24 posts categorized "Barbara O'Neal"

December 23, 2011

Books. Writing. Reading.

By Barbara O’Neal

I remember the exact minute I decided to be a writer.

I was in the fifth grade. I was reading, because—let’s be honest here--I never did m 4552006370_036074f238_zuch of anything else. My bedroomwas at the back of the house and had two windows, giving it great light for lounging on the bed with a pack or two or Smarties or Sixlets to nibble on while I read. That day, I was propped up on pillows. It was a winter afternoon, the light just softening into a purple gloaming. My mother cooked supper, sending the smell of hamburger and onions into the air.

I was reading, though I can’t remember what. Out of nowhere, as if an angel dropped a note on the bed, it suddenly occurred to me that somebody wrote this book.

And I thought, quite clearly, “If writing is a job, why would anyone ever do anything else?”

At the time, I had no idea what was involved, but it wasn’t long before I started writing stories myself. All kinds of stories, because when you’re a kid no one cares if you write a literary sort of short short about a gruff grandfather one day and a magical novella about witches the next. My sisters and friends read them all.

I didn’t know it, but I had uncovered the single Great Truth about writing: Writers Write.

CoverYesterday, as I was stressing out over all my first world problems like whether the carpet in our basement will be here in time for Christmas, the UPS man delivered ARCs for my April book, The Garden of Happy Endings. I don’t mind telling you this book kicked my ass. I thought I was writing about a long-lost love, but it was really about women of faith and the church and where they fit and how people lose faith or keep it when really bad things happen. You know, little stuff like that.

But yesterday, I opened the box, and there was my book. There were the words I put down on the pages and the people I spent that year with. It has beautiful end papers and chapter headers. I read the dedication and got teary eyed all over again.

The book is born, right now. She lives. Wow. 

Writers face a lot of pressure these days to be social and public and sell lots of copies and make lists and make friends and send a newsletter, and all kinds of things I forget about because honestly I'm not that good at any of them, but whenever I hold a new book I've written, I think, Holy shit. I’m a writer. I DID this. THIS.

It was so unlikely, and yet, it was also, always, the work I was meant to do. That's a humble and honorable thing, to pick a path and stick with it, year after year, doing it as best you can. I attend to it, writing as truly as I can, writing stories that I'd really like to read myself so that maybe others will want to come along.  

Mainly, though, I do it for me. For that kid in her little bedroom who wanted to read more than she wanted to do anything. In a way, writing a novel is just like reading a novel, except that it lasts longer. I check out of this world and head into the one I’m making up and I love it.

How freakin’ lucky is that?

Here’s something else. I have been on a reading jag. I’m tired (see above—projects coming out my ears, pressures on writers, flooded basement, etc), and what I do when I’m tired is read and read and read. I check out of this world and check into somebody else’s.

I’m reading a couple of books every week. Everything you can think of—science fiction and memoirs and foodie novels and letters from literati, and essays and romances and women’s fiction and sagas. I’ve been saving the second book in George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, Clash of Kings, for the Christmas holiday and can open it tomorrow, so I went back and refreshed my memory by reading the end of the first book, Game of Thrones.

And ---NO SPOILERS!---I fell to pieces all over again reading the final scenes with Daenerys, the brave and plucky young woman sold in marriage to a barbarian king—and proved herself over and over and over again until we see what a fine powerful queen she is. It’s heartbreaking and triumphant and intensely emotional and I love Martin for creating this character so that I can read about her.

I’m not a big fantasy reader. I like it in small doses, but mostly, it comes in 12-packs, which seems like a big commitment when I don’t even know you.  But my eldest son kept telling me, “Mom, I think you’d like it. Just try.”

I still resisted, until I called him one Sunday and he said he’d fallen asleep reading one of the books in the series, and when he woke up, he lifted the book off his chest and kept reading….and forgot to eat.

So. I read the first book.  It's that good.  Now I’m telling you that it’s amazing, and worth reading. If you’re intimidated by keeping all the names and places straight, start with an episode or two of the HBO series.

Books matter. They really, really matter. They matter to us as readers and they matter to us as writers. They can change the world, but more than that, they can change a day, a life, an hour, a year.

Which brings me to the last point. Us. You and me. Books and writing brought us all together here. We have so many ways now to find our tribes, our fellow readers and writers, people who share this passion. The internet has offered us almost immediate connection to the writers we love, to the stories they create, and given us glimpses of their lives in ways that were impossible twenty years ago. It has created communities like this one, readers and writers talking every day, and I feel lucky to have been here even for a short time. I'll miss it, just as you will. 

But I know we’ll meet again, wandering around the book communities we all love. Because we’re book freaks. We love reading and writing and talking about books. We’ll run into each other elsewhere.

Until then, I’ll miss you….and thanks for letting me be here.



December 09, 2011

A Most Unrepentant Dog

IMG_0129by Barbara O'Neal

Funny what memories Christmas will bring....

Once upon a time, I had a dog named Sasha. She was a pirate, a mixed something terrier,  about knee high with a wiry coat that never looked groomed, and a rascally Fu Manchu mustache.   I found her baking in the white hot summer sun in front of Safeway, a puppy who sort of looked like the German shepherd her owner said she was. 

I had a dog.  Had no intention of getting another one, but when I picked her up, she dropped her had on my shoulder and sighed, and that was that. 

She wasn’t a German shepherd, of course, and my ex-husband hated her on sight. She returned the favor, and they had a war that lasted nearly fifteen years.  She was a three ring circus of a dog from day one, accomplished at trash diving and Olympic counter surfing, and she roamed the perimeter of the house every hour on the hour, in case some stray crumb might have fallen to the floor.  She was an exuberant, unapologetic, unrepentant scavenger.  

Eventually, she got old.  I thought she was done for one winter when she and my other dog Jack had a fight over cat food and she had a bloody gash that made me sure she’d lose an eye.  (Let it be said that she did emerge victorious—and the other dog got in trouble.)  The eye healed, but she looked even more the pirate with a patch.

But there was her ancientness, looming.

