Saturday, June 30, 2007

Better Than Nothin'

by Tory Butterworth

When I first started in community mental health as an outpatient therapist, one of my clients had waited three months for his first session. This is part of what motivated me to take up the challenge of co-facilitating Newcomers' Group, where new patients got to be seen by someone (admittedly in a group) within a week of their initial assessment. To say it was a hard sell was an understatement, but we persisted, and the concept continued even after I'd left.

One of the things that kept my co-leader and I going on those difficult days when patients, staff, and mental health regulations seemed to conspire against us, was our motto. "After all, it's better than nothing," I'd repeat to myself or my co-leader. And despite its lacks, Newcomers Group gave help quickly to people who desperately needed it, and allowed us to keep an eye on the patients at greatest risk. It was better than waiting six to eight weeks to see someone individually.

After leaving that therapist job, I let go of our motto, hoping I would never need it again. When you're doing training, you have time to prepare in advance, right?

So much for wishful thinking.

Just as I was leaving work Monday, my boss approached me, looked me in the eye, and told me, "I need help." New boss, new job, not the sort of request you want to turn down. This week our organization is hosting the "Crisis Intervention Team" training for police officers, and someone from a collaborating agency dropped the ball and left us a presenter short. I was given a powerpoint on assessing suicide attempts and asked to present it the next day at 8 a.m.

As I was busy assessing whether I could politely refuse, our Newcomers' group motto came to mind. The trainees had already left for the day, so it was too late to ask them to come back at 9 a.m. rather than 8. My presentation, as inadequate as it was, was still better than nothing. I agreed and managed to make it through the presentation the next day more or less unscathed.

Based on audience reaction, if I had to do it again I would have organized the presentation differently. But, even if I had time to prepare, would I have figured that out before the event? I guess I'll never know.

I tell my perfectionist clients, "Some things need to be done right, others just need to be done." All I can say is, it was done.

Any mottos that get you through the day?

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Echo from our common past

by Martha Reed

The best teacher I ever had was Mrs. Zingale in the fifth grade. She taught Social Studies and when she introduced me to the culture of ancient Egypt I fell in love. I poured over library books about King Tut’s tomb and I crayoned an entire tomb wall painting for extra credit. I remember that the priest’s leopard skin was particularly difficult. Mrs. Zingale taped my interpretation over the chalkboard. It ran the length of the classroom and caused quite a stir.

In northern Ohio, back in the early ‘70’s, the idea of a female pharaoh was pretty radical. That’s what probably drew me to Hatshepsut. For my class project, I was trusted with an Exacto blade – I was a studious, trustworthy child – and I built a diorama of her funerary temple, Deir el-Bahri, out of styrofoam. I can still feel that grainy textured styrofoam under my fingernails. Mrs. Zingale gave me an ‘A’.

I had forgotten all about Hatshepsut and the fifth grade until yesterday, when officials of the Cairo Museum announced that they had re-discovered her mummy. This is big news. Three thousand five hundred years ago, Hatshepsut stole the throne out from under her half-royal stepson/nephew (don’t ask), and after she died Thutmose III went on a rampage and erased any mention of her from all the monuments and temples. (Dick Chaney did not invent political evaporation). It’s a miracle we even know about Hatshepsut at all. Of course, human workers being human, no one bothered to chisel her royal hieroglyphic off the back of the temple door since when the door was open the back lay flat against an interior wall and maybe – just maybe, with some luck – that bitching site supervisor wouldn't notice that we skipped that bit and besides, it’s nearly quitting time, it's damn hot, let’s go drink some beer – and Hatshepsut’s name and memory survived.

While Thutmose III was having his snit, some kind soul snuck Hatshepsut’s mummy out of her royal tomb and hid it in the cramped but secure tomb of her wet nurse, Sitr-In. The small, common tomb was no secret. Egyptologists have opened it two or three times before in the last hundred years, and they knew all about the two unadorned female mummies inside, but no one paid any particular attention to them since the Egyptologists were all busy looking for the next unplundered Tut. I like to think of Hatshepsut – the divine god-queen of Egypt, one of the most powerful women ever – hanging out for a couple of thousand years with her wet nurse, just laying low, chillin’. It adds a human touch.

What makes the story funny is that we bring our own modern misconceptions to the party. We think any female pharaoh must have looked like Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra.

Even Zahi Hawass, the Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, fell for this modern interpretation. Of the two mummies found in the common tomb, he suggested that the slim one in the coffin had a ‘royal’ profile. The fat dumpy mummy on the floor, all of 5-2 inches tall and with 'enormous' pendulous breasts, had to be the wet nurse, right? Are queens even allowed to have pendulous breasts? Modern science came to the rescue with DNA evidence and the joke is on us. The obese mummy turns out to be all that remains of one of the most powerful woman to rule a nation. Hatshepsut was obese, suffered from diabetes and died in her fifties of bone or liver cancer. She was every bit as modern as we are. What does that say about us?

Crime at the Beach

by Kristine Coblitz

Ocean City, New Jersey is known as “America’s Greatest Family Resort.” It’s broadcasted on signs throughout the area and on the boardwalk. There are two amusement parks, numerous miniature golf courses, arcades and family-friendly activities, such as the weekly “family night” with entertainment and contests.

My husband and I vacation there every year. My husband spent his summer vacations there as a child, and we plan to take our own children there. It’s a relatively safe place. No alcohol is served on the entire island, including in the restaurants, although there are numerous airplane messages that fly over the beach throughout the day for beer ads, and you can buy T-shirts in the plentiful novelty shops with suggestive messages about teenage drinking and partying. (This year, we happened to be there during Senior Week.) Cops patrol the boardwalk in the evenings.

This year, after having read TILT-A-WHIRL by Chris Grabenstein, I viewed my soothing beach surroundings with a more critical eye. The book details a bloody murder that takes place on an amusement park ride at the Jersey Shore. What I loved most about the book is the unexpected setting. A murder at a family beach resort? Unthinkable!

Being the paranoid crime writer I am, I immediately thought that every police car siren I heard meant that a murder had occurred. When I came home, I researched crime statistics at the Jersey Shore, particularly in Ocean City. While Ocean City is relatively low in crime statistics, there have been numerous incidents since 2001 involving robbery and aggravated assault, including some rapes.

