Friday, December 17, 2010

More Words We Love To Hate

According to a recent Marist College poll of over a thousand American adults, "whatever" was chosen as the most annoying word or phrase for the second year in a row. "Like" came in right behind it. Other irksome terms included "you know what I mean," "to tell you the truth," and "actually."

Actually, to tell you the truth, I'm in complete agreement. Word One and Word Two are simply irritating space holders; our current versions of "uh" and "um." "Actually" says nothing. "To tell you the truth" makes me think the speaker or writer normally doesn't tell the truth, but is choosing to do so now.

Oh, now they've done it. They've fired up this grammar geek's engine of irritation. Now I'll have to add my personal language pet peeves that flab up your work and generally make what could be lean, mean writing a fluffy, obtuse mess.

1. In order to

Tell me, why is this flitter of words necessary? Consider this sentence:  "In order to get the cat into her carrier, we had to tranquilize her first."

Why not: "To get the cat into her carrier, we had to tranquilize her first." You get double the bang for your grammar buck; lose a couple words and make a clearer sentence. Or simply rewrite the whole sucker: "We had to tranquilize the cat to get her into her carrier." Done.

2. It is what it is

This was cute for a while, but is now way past its expiration date. It's back there with the green goo that used to be ricotta cheese. Its current use as a kind of verbal shrug has ruined what was once a brilliantly simple tenet of Zen philosophy. Thanks a heap.

3. Rain event

Have you noticed this creeping into our weather forecasts? As in, "We're expecting a rain event to slowly move into the Northeast." Why can't it just rain? Or is that not technical-sounding enough to justify all those whiz-bang graphics?

4. At the end of the day

What, "when all is said and done" isn't good enough for you? (Seriously, that sucks, too.) This tired phrase needs to be retired. What if we tailor this throwaway phrase into something more specific, depending on the situation? In politics, one could say, "When we finish digging through the mess the previous administration left behind." Or, in the case of any PR nightmare, "When we figure out who's to blame."

5. On a daily basis

Another useless chunks of words. Comedy writers seem to like this one. As in, "While I appreciate the occasional romp through a dumpster, it's not something I enjoy on a daily basis." The rhythm is kind of nice, but the tune's been played.

6. Often

Did I miss the announcement that we are now supposed to pronounce the "t"? Maybe I was, like, somewhere else at the time. Maybe I was researching the history of the word and its storied pronunciation past. Before the 17th century, according to Random House, the "t" was pronounced. Then it was gradually dropped by well-educated English speakers, American and British, and is now considered the preferred pronunciation. Sometimes contemporary speakers have added the "t" in a misguided attempt to sound erudite, which, at least in my opinion, makes you sound like you're trying too hard. After all, we don't pronounce the "t" in soften, fasten, listen, or glisten. But as more of us say "AWF-tin" and become accustomed to hearing it, it may sneak its way back into favor. Please stop. Friends don't let friends sound stupid.

7. Ad experience

I saw this recently on a commercial break, I was shown three alternative images and asked, "Which ad experience would you prefer?" Unfortunately, there was no option for "None, thank you." But... "Ad experience"? If I'm seeing an ad, aren't I already experiencing it?

8. Completely destroyed

 This is one of my favorite phrases to hate, and one still used by many otherwise literate journalists. "Destroyed" is... destroyed. Done. Finito. No more. The building is a pile of rubble; call in the backhoes. "Completely" is redundant. And there is no "partially destroyed" just as there is no "partially pregnant."

What are your favorite irksome phrases and groan-worthy words? And how do you pronounce "often"?

Friday, December 10, 2010

6 Ways To Make Work More Fun

"It isn't fun," a former colleague once grumped. "That's why they call it work." But as more companies feel the pressure to get competitive or go under, they're looking for creative solutions to their problems. And, according to Paul McGhee, PhD., (I love a professional whose name rhymes with his creds) top management is learning that to get the most creativity (and productivity) from their employees, they need to foster an atmosphere that makes work more fun. If you want to come up with the next creative insight for your business, try these tips:

1. Get creative with your workspace.
I like toys. Tom Seaver and Mike Piazza bobbleheads natter atop my computer table. Various action figures, including Xena: Warrior Princess, Spiderman, and Paul McCartney adorn my various pieces of office furniture. In my desk drawers are juggling toys, a ribbon box, and a Slinky or two. Sure, you can get away with this because you work from home, you might say. But even the most buttoned-up office environments are letting their hair down. Casual Fridays abound, and some companies, like IBM, have abandoned dress codes altogether, as long as you don't show up naked. Before the dot-coms dot-bombed, companies like Pixar treated employees to on-demand snacks and beverages, pool tables in break rooms and in the case of DoubleClick (now a subsidiary of Google), an indoor basketball court in their downtown NYC headquarters. They knew relaxing some rules and making the work environment a less-stuffy, task-masterish place to be for the long days employees tended to be there sparked creative juices and resulted in some great ideas. Too bad the money thing didn't work out. Maybe this happened in offices without pool cues and Red Bull on tap.

2. Build little rewards into your day.
Everyone's to-do list has those tasks you dread because, frankly, they suck. They still have to be done, but what "people person" wants to be stuck in an office, entering sales figures into a database? What incontrovertible introvert loves to plunge into cold calling, or longs to give a presentation to upper management? But if you promise yourself a small treat when you do finish these kinds of tasks, like coffee from the "good" place down the block, the task may feel less sucky.

3. Share a laugh with a colleague. Subjects in a recent study at Northwestern University more easily completed word puzzles after watching some stand-up comedy. As long as you're not making jokes at the expense of others, a good laugh can reduce stress and relax your overtaxed brain, putting you in a state more conducive to "sudden" creative insights. So if your boss doesn't like today's Dilbert strip, tell him or her it's for the good of the company.

4. Look for the pony. According to Peter Robinson, author of How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life, the former president's favorite joke was about an overly optimistic boy whose worried parents took him to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist brought him into a room piled with horse manure. But instead of the disgust the psychiatrist had hoped to engender, the boy scrambled atop the pile and began to dig. "With all this manure," he said, "there's bound to be a pony somewhere." I'm not suggesting you become the office Pollyanna or start digging in piles of horse poop. But even if you are in an untenable job situation, and must remain in it for whatever reason, find something to like about it. Preferably, something funny. At one former job, at which I was finding myself less and less of a "fit" as the company culture changed, I'd think, "At least I get free coffee and tampons."

5. Have a cup of tea.
Not the stale old Lipton's that's been in the break room cupboard for the last ten years. Chai tea, in particular, has been shown to boost creativity. Probably because the complex flavor palette (blends of different spices with tea) stimulates areas of your brain responsible for creative thinking. It tastes great plain, or with cream and honey. Enjoy.

6. Bring your sense of humor to work.
Popular work-culture books have recommended leaving your personality at the door. Maybe you don't want to strut around the office with your tattoos on display (depending on what kind of office you work in) or make jokes others might find distasteful. But if you're creative and have a sense of humor, it could be an asset to let that pop out now and again. And it could lead to your company's next great idea.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

(Nearly) Everything I Know About Editing I Learned From Writing Installation Instructions

Many years back, I worked in the marketing department of a lighting manufacturer that asked us to create installation instructions for each of their 200-and-some products. It was challenging to translate from engineer-speak into English and to get all parties on the company-wide team to agree on the simplest of concepts, but we did it.