Just before Christmas that year, I was making cookies. I put a tray in the oven, then went around the corner, maybe 15 feet away, to hang a few more ornaments on the tree.  I heard a funny noise and ran back into the kitchen, and there was Sasha, sprawled flat on her belly, limbs splatted wide.  She was having a seizure, her whole body twitching and convulsing, and I thought….oh, this is it. Poor Sasha!

I fell on the floor next to her. Unsure of what I should do, I just put my hands on her, talking soothingly, telling her I loved her, and I put my hands on her sides to see if that would make her stop twitching, or at least make her feel less afraid. “I’m here, baby,” I said, “I’m here.”

When I lifted her slightly, it must have given her body a little help, because she suddenly heaved and coughed, and out of her mouth flew out a perfectly round ball of butter.  She’d stolen a whole stick off the counter and tried to get outside with it, but before she could make her getaway, the stick melted in her mouth, and settled in her throat, quite efficiently choking her.  When it landed on the floor, she scrambled as fast as she could to grab it again, but I was faster and nabbed it out of reach.  

She leapt up after it, and when she saw she had lost, her only expression was, “Curses! I almost made it.”

Sasha’s been gone awhile now, but every time I leave butter out on the counter to soften, I think of her and her unrepentant pirate spirit.  Maybe I’ll leave some out for her ghost to steal.

Do you have a Christmas memory that comes up in a funny way?  Do you have a bad dog story?  



November 25, 2011

Slipping into the winter dark

by Barbara O'Neal

6267442647_89428073c0_zAs the long winter nights close in, the most basic human desire is to curl up by the hearth and rest. Nap and be quiet.  Read. Tell stories to children, tales of adventure, tales of caution, tales of romance. Sleep long, with a mate tucked close to your side, or the warm body of a cat or a dog.   The winter dark is a time for stews and fragrant teas and candles and fires.

All of the old traditions tell us that this is what we should do now.  Rest our bodies and minds as the earth rests.   

What are we doing instead? Black Friday. Christmas shopping.  Frenetic layers of activity piled on the already busy live we live, always connected, always talking, always learning one more new thing from our online worlds.

In an ideal world, we would all reduce our activity through the short dark days of the next two months. In the modern world, that’s a foolish dream.  We have to work. We have to get ready for the holidays and then host them.  Many of us have to travel, attend Christmas plays and recitals, visit neighbors, go to parties…..make merry for a month or more.

Nothing wrong with making merry, of course.  Food and drink and good company are some of my very favorite things. 

But this year, I find I’m not in the mood.  I want a fire and piles of books and mugs of mulled cider at

my elbow.  I want to dream and think, to restore my batteries and eat nourishing things.  I am in the mood for planting seeds that might grow in the spring, when the cycle turns again.  

Like everyone else, I have obligations.  Work and home and family, friends and exercise and spiritual activities.  I get hundreds of emails that have to be sorted, just as you do.  I have social media gnawing on my ankle.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been pondering the question. How do I, as a modern woman, create the rest the winter dark demands, while meeting the demands of my busy life?

I’ve come up with a few things to try.  Maybe you’ll find one or more of them helpful. 

1.  Read more.  Everyday, maybe for a whole hour.  I’m going to read whatever I want, too, not what anyone tells me I should read, or have to read.  What. Ever. I. Want . 

2. Go to bed a half hour early on weeknights, and sleep later on weekend mornings.  Not that easy if you have children, of course, and my dog will awaken me when he thinks its morning, but a thing 5375998813_c37321e5cc_z doesn’t have to be perfect to be helpful.

3.  Take Sunday afternoons off.  From noon to six, I am not required to do anything.  No writing.  No email or Facebook.  No housework or cooking or shopping.  Just me and whatever I feel might be nourishing, restful, fun.   I might go to the movies.  I might sprawl on the couch and read.  I might have coffee with a friend, but not because I should, only because I want to.

4.  Leave the computer alone after seven pm.  Just walk away and let the world run on its own until morning.

5.  Eat nourishing, hearty soups.  Lentils, maybe.  Bean.  Carrot and barley. 

Maybe if I honor the old ways by resting just this much, I will be better prepared to manage the full-on rush of the modern holiday season.  Maybe I’ll be more discerning when I shop.  Maybe I’ll buy more books as gifts over glittery geegaws.  Maybe I’ll be more relaxed when the people I love gather around.  And maybe, when spring rolls around, I'll be ready with new ideas, projects, possibilities. 

Tonight, as the winter dark closes in, I will start reading a thick new novel,  Clash of Kings by George RR Martin.  I’ll have a cup of mulled cider at my elbow, and a son reading on the couch beside me. 

What are your plans for this holiday weekend? What are you reading? Do you have any winter rituals?

November 11, 2011

The Magic Day: 11.11.11

by Barbara O'Neal

Everyone is making a big fuss about the date today.  In my family, we definitely are, because I have a niece who is eleven today.  (Happy birthday, Jess!) 

But beyond our special celebration, this arrangement of elevens has been very exciting to some people, so I went out on the Internet to see what I could dig up the reasons why. I will poke a little fun, but honestly, it seems a magical sort of number, and why not indulge a little magic?  The world can always use some hope. 

Kundalini Yoga says it is a day to shed the shackles of the past.  According to one website, chanting the mantra “Ek Ong Kar Sat Gur Prasad, Sat Gur Prasad Ek Ong Kar” will create magic because it can shift the energies of the psyche so powerfully that new opportunities seem to materialize out of nowhere.”

Numerologists cite 11 as a magical number, charged and creative.  It is a number of beginnings, but 3440278634_7fb9e08ec9
not just any old beginning.  This would be a birthday worthy of Harry Potter. Huge, world changing beginnings. 

In general, even the most outrageous speculations of the most exuberant of the eccentrics on the Internet (and baby, that gets pretty eccentric) agree that this is a date to usher in not only changes in ourselves, but changes in the world.  It’s change on a global level, a powerful opportunity to forge a new reality for centuries to come. 

The optimistic spirit of the day offers us a chance to usher in a more enlightened age, a more enlightened world, a more enlightened self.

