Saturday, December 30, 2006

Nights in Market Square

by Gina Sestak

The summer before I started law school, I worked as a waitress three nights a week. Unlike Nancy (see her December 26 blog), I didn't work in a bar. My coworkers weren't mobsters. They were Jehovah's Witnesses.

I found that out my first night on the job. I was taking a much needed break when the male cook came out of the kitchen and sat down beside me. "Can I ask you a personal question?" I tensed up, expecting a come-on, but he asked, "When is the last time you praised Jesus?" I'd just gotten my undergraduate degree in Anthropology, with a focus on comparative religion, so I didn't mind the Bible-based discussions. And the coworkers were generally nice people. They didn't rob the customers. In fact, a homeless old woman would come in every night, sit down in a booth, order a (free) cup of hot water into which she'd dip her own tea bag, and nod off. My coworkers would let her sleep in peace for a few hours.

The restaurant was in Pittsburgh's Market Square, at that time the hot spot for the club scene. Drunks would come in after the bars closed at 2 a.m. One man fell asleep sitting on a stool, with his head in a plate of food and his hand in a cup of coffee. We were afraid to wake him, for fear he'd startle and fall, so we left him there to sleep it off. He was quite the conversation piece.

When I say I worked nights I really mean nights. I started at 11 p.m. and worked until 7 a.m. every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. This was the same summer that I had a full-time day job painting walls (see my October 21 blog), so I spent a good deal of it being utterly exhausted. On Fridays I would get off work at 4:30 p.m., go home to sleep for few hours, then go to work in the restaurant. On Sundays I would leave the restaurant at 7 a.m., get on a bus, and start the painting job at 8 a.m. The restaurant's air conditioner was broken for part of the summer, so on hot nights we did little business and got meager tips. The gung-ho head waitress wouldn't let me rest, though; we'd spend the slow time cleaning and refilling condiments.

What did I learn from this job?

I learned that I'm a lousy waitress. I could never keep the customers' orders straight. It's hard to remember who ordered what, and some customers will eat whatever you put down in front of them, whether they ordered it or not. If every customer did that, there wouldn't be a problem, but only some are so accommodating. Say Customer A orders chicken and Customer B orders fish. The fish is done first, and I accidentally serve it to Customer A, who starts to eat it. When I give Customer B the chicken, though, he points out that he didn't order chicken. By then, Customer A has eaten most of the fish, so I can't just switch plates. I have to put in another order for fish for Customer B, who is now mad because it's going to take awhile to cook. By now Customer A has realized that he never ordered fish, and so he wants his check changed. All this dissatisfaction leads to measly tips.

I learned that the most obnoxious drunk can usually be cooled off by spilling Coke or a milk shake in his lap (although another waitress had to go after a guy with a pot of hot coffee one night).

I learned to go without sleep, and to sleep on buses, waking just in time to get off at the right stop.

I learned why restaurants give free coffee and food discounts to cops. It's not a bribe and, contrary to the official line, it's not in appreciation of their service to the public. The idea is that any criminal who sees police wandering in and out at all hours will avoid robbing the place. It seemed to work. The restaurant was never robbed while I was working there, even though it was usually the only thing open in the area.

I'm not sure what else I learned -- whatever it was, I was much too tired to remember it.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Living the Dream

By Lisa Curry

At 16, I announced that my goal in life was to have fun. My parents, no doubt envisioning supporting me for the rest of my life while I pursued that lofty aspiration, looked aghast.

“If you think work is fun, you’re in for a rude awakening,” said my father, who loathed every minute of his job in the steel mill.

To my surprise, my mother, a registered nurse, agreed. “If you’re lucky, you’ll find a job you don’t hate that pays decently.”

With adolescent arrogance, I dismissed their pessimism. What did they know?

“What are you going to do for a living, anyway?” my dad asked. “Nobody’s going to pay you to sit around on your butt all day and read.”

Now he was getting on my nerves. “I don’t know yet. But it’s going to be fun!”

“We’ll see,” he said.

Fast forward four years. According to the school of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, somebody would pay me to sit around on my butt all day and write. Imagine that. Writing was even more fun than reading. (So there, Dad.) But it was all theoretical until I landed a paid internship in communications and community relations with a Fortune 100 corporation. Now we would see if I could write well enough to be paid for it.

My first assignment was a feature article for the newspaper published semimonthly for the facility’s 5,000 employees. I still remember how it felt to see my words and byline in print for the first time. Heady stuff for a 20-year-old. Even headier was the reaction of my coworkers.

“This is good,” a grizzled veteran writer said. “Really good.” The note of genuine surprise in his voice suggested perhaps the story wasn’t just good for a neophyte’s first effort but good even by higher standards.

I shivered. It was true. I could write, which was fun, and somebody would pay me to do it. I had to be the luckiest person on earth.

Fast forward a couple of years. Armed with my degree, I was hired as a copywriter by a PR firm. I had to write advertorial articles on software packages for a business-newspaper ad supplement. My favorite was on accounting software for advertising agencies. In what I considered a catchy first line, I referenced Leonardo DaVinci.

“That opening’s out there,” my boss said on her way out the door to meet with the client. “If I had more time, I’d have you rewrite it.”

Weeks later she got a call from the client. “Remember your DaVinci opening I didn’t like?” she said. “They sold more software from that article than any other. Go figure.”

Go figure. I could write, which was fun, and somebody would pay me to do it. AND I could persuade people to buy things with my writing. Heady stuff for a 22-year-old. I really was the luckiest person on earth.

Fast forward to the present. I work for a marketing communications agency. The client for whom I mostly write manufactures products electricians use — terminals, lugs, conduit fittings — items about which the average person knows nothing and cares less.

So I could easily tell you that that after 22 years as a writer and seeing my words in print hundreds — maybe thousands — of times, the thrill has worn off. That my parents were right, and at this point, writing’s no more fun than sweating in a steel mill or slinging bedpans in a hospital.

But I’d be lying. Yesterday morning, I walked into the office and found new samples of a product sheet. The printed piece was gorgeous, with larger-than-life photos, bold graphics, dazzling colors. Not to mention a headline and text written by yours truly. Seeing it, smelling the fresh ink, thinking of how many widgets the client might sell, all gave me a little shiver.

Heady stuff for a 43-year-old who happens to be the luckiest person on earth.

# # #

Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.
-- Confucius

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Nurturing Creativity

by Kristine Coblitz

I have a younger cousin who will graduate from high school next year. She’s currently looking into colleges and hopes that her grades are good enough to get her into the school of her choice. She’s an artist with true talent, and sometimes I’m actually blown away by her creativity and imagination.

She has a bright future ahead of her, but she’s learning that starting a career in the arts is not easy. She faces opposition from well-meaning family members who want her to pursue a more practical and money-making field. She feels the pressure of fierce competition with her peers and harsh critiques from teachers. She’s considered giving up a few times and has asked me whether being an artist is worth living through the grief and heartache.

This is where it gets tricky. On one hand, I want to tell her that it is worth it and that going after her true passion is the most important thing in the world. However, on the other hand, I also want to be honest with her and tell her that this struggle with insecurity isn’t going to go away and that the road to being an artist will be fraught with both joy and disappointment.

How much do I tell her without scaring her?

Looking back, the teachers and mentors I’ve respected the most were the ones who were brutally honest with me, so I’ve tried to keep that in mind when talking with my younger cousin. I’m teaching her by example, which I feel is the best thing I can offer her at this critical stage of her creative journey.

I’ve tried to describe the euphoria of a productive writing session. I’ve told her about the many times I had to rewrite the beginning of my first manuscript because my mentor, a veteran writer, repeatedly told me it wasn’t good enough. I’ve told her about the episodes when I broke into tears over my keyboard. And yes, I’ve told her about the depression and anxiety I still face nearly every day.

But mostly, I’ve told her that I wouldn’t trade any of it and that living without regret is possibly the best gift she can give herself in addition to the college degree she is actively seeking.

So now I ask all of you: What advice has changed your life and what words of wisdom would you pass on to the next generation?

