Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Stories That Haunt Us

by Kristine Coblitz

My new favorite TV show is “Murder By The Book™” on Court TV. This one-hour show features bestselling crime writers as they talk about the real life crimes that have influenced their writing careers. Watching this show got me thinking about the crimes that have influenced my own crime writing career. For me, one story in particular continues to haunt me and no doubt influences my fiction writing.

In April 2000, Richard Baumhammers went on a racist shooting rampage starting in Mount Lebanon. The office in Scott Township where I used to work was within walking distance to a synagogue where he opened fire and across the street from the shopping plaza where he killed a man at an Indian grocery store. He covered 20 miles in 72 minutes and left five people dead, one person wounded, and two synagogues damaged. Witnesses to the crime remarked that Baumhammers showed no panic or anguish.

My co-workers and I followed the chaos that was happening outside of our office building by watching the local news sites online.

The real kicker came a year later in March 2001, when I was called to serve for jury duty. I spent most of the day sitting in a stuffy room reading a book among other people who looked just about as bored as I felt. But then everything changed. The media filtered into the room, and I had the unsettling suspicion that something huge was about to happen. A few minutes later, Richard Baumhammers was escorted into the room. Everyone around me gasped.

I was part of the mock jury selection for his trial. We were to help determine if this man, accused of being responsible for one of the worst hate crimes in Pittsburgh’s history, was capable of having a trial judged by an impartial jury. The judge asked us questions about our knowledge of the case. The entire process took about fifteen minutes, but it made a lasting impression on me as a person and also a writer.

Looking back, what struck me the most about Richard Baumhammers was his size. He towered over everyone in the room. He wore a plain button down shirt, jeans and glasses. He had no expression on his face. As I sat about three feet away from this man, I wondered what made him snap that day. I also wondered what demons were inside his head to make him do something so sinister and full of rage.

Even now, as I dig into the minds of my fictional villains, I try to think about Richard Baumhammers, as well as the many other real-life criminals who commit these hateful acts. I may never get an answer to why these people do what they do, but the unanswered questions are what make crime fiction so interesting...and so important.

So that’s my story. What crime stories have hit close to home for you?

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Mind of a Scavenger

by Tory Butterworth

One thing I've noticed at my new job, there's a lot of free food floating around. It seems like several days a week there's a free lunch being offered at some function, and the leftovers sit on a cart in the hallway for the rest of the day.

Whenever I see free food, I think of a client of mine from my community mental health days. I'll call him Tom, though that's not his real name.

Tom first attracted my attention in our orientation group. His hair was slick-backed and he wore a navy jogging suit without a shirt underneath, the top unzipped to show his hairy chest.

I remember the time Tom and I were standing in front of the agency during a fire alarm. I had reached the limits of my ability to keep up a conversation without revealing confidential information to the forty or so other people also standing in the parking lot. Tom, picking up the conversational ball, pointed to a hotel a few blocks away. "They have a pretty good buffet there." I nodded, too tired and disaffected to wonder where he was going with this. "Let's go over there," he suggested.

"I've already had lunch."

"No," he insisted, "We can get free food. They don't really check, you know, if you've paid. You just wander in, act like you're supposed to be there, and you get something to eat."

Over the next few months Tom taught me how he crashed events and stole from public places. One restaurant he mentioned still gives me the creeps. Tom had several hiding places staked out there where he could stash his "booty."

I can't say Tom left therapy a changed man. I began to question working with him when I realized that I was helping him become a better thief, not a better human being. Just for the record, he was one of only a very few clients who I don't feel like I helped in some constructive way.

Now, seeing all this free food reminds me of Tom. I wonder if there's a reality TV show in it: "Survivor" meets "Hell's Kitchen." Can contestants create haute cuisine from food scavenged in public buildings? Tom could be both instructor and judge. I'm sure he'd like that.

Monday, November 27, 2006


by Nancy Martin

Elizabeth George calls is "bum glue." To be a writer, you must have the will to keep your butt in the chair for long, long periods of time to generate pages.

These days, I have plenty of bum glue. (And I have the bum to prove it!) I can stare at my computer screen for hours. But lately I tend to be reading blogs, cruising the internet, shopping online, checking stats, catching up on news in the publishing industry--and let's not even discuss the many hours I can spend e-mailing. The PR work I do is never enough: Build a mailing list. Keep a listserve going. Create a MySpace page, my editor urges. Sure--but it takes hours every day to build a sufficient network of "friends." It's easy to start it all, but maintaining it requires . . . you guessed it--time.

Some days I look up and discover I've spent the whole morning on this junk and haven't written a word of my book.

I'm frittering away my precious keyboard hours.

If I don't have a book to show every year, though, I'm in big trouble. In the end, it's the finished book that matters. (Okay, maybe my marriage and my children factor into the equation somewhere, but you know what I mean.) If writing is my career, I need to spend the time required.

Every now and then, I need a wake-up call. That moment has arrived. I need to re-assess my time management.

Many years ago, I trained myself to stop watching television. (Yeah, I still watch a little. Mostly on the treadmill in the mornings or one or two evening hours a week to watch the one or two shows my husband and I limit ourselves to every season. Over the summer, it was Weeds. This fall, it's Dexter. Both shows provide something new for a writer to think about--a troubled protagonist who could be bad or just struggling to be good.)

A couple of years ago, I went cold turkey to quit Free Cell, another huge time drain. (I must be an addictive personality. The Free Cell got so bad I discovered I was writing one sentence, then clicking over to the Free Cell screen again.)

I've pretty much given up on the telephone, too. Better to email a friend than spend an hour chit-chatting. Of course, my mother is the exception to that rule. (She was in labor for 30 hours, so I guess I owe her.)

My children grew up learning when to leave me alone and when it was safe to venture into my office without getting their heads bitten off. I trained them--and myself--to value my writing time except during emergencies like the dog upchucking on the living room rug. The kids learned to do their own laundry in junior high, to clean up the mess themselves if they spilled a glass of milk. (It seemed cruel and unusal to make them clean up after the dog, though. See? I'm not a monster.) They seem to have survived, and in fact have grown up independent and fondly amused by their mother's eccentricities.

But I found myelf slipping again lately. Frittering. It's easy to do. Especially around the holidays. This is the only time of year when doing laundry seems to take precedence over just about everything else. Except doing dishes.

This morning I vowed to get myself back on schedule. I've got a book due in the spring, and I need to focus. A moratorium on blog reading! I must remember what's important. Make the time to write. Honor the commitment that's actually spelled out in a legal contract that I signed. I need to strip away the activities that waste time. So I'm saying it in public here and now: I need to have 150 clean pages by Christmas. Goals are important, but that's another blog. (Is anyone doing that NaNoNooNooWhatchacallit challenge? What a great way to stay on task!)

Perhaps most of all, I need to quiet my brain so I can concentrate for long periods of time . . . and allow my characters to inhabit my constant thoughts again. That's when the magic happens.

But only if I can stop frittering.

And if anyone has some ideas for getting rid of all those hours I seem to spend running to the grocery every week, I'd be very grateful.

I Want to Write a Manifesto

by Brenda Roger

I want to write a manifesto.

That’s what I think every time I hear the title of a manifesto. Doesn’t it just sound like a situation where you make a set of rules, declare them before society and then everyone pays attention? Sounds good, right?