In the process, which took many drafts, many months, and many cups of coffee, I sharpened my editing skills. Here's what I learned:

1. Be Clear. There is not much worse than being atop a ladder with half a light fixture in one hand, a screwdriver in the other, and installation instructions that read like they've been translated into Norwegian, then into Mandarin Chinese, and then back into English. If it's impossible to install this fixture any other way than to assemble the whole shebang on the ground, and then, with help (because it weighs a hundred pounds), attach it to the ceiling, say so. Or you may never get a second order from this customer, because you've made him squander valuable union contractor time and money taking the #$@$% thing out of the ceiling and reassembling it.

2. Be Concise. Contractors don't have time to parse out flabby language. Say you write, "In order to properly install the battery pack onto the frame, make sure you have selected the correct screwdriver, which should be a #5 flat head screwdriver." Not only is this an eyeful to read, it's insulting. Of course a competent contractor would install something properly. So this sentence becomes, "Attach the battery pack to the frame using a #5 flat head screwdriver." Done.

3. Be Accurate. Check all your facts before the boxes leave the warehouse. When a customer has a hundred fixtures on site is not a good time to discover you've neglected to include (let alone write) programming instructions for the whiz-bang remote that controls the dimming on all of them. Or that you've told them to use the wrong screwdriver to install the wrong widget. Know your widgets, people!

4. Be Compact. Anyone who writes has probably been told showing is better than telling. It's the same for installation instructions. If Steps 4, 5 and 6 require a clear diagram, you'll have less room for text. Carve those unnecessary words from the text, and you can make the visuals even bigger.

5. Know Your Audience. An install sheet for a licensed electrical contractor reads very differently than one designed for a residential customer. Just as you'd never assume the average homeowner knows how to install something "according to local code," don't tell the contractor to screw in the "light bulbs." These, in non-residential land, are called "lamps." Bulbs, they say, grow in the ground, and you lose a lot of credibility points.

6. Know Industry Standards. Construction codes and legal liability dictated that we include certain things on our install sheets, like a UL logo and this line: "Read all instructions before installation." (Even though probably 75% of contractors use installation instructions as nothing more than a placemat for their donuts and coffee.) Similarly, consider your publisher's standards or requirements before you submit. Or else you could end up doing the literary equivalent of disassembling a hundred-pound light fixture on the floor and possibly losing a few widgets down the heating vents.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Eavesdrop Your Way To Better Dialogue In 4 Easy Steps

Ideally, dialogue in fiction is supposed to be a representation of how people actually speak. (Extracting the polite greetings and chit-chat and such, unless that chit-chat reveals story or character.) So how better to learn the way people actually speak than to listen to them conversing with one another?

Before I get arrested as an accessory to violation of privacy, I'm not saying that you should put your ear up to walls (unless something particularly juicy is going on) or hang out outside of people's domiciles with a shotgun mic. I'm talking about a little public eavesdropping. Don't think you can pull it off without blushing, staring, urinary incontinence, or otherwise giving yourself away? Try some of my favorite Harriet the Spy eavesdropping tips:

1. Observe the natives in their natural habitat. Writing a teen novel and don't think your dialogue sounds authentic? Go to the mall. Hang out in the food court near a large group of kids. Don't act like a stalker. Just...hang out. Don't look at them; it makes them clam up and, depending upon how you are dressed, makes them move away. Bring something to read, preferably something stuffy and non-electronic and unrelated to anything teenage kids are interested in. You will essentially become invisible.

2. Become a fly on the wall while writing everything down. I keep a tiny notebook in my purse at all times. (It's an excellent habit to get into, since you don't know when inspiration will strike. However, if this occurs while driving, please pull over to the side of the road first.) But if I'm going somewhere where I know I'll have a long wait, I'll bring my "real" journal. This is especially fruitful while I'm waiting to have my car serviced. I'll get a cup of coffee and make myself comfortable in their waiting area, which is usually crowded. I'll take up my journal and start writing...everything people in the lobby are saying. Why would anybody question me? I'm simply writing in my journal.

3. Learn the art of reading without reading. This is my favorite Harriet the Spy eavesdropper tool. If I bring a magazine or book on the subway, and actually read it, I won't pick up on the conversation the two women are having behind me about a mutual friend's episiotomy. (Hey, you never know when you might need something like that in a scene.) If I focus on the white space between the lines, then unfocus my eyes, I can hear every word. It's kind of like those $#&@$ puzzles where if you look at them just right, you can see the chrysanthemum in the elephant's ear. Don't ask me; I couldn't see it either.

4. Know that most people are very casual about their public phone behavior. I love banks of pay phones, where they still exist. If you act like you're waiting to make a call (pace about, stare at your watch, jingle change in your pocket, and for heaven's sake, don't check your BlackBerry, as that's a dead giveaway), you can pick up a boatload of great authentic dialogue. Even more fun is guessing at the conversation on the other side of the phone. Use it as a writing exercise. The advent of cell phones has made one-sided eavesdropping even easier. The rule here is not to approach anyone having a cell phone conversation. That scares them off, and it's just plain rude. These opportunities are usually spontaneous. For instance, you're enjoying a double tall cappuccino at your favorite people-watching spot when Beyoncé starts warbling from the cell phone of the twenty-something sitting near you. She starts an animated and very loud discussion with her BFF about her last date with a married celebrity, a certifiable cretin who picked his teeth at the dinner table, said that Hitler was misunderstood, and ordered lasagna for her when he damn well knew that she was lactose intolerant. You are under no obligation to move.

Any good Harriet the Spy tips you've used to improve your writing? What are some of your favorite pieces of authentic dialogue?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Snack Segregation

I don’t normally go to the gourmet market in town, because they refuse to stock decent organic produce no matter how much I complain, the prices in general are stultifying, and twice I got food poisoning from their hummus. But they do have one redeeming quality: a twinkly, magnifico candy and chocolate department. You can buy beautiful homemade chocolates by the piece or by the pound, including peanut butter cups the size of hockey pucks. They sell retro candy like horehound drops, teaberry gum, circus peanuts, and Peeps in every flavor and color. But my favorite? The giant island of bulk bins, containing everything from burnt peanuts, sesame sticks and gummi worms to Reese’s pieces, yogurt-covered raisins and dried apricots. Mix and match, all for the same price per pound. Heaven.

Today the chocolate craving called me there. I got a plastic bag, scooped in a few dark chocolate-covered peppermint balls and miniature peanut butter cups. I looked at it, thinking, “Now, that’s just too much chocolate. If I eat that I’m going to have hot flashes until my skin roasts and probably will go into convulsions while I’m driving. That would be bad, although death by chocolate would not be the worst way to go.”

Then I remembered something I learned from a holistic nutrition class. If you balance flavors like spicy and mild, light and heavy, and sweet and salty, you’re less likely to have cravings and more likely to feel satisfied. That’s probably why many women’s ultimate PMS food is chocolate-covered pretzels.

So I figured I’d add some salted mixed nuts to my chocolates. Weird, maybe, but that’s how I roll. Creativity knows no media; it just wants expression. Who knew peanuts and chocolate went so well together until that first, fictional collision? (“Hey, you got peanut butter on my chocolate!”) Also, I’d get the added bonus of slowing down all that speedy carbo-fuel with protein from the nuts. I mixed, I matched, I played. Then hit the register.

The cashier held up my bag, and instead of displaying subtle amusement at my snack combo, she grimaced as if it were something my dog had left behind.

“You mixed this?” she said.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s all the same price, right?”

Her face didn’t change. “It’s the nuts.”

“Beg pardon?”

“Nuts and chocolates, they should be in separate bags.”