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

All in Their Heads

by Tory Butterworth

As a psychotherapist, I try to get inside people's heads. As much as possible, I want to know how my clients see themselves. While I'm not omniscient, I like to believe that I know a little more about people's internal experience than your average Joe.

As a pet owner, it is tempting to assume I have these same skills with my two Persian cats. What does go on in their furry, little brains, anyway?

At times I feel like I do understand. Cats evolved from cave dwellers. As a result, they feel safe in dark, small places that make most humans claustrophobic. Conversely, the bright, open spaces us humans prefer make them nervous, because they're just the sort of spots where large, winged predators can swoop down unexpectedly.

Ever put a cat in a pillow case? A friend of mine recommended this for trips to the vet or short moves. From a human perspective, it reminds us of death by strangulation. However, anyone I know who's ever tried it with their cats notices how calm they get. Sometimes they even purr!

Then, there's other times, when I realize my intracranial feline perspective is all an illusion. I bought my cats some raw food last year: raw chicken meat ground up with vegetables. Little did I know that health food can be as hard a sell for cats as it is for humans.

Thora (name not changed to protect the innocent) wouldn't try the stuff. Well, that's Thora, she hates anything new. But Pansy wouldn't try it either. So I coated it with a canned, "chicken in broth" cat food. Broth, my foot! It's should be named, "chicken in strange gelatinous substance." That didn't stop Pansy, she loves the stuff.

Thora, despite the fact that she didn't want any, didn't want to be left out. While I fed Pansy, I put food out for Thora with a closed door in-between, so Pansy wouldn't steal Thora's food. After a few minutes, I opened the door and Pansy got whatever Thora didn't eat.

Here's the strange part. Pansy licked the canned food off her plate, but left the raw meat untouched. However, when I opened the door protecting Thora's identical breakfast, Pansy ate everything, canned food and raw meat alike.

So I moved Pansy's unfinished dish next to Thora's. And suddenly she licked her platter clean! What DOES go on between those furry ears?

Here's my advice. Live with them, love them, cuddle up with them at night or in the morning. But don't kid yourself that you really understand what's going on in their heads. You probably don't want to know.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Christmas at the Holiday Inn

by Nancy Martin

One of my first jobs was waiting tables at the Holiday Inn, located along the interstate in my rural, Pennsylvania home town. Because I was a collge student, I tended to work on the weekends and holidays so the career waitresses could be at home with their families. At that time of my life, hanging around the house with my own family on Christmas Eve was less appealing than making some big tips or schmoozing with the kitchen guys who provided recreational substances along with the occasional plate of deep-fried scampi.

After the kitchen closed for all food except steaks and burgers, I'd change out of my orange dirndl skirt (and into something tighter) and move over to the bar to wait tables there. I was underage, but the bartender was usually busy and appreciated the help. I have a lot of memories of that bar. I was standing there, for example, when Richard Nixon came on television to resign.

The big tippers always came out on Christmas Eve--kindly, elderly couples who asked about my education, or single, middle-aged men looking for a nice steak and a few drinks served by a blissed-out college co-ed.

One regular was a big, gruff man who always wore a pale gray suit and a tie. The way he dressed, his crew cut and ruddy complexion (surely acquired on a golf course) heightened my impression that he was an executive, maybe divorced, probably an alcoholic. Beyond that, I didn't know his story and didn't care either. He came every Saturday night and fired back a few bourbons before ordering a strip steak with extra potatoes. He was usually too drunk to make his way to the salad bar while the steak broiled, so I loaded up his plate with cole slaw for him. We got along fine, and he usually left $20 on the table--big money to me.

But on Christmas Eve, he came weaving into the bar and fell over a chair--drunk, it appeared, long before he arrived at the Holiday Inn. The bartender and I helped him into a banquette, and he asked for a double. In those days, we didn't blink over serving an inebriated customer. His condition was none of our business. I brought him his drink, then went to the kitchen to place his dinner order.

By the time I got back with his salad, he was asking for another drink, which I brought. When my kitchen signal light came on, I went to pick up his dinner and happened to pass his table. He was nodding over his cole slaw, which finally made me nervous. What if he passed out?

It was much worse than that. By the time I got back with his dinner, he'd upchucked into his salad and passed out, face down in the mess. The bartender, cursing under his breath, helped me stretch him out on the banquette, and I dashed for help--in the form of the restaurant manager.

Ernie, the owner of the hotel as well as the restaurant, was a tough-talking Italian guy who'd operated restaurants in Philly before washing up in our little community. I never asked about Ernie's past, but I'd heard rumors of back-alley beatings and cheating suppliers. He wore a black shirt, open at the throat to show his gold necklace. (Yes, in that Italian horn shape. Hey, it was the 70's.) He also kept his hair dyed very black.

Ernie frowned over my unconscious customer and snapped, "How much is his tab?"

I pulled the chits from my pocket and calculated the drunk owed us about $25.

Ernie didn't hesitate. He rolled the guy over--which caused his pants to hike up, revealing skinny white legs above his black dres socks. I suddenly noticed the heels of those socks had been darned by somebody. His mother? A wife? Himself, maybe?

Ernie pulled the man's wallet from his hip pocket and found a wad of cash inside. He took $100 and stuffed it into his own pocket. And he gave the second $100 to me.

Ernie looked me sternly in the eye and said, "Keep the change, kid. And Merry Christmas."

I took the money.

I must still feel guilty about it, though, if I remember so many details of that night. Not exactly a storybook Christmas memory, huh?

Monday, December 25, 2006

Seasons Greetings

The Working Stiffs are taking the day off from our assorted jobs to spend Christmas with family and friends. We wish all our readers a peaceful and joyous holiday.

We'll be back with our regularly scheduled wit and enlightenment tomorrow. In the meantime...

Merry Christmas from all the Working Stiffs!

Saturday, December 23, 2006

I'm Dreaming of a Whiteboard Christmas

by Brian Mullen

Dear Santa and/or Wal-Mart,

I have been especially good this year. Well, okay, there was the little incident with the goat at the petting zoo but he started it. I have two witnesses willing to testify on my behalf - and one of them was even there. Yeah, okay, I'll even admit the knife fight with the Sisters of Charity was probably uncalled for, but you have to admit their "marketing strategy" was more than a tad aggressive. Personally, I think appointing Sister Mary Soprano to be in charge of the organization was a mistake and I told them so (through our lawyers of course). But taking the year and averaging everything out, I think my behavior falls unquestionably on the nice side. Thus I think I have earned a few paltry tokens. Please pay special attention to the make and model in the following and, where applicable, please make sure it comes with a full tank of gasoline.

#1. A new whiteboard. I promise I have learned my lesson(s). I was unfamiliar with the concept the last time you got me one of these or I never would have started using White-Out at all. And I will never trust the internet again with it's questionable "alternative methods" for cleaning. As you recall, everyone made it out of the house before the fire department arrived. No harm, no foul.

#2. A new laptop computer. I've done some research, Santa, and I've discovered that just because a computer technically fits on your lap, doesn't make it a laptop. So, nice try - but I want a real one this year.

#3. An agent. Oh, and this year, if you buy him early, put some friggin holes in the box! That lack of attention to detail can ruin a Christmas morning.

#4. A completed, brand new manuscript by Michael Crichton only unsigned and he doesn't remember that he wrote it. I promise not to inquire further.

#5. A complete set of all the books by all the great literary masters. This is the kind of thing I think I should have in my library. Oh, that reminds me.

#6. A library. A PRIVATE library, mind you. There's nothing more frustrating than wandering around in your pjs going to get a book to read only to find seven people waiting to check out.

#7. Peace on Earth, Good will towards men. If you can't get to this one, I understand. The list is kind of long.

Thanks in advance for all the swell stuff. I also want to apologize for the treats I left out last year. I meant to buy you some M&M cookies but I inadvertantly wandered into the "adult" store by mistake. I know the S&M cookies were rather painful to chew but the guy at the store said most people like that kind of thing.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Senior Moments

by Meryl Neiman

I had a wonderful blog entry planned for today. I was going to write about my family's behind the scenes tour of the Nutcracker last weekend. I was going to compare the staging of the ballet to writing crime fiction. I had it all thought out. But there was just one problem. I forgot to write it!