My first exposure to the idea of a manifesto was The Futurist Manifesto, written by a group of young Italian male artists in 1909. The Futurist Manifesto is anti-museum, anti-feminist, pro-speed and pro-violence. It is both a rant and a jolly good read. It was 1909. Women were asserting themselves more in many countries. Add to that the fact that these young, male artists were surrounded by the revered ghosts of DaVinci, Michaelangelo and the like. Imagine how suffocating that would have been to the Italian male ego. Add an artistic temperament and a manifesto is born.

It is funny that when I think of Futurist paintings, the first one that comes to mind is Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash. Ok, I get the speed thing, but it is so charming that it is hard to think of it as radical in any context.

I have an artistic temperament, so I should be a good fit for authoring a manifesto, right? It might be advantageous to consider the crowd I will be joining as author of a manifesto. The Communists, the Unabomber and the shooter of Andy Warhol all wrote manifestos.

In fact, The S.C.U.M. Manifesto, penned by Valerie Solanas, the woman who shot Warhol, still sells copies. S.C.U.M. stands for “Society for Cutting Up Men”. It is considered a groundbreaking piece of feminist writing. I would not consider Solanas’ life as a road map to immortality and success, but there are certain elements of The S.C.U.M. Manifesto that I have trouble disagreeing with. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Sorry fellas.

I think it might be therapeutic to write a manifesto. I can’t control much of the world around me, so it would be satisfying to pretend to do so with a set of rules and principals tailored specifically for my own needs. Then it should go into the paper shredder and I should get over myself. Manifestos are usually about large and important ideas. They are frequently political in nature and fraught with anger.

I’m not particularly angry or political. About as political as I get is contemplating the idea that the Unabomber has a much higher IQ than the leader of the free world. That does kind of make me angry, though. Hmmm.

Perhaps, I should stop reading manifestos.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Thanksgiving Surprise!

By Brian Mullen

Two days ago, on Thanksgiving morning, I awoke early and stumbled into the computer room. This is my normal day off routine and I wasn’t expecting anything out of the ordinary. But something very special happened I’m proud to share with all of you. It was an e-mail which read:

Hi everyone! And thank you for entering the first-ever Writing Fairy Humour-Writing Contest.

The initial judging is over, and the 10 finalist entries are winging their way to the three final judges: Gordon Kirkland, Debra McGrath and Neil Crone. Congratulations to all who entered - we had a hard time choosing because we were laughing so hard! We had nearly 200 entries, many of which were multiple submissions. We had poems (including haiku), plays, essays, fiction, rants - oh, it was wonderful reading them all. And it was painful to keep narrowing it down, because there were SO many great entries.

Eventually, choices had to be made, and I congratulate the following folks who made it into the final 10 with their entries.

And my name was on the list.

Normally I don’t enter contests that have a reading fee. I started and stopped myself from entering this contest twice but eventually I went ahead, paid the paltry $10 fee, and submitted my entry. Partly because I felt I had a very suitable entry for the criteria of this contest which was:

This year, any type of humour writing goes. Send us fiction, non-fiction, poetry, personal essays, scripts—heck, your grocery list if it will make the judges laugh. Maximum word count is 792 words. Yes, you read that right—792.

Very often, when I feel uninspired to write something of significance (a novel or short story), I give myself free range to just start writing anything – just for fun, just for my eyes only, just to keep the creative juices flowing. More often than not what I write is silly, embarrassing, and definitely not for anyone else’s eyes. But on one day I had written something silly that blossomed into something I truly found entertaining. And it was less than 792 words. So, I figured the stars and planets were in alignment and I entered it.

I will find out on December 9th if I am in the top three selected. Each of those positions have a cash prize and a chance to be published in The Writing FairyTM Guide to Humour Writing, slated to be published in 2007. You can find out more on the Writing Fairy at if you’re interested. And for your (hopeful) reading enjoyment, here is my entry entitled “Timing is Everything.”

My name is Carl Blunt and I have always wanted to be an author. It has been my dream for as long as I can remember. I’ve written things from time to time – small things, nothing published – but I’ve always known I had great stories bottled up inside me. I only needed the opportunity to tell them.

Convincing a publishing company to take a gamble on me, I procured a loan of sufficient funds to allow me to quit my job and become a professional writer. I immediately sat down and began my first work. And let me tell you, the ideas just flowed from me like a water line that cracked because of the pressure.

I wrote a lengthy tale of a Broadway-hopeful who was struck with a chronic case of laryngitis. Refusing to give up on his dream, he instead pens a musical called “Lozenge” and employs only laryngitis-stricken actors and actresses. The musical gets mixed reviews – the people in the front of the theater loved it while people sitting in the back couldn’t make out anything that was said. Through the production the hero’s voice steadily grows worse until he is unable to ever recover and leads the rest of his life nearly inaudible. I called my narrative, “The Hoarse Whisperer.”

Unfortunately this was in 1995 and only a month before my scheduled publishing date, a book entitled, “The Horse Whisperer” was published and my sponsors felt my book would seem like plagiarism. They implored me to write another book.

I liked the lozenge angle. So, I sat at my typewriter and the ideas continued to flow. And over the course of a year I wrote an insanely large story of a junior high school student who, in art class, made a special gift for his father. They were working with clay and he made him a vase. In the base of the vase he left an opening where his father, who seemed to have a perpetual cold, could store his favorite brand of throat lozenges that were always scattered around the house. But because the son had made the vase with such love, this vase, once given to his father, magically managed to reverse the father’s male pattern baldness. Thus, I entitled my book, “Hairy Pottery and the Chamber of Sucrets.” And again, as fate had done to me before, a month prior to publication, another book entitled, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” hit the bookstores and, again, my idea was seen as riding someone else’s success.

Depression hit and the funding was drying up. But I decided to give it one last try. I liked the lozenge angle and I crafted my favorite work of all. An alien lands in America, walks straight up to the first human he sees and coughs all over him. Then he flies away but not before his virus infects people of Earth and incredibly enhances their ability to do things. Give the victim a paintbrush, for example, and they’d give you a masterpiece. Hand them a typewriter and get back a bestseller. Give them a hammer and saw; they’ll give you a house beyond your wildest dreams. Then, suddenly, they fall into a sneezing fit and die. Because the disease made them into modern-day ‘Renaissance Men,’ I called my book simply “The Da Vinci Cold.”

I was three weeks too late. And now I am broke, my backers unwilling to give me any more money. And I am too depressed to try a fourth time. So, this is it. I’m drawing the curtains on my life and ending it all. I’m becoming a mime.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Double Jeopardy

by Meryl Neiman

The double jepardy clause of the 5th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution "protects against three distinct abuses: [1] a second prosecution for the same offense after acquittal; [2] a second prosecution for the same offense after conviction; and [3] multiple punishments for the same offense." U.S. v. Halper, 490 U.S. 435, 440 (1989).

It makes sense. We wouldn't want law enforcement to be able to harass an individual, prosecuting them over and over for the same offense. The innocent should be protected from multiple trials. The guilty should be protected from multiple punishments.


Well, any good principle is most tested in the extreme cases. The ones that beg for an exception.

OJ Simpson is one such case. The man brutally murdered two people. The evidence was more than clear. But the prosecution's case was flawed: tainted by the foul mouth of the racist lead detective, an over abundance of highly technical testimony, and a glove gambit that failed. Ultimately, the jury did not want to convict one of the nation's African American sports heroes.