I suspect there’s a lot going on underneath the surface of the pristine family resort that is often swept under the rug and kept out of the public eye in an attempt to maintain the safe, family-oriented image of the area. For example, after returning home, I learned about a lost gun that was found by a teenager at one of the amusement parks, which happened while we were there. The gun belonged to a cop on vacation who lost his weapon while on one of the amusement park rides. We had no idea the incident even took place, but it worries me to think about what could have happened.

Another example happened last year when we learned that a serial killer with a preference for prostitutes was on the loose in Atlantic City, which is located only a few short miles and a quick 10-minute drive away from Ocean City. That's a little close for my comfort.

As writers, I think it’s important to think about unusual settings for our stories and novels. One part of me was hesitant to hear or even read about crime in Ocean City, a place I’ve held as sacred for so many years as one of the few remaining areas immune from danger. Another part of me, however, was eager to research the dirty underbelly I know probably exists there.

I’ve learned that ignorance is bliss, especially on vacation. Do you agree or disagree?

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Margaritaville Meets Porchville

by Annette Dashofy

I remember the quiet summer evenings of my youth, playing in the yard while my parents sat on the front porch reading the paper and watching the traffic go by. Sometimes I, too, would just sit and watch the cars. The most entertaining part of traffic watching back then was keeping score of red cars and blue cars or learning to name the different automobile models as they cruised by.

Twenty years ago, that all changed. In 1987, a new concert venue opened seven miles from my rural home. Locals predicted that Star Lake Amphitheatre would be a huge flop and called it a white elephant. After all, people from the country drove to the city to attend concerts, not the other way around.


Since then, traffic watching has never been the same. Since we live on one of the main access routes to the facility, the sheer volume of traffic increases ten-fold on concert nights. “Must be someone playing at Star Lake,” one of us proclaims as a steady stream of vehicles whooshes past our house. But it’s not just the numbers of cars. Oh, no. The vehicles themselves and their occupants provide entertainment for those of us porch-sitters along Route 18.

Country western fans largely drive to the shows in large 4x4 pick up trucks sporting Confederate flags. The occupants imbibe large quantities of beer on their way to the concert. I know because, since this is farm country, rest areas are few and far between, so vehicles often pull off just past my house so that the beer drinkers can relieve themselves. I recognize the stance the guys take as they tumble out of their cars, trucks and vans.

What is frightening is that those fans who drink on their way TO the concerts also drink DURING the concerts and then have to drive home FROM the concerts. As a consequence, the numbers of drunk driving arrests and car crashes on Route 18 and Route 22 have escaladed over the years. Our local cops set up sobriety check points in Burgettstown and often have a half dozen cars pulled off to the side of the road at any given moment. Oddly, they always wave my husband and I by when we encounter one of the check points. I guess we don’t have “the look.”

But to be fair, it isn’t only the country western fans who drink. They aren’t even the worst offenders. On June 23, 1992, Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead descended southwestern Pennsylvania. With them came the Dead Heads. Every VW minibus still in existence at the time drove past my house. They parked on either side of Routes 18 and 22 for at least five miles in all directions from the Amphitheatre.
They parked in people’s yards and camped there (some with permission, some without). They camped in the parking lot of Burgettstown’s only grocery store. It was as if the circus had come to town. Sadly, Jerry passed away before the Dead could make a return visit. When they came without him, it just wasn’t the same. The festive atmosphere was gone. And I don’t recall any VW minibuses camping along the road. Too bad. Since they weren’t in MY yard, I found it all rather amusing.

In 1999, the Star Lake Amphitheatre became the Post Gazette Pavilion (although if you ask any of us who have lived here more than a few years, we still refer to it as Star Lake). We may not have Jerry Garcia’s fans to entertain us on our front porches any more, but this past weekend, Jimmy Buffet made his annual stop in Burgettstown.
We don’t need a concert schedule to tell us when Mr. Buffet is here. It’s the only time of the year when cars with inflatable sharks tied to their roofs drive past our house. There are some plastic palm trees, too. One SUV had “Margaritaville or Bust” scrawled across his windows. Ah, the Parrotheads.

Back in the days when I baled hay all summer, one of the gals who helped on the farm also worked as a security guard at the Pavilion. She told me that Jimmy Buffet’s fans were the most unruly of any she had to deal with. I don’t know why, but this surprises me. Intense, yes. Loyal, absolutely. Unruly? Having never been to one of his concerts, I have to take her word for it.

Of course, since I live so close, you’d think I’d attend concerts there all the time, right? Hardly. I’ve been to a few, some rowdy (Hank Williams Jr., the Eagles) and some mellow (Chicago, John Denver).

Frankly, the traffic going to the concerts are every bit as entertaining as most of the acts that perform there. And porch seats are much cheaper.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Exquisite Pain of The First

by Mike Crawmer

What is it about “the first” that causes such conflicting emotions?

Like that first kiss, approached with such hope and bumbling anticipation. Or that first stage role, which could launch a brilliant career if only you can remember your lines and ignore the pain and rumbling in your stomach.

For some people, a “first” is so traumatic that the experience dictates what they do with the rest of their lives. For some writers that can mean giving up a promising career when they read that first rejection letter from an agent or editor.

Last month I e-mailed my mystery to a NYC agent. Her boss was excited about the story when I presented it to him at the Pennwriters conference. I knew the manuscript wasn’t ready for a look-see, but everyone encouraged me to send it out anyway. I did, after a frantic day-long edit. Two weeks ago I got a response. You guessed it, a rejection.

Looking past the disappointment (or at least trying to), I did what many rejected writers do: parse each phrase, looking for any signs of hope or encouragement.

“While I like the concept here…”—good, I like the concept too, so that’s encouraging--“…and I think your writing has potential…”—faint praise at best—“I feel this still needs some work.”—I couldn’t agree more, so at least we’re on the same page there. Then: “I just had a hard time getting into the story.” Ouch! Now, that hurts. I was rather into the story myself. Maybe too much so. Hmmmmm. Then, with the finality of a door being slammed shut: “I hope another agent feels differently.” And, last but not least, the brush off: “I wish you the best of luck in your efforts to get published.”