So I wondered, what would that look like?  If I were to dream the best, most enlightened world I could think of, what would I want to see? It's a big task, to create a better world.  I had to think.  I came up with a pretty weighty list, but I believe they are all  possible because when I was a child people smoked in grocery stores and tossed litter out their car windows (while they smoked) and drove drunk. Some rivers were so polluted that they caught fire. Those things changed.  These can, too.

My wish list would include these things:

 ---Self-determination for women across the earth.  To study and find professions if they choose, to bear children or not, to marry spouses of their own choosing (I realize this does not always work out well.  But at least if you choose someone who ends up being a jerk, it was YOU shackling yourself to him, not your parents or your great uncle.)

--End hunger.  It’s ridiculous, with all the technology and understanding we have to deliver food to the table, that anyone, anywhere in the world should starve to death. STARVE to DEATH!  How is that even still possible? 

--End war. All war. Enough already. Can’t we find some other way to solve conflicts besides flinging human bodies at each other and ravaging landscapes and cities until one side gives in?   Yeah, I know.  But this is my wish list and this matters.  It’s a highly inefficient way to do things.

--Make sure anyone who wants an education can have one. Everywhere.  Education opens minds, creates solutions, makes better parents and citizens.  More, more, more education—and not just traditional education either. Not everybody wants to go to college, so let’s stop pretending they do and let high school kids who like sewing or food service or cars enroll in high school courses that will allow them to enter the workforce in a meaningful way so they don’t have to spend the rest of their lives working the cash register at Wal-Mart.




--Rationally discuss, across party lines, country lines, religious lines, etc, the problems that face us all.  Let’s have thoughtful, give-and-take discussions on the problems facing the globe and the nation and see if we can solve them without egos and grandstanding. 

--Heal the planet by finding solutions to the global warming crisis, like better food production techniques in the rainforest, and fewer cattle sending methane gas into the air (yes, really).  

--Change the food industry to insist upon humane conditions for animals raised for harvest.  Don’t misread that.  I’m not saying, “Turn The World Vegetarian” (although it would be good for the planet).  I’m saying, if we’re going to eat critters, the least we can do is make sure they have good lives before we bring them to the table. 

Big list, right?  

One of the websites urged me to “Be the change you want to see in the world,” which I also have as a bumper sticker on my car. So I came up with this list, too. These are things I can do right now, today, to take a step toward those goals.  

Self determination for women:  I don’t know what to do to help more women be free.  I honestly don’t.  There is the Afghan Women’s Writing Project.  I can support that, to start with.  I’m open to other ideas.

War? Oh, jeez. I have no idea.  It seems like I’ve been protesting one war or another since I was in 2672777552_655156e3dc the sixth grade trying to get my classmates to sign a petition to mail to the President.  And here we are, in Afghanistan after ten years, and there is no clear agenda that I can see, but then I’m just a foolish mother and woman who hates to see more young men killed, and sometimes even worse, grievously, horrifically burned, crippled, etc.

But this is supposed to be about positive action.  I’m a writer, so that’s often my answer.  I will keep writing about soldiers and their families and their lives and what they give to humanize the “conflicts.” 

Hunger: I will support agencies and organizations that help feed people.  Care and Share.  The local soup kitchen. Agencies that get food into drought-ravaged places.  I will learn more about food and how it flows, although this has been a slippery slope for me as a foodie-sort of writer.  Sometimes, ignorance is bliss.

UnknownSane thoughtful discussions:  I will LISTEN to my very conservative relatives when they talk about their fears and concerns and ideas for improving the world.  I will NOT loose my temper when they make fun of my ideas on Thanksgiving, but remember that if I want solutions and sanity, I have to LISTEN as well as talk. I have to respect them if I want them to respect me. 

Animal lives: I can chose to eat only food that comes to the table in humane ways, even if Anthony Bourdain makes that sound like a milksop’s approach to the world.  Maybe that helps feed more people. Maybe that, in turn, helps global warming. 

Maybe it won’t, but I can try. 

All I can ever do is try.  After all, I remember when everyone smoked everywhere.  And children died of leukemia. And the highways were covered with empty McDonald’s bags.  And Nelson Mandela was in prison.  

Change happens all the time, and we can make it so.  What better day to begin than the magical 11.11.11? 

What is something you’d like to change for the better? And what small act can you take to support that change?  What small thing can you do to be optimistic today, and offer something GOOD to the global consciousness on a day of such hope? 


October 28, 2011

Adventures in Farm Shares

By Barbara O'Neal

I have been on a vegetable adventure this summer. I signed up for a weekly share in an organic farm co-op, and the variety is enormous. Now, I consider myself a big vegetable eater. I love vegetables. I eat lots of them. I thought I understood them.

Turns out I wasn’t eating nearly as many as I thought. But that’s the challenge of a farm share, right? Working with what’s seasonal, even if it does get to be a lot of say…oh…cabbage by the end of said season. The whites of our eyes are tinted pale green.

Turns out, too, there are more vegetables in Heaven and Earth than I have dreamed of, Horatio.

5098946462_92e8d505c4_zTake, for instance, the pretty little red bulbs that came in my share a couple of weeks ago. Christopher Robin (being from England where things grow much, MUCH bigger than they do here in Colorado) guessed that they were radishes. Since I’ve been growing all manner of radishes this summer, it seemed a reasonable guess. I sliced off a chunk and tasted it.

The river-bottom silt of beets filled my mouth. It was all I could do not to spit them out on the floor. I do not like beets, Sam-I-am. Do not like them boiled or roasted or sliced in salads. They always look so extraordinarily beautiful, and always taste like catfish. Blech.

Another adventure was kale. (We've been getting a LOT of kale!) I had not worked with it at all, mainly because it’s always used for decoration in lawns and doesn’t look particularly edible. 3163986903_fe799f0470_z But it’s basically a hearty green veg, so I was game to layer it into the lasagna. I put the purple kind in a spinach-tortellini soup, and the result was a much more substantial texture than the spinach usually lends, and plus you get to feel like Super Nutrition Person because kale is, as my son tells me, what all the cool kids eat these days.