But rather than slink gratefully off into the night, OJ stayed in the public eye. He vowed to "track down his wife's killer." He enjoyed the high life while hiding his assets from the families of his victims.

Most recently, his case took a stomach twisting turn. OJ Simpson "authored" a book: If I Did It -- a "hypothetical" account of the slaughter of his wife and her friend.

OJ armed himself in the Constitution, relying on the 5th Amendment to protect him from a second trial, regardless of the content of his prurient story. And nobody questioned his right to do so. Our liberties are so entrenched that we embrace them even in those tough cases. And I'm proud we do.

I would never have bought that book. I would never let my dollars enrich a killer. Yet I struggled with whether to watch the Fox interview. I knew that I shouldn't. That I should boycott the television broadcast, just as I would the book.

But yet. What a rare opportunity. A chance to see a double murderer interviewed. A chance to hear him speak about that experience in his own words. Research for a crime novelist that is rarely replicated.

Now, thank God, my moral dilemna is no more. Just as our country stands up for its legal principles, people also speak up about what is right. The people told the publishing company and Fox that they would not tolerate OJ profitting from the lives that he ruined. And the publisher and Fox listened.

Tonight on Thanksgiving, I am thankful that I live in the United States. That I live in a place where law is above man, but man is free to speak and demand response.

Happy Thanksgiving

By Joyce Tremel

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. It’s the one day of the year that no one feels guilty for stuffing themselves, or having that second piece of pie. There’s no pressure to buy gifts, or pretending to like the ones you receive. I don’t even feel a lot of pressure with the meal. There’s only four of us, so cooking is no big deal. But even if I expected a crowd, turkey is one of the easiest things to make. Rinse, stuff, bake. How hard is that?

It’s also nice to have everyone sit down together and eat a real meal. There are too many days that we eat on the run. Usually after work, cooking is the last thing I want to do. I’ll make something quick and throw it on the table. On the weekends, I’ll cook a real dinner, but inevitably someone will have something else to do. On Thanksgiving, they wouldn’t dare.

Thanksgiving is also a day to count your blessings. I’m thankful for my husband and my sons. Sometimes I’m thankful for my job. And of course, I’m thankful for all my writing friends who’ve become like a second family. You’ve given me confidence that I actually can write, and hope that I’ll be published someday. I don’t know what I’d do without yinz guys!

Have a good day, everyone!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

by Annette Dashofy

Some people who begin a yoga practice eventually become vegetarians. I, being rather different, became a vegetarian prior to discovering yoga. My reasons had to do with the things industrial farmers put in the cattle and chicken feed; the hormones injected to make chickens produce bigger, juicier breast meat and the cattle produce more milk; and the toxins dumped into the oceans and waterways and ingested by the fish. But after becoming enmeshed in the yogic lifestyle, my already vegetarian diet fit nicely with the principle of ahimsa, the yogic practice of doing no harm. You know that commercial where the bespectacled monk rescues spiders and tiny turtles and then suffers pangs of guilt over using the kind of tissues that kill viruses? He’s practicing ahimsa.

One of the toughest aspects of vegetarianism is eating out. And I do so love to eat out. Some restaurants just don’t get the concept of food without meat products. And I’m relatively easy to please. I do eat eggs and dairy products. But some places insist on making their pasta and pizza tomato sauces with beef broth. Soups generally use chicken or beef stock as a base. And McDonald’s has historically gotten into deep trouble with vegetarian Hindus by using beef flavoring in their French fries.

But I can deal with restaurants. I know where I can and can’t get a meal by now. The hardest thing is dinner with the family. Including, but not limited to Thanksgiving.

The rest of the world enjoys a bountiful meal requiring either loosening the belt after dinner or the wearing of stretchy pants. I tend to get a sparse meal of salad, mashed potatoes with no gravy and a few veggies. If I’m lucky, someone in the family thinks of me and runs out to pick up a frozen vegetable lasagna or a box of Garden Burgers. But most of the dishes that get passed around the table bypass me.

So let me offer a few little known tips about vegetarianism in case you happen to have one coming to dinner tomorrow:

Skip the tiny marshmallows on the sweet potatoes. Or perhaps, cook a serving separately for your visitor. Marshmallows aren’t vegetarian. Neither is Jell-o. Both contain gelatin which contains…well, I don’t want to ruin the meal for the rest of you, so just trust me on this.

Rice or stuffing made with chicken or turkey broth does not qualify as vegetarian. Just because you can’t see chunks of meat doesn’t mean it isn’t in there.

If the pumpkin pie crust was made with lard, please warn your visiting vegetarian.

Often, we vegetarians aren’t simply being obnoxious or stubborn in our request to know the contents of a dish, secret recipe or not. I know for me, if I inadvertently eat meat products, I get sick. Nobody wants their guest to spend the afternoon in the bathroom with the door locked. So, don’t divulge the secret recipe, even if the secret ingredient is meat-based, but PLEASE warn you visiting vegetarian to steer clear of that particular dish. They will thank you.

And, as long as they don’t contain the aforementioned lard, pies and desserts are safe!

Now there’s something for vegetarians to be thankful for!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Ever Hopeful

Ever Hopeful: Judith Evans Thomas

It's recently dawned on me that what distinguishes humans from other species is that we are hopeful. Consider life as a turtle or spider or avocado.

They, the other species, follow a set regimen: birth, growth, mating, death. We, on the other hand, expand our growth phase with flights of fantasy. Some choose to do Donald Trump, I can do what I want, whenever I want. Others like the oldest and most respected game show host set in for the long haul.

"Bob Barker is best known as the host of TV's The Price Is Right of TV's Truth or Consequences for 18 years before signing on to host the popular game show The Price Is Right in 1972. The show, in which contestants try to guess the price of potential prizes, is now the longest-running game show in television history. Barker is also a well-known advocate for animal welfare and animal rights; for years he has ended The Price is Right telecasts with a reminder to viewers to spay and neuter their pets." HUH????

I appeared on High Roller with Alex Trebek over thirty years ago. He was young, I was young. He is still hosting and looks the same. I have jowels and crows feet.

Now the one that really annoys me is "Deal or no Deal". I mean.. Howie Mandell as a sex symbol with all those numbered girls ( gorgeous models) saying "Hi Howie" as if he is some pharoh? Get real. But I watch. Right now, a young woman dressed in lime green has convinced the show's producers to dress the lovely Vanna White ladies in lime green and because her entire goal in life is to get a lime green Escalade, she is being offered just that to NOT go for the $500,000 prize.

The mystery writer/conspiracy theorist wonders how she would get to this point in the show that they could offer her the (read advertising) Escalade. She made the deal and would have lost otherwise.

I'm feeling a murder coming on. Don't tell.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Local Locos

Local Locos
by Pat Hart

As a purveyor of fine crimes I try to stay alert to the local crime scene. Over the years I’ve noticed that truly bizarre crimes are rarely one of a kind occurrences but seem to come in clusters.

Here are three examples:
Clip and Save
The amateur, cut-rate sex change procedure is no bargain. In Butler an “at-home” sex change operation goes awry (what a surprise!) and the patient dies. No question that Doctor Tammy, a repeat off-ender, needs to go to the slammy but lawyers, judges, and wardens can't agree on which penal facility best suits “Tammy” as he/she no longer has a personal penile facility.

