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30 posts from July 2011

July 21, 2011

Iron Woman


By Elaine Viets

My friend Mary was in a New Orleans motel room getting the nerve to try something she hadn’t done in years.

Iron two shirts.

Mary didn’t take the quick way out – pressing her shirts on a bed. She opened the ironing board. Afterward, Mary couldn’t fold up the board.

Neither could her roommate. Doris Ann tried and failed.          Ironing board

I tried next. I fought the board, and the board won.                        

Three women were defeated by the spindly contraption.

That’s when I knew this was a great day for womankind: Three of us couldn’t open an ironing board anymore. We’d all ironed earlier in our lives. We’d lost the skill.

The ironing board stayed up in the hotel room for three days. We tried to use it as a charging station for our computers and cell phones, but the darn thing was too wobbly.

Four days later, Kathy tackled the ironing board and folded it away.

As a teenager, ironing was my most hated chore. Even a stack of Beatles’ records blasting away didn’t make ironing fun. Dampened, rolled-up cotton clothes couldn’t wait. They’d mildew if I didn’t iron them fast. The steam iron was an anvil with an electric cord.

Here’s what starched my soul: My brothers didn’t have to iron. That was women’s work.

It’s fitting that a woman helped end this dreaded chore. Chemist Ruth Benerito developed the permanent press process in the 1950s. Too bad it used lots of formaldehyde, the stuff that pickles dead people. By the 1990s wrinkle-resistant fabrics were safer and women embraced them. We should embrace Ruth, or give her medal for setting us free from the steam iron.

I’m told some women love to iron. I’m also told some women believe that a gym workout at six a.m. gives them energy all day.

I do know that women will pay nearly $140 for steam iron called the Rowenta DW9080 Steamium 1800-watt Steam Iron with 400-hole Platinum Soleplate.

PristineAngie wrote a lyrical review about using this iron. It sounds more complicated than the Space Shuttle.

"First off, for people who are familiar with Rowenta irons, the ones made in Germany (as this one is) tend to be larger in size than an average iron," she wrote. "If you don’t mind wielding a big iron, then you’ll be ok with this one. The water chamber is also larger, so that adds to the weight when filled."

I had visions of muscular Valkyries, holding aloft sizzling steam irons.

Rowenta stemium 
PristineAngie believes German-made Rowentas are better than the Chinese versions.

But she warned: "FOLLOW THE INSTRUCTIONS! . . . Being a perfectionist when it comes to ironing, I use 100% bottled spring water to eliminate any doubt."

For $140 bucks, I’d expect a steam iron to use Perrier.

PristineAngie pointed out a nifty feature on this uber-iron. "There is a trigger on the bottom of the handle . . . you can squeeze it to create what Rowenta called ‘forced steam’ which pushes 30% more steam into the fabric. The trigger sets off a pump that makes a fairly audible whirring mechanical noise. The vertical steam also sets a nice burst of steam into your clothing."

Pristine Angie says the iron "comes with a tall slim plastic spouted ‘pitcher’ to help you pour water into the iron. The front tip of the iron is extra pointed for getting perfect creases on the shirt and pleat corners."

Oh, my sister, I cannot understand your enthusiasm, but if it makes you happy, iron away. But you must not lure other women into this iron tyranny.

Couldn’t you praise something more enjoyable? A good novel, a fine restaurant, a fast car?

How about a hot romance?

That generates steam, too.


July 20, 2011

Aspiring to Be Betty

Aspiring to Be Betty

by Nancy Martin       Go to fullsize image

My mother invited Gerald Ford to dinner, and he came.

"He was a lovely man," my mother says.  "He talked so warmly about his wife and children."

Not long thereafter, Richard Nixon asked Mr. Ford to be the Vice President, and he accepted, and we all know what happened after that, and even though my mother wasn't happy about Nixon getting a pardon, she still says Gerald Ford was a lovely man.  There is no higher praise in the socio-economic group I grew up in.

At the time, my dad raised money for Republican causes, and Mr. Ford was an invited speaker for a group of local donors, so my dad flew down to DC to pick him up.  (My mother encouraged my dad to take along my little brother, who was in high school at the time, and who remains a Republican today, but that's another story perhaps best hushed up.) So it wasn't exactly a state dinner.  My mother grilled some steaks, no big deal. She reports that Mr. Ford talked about how he and Betty raised their kids, etc. etc.  And he told a joke that Betty liked, which my mother can't remember, but she says it was very funny and self-deprecating. 