One of my great challenges is still eggplant. I love the way they look—that gleaming purple skin and cute little hat. When I’m out, I love eggplant parmiagiana. But before they came in the shares, I had never actually handled a fresh one, and my experiments thus far have been only mediocre. I’ll keep trying, because it seems a valuable addition. (Tips welcome!)

11821My favorite of the year so far, however, came in the share this week. A Yugoslavian finger squash. It looks kinda like a flying saucer, but honestly, if you’ve met one winter squash, you’ve met them all. I’ll let you know how it comes out when I bake it, but I’m not expecting any major surprises.

It’s not all weird vegetables, of course. We’ve been feasting on fresh spinach again, and tiny green baby onions, and leeks. On my counter is a bowl piled high with plump baby pumpkins and acorn squashes in their military uniforms and the pale oblongs of butternuts. It’s a treat to dig through the share each week and find out what’s on the menu.

What vegetable will you absolutely not eat under any circumstances? Do you get a farm share like this? And please...give me some tips for making a decent dish with eggplant!

Photo credits: Beets-- 3liz4; kale--Ameetav Nangrani

October 16, 2011


From Barbara O'Neal

Please help me welcome Barbara Freethy, a writer I've known since we were both kittens.  A prolific and versatile writer, Barbara has had one AMAZING summer, which has included putting EIGHT books on the New York Times bestseller lists.  Currently, she has three books in the Amazon top 100, all romantic suspense, including Silent Run, Silent Fall, and Don't Say A Word

Yeah, I know.  I might have serious envy, too, if she were not one of the hardest working, NICEST women in the business.  She deserved this a long time ago, and it's about time.  Go on, read one of her books--you won't be sorry.   Welcome, Barbara!

by Barbara Freethy

So I'm a Project Runway fanatic. I never miss an episode. I love the challenge of having to create something from nothing in a limited amount of time with very little money. The designers have Project+Runway+Season+6+Episode+9+Tim+Gunn+Workroom+21 copy
usually thirty minutes to sketch, thirty minutes to shop for material and then it's on. About halfway through the challenge Tim Gunn, their mentor, comes in to critique and offer helpful suggestions. Sometimes the suggestion is to rip it apart and start over or edit out the self-indulgent moments. His analysis is usually spot-on, and those who don't listen pay the price. But the part I like best is everyone's favorite line, MAKE IT WORK!

As a writer, I can totally relate to just about every part of this process, the blank page, the creative burst at the beginning of the challenge, the quick drive to find plot points and twists, the high dive into the unknown and then the middle … There comes a point in every project where the doubts descend. Where the plot suddenly looks boring and stupid, the pacing is slow, the characters are idiots, and one might ask why did I ever think this was a good idea?  But just like the designers on Project Runway, writers have to find a way out – they have to MAKE IT WORK.

MailIf a writer is under contract, there's usually no time to step back for a few months and just think. Sometimes you've already sold the idea, so there's no switching it out for a newer, prettier plot. Just like the designers often get stuck with bad material. I love when they come back to the workroom after fabric shopping with some awful orange wool and muse to themselves in wonder, "Wow, it looked a lot different in the store". Yeah, again, I can relate. Sometimes my stories sound better in my head than they read on paper.

But all any creator can do is persevere. Try and make the ugly pretty, the impossible become possible. It would be great if Tim Gunn could descend at just the right moment with his quizzical eye and make us rethink what we're doing, but in his absence, we need to do it ourselves. Every writer needs to find a way to step back every now and then and review the work with a critical eye. But it can't happen too early in the game. Sometimes you need to get far enough in to see where the problems are.

As a writer, I'm not big on outlining, which is probably why I need the MAKE IT WORK moment. I would love to be able to see every twist and turn of a 100,000 word plot before I begin. But for me my best moments come out of the writing. Listening to my characters, hearing them speak, sometimes being surprised by what comes out of their mouths, setting the scene, living in that world day in and day out – that's what brings out the best in me and my story. But writing this way can mean some missteps, so then I rewrite. Every now and then, I get stuck for a while. Sometimes I make the mystery impossible to figure out. My villain is so clever, I need to more clever if I'm going to figure out how to catch him. Sometimes, I put my characters in a really tough spot and again it takes a while to determine how they can possibly get out.

In my book SILENT RUN, the heroine is run off the road, and she wakes up in the hospital with no memory of wh Silentrunnyt120o she is or what she's done. A man appears at her bedside. He's furious with her. He claims she's his wife and she ran away from him seven months ago. He demands to know where their baby is. She doesn't remember him or a child or a marriage. Is he lying?  Or is she the horrible person he portrays her to be? I love this story, but it was tough to write. The character has no introspection about her life, because she doesn't know anything. She has to figure out who she is from the clues around her. She has to sift through what people tell her about herself and what she instinctively knows. At many points during this challenging novel, I would have loved to see Tim Gunn's kind face, although he probably would have said one of this other favorite lines, "What were you thinking?"

But as Project Runway reminds me, I'm the writer. I create the work I can make anything happen, and I can turn bad into good, sometimes into great, if I just keep going.  SILENT RUN turned out to be one of my best books.

Do you have any favorite shows? Any characters that relate to your life or inspire you? 


October 14, 2011

The Best Inventions of All Time, according to me

by Barbara O'Neal

In the days since Steve Jobs died, I have been thinking a lot about the impact of his brain on my own personal life. It’s big, I gotta tell you.  Originally, I was resistant to the lure of the Apple Man, but he seduced me with a tiny gadget, the Shuffle.  What walker could resist a machine the size of a half dollar that could be loaded with hundreds of her favorite songs and clipped to her collar?  Not this one, that’s for sure. 

It was the gateway drug.  A Shuffle led to a Nano, so I could mix up the playlists a bit. Then an iPhone, because who could resist a whole computer in your pocket?  And it was such a dream machine that I fell to a Mac for my desktop, this enormous, HD lovely screen and no clunky beige box to have to find a place for; and then….hey-sanna, ho-sanna, sanna-sanna, hey: the iPad.

This all started me thinking about great inventions, and which ones matter the most to me, personally.  This is my list. 