This wasn’t my first rejection, just my first for this particular mystery. Sometime late in the last century my first attempt at a mystery—same setting and similar characters and set up—was turned down by several agents. I launched a rewrite to fix a key problem with the story, but by chapter five I had lost all motivation in that effort. Besides, my imagination had given birth to another story, an idea that would eventually become the just-rejected manuscript.

Well, seems as if my writing history is repeating itself. Again, I have a rejected manuscript needing a rewrite, but I’m plotting out the next book in the series--and I really like this new story and its crazy cast of characters. So, what do I do? Run with the excitement of the new or keep querying agents on the current manuscript while fixing what ails it?

I know what I’m going to do: hang tight with the current work. I’ve put too much time and effort into it to just put it aside. Faced with the same dilemma (or, to put a happy face on it, opportunity), what would you do?

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Sporting Life

by Pat Hart

My first role in Little League was as little kid playing on the sidelines at my brother’s games. We, the congress of little kids, squatted on a dusty, rocky slope, engineering a violent avalanche or a giant’s rampage as we sent cascades of loose rock over fragile grass and leaf villages. A fine brown dust coated our tanned skin, a rime of sticky sludge mixed with the remnants of a blue Popsicle, gummed up the corners of our mouths.

Brushing the dirt off our shorts created a pleasing dust cloud. First, we noticed that the more dirt, the bigger the cloud. Then, the harder you smacked the back of the shorts, the bigger the cloud. Soon we were all sliding down the hill, leaping up and frantically smacking our own butts. By synchronizing our efforts we could create a cloud that, with the help of a gentle breeze, reached first base. It was when we began manually loading the shorts, dropping fistfuls of fine dirt down the back of our pants, that one of the mothers noticed us.
She jerked the back of her son’s waistband open and looked in:

“He poured dirt IN his underpants!” she exclaimed to the other mothers.

Soon we were all subjected to this humiliating inspection by an exacerbate group of waistband snapping women and sent to sit in the grass on top of the hill for the remainder of the game.

Today, I am one of the seemingly docile mothers arranged in a line of portable chairs, the non coaching Dads drifting behind us, the younger children playing and inventing new ways to coat themselves with grime.

…seemingly docile…

The experience of watching my son play baseball is a wicked blending of agony and pleasure. Joy and despair lay down side-by-side and the game twists them together. By the end of the game, you feel stretched and sticky.

My son is an All-Star. He was king of his regular season team. He could pitch, hit, field and, after a downpour, walk on puddles. His father and I sat on the sidelines graciously, modestly, accepting compliments from other parents on his prowess.

Later, we would crow to each other: What a great play! Did you see that hit? -WHAM a homer! How agile! How talented! How wonderful!

Then the slump came.

Whiff, whiff, whiff.

It’s a high fly! -BOINK out of his glove.

Picked off base.

Whiff, whiff, whiff.

And before you know it your darling of the diamond is sitting on the bench and playing left field. The other parents say things like: “He almost got a piece of that one.” And: “Joey had a slump once, oh it was terrible.” And you think, ‘Yeah, well Joey’s not having a slump now is he?’

Now every single, stinking game seems to come down to my kid, at bat, bases loaded with two outs.

Whiff, whiff, whiff.

And even though you’re his mother you want to yell:
“Get out of the game, you bum!” which, frankly, does not meet virtually anyone’s idea of motherly behavior.

After one such horrific game my husband and I stood grimly on the sidelines while the coach imparted his final words of encouragement to his bedraggled team. A much-dimmed All Star team crawled out of the dugout, each quietly walking with his parents to the car. The victors bounded around us in the darkening parking lot, their parents recounting their moments of pride as their son performed some incredible feat of baseballism.

My son, two strike outs, two dropped balls in the outfield, one which caused the winning run to score, buckled himself in next to me. Choosing, he thought, wisely to ride home with the kinder, gentler me instead of Dad.

“Well,” he said. “I’ve played better games.”

I wish I could report that I, with calm encouragement, helped him analyze what went wrong, created a plan to target certain skills and then, in a crescendo of nurturing support, bought him an ice cream cone. Together we sat on the bumper watching the sun go down, laughing at the dollop of ice cream on the tip of his sunburned nose.

Instead I said: “I’ve never seen you play so poorly. That was the worse game you have ever had.”

My son’s face registered a shock so profound and deep; his eyebrows shot up so quickly they knocked his cap askew. My honest, unvarnished, unmotherly assessment of his playing elicited a few comments from my son the ones that haunt are:

“But you’re my mother!”
“I thought I was having fun.”

There are two different schools of parenting: Nurture and Subdue. Nurture parents believe their child is a fragile, precious flower that they, through perfect parenting, will cultivate into a fully bloomed human specimen, suitable for planting in the oval office. Ont he other hand, Subdue parents view their children as exotic invasives; unsown, foreign plants invading and disrupting the natural, peaceful garden of their lives.

The strain of All-Star baseball had driven me to switch camps –the hell with miracle grow, time to fire-up the weedwacker. In a few days my son, his psyche rather brutally trimmed, returned to the field and put a permanent end to his strikeout streak.
And though my brief vacation from full time self esteem building paid off in improved performance, I still find myself sitting on the sidelines ambivalent about my role.

I now frequently take breaks from watching the games and yesterday I noticed the little kids, the player's younger siblings amusing themselves with a new game. They were leaping from the third tier of the bleachers and landing flatfooted in the dust. When they landed a spray of blue liquid shot up between their toes. I nudged the mother next to me and pointed at her youngest son.
“Hey, Joan,” I said. “Patrick is pouring Slurpee into his sandals…”

Friday, June 22, 2007

What could make you kill?

by Kathy Miller Haines

One of the common motifs in mystery and crime fiction is a character who commits a terrible act in response to something awful that happened to them in the past. They’re seeking revenge against a mother who didn’t love them, a friend who scorned them, or a society that disenfranchised them. It’s helped me a lot when I try to work out the psychology of a character to think about acting theory. See, in method acting, you’re supposed to draw from those experiences you have that are somehow equivalent to what your character is going through. If your character is a murderer, you don’t have to murder someone to see what that’s like. You simply call up those moments when you had similar disregard for life, like when you squashed a bug or shuddered with glee when the mousetrap you set sounded its snap.