Since then, my mother has thought the world of Betty Ford--a down-to-earth midwesterner, the plucky daughter of a widowed mother. She went to college for two years and studied dance before coming home to build a career in department store fashions before she married. When her husband became ill, she supported him---a time in her life when she learned women were paid a heck of a lot less than men for just the same work. She divorced her first husband (reports say she wanted a family, but he didn't) and was soon snatched up by young lawyer Gerald Ford--a nice guy who entered politics by running for Congress.  Many people say Betty was an ideal congressional wife--a role that has certainly disappeared, I suppose.  (I find myself thinking of Huma Abedin--herself not a bad role model for her time.) Betty networked, entertained, and charmed while raising her children and doing volunteer work. For my mother's generation, those were the highest callings. 

Last week, Betty Ford shared the headlines with the likes of Octomom (whose kids misbehaved on an airplane) and Casey Anthony, who, if you live under a rock, was recently found innocent of murdering her own daughter. 


I found myself reflecting on the kind of woman who gets headlines these days. Tabloid journalism seems to seek out women who aren't exactly in Betty's league.

Betty Ford had her problems, too, and she spoke about them in public.  As a result of breast cancer, she had one of her breasts removed--a topic people didn't bring up in public very often back then.  (She said she vividly recalled the first state dinner after her surgery. Ceremonially coming down the White House stairs, she figured the whole world was studying her figure and wondering,  "Which side was removed?" Must have taken a lot of composure to handle that moment, right?) We do talk openly about breast cancer now, and we have Betty Ford to thank for breaking the taboo.

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Betty also spoke matter-of-factly about the possibility her college-age daughter might have pre-marital sex, because she was "human." (The Pill was new around that time.  Talk about a revolution!) Believe me, that kinda talk was forbidden at the dinner table at my house!

Betty Ford is perhaps most enduringly famous for creating a center where people who suffer from substance abuse can go to get counseling, get clean, get a fresh start.  If there's a higher calling in life, it's hard to imagine, don't you think?

It's an amazing resume, isn't it?

What has happened to role models? My daughter thinks female role models are now incredibly polarizing.  Hillary Clinton?--You'll find as many people who despise her for having ambition as people who respect her accomplishments and what she's still trying to accomplish.  Female athletes don't get any press unless the fail their drug tests or lose to the Japanese. Sarah Palin? Michelle Bachman? People either scream or cheer. There's hardly any middle ground anymore. (Perhaps for this very reason, a lot of first ladies choose innocuous causes to support.  It's hard to get worked up about Michelle Obama's stand on childhool obesity.  Who could be in favor of that?  Same goes for Laura Bush on literacy.  I'm sorry neither one of them took up the cause of automatic handguns, but that's just me.) I respect Betty Ford for speaking up when what she said was unpopular or shocking.

Meanwhile, J-Lo broke up with her husband.  News reports say Jen was "sombre" as she went to a photo shoot. I find it amazing that any news agency felt this was new worthy of reporting.

Do you have a female role model?  A woman who inspired you or continues to do so? 

July 19, 2011

To Cool Off, Add Ice Cubes to Drinks

By Sarah

To Cool Off, Add Ice Cubes to Drinks.

 That was the "100 Ways to Cool Off in Summer" tip #36 in a Seventeen magazine (or maybe it was Glamour), I treated myself to in junior high to conquer a bout of summer boredom. Along with Ice in drinks "wear cotton" and "eat cucumbers!" it was one of the more jaw dropping cutlines. I can remember distinctly thinking, "Honestly, I can't believe they paid someone to write this."

Little did I know how that stupid line would linger like the jaunty refrain to "Afternoon Delight" that invades the human brain like those alien cockroaches in Wrath of Khan. No summer, no heat wave can I endure without opening the freezer, seeing that white plastic tray and thinking, To Cool Off, Add Ice Cubes to Drinks.

Because we're in it now, the heat. The month-long Accuweather forecast shows no mercy aside from a 79 degree here or there. And let me just state right now that I am not a summer girl. I did not move to the frigid mountains of Vermont to work on my tan. I long for crisp breezes, falling orange and red leaves shuffling around my feet, wood smoke, snow.

But God doesn't take orders from me, unfortunately, and so I must persevere, trying to find joy in Swimming hole the afternoon read in a swaying hammock, swimming in secret river holes, freshly picked blueberries, a lush green vegetable garden and the occasional chilled glass of pinot grigio. (Note Seventeen failed to mention THAT!)

Cooking, however, falls to the wayside. To save my sanity, I basically produce five dishes during the summer and here they are:

1) Homemade pesto from the Silver Palate. Fresh basil, chopped garlic, walnuts ('cause I HATE pine nuts), really good parmesan grated, excellent virgin olive oil and light cream. Combine all but the cream in a food processor and whir but not too much. Mix some with the cream and pour over linguine. A side dish of fresh REAL tomatoes, slices, plus balsamic vinegar & olive oil dressing = fantastic.