CamelBak hydration systems.  For the uninitiated, this is basically a backpack with a water 5715092288_b1a965c80b_z bladder inside, attached to a tube from which you drink.

This is the first thing on my list because I live in Colorado and it is DRY here. Before the invention of Camelbaks, a long hike required a silly number of water bottles in the backpack, and one always had to carry a bottle in the hand, which leaves only one hand free in case you need to scramble, and you may not know this, but even the weight of a 10-oz water bottle is annoying on the elbows after a few hours.  You feel it, the repetitive bend and fall.  Along came Camelbaks, in a zillion sizes, and hikers round the world rejoiced.  I have many sizes—a big pack for days on the trail, smaller ones for short hikes around town with friends.  The best part is filling the bladder about a quarter of the way full the night before and tucking it into the freezer.  Top it off in the morning with water, et voila! Ice cold water the whole day. 

This technology has morphed into a lot of things, but my heart-stopping moment was the day in maybe 1988 or ’89 when my father, a gadget geek from way back, invited me and my boys to come over to his house to see his new toy: Prodigy, the online service.  He gleefully typed in his information, and the computer made those little noises that later became so familiar to us.  My other said, “The computers are talking to each other!” and a chill ran down my spine.  The world blew open for me in that moment, and even though it was years before the rank and file had access to the Internet the way we do now, the road started for me there, in that dark office, with two modems talking to each other.


4439530234_c33f3d7d4b_zPizza cutter
I know.  Silly.  Unless you’ve baked 90 billion pizzas for 6 hungry boys and had to struggle with cutting them with a stupid knife.  My list, so I’m adding it.



Electric kettle
It used to be hard to find them in the US, so my first encounter with them was in England. Now, as I 6208103848_5a1c6ed1fd_z have mentioned before, I am a serious tea drinker, and I will not heat water for tea in the microwave because it loses temperature too quickly, so I always had to turn on the stove to heat water for tea.  Entirely inefficient. I love, love, love my electric kettle.  (This photo, thanks to Flickr, is from Ben Templesmith, who titled it, "Behold America. And electric kettle. You push a button and it BOILS WATER. #rarethingsintheusa. I can now work late nights thanks to this brilliant invention.


I’m torn on this one, honestly, because I am an iPhone addict, too.  My phone has a camera that takes amazing photos, which the iPad doesn’t do.But I love my iPad insanely. We are best friends. We go everywhere together, upstairs, downstairs, to the local coffee shop, on planes and in hotel rooms. It’s my own personal programmable TV, loaded with all my favorite stuff, historical dramas mostly, and some teen shows like Felicity.  It’s my food & exercise diary and my bank, and with the addition of the teeny external keyboard, my writing computer, too. I can curl up in my chair and be anywhere in the world and I can do it with my fingers and not stupid mouse. 


Other inventions
I asked my beloved, Christopher Robin, what his favorite inventions are. His answers:  microwave ovens, which saved him because he can’t cook, and 24/7 stores, which amazed and delighted him, coming as he does from a country where the shops closed at 4, and noon on Wednesday.  “If one needs paper hankies at two o’clock in the morning,” he said, “one can buy them.”  (What I think in reaction to that is, yes, but you have to get up and get dressed and drive to the store and buy them.  But to each his own.)

How about you? What are a few of your favorite inventions? 




September 23, 2011

Stove Atrocities

by Barbara O'Neal

Photo by Ax|d-Works I have an old stove—a dull cream model with ancient electric rings and a black front.  It’s serviceable, but little more than that.  I hate it when the sun comes streaming through my kitchen window and illuminates the splatters of grease across the control panel and the aged dust stuck to the inner hood.  I’m sure I must have wiped it all down when I cleaned the kitchen last night, but it looks like something out of a hoarder’s episode.   Dust from the wings of cat-murdered miller-moths mixed with flutters of dog fur mixed with kosher salt mixed with that creeping cooking sludge I can never quite identify.   Thanks to the terror of a grease fire in a long ago, much older stove, I’m pretty methodical about lifting the cooktop to mop up any spills, but unless I bought a new pan for each burner every week, they always look battle scarred, too.  

And I cook there.

9520399_1b0acd77d0_z The oven can be even worse.  The window is never less than slightly amber-speckled, scarred by casseroles baked in 1992.  I try to be careful, putting pies on cookie sheets and the like, but something always ends up spilling over, burning to a black concrete cinder at the bottom of the oven, staying there, growing harder and blacker until the next time I pull out the heavy-duty cleaners.  You know, the kind that require elbow length industrial rubber gloves and a face mask and if any of it touches your skin, it starts to sting immediately. Maybe it’s understandable that I don’t get around to this more than every seven or eight years. 

Of  course, that leads to the bottom drawer.  I used to keep lids in there, but no more. It doesn’t matter how many times I wipe it out—there are always more crumbs littering the drawer like the remains of a picnic.

Now, I am not some monster slob of a housekeeper.  I don’t like keeping house, but I like things to be relatively tidy (not counting that one kitchen counter—everybody should have one kitchen counter where things go until you can figure out where they really go), and I was assiduously trained in restaurants to keep food things clean.  And still that stove, always, always seems to look like that.  There is some little part of my 70’s raised woman-self that berates me, insisting that if I were any kind of woman at all, I’d have a sparkling cooktop.  And a much, much cleaner fridge.

Luckily, the sane creative woman living inside of me says, “Oh, who cares what it looks like?  You from (www.debabrata.info) debabrata have books to write! Get cracking.”

Still, I want someone to invent a tiny stove-cleaning robot, armed with suds and polishers and brooms, that I can set on the stove every evening so I will awaken to a shiny, ad-worthy stove every single morning. 

Is there some task that defeats you?  What would you invent if you could?  


September 11, 2011

This Day to Remember.

Where were you on September 11th? What do you remember?