I’ve had a relatively easy life. So when I wanted to know what I felt like to be the subject of everyone’s scorn and ridicule, I had to reach pretty deep.

As an actor, I’ve endured a lot of crappy jobs for cash. I’ve wandered around in a grass skirt and mingled with total strangers for someone’s Hawaii themed Christmas party. I’ve shot T-shirts out of a canon at Pirates games. And I’ve been part of the entertainment at so many bar mitzvahs that one rabbi said I should be made an honorary Jew. My worst gig, by far, though was wearing a giant Nickolodeon character costume at a kids event. You know those giant, oversized costumes that swallow the wearer whole, allowing them to be Mickey Mouse, or the Oscar Meyer weiner, or the Pirate Parrot? As adults, we tend to shy away from these enormous cartoons, lest the doofus inside of them attempt to make conversation with us. Kids, it would seem, adore them. After all, it’s the rare opportunity to meet a two dimensional character up close and personal.

So I thought that walking around in a costume for an hour would not only be an easy way to make some coin, but immensely entertaining as well. I like kids, and I liked the idea of helping to fulfill their dreams of wrapping their little arms around someone who, until that point, been only a flash on a TV screen.

If only it had been so easy.

The costume was ridiculously heavy and made for someone much taller and stronger than me. It was in the eighties outside, but inside my enormous noggin it was so hot I was making my own humidity and swimming in my own soup. The genius who had spaced the eye holes had apparently been raised by a colony of fish and didn’t recognize that, typically, those orbs we see out of are mere inches apart. And those sweet adorable kids who I thought would shower me with love? They relished the opportunity to smack the costume, twirl me around until I was disoriented and to hurl wise cracks at me. I was assigned a handler (a friend I might add) who was supposed to help navigate the crowd since my ability to see was greatly reduced, but said handler delighted in watching me be abused by the under ten set.

Worse, my voice had been taken away. The thick suit didn’t allow me to be heard.

So for an hour I stood in a crowd of tormenters, waving and carrying on an endless monologue that no one could hear but me about how I felt about the little hooligans shoving me to and fro. I posed for dozens for pictures, my giant painted on grin hiding the sneer frozen on my face. I grew dizzy from the heat and hoarse from my attempts to scream for help. I also had to pee. Badly.

Remember when Goofy was accused of shoving someone at Disney World? I’d bet my house that guy was asking for it.

When my hour had ended, I was drenched, demoralized, and ready to sign up for an hysterectomy. I also wanted someone to pay, and not just for my hour of work. These feelings faded pretty quickly after I took a shower and downed a gallon of water, but when I want to know what it feels to be abused and mistreated, all I have to do is mentally put on that giant head again.

Work's a Crime

by Cathy Anderson Corn

We Stiffs write about crimes, using fictional characters and situations, although some writers base their stories on real life persons and activities. But how about real life crimes in our workplaces? What illegal acts of outrage have been committed where we generate the incomes to fuel our writing endeavors?

I work at a health and dining club, the Rivers Club, in downtown Pittsburgh as a massage therapist. This elite facility was established in 1983, and I've been established there since 1991. In sixteen years, four months, ten days (who's counting?) I've observed a number of laws being broken. I've noticed a few times when morals were shabby or absent.

The greatest crime of all time at the Club took place over ten years ago. Our athletics director--I'll call him Ted Howell, not his real name--was demanding, inflexible, and pretty strange, but I liked the guy, anyway. The college age employees called him the Pillsbury Doughboy (he was handsome in a preppy way, but pudgy). If a kid punched in five minutes late, Ted fired him or her on the spot. Ted's father was a psychologist, and one time after Ted rambled on incoherently for an hour to me, the captive audience, I wondered if Ted's dad played warped mind games on him when he was little, just as a joke.

Anyway, after five or six years of questionable judgment on Ted's part, he disappeared altogether.

Overnight, he was gone.

I learned shortly after the fact that the Club discovered a storeroom stripped of its contents. Ted sold paintings, furniture, and other items that belonged to the Rivers Club and pocketed the money. By the time he was caught, a lot of loot had been "spring cleaned" from the premises.

I wasn't there that day, but they said Ted left the floor running for his life. He'd never been witnessed moving so fast before, as the door slammed behind him.

The Rivers Club never prosecuted him.

About a year later, I passed Ted at the airport, me outgoing, him incoming. He looked fabulous in suit and tie, and said he'd taken a job at a prominent local institution in finance.

I still liked this guy and wished him well.

And hoped he'd do better this time.

What are your stories about crime where you work, live, just around the corner? What true life stories have you to share?

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Blame Game

by Joyce Tremel

I’m usually a pretty calm, rational person. Ask anyone. At least about the calm part. (You might get differing answers on the rational part.) But every once in awhile, something sets me off. On Tuesday morning I went online to read the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and came across this headline: “Wife’s Illness Drove Man to Child Porn, Lawyer Says.”

Well, that did it. Calm and rational went out the window. I’m so sick and tired of everyone from famous celebrities to this low-life scumbag with child porn on his computer blaming everyone else for their problems. This man’s attempt to blame his sicko behavior on his now-dead wife has taken the blame game to new lows. Why couldn’t he just plead guilty without the excuses? Does anyone really care why he had child porn on his computer? I certainly don’t.

In reading the article, the excuses get even worse. There’s a doctor who explained that the man would not have developed an interest in child pornography had he not “been under extraordinary mental and emotional distress associated with his wife’s severe, unrelenting and ultimately fatal illnesses.” Huh? Excuse me? Is it me, or is this pure B.S.? Thousands of people every day go through the same distress and heartache of a loved one’s illness without having the compulsion to look at naked children.

The man’s lawyer also tried to get his case postponed by saying his client was claustrophobic and wouldn’t be able to tolerate the Allegheny County Jail. The judge refused, but did have him sent to the Beaver County Jail instead. All I can say is the man is lucky I’m not a judge. He’d be in the smallest enclosed space I could find.