2) Fresh mozzarella, tomato, pesto (see above), balsamic vinaigrette sandwich on Red Hen bakery's French loaf. Cut loaf in half. Smear pesto on one side (without the cream). Drizzle balsamic vinaigrette on the other. In the middle, slices of fresh mozzarella, real tomatoes and, possibly, prosciutto. Best. Sandwich. Ever.

Salmon 3) Cold poached salmon with caper, dill, red onion sauce. In the morning, poach fillets of salmon in water seasoned with sliced lemons and bay leaves. Cook until red is gone. Slip onto pie plates, cover and chill. Into sour cream, whisk capers, caper juice, chopped fresh dill, chopped red onion. Serve on the side with cold poached asparagus.

4) Nancy Strohmeyer's Potato Salad. Five pounds of new red potatoes halved. Boil just until a fork can pass through. Meanwhile, chop up celery and red onion. Have bottle of Robusto Italian ready along with cider vinegar. While potatoes are still warm (no gain without pain) slice thinly mixing with chopped celery and red onion and a few shakes of Robusto Italian. Stir gently. Continue this process until all the potatoes are sliced. It's okay to leave on the red skins. Cool in fridge. Right before serving, add a few dollops of mayonnaise. (I love the canola.) Stir and serve on lettuce with REAL tomatoes. 

5) Grilled chicken breasts. Pound breasts. Marinate in Newman's Creamy Caesar. While you're at it, toss thickly chopped zucchini, mushrooms, red peppers and red onions in same in separate bow. Grill chicken and vegetables. Next day, distribute leftover vegetables on whole wheat pizza shell topped with homemade pesto (see above), a little mozzarella and grill. Awesome.

And that's it, though with Sam away, I did experiment with some new additions. I absolutely LOVED Mark Bittman's watermelon & cherry tomato salad with vinaigrette, gorgonzola and cayenne pepper Watermelon tomato and was strangely impressed by the massaged kale & mango salad I made with kale from my own backyard. Our vegan relatives introduced us to beets and Swiss chard over fettuccine, though it was definitely improved with some chevre and, rumor has it, crumbled sausage.

No matter what, though, I cannot get Charlie to eat my garden peas.

So what do you cook in the summer to keep cool? I mean, besides adding ice cubes to drinks.



July 18, 2011

Bad Carmaggedon

 by Harley

I planned to blog today about “Carmaggedon,” the historic closing (for repairs) of Los Angeles’s 405 freeway. Unfortunately for me, L.A. wisely stopped driving this weekend, so Carmaggedon was a big yawn. Think Y2K. (does anyone remember Y2K?) As Zev Yaroslavsky, our county supervisor said, “It's dead as a doornail out there." Worthless as entertainment, except for this Hitler Rant:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xlLZ4RWyyAw

So I thought, “Aha! I’ll turn my Carmaggedon blog into an Armaggedon blog.” You know, the 1998 disaster movie starring Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck and Billy Bob Thornton? Only I’ve never seen Armaggedon.

However, Armaggedon was a summer blockbuster, which brings to mind the final Harry Potter, but I haven’t seen that either, due to Carmaggedon.

I have seen other current summer blockbusters, but I’m not talented enough to craft an entire blog out of Thor or even Pirates of the Caribbean #4. However, despite the fact that I can’t remember the names, let alone the plots of any of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, one of them contains a Personal Favorite Movie Moment. And although few things are more vulnerable, intimate, more Too Much Information than Personal Movie Moments, I feel moved to share mine with you. Especially since it's after midnight on Monday morning and I need a blog. So here goes:

SPOILER ALERT! I’ve written titles in bold, so squint your way through the list and if you don’t want to discover, e.g., that Luca Brazzi sleeps with the fishes inThe Godfather, skip over it.

  1. Images-1The final frames of Midnight Express, where Brad Davis escapes the Turkish prison as the Giorgio Moroder theme music swells.
  2. Meg Ryan’s face as she realizes Tom Hanks is her e-mail friend at the end of You’ve Got Mail.
  3. Yes, Blond Bond in a Speedo coming out of the sea in Casino Royale is Casino_royale_pinstripe__90589_zoom
    heartwarming. But it’s the end of the film I love, where he gets his groove back by shooting Mr. White in the leg.
  4. 07_out_of_africa_blurayOut of Africa. Meryl Streep’s eulogy for Robert Redford. “He brought us joy...we loved him well. 
He was not ours. 
He was not mine.”
  5. Pride & Prejudice. All versions, but especially the Keira Knightley one. You know the scene. Where she and Matthew Mcfayden hook up, as the sun comes up.
  6. Blade Runner. Rutger Hauer on the rooftop, in the rain. “All those Blade runner roy batty time to die moments lost in time, like tears in rain … time to die.”
  7. Cary Grant pulling Eva Marie Saint up the side of Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest.
  8. 0 Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn’s “too late, too late, they cried!” sundown on the beach moment in Two for the Road.