I’d combed every inch of that blissful bulk aisle as I’d selected items for my goodie sack and nowhere, not next to the gummi sharks or the burnt peanuts or the chocolate-covered pretzels did I see a single sign indicating the apartheid situation that existed between the nuts and the chocolate.

“But I didn’t…”

“That’s the law,” she said brusquely, setting my bag on her combo scanner/scale. “Nuts get taxed.”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s the way food items are broken down.” Foods that are unadulterated, she explained, like the nuts, get taxed, and others, like the chocolates, don’t.

“But the nuts are adulterated,” I said. “They’re roasted in oil, and then…”

“Salted,” she said, nodding.

I backed down and paid my stupid half-assed half-tax. But since I’m the type of person who has to know everything about everything, I looked up the New York State tax code when I got home.

And it’s ridiculous. Really, I should have known. Some years ago, a friend was training as a new hire at a local supermarket, and having some trouble understanding what was tax-exempt and what wasn’t. Exasperated, his supervisor finally said, “If it goes in you, it’s not taxable. If it goes on you, it is.” (My friend practically made his supervisor’s head explode by asking in which category condoms would be placed.)

But I think Albany’s gotten more brain-dead since then. For instance, marshmallows are tax-exempt. Licorice is not. Cookies are exempt. Soft drinks are not. Nuts are exempt. (Hah! The cashier was wrong!) But chocolate (except for baking chocolate) is not. So when I return to this market, I must put my nuts (adulterated or not, as long as they’re not coated with candy or sugar or heated), uncoated pretzels and marshmallows in one bag and my chocolates and candy-coated nuts or pretzels in another. So apartheid rule remains strong in the candy aisle.

You know, if it made sense, I’d be more understanding. If completely unadulterated food, like fruit and unroasted, unsalted nuts was exempt and anything processed was taxable, owing to the extra labor involved, I’d get it. I’d gladly separate my goodies and pay what I owed.

But this is just plain nuts.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Present Tense

"Feh," I said, sitting in my chair as the television faded out, wondering where I could find a flashlight. The remnants of tropical storm Nicole sucker-punched the Northeast and knocked out our electricity. After a bit of fumbling, Husband and I found and lit candles, and did the things you do when you don't know how long the juice will be out (like, calling half the people in the area on our cells to ask if they have power, and, for some reason, trying to flip light switches when entering a room.) Then I settled in to savor my secret love of reading by candlelight. I know I have the ability do this any time I desire, but it's more special knowing that I can't turn the lights on even if I wanted to. No e-mail, no television, no Facebook, no work. Nothing but twin tapers and The Heretic's Daughter, a historical novel about the Salem witch trials that I'd been looking forward to stepping into since I rescued it from Barnes & Noble's remainder table.

Husband, however, did not approach the prospect of going Luddite with the same enthusiasm as I. He turned into a great grumbling ball of worry. "There you go," he said, with a huge groan. "Forget about going to sleep tonight. I'll be up all night making sure the basement doesn't flood."

Before you start thinking I married Moses, a little background-we have a generator, and a house in the woods, where blackouts are common in bad weather. Thanks also to our wet basement (actually a dirt-and-rock-floored crawlspace), we have a sump pump. Without this, the basement floods and the water could damage our appliances: two furnaces (one for upstairs, one for downstairs) and the hot water heater. The set-up is not my choice; this architectural disaster came with the house, and we haven't gotten around to doing anything about it, because it would involve a backhoe and a boatload of cash, the former we haven't been able to borrow and the latter we've never had.

So we deal with what is. Or at least I did. Instead of pulling up a chair next to me, Husband vibrated with worry. Nothing I said could change his attitude, but for some reason I tried.

"You don't even know if the basement's going to flood," I said. "The power could come back on in few minutes. And besides, it's not even raining." True. During the storm-for at least the part of it where we didn't have power-we only experienced high winds and a bit of a sprinkle from time to time.

"We're all gonna die," he said.

No. He didn't actually say this.

But it often seems that way, when we experience any kind of crisis. It's as if, when we slipped the rings on each other's fingers, we divided up the world. I would handle what is, and he would handle what might be.

And when the lights go out, or the car won't start, I'll say to myself, "Okay. Crap happens. If there's nothing I can do at the moment to fix this, what can I do instead?"

He'll say, "We're all gonna die." Or words to that effect.

I never saw the sense in worrying about things I have absolutely no control over. It's a waste of energy, and, as I've been practicing mindfulness in the last few years, it's a waste of the moment. Living in the future or fretting about what the future holds negates anything good that could be happening in the present. When I find myself lost in a flurry of negative outcomes, I remind myself to "be here now." And then I can feel the breeze blowing against my skin or the beauty of the trees turning colors or, like that night, the sacred silence of a world without the banging, hissing, whirring, and clicking of our infrastructures.

So I let him be. He got into bed with his iPod and a crossword puzzle, came downstairs occasionally to fume and fret, while I stayed on the first floor enjoying the candle light and my novel. I even went out onto the back porch to feel the gusts lift my hair and cool my skin. I sat in my favorite outdoor lounge chair, tipped it all the way back, and watched in the dim evening light as the wind chased the clouds across the sky. I imagined living in a simpler time, an earlier time, when lighting tapers at sunset was a normal affair and not an emergency procedure.

When the electricity came back on, along with the lights and appliances with their clicks, buzzes and groans, I was slightly disappointed. But from upstairs, I heard Husband say, "Thank God." Then his computer and his television whirred into life, blinking their electric eyes.

The outage lasted three hours. Three hours that I spent reveling in the moment. Three hours that he will never get back. I believe I made the better bargain.

Friday, October 1, 2010

National Anything-You-Want-It-To-Be Month

As if you couldn’t tell from all that pink spewed across the landscape, it’s National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. From this (and from me) you all know the drill: make that appointment, take those steps to reduce the discomfort, and GET THAT MAMMO!!

While breast cancer is a very important cause, and I’d never make light of it, did you know that October shares its media space with a veritable cornucopia of other causes?

Other diseases and health concerns are clamoring for your attention. Lupus, Psoriasis, Eczema, Dyslexia, and Downs’ Syndrome want your notice and probably a little research money from you as well. (I wonder what the ribbon for National Eczema Month looks like, and if you wear it, will you itch?) Backing these up are National Talk about Prescriptions Month, National Ergonomics Month, National Disability Employment Awareness Month, National Physical Therapy Month (I, for one, am thankful for its existence) and to keep it all straight, October is also National Medical Librarians Month and National Statistics Month (wonder if they keep statistics on which causes are assigned to which months).

And with a grudging nod from the AMA, October is National Chiropractic Month.

But did you know that October is National Dental Hygiene Month? Probably to get kids ready for the dental disaster of Halloween. And we are very concerned about children in October. It’s also Children’s Health Month, Window Covering Safety Month (so that children won’t strangle themselves in curtain pulls), Booster Seat Safety Month, National Safety Helmet Month, National Eat Better/Eat Together Month and Family Sexuality Awareness Month.

It’s a month for other important and overlooked life-or-death safety issues as well. October is National Crime Prevention Month, National Fire Prevention Month, National Domestic Violence Awareness Month and, believe it or not, National Cyber Security Awareness Month. Have you updated your virus protection and changed the batteries in your smoke alarm yet?

Be kind to animals - it’s National Pet Wellness Month and Adopt a Shelter Dog Month. Prepare for winter because it’s National Fall Car Care Month.