From Margaret:

  I was awakened earlier than usual to be told that a close relative was in the hospital with a broken hip, so when I flipped on NPR to catch the morning headlines and heard that a plane had crashed into the Trade Center, I immediately turned on the television and was shocked to watch as that second plane went in.  The first could have been a weird accident; the second was clearly deliberate, but who?  why? The horror continued as I flashed on the few times I'd taken an elevator up to one of the towers' high floors.  How long it took even on the express.  To think of trying to walk down through smoke and fire . . .? Ghastly. In addition to all the people who died that day, there were even more deaths to come.  Of the two close friends who lived in lower Manhattan, I'm convinced that  breathing those contaminants for months caused the death of one and hastened the end of the other even though neither was in the building itself.

From Nancy Martin: 

 I was living on a mountaintop in rural Virgina--alone because my husband had already moved back to Pennsylvania for a job. Between writing the last chapter of my first mystery, I was packing boxes that morning and watching the Today show.  With packing tape in my hand, I heard Katie Couric's incredulous voice saying,  "We don't want to alarm anyone, but it looks as if a small plane may have crashed into the World Trade Center." And while I watched, the second plane hit.  I thought, "My daughter is in New York," and you know that expression "my blood ran cold?"  Well, that's how I felt---as if a terrible block of ice hit my chest and spread through my veins all the way to my fingertips. 

An instant later, the phone rang, and the voice of my great friend (and backblogger!) cried, "Are you seeing this?"  It was just like our mothers telling us about Pearl Harbor.  We couldn't believe it.  The sky was so blue and perfect. For hours, I kept trying my daughter's phone, but of course it was out. Thank God for Ethernet.  When she got back from class, we emailed, and she begged me to phone her boyfriend's mother in DC.  Her boyfriend had been on a plane from New York that morning, but I couldn't make the call. I kept thinking he'd been in the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.  I couldn't call a mother whose son had died.  But he was already on the subway in DC when the plane went down, and he reached my daughter by email within a few hours. 

My mother called from Pennsylvania.  Her voice shook.  "An airliner flew over the golf course.  It was so low, we thought we could reach up and touch it." That was minutes before it crashed. When I phoned my husband--already at his new banking job--he said in amazement that the guys he'd been doing business with the previous day weren't answering their phones.  They worked for Cantor Fitzgerald. My sister, in Brooklyn, said her front steps were covered in burned bits of paper with the Cantor Fitzgerald letterhead.

That night, alone in the house on the mountain, I heard a tremendous roar of powerful engines down in the valley.  It went on for hours, and the concussion rattled the windows of the house.  I was afraid to go outside to listen by myself, so I took the dog, and Dolly and I stood on the lawn, listening in the dark. Dolly leaned against my leg. I remember how warm she felt, and comforting. Turns out, all the east coast railroad companies had sent their locomotives to hide in the old coal yard in the town below. To be safe from terrorists. Terrorists!  What was a terrorist?

I remember how we all felt in the weeks that followed--joined in a common spirit.  Makes the current Congress look so self-absorbed and petty. If nothing else, I'm glad we have so many stories of heroism and patriotism and unity from that terrible day.

From Barbara O'Neal:  

I had been on a very challenging hiking trip in Provence, and made it home on September 11 at 3 am Colorado time.  I awakened to the phone ringing, and it was my grandmother calling to be sure I was home. She said, "Oh, thank God you are not on a plane. I didn't know when you were coming in. They've bombed the Pentagon."  I thought she was being alarmist, but turned on the television to see the towers smoking after the first plane hit.  The calls continued all morning--my family calling to make sure I was actually home and not on one of those planes.  I have a lot of friends in NYC, but my thoughts that morning were for the friend I'd gone hiking with.  She was stranded in Paris, alone, because she'd taken a later flight than I did, and didn't get home for two weeks.  

The story I think about the most is one from an editor I was working with at the time. She lived in the village and couldn't get to her apartment for quite some time. When she finally got back, she said the smell was awful in the neighborhood and she commented to her boyfriend that it smelled like rotten garbage all the time. He said gently, "Honey, that's not garbage."   


From Hank Phillippi Ryan:

It was a beautiful, beautful day on the East Coast, as you remember, too, Nancy.  And chillingly, as it turned out, that's one of the reasons the plot could work--because it was so clear that it allowed the terrorists to see the towers.

I was--crazily--at the hairdresser, getting a hair cut. That night was my station's preview party for the upcoming TV season, and we were all sprucing up.  Someone came running in, saying something incomprehensible, and then the news came flooding in. I had wet hair.

I knew I had to get to work, GET TO WORK as  soon as possible. As a reporter, this was...well, it was work. Separating the journalists from everyone else. I called Jonathan, yelling over the sound of the blowdryer. Yes, he knew.  Are the kids okay, in Park Slope? Our step-son works in the city...yes they're okay. I don't know when I'll be home, I said. (And I will admit, what I really wanted to do was go home.)

I walked to work, maybe 4 blocks, in that beautiful day. The bars were all open on Congress Street, all the glass fronts wide open, all the televisions on. I remember, so clearly, deliberately walking slowly. Thinking, so clearly, so clearly, "this is the moment our lives are all changing. When I get to work, our lives will never be the same."

(Ridiculously: I'm the investigative reporter, you know? And my boss came racing into my office. "How did this happen?" he yelled. "You and Mary (my producer) have to find out how this happened!"  As if we could do that. I think we stayed in the office for the next--three days? And every time we started to   complain, we'd look at each other and say: "We're not dead. Not dead." And then go back to work.)


From Sarah Strohmeyer:

Yes, it was a beautiful September morning and I'd just sent the kids off to school and sat down to write. We'd recently redone our computer system and installed a New York Times news alert. So many ways to procrastinate! Oddly enough, the first message that popped up was from my childhood friend, Connie Jordan, whom I hadn't spoken to in, gosh, ten or more years.

Connie is a smart, beautiful woman, a Swarthmore/Harvard grad and Presbyterian minister whose husband survived a nasty bout of cancer early in their marriage. I've often thought of Connie as being deeply spiritual - though we occasionally butted heads over different interpretations of Christianity. Anyway, I'm still moved by the randomness - or not - of hearing from this woman of God just as my New York Times news ticker started firing bulletins about a plane crashing into the twin towers.