  9. In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: When Ziyi Zhang stabs Chen Chang in the chest before having sex with him. Or the film’s ending, except that it’s so sad I can’t even type about it.Tumblr_lhq298m9mg1qzzea4o1_400
  10. Same movie, the death of Chow Yun-Fat. “I would rather be a ghost, drifting by your side, as a condemned soul, than enter heaven without you.”
  11. The Godfather. So much poetry, it’s a toss-up between the death of Luca Brazzi, the door closing on Kay at the end of the film, or—No, okay, okay – it’s when Michael blows away Captain McCluskey over pasta. Yeah, that’s the one.
  12. McqueensmokeThe chess game in The Thomas Crown Affair. Faye Dunaway: check. Steve McQueen: Let’s play something else.
  13.  The Pianist. Adrian Brody plays Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor Op. 23 for the Nazi.
  14. The Exorcist. Ellen Burstyn: “Father, it’s my little girl.” (sob!)
  15. Young Frankenstein. The incomparable Cloris Leachmen. “He vass . . . Cloris_Leachman_Young_Frankenstein_2-2.263w_350h  my BOYFRIEND.”
  16. Henry V. The Battle of Agincourt. “The day is yours.”
  17. Chinatown Chinatown. “My sister. My daughter.”
  18. Wings of Desire. Bruno Ganz’s soliloquy upon the death
    of the motorcyclist: “My father. My mother. My wife. My child."
  1. Pirates-of-the-Caribbean-3-03  Pirates of the Caribbean, Dead Man’s Chest.  Johnny Depp’s reaction when Keira Knightley handcuffs him to his ship. (“Pirate.”)


So now you know my deepest secrets. And you? Care to share your favorite movie moments? 






July 17, 2011

Guest blogger, Ann Napolitano: Helpful Bumps In The Road

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Joshilyn here---and above. I am the google-eyed loon glowing with fan girrrrl "radiance" (that's southern lady talk for sweat, ya'll)  as I meet Ann Napolitano. Ann is holding her book, A GOOD HARD LOOK, which I read in ARC form, and it blew me out of the water. Picked me up and set me down different. I have become a crazed evangelist for it. Some books, you simply have to make everyone you ever loved read them; this is one of those. And Ann-the-person is LOVELY, and she is HERE today, talking about how she came to write so finely, with such understated wit and grace, about our desperate, human mandate to live our finite, God's-blink lives deeply and well. 

I had just finished my junior year of college, and started a summer internship at a New York City literary magazine. I was being paid to read story submissions and was hopeful that they would offer me a full-time position after college. Reading stories for a living—what could be better than that? I remember feeling really pleased while riding the bus to work that first day. I could feel myself standing on the cusp of my future—one that I had chosen and earned—and it felt good.

   When I arrived at the magazine office, however, the good feeling disappeared. There was a strange echo in my head, and I felt hot. I ended up having to force myself through the day that I had been so excited about. I went to bed early that night in an effort to regroup. Tomorrow, I told myself, I will feel normal. But I woke up the following morning with a fever of one hundred and four, barely able to stand. That fever persisted for two weeks, while doctors ran tests and tried to figure out what was wrong. I was eventually diagnosed with the Epstein Barr Virus, an autoimmune disease that wipes out your immune system, (so you catch every cold, virus or infection that walks past you on the street). It is a lengthy illness with no known cure.

   I had to quit my summer internship, obviously. I returned to college in the fall against the doctor’s recommendations—dormitories are not known to be sterile environments—simply because my parents and I agreed that lying on their couch, depressed with no friends and no activity, was not an attractive prospect. I signed up for a half-load of classes, with the understanding that it would take an extra year for me to graduate. My main recollection from that fall is sitting in a chair feeling wan while watching my twenty-year-old friends dance and laugh and basically bounce off the dormitory walls. I felt like a rickety octogenarian; they felt immortal, untouchable. I wanted to scream at them: You’re not! Life can change in an instant! Look what happened to me!

   Screaming would have taken too much energy, though, so I kept quiet. Instead, I focused on a huge tome that my creative writing professor had assigned me, The Habit of Being. The book was a collection of Flannery O’Connor’s letters, and her voice pulled me in right away. In her letters, the writer was irreverent, hilarious, and insightful. I read about her diagnosis with lupus, and how she gave up a full, happy life in Connecticut to return home to the family farm in Milledgeville, Georgia.  I followed her as she set up a new life—an apparently diminished one—in the company of her fiery, headstrong mother. I read as Flannery came to terms with her changed situation, and decided to focus her limited energy where it would matter most—in her writing. She put aside three hours each morning, and while her beloved peacocks squawked outside her window—she wrote.