Death need not be the end...
Whether it’s due sentiment or personal profit the clearly departed in our region are not always getting out of the house and properly buried. Sentiment. Two elderly sisters toddled around Squirrel Hill in their vintage togs for years. And then suddenly there was just the one. People worried that the other old gal was ailing. Eventually, the missing sister was discovered, tucked up in her bed, covered with many, many blankets and yet still cold as she was extremely dead. The culprit was sentiment, the living sister couldn’t bear to part from her lifelong partner.

Profit. Death is cruel. Death separates us from that which we hold dear, a sister from a sister, a husband from a wife, a son from the monthly pension check his mother receives… A mother’s work is never done as one lout proved by not putting his deceased mother to rest but keeping her on ice as he continues to collect her check.

Uneasy rests the sleeping man
About four years ago there was a rash of wives shooting husbands as they slept on the family sofa. The first time I was shocked, the second time a little less so, by the third time I had a question, which I asked my own husband. “You never hear of a woman shooting a man who’s doing the dishes or vacuuming. Why do you think that is?” He had no comment, I don’t think he heard me over the roar of the Hoover.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

November Holidays Condensed

By Lisa Curry

Earlier this month, I went to Memphis on business. I wanted to visit Beale Street and Graceland, but instead I spent all day meeting with a client and all evening writing marketing copy on my laptop in a hotel room. Finally, after three grueling days, Friday night rolled around. Time to fly home to Pittsburgh.

I checked in at the airport and bought Memphis t-shirts for my sons, a Robert B. Parker Spenser paperback, and a venti Starbucks. Then I schlepped my purchases and laptop to gate C16, all the while regretting not having changed my fashionably cruel heels for the sensible shoes stowed in my checked luggage.

At the gate, I plopped into one of the few empty seats. Beside me, an Asian-American girl in what looked like maroon surgical scrubs flipped through a magazine. Across from me, a Caucasian pilot played a video game on his cell phone. Next to him, an African-American woman with lovely skin talked on her cell phone. She smiled during the conversation, but something made her tap first one foot and then the other in a staccato beat. On the other side of her, a Caucasian boy with long hair and Vans read a vampire-romance novel.

Here we were, people of varying ages and races, a microcosm of the American melting pot. Except nobody was melting – unless you counted me, drinking hot coffee and wearing a wool suit that was perfect for Pittsburgh in November but not for 79-degree Memphis. Nobody talked to anybody else. Nobody smiled or even made eye contact. All were engrossed in their own separate little worlds.

An airline employee announced that our plane would be ten minutes late, delaying our departure to Atlanta. Would I still make my connecting flight? I sighed, pulled out the paperback, and retreated into my own separate little world – Spenser’s world.

A little later, the door opened. Our plane had arrived. But we still wouldn’t board for a while, so I returned to Spenser.

A high-pitched squeal yanked me out of my book again. The first passenger, a boy of twenty or so in desert-camouflage fatigues, had come through the door. A pretty dark-haired girl – the squealer – ran into his open arms. A small crowd followed, led by a blonde woman carrying a hand-printed welcome-home sign.

While the young couple hugged and kissed, those of us waiting to board the plane, almost as one, put down our books, magazines, and cell phones. Someone somewhere clapped, and we all joined in.

As the applause died down, the boy turned to the blonde and said, “Hi, Mom.” They hugged, and we all clapped again. She held his face in her hands, laughed, cried, and kissed his cheek over and over.

The pilot came off the plane and joined the pilot across from me. He nodded toward the boy. “Fifteen months in Iraq. When I asked him how long he was back for, he just kept saying, ‘I’m back for good, I’m back for good.’”

“Thank God,” the other pilot said.

Thank God, indeed. In a few hours it would be Veteran’s Day, and in a couple of weeks, Thanksgiving.

I looked at the people around me. They looked at me and each other. We all smiled and a few, like me, wiped their eyes.

We had melted after all, transformed by a moment that was Veteran’s Day and Thanksgiving in one.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Practicing Without a License

by Gina Sestak

When I was in law school, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court permitted third year students to represent indigent clients under the supervision of an attorney. I got a job working for Neighborhood Legal Services Association where, with very limited supervision, I practiced law for about a year before I took the bar exam.

"Practicing law" includes writing legal documents, providing legal advice, and -- most fun -- trying cases in court.

I worked in the Downtown Pittsburgh office of Legal Services, in the section known internally as the Divorce Mill. Poor people who couldn't afford the few hundred dollars that a divorce cost at that time would apply to the Allegheny County Bar Association for free representation by volunteer attorneys. So many poor people wanted divorces that there was always a backlog, so every summer Legal Services would step in and, using three law students, handle hundreds of divorces.

Back in the mid-1970s, Pennsylvania had not yet adopted no-fault divorce. Anyone wanting to get out of a bad marriage needed grounds -- a legally acceptable basis for terminating the relationship. There would be a hearing before a volunteer attorney, called a "Divorce Master," who was appointed by the Family Court to hear and decide 30 cases in an afternoon. A volunteer stenographer -- typically, a judge's secretary -- would transcribe the testimony. And I, or one of the other students, would present the case. Usually, we each handled ten cases, taking them in rotation. The cases were fairly straight-forward. There was no alimony in Pennsylvania then, and our clients were too poor to have much in the way of marital property to divide. In fact, most of them had been separated for many years - the marital relationship was long over but the marriage had remained in effect because neither spouse could afford a divorce.

I was able to handle these divorce cases from beginning to end: the initial meeting with the client, drafting the Divorce Complaint and filing it with the Prothonotary (what we in Pennsylvania call a civil clerk of courts), arranging for service of a copy on the other spouse by the County Sheriff's office, begging lawyers and stenographers to volunteer for the hearings, obtaining use of an available hearing room in the Courthouse, preparing the client to testify, questioning witnesses under oath, and obtaining the Divorce Decree -- complete with embossed gold seal -- and delivering it to the client.

In addition to the divorces, I had other duties. I was sometimes pulled into service when a staff attorney was unable to make a court appearance. The first time I ever tried a case before a real judge was a child support case. Judge Flaherty (who went on to become a Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice) was making a name for himself as a tough judge in the Allegheny County Family Court. I appeared before him on a child support case, having received a call late the night before from an attorney who had a time conflict. Judge Flaherty did not like the idea of a law student practicing in his court. He yelled at me for about 15 minutes, leaning forward over the bench, and I stood there with my fingernails digging into my palms, trying not to laugh because his tirade seemed so ridiculous. He finally let me present the case, and I got one of the best child support orders (in relation to the father's income) that the office had ever obtained. [Of course it helped that the guy tried to conceal income, then said he couldn't afford to support his kids because he just bought a new luxury car.] I haven't been afraid to go to court since.

What did I learn from this? A lot. By the time I graduated law school and passed the bar, I had tried more cases than many lawyers handle in a life time. I became comfortable in court, which is critical because, when trying a case, you have to simultaneously structure your presentation to prove your client's case, analyze what the other party/parties is/are presenting, question witnesses, and remember gazillions of rules of evidence, laws, etc. that might come up. Some lawyers spend days thinking this all out ahead of time, writing every question they intend to ask. I find this too constricting -- the courtroom is a place of constant change. While I try to anticipate and prepare for whatever might happen, I prefer to go in with an open focus, ready for whatever. I can do this effectively because of the solid ground of my Legal Services experience. I learned to handle a high volume of cases without neglecting any of them. I learned to work with clients, other lawyers, and court personnel. I learned to practice law.