Last night I was distracted by my sister's call for help. At age 43, she's changing career paths -- from business woman to genetic counselor. She's applying for a masters degree and wanted me to look over her essays. I couldn't say no.

Today my husband was off from work. I didn't realize he was to have the day off. We planned some errands and off we went. As we pulled into the Target parking lot, I remembered. My blog!

When I arrived back home and turned my computer on, I had to laugh. There was an e-mail from my fellow Sister in Crime, Nancy Martin, frantic with worry that she had forgotten her turn to blog.

No, Nancy it wasn't you. It was me. This isn't my first senior moment. At age 40, I have way more of them than I ever imagined. I forget words, names, and appointments! And now my blog!

Unfortunately, I have to hurry off to my daughter's holiday party. So you all will have to wait to hear about the Nutcracker. I couldn't do it justice in the minute that I have here. So I apologize and wish you all a very happy (and memorable!) holiday season.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Monday, Monday

by Joyce Tremel

I’ve had a lot of people ask me what it’s like working for a police department. My answer could be anything from “It’s cool,” to “I hate this &*%$# place,” depending on what day it is. Never ask me on a Monday.

Since the office is closed on the weekends, everyone and their uncle usually decides to call me on Monday morning. On Mondays, I have police reports from Friday, Saturday and Sunday to enter. Even with two of us working on them, it’s sometimes late Tuesday before they’re all done. Nothing irritates me more than someone calling bright and early asking for a copy of their accident report because the officer “told me to call first thing Monday morning.” Over the last eight years, most of the guys have learned NOT to do this. That’s probably the reason one guy asked me why I parked my broom in the squad room once. I was in a generous mood that day—I let him live.

Mondays are also the days when the guys will be in a panic because they don’t have things like Wite-Out, tape, staples, etc. For some reason, they don’t think to tell me this on Friday, even though they ran out on Wednesday. I guess I’m supposed to read their minds, too. I’ve never seen a group of people run out of Wite-Out as often as they do. I don’t see it on the reports that much, so I’m not exactly sure where they use it. Come to think of it, I probably don’t want to know.

What’s the best day to ask me if I like my job? Thursday, of course. It’s my day off!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Jobs and Nightmares

by Annette Dashofy

I haven’t always been a yoga instructor. Long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away I worked sales at a number of retail establishments. All but one of these stores have since gone out of business. I refuse to take responsibility for their demise. Two of them closed their doors a year or so after I left, leading me to presume that they simply could not get along without me. A third was already in bankruptcy when I was hired. I showed up for my shift one day to find the doors padlocked. Come to think of it, they still owe me two weeks wages.

One of the now defunct businesses was a photofinishing/camera sales kiosk in the middle of a mall. I worked there for five years, including five Christmas shopping seasons. It was this frenzy of holiday buying that inspired my first round of job-related reoccurring nightmares.

This particular kiosk consisted of a storage room with a three-sided counter/display case in front of it, so we salesgirls were corralled within its confines. At closing time we rolled flaps of blue canvas down from the conduit framework to the tops of the counters, zipped the corners and slipped small locks through rings at the bottom of the zippers. It kept the honest folks out.

Camera and film sales soared during the weeks and days leading up to Christmas. Keep in mind this was long before digital cameras. If you wanted pictures, you needed rolls and rolls of Kodak or Fuji in 100, 200, or 400 speeds, 12, 24, or 36 exposures. Canon had just come out with the Sure Shot, a small easy-to-use 35mm. So you no longer needed to comprehend shutter speed or f-stops to get top quality photographs.

We couldn’t keep the little buggers in stock.

And then there was the day before Christmas, when all through the mall all the dads were frantic. What to get Mom? They wanted one of those new cameras. But we’d been sold out and no more were coming in until after Christmas. Last minute shoppers don’t care. Just give them something, anything to wrap and put under the tree! The recipient of the not-quite-right gift can always bring it back and return it.

I should mention here that we sales clerks hated the day AFTER Christmas with a passion for this very reason. Cranky people with a not-quite-right gift demanding to exchange it for that new-fangled camera. The one we’re still out of.

But I could deal with all this. The thing that haunted me in my sleep was the frenzied customers arriving at 5:05 PM (we closed at 5:00 on Christmas eve), after we’d dropped the canvas awnings and were attempting to zip them. Borderline hysterical faces forced their way between the gaps in the canvas. “I need five rolls of 110 film!” Another face appeared at another corner. “Please! I know I’m late could you pullleeezze sell me two rolls of 35mm, 36 exposure, 400 speed. No, not Fuji! Kodak.” We could easily wrack up another hundred dollars in sales with the canvas curtains drawn. Never mind that we sales clerks had family and friends we wanted to get home to. NOT UNTIL YOU SELL ME SOME FILM!

This scenario cropped up time and time again in my sleep. My reoccurring nightmare wasn’t limited to the holiday season, but it always revolved around me trying to close out the register and zip up the canvas while frantic and demanding customers kept UN-zipping them and demanding to be waited on. AGH!

Jump ahead twenty years to the present. I teach yoga. Calm, relaxing, stress-reducing yoga. And yet, I have a new reoccurring nightmare revolving around this career, as well. In my new nightmare, I try to get class started, but my students won’t settle down. They’re having a party and won’t listen to me. But this dream has no basis in actuality. I have a class or two where they tend to get a bit chatty prior to class, but they always settle down as soon as I start to speak. My friend who owns the yoga center where I teach has confided that she has the same nightmare. Go figure.

But nightmares in my other career—writing—are a great source of material. I’ve awoken from a terrifying dream, jumping with joy. What a great story that would make!

I have two short stories available currently in online magazines and one of them, “Sanctuary” came right from the horrors of my restless sleep.

Maybe there’s a story to be mined from somewhere in that Christmas Eve trauma. Hmm.

So does anyone else have any job-related reoccurring nightmares they’d like to share?

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Regifting My Kitchen

by Judith Evans Thomas

Two years ago, my husband and I decided (read I decided) that we wouldn't downsize. Yes our children are grown and gone and yes our home is WAY too big for the two of us and our lab, but I love the house, I love the land and I love not having nebby neighbors. Besides, at that time our daughter was about to get married and she wanted to have the reception at home. Not realizing that the cateror would bring in his own kitchen, we started redesigning ours. Stupid timing and halfway through the design process we threw in the proverbial kitchen towel. Couldn't be done in the time frame we had.

Fast forward to October of 2006 when I finally had the energy to think about having men sporting tool belts invade my space. I started humming the tune of the 1978 Village People hit song YMCA . Maybe this would be fun! Construction guys are hot. I let my fantasy carry me through finishing the plans and hiring the crew. Some of them are cute but what's with the wad of chewing tobacco they all have stuck between their lip and gum? And worse yet, why do they all have beer bellies? Oh well. We scheduled work to begin sometime in February.

And then our daughter and son in law got pregnant. With the baby due in June (in Philadelphia) our construction schedule had to ratchet up ....which means we are starting demo the day after I have 16 people for Christmas dinner! And that brings me to regifting my kitchen.

Does anyone really know what is in your kitchen cabinets? It's a gold mine. In cleaning out mine, I found doubles... even triples of perfectly good and usually unused wisks, cooking spoons, bundt pans, christmas cookie molds, waffle irons, George Forman grills, coffee makers... the list goes on and on. I also found five years of yellow pages, multiple menus from the local chinese take out restaurant, dozens of pencils with broken points, even more pens that had dried up, keys for cars we no longer owned, and in the upper cabinets, my Y2K supplies I had forgotten about. Do you know that toilet paper gets moldy over a few years? Yuck.

So this Christmas, my tree is bare, no presents are wrapped but my kitchen is pared to essentials. One roasting pan, two bowls, three pots and a partridge in the pear tree.

I sure hope the relatives like the used appliances.

What's in your kitchen?

Monday, December 18, 2006

Dear Pitty Pat,
I hate the holidays. I won’t go into details, but my opinions about the real “reason for the season” could stomp the joy out of even the happiest of elves. Because my true feelings about Christmas are toxic, capable "of chilling and killing," I keep them to myself, stowed away in an unopened, lead box.