But October isn’t all about scary diseases and serious causes. Summer’s over, school has begun, winter’s just around the corner and we need some fun, damn it. That’s probably why October is National Pizza Month and National Popcorn Poppin’ Month, as well as National Seafood, Pasta, Apple, Mushroom and (finally) Dessert Month. Work off those calories celebrating National Rollerskating Month. If you enjoy a quieter hobby, there’s National Book Month (every month is National Book Month in my house), National Stamp Collecting Month, National Art and Humanities Month, National Art and Framing Month and if you want to research your family tree, it’s National Family History Month. If you feel truly sinful about all that pizza and dessert, it’s also National Clergy Appreciation Month and National Christian Higher Education Month.

I don’t know who lobbied Washington to get this (probably someone who didn’t have much else to do…or recognized the need for a whole lot of TP in Washington), but it’s also National Toilet Paper Month. Like most of us weren’t aware of it already.

If you’re not exhausted already but still haven’t decided on a cause to put your effort behind this month, it’s National Make A Difference Day, so pretty much anything you want to offer would be appreciated.

And if there’s something you truly want to get off your chest (and out of your closet), October 11 is National Coming Out Day. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Last Banned Book I Read

Like many classic works of American literature, sometimes we don’t read them until a teacher plops a copy on our desks or they show up on a college “recommended reading” list. True, I have randomly picked up books like Moby Dick, The Catcher in the Rye (banned as late as 2001), Cat’s Cradle, and The Sun Also Rises (also banned, and burned in Nazi bonfires), but I’m more likely to go for a contemporary novel. As a novelist and as a person I want to be well rounded, but since I write contemporary novels this is what I usually like to read.

Then I got an interesting freelance assignment last summer to help write test prep questions for an international academic competition. Each year the organization chooses a theme; this year it was The Great Depression. The students were to address it from a bounty of angles: the literature of the times, popular music, the economy, politics, the legal milieu, and how geological conditions contributed to the Dust Bowl in the Midwestern United States that further depressed the economy and pushed a large chunk the population west.

Before the category assignments were given, I bought a copy of The Grapes of Wrath. I applied to the company to write about literature, film and poetry, so I thought I’d get a head start. But because I was fairly new to the team, a freelancer with more experience scored the literature category and I was assigned to geology.

Although I find the fossil record and many aspects of geology fascinating, science was never my strongest subject. But I still had my copy of The Grapes of Wrath and I felt it calling. All I knew of Steinbeck were the novels my teachers assigned me – The Red Pony and Of Mice and Men (banned and/or challenged so many times the references take up two pages in the list of classic banned books.) I didn’t know much about Steinbeck’s life and why he chose to write about this particular subject, but his prose style hooked me from the first page.

As I read, I could see why some people wanted it banned. Yes, we have the usual complaints about taking the Lord’s name in vain, the cursing and the sexual references (which are laughably tame by today’s standards) but the biggest one was that Steinbeck took the side of the fledgling unions, which, at the time, was tantamount to declaring yourself a communist. Although the record shows that nobody who wanted this book off the shelves or out of the hands of young people referenced its politics.

Many an artist, writer or filmmaker had been blacklisted for writing about communism, back in the days of the McCarthy witch hunts, and it was extremely brave of Steinbeck to write this novel. Which made it that much more appealing to me.

Not only is he a brilliant writer, but in pinpoint focus he takes a snapshot of what life was like for a subset of Americans during this time. How deep their struggles, how they bore their losses and kept their heads high and moved on. In a community where you lose your land, can barely afford to eat let alone bury your loved ones when they die, it makes complete sense that a preacher would lose his faith in God, a father would want to work to feed his family no matter the consequences, and occasionally people would swear. I can’t imagine a world where a book like this would be banned, where the only fossil record of the Dust Bowl years would be found in dry textbooks and not through the eyes of the Joad family.

What’s the last banned book you read? Did you like it? Do you think it deserved to be banned?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Read A Banned Book This Week

This is Banned Books Week, during which I am paying homage to my freedom to read the written word, and to raise awareness about the great works of literature that have been challenged or banned from bookstores, library shelves and high school curricula since their publications. Books have gotten banned or challenged for as many reasons as you can dream up, including profanity, sexual content, violence, and offensive references to racial or religious groups. For instance, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a perennial favorite for challenges, because of Mark Twain’s use of a racial epithet regarding African-Americans. Catcher in the Rye is another common target, because it has been called “sexually explicit” and some object to its religious viewpoint. The Twilight series is the latest honoree to join the list, because some parents object to depictions of sex with vampires.

While not too many books get banned up here in fairly liberal New York State (although the folks who organized Banned Book Week assert that books have been challenged or banned (and sometimes burned) in every state in America), my first inkling that there were some books adults would rather I not read came when I was in fifth grade. I was a voracious and early reader. As a preschooler, I’d sit on the floor of the family room and read our encyclopedia, volume after volume. I was probably the only white, exurban four-year-old who knew what a kumquat was. In grade school I tore through the community and school libraries, then I started reading whatever my parents had around the house that looked interesting.

I’d brought one of those books to school. What looked interesting from my parents’ library was Robert Crichton’s “The Secret of Santa Vittoria,” a popular novel published in 1966 and made into a movie by award-winning director Stanley Kramer in 1969. It was a good story, about a small town in Post-WWII Italy that tries to hide its treasure trove of wine from a looting band of German soldiers.

I can find no record of its being challenged or banned, and apart from its references to torture during wartime, it was not exactly the stuff of controversy, or at least until my teacher saw it in my desk.

“Do your parents know you’re reading this?” my teacher asked.

“Yes,” I said. He looked at me funny, kind of squinty-eyed like he was deciding how to handle the situation, and then he let the subject drop. But I had a sense that I shouldn’t be reading this book. I didn’t know why. Was there sex in it? I can’t remember, but there probably was. Swearing? Probably, but I heard a lot of it around my house, so it was no big deal. Did somebody take the Lord’s name in vain? Since it was Robert Crichton, I wouldn’t doubt it.

I have read countless books since then, many of them on the list maintained by the American Library Association as the most frequently banned and/or challenged books of the 20th century, and many had been assigned to me by my teachers. Among these are The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, Color Purple, 1984, Lolita, Of Mice and Men, Catch-22, Brave New World, Animal Farm, Slaughterhouse Five, The Lord of the Rings (which was burned in Alamogordo, New Mexico in 2001 as satanic) and the seemingly innocuous A Separate Peace.

I can’t speak for everyone out there, but the reading of these books did not corrupt my mind or person, and I consider myself much richer for the experience of reading them. Many of these works (and the others on the list) are brilliant, sparkling examples of literature that examines the plight of mankind in its evils and its glories. They capture moments in time, some we would rather forget. Like the Salem witch trials. Nazi Germany. American slavery. Japanese internment camps. The subjugation of women. The civil rights movement. Homophobia. These stories use language appropriate to situation and the time; they portray characters that are either victims to their (our) failings or villains in their (our) taking advantage of those failings. Maybe that’s why so many individuals and organizations over the last century have sought to ban these books. Because literature—especially great literature—is a mirror of a civilization, and it shows the utter humanness of us. And maybe some would choose to hide that from the next generation, either in a misguided attempt to shelter them or in a dastardly attempt to control them.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Outsourced Should Be Out of NBC's Lineup

You’ve probably seen what I call “One-Bit-Wonders” — sitcoms based on one overarching joke that fails to deliver once that one joke has been played, and usually played out. Maybe you remember “Twenty Good Years,” a show which, owing to its pedigree and star John Lithgow, should not have failed so miserably were it not for its premise: two grumpy old men daring each other to do the things on their “bucket lists.” How many times can you watch a couple of guys skydive without feeling that the show has kicked the bucket? Or last season’s “Accidentally on Purpose,” with the fabulous Jenna Elfman, which revolved around her pregnancy following a poorly-considered, post-breakup hook-up with a stranger many years her junior, who then moves in with her. After the jokes about cougars, morning sickness, and swollen nipples run out, where is there to go?