The bulletins were confusing. First it was a small plane. Then it was a jet. Wait, something was going on in D.C.? Was that another plane in New York? Or the same one? I remember thinking that it was probably a joker pilot. About a month before, a single-prop plane had flown precariously close to high rises in Manhattan and in flying from Manchester to New York, our little commuter flight often followed 5th Avenue. You could even see people working in their offices. 

But this was different.

Finally, I wrote Connie this: "Something's going on."

Connie wrote back. "I know. But what?"

"It's bad," I wrote back, getting chills as the bulletins became more alarming. A missing plane in Pennsylvania. Reports of a small plane flying into the Pentagon. More planes missing.

"I have to pray," Connie said. And that was it. I've never heard from her since.

I called Charlie at work and he was just getting the news. I flipped on the TV and there was Peter Jennings, smoke swirling from the twin towers in another frame. I told Charlie to come home immediately, that the towers were on fire. I thought of all my friends in New York, of the husband of my daughter's godmother who worked at Merrill Lynch. Like Connie, I prayed.

And then the unthinkable. The first tower fell, just crumbled like a house of cards. Peter Jennings went dead silent as Charlie came through the door and I looked at him and said, "We'll never be the same."

All those people. Gone.


From Elaine Viets:


That’s what I remember most after 9-11. Don and I lived in a beach condo in Hollywood, Florida. After the attack, the airport was closed for weeks, silencing the constant drone of commercial flights.

Instead, the skies were patrolled by sinister black helicopters. Warships cruised offshore, some with the ominous bulge of nuclear weapons.

Three of the terrorist leaders moved to Florida in 2000, near our home. South Florida is an international community, and they blended in. They used our local library, where the computers are free to all. They made one of their last appearances at Shuckums Oyster Bar in Hollywood, where at least two "holy warriors" drank forbidden alcohol – screwdrivers and rum and Coke. You can make what you want of this: They ate chicken wings.

Twelve hours after the attack on the World Trade Center, the FBI flashed their photos around the bar. The Shuckums’ server remembered them – and their lousy tip.


From Heather Graham:


The very words will, for everyone old enough on the day, be horrible and poignant. And no matter how much time passes, we all know where we were and what we were doing on that date. 

For me, I was mourning, and cleaning out mother's house with my sister; we had lost her just weeks before. And one of the things that kept running through my mind was at least she doesn't have to see this.

But my mom's passing became back-burner; I hadn't seen a TV. I was driving to a store to buy cleaners when a friend called me and frantically told me not to go to downtown Miami. At the time, I never went downtown, and I thought she'd spiked her morning diet coke. Of course, when she told me that two planes had hit the towers, I immediately started trying to reach my third son--he was going to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn at the time, and the kids there were always on the Path train to reach the store where they bought their art supplies. I was frantic, trying to reach him. His cell went straight to a dull tone. 
I rushed back and got on my computer and I was amazed when I got an instant message. He was on the roof at Pratt and miraculously, his Internet was up. He was alright; he was feeling his gut wrench as he and fellow students watched the towers burn. Suddenly he wrote, "OMG! It fell, it fell!" And I didn't know what he was talking about, until he explained, "It went down; the whole damned tower went down. Oh, God, oh God."
The day that travel was allowed again, Dennis and I got on a plane and flew to New York; I had to see him, and friends in the city who had lost loved ones. If I didn't get on a plane, I could never suggest that anyone else ever do so again. I was terrified getting on that plane. It turned out to be Dennis and I, a few scattered people, and about ten pilots heading up to start commercial travel again. I'll never forget flying by the place where the towers had been--and the ground was still smoldering. 
I'd considered myself a student of history, and I had thought I'd known something about terrorism; my mom and her family left Dublin because they were "mixed" and the "troubles" continued. But I had never understood the kind of hatred that could make anyone massacre so many people so blindly. I'd been to Egypt, I had friends who were Muslim. And I had to make myself realize that while their was a culture of hatred--quite possibly the result of poverty and misery as so much hatred was--was not the culture of everyone. 
Today, I know that we often wonder what our men and women in the service are accomplishing because it's true that you can't kill and ideal. But I was with a young serviceman the other day who told me, "You don't get to see the good very often on TV. I was there when we opened a new school, and the parents and the children were grateful and wonderful. Building and giving, yes, we can make a change."
So what do we do in our world today? We defend ourselves. We learn how to do that through intelligence. We suffer, because we can't stop everything. We keep trying to be the country we began to be after the Civil War, seeing all people as equals. It's so easy to hate. And I hate fanatics of any kind who would do harm to others; I pray that I never do so blindly, and I always judge a person for the person they are. And because I really have no control, I pray for our men and women in the service, and I pray for all who are caught in the violence brought upon them by others. Most of all, I pray that we stop being such a party-determined society, and that our law makers can stop following party lines, and work hard to defend and strengthen out country, and show others, through our united front and efforts to benefit all mankind, that we should be emulated, and not alienated, assaulted, and attacked.

From Joshilyn Jackson:

I went downstairs to get coffee and I turned on a little television I had on the kitchen counter. There was the first tower, with the plane going into it.

I immediately called my friend Lydia Netzer and said, Turn on your television, because I didn’t want to be watching alone. They showed it over and over.  It seemed crazy and impossible. We began coming up with explanations for it, back and forth, two fiction writers constructing implausible scenarios, looking for a way it could have happened. We were like children telling each other fairy tales ---- pilots having strokes and electrical instruments going haywire, anything to keep ourselves from understanding.

The second plane came. We saw it happen.

Then we knew. There wasn’t any way to not know. This is on purpose, we said back and forth to each other, but only because there was no other explanation left. We had tried so hard to make it be Fate---God---Accident---Error, anything at all. Anything except a deliberate, human choice.


From Brunonia Barry:

I worked at the World Trade Center for several years in the mid-seventies, soon after it opened. I was in the accounting department of Toyoda America, Inc. on the fiftieth floor of the North Tower. It was one of my first jobs out of college, and I loved the whole experience. But most of all, I loved the WTC. It was like a small community. I was there when Phillippe Petit walked the tightrope between the towers.