My problem is that my humbug attitude has become widely known among my acquaintances and they insist on trying to instill the holiday spirit in me. How do I escape this seasonal heckling and still have friends in the spring?


Dear Grinch,
Are there any snow-topped hills, preferable with a cave, near Whereverthehellvilleyoulive?

But, if you can't hide, you can run. Try this: Whenever anybody broaches the happy holiday topic, dash off on a holiday errand, the more repulsive the better, you don’t want tagalongs on your fake frolic.
Try these:

“Oh, you just reminded me! I have to cut up last year’s Christmas cards and hot glue them to the toilet seat lid.”

“Gosh, sure love to sit and get all misty-eyed about the approaching Yule, but I’ve got to run out to Mars for the Holiday craft show. They’re featuring crocheted doorknob covers, want to come? The blizzard doesn’t looks that bad…”

“Sorry! Holiday pageant. The first grade is playing Little Drummer Boy on coffee cans with metal spoons. Adorable!”

..And Grinchy, remember Christmas comes but once a year, suck it up.
Pitty Pat

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Pig Money

By Lisa Curry

I come from a family of hardworking, thrifty people.

As I write that, I hear my sister in the back of my mind shouting, “Tell it like it is – our dad’s the cheapest man on Earth!”

In his defense, there must be a cheaper man somewhere on the planet. I just don’t know who or where.

My father, retired steelworker and farmer, probably has a credit score of 2. Not because he has bad credit, but because he has none. He’s never had a mortgage, car payment or credit card. He’s a pay-as-you-go kind of guy whose philosophy is, “If you don’t have the money for it, you don’t need it.”

As a teen, I didn’t appreciate his frugality. Particularly when I was in the bathroom getting ready for a date and he pounded on the door, yelling, “You should see the electric meter spin when you run that hair dryer!”

Better I should go out in 10-degree weather with wet hair. If I caught pneumonia, he had insurance to cover the medical and funeral expenses.

Now that I’m 43, though, I value his influence. I do have a mortgage, car payment and credit cards, and I don’t habitually monitor the rpm’s of my electric meter. But I’m enough my father’s daughter that I live within my means and save. According to our financial advisor, my husband and I are on track to pay off the mortgage, fund our children’s education and retire when I’m 58.

In turn, I try to teach financial responsibility to my sons, ages 7 and 9. They each get $5 weekly allowance, and every month, they have to deposit $10 in their savings accounts. I could withhold $10, but I want them to develop the self-restraint to save it. The consequence of failure is no allowance next month – it all goes directly into the bank. Thus far, I’m pleased to say, neither has failed.

Still, I worry about their spending habits. My younger son, Sean, squanders his allowance and complains when he can’t afford anything over $5. He never manages to save for that $20 Gameboy game. The older one, Griffin, usually does better, but lately, to my alarm, he’s asked to withdraw money from savings for an XBox 360.

On a recent visit to the bank, Griffin asked loudly, “Why doesn’t the bank let kids take money out of their accounts?” – as if a teller might respond, “Why, you poor little thing, would you like that in twenties?”

“The bank doesn’t care,” I said. “But you’re a minor, I’m your account’s custodian, and I say you can’t.”

The purpose of this trip was to cash a matured savings bond. My late grandparents – parents of Mr. Thrifty – gave me a bond every October for my birthday. I held a spreadsheet that listed all my bonds, their cost, face and current value. My financial advisor told me to cash them all, but they have sentimental value. Instead, I cash them when they stop earning interest and deposit the proceeds in my children’s college fund.

On the spreadsheet, an anomaly among the $25 and $50 bonds issued in October caught my eye. “See this $100 bond from May 1979?” I said. “I bought it. Want to know how?”

The boys nodded.

“Your grandpa said he’d front the cash to buy baby pigs, and if I took care of them until they were big enough to sell, I could have the profit from one. I made $150. He made me use $75 to buy a $100 bond and let me spend the rest,” I said. “Today that bond is worth $396. What’s the lesson?”

“Buy baby pigs?” Sean said.

“Uh, no.” I sighed. “Okay, if I had spent all my pig money, how much would I have today?”

“Nothing,” my little geniuses replied.

I beamed. “Exactly. So what’s the lesson?”

“Buy savings bonds,” Griffin said.

My financial advisor would cringe. “There are better investments, but yes, the point is to save money.”

“I still don’t see why I can’t buy an XBox,” Griffin said.

I gave up for the day. Clearly, my work isn’t done, but I have years left to curb their profligate ways and mold them into grandsons worthy of the old cheapskate himself.

So I’ve been thinking. We own two acres here in the ’burbs. My husband’s handy. He could build a pigpen…

Saturday, December 16, 2006

It Came Upon a . . .

by Gina Sestak

I'd like to break from my theme of blogging about the dozens of jobs I've held to talk about a seasonal theme: Christmas at work.

I'm using "Christmas" in the general sense here, to mean this time period we're in now. No matter what you call it, most people the world over find a reason for celebration around the time of the winter solstice. Job sites, too, become quite festive. Too festive.

For a few years, I worked in an office in Oxford Centre in downtown Pittsburgh. That building went all out for the holidays. The pianist, who played lounge music in the lobby at lunch time year round, shifted to Christmas music at the end of October. A choir dressed like Dickens characters stolled through the common areas, caroling. One year a woman dressed like an angel sat in an upper lobby, playing a harp. Decorations festooned every available space and hung from the ceiling of the food court. Dozens of trees turned the walkways into obstacle courses. This was all quite lovely but, by around mid-November, I found myself becoming really, really tired of Christmas. I would rush through the lobby, thinking, "If I hear God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen just one more time, I'll scream!"

A few years earlier, the small firm I shared space with had a corner of an upper floor in the Law & Finance Building, overlooking the Allegheny County Courthouse. Every year, choirs would perform on the Courthouse steps, booming their carols right into our offices. We could barely hear ourselves think, let alone concentrate on complicated legal matters.

Retail is the worst, though. You are trapped at a cash register, shivering in the icy winter breeze that comes in with the customers, while the same tape loop of carols plays over and over and over again.

Is it any wonder that I feel like Scrooge? I find myself composing Christmas carol parodies, like this one, to be sung to the tune of Silver Bells:

Car horns blaring, drivers swearing,
Traffic backed up for miles.
It's Christmas time in the city.

Shoppers fussing, store clerks cussing,
Wearing holiday scowls.
Soon it will be Christmas day.

This is Hell. Christmas Hell.
It's Christmas time in the city.
Hear them curse. It gets worse.
Soon it will be Christmas day.

Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 15, 2006

You Shouldn't Have

by Rebecca Drake

I love the holiday season. I love the pageantry of Christmas, the lights that brighten otherwise bleak afternoons, the spicy scent of pine, the warm memories that hanging my favorite ornaments evokes. About the only thing I don’t like about Christmas is the exchanging of gifts.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’m not a Scrooge. I enjoy buying gifts for other people. The part I don’t like is the pressure to receive gifts graciously, to smile when you hate it, to refrain from saying, “What the hell is that?”

When I was a kid I used to snoop for my presents, not because I couldn’t wait to see what they were, but to prepare my reactions. I couldn’t bear the thought of hurting my family’s feelings and would practice big, Hollywood-worthy smiles and saying, “Wow! I’ve never gotten anything like this before!”

We’re taught that it’s the thought that counts, but I’ve got to tell you that there are many times when I’m left wondering just what they were thinking, if they were thinking anything at all.

I mean, how do you explain the acrylic sweater with huge black patches on a gray and white background? How did that purchase get made? They’re walking through the store and spot this item of clothing and say, “Wait! There’s the perfect gift! A sweater that looks like a cow!”

And what am I supposed to say upon receipt of such a gift? “My god, I’ve always wanted to look like a barnyard animal!”

So along with my holiday baking I’m perfecting my holiday smile. I’ll hope my gasp is mistaken for pleasure and say with complete sincerity, “Gee, thanks. You shouldn’t have!”