Now we have another candidate for cancellation. Unless you don’t have a television or have some kind of political beef with NBC, you’ve probably been watching teaser ads for the sitcom “Outsourced” for about the last three years. When a network does this, for me it sends up a ginormous red flag that might as well say, “We know this show sucks. Therefore we’re going to ram the only funny bits into your eyeballs until you become a zombie, only able to stagger about chanting its title, network and time slot.”

The premise of “Outsourced” is that employee who works for an American novelty company returns from management training to find that all of the company’s sales jobs have been outsourced to an Indian call center. If he wants to keep his job, he must move to India and manage the center’s employees. And from what I’d seen in those meant-to-be-hypnotic, earlier-mentioned clips, the comedy seemed cheap and slightly offensive. Was the producer’s intention to leap on the zeitgeist of anger from having our jobs outsourced to countries like India? Make fun of it as a form of catharsis? Yeah, okay, who hasn’t called his or her credit card company and spoken to someone with an Indian accent named “Bill?” It’s funny. Probably half of the stand-ups in America use this in their routines.

But the routine is getting tired. When “Outsourced” premiered as a romantic comedy in 2006, perhaps it had more impact. Industrialization has moved quickly in the past few years, and now some of India’s companies have their own call centers in other, less-developed countries.

Which leaves us not with a sly commentary on the state of the world but a weak, fish-out-of-water, culture-clash, cringe-worthy comedy. The program felt lazy, as if the writers had no new ideas and merely reached for the low hanging fruit in cross-cultural humor: making fun of the Indian characters’ names, their English, their food, and, of course, the novelties the company sells. (You can even buy some of them at Then a cow wanders by the windows.

Ben Rappaport plays Todd, the American boss who manages the call center. I didn’t get much of a feel for this character, who came off as a bit of a lightweight with clumsy delivery. But that could just be Rappaport’s relative inexperience as an actor. This is his first television role.

High points are Rizwan Manji, who plays Rajiv, the assistant manager who wants Todd’s job. He has great comic timing, as does massively talented Indian stage and screen actor Sacha Dawan, as call-center employee Manmeet.

But overall, like the turbaned gentleman who leaves the room glaring at Todd every time he speaks, I wanted to follow him out and be done with this farce.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Top 10 Reasons to Write Top 10 Lists

10. They’re fun to write. More fun than say, articles about dust mite allergies or zebra mussels. Although you could probably come up with a pretty amusing Top 10 list about dust mites. Go ahead, I dare you.

9. People seem to like numbers. Not as much spelled out, though. “3” is sexier than “three.” Don’t you think? Why else is the TV show “Numb3rs” spelled with a “3” instead of the “e?” Oh, those crazy TV people…

8. Because Top 10 lists more engaging, you’ll probably get more reader comments, possibly including suggestions for additional numbers to tack onto your list. Which can be fodder for your next Top 10 list. Let your readers become part of the process and they’ll be more likely to bookmark you. Or secretly hate you for ripping off their stuff. You’ll never know, will you?

7. Many of us are accustomed to making lists: shopping lists, to-do lists, bucket lists, lists of people you shouldn’t have slept with if you weren’t drunk and feeling sorry for yourself. You’d be slipping right into a format that a lot of people already find comfortable. Especially when drunk, feeling sorry for themselves, and probably surfing the web anyway cyber-stalking their old hook-ups.

6. Double duty! Some professionals, citing the public’s decreasing attention span, suggest ditching the Top 10 list for the Top 5 list. Write them all out, and then tuck half in your “repurpose” folder for days when you can’t get your eyes to focus in the same direction.

5. David Letterman was probably damned frustrated to learn that he couldn’t copyright the concept. Revel in your freedom!

4. Top 10 lists come up higher in Google searches. Usually among the top 10 listings.

3. You’ll have something cool to post on

2. The organized structure makes them more appealing to read, and for your readers to share with their friends. Then they’ll share with their friends, and so on, and so on, and…hey, maybe even David Letterman will see it and hire you and…nah, wait. That was the dream I had last night. It involved a Top 10 list about why he should hire me, and a restraining order.

1. If you plan your Top 10 right, you can write it fairly quickly and then move onto that article about dust mite allergies or zebra mussels.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

F. Lancer, At Your Service

While I enjoy working from home and not having to worry about the state of my hair or if my socks match, it's an eye-opening experience to work in-house and step into someone else's workspace and corporate culture. Not only does it break up the monotony of staring at the same set of walls and watching the dirty dishes pile up, I also get an instant group of colleagues to fill that void I sometimes feel for human contact.

And, if I'm lucky, the coffee won't suck.

I've freelanced at ad agencies, small publishers, newspaper offices and even for a diamond merchant who had their employees practically frisked every time they entered and exited. These were short-term gigs, but for a while I was fortunate enough to slip into a regular, in-house freelancing slot with a large publisher of industrial magazines. One of the titles was produced solely by freelancers: writing, editing, and composition. It was a good gig. If my usual clients were a little slow, I knew that I had at least five days of solid, well-paying work each month.

It was also the first time I worked in such a large office. The publisher had its own four-story building that spanned most of a city block. On each floor, cubicles upholstered in neutral gray stretched half a football field to the windows. It was a busy hive; proofers and typesetters ran galleys about with singular focus. As I ran my own proofs around, I would take mental notes only as an outsider can. Most employees appeared to like their jobs, until you got talking with some of them. Most employees had a kind of pallor that comes from working beneath old-style fluorescent lighting. And they all had little nameplates velcroed to the outsides of their cubicles. First initial, last name. Not only had I never worked in an office that large, I'd never worked in one where employees had their names on their office doors. Or, whatever serves as a door in a cubicle.

There was no nameplate on the freelancers' cubicle, because we changed up so frequently, but for five days out of the month, that real estate was mine. Even though I was "just a freelancer," I wanted my own identity, my own statement. I felt that I was as vital to the organization as anybody else on the production floor. Not only could I come in at a moment's notice, they didn't have to pay me benefits, and I did good work. Isn't that important enough to any employer to rate a cheap, plastic nameplate?

No dice, said Human Resources. Nameplates were only for permanent employees. So I enlisted the help of my temporary colleagues. J. Carter helped me find a blank name holder. M. Rizzo showed me how to open it and slide in the printed insert. Since this was before the days of desktop publishing, I made my own insert with a piece of paper cut to size and a black magic marker. I slipped the paper inside the holder, snapped it closed and stuck my brand-new nameplate outside of my cubicle.

My name was F. Lancer. I thought it would be funny, a private joke with my fellow freelancers who occupied the cubicle the other three weeks out of the month. I didn't realize my name would confuse some people. Several of them actually asked me what the F. stood for. I told them it was "Frieda" and they believed me.

I even started answering to it. When I moved to New York, and sadly had to leave most of my clients behind, I also left the handcrafted nameplate velcroed to my former cubicle. It was to let those who would come after me - Frank Lancer, Francis Lancer and their sister Felicity - show the company that they are just as vital as any J. Carter on the production floor.

May they wear it with pride.

And join me at International Freelancer's Day on September 24th.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Execution, If Not the Spirit, Of Atonement

Years ago, I worked as the office manager for local Jewish couple in their home-based business. And that home was beautiful: rustic, nestled into the woods, with a million-dollar view. The surroundings–and the equally calming pace of the work–filled me with a joy that I never experienced in any other job.