Why does blaming others for one’s problems seem to be so rampant these days? I even see it at work when someone is arrested. Nine times out of ten, the asshole will say, “It’s not my fault,” or something close to that. It’s never his fault when a guy punches his wife in the face: “She provoked me!” It’s never the mother’s fault when her two year old is found wandering the neighborhood because she’s sleeping: “I was at the bar all night—I was tired. She should know not to leave the house.” Yeah, that’s it. Blame it on a two year old. Then there are the parents who blame their child’s problems on the schools, the teachers, the police—everywhere but where it belongs. How are the kids to learn responsibility if not from their parents?

I’ve been thinking about this issue and trying to relate it to my fiction writing. I know when I do my revisions, I’ll be on the lookout for the Blame Game. It’ll be okay for my villain to say, “It’s not my fault,” but I never want my protagonist to blame any of her failures on someone else. She’s more likely to blame herself even when it is someone else’s fault.

How do you feel about the Blame Game? Do you think people have lost their sense of responsibility? Can you relate it to your own writing?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007


by Gina Sestak

Last post (June 6), I mentioned my self-employment and the fluctuating income I received from it. That unpredictable income is the reason I sometimes took a second job during that time.

One of my favorites of those jobs was taking inventory in stores. Everyone who worked for RGIS (Retail & Grocery Inventory Service) had a day job, so I worked beside accountants and teachers, secretaries and laborers. The pay wasn't bad for part-time work, and we only worked a few nights a week. We'd meet somewhere like a restaurant, then drive out to the site together, descending like a horde of locusts to count everything in sight.

We (a crew of ten or fifteen people) would spend the night counting everything in the store. We carried devices like semi-electronic adding machines into which we entered values -- a shelf containing 16 bottles of shampoo priced at $3.07 each became "16 x 3.07, enter." It was repetitive work, which allowed for developing a rhythm. "27 x 4.35, enter, 6 by 5.15, enter, 74 x .33, enter, etc."

The store would usually be closed while we were counting, but some retail establishments (like groceries) stayed open round the clock. I'd be counting along, lost in the rhythm, when someone would come up beside me and ask, "Where are your paper towels?"

"My paper towels are in my kitchen, where are yours?" I'd want to answer, but I'd really say, "I'm not sure. I don't work here," before going back to counting.

One of the fun parts was finding old, perhaps discontinued, merchandise covered with dust on the backs of lower shelves. I'd read the unfamiliar brand names and odd instructions for use, then count these ancient discolored bottles and boxes just like the newer stuff.

What did I learn from this job that helps me as a writer?

I learned to pay attention -- if you let your mind wander too much, you forget whether or not you counted that Similac already.

I learned to appeciate the voyeuristic aspects of looking through somebody else's stuff.

Most of all, I learned that hidden treasures sometimes lurk under the dust down on the bottom shelves.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Share the Fizzies

by Nancy Martin

I went to Girl Scout camp every summer. Not just because I sold the requisite number of cookies or because I desperately wanted to learn how to shoot an arrow through a straw-stuffed target. By age eight, I already knew how to do that. My parents were very outdoorsy, and we spent every weekend--even in blizzards--in the fresh air learning one marginally useful skill after another. Want me to start a fire? Gimme a minute with a flint and some dry pine needles. I can snow shoe, throw a spiral football pass, lash a pack to a pony, and I used to be a pretty good shot with a BB gun.

No, I went to summer camp because my grandparents donated land to the Girl Scouts and helped the organization build a summer facility where girls (my grandparents raised five during the Depression) could learn by living in an Adirondack for two weeks in the summer. My mother felt it was important that the family support the camp by attending, too, and since my sister and I were the only female grandchildren who lived within 1000 miles of the camp, we dutifully packed our footlockers every June.

Because the camp was located in the mountains of Pennsylvania, we spent a lot of time learning how to entertain ourselves when it rained. We braided lanyards. (At the time, I found limited use for the lanyard, but that was before everybody had to prove they're not terrorists by wearing ID in their school, workplace and to sporting events.) We learned to string macaroni necklaces. We learned to harmonize as we sang endless camp songs. (One is Silver and the Other Gold, anyone?)

Sure, I excelled at the outdoorsy stuff. Canoeing, archery, fancy diving, too. I could consume many a rainy hour by reading, of course. But what I really learned at camp were things bigger than lanyards and how to dip a canoe paddle without making a splash.

The polar bear swim still bugs me. See, every morning, those girls who wanted to earn their polar bear badge had to get up half an hour before everyone else, run shivering down to the water through the dewy grass and plunge in for a pre-breakfast swim. If you managed to rouse yourself every morning for two weeks, you became an official polar bear.

A good girl, I got up every morning for thirteen days. On the fourteenth, I heard the early bugle and thought, "Eh, I think I'll sleep. Who needs another dopey patch that's just going to sit in a drawer" So I rolled over for another half hour of sleep.

I am still annoyed with myself. I gave up. One lousy day early, and for the sake of a mere thirty minutes of sleep, I quit.

What a loser.

Why does the polar bear failure bother me so much? Here it is, forty years later and I'm still thinking about it! Still ashamed of myself. I have a hard time giving up on things because I know how it's going to feel if I do---lousy.

The other really big thing I learned at summer camp was to share the Fizzies.

The water from the camp's well tasted terrible. It was hard to brush your teeth with such disgusting stuff, and forget about drinking it. All the girls were slowly dehydrating themselves because of the taste of the water. Here's the part where my grandparents come in.

My grandparents were invited to the camp every summer to be honored at a dinner. (Believe me, the hot dogs were no great culinary prize, but that wasn't the point. There was a big ceremony for them.) It was embarrassing, yet kinda cool to be summoned to the stage to stand beside them while all the scouts sang the camp songs to us and gave my grandmother of a bouquet of flowers. It was my first brush with being singled out for something that I perceived as big. After the dinner, our grandparents sneaked my sister and me out to their car and opened the trunk, which was full of goodies. A plate of homemade cookies for my sister and me, plus the biggest box of Fizzies I had ever seen. Fizzies were little Alka-Seltzer-like tables with fruit flavorings. You dropped the Fizzy into a glass of yucky water and presto--! You had carbonated Kool Aid. The box was too big for me to carry alone. My sister had to help me wrestle it out of the car's trunk.

