they spent on that last-minute plane flight."

Such are the realities of life, not art.

I took the job I’d been offered. The other one wouldn’t be decided for weeks, and I wasn't willing to let the first offer molder while I chased another, similar if different, job possibility.

In fiction, the best choice is foreshadowed. In real life, the best choice is often determined by factors you won't know until you've lived with it for six months. I might have loved the second job. But, I bet the one I took will be just fine.

Sometimes I like to make the bold, dramatic move. But, in real life, sometimes you sigh and don’t take a chance. Because, well, life isn't art . . .

Monday, October 02, 2006

Surprise and Delight Me

by Nancy Martin

Working Stiffs is a blog about day jobs. Sure, we're all mystery writers, but some of us must pay the bills and/or get our healthcare coverage from work that--what's the best euphemism here?--takes place more than 3 feet from the keyboard.

But me--well, writing is my full-time job, and have been for over 25 years. Which means I've applied a lot of what Elizabeth George calls bum glue. I have placed my bottom into a chair and kept it there until I have written pages. Can't get started?-I haven't collected enough ideas. Writer's block?--Chances are I haven't thought through to the end of my plot. Daydreaming about bestseller lists?--That's a primo way to stymie my muse. But focusing on entertaining my reader, playing the "what if?" game, grinding hard work, lousy first drafts, obsessive re-writing and lots of bum glue.--That's how to write a book.

Well, that and about 600 other things. I only know about 300. I've still got a lot to learn.

So when I'm not writing, I'm probably reading.

Like every successful writer I know, I read anything and everything. (There's a squabble taking place on a popular listserve these days in which a lot of writers claim not to see the difference between chick lit and literary novels. They're. Just. Not. Reading. Enough.) A wide variety of reading material is crucial to my way of working. I read mainstream, yes, but the weirder the better, too. Genre stuff?--I eat it for breakfast. There's no other way to stay in the game. Plus I consume at least 4 magazines a week (my latest find was Bust, but I also bought Bitch and I'm a big, big fan of Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and--okay, guilty pleasure--Vogue) and 2 newspapers a day. Not to mention websites and blogs, a daily search of which canbecome major procrastination if I let it.

My personal goal is to read a book a week--2 if possible. This week: Charlaine Harris's GRAVE SIGHT. Charlaine is always full of surprises and delights--my personal definition of entertaining. I'm also reading the new Carla Neggers suspense novel, THE WIDOW, in which Carla avoids the dreaded prologue with a device I found truly innovative. I'm also savoring some Alice Munro short stories.

Reading is still the best way for me to find inspiration. And language that stimulates the wordsmith in me, too. As well as an answer to the inevitable question: "Where do you get your ideas?"

Take Bust. In the issue I bought, there's a throwaway piece about a group of women in Houston who knit. Except they dart around deserted streets at night to "tag" things the way graffiti artists do. In other words, they pin little knitted hats on trees, buildings and fire hydrants. "We felt knitting needed to evolve into something more edgy and streetwise," one knitter explained. They, "...mix hip-hop street art with warm, fuzzy grandma craftivism." Edgy, huh? Well, whatever, but this is definitely something I can use in a book.

Does all this reading make me smarter? Uh, no. I tend to remember only the quirky stuff I can use in my own work. My brain is full of completely useless--and often inaccurate--trivia.

For a writer like me, it's just not possible to read everything that's reviewed in the NYTimes Book Review, but it's a good goal to at least familiarize myself with all those books every week. Plus what's on the bestseller lists, what books PW stars, what titles booksellers are buzzing about. (A savvy bookseller can save a writer like me a hell of a lot of time.) Genre-related magazines and bookstore newsletters are also a huge help to a writer--one trying to stay on top of the biz, that is. If you are in the coffee business, you keep current on whatever coffee innovations are happrning, right? And what coffee sells best? Which coffees are failures? What coffee shops are trying new things? Setting trends? Building on the past? Breaking out of the pack of competitors? And I bet you drink enough coffee to float the proverbial battleship.

I must admit I read a lot of first 10 or 25 or 50 pages. If the book doesn't have something new in the first act, I often toss it aside. (No, that doesn't make the book count in my book-a-week rule. But reading the opening pages of a bad book can remind me of what I don't want to do in my own writing--which can be equally valuable.) An author must surprise and delight me. A writer who's fresh, or has new ideas, a unique technique for telling a story, a bright voice, a clever way with words or maybe blends genres in a way nobody else is doing--those are the books I read until the end. They hold my interest. They entertain me.

I have a writer friend who only reads one book by each author friend she has. It's a good policy, because a writer with prolific friends can spend every waking minute trying to keep up. But reading your friends is a part of the biz, too.

Yes, I'm a professional writer. I started out as a rabid reader, though, eager to be surprised and delighted by every page I turn. To the outside eye, I might look like a lady curled up on the sofa reading a trendy magazine. But that's a big part of a writer's life.

What are you reading these days? Anything good?

Lizzie Siddal: Pre-Raphaelite Stunner

By Brenda Roger

Last Friday was a milestone in my career at the Frick Art and Historical Center. I was unleashed on the adult public. It was my first attempt at a “Friday Feature”, which is a fifteen-minute gallery talk on a specific subject or painting in the current exhibit. My topic, Elizabeth Siddal, was particularly juicy.

“Stunner” was Pre-Raphaelite slang for a beautiful woman. Much to the credit of the PRB (Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood), they didn’t always find the accepted standard of beauty in Victorian England all that stunning. The models they chose frequently had some combination of red hair, compromised reputations, heavy eyebrows or Herculean physiques. The most famous stunner, Lizzie Siddal, only had the red hair, until the prince of the PRB, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, compromised her reputation.

Siddal and Rossetti had a relationship that was both poison and nourishment. Rossetti said that when he first saw her he felt his destiny was defined. Apparently, that wasn’t a strong enough feeling for him to marry her for almost a decade.

Rossetti was not exactly a catch in 1849 when he met Siddal. He had an overbearing Italian mother and an income that was irregular at best. He was the kind of man who would borrow money from you without paying it back and steal your wife, but whose charisma and talent were so powerful that you found yourself in a constant state of acceptance and forgiveness.

The pair spent almost all of their time together in the first few years of their relationship. Lizzie started out as a model, but progressed quickly to being Rossetti’s pupil. The pair spent days of un-chaperoned time together under the guise of student and pupil. Before agreeing to pose exclusively for Rossetti, Siddal posed for what is perhaps the most famous Pre-Raphaelite painting, Ophelia by John Everett Millais. Over time she became unmarriageable by anyone other than Rossetti because she was a well know artist’s model (Ophelia was a famous painting in her lifetime) and was widely believed to be Rossetti’s mistress.

Lizzie Siddal also suffered from a mystery illness that was most likely a combination of depression and laudanum addiction. It is difficult to determine which came first. However, the laudanum addiction would eventually cause her demise. She intentionally took an over-dose of the opium syrup in 1862. She was 32, finally married to Rossetti, selling and exhibiting paintings and pregnant.

All the years of push and pull and the resulting turmoil had done their damage. The relationship defined and destroyed them both. Each did their best work and lived their fullest lives when they were together. However, each was the other’s weakness and undoing.

The research for my first gallery talk got me thinking about writing a relationship like that. How can the depth of such a relationship make it onto paper? What did these two people say to each other when no one was listening? What a great relationship and setting for a thriller. Hmm.