   Those letters shifted something inside me, and I found myself sizing up my own situation in a similar manner. I had always loved writing, but I lacked the requisite confidence to declare myself a writer. (Hence the idea of working at a literary magazine—I would surround myself with other people’s words, not my own.) But my illness, and Flannery’s example, offered up a new clarity. I was able to appreciate, in a way my obnoxiously healthy twenty-year-old peers could not, the sheer brevity of life. I felt, with every quivering, exhausted muscle in my body, that everything I’d taken for granted could disappear in an instant. And this gave me a new drive to make each moment meaningful, and to make my life matter.

   My illness disassembled, and then reshaped, my life. From within its foggy walls, I chose my path. I would be a writer. I realized that this was no dress rehearsal; this was my life and I should—at the very least—take a swing at it.

   I was sick for three long years with EBV. If someone had tapped my ill, younger self on the shoulder and told her that this miserable time would have any positive outcome at all, she would have shaken her head with disdain. The truth is that this difficult period essentially made me who I am, and I am now deeply grateful for that particular bump in my road. And to top it all off, Flannery O’Connor showed up over a decade later as the central character in my new novel, A Good Hard Look.

   Of course, I’m not the first person to benefit from some kind of adversity. Tell me, what moment or event changed your life forever?




Ann Napolitano is the author of the novels A Good Hard Look and Within Arm’s Reach.  She received an MFA from New York University; she teaches fiction writing for New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies and for Gotham Writers’ Workshop.  She lives in New York City with her husband and two children.


July 16, 2011

Kathy Miller Haines Guest Blogs

We have Harry Potter to thank for getting kids to read again.  But terrific YA authors keep young readers returning to libraries for more books.  And parents have started picking up YA titles--first, perhaps to check what kids are reading, but more and more because the stories make for great reading.  Please give a TLC welcome to Kathryn Miller Haines, who may write young adult books now, but her heart is . . . smutty. In a nice way, of course.

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The Girl is Murder, my first YA mystery, comes out on Tuesday (woot!) In preparation for the release, I’ve been doing interviews, where I’m inevitably asked, “what were your favorite books when you were growing up?”

Here’s what they want to hear: Nancy Drew. Great hook after all, right? Girl wowed by girl detective grows up to write books featuring a new girl detective. And it’s true that I read and enjoyed Nancy Drew, along with lots of books by other writers like Judy Blume, Katherine Patterson, Francine Pascal, and Lois Duncan. But I’m going to tell you a secret: by the time I hit my teens, what I wanted and what I sought out was smut, plain and simple.

Please keep in mind, I mean smut in the nicest way possible. These books took talent to write: complicated plots, detailed genealogies, research into estate law, blood diamonds, and the British military during World War II. But what drew me to people like Sidney Sheldon and that Grande Dame of the lurid, V.C. Andrews, wasn’t the careful plotting, but murder, incest, rape, and romance where the screen didn’t fade to black at the first kiss, but instead the camera lingered on all the naughty details (Nipples! Quivering! Throbbing manhood!)

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 [Aside: have you seen Game of Thrones? We just finished a marathon of season one and I kept thinking this is medieval V.C. Andrews sprinkled with some fantasy elements.]

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 I loved the complicated, dye-cut covers where everything appeared wholesome on the outside, but on the inside, when the outer cover was lifted and the stepback revealed, the beautiful heroine was in jeopardy, her physical position a little too intimate toward her equally attractive brother, her innocent face tacked onto a surprisingly come-hither body with measurements Barbie would’ve envied. And the names of those innocent, yet alluring, women! Dawn, Melody, Ruby, Heaven (and, of course, Cathy – how lucky was I to have my own name among this cavalcade of strip club headliners?)

I wish I knew what drew me to these stories. Certainly not the siren call of feminism. These were all women abused in some fashion, often by the men in their lives, whose attempts to rise through the ranks were continually thwarted by a Dark Secret in Their Past (often one that occurred in the generations before, but which continues to Haunt Them to This Day).  No one had happy endings, not really. The good died way too young and tragically (car accidents, arsenic poisoning, childbirth), the bad were eventually defeated but their crimes lingered and continued to hurt those who survived. And our heroines were often forced to do unforgiveable things, marring their own morality for the next generation to be marked by.

I suppose it was adolescent sexual curiosity mixed with a desire to escape my secure, middle-American existence that made me want read about these things.  And I had an endless supply of them, thanks to an older sister who left a trail of mass market paperbacks from her bedroom, to the lawn chair where she spent her summer afternoons baking beneath a glaze of coconut-scented Coppertone lotion.

For years, I thought I was alone in my love of these books, so it was a great relief to discover a few years ago that I was in fact one of thousands (millions?) of young women who dog-eared copies of these books or were warned against them by parents who knew what dwelled between their covers. I wasn’t a pervert, I was part of the cultural zeitgeist!