My work tasks, however, were not always so calming. One of my bosses could have a temper and made micromanagement an art form. Our skill sets and adaptation styles, as they say in human resources management, did not mesh particularly well. But I’d take a deep breath and soldier on. I needed the money, I needed the benefits, I definitely needed one big fat perk they offered me: if I was caught up with my tasks and the phones weren’t busy, they encouraged me to work on my novel. And where else are you going to find that, with Jewish holidays off, to boot?

After I’d been there a couple of years, the husband started a new business. Since this venture was product-based, and it was brilliantly innovative, launching the business required a lot of work. For him, and by extension, for me. I made a lot of breathless runs to UPS. I stayed late to type memos and proofread proposals he brought to my desk at 4:45 and absolutely needed to have done before I left. I helped him develop what became not just a great selling product, but a book as well, with virtually zilch appreciation. (But I’m grateful he did take the time and space to thank his cats in the book’s acknowledgments.)

Look, I don’t need a lot of praise, and I’m not here to whine. I’m fairly low maintenance, I’m an independent self-starter, but once in a while, just a little thanks for a job well done? Please? One day he even blew up at me for not thanking profusely enough a woman who had rushed to get one of his products made. “You have to make this right,” he said to me, repeating the phrase several times, each time louder than the last and with more expansive hand gestures.

The normally calm air tightened between us.

Then the eve of Yom Kippur arrived. I was closing up the office for the night when he poked his head in the door and said, “Whatever I did last year, I’m sorry.”

I blinked at him, too stunned to reply. Only later did I get angry. This man prided himself on his wholehearted re-embracement of his Judaism and overall spirituality. He meditated daily. He belonged to study groups, men’s groups, chanting groups. On Fridays he and his wife donned their tallis shawls, picked up the loaves of challah I had called the bakery to reserve, and performed a Shabbat service at a local nursing home. I couldn’t reconcile his spirituality and good deeds with why I only rated a blanket apology.

While I was never a practicing Jew (it’s my birthright, not my preference), I’m familiar with the intention of Yom Kippur. I love the idea of setting aside a day to reflect upon the past year in the hopes of bettering the treatment of your fellow human and yourself. In fact, he was the only person who has ever apologized to me – blanket or otherwise – during Yom Kippur.

Perhaps I should be grateful. Maybe that was the only way he knew how to apologize, but it was, in its own way, an offering. His example was a reminder to be more accountable for my own behavior, because who among us is perfect?

So on this Yom Kippur, not only am I sorry for whatever I did to you last year, I’m sorry for whatever I’ll do to you this year, too.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Oprah's Last Pick

Even though Oprah isn’t supposed to make her last book club pick known until tomorrow’s show, people in the book industry are already reporting that it’s going to be Jonathan Franzen and his brand-new bestseller, Freedom.

If so, this could be interesting. Those of you old enough to remember 2001 (the year, not the movie) might know that Oprah picked Franzen’s previous book, The Corrections, for her famous book club. When he learned of her intention, he said that some of her previous picks had been “schmaltzy” and “one-dimensional.” (I truly hope he wasn’t thinking of Toni Morrison.) When the Big O heard of these comments, the offer was withdrawn. So there, dude. Next time you have a beef with someone who wants to put a stamp on your book jacket that will blast your sales through the sky, try to keep your opinions off the record.

Perhaps choosing Franzen again will allow Ms. Winfrey a chance to clear past wrongs, like not being gracious enough to endure his snobbery. A way of coming full circle, of rising above it, a perfect end to her network run. And if Franzen accepts graciously, a way to write (and right) his own karma.

Although the decision, if the decision truly is Franzen, may have a backlash of sorts. Recently, Jennifer Weiner, along with Jodi Picoult, has taken up the extremely valid issue of women commercial fiction writers not getting their due by major literary reviewers. While not singling out Jonathan Franzen, she did use him as an example of how male authors, no matter how few and far between their publications, get more space in primary print real estate like the New York Times. I agree with her wholeheartedly, but I fear that the brouhaha is only giving Franzen more sales. Guaranteed that Weiner will have a well-placed comment or two if Oprah gives her stamp to Freedom.

I think Oprah should turn the whole thing upside-down and choose a writer so far off the radar that it will make front-page news in places where people don’t read books. (I refuse to say where that might be, because I’ll get nasty emails, and since you are clever, you have already written this joke in your heads.) And no, I’m not talking about Oprah choosing me. Although that’s an interesting take… if she wants to clear her karma, or at least atone for a small sin or two, why not choose an up-and-coming writer, an unknown, who gets very little if no press coverage and whose book isn’t even in print yet? Brilliance!

But here’s my favorite potential Oprah pick–a woman who has been tirelessly campaigning for the job, who even wrote a book dedicated to trying to get into the Oprah book club. And that’s Kathy Griffin. I love it–the woman who was ballsy enough to have a Pap smear on national television… the last pick for the Oprah book club. And what an even more magnanimous gesture on Oprah's part than choosing Franzen.

What a way to go out.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

How Can We Miss You If You Don’t Go Away?

I had hoped he’d disappeared into the annals of 80s trivia, but Vanilla Ice is making a comeback. So are a lot of other things from the 80s… clothing, Madonna, black lipstick, and government cheese.

In his next 15 minutes of fame, thankfully the Iceman won’t be singing. According to ABC news, he will be the focus of a reality show that documents the renovation of his mansion. Turns out, other than his passion for… well, whatever he was doing on stage… he is a sucker for interior decorating.

He’s also not alone in his quest for a comeback. In a country so fond of recycling our kitchen trash, we also recycle our entertainment trash. Stars who were barely a blip on the 80s scene… Flavor Flav, Bret Michaels, Brian Boitano and Scott Baio, among others… have their own reality shows.

While it may be amusing to see how the world has treated these celebrities decades later, the entertainment business is doing all of us a disservice. There are plenty of writers out there, and plenty of new ideas. Hollywood just won’t let us see any of them because they don’t want to take the risk in a market where every dollar has to work harder than it used to. Not only do we recycle old ideas (please, someone tell me why we need to resurrect “Hawaii 5-0” and why we needed a revival of “The Karate Kid.”), we recycle other countries’ old ideas. Hence Japanese game shows and British reality shows.

Okay, I’ll admit that “The Office” was a pretty good pickup. But even a broken clock is right twice a day.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Dodging The Curves and Other Sports Metaphors

Wednesday nights I go to an aqua-jogging class at my gym. I’ve been going to this same class, with the same instructor, with mostly the same people, with mostly the same bathing suits and mostly the same moves for the last couple of years. I love it. My muscles love the weightless movement after a day of sitting at the computer. My spirit loves the community of women, the “3D” camaraderie I don’t get working at home in my writing room. My soul loves floating in the moment, my troubles – at least for a while – shoved aside in favor of listening to the symphony of ligaments, tendons, muscles, bones, splashes and the laughter of women.

Today I was in a rush to get out of the house, and a bit angry. Husband was digging up the last bit of info so I could complete our tax forms, with me nagging (um…consulting) over his shoulder. I saw the time on his computer screen and froze. “Gotta go to swim class,” I said, and ducked out.

Because I know that I’m sometimes…shall we say…chronologically challenged, especially when it comes to dragging myself away from work, I prepare my gym bag far in advance of when I need to leave for class. Bathing suit, cover-up, towel, little zipped bag with miscellaneous little grooming supplies. Sometimes I even leave the bag in the car the night before. Today I’d left it on top of the sofa. And I’d run out so fast I didn’t notice until I pulled into the gym parking lot that that’s where I’d left it.