My grandmother said, "You know what to do with these, right?"

She didn't have to tell us to share our booty with the rest of the campers. (Well, no way my sister and I could consume all that carbonation and survive.) We were the lucky ones who got to stand up front while the other campers sang to us. So we gave the Fizzies away like mad for the rest of the week.

If you're lucky, it's your responsibility to give back.

Lessons from camp. They've stuck with me. That, and the memory of Stephanie Dershack getting mad and hitting me in the head with a softball, but maybe that explains a few other things, too.

Monday, June 18, 2007

I See Shoulder Blades

by Brenda Roger

I attended the 2007 US Open. You’ve never been? Oh, well, let me describe to you what that looks like. Picture lots of pairs of men’s shoulder blades covered in cotton pique knit in a variety of colors and patterns. That’s all I saw, anyway. I’m only 5’3 ¾”, so in any crowd of people, I see shoulder blades. The US Open could have been on any golf course. I wouldn’t have known where I was.

It must have been the worm’s-eye-view perspective. I noticed all of the consumption going on around me. Thousands of people were staggering around the golf course consuming water, cigarettes, cigars, fatty sandwiches, beer, French fries, and hot dogs. The merchandise tent was like an anthill. Whole display shelves were empty as if the place had been looted. Do people really dig golf that much? Who knew?

When I spend any length of time in a large crowd of people I come away disgusted by humanity, but it turns out, I don’t even need to leave home for that. In less than ten minutes of a weekend morning “news” program I heard one man encourage people to order bite sized desserts in fancy restaurants and not eat all of it while in the next segment a man was demonstrating grills and gadgets and explained why we all needed and $85 thermometer to check the temperature of a $35 steak we were going to cook on a $500 grill. Let’s see, order food with the plan to throw it away, and purchase a $35 steak that you need something other than heat and chart from a Betty Crocker cookbook circa 1940 to cook. Yep, that’s pretty disgusting.

I won’t even insult you by getting philosophical about what could be done about our excessive consumption as a culture. It just feels less like a cement block on my chest to send the observation out into the world and to acknowledge its existence.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

What People Want

by Tory Butterworth

So, I have a new job. I'm back in community mental health, but one step up. Now I'm training employees in mental health, rather than working the front lines. I’m excited to be there.

My first task is to come up with the mental health training calendar for 2008. My boss gave me a list of people to contact, to ask about their training needs. As far as I'm concerned, bopping in on meetings I'll never have to go to again and chatting with people I don't know is the fun part. I feel like an anthropologist in a strange land. Where do they come from? What are their customs? What are their beefs?

Of course, at some point the fun exploration stops and the real work begins. In my case, that means coming up with titles and descriptions of trainings employees will want to come to, and then conducting them.

One of the Training and Development department's biggest beefs is that employees ask for certain classes, and then don't register. They've checked out the best days and times. Still, no interest. I can't say I have any crystal ball into this phenomenon, but it does make me wonder about asking people, "What trainings do you want for 2008?" Do people know what they want?

As a psychotherapist in private practice, I have to give clients what they want or they don't return. In therapy we ask, "What brought you here?" That's called the presenting problem. For ongoing complaints we ask, "Why now?" That's called the precipitating event. One supervisor of mine suggested that if you give the client what they want, you often have some room left over to help them with something they need, but haven't yet recognized. That's called diplomacy.

My favorite inspirational speaker, Marianne Williamson, suggests that the most boring question you can ask in bed is, "What turns you on?" She believes the real answer is, "Surprise me!" I'm not sure that's true even in bed, but is it true other places?

Most novelists I know don't go around and ask people, "What do you want to read?" (or, "What turns you on?" for that matter.) An idea comes to them, and they try to mold it into something people will like. Sounds to me a lot like therapist diplomacy.

What about picking out a novel in a bookstore? Do you know what you want? Or do you like to be surprised?

I'll let you know over the next few months how my efforts go at figuring out what trainings employees want, and whether they like to be surprised. In the meantime, in terms of books, do you know what you want?

Friday, June 15, 2007

Mink Massacre

By Lisa Curry

Last week, someone invaded a mink farm near Boyers, Pa. They nearly hacked the heads off the farm owners’ two sheepdogs, one of which was reported by the newspapers as being 19 years old. They set free 2800 minks. Some 440 of those – nursing mothers and kits – they stomped to death. News reports said the FBI was investigating the crime as a possible act of domestic terrorism by extreme animal rights activists.

“What the hell kind of animal rights activist stomps on helpless baby animals?” I asked my husband, who shrugged in response.

I understood why they would kill the dogs, even though I thought it was a terrible thing to do – especially when I read in the paper that the family’s three small children were inconsolable over the loss of their pets. The dogs would have barked at the intruders and might have alerted the farmer.

But it was only when the news reported that the family had recovered some of the escaped minks that I understood why the mothers and babies had been killed. The babies couldn’t run away, and the mothers probably wouldn’t have left them. Whoever did this really didn’t want that farmer to recover any of his minks. Apparently, they needn’t have worried too much. Even the minks that have been recovered can’t be used for breeding now, because they aren’t tattooed or otherwise identified and, thus, can’t be matched with the pedigrees that were posted on their cages. According to news stories, the mink farm was the family’s livelihood. Nobody would insure their minks – because of the risks from animal rights activists – so now they’re pretty much wiped out.

Bad things happen every day – far worse things than this – and to human beings, not just dogs and minks. Still, this incident disturbs me.

Maybe it’s because I happen to like members of the weasel family. I’ve never met a mink, unless you count playing dress-up in my grandmother’s mink stole when I was five.

But my family had a pet ferret when I was a teen. Tootsie loved to play with our miniature dachshund and had a weakness for ice cream and harmonica music. She also liked soap. During the decade of her lifespan, we never had a bar of soap in our bathtub without teeth marks in it. Overall, she was a delightful creature, although my sister would have begged to differ the day my mother accidentally let Tootsie out in the yard when my sister’s pet duck was already out there. The ferret killed that duck faster than my mother could say, “Oh no, Tootsie!”