So what about you? What forbidden books found their way onto your bedside tables during your formidable years?

Go to fullsize image Kathryn Miller Haines is an actor, an award-winning playwright and the author of the Rosie Winter mystery series. BookList gave The Girl is Murder a starred review, saying, it's "a smart offering that gives both mysteries and historical fiction a good name."  Read an excerpt here.

July 15, 2011

How to be your Father

Dadme The other day I was organizing my office closet and stumbled across the following, written in my handwriting:

How to be Dad

-sing bless this house everywhere you go

-pray the rosary with mom

-dress up in crazy costumes as often as possible

-knock yourself out to make xmas special

-say your favorite phrase over and over, ad nauseum. but mean every word.

I stared at this sheet of paper for a long time before I realized what it was. When I moved to North Carolina six years ago, I was between novel contracts and had some rare spare time on my hands, so I decided to work on the memoir I'd long wanted to write. Not knowing where to begin, I bought a book called Your Life as Story by Tristine Rainer. This is one of my absolute favorite How-To books, not only for a memoir writer but for a novelist as well, because it delves into how to structure a book in a way that captivates and keeps the reader reading. I had a couple of months to play with my memoir, doing many of the exercises in the book designed to help me remember the events and people and emotions of my life. Then I got another contract (thank God) and set the memoir aside.

So here in front of me was one of Tristine's exercises: In order to paint a portrait of a "character" in the memoir, ask yourself 'how to be' that person.  Try this exercise with one of your parents or a sibling or another important person in your life. You'll get something different than if you just try to describe that person. I can almost guarantee that you'll tap into deeper emotions.

My dad died ten years ago at the age of 90. He often walked around our house singing Bless this house, oh lord we pray, in a resonant bass. But he was a school principal, and I heard from a friend who taught at his school that he also walked through the halls of his school singing this song. (I don't think this would fly in public school in 2011!). I could just picture this gentle man, so comfortable in the school he loved, filling the halls with his song.

Rosary At night, I'd hear him and my mother praying the rosary together in their bedroom, but despite his religiosity (he attended mass every morning), he and my mother were playful and actually a little randy, putting on risque skits at social events and taking any opportunity to play dress up.  Dad mom dressup With four kids, we didn't have much money but he always made sure there were tons of gifts under the tree on Christmas morning, because he'd shop the sales late at night on Christmas Eve. 

His favorite saying was "true happiness comes from helping others," and he said it so often that our eye-rolling muscles got plenty of exercise. But really, he was right wasn't he? And wasn't he the guy who gave me that book, So You Want to be a Social Worker when I was a kid, guiding me into my pre-novelist, "helping others" profession?

Give it a try. Pick someone important from your life and ask yourself how to be that person. You just might learn something about yourself in the process. And you'll get a teeny little part of your memoir written while you're at it!


July 14, 2011

Seeing the USA, in our Chevrolet

By Nancy Pickard

  Take one '49 Chevy--a green two-door sedan.  Place a mom and a dad in the front seat, and their only child--a girl-- in the back seat.  1949 Chevrolet Don't forget the thermos of water and a sack of snacks--crackers, cheese, grapes, mostly.  Now you've got a picture of two weeks of my summers from the time I was five to when I was twelve.  Oh, and add in a cross country car ride in a different direction every year.  By the time I hit that twelve-year-old marker, I'd been in every state in the lower 48 but one.  Rhode Island, I think.  Sorry, R.I., but you must have been off our beaten track that year.

My mom, an elementary school teacher with the summer off, planned everything, chose our destination, and then woke up my dad and me very early to to get going and beat the heat.  By 3:30 or 4 on the first morning, I'd be already falling off to sleep in the back seat, and by the time we stopped for breakfast in one of those mom and pop places that used to dot highways, the sun was up and we were already a couple of hundred miles across Kansas on a two-lane highway before the days of interstates.  This would be in August.  Without air conditioning.  What was that like, you young'ns ask?  Mostly, we didn't notice, because we didn't know any different, but now and then it was pretty miserable, to tell you the unsentimental truth.  Sweating.  Too hot to talk.  Hot breeze surging in through every window we could open.  (Cars used to have "side vent" windows you could use to direct the breeze anywhere you wanted it to go.  They were wonderful!  If I could bring back anything from those old cars, I'd bring them back.  Trust me, you'd love them.)  I remember putting a blanket over my head, in spite of the heat, just to block out the sun.

But boy, it made the swimming pool at the motel at the end of the day feel so very sweet.  You haven't truly enjoyed a dip in a pool until it follows twelve hours in the back seat of a car where it's a hundred sweltering degrees.