Contest time: What is the worst present you’ve ever received?

(Winner gets the cow sweater.)

Thursday, December 14, 2006

'Tis the Season!

By Kristine Coblitz

It’s that time of year again. The tree is up with presents underneath, the twinkling lights are strung outside the house, and the roadways are packed with shoppers looking for the best deal on the latest video game system. It’s the season of cookies and wrapping paper and cards from family and friends. It’s also the season of spending time with your co-workers, and by that I mean the Office Christmas Party.

When I worked outside the home, I attended my share of office holiday parties. They ranged from potluck lunches to elaborate dinners. When I began working at my last corporate job eight years ago, our Christmas party was a dinner at an upscale downtown restaurant. We were allowed to bring our spouses. The following year, the event was scaled down to lunch (employees only). We were informed that spouses were no longer invited because of an “incident” that occurred the year before at one of the satellite offices. To this day, I never found out what happened, but it always made me wonder.

Last year, I attended a Christmas dinner dance given by the accounting firm where my husband used to work. This was an elaborate affair if I ever saw one. Women wore gowns. Champagne was poured by the bottle. The whole event cost more than a wedding, and once things got rolling, I saw otherwise quiet and reserved accountants shaking it on the dance floor and upper management loosening their ties and getting their groove on.

Now that I work at home and my husband has a different job, I no longer attend office Christmas parties. Sometimes I miss getting dressed up to attend the fancy affairs, but for the most part, I’m grateful. My office party now consists of putting a Santa’s hat on the dog and pouring a glass of eggnog while I sit at my computer. At least I won’t do anything I’ll later regret come Monday morning.

Does anyone have any good office party stories to share? It’s time to dish the dirt. Which ones were most memorable for you?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

I'm not a Forensic Psychologist

by Tory Butterworth

A couple of weeks ago on the TV show, "Criminal Minds," a profiler was approached by a High School student who was afraid he would murder someone. Later in the show, a different profiler evaluated this young man and said, "In my opinion, it's not if he'll kill, it's when."

This episode illustrates one of my quandaries in writing this blog. I've been considering blogging on diagnoses such as "bipolar" and "schizophrenia" which get bandied about on TV, often incorrectly. I've hesitated because I'm afraid readers will assume I'm someone who specializes in criminal minds. As a therapist, I work with the mentally ill. As a group, the mentally ill are somewhat more likely to be violent than people who are mentally healthy. However, most mental patients (90% or so) aren't violent.

In the orientation group I co-led at a community mental health agency, we quickly learned to screen out the criminal population, sending them to the forensic treatment unit. I discovered that in establishing a therapeutic alliance, I assume a basic truthfulness from the client. If someone told me the FBI was after them, I wouldn't necessarily believe they were being chased, but I would assume the client thinks he or she is. With forensics clients I learned to assume they were lying in order to pull off a scam. My first job when working with them was to figure out what they were trying to get away with.

Forensic patients are masters at scoping out a group, identifying like-minded individuals, and forming alliances to help them undermine the authority of the group leaders. Amazingly, they were often able to pull this off in a single two-hour group session. The bulk of patients who come more or less willingly to community mental health, not forced there by a court order, were focused on their own pain and didn't have much attention left for others in the group. Most of them lacked the social skills to form a rebellion even if they wanted to start one.

Getting back to the "criminal minds" episode, the profiler who performed the evaluation didn't realize the mistake he was making in predicting future behavior. His job starts with a past act, a murder that's already happened, and he works backward to identify who did it. He rarely meets the 100 to 1000 people that match his profile who haven't killed anyone. He doesn't collect data on what differentiates them from the killers.

The fact this young man, frightened of his own impulses, was looking for help before he'd killed anyone, speaks to me of something in his character that differentiates him from those who take out their sadistic fantasies on others. Clients who are successful in therapy have to look at their own pain, rather than blaming it on others or covering it up with unhealthy behavior. This act of moral courage often differentiates those who remain sick from those who get better.

As a therapist, I'm predicting I could work with him.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

First Job Adventures

by Mike Crawmer

My 16-year-old niece announced this summer that she was no longer eating meat. Seems that one day her job in a deli took her into a back room, where she ran into the reality of the meat course in the form of a freshly slaughtered pig hanging from the rafters, awaiting the butcher’s knife.

Curious, I thought--my first exposure to food only whetted my appetite for more. The summer I turned 17 I was back home from a six-week visit with a widowed aunt in Arizona and beyond broke. I jumped at the chance to join two friends as a busboy at a restaurant next to a Holiday Inn. What my so-called friends didn’t tell me was that my first day on the job was also their first day of a two-week vacation.

While they slept in and caroused, I worked my butt off. I helped open the restaurant at 6 a.m. and stayed til closing around 11 p.m.—every day seven days a week until the first day of school. I bussed the front room--which catered to families and diners looking for a quick meal at the counter (how often they were disappointed)—and the Lounge, a dark cavern of a room with fake-red-leather arm chairs and an ever-present pall of cigarette smoke. This room catered to salesmen, anniversary celebrants, and mysterious, chain-smoking women who swiveled seductively on the bar stools while nursing their overpriced cocktails.

The work was fast, furious and never-ending. Besides bussing tables, I washed dishes, worked the counter, ran the cash register when the hostess was busy in the back (doing what with whom I could only guess), and carried motel room service orders.

Every job had its challenges. Kids threw food. The dishwasher broke down. And room service could be, well, interesting. One Sunday morning I was carrying a breakfast order along the outer second-story walkway when I crossed paths with a jowly old man (probably mid forties but old to me) wearing a rumbled sports coat and slacks and shoes (no shirt or socks). A few doors after passing him I knocked at my destination. The door was opened by a haggard-looking woman dressed only in a slip. I had time to register the word “pendulous” before Mr. Rumpled Man stepped between us, grabbed the tray out of my hands and paid me. When I described the incident to a Lounge waitress later, she explained that the couple had met in the bar the night before. She thought it was funny. I didn’t. She had seen their perfumed and prettified bar faces; I had seen the dissipated morning-after look. Not a pretty sight.

I lasted a record 13 months in that job. Call me stupid, but I learned to respect hard-working, underpaid waitresses; avoid the lecherous cook’s advances and still keep my job; greet every subsequent restaurant meal with a degree of skepticism; and love Boston cream pie. As for that last one, perhaps love too much; my weight ballooned by 50 pounds. Maybe that’s the lesson I can pass on to my niece: It’s not always what you eat, but how much.

Were there any lessons in my first paying job for a writer? Maybe. But there’s certainly fodder for a story or three.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

O Rest in the Lord?

by Brenda Roger

It is 1890 in Philadelphia. You are a famous chanteuse. Night after night, people crowd the theater to hear you sing. Compliments come in many forms. Why even a local painter, of some significance, wishes to paint your portrait.

Over eighty times, you are laced into your corset. It is covered over by heavy carnation pink silk brocade. The finest European lace peaks out from the divided skirt. With your tiny feet nestled into pink silk slippers you take your stance in the third floor studio of a Philadelphia row house.

On the first of these occasions comes an unusual request. Can you sing “O Rest in the Lord” while you stand there. He wants to see your chest heaving and your vocal chords dance. You of all people understand suffering for the sake of art. You comply with his wishes. Over and over again, you sing at his request. Eventually, the song uses very little of your concentration and you are left to contemplate the man. The Painter.

More than once, he has asked you to disrobe so that he can study your figure. He interjects this request into unrelated conversations with increasing frequency. You cannot abandon the portrait until it is finished, unless you want to cause your self and your mutual friends a great embarrassment. Your discomfort festers.

The two of you are on the top of a house that is stacked with his family members. One is a strange young girl named Ella. She is a niece you are told. The poor thing has a disturbed look in her eyes. No not in her eyes, behind them. During a break from posing one day, you take pity on the girl and try to speak with her. She calmly informs you that she fully intends to shoot her uncle the painter, but adds that she will shoot you first.

Has your fellow blogger just shared her brilliant new idea for a suspense novel? Oh, no, no, it is just the story behind The Concert Singer by Thomas Eakins. I couldn’t make it up on my best day.