One of my coolest outdoor experiences ever was when I encountered a fisher on a weekend at Deep Creek, Md., with some of my fellow Stiffs. I had no idea what it was. I had to call my father, the outdoorsman, and describe this mutant, three-foot-long ferret, and he told me what it was. I later learned that a fisher’s primary prey is squirrels. Imagine that. That’s a big animal to be fast and agile enough to hunt squirrels.

I think the people who live around Boyers, where those emancipated and no doubt hungry minks are lurking, had better watch out for their ducks, chickens, bunnies and other small animals.

Maybe even more so the reason this mink massacre disturbs me is because it hits close to home – literally. I grew up near Chicora, Pa., less than 20 miles from that mink farm. My family also had a farm. We didn’t raise fur-bearing creatures; just cows, horses, goats, pigs, chickens and rabbits. However, we occasionally raised calves to about twelve weeks old, at which point we took them to the livestock auction, where the meat buyers snapped them up for veal. Veal calves are cash cows, if you’ll pardon the expression, worth more per pound at that age than at any other point in their bovine lives. And if you already have the cows, milk to feed the calves is free. Raising veal isn’t too popular with the animal rights crowd either.

Luckily, we were never targeted by animal rights activists. If we had been, I can guarantee you our dogs – not sheepdogs, but coonhounds, which were loud enough to raise the dead and savage enough that our UPS man just tossed our packages out of his truck at 35 mph – would have wakened my father. And my father – the outdoorsman, card-carrying NRA member of the “you-can-take-my-gun-when-you-pry-it-out-of-my-cold-dead-hand” ilk – wouldn’t have hesitated to shoot anyone who came on his land and tried to decapitate our dogs, free our cows and kill our calves.

Even less popular with animal rights activists is what my grandfather did back in the early 1950s, long before I was born. He raised rabbits and guinea pigs, which he sold to his friend Jonas Salk for laboratory research. Thanks to Dr. Salk and Grandpa’s rabbits and guinea pigs, we don’t have to worry about polio anymore.

The Fur Commission USA has established a fund to help the DeMatteis family, owners of the mink farm, rebuild. I’m going to make a donation. I hope they raise enough money to restock their mink farm, install a security system and buy their kids a couple of nice coonhound puppies.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Coming Out of the Closet

by Kristine Coblitz
For some reason, people are often shocked when I tell them I write crime fiction.

I was a quiet child. I liked my time alone. As an only child, my best friends were fictional characters in books. I got more pleasure from reading in my bedroom than from wrecking havoc with other kids in my neighborhood. I think at one point my parents became worried I would grow up to be a recluse. I was raised to be polite and not break the rules, qualities that are admirable in a child but not necessarily helpful as an adult writer.

I like to think all that time alone in my bedroom prepared me for the solitude required to live as a writer. My parents are still stumped, however, about where my fascination with crime came from. I attribute most of it to my father, who loves puzzles and enjoys challenging me to see which one of us can figure out how movies or TV shows will end. I've gotten pretty good at it over the years, I must say.

It took me a while to come out of the crime writing closet. For a long time, my family and friends knew I was a writer, but they didn't know what I wrote about. When I started sharing details of my work, let's say the news was staggering to them. I would get the worried looks of caring aunts who wondered what had gone wrong. She was such a nice girl.

A few months ago, I had coffee with two friends I hadn't seen since high school. They found me through my MySpace page. When we reunited, the first thing we did was congratulate each other on how young we still looked (Ha!). The second topic of conversation was crime fiction. They were stunned to learn I write about murder. One of them remarked, “...but you were always so nice and quiet!”

As I told them with an evil grin, it's always the quiet ones.

They are trying to convince me to attend our 15-year reunion this year because in sharing stories and gossip about our fellow classmates, the two of them decided that we've turned out pretty well, especially me, who even though I write about serial killers, haven't managed to kill anyone. (I like to think there was a compliment in there somewhere.)

This past weekend, I had lunch with my cousin, who just graduated from high school. We were talking about writing, and she asked me how I could research and write about murder and crime every day without losing my mind. Her burning question was whether or not I scare myself when I'm writing my scenes.

My response? Yes. If I'm scared, I've done my job as a writer.

Have you come out of the closet yet?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


by Annette Dashofy

Back in the 1970’s there was a TV show called Emergency! about a fire/rescue squad. I loved that show. And much the way the CSI franchise has spawned an interest in forensic science in the college-bound youth of today, I was drawn into the emergency medical services.

I worked as an EMT on our local ambulance for five years.
During that time, I witnessed all aspects of life and death. Unlike my favorite TV show where excitement abounded, most of our on-duty hours consisted of playing cards (I became a euchre wiz), washing the ambulances, and watching TV. Often the high point of our day was deciding which of the local diners to order lunch from. Fridays, there was no decision to be made. Friday was spaghetti day at Peppy’s.

But when the phone rang and our dispatcher grabbed her pen and started asking certain questions of the caller, we knew it was time to get serious. If you’re looking for an adrenalin rush, nothing beats riding in an ambulance, emergency lights cutting swatches through the night, sirens screaming as you respond to an automobile accident with injuries. We never knew what we were going to find until we got there. A number of times we would roll up to a scene and I’d think, there’s no way anyone could have survived this. And yet there were people alive in those vehicles, depending on us to keep them that way.

I’ve tried to think of the one worst incident that I was on and I can’t quite nail it down. There was the guy working on a garbage truck who climbed up on top of the vehicle while it was moving. He was looking back, grabbing apples from trees when the truck passed under a train trestle low enough that it caught him on the back of his head and flipped him off the truck. And he was alive at the scene, even though his skull was fractured. The EMT holding traction on his neck was cradling brains in his hands. No, the victim did not survive. But he lived to make it to the hospital.

Some of the hardest runs were the ones involving people I knew. A neighbor went into cardiac arrest when I was on duty and got the call. Being a lowly EMT, I could do CPR, but not administer drugs or use the defibrillator. Back then, only a paramedic was qualified to do such things. Thankfully, that day I was partnered with my buddy Bruce, who happened to be a paramedic. That neighbor survived that heart attack.