So, how did this help me as a writer? I gained an understanding of human relationships through my clients' marital problems. I learned to write on demand and in accordance with a set format by drafting divorce complaints and other legal documents. And law practice has provided me with a day job that lets me pay the bills while trying to sell the stuff I write.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Rainy Day Reflections

by Rebecca Drake

Yesterday I found myself having one of those moments you vow you’ll never have, where you say to your kids, “When I was your age…”

They were complaining for the umpteenth time about going to swim team and since I wanted to be writing instead of playing chauffeur and since it’s practically the only exercise they get, I wasn’t feeling remotely sorry for them.

I launched into a story that began, “When I was your age,” described slogging on foot to deliver 100 newspapers rain or shine, and concluded with the admonition that they should “be grateful you get to go to swim team.”

My 11-year-old son waited until I’d wound down and then asked suspiciously, “Is that a true story?”

I suppose since his mom writes fiction he can be forgiven for asking that. I stifled a laugh and told him that yes, it was absolutely the truth, and then I suddenly remembered my father angrily complaining to his toy-demanding children, “When I was a boy I had a stick and a piece of string and I was happy!”

It made me laugh then and it still makes me smile, though I wonder now if it wasn’t really all that far from the truth. And I found myself reflecting on parenting then and now and how when I was a kid you’d hear adults say, “If you don’t shut your mouth I’ll shut it for you,” and “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to really cry about!”

And how now you’ll hear parents say, “Please stop jumping on the furniture, okay?” and “I know your feelings were hurt because we couldn’t get ice cream, but kicking Mommy isn’t a good way to express that.”

It occurred to me that good parenting lies somewhere in the middle of these two poles, because you can’t coddle your kids through life, but you also shouldn’t belittle them into adulthood.

And then I thought that so much of happiness in life is about finding that middle ground, that balance between work and relationships, contentment and ambition, tradition and innovation.

I know how much I struggle with this. How do others find this balance?

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Dealing With Rejection

by Kristine Coblitz

I recently wrote an article for a local magazine about kids and tryouts. The article explored the unusual rise in the number of students participating in sports and school activities and questioned if the reason for this increase is because more kids are interested or because coaches and teachers have a difficult time turning kids away in fear of how rejection will influence their self esteem.

I didn’t get a definitive answer to my question, but I did get some positive feedback about the importance of rejection for teenagers. In writing the article, I wondered about how this advice could apply to writers and how rejection from agents, editors and readers influences self-esteem. Are the feelings that teenagers experience when cut from the soccer team or school musical really any different from what we as adult writers feel when we get a rejection letter to our query letter or when our novel isn’t picked up by a publishing house?

Rejection is a part of life. We can’t change or control it. What we can change, however, is our reaction to rejection. How we deal with it says a lot about who we are.

I like to think I’ve matured a bit in how I deal with rejection. In the beginning of my writing career, I took every form rejection letter to heart. They were blows to my ego. Now, I’ve become a bit wiser (thankfully) in my perception of the publishing business and take them all in stride.

So what did the coaches and teachers have to say when I asked them about rejection? They told me it’s all part of the journey and that you can’t have success without experiencing at least a few setbacks along the way. They also told me that you can’t expect confidence to come from another person. It comes from accepting the person you really are, being okay with your skills and abilities, and having the drive to become even better.

For some of us, the journey never ends.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


by Tory Butterworth

I resisted it as long as I could.

I'm talking about cellphones. I actually bought my first one many years ago. As a single woman, I have a fear of my car dying in some God forsaken place without any means of communication. So I bought a cellphone and didn't give anyone the number. I've never been stranded (not since I bought it) but it did prove useful for checking my phone messages during traffic jams and calling in pizza orders on my way home from work.

Five weeks on my new job without a phone in the office made me decide I'd have to change my policy and use the cellphone for incoming calls. Well, only if I wanted to get any work done.

There are now seven ways to reach me electronically: my home phone, my work phone, my private practice office phone, my cellphone, my home email, and my work email. Checking all of them, I figure, takes about an hour (on a good day.)

It occurred to me when I was stranded in a phoneless office (my cellphone having just run out of juice) that, in typical American fashion, we have worked so hard at increasing the quantity of our communication, we haven't noticed how its quality has been reduced.

I have two psychotherapy clients who have moved out of town and continue to have phone sessions with me. I've been surprised how effective these are, and how few times I wish I was seeing them in person. But I do notice a big difference between sessions on a cellphone and on a landline. Cellphones tend to reduce subtle cues of tone and inflection that give us information about the emotional state of the caller. Sometimes we lose the essential word in a sentence.

So, you ask, what words of wisdom do I have about improving quality of communication now that its quantity has increased? Being willing to listen, developing empathy for another person, and having the patience to say things many different ways till our meaning gets through haven't changed with technology.

It's just that now, we're so busy checking our messages, we don't have time for any of that.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

All Is Not Lost

by Mike Crawmer

I beg your indulgence as my rant about the use and abuse of the English language continues. (I promise to be less cranky in my next entry.)

Take “I,” that self-centered pronoun so beloved of the “me” generation. They love it so much they use it everywhere, even when “me” is the obvious choice, as in this example taken from an e-mail message I was copied on at work: “Please let Mike and I know when you get a chance.”

To the college-educated author of this note, I say, “Tell I this: Do you ever listen to what you’re saying? Take it from I--probably not.”

Then there's the case of the disappearing “go.” It wasn’t that long ago that people “went” somewhere; nowadays people only “come” or “came.” (The same problem afflicts “take,” which is fast fading from use as everyone “brings” things to and fro.) The chattering heads of the broadcast media go out of their way to muddy the “going” and “coming” of people. One local TV reporter told of an assailant who “came into the house” to shoot his gun at terrified occupants. Was the reporter in the house when this happened? Of course not. Was the intruder invited? I doubt it.

Eventually, I fear, I’ll have to accept the loss of “go,” “going,” and “gone.” The English language is always in flux, continuously adding, dropping and adapting words. But I will never accept a clerk or waitress (or waiter if male, but never a server, a term better suited to a robot) referring to me a “guest.” Where I come from, guests don’t pay, so don’t call me a guest if you expect me to hand over money. “Customer” was good enough for me before, and it still describes me. Hell, I’ll even accept “sucker” before I’ll accept “guest.”

Is there any hope for the salvaging what’s left of the integrity of a fickle language? Or are we (well, me at least) doomed to suffer the slings and arrows of these outrageous stupidities?

Maybe not. It seems that dismal scores in the verbal section of the SAT college entrance exam have prompted some educators to re-evaluate grammar instruction. The Washington Post reported recently that some schools in the metropolitan D.C. area are instituting structured grammar instruction for the first time in decades. And instructors are starting to consider grammar when grading papers (gee, what a concept!).

That is good news. I should be happy. But what does this trend portend for the editing profession? Will the return of grammar education mean a future where everyone knows that “action” isn’t a verb? That a comma never goes between the subject and the verb (an all-too-common outrage at work)? That dangling modifiers are a no-no?

Somehow, I don’t think I need to worry about the future for editors. We didn’t arrive at this muddle overnight. The solution that pulls us out of the muck will be a long time a-coming.

Monday, November 13, 2006

On Behalf of US Blogways

by Brenda Roger

On behalf of USBlogways, we would like to apologize that this blog entry will be late this morning. It will be executed without beverage service or luggage. For your convenience we have connecting blog information for you. You missed them.