The Concert Singer is currently on view as part of Off the Pedestal: The New Woman in the Art of Homer, Chase and Sargent, at the Frick Art & Historical Center. Any time one gets to see an Eakins in person, it is a gift from the universe. This time that is especially true for me because I have chosen this painting as the subject of my December 29th gallery talk. What a great excuse to spend hours dissecting new scholarship on a painter whose technique I deeply admire. In an effort to understand the painting and its creator, I have been devouring one of two new biographies on Thomas Eakins.

There are new biographies on artists all the time. New scholarship on Thomas Eakins is significant at this time because for many years, papers compiled by his early biographers have been purposely lost. As you may have guessed, the papers have recently surfaced and spawned a renewed interest in trying to sort out a most intriguing and sometimes disturbing character. The twists and turns have all the intrigue of a best seller or a blockbuster movie (Dan Brown, please don’t touch).

I’m not going to tell you how it ends. Just in case I decide to write it myself! Of course, you could attend the gallery talk at 2 PM on December 29 at the Frick Art Museum. I promise it will be free and disturbing.

On Buying Books

by Susan Helene Gottfried

I think I offended a new friend last week by telling her that I haven't bought her book yet. Instead, my copy came from an online book trading site.

You'd think that, as a writer, I'd know better. After all, every single sale is important in the publishing industry these days. And her book is certainly the first on my list to buy. I really have no good excuse.

I could sit here and say that yeah, I could ride my bike to the nearest bookstore but I refuse because it's a chain and I prefer to buy from independents. That's entirely true -- but I'm in a certain local independent fairly frequently anymore.

Maybe it's that I feel cheesy, knowing she could walk in that same store and look over my shoulder and there I am, buying her book.

But the truth is that I've grown quite addicted to online book trading, and not just because of how easy it is. It's not because of the rush of discovering a listing for something I've been waiting for, nor is it the thrill that is there every time I see a package in my mailbox.

It's the ability to track the book's history that gets me. Yes, I use an online site to do this; every book that you register gets its own individual identification number and as books wind their way around the planet, I get to be the proverbial fly on the wall.

It's fun to get a book that six others have hated -- and find that I love it. It's not so fun to realize I'm the only one who disagrees with the raves of others. When that happens, though, by reading over what those others have said, I get a glimpse into why they thought what they did.

It never fails to teach me something about the way that readers approach the books we write. Do they focus on the plot (sometimes)? The characters (usually)? The setting (almost never)? How are they affected by pacing and suspense? Is there a willing suspension of disbelief, when it's necessary? And do they speak of a need to suspend disbelief that wasn't intended?

I breezily went on to assure my friend that I'll be buying probably four copies of her book. I fully intend to, so that I can watch them travel from person to person and read what everyone thinks. Maybe it won't help her write a better book, but it'll get her name out there, so that when the next book hits the shelf, and the one after that, our local bookstore won't be the only store with a line of people waiting to buy it.

Including me, who promises to buy five copies right there, on the first on-sale day.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Bring Back the Light

by Cathy Anderson Moffat

I first feel the darkness descend in October, which worsens in November. Mostly I feel loss of energy (too tired too often), but lately I've noticed dark thoughts and fearful thinking. I wake up in the morning wondering: What if my senior cat and dog get sick? What if I'm not busy at work today? And at least once during the terrible, overcast days--why bother with anything?

No, I don't sleep extra hours or forget to brush my hair. It's not a regular depression, but since this has been happening year after year, I wonder about SAD (seasonal affective disorder);maybe I have a mild case of it. SAD, also known as winter depression, is a mood disorder. Most SAD sufferers experience normal mental health throughout the year, but experience depressive symptoms in the winter. It's all about the light; when the light falters, some of us have system slowdown.

As a writer and a massage therapist, SAD spells disaster. How can I push harder on their arms, legs, and backs? How can I get a few more chapters written on the novel? The query letters and book proposals I send out to lucky agents who never see them--how to up productivity (to increase the rejection ratio). Let's face it--we all want to get more done.

And dark thoughts are best left in the closet with the door shut, unless you're writing a creepy, crawly thriller. Or maybe some mysteries, too.

Never fear, the light is returning with the winter solstice on December 21, 7:22 p.m. EST. It's a celebration for the SAD people, when the longest night and shortest day tip the balance. The days get longer after that. On solstice, the northern hemisphere leans farthest from the sun, as the earth experiences maximum tilt in relationship to the sun.

But here's the good news: at the same time of our winter solstice, summer solstice regales the southern hemisphere. Lucky birds! And SAD is rare and probably nonexistent in the tropics.

Why didn't someone tell me? Get me a plane ticket and I'll finish this novel. I'll pound the daylights out of the touristos at some seaside resort.

But things could be a lot worse. I get this vision in my head of ancient people huddled in huts, enduring winter's harsh ways, waiting, just waiting for the light to come back. Worse yet, at some point they didn't even know about solstice, that the the days would lengthen and the warmth return. They couldn't drink a little Pepsi and keep right on going. Talk about doom and gloom.

When December 21 rolls around, I know I'll be jumping up and down. To combat the energy drain in the meantime, I use a broad spectrum light (some use light boxes). SSRI meds can be used, including prozac and paxil (I prefer Pepsi). I just read about negative ion therapy for SAD, another effective treatment. Lately, I've given myself Reiki, a form of energy and light work. Rather than kick myself in the nether regions, I've started being thankful for all the wonderful things in my life--gratitude therapy. Chases the dark thoughts far away.

I'm thankful for all of you, my friends, and wish you only the best during this season of love and light. I hope the dark days don't touch you, but if they do, want to spend the winter in the tropics?

Thursday, December 07, 2006


by Meryl Neiman

My in-laws are generous. Too generous. Twice a year, we return from celebrating birthdays and Christmas with a stash of loot you wouldn't believe. I scan the street praying that no neighbors are there to witness my kids' embarassment of riches. The haul that emerges from our mini-van could entertain a day care. My kids don't need that much stuff. They don't play with most of it. And, more importantly, I don't have room for all the crap.

Actually, the stuff's not crap. It might be easier if it were. But the gifts are large. My husband's family lives on the compound out on the South Hills. His parents and two sisters, each with a family, live on adjacent properties. They have large suburban basements suitable for assimilating the bi annual toy onslaught. But we don't.

Maybe that's the point. Maybe my in-laws' strategy is to force us to move to the compound by overrunning our city home with life size Barbies and playmobile trains.

This year I had a plan.

A game system. Something expensive that could consume a lot of Christmas dollars, yet little real estate. So what that my children would be glued to the television set. So what that they would never again venture outside to play. I wouldn't have to Houdini a van load worth of toys into an already overflowing play room.

"Wii," my husband announced proudly, smiling over his laptop's screen.

"Wii, what?"

"The Nintendo Wii. That's the one we want. It's less than half the price of the new PS3 system, it's family friendly, and it features this innovative wireless remote that's an extension of the kids' arms."

I nodded. "Good. Tell your parents."

It wasn't until Thanksgiving evening that I heard of the first problem with our plan. Apparently, my husband wasn't the only one to recognize the beauty of the Wii. The game system was one of the hot toys of the season and impossible to get.

"Stores open at five tomorrow and Best Buy should have some," my husband said. "My dad and I are going to get up early and get one tomorrow."

"What time are you going to get there?"

"Five." He smiled, proud of his planned industriousness.

"But if the store opens at five, won't there be a line before then?"

I was right of course. The line stretched for blocks, but it didn't matter. Best Buy didn't have any Wiis for Black Friday. My husband and his dad returned home in time for lunch. They had scored a blazer, two lap tops for my father-in-law's office, trash compactor bags, an external hard drive . . . But no Wii.

But then something happened. I who knew nothing about game systems. I who hadn't played video games much at all since my Centipede period in college. I became obsessed. The Wii was not available. Hence, I had to have one. I searched websites. I called stores. I was a woman on a mission. We would have a Wii for my in-laws to present at Chrismas.