I had no bathing suit. No cover-up. No towel. No little zipped bag with miscellaneous little grooming supplies. Just my ID card, the clothes on my back and the sneakers on my feet.

Wait a minute, I thought. They’re pretty decent sneakers. And underneath my fleece jacket, I was wearing workout clothes—my usual yoga pants and cotton top. So I signed in, pinned my car keys to the waistband of my pants, and hit the “Wellness Center.” This is actually a giant room filled with enough cardio equipment to satisfy, well, anybody with a penchant to sweat. Especially anyone with a penchant to sweat while watching television, as each little cardio pod – rowing machine, bicycle, elliptical trainer and treadmill – came with a screen atop it. Grab a pair of earphones, plug yourself in and go. We become a room full of regenerating Borgs, except we’re moving and sweating instead of standing still.

I found a treadmill near the window, and the early evening sun streamed across my face, showing my reflection on the bottom half of my TV screen. I clicked around until I found one of my favorite sitcoms, and off I went, power-walking to nowhere.

Three thoughts crossed my mind in succession. One. It’s a beautiful evening; what am I doing walking inside on a machine? Two. What am I doing here when I could be home, sweating on my own treadmill and watching the lovely view out my back window? Three. Hey, I’m really sweating. I looked at my status board. It claimed I was walking at 3.4 miles per hour. Holy Christmas. This was faster than I’d been able to walk in almost a year. I’d barely noticed, and I’d been cranking away for a good fifteen minutes. A quick inventory and posture check told me that everything was doing fine.

So I kept going. I felt great. I felt fast, and smooth, and strong.

And who knows? If I’d remembered my gym bag, maybe I would have had a stellar aqua-jogging class, kicking ass on my sprints and cross-country combos. If I’d walked outside, maybe I would have powered up hills and taken the sidewalks by storm. If I’d stayed home on my own treadmill, maybe I would have topped off at 3.2 for 40 minutes and felt satisfied. But trying something new – even if it’s just somebody else’s treadmill and someone else’s TV – gave me the confidence to try something else: challenging my body to kick it up a notch. Just a small notch. But that’s still progress.

A half-hour later, I unplugged from the machine. I toweled off, deposited my pre-sanitized washcloth into the designated bucket, returned my earphones to the designated sanitizing station, and retired to the designated stretching room, where shoes are not allowed.

I lay on my mat, still sweating, and stretched in rhythm with my breath, with the satisfied affirmation that I could dodge those curveballs of life, could roll with the punches, could take on all of those sports metaphors and still come out on top.

All because I forgot a bathing suit. Perhaps I should do it more often.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Waiting For The Rain

With another pass of my manuscript off for editing, and my major freelance client reviewing the latest work I sent, I figured I would take this lovely chunk of free time and write a bit…something I’ve been missing for a while.


I wouldn’t call it a block, exactly. The words are there, I feel them. And I’ve been in this situation often enough to know that this dry well will once again fill and even overflow. Then I’ll put on my purple boots and stamp in the puddles with joy.

Now, I’m just waiting for the rain. I’m waiting for a character to pop up and tell me his or her story. I’m waiting for an overpowering emotion or news item to overpower me and force my hand.


I’m trying to be patient. I take long walks and watch Spring spring. I clean out cupboards and dresser drawers and pantries.


Yet while I’ve been waiting for something miraculous to happen, other miraculous things have been happening.

The sun comes out. A daffodil blooms. Baseball season officially starts. The bag of clothes for Goodwill grows fuller. I can actually close my closet doors. My spice cabinet is clean, updated, and stands ready for battle.

Yes, a filled jar of turmeric is a minor miracle, but in this house, inhabited by two creative professionals who’d rather be at their computers than pushing a dustrag, just finding a clean bowl can be a challenge.

I’m just waiting for the rain.

Because it does no good to curse down the empty well’s well, listening to my own impatience echo back. It does no good to shake my fist at the sky.

The best thing to do is occupy myself with Other Things. These Other Things, ideally, will take on such a magnitude that I’ll get to the end of another wordless day and say to myself, “I haven’t thought about that well in sixteen hours, thirteen minutes and seventeen seconds.”

This is when I take up knitting. Learn ballroom dancing, conversational Hindi, how to make a perfect vegan flourless chocolate cake. Play online chess with a guy from Pakistan. I tell myself that one day, I can use this information in a novel. But deep down I know it’s only a distraction.

I’m just waiting for the rain.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Shoring Up My Roots

Like some of you, I’ve been concentrating on staying in the “now.” But over the last year or so, I’ve felt a strong pull to look in my rear view mirror and revisit the people and events that have made me who I am today. I don’t consider this wallowing or staying mired in my past, but a reminder of how far I’ve come. Sometimes I need that. When I’m bemoaning where I am or feeling discouraged, I like to look at that cosmic bar graph and see the progress I’ve made. And I love catching up with people who’ve nurtured me and either thank them or find some way to give back for all they’ve given me.

Today I give you Laura Jan Shore. In my early thirties, I started writing my first novel. I knew nothing about writing novels, and the variety of short essays and stories I already had in my portfolio hardly prepared me for the depth and fortitude writing long fiction required. Except for acing the essay requirement in college English (get three As and you can skip the rest of the semester), I’d had no formal training. But I stumbled forward anyway, mostly on the back of a dare from my husband. When I told him about an idea I had for a novel – I’d read enough of them to get the gist of major plot formats – he said, “You can’t write a novel.” That was enough to make me get serious. I read a bit about fiction writing, and several experts recommended joining a writing group.

The trouble was that I had no idea how to find one. But one day soon after this revelation, the stars and fate aligned. I was at work (then, in an ad agency) when a copy of the Pennysaver (a weekly newspaper filled with classified ads, in the days before Craig’s List) landed on my desk. This in itself was an odd circumstance, because the mail always went directly to my more senior colleague, who, in another odd circumstance, because she never took sick time, happened to be home with the flu. Usually, at lunch, I read the newspaper. That day I picked up the Pennysaver. Opened it to a random page and found a small ad looking for writers to join a writer’s group.


I called the number, and heard Laura Jan Shore’s sweet, breathy voice for the first time. At the time, she was the published author of a young adult novel, was writing her first adult novel, and also wrote poetry. She led three groups - Monday mornings and Tuesday and Thursday evenings. She asked about my writing experience, which amounted to a decent-sized chunk of a REALLY shitty first draft of a first novel. I was afraid she wouldn’t take me on, as such a newbie in a world (I imagined) of “serious” novelists. But Laura told me that yes, there was room for me in her Thursday night group, which would be starting up again in a couple of weeks.

Woo hoo, I was in!

When I drove up to her Gothic Revival-style home, as spooky-looking as anything from any number of horror films, my stress level mounted. Could I do this? With a published author? I’d never met one before. And I’d have to read my work in front of strangers. But Laura turned out to be an authentic person who instantly put me at ease. I liked the other members of the group as well. Each meeting began with a writing prompt (much of it spiritual, based on native cultures or on other ways of “cracking open our heads”) and freewriting in our journals about what that had inspired. Then we segued to her dining room, where, over cups of hot herbal tea, we’d read a chunk of our projects and take turns critiquing each other’s work. Laura had (I assume she still has) this way about her…spiritual, almost ethereal, she’d encourage our efforts yet (in her own gentle way) deftly cut through the crap and let us know what wasn’t working and where we were taking the easy way out. For years I kept coming back to that spooky house on the hill on Thursday nights. Acting as creative midwife for my first three novels, she engendered in me a love for the process of writing, a love affair that still beats in my heart.