On behalf of US Blogways, we would like to thank you for paying to be crammed into a tubular germ incubator, and just as soon as we are through deblogging several of you because of the weight limit, we will be taking off. There are special dividends today for our club travelers. We like to call them Communicable Respiratory Illnesses. You can enjoy them every time that you blog with us.

At this time, I would like to direct your attention to the safety information. You really needn’t pay attention though, if something happens, we’re just going down. If at some point during the blog, you experience difficulty breathing, that is because there isn’t any oxygen in here on a good day.

This blog is ready for immediate posting, which means that you will have to wait until next time to read about the actual topic.

When we reach our destination, you can get in line at the desk for connecting blog information, but we have changed all of the gate assignments and we don’t intend to share that information with the likes of you.

The blog has come to a complete stop and the blogger has turned off the seat belt signs, so you are free to leave just as soon as the forty-nine people in front of you wrestle their crap out of the overhead compartment.

We hope that you will blog with us again.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Contradictions in Character

By Susan Helene Gottfried

One of the benefits of being a writer is the chance to become many different people. When I created ShapeShifter, it was so tone-deaf me could be a member of one of the world's biggest rock bands. Kerri is an artist; my children draw better than I do. Pam is an aerobic instructor; I have orthopedic issues that give my sports medicine doctor nightmares. About the closest I've come to fictionalizing myself is my newest character, Chelle LaFleur, a journalist with attitude.

In fiction, the best characters are the ones with a contradiction. I know this intimately; most of the time, I feel like a living contradiction. This is something that I've wrestled with for years; I suppose I always will. Usually, it's a dormant issue, something I try not to dwell on. But it came back up for me recently, when I was wandering through a crafts show and realized that one of the vendors was a woman I knew.

I didn't say hello, partly because I couldn't place exactly where I knew her from. But also because this was a craft show that featured struggling artists with visions of the off-beat. These vendors were the way cool, grungy, creative, artist-types I used to hang with.

And there I was, with my North Face fleece jacket, two kids, handsome husband, wallet stuffed with twenties, luxury car parked three blocks away, the alarm armed. The bland, blasé picture of a conventional lifestyle.

I was actually sort of embarrassed. I felt like this woman I knew had also recognized me and was shaking her head, proclaiming me a sell-out. Even if she wasn't, I can see how the charge would stick.

That's only the surface, though. I was at that craft show because I was searching for the funky, for the off-beat. For the remade t-shirts that scream Rock and Roll. The earrings shaped like pink ESP Explorer guitars. To support the people who were braver than I was, who chose this lifestyle as their own because of their dedication to their art. They didn't sell out, and I wish I could do more to help them succeed.

It's a trade-off, I tell myself. My mainstream lifestyle lets me do what I do best: write fiction. I have the comfort of a home office, a cat curled in my lap and my satellite radio playing away, while I dream up characters who live the lifestyle I didn't have the guts, or the patience, or the desire to.

I've always tiptoed that line between funky and mainstream, but I jumped firmly to one side so I'd have the freedom to be right here, doing just this.

It's a contradiction in who I am, absolutely. But it's also what defines my fiction -- as well as my self-image. Just as I define myself by the twin pulls of books and music, so, too, do I have the twin pulls of funky and mainstream.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Saved by the Bell

by Cathy Anderson Moffat

First came the terrible phone call when my friend Robin told me their 22-year-old daughter Wendy had been instantly killed in a car accident. Our daughters had played together since they were three, and my heart bled for Robin, a gentle and loving soul who was ripped apart by this loss.

So when Robin called a few weeks later and wanted me to join her on retreat at Deer Park Monastery (near Escondido, California), I couldn't refuse. Plus I'd studied the teachings of the group's leader--Thich Nhat Hanh--for many years. He's a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk of great power and strength; his weapons include an agile mind, a loving presence, and expertise at Buddhist spiritual practice.

We arrived in early February to a camp of rudimentary wood buildings. I didn't relish the thought of sleeping with five other women in a crude dormitory room. The monks and nuns had convened here in the monastery for a few months, over two hundred of them, most of them from Plum Village, the home monastic order in France.

What began as a mission to help my friend Robin became a healing experience for me. We listened to Thay, or teacher, as the monks called Thich Nhat Hanh. He spoke humbly, yet elegantly, with his poignant stories and gentle sense of humor. We hiked among the hills of white boulders and green bushes with our friends for the week and found a mountain lion paw print. We laughed together in our room with Susan (a financial advisor from London), Marie (a businesswoman and astrologer from Paris), Marsha (a friendly, vivacious lesbian lady from New Hampshire), and Linda (originally from Australia, but now a tired mother from the nearby area).

I even met Thay's massage therapist, a happy monk in his late twenties. I sat beside him on the couch of the tea room and felt waves of heat rolling off him. Did his spiritual practice and life as a monk give him secret powers at massage? I thought so, but didn't have the nerve to ask him.

We ate healthy vegetarian food disguised so that you didn't realize you were eating rice three times s day. We ate mindfully--in silence--chewing each bite and tasting the food. By week's end I learned what all that rice can do to one's GI tract.

Periodically, a monk would ring a bell, and like Pavlov's dogs, we all stopped dead in our tracks. We returned to our true selves by breathing deeply for a minute, following the breath. We practiced mindful breathing and living in the moment. Then we would go about our business as before.

And that's how writing connects with the week with the monks. For to write deeply, one must write in the moment, be aware of all one hears, sees, smells, tastes, touches, and knows. Mindfulness makes life more vivid, more deeply experienced. Great writing takes your reader there, a reader who's acutely aware of the moment, of a string of moments.

During orientation to Deer Park Monastery, the monk told those of us in Budhist boot camp that coyotes roamed the surrounding hills. A few minutes later, we heard yipping and yapping in the outside distance. Robin and I later decided they probably weren't real coyotes, but monks imitating coyotes to fool the guests.

Our friend for the week Jay joked about it when he asked, "How can you tell if yaps are from coyotes or monks?"

You ring the bell.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Ask Your Father

by Meryl Neiman

It was the night before Halloween. Like a good mother, I scurried around getting my kids' costumes ready to take to school. Only I couldn't find the clown. My daughter had discovered it in my son's costume bag and tried it on a few weeks before. "I look cute," she pronounced. "I'll wear this." Being the savvy woman that I am, I knew enough not to put it back into my son's closet with the other costumes where it might get misplaced. I carefully secured it. Only now I had no idea where!

I have become one of the best educated stupid people I know.

I have no long term memory. Zero. Zilch. For a long time I wondered if my lack of childhood memories indicated some sort of repressed horror. Was I abused as a child? Abducted by aliens?

Now that I have gotten older, my childhood is not the only thing I can't remember. I still haven't found what I did with my daughter's Holloween costume. So I wasn't captured by a Satanic cult -- I'm just dumb.

And when you have kids, one of their prime jobs in life is to probe those missing brain cells. What causes lightning? Are tomatoes fruits or vegetables? Why do we burp?

And my answer is always: ask your father. My husband has an iron clad memory. He remembers everything he learned and he's learned quite a bit. So I refer almost all of my kids' questions to him. I went to college. And law school! But I am the household dunce.

What's the moral of this story? Save your money on college because your child might forget it all anyway.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Just Give Me Something to Blog About

By Joyce Tremel

It’s been an incredibly busy two weeks, so this blog entry will be very short. I was planning on writing about domestic violence but haven’t had the time to pull it all together.