 The motels were cheap.  Plain and cheap.  We found them by following the AAA book religiously.  My mom would go into the motel office, AAA book in hand, and then we'd watch her follow the motel owner down the long line of units so she could examine our room.  She wasn't hesitant to say, "no," if it wasn't clean. It was an exciting moment when we saw her wave for my dad to pull into the parking slot in front of that room.

 A motel with a swimming pool cost a few dollars more.  Lucky for me. my parents were willing to splurge on the extra three bucks at the end of our long travel days.  They'd take turns sitting by the side of the pool listening to me shout, "Watch me!" before I jumped off the low dive.

 We'd eat dinner at another mom 'n' pop cafe.

 Every few days, I'd get cherry pie. Homemade.

On those trips, when my mom was doing the driving, my dad and I used to play a game he invented.  He'd been a bit of a musician before I knew him:  played the banjo and the piano and sang in a sweet tenor.  In the car, he'd tap out the rhythm of a popular song with his finger tips, doing it on the back of the front seat so I could hear it.  Then I'd have to guess the song just from those taps.  Then I'd do the same, and he'd have to guess.  We could pass a lot of time tapping out "How much is that Doggy In the Window," or whatever was popular that year.

Those were the days before seat belts, so I could stretch out to sleep in the back seat, or lean over the front seats to be closer to my parents, or even crawl up into the level place below the rear window and lie there, like a puppy, when I was small enough to fit.  My god, the National Transportation Safety Board would have a conniption fit if they saw that now.  It's better now.  I guess.  Kids are safer.  But a lot less comfortable.  Sometimes I feel sorry for kids now, for being so contained, so strapped in, so safe.

On those trips we saw California and we saw Maine, we hit the beach in Florida and we took a ferry to Vancouver.  I ate pancakes with fresh blueberries on the east coast and fresh trout in the Rockies and lots of chicken fried steak.

1950 cafe

Wouldn't you know that although I truly loved those trips, I envied my friends who got to go to the same cabin in the Ozarks every summer.  They, it turned out, envied me for the confidence I gained from getting to venture outside Kansas City.

It wasn't all great.  There was that no air conditioning thing.  There was the flat tire in the Utah desert, and the bear who climbed onto our picnic table and ate our lunch in Yellowstone Park, and the ratty motel in Reno, and my mom's once-a-trip-migraines, and my car sickness on curvy roads and behind Grayhound buses, and how there wasn't much money so there were no souvenirs to bring home.  And if I never see another state Capitol it will be too soon.  But if it wasn't all great, it was mostly great, and I'm really grateful to my mom for insisting we do it, and to my dad for giving up his entire two weeks of vacation so we could.  It wasn't until years later that I realized that meant he never had ANY vacation days in the whole year--in a long lines of years-- just to relax and putter around home. Burmashave

I've loved the feel of wheels rolling under me ever since, and I still love hotels, so thanks Mom and Dad.  Thanks for the car, the cool water, the a la mode on the pie, the cots I slept on, the games, the swimming, the opening of my eyes to a bigger land.

What about you?

Did you have travel vacations where every night you stayed somewhere new?  Or did you always go somewhere and stay there for the whole time?  Maybe you stayed at home, and never got a special vacation at all?  And what about your kids?  What will they tell people, years from now, about their summer vacations?




July 13, 2011

World-changing Gadgets

Margaret Maron

History-channel-logoFlipping channels the other night, I landed on the History Channel when they were airing “101 Gadgets That Changed the World.”  I came in on #12 (the typewriter) and #11 (transistor radio), so I have no idea what the first 90 were, but I was muttering, “No, no, no!” to most of the last 10.  Here they are:

#10 – the light bulb Images

 #9 – alarm clock

 #8 – phonograph

 #7 – rotary telephones

 #6 – unit air conditioners

 #5 – personal computers & the Internet

 #4 – hypodermic syringe

 #3 - television

 #2 – radio   

#1 – Smart phone

Are they serious?

The light bulb definitely deserves a place in the top ten, but the others?

Okay, air conditioning units may have made the South more livable, but “changed the whole world”?  Get real.  And yes, rotary telephones put a lot of operators out of business, and the alarm clock helped get people out of bed in the morning, but world-changing?  I don’t think so.  Surely the telegraph changed more than the telephone ever did.

The Gutenberg press still deserves a place in the top ten.  It really did change the whole world, not just our little part of it.  Ditto the personal automobile, which killed the trains, allowed people to live miles from their work, and is responsible for so much of the earth’s surface being paved over. It also changed the balance of power for the Middle East by its dependence on oil.


Why isn’t the airplane in the top ten? Didn’t it shrink the world and make it possible to bomb your enemies back to the stone age without ever seeing their faces?  And what about the microchip?  If you listed it in the top ten, you could mark off computers and the Smart phone.