Windows on the World had not yet opened, and, for a short while, we were allowed to take our lunches up there and enjoy the view from the top floor. A small group of us representing many different companies lunched there most days, until the construction crews put an end to our visits. After that, we all continued to meet for lunch at the restaurant on the 44th floor.

I was our company’s fire marshall, and used to lead the employees in monthly evacuation drills, things they sometimes participated in and sometimes refused to take seriously. Thankfully, my friends at Toyoda had relocated their company offices a few years before the towers came down, but there were others I knew there who remained, friends who were lost.

Ten years ago on September 11th, I was in the hospital undergoing emergency surgery. I remember the television and everyone huddled around staring. I remember hoping that I was hallucinating from the medication, and then realizing that it was not a dream. In the ten years that have passed, I have not visited the site. It’s still difficult for me to think about, as it is for many of us.   


September 09, 2011

5 Simple Ways to Save the World

by Barbara O'Neal 

On Sunday evening, I had friends over for a summer supper.   We sat on the back patio and ate corn on the cob and potato salad and lightly fried squash and tiny sweet tomatoes.  The ears of corn were not all exactly 10 inches long and evenly covered with kernels from end to end in straight 6032456619_8eb5d0bda9_m rows.  They were 3 inches long, some of them, and plump to bursting.  One had zigzagging rows that were nonetheless juicy and delicious. Two ears were long and elegant, the race-horses of corn, which I gave to our guests.  I picked them from my garden an hour before the guests arrived, along with the tomatoes—I had hoped some of the little yellow pears would be ready, or at least one or two big romas, but only the Sweet 100s were ripe.  (In a week, I’ll be drowning in tomatoes, of course, but I will sun-dry them).  The potatoes were a particular thrill—I grew three bags of them for the early crop, leaving these for last. They were white potatoes, some two full pounds each, their skins as thin as the membrane over an egg white.

As we feasted, I thought back over how much time and energy it took to grow this much food, enough for a single meal for four people.  I started in March, with seeds under grow lights, and planted in May, and all these months since, the sun and the rain and the winds have come, day after day. I pulled weeds and fretted over onion grubs.  

It’s humbling, and illuminating. 

We all know the food delivery system is broken, a side effect of industrialization and subsidization.  It seemed like such a great idea—feed everybody cheaply and easily!—but in theory, it isn’t working out.  We all hear the stats—children are fatter, we are fatter, we are less healthy, and meanwhile, Somalia starves.  This year, there have been three massive recalls of meat—36 million pounds of turkey, for example, which is a catastrophic waste of life. 

We all want, most sincerely, to find answers, but when you’re dealing with such an enormous problem, it’s hard to know how to take a single step.  

As a food writer, I have learned much more than I ever wanted to know about the food industry, and it has been enough to dramatically change the way I eat.  I’m not going to bore you with all that, but know that I am a passionate eater, and love food, and the way it comes to us, feeds us, nourishes us both heart and soul, is very important to me.  

One thing that’s clear about society is that it’s impossible to change big things all at once, overnight.  But it’s surprising what little things can do.  Little baby steps are good.

1950s PHILIP MORRIS Lucille Ball vintage cigarettes advertisement hollywood smoking Think about cigarettes.  Remember when everybody smoked everywhere?  In grocery stores, in hospital rooms, in restaurants and malls and EVERYWHERE?  It didn’t suddenly change overnight.   It was one little thing at a time.  No smoking in stores—that’s kinda disgusting.  Smoking sections in restaurants.  Take that cigarette outside, would you?

And now, we’d no more tolerate smoking in a grocery store than we would allow someone to poop in the aisles. 

This spring, finally overwhelmed with all the information I had gathered in studying the food industry, I started looking for easy ways to start changing things in my own world.  Here are 5 easy ways to change the world from where you are.


Not everybody has the time, inclination, or space for a big garden, but almost everyone has a little spot for a planter of tomatoes, a bag of potatoes, or a bag of lettuce, or some peas growing up a IMG_1896 trellis on the balcony.   It’s good on so many levels that nearly every food-industry challenge starts with this single idea.  It saves money and transportation costs, it’s more nutritious, it connects us to the cycle of food and eating, and gives a clear idea of how much energy it takes to produce it.  

Besides, all that, the food you grow yourself tastes about 900% better than what you get at the grocery store. 

(And that photo is one of potatoes I grew in bags in my backyard.)


This is fresh, fresh food. It supports the local economy.  It reduces transportation costs.  And again, it tastes really, really good, and you don’t have to do the work yourself.   For a list of Farmers Markets, plug in your zip code here and find one near your home.


Please.  This is one of the areas I have trouble not banging the drum so hard I drive people away, so let me say it very simply.  Last year’s recall of a half-billion eggs brought some attention to the subject of battery cages, but there is more to do. 

This single act will make a massive change in the world.  I know they are more expensive.  They also taste 100 times better, and it is simple common humanity to ask that a chicken who gives her life to producing eggs for us should have a clean space, fresh air, and some room to move around.  Simple. 

That’s totally worth $2 a carton.



Driving a car is understood to be bad for the greenhouse effect.  Cow farts are pretty bad, too, and to my absolute astonishment, I discovered that rotting food in landfills accounts for something like 34% of the methane gas in the air!  That’s a dangerous greenhouse gas, and pretty staggering sums.

However, this is not as easy to carryout as the others, especially if you live in an apartment.   But if you do have a little bit of backyard, you can have a compost heap, and it’s easy.  There are all kinds of tools and buckets and styles to choose from these days.  We have a barrel turner, and a stationary one with worms (remember I have a big garden and really lousy soil, so this was a good investment for me).   The compost coming out of them is very rich stuff.  Which will make for a better garden next year, and so on and so on and so on.  

MEATLESS MONDAYS (or Friday or Wednesday)
Human beings are omnivores, and therefore, most of us like meat.  In industrialized nations, however, we are consuming way, way more than we really need, and that demand puts a crippling pressure on the environment.  Reduce your intake by going meatless one day a week and help save (and feed) the world. 

What are some of your ideas for saving the world in teeny, tiny bites?  Do you have a garden or a pot of tomatoes on the balcony?  Or a Farmers Market in your neighborhood that you adore?