Instead, I’m going to open this up for questions. What do you want to know about law enforcement? Investigations? Arrest procedure? Questions can be general, or related to the book you’re writing.

Ask me anything. I am at your service!

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Ellen DeGeneres, Meditation and Mysteries

by Annette Dashofy

I confess…I am not a huge Ellen DeGeneres fan. Never have been. I guess I just don’t get that hip sense of humor. I never really liked Seinfeld, either. Yes, I am the one person on the planet who didn’t love that show. Sorry.

However, the new commercial for a credit card company (that I shall not name) that features Ellen meditating about socks cracks me up. But probably not for the same reason that it amuses everyone else.

In case you’ve missed it, Ellen sits to meditate, tells herself to clear her mind, announces to herself that her mind is clear and then promptly starts contemplating the socks she got double charged for.

Let me say, it’s probably the most accurate representation of meditation I’ve seen on television.

Here’s what happens when you sit to meditate. You believe that the point is to stop thinking, so you tell yourself to clear the mind. That’s your first mistake. In reality, you can’t make yourself stop thinking. Nope, uh-uh, can’t be done. Spinning out thought is what the mind does and it rebels if you tell it to stop. But everyone, like Ellen, tells the mind to shut up.

So what’s the point in meditating you ask? Aren’t you supposed to clear the mind?

YES. But the trick is to distract the mind. Buddhists sometimes refer to it as the Monkey Mind. Running around like crazy, in a million different directions. You can’t contain it. But you can train it to do something else. Like focus on the breath or a mantra. When the mind has something to do that keeps it focused on something other than your thoughts, it can become quiet. You let it happen, rather than make it happen.

Then, like Ellen, you say “my mind is clear.” Which it isn’t if you’re THINKING about it being clear! That’s what makes that commercial so funny to those of us who meditate! That really happens ALL THE TIME. But if you’re practicing meditation, as soon as you notice that you’ve slipped back to thinking, you bring your mind back to the breath or the mantra.

Well, that’s what you’re supposed to do. In reality, all too often you start thinking about socks. And one thought leads to another. Just like in the commercial.

It’s even tougher when you’re a mystery writer trying to meditate. The thing is, meditation is wonderful for the creative flow. If you can reach that state of inner calm and mental stillness, all the crap is stripped away and the solutions to all your plot problems appear from nowhere.

But you’re not supposed to let yourself go there. You’re supposed to let go, come back to the breath or the mantra when what you want to do is get up and grab a notepad. Jot that down quick before you forget it!!!

Perfect lines of dialogue appear out of ether when I meditate. But my meditation teachers frown upon keeping paper and pencil at my side to capture those exquisite bits of description before they evaporate back from whence they came. Handheld records are taboo, too.


I guess if you’re going to combine meditation with mystery writing, you’d better develop a really good memory.

Those socks were Argyle, you know.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

GlamGal in Australia

By Judith Evans Thomas

Odd as this may seem, I have the priveledge of posting to our blog from Australia...on election day. For the last six months I have been racking up frequent flyer miles. Italy, California (it is another country), China, New Zealand and now Australia. Part of this travel has been business, part pleasure, and all of it has been marked with questions from the people we meet about ...the war, our president and what is going to happen. Not to take sides one way or the other but our allies are concerned. Many think we know something they don' the secret peace treaty that is surely being negotiated. With whom I don't know, so I shrug my shoulders. Our friends ask what Americans think. I shrug my shoulders. What is Bush's plan they ask? I shrug again. The point is they are concerned and assume we Americans have the answer. My shoulders have gotten a good workout on these journeys.

Don't forget to vote so we can give them answers.

Sent from my BlackBerry wireless handheld.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Fictive Dream

There’s a TV spot on right now for a sleep aid that features a chess playing Abe Lincoln, a space man, and a talking ground hog. The premise is that, due to insomnia, your dreams are missing you, so take Sleep-O (or whatever) and get back to dreaming.

As a writer my life is populated by many of these dream characters and I feel them similarly longing for me to get back to it, to get back to writing, and stop leaving them hanging, anxiously waiting for the next act.

My very first character was a plucky ten-year-old boy named John. John feared nothing. John could do anything. He was a scamp; stealing the farmer’s plums, throwing snowballs at passing cars, and he was a hero, who through cunning and daring do, discovers and brings to justice the oddball neighbors who where actually diamond smugglers. I was seven when John, the most awesome boy of all time, filled my imagination.

In adolescence I had a pair 16-year-old Austrian twin princes. Handsome, of course. They were living an undercover, commoner’s life here in America where one was earnestly pursuing his academics while the other was a wild, bad boy partier. Bruno and Francois were, in their own way, preparing for their role as King of Leslestonia. And I was destined to be queen, but who would be my king?

I used these stories as a way to escape boredom. I ran them like movies in my head whenever I felt the press of dullness. When Mrs. Restori said: “Today we’re going to diagram sentences.” I slumped back in my chair, dimmed the lights, and said: “Roll ‘em.”

Currently, in my fictive dream, I have Sandy. An albino pre-adolescent, Sandy is rebelling against her mother’s application of hair dye and thick foundation and trying to fall in with bad company. I often join Sandy as she imagines her adoptive parents’ surveying a dim room of bassinets and selecting her, a bright halogen bulb of baby, from all the other available infants.

And though writing appears to be a solitary pursuit, it’s actually teeming with people, people who miss me and wait for me to move them forward, to meet their destiny, to complete their stories.

I have to go… Sandy’s at a sink in junior high, washing Cover Girls’ Malibu Morning from her face while at the sink next to her a classmate is applying the black eyeliner her mother has absolutely forbidden. What’s Sandy going to say to her kohl-eyed peer?
Pat Hart

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Michael Vick, Rainman, and Me

By Lisa Curry

I’m PR director for a township-owned TV station. This fall, a coworker set up an ESPN fantasy-football league for the township staff.

“You don’t have to know anything about football to play,” he assured me. “All the other women are in.”

How nice the guys were being inclusive, I thought. And if you didn’t have to know anything, I was certainly qualified.

When I looked at the players assigned to me in the automatic draft, I recognized Michael Vick, my nine-year-old son Griffin’s favorite quarterback, and Willie Parker of the Steelers. I’d never heard of the rest.

“Mommy, your tight end stinks,” Griffin said when he saw my roster. “And you need a gooder kicker.”

Too bad he wasn’t as interested in grammar as he was in football.

Weeks later, a coworker asked how my team was doing. I’d forgotten all about them, so I checked My record was 0-2. My coworker – male – started talking about bye weeks and injuries. If a player isn’t playing, you need to bench him and substitute, I learned, or you won’t get any points.

Lesson #1: “You don’t have to know anything about football to play,” doesn’t mean you don’t have to do anything.

My helpful coworker pointed to a note next to my tight end – the stinky one. He’d been dropped by his team.

I was at the bottom of the league standings, along with most of the other women. If I were of a more suspicious nature, I might wonder if inviting the women to play hadn’t been so much about being inclusive as about the men not wanting to lose.

Lesson #2: “You don’t have to know anything about football to play,” isn’t a lie, but it’s not the whole truth. The rest of it is, “but it sure helps to know something about football if you want to win.”