Images_2  Yes, the latter  affects the way we communicate, but it wasn't that huge a change from regular phones. Merely faster. And without the microchip it would be the size of a refrigerator. (And where is the refrigerator, by the way?)

The hypodermic could actually change the world by eradicating so many DownloadedFile diseases that stem from poverty and ignorance, but only if rich nations help bring the needles and the chemistry to the poorer ones.  So far, it doesn’t seem that much of a world-changer to me.

Where’s the photovoltaic cell?  Doesn’t it have potential to change the world by lessening the importance of fossil fuels?  You can bet that a bunch of high-living, dictatorial emirs would consider it world-changing if we ever get serious about developing it on a large scale.


What else should go in the top ten?  Handguns? Tractors? Squirrel-proof bird feeders?

Images_6            Images_5

Or hasn’t your world-changing gadget been invented yet?


July 12, 2011

Health Care Madness: Tips to keep you sane

Health Care Madness: Tips to keep you sane

By Kathy Reschini Sweeney

Don't let anyone tell you otherwise: our health care system is a damn mess.  I am not holding my breath for any injection of sanity or brains in the near future, either.  So today we are going to share tips on how to navigate in this Crazytown.  

1.  You MUST have an Advocate.  If you have Chuck Norris or Oprah on speed dial, by all means, ring them up.  Otherwise, just find a human who can listen and take notes.  No matter who you are, if you are the one getting treatment, you simply cannot keep track of everything yourself.  This is because, among other things, you will be distracted by either the weird-ass stuff in the doctor's office ("Wonder where they put THAT thing?") or the medical staff themselves.  For example, I have never, in my life, seen any group do more snacking than nurses.  I swear someone had a belgian waffle maker in the pre-op area last week.

2.  You MUST coordinate your own care.  Remember how computerized records were going to provide such efficiency and improve the quality of patient care?  BWAH!  Some fool assumed that people were actually going to read the damn things before they engaged the patient.  How quaint.  Never assume that the doctor/nurse/intern/janitor who is treating you knows anything about you or your condition. We were in an - allegedly - top-ranked trauma center where they kept insisting that the left elbow was broken, when in fact anyone who can tell a triangle from a car wreck could plainly see it was the right elbow.  

3.  You MUST ask questions and be pro-active.  Unless, of course, you prefer spending hours at a time sitting in a waiting room or a hospital bed.  Don't think that anyone will remember you are there or that you were supposed to get meds/fed/blood/surgery.  Whether hospitals are understaffed or just unorganized, you need to be the one who makes sure things happen.  I suggest having your advocate watch the hospital scene from "Terms of Endearment" as a training film.

A word about waiting rooms - don't bother watching Jerry Springer on the TV.  There is much more interesting shit going  on around you.  Whoa.  Which reminds me - you must carry Purell or your choice of bleach at all times.  Fight the urge to use it on your eyes - once seen, some images simply cannot be erased.  

4.  You MUST keep your own records - which is another reason you need an advocate.  It does not matter how many times you answer the question: "Are you allergic to latex?"  There is a law that every person you encounter in a health care setting must ask you the same freaking questions every time they see you even if they just asked five seconds ago.  Don't fight it.  If you must, make flash cards and just show the answers.

5.  Do NOT assume that bigger is better.  No joke here.  I never thought I would say this, but there are advantages to local hospitals.  They may not have the cutting edge technology or the fancy speaking engagement resumes of the mammoth systems, but they do have people who actually learn your name, rather than just checking the number on your bracelet.  I am convinced that nurses and other hospital staff at these big places take classes from bartenders on how to avoid eye contact.

6. Do NOT sign everything just because someone tells you to.  I know this is a pain in the ass, but you actually have to read some of this crap.  Otherwise, you could find yourself consenting to all kinds of bizarre treatment.  Stick up for yourself.  If you don't want a cast of thousands in the room every time you have to go to the bathroom, say so.  (This applies mostly to those who have never given birth - because once you go through that show, you lose all sense of modesty.  I mean, I delivered my kids at a teaching hospital, and by the time it was over, I could have been a trending buzzfeed viral video and could not have cared less.)

One final note - try really hard not to go to the hospital in July.  Everyone knows that's when the new baby docs hit the halls.  Unless you are young, single, and looking for a mate who won't be home for long stretches at a time, avoid these newbies at all costs.  

Also - and I mean this in the most loving way possible - my strong suggestion is that each of you do some Kevorkian reading.  I know I am.  Because no way am I spending my last days on earth in a hospital.  NFW.  No offense to the wonderful health care providers out there, but if I am going to have to spend time in hell, I'd prefer to do it after I'm dead, not while I'm waiting.  Just saying.

Your turn - what advice can you share about surviving our medical system?