When she decided to uproot her life and move to Australia in order to be closer to her oldest son, I felt happy and excited for her before the realization hit me that this meant she’d be leaving us.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to fully express in words how grateful I am for having her in my life at just the right time, for walking me into the creative journey with an arm around my shoulder and her gentle voice in my ear, and for that day when the Pennysaver landed on my desk.

Apparently she continues to sprinkle her creative glitter among lucky writers Down Under. She tells me, in a recent e-mail, that she’s gone back to her first love – poetry – and has been building a collective dedicated to poets and those who love poetry. I hope you’ll visit and support her site, Dangerously Poetic, and read for yourself what a marvel she is. The first collection she published with Dangerously Poetic is “Breathworks” (unfortunately I don’t know how to order it outside of Australia) and here are a couple of reviews:

"This passionate and spirited collection of Laura's is not only a great start for Dangerously Poetic, but it is also a fiery riposte to the general community view that poetry is stale, obscure, irrelevant, and boring. Breathworks has spark aplenty. May the Goddess, who has clearly been called on a number of times in the writing of these poems, bless this book and its passage."

--Dorothy Porter

"Right from the beginning, from the first poem, there's the breath and the trees, the spinning earth and revolving time, the mirror held up to the self and to others, the delight in the rainforest, the fecundity of nature and the ambivalence of passion, the cycle of song that is life. A book rich in sensitivity and experience, poems negotiated through pain into acceptance and love. A wonderful first book from Dangerously Poetic Press."

--Ron Pretty, Five Islands Press

Her second collection is due out later this year.

Monday, January 4, 2010

International Brotherhood of Wild Rodents, Local 305

Living out in the country means that a plethora of germy little dudes wangle their way into our house every winter. Since I’m the first one up in the morning, I’m the one who – joy of joys - finds the evidence of their nightly raids on the kitchen counters, behind the cookbooks, in the sink, and in especially cold years, in the silverware drawers and the pantry. Nothing like cleaning up a load of poop to brighten your morning routine.

Since we don’t have cats like the rest of our neighbors, we have to rely on the next best thing. But since we also don’t have the stomach to kill the little guys outright with contraptions that snap their necks, we’ve been using have-a-heart traps. Theoretically, these allow mice to enter, which trips a little door, leaving them harmlessly captive until you can get in your car and drive them at least a mile away from the house, where they become someone else’s problem.


Seems that our mice have been taking a correspondence course in Trap Evasion 101. They can now enter the have-a-heart, scarf the bit of cracker or peanut butter or potato chip we bait them with, and leave.

Yep. Leave.

The inequities in this action are unacceptable. We go out of our way to use the kindest traps possible, always release our captives in lovely fields with ample cover, waterfront views and food potential, and they’re taking advantage of us.

So I lodged a complaint with the local wild rodents’ union, and to date, have received no response.

We offered to bargain regardless. If we kept our prisoners of war enemy combatants in small holding pens replete with clean wood shavings, fresh water and adequate food until the most auspicious weather conditions (say, daytime temperatures above freezing), would they then allow that trap door in the have-a-heart to close?

Still, no response.

We implemented our proposed work action regardless. And voila, one mouse complied. From the trap he went quietly into the holding pen, and seemed to be tolerating, if not at times enjoying, his slices of Granny Smith apple, bits of sesame cracker, and diced carrots. Organic carrots, mind you. Nothing but the best for our prisoners of war enemy combatants.

We would have released the mouse on a nice day, keeping our end of the bargain, but we hit a stretch of frigid weather. While we argued about the cruelty of setting him free when it was so cold out (Husband) versus the cruelty of keeping him in a pen about as big as the average lunch pail (me) and the general creepiness of having a wild rodent sitting on the bookshelf next to his mother’s ashes as if he were a pet (me) even though it has fur and would survive being out in the elements just fine (me), “Mousie” continued to live with us, day after cold day, and morning after cold morning I’d wake up to find my little pink-and-blue striped hand towel wrapped around the pen to keep him warm, and new bits of food dripped into his habitat. When it got especially frigid, “Mousie” got to come upstairs for the night, where it was warmer.

Today was supposed to be Amnesty Day. With temperatures topping out at 30 and the sun shining, Husband was going to put Mousie et al in the back seat of his car and drive him to the rodential equivalent of Disneyland.

The plan would have been executed as designed, except that Mousie had escaped. Flown the coop. Chewed his way to freedom, gnawing a mouse-sized hole in the hard plastic ventilation grating at the top of the pen.

Little bastard.

OK, I know that we didn’t have an official union-sanctioned bargain, but we’d made a tacit agreement with that mouse that would have held up in any labor arbitration.

And now he’s probably wiggling his way into the cereal drawer.

That’s it, we said. No more Mr. and Ms. Nice Guy. If we can’t get the union to back us up, we’re going to get tough. We’re going rogue.

No, that doesn’t mean waterboarding harmless coercion tactics.

But no more Granny Smith apples.

No more sesame crackers.

And definitely, no more organic carrots. We have to draw the line somewhere, after all.

(Image found on

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Bring On The Birthday Cake

I’ve been picking up romance novels on and off ever since my teens. Yes, they’re not exactly “Pride and Prejudice,” and my father cringes whenever he catches me reading one, but they’re fun. Potato chips for the brain, I call them.

Right now I’m calling them excellent healing tools. Specifically, I’ve been smiling my way through a series of twelve short comic romance novels, written by Janet Evanovich before she reached the bestsellers’ lists with Stephanie Plum, Jersey-girl bounty hunter. At the end of each is the following quote from Evanovich: “Romance novels are birthday cake and life is often peanut butter and jelly. I think everyone should have lots of delicious romance novels lying around for those times when the peanut butter of life gets stuck to the roof of your mouth."

But comic romance novels, or at least the kind that Evanovich writes, are not your mother’s bodice-ripper. Don’t expect purple prose here. No ripping of clothing (unless it happens during a slapstick-y accident), no larger-than-life heroes or swordplay or round-the-world epics. What I’ve found are smart, feisty, modern heroines and the men who fall helplessly and hopelessly in love with them. Sometimes the falling part is literal. Okay, they’re a bit formulaic. Fate throws the couple together by the end of the second page. Maybe they’re not Johnny Depp or Angelina Jolie, but they’re very attractive, fairly ordinary people. Point of view switches back and forth every few paragraphs, keeping the action rolling fast. The two fall for each other instantly, often to one or both character’s dismay, which creates terrible, funny (and eventually surmountable) complications. A romantic cat-and-mouse game ensues, sparked with fast-paced, witty dialog, and they end up in bed, in some books more quickly and more frequently than others. One or both of the pair have been burned before by love – some are divorced, some have children – so although even in their hearts they know they belong together, the commitment part is slow in coming and possibly may be their undoing.

Plum fans will recognize the roots of her now-famous characters in these practice runs. There’s often a scrappy older woman who stirs the pot – a grandmother, great aunt, housekeeper, boarder – often named Elsie, who usually drives a ’57 Chevrolet.

Yes, Dad, I’ve got a shelf full of more substantial fare waiting – and yes, a balanced literary diet includes whole grains and vegetables. But now I could use a few slices of birthday cake – multi-layered, with fluffy pink frosting and sprinkles.

Come on, I know you have them – what are your literary guilty pleasures?