Now I was annoyed, but I knew exactly what to do. I had a son who spent all his spare time watching ESPN and studying football cards. The kid couldn’t remember the stages of the water cycle well enough to pass his science test, but he could name every NFL player’s team, position, and jersey number, √° la Dustin Hoffman as Raymond Babbit: Sally Dibbs, Dibbs Sally, 461-0192.

I asked Griffin to manage my team. “You can do anything you want with them, sweetie – just win.”

That week, my team kicked butt. Griffin traded for a “gooder” kicker. One morning we missed the school bus because he found Santonio Holmes in the free-agent pool. Driving him to school made me late for work, but we needed another wide receiver.

In the six weeks since Griffin took over, we’ve lost only one game, making our record 5-3. Thanks to Michael Vick, our running backs, and the tight end we picked up to replace that stinky loser, we stomped last week’s opponent (male) 97-20.

I’m now sixth out of 17, the highest ranked woman in the township league.

Lesson #3: If you can’t beat ’em, recruit a small member of their gender to your side. (Luke, I’m your mother, she breathes through the black mask.)

As for little Rainman, I’m going to try to persuade him to use the force for good, not evil, and apply his uncanny memory to a worthier subject, like science or English.

But not until football season is over.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

In the Lair of the Beast

by Gina Sestak

Once upon a time, computers were gigantic temperamental beasts confined to temperature-controlled rooms and approachable only by highly trained computer operators who fed them data consisting of holes punched in cardboard cards.

In such a time, I spent a summer working as a control clerk at Central Data Center, where information was processed for five local hospitals. These were the Vietnam War years; a conscienscious objector* was performing his alternative service by hand-carrying large envelopes stuffed with paper around the hospital system. He would bring me the raw information on pages that were set up to be filled in by hand, one character to each little box on the form. I would log these pages in by hand, writing in one of two large notebooks, then pass it along to the keypunchers, a group of 20 or so women who operated the keypunch machines. Keypunch machines had a keyboard similar to a modern computer keyboard, but instead of in-putting information directly into the computer, they would punch holes in cardboard cards, 80 usable columns to the card, each of which contained a number from zero through nine. The words in this paragraph would require a stack of cards like that.

After the keypunchers had keypunched the data, the computer operators would feed it into the machine, and processed information would come out on wide sheets of continuous-feed paper -- pages separated only by perforated lines, with rows of holes along each edge into which pronges fit. The prongs were attached to a device that turned, pulling the pages along.

My job was to take stacks of those pages, many inches thick, and separate them by job, log them out (by hand in the notebook), and send each to the appropriate hospital department via conscientious objector delivery. Special time-critical information was sometimes sent through a pneumatic tube, a wonderful device made up of pipes that snaked through the hospital complex. You put the pages to be sent into a container that looked like an old-fashioned thermos, set the destination by turning numbers on its top, then put it into the tube to be whisked through pipes to its destination. Use of the tube was strictly time controlled to prevent collisions.

What did I learn from this job? I learned that technology changes. In 1970, the computer center was on the cutting edge of science; it seems laughably primitive now. A few decades before, the pneumatic tube had been the star attraction. Now, I doubt it still exists. We no longer need tubes or people to hand-carry paper; information moves immediately through cyberspace. And yet, I suspect that ten or twenty years from now, people will look back at how we sat in front of a desktop pc or laptop, tapping keys, and shake their heads at how backward we were.

*For those readers too young to remember the military draft: The government held a lottery and picked birthdays at random. Young men were forced into military service in the order in which their birthdays had been drawn. Those who had moral qualms about fighting in a war could (if the government believed they were sincere) fulfill their obligation by doing something other than military service, like working in a hospital.

Friday, November 03, 2006

I'm Not Martha

by Rebecca Drake

I have a love-hate relationship with Martha Stewart and her magazine.

On the one hand, I really wish I could create a 12-course meal complete with truffle-stuffed turkey and individual cups of home-grown pumpkin flan while wearing a linen dress I sewed myself from flax harvested in my own garden.

On the other hand, I have a life.

Martha and I share one very big thing in common: We’re both perfectionists. Only I’m in recovery.

I didn’t know I was a perfectionist until I had children because as every parent knows the job of kids is to strip you of all illusions about yourself before you die. I also didn’t realize I qualified for this particular delusion because I thought perfectionists were people who were, well, perfect.

I started to get a clue when I was about to have a coronary because I’d dressed up two toddlers in expensive Christmas finery and expected them to hold still for photo number 50 so I could get just the right pose. It solidified after I spent hours making 20 individual, tea-aged treasure maps for my then 5-year-old’s pirate party. And when I couldn’t finish writing a novel because the opening paragraph never, ever sounded just right I suddenly realized that this was a major character flaw.

Can you imagine my disappointment? I mean, here I really thought I was going to be able to be this perfect woman and have these perfect kids and the perfect house and the perfect career and instead I discovered that not only wasn’t this ever going to happen, but that I was going to have to retrain my own brain so it would stop thinking this was really possible.

So now I’m in recovery. I have neither the time nor the money to live like Martha Stewart even though a big part of me still very much wants to. Today I caught myself fantasizing about the built-in-bookshelves I could somehow make in between writing the book due in January, figuring out the next plot, feeding husband and children, marketing, and keeping my house in some semblance of order.

I imagine that there are lots of people out there far more successful with their lives than I am, but my envy is tempered by the knowledge that some of these people are also driving themselves slowly insane.

I replaced Martha’s “It’s a good thing” mantra with “Good enough.” I sit in my messy house, writing my sloppy draft and pause occasionally to throw another hastily assembled load of laundry into the wash.

Some days I might even drop a sock.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Not For The Squeamish

by Kristine Coblitz

When I was a freshman in college, I accompanied my mom and some family friends to a local restaurant where we had dinner and paid $20 for a private session with a fortune teller. I went with an open mind and curiosity about what this woman would tell me. I admit I was also looking for some answers about where my life was heading since I’d just signed up for ten years of college loan payments.

A few of the things this woman touched upon were accurate, and some future predictions actually came true. She was dead wrong about one thing, however, and that was when she told me that I would end up being a nurse.

When I told my mom about her prediction after my session, she laughed and told me I should ask for my $20 back.

I admire anyone who can handle the medical profession. I’m not one of those people, especially because I have a tendency to pass out at the sight of blood. Sounds weird for someone who writes crime fiction and loves scary movies, huh?

The way I figure it, I can deal with blood on the page or on the television screen, but when it’s gushing out of my own or anyone else’s body, it’s a different story. I’m on the floor in a matter of seconds.

When I was younger, I fainted all the time. Sharp pain and sickness did it. So did using tweezers to get out a splinter. One morning while singing in the choir in church during grade school, I passed out and my best friend, who was standing next to me, thought I had died. When I opened my eyes to a nun standing over me and organ music in the background, I thought I had died, too. Another episode happened in my twenties while on vacation with my soon-to-be husband at the time. I’d gotten sun poisoning at the beach and passed out the next morning. When I came out of it, he was packing my suitcase and ready to ship me home. (He still married me, though.)

Thankfully, I’m not nearly as sensitive now as an adult, but don’t get me near a needle or anywhere near a hospital. Just last week I had blood taken at my doctor’s office and passed out in the waiting room.

I guess there are some things you never outgrow.

So for the benefit of not just myself but also for everyone else, I didn’t enroll in nursing school. Instead, I became a crime fiction writer where I inflict the pain and blood on fictional characters.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I do have extra padding on my chair for when the murder scenes get a bit too bloody.