Last Friday, on an internet forum tip, I drove over to a game store in Edgewood. Just as I arrived, the UPS truck rolled to a stop in front of the store. I knew in my heart that this was my lucky day. Inside the store, two other grown-ups were already waiting for the Wii. We were giddy with anticipation. The store owner was sure that the shipment of Wiis had arrived. But it was not to be. The boxes contained that OTHER GAME SYSTEM. I left disappointed, but my determination intact.

On Sunday morning, I awoke before 5 AM. It was freezing cold. I pulled on my layers of clothing and wasted crucial time looking for a lawn chair that I never found. I intended to stay in my car unless people were already lined up outside Target. They were. In fact, when I arrived, I was told that the word was that Target would have 20 Wiis and I was person number 22. The older couple in front of me (number 21) said they were going to stay and hope. They wanted a Wii for their grandson. He was an honor roll student they said proudly. I thought about venturing off to another Target, but it was dark, and everyone told me the store was hard to find and I have no sense of direction. So I stayed too. And the line grew behind me.

It was damn cold, but the atmosphere was collegial and one man in line was downright entertaining.

Finally, at about 7:15, a Target employee emerged from the store. "We have 24," he announced. The crowd cheered. The target man handed me a ticket. I felt like Charlie getting his entree to the chocolate factory. I gripped the paper with frozen fingers and toddled off to my car to wait until the store opened. At 8:30, I returned home proud and satisfied.

I still check the Amazon Wii forum every once in a while. A lot of people on the list have found their Wii. But now something miraculous has begun to happen. Wii hunters from around the country are now searching for Wiis for others who have not been successful. They saw the posts of military personnel whose orders were cancelled because JCPenney couldn't ship to their address, single moms who can't wait in the lines, parents of autistic children whose kids will be distraught if there is no Wii under their tree for Christmas. And they have chosen to act. They troll stores looking for Wiis, they camp out overnight. Not for themselves but for somebody else's child.

My Wii adventure has been a quintessential American experience. There was the crass commercialism. The allure of what we cannot have. But there was also the generosity of spirit. People sharing Wii-finding tips with strangers around the world. And those that went further and became Wii Santas, determined to share the Wii with others less fortunate.

For everyone out there, I wish you a wiiiwonderful holiday.

Teenage Tragedies

by Joyce Tremel

Most of you have heard about the two teenagers from Shaler who were killed in motor vehicle accidents in the past two weeks, and the teenager who fell from the trunk of a moving vehicle several weeks before that. Although I don't know any of the families involved, I can't help feeling almost overcome by their loss. To me, losing a child would be the worst thing that could happen. Any other loss would be tolerable, but not the death of your flesh and blood.

It's even affected the guys I work with. One said this morning, "I never thought I'd be going to the funerals of two teenagers in the same week. It makes me realize my problems are nothing." This guy has a son (a senior at Shaler) who has had some major health issues in recent months and just had a feeding tube removed.

In the writing community, I recently read that agent Daniel Greenberg lost his two year old son, Samuel in a car accident. Samuel and his one year old brother were thrown from the vehicle, still in their child safety seats. Samuel was killed. His brother survived and both his parents suffered from head injuries.

As a writer, I hope to somehow remember these devastating feelings of loss, but as a mother, I don't like them one bit. I want to push them aside. I don't want to feel vulnerable. I don't want to think it could happen to me. So, I'll let myself grieve with these parents briefly, then I'll tuck the feelings away for another day.

I know Thanksgiving is over, but I want everyone to be thankful for what they have. I want everyone to hug their family members, especially their children. Even if they're big, bad teenagers, tell them that you love them. Sure, they'll be surprised--or suspicious. They could think you're nuts. If you're lucky, they might even hug you back.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays

by Annette Dashofy

As a farm girl, I led a sheltered early life. Everyone I knew celebrated Christmas. So we said, “Merry Christmas.” After I got out into the world a bit and became aware of the diversity of human beings in the world, I came to the realization that there were other faiths, other beliefs, other holidays taking place during the month of December. By that time I was working retail and so my typical wish to my customers as they left the store with their purchases became “Happy Holidays!” Seasons Greetings just sounded too greeting cardish. It was my attempt at not excluding anybody. Even if you only celebrated Thanksgiving and New Years, those were holidays and included in the wish.

How was I to know what a stir that simple greeting would create in these ultra-sensitive times???

At the risk of creating a fury here at Working Stiffs, I’m going to voice-in on this controversy.

Anymore, I use both greetings. I figure I split their usage about 50/50. When I wish someone “Happy Holidays,” I don’t mean disrespect to Christians or Christmas. It’s my attempt to be inclusive rather than exclusive.

Celebrating during this time of year goes back tens of thousands of years. The Druids celebrated the turning away of darkness and the return to light during the Winter Solstice. Many Christmas traditions were adopted from these times including the burning of the Yule log, decorating a pine tree, hanging wreaths made of evergreen, holly and ivy and even kissing under the mistletoe.

Hanukkah is the celebration of lights and the survival of the Jewish people. At the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem, there was only enough consecrated olive oil left to light the eternal flame for one night, but miraculously it burned for eight, long enough to prepare and consecrate more oil.

Younger holidays include Kwanzaa and Pancha Ganapati, the latter created for Hindu children, so they wouldn’t feel left out of all the merriment.

Pancha Ganapati runs from December 21 to the 25th. The focus of day one is creating harmony within the immediate family. Day two focuses on harmony with neighbors, relatives and close friends. In the days that follow, attention shifts to business associates and music, arts, drama and dance. Finally on the final day, the family experiences an outpouring of fondness and tranquility from God. Gifts are then opened.

Kwanzaa runs from December 25 to January 1 and celebrates the principles of unity, self-determination, community responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.

I’m happy to say that of those listed, I’ve taken part in all of them at one time or another in one form or another. One year, I had such a wonderfully diverse group of yoga students that I received from them Christmas gifts, Pancha Ganapati gifts and a Kwanzaa gift.

There are probably more that I’m not aware of. If I’ve missed something, I apologize. Please leave a comment and enlighten me.

So as we approach the longest night of the year and celebrate by chasing the darkness with our decorative lights, let me wish you all Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Pancha Ganapati, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Solstice…and Happy Holidays!

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Glam Gram

by Judith Evans Thomas

We're pregnant!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Laugh as you might, it's how I feel since my daughter Lauren broke the wonderful news that she and Patrick are expecting a baby. Being the calm collected mother that I am, I ignored the first symptoms... bloating, hormonal flushes, and needing to sleep more than my usual 8 hours. I rationalized these to jet lag from my 18 hour Australia flight. But as the weeks have progressed (we're now 12 weeks preggers) I'm eating all the time and swear that my jeans are tighter than they were last month. Maternity trousers made of some kind of disgusting synthetic yarn that stretches have started looking "attractive." Shoot me now!

I began to panic. Was I truly bonkers or just plain run of the mill crazy? Lo and behold, Googling " sympathetic pregnancy symptoms" pulled up a number of web pages devoted to what is called Couvade ... or sympathetic pregnancy symptoms. Although all the discussions were based on fathers having symptoms along with their pregnant wives, it made sense to me that any other close relative (especially a mom) could have the same feelings.

Now isn't this a dandy subplot for a book? Hmmmm what crimes could I get away with claiming Couvade post-partum syndrome?

Let's come up with some plots.

Monday, December 04, 2006


During the hustle and bustle of the Holiday season; the crowds, the lines, the overpriced crap, I am often filled with what can only be called a murderous rage by my fellow man. My Christmas wish is for a humane but effective "catch and release" system for dispatching with these irritants.

Here’s one idea.

Everyone would be issued a dart gun; the kind with the suction cup tips, and be allocated three darts per quarter. The darts can be used on anyone who has gotten on your last nerve. For example: The lady in front of you at Subway who’s arguing on a cell phone the culinary virtues of jalapeno vs. banana peppers as the sandwich maker stands idling awaiting the outcome of this debate.

“Pa-TING!” right in the forehead.

Once a dart has been dispatched the “darted one” must go to the DeDarting Station to have the dart removed and their crime documented. Nightly polls of the day’s offenses would be read on the evening news, much like the pollution index of old.

“85% of all ‘darted’ people were on their cell phone when they were darted, 10% received multiple darts, with one woman receiving a record 23 hits as she clumsily scanned her groceries with one hand while repeatedly saying “uh, huh” into a cell phone.”

Once you’ve been darted three times you have to attend a mandatory Public Manners Seminar.

Legislators would use darting statistics to determine public policy. For example, it would become illegal to make any retail returns during the holiday season, if you bought it, it’s yours until after the New Year. Another new law would be that cashiers would not be permitted to have fake fingernails so long that they have to use pencils to ring up sales and apply stickum to their elbows to make change. And, of course, sloppy parking would be criminalized; straddling two spaces, wedging your fat SUV up against some poor, defenseless, granola-burning Prius so close they driver has to climb in the hatch, and sitting in the fire lane, burning fossil fuel, waiting on Aunt Minnie, (who’s in no particular hurry) --all would be elevated from the merely oafish to the felonious.

For really big crimes --murder, rape, and driving like a moron because you’re on your phone-- we still need the state to bring out the hammer, but for the little every day crimes of manners (pa-TING!), vigilantism would be swell.
by Pat Hart

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Art of Blogging and the Wisdom of Broccoli

December 3, 2006

Kathleen Shoop

For me, blogging isn't an artform although I realize it is for some. When I do a post, there's no flow, or an intense need to get my thoughts into the blogosphere. I don't stare wistfully at my creation, marveling at some unknown source that birthed the illuminating content. I know how it was formed and finished because I forced every word onto the page, almost like giving birth to an infant. Both events require work. More than I wish was necessary.

I understand the importance of seeding a web-presence which will eventually help sell stacks of my books, right? But really, the more I blog, the more fun it gets. I love to visit other sites and converse with people I’d never have otherwise met. The network of writers is inspirational and sometimes I do wonder how such relationships came to be so vital so fast and from afar.

The most important event in my blogging life occurred this week. I was contacted and temporarily booked to star on the Montel Williams Show! Okay, so maybe not STAR on the show, but I was invited to sit on a panel as the token “average” housewife and discuss politics. I was stunned that a production assistant found my website by googling a few key terms. I thought it was a joke and hesitantly emailed back waiting for someone to jump from behind the couch yelling “You’re a fool, Kathie dear!”

The email and the person behind it was legit and although the producer changed the format of the show and didn't need me, it taught me a lesson. A web-presence is important and has an impact on platform and hopefully someday, sales. The idea that I can build something from nothing and not have to “know somebody” to be asked onto a national talk show is shocking and gives me hope that I wield a modicum of control over my writing destiny.

This brings me to Broccoli and Anne Lamott. As far as I can see, the writing life Lamott prescribes—patience, intuition, wisdom--is the exact opposite of the demanding blogging life—just get something down, now! Anything, damn it!

Lamott uses an example in her book, Bird by Bird, that tells me to listen to my broccoli, that it will tell me how to eat it (Lamott borrowed the broccoli thing from a Mel Brooks routine). Lamott suggests sitting with writing dilemmas, allowing characters to guide me to the next solution, action, word. Forcing thoughts and demanding a character perform as I thought she should instead of how she wants to will result in less thrilling prose than could have been. If I'd only listened.

Lamott also states that great writers “keep writing about the cold dark place within…” Digging to those icy depths requires deliberate awareness and action in the midst of quiet. This combination should reveal the chilly place where great characters are born.

I suppose the trick is to create a fertile space that nurtures wonderful characters while simultaneously courting the product-oriented blogosphere in hopes its lush landscape will reward me in the end.

That's not so hard, right?

Happy Holidays, everyone!

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Work Permits & Cotton Candy

by Gina Sestak

My first job was as a salesclerk in G.C. Murphys. I had to go to the Board of Education for a work permit because I was still in high school then. It was a little intimidating, filling out forms at the main office of the Pittsburgh Public Schools. I went to Catholic school myself.

Weekdays after school I would get on a bus to East Hills Shopping Center, one of the early outdoor shopping malls, and work from 5 to 9, then take the bus home. I also worked on Saturdays. Sundays the store was closed because Pennsylvania law prohibited the sale of anything but food on Sundays.

At that time, every department had it's own cash register and salesclerk standing ready to wait on customers. Because I wasn't a full time employee, I wasn't assigned to any particular department. I was a "floater," available to work whereever needed. Most departments were pretty boring; you stood by the cash register waiting for a sale or folded and refolded stack of towels, shirts, etc., trying to look busy in case a manager walked by. There were times we had to call a manager on purpose, using secret codes that gave both the reason and location: "Code 24 in 13," etc. They meant things like, "I need change (nickels, quarters, dimes)," "I made a mistake (over-ring -- charging too much, or under-ring, charging too little)," or "I see a shoplifter." That last one would bring the managers all running.

Working in Clothing required me to monitor the dressing room to make sure nobody stole or damaged merchandise. Then there was the always embarassing measurement of customers. A tape measure was stowed on a shelf beneath the cash register. Customers never wanted to know how tall they were, or the girth of their waists -- easy things to calculate in public. Instead, the parents (usually immigrants who spoke only broken English) required my services in measuring the in-seam of a little boy or a young girl's bust for her first bra while the measuree in question stood stock still and blushing.

Notions required measurement as well, to cut the proper length of fabric from huge bolts of cloth. I learned to estimate a yard by stretching the fabric between my nose and outstretched hand. The estimate would be verified by holding the cloth against a yard stick tacked to the edge of the counter, then a small cut was made along the edge and the chosen piece torn off by hand.

Housewares also included cutting things. There were rolls of vinyl to be measured and sliced with a device that ran along a track. Some of the vinyl was thick, with an uneven surface, meant to be laid upon a floor to keep wear and water off the carpet. Other vinyl was thinner and multi-colored. I never knew what people used that for -- making tablecloths, perhaps? We sold a lot of it.

Selling phonograph records was a little more fun. I got to read the album covers. The best, though, was making popcorn, ice balls, and cotton candy. In the summer, this would be done outside, in front of the store, enticing passers-by to stop and buy. Popcorn was made in a large glass box. A cup of popcorn was dumped into a little hot container near the top, and popcorn would leap out of it to fill the entire bottom of the box; it could then be scooped out into boxes. Making ice balls required filling a paper cup with shaved ice, then pouring sweet syrup over it and sticking in a little wooden spoon. Cotton candy is really nothing but spun sugar water. You use a cardboard core to catch the floating strands of sweetness -- an easy task because they are naturally sticky -- and build a fluffy mass.

I didn't make much money at this job -- I think it was about $1.09/hour. Murphys cashed employee checks then, so every week I'd get a pay envelope with real money inside. I stashed the envelopes in an old purse in a closet, spending a little on LPs (33 rpm record albums) and a lot on bus fare. When I started college, I pulled out the little envelopes and had more than $100 saved.

What did I learn from this job? I learned how to make cotton candy. Isn't that enough?

Friday, December 01, 2006

Wish List

by Rebecca Drake

Dear Santa,

While recognizing that World Peace probably isn’t realistic to expect from one small man and eight long-in-the-tooth reindeer, I thought you might be willing to consider these other items on one writer’s wish list:

Hours of uninterrupted time

A beautiful pen, preferably Mont Blanc, rollerball, black ink

A high-end office chair that also massages and works my abs

Gift certificates to bookstores

A daily calendar with inspiring quotes

A house elf to dust and clean overnight

All of Shakespeare’s plays and the time to read them

Ditto William Stafford’s poetry

Ditto my friends’ books

Moleskine notebooks, large and small

Subliminal Spanish Language CD’s so while sleeping I could finally learn the language I supposedly studied for more than 4 years

My need for sleep miraculously reduced to 3 hours

A Timbuk2 bag

A daily walk on the beach

Scary music CD’s to play while writing creepy scenes

Healthy meals delivered to my office door three times a day without interruption

An answering service that tells everyone, “She still loves you, but she won’t be available until…”

Thank you for your consideration and I promise to be very, very good between now and December 25th.