The most gruesome calls often involve motorcycles. I’ve seen more than my fair share of motorcycle accidents. You will never get me on one of those death traps. One gal who was a passenger on a bike that wiped out had injured her leg. We cut off her boot only to find an ankle and foot so badly damaged that her sock seemed to be the only thing holding it all together. She survived. Others weren’t so lucky.

But hands down, the most heartbreaking and scariest calls are those involving kids. A teenage boy was riding his bicycle one night on a dark stretch of well traveled road. The driver of the car never saw him until it was too late. I have one very vivid memory of being in the emergency room working frantically with the doctors to save the kid, bearing down on the boy’s femoral artery with all my strength to try to stop the blood loss from that leg.

You’re going to ask if the boy made it. Honestly, I don’t remember. Often we never learned how things turned out in the end. Once we left the patient in the ER, unless a family member contacts us to thank us for our help, we never knew what became of the patient. If they didn’t make it, we read about it in the obits just like everyone else. It feels like turning the TV off fifteen minutes before the show is over.

There were two other calls I remember involving kids. One was an adorable little girl who went from having difficulty breathing when we received the call to NOT breathing when we rolled up. She responded to pulmonary resuscitation. That one was a save. That one felt great. Times like that, I remembered why I was there in the first place. It wasn’t because of my crush on Johnny Gage any longer.

And I delivered a baby once. The mom waddled out to the ambulance as we pulled into her driveway and screamed that her baby was in the house. I was partnered with Bruce again. He grabbed the over-sized tackle box we used to carry our supplies and ran for the door. However, I was looking at the head shaped bulge in the woman’s sweatpants between her legs. I let out a yelp to Bruce to come back. Seems she had a toddler in the house. The real baby was in the process of delivering itself in her pants. We grabbed the gurney out of the ambulance, laid her down on it and hoisted it back in. I slammed the back doors while Bruce cut away the sweat pants. They were the only thing holding the infant in place and she slid out into my hands.

After that, any time Bruce or I saw the mom pushing the baby in a stroller through town we’d report back that we’d seen “our” baby.

Those five years were an incredible run. I started that job as a naïve teenager and left it wiser and more cautious, having seen what can happen to the human body in a split second. I also left it with a deep appreciation for the men and women who work all aspects of the emergency services be it fire, rescue, or police. You have to have a special mind set.

And honestly, I think you have to be just a little nuts. I know I was.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Get the Lead Out

Author of Police Procedure and Investigation, a Guide for Writers

I speak at a lot of writer’s conferences and workshops, and my topics are varied. I’ve conducted presentations about police procedure, CSI, DNA, the death penalty, executions, autopsies, and murder, to name a few.

No matter which topics I’m asked to cover, it never fails; someone is going to ask me something about a gun. Writers are fascinated with firearms. They ask: What kind of gun is issued to an FBI agent? Which gun did you carry? Do Glocks have safeties? Have you ever shot anyone? But no one ever asks about the proper way to carry a firearm. There is, after all, a right way and a wrong way to do this. I hope this little story from my past helps point out the difference. I call it Get the Lead Out…

Chasing a suspect through backyards, while dodging barking dogs and clotheslines, is a difficult enough task without the added weight of a handgun tucked into the rear waistband of your pants. In fact, carrying an unsecured, loaded weapon is quite dangerous, but some officers do it anyway—especially undercover officers. One of my former partners learned first-hand just how dangerous this foolish practice could be.

I remember the call well. It was a typical southern summer night, with humidity that felt like a light rain hanging in the air, and it was hot—sauna hot. The dispatcher gave the BOLO (Be On The Lookout) for a man who had just shot and killed another man during an argument over a card game. The suspect had fled on foot and, lo and behold, his last location was just four blocks from where I sat in a parking lot, in my unmarked police car discussing a case with my partner.

I acknowledged the radio transmission. Just as I replaced the microphone back into its holder, the shooter suddenly ran from behind a building and crossed the lot not ten feet from the passenger side of my car. My partner opened his door and immediately began to pursue the suspect on foot. I called in our location and ran in the direction I had last seen my partner. The alley where the two had gone ended at a three-foot-tall chain-link fence. As I hopped over, I heard my partner yell for the shooter to drop his weapon. There was no moon, and I couldn’t see either of the two men. I ran a couple of steps in the direction of my partner’s voice and heard a single gunshot. I stopped, called in a “shots-fired” call on my portable radio, and proceeded forward, although I was moving a lot slower now.

I didn’t want to call on the radio again, in case my partner had taken a position of cover. I stood still and listened. I heard two voices, talking, just ahead. I stepped into the backyard of a residence where I saw my partner lying on the ground, with the shooter kneeling beside him. Feeling pretty sure the man had shot my fellow officer, I ordered him to place both hands in the air. I moved into a position to handcuff the man and asked my partner if he was all right. He told me he had been shot, but not by the suspect. He said the suspect had come to his aid when he heard the gunshot. I was confused. Was there another shooter?

My partner explained how he had slipped his gun into the rear waistband of his jeans before he started the foot chase. He had reached a wooden fence and, when he tried to climb it, the gun fell inside his pants. He stopped, tried to fish out the weapon, and accidentally pulled the trigger, shooting himself in a place where the sun never shines. The shooting suspect thought, at first, that my partner had shot at him, so he stopped running and returned to surrender. When he saw the officer lying on the ground, he chose to try to help.

My partner received stitches, and he couldn’t sit for quite a while. He was also the “butt” of jokes for many years.

Monday, June 11, 2007


by Pat Hart

I was almost murdered when I was 22. I wasn’t beaten up or shot at or attacked; I was followed by a stranger that I knew wanted to do me harm.

I was living in Tempe, Arizona with a friend from college. I was a broke grad student but she was a working chemist, and, though she didn’t have tons of money, she had enough to take a red-eye flight to Pittsburgh to see her sister’s new baby.

I dropped her off for a 1:00 am flight at Sky Harbor Airport, which was dead in the center of Phoenix. When I was driving home I stopped at light and a white van pulled up next to me. I got a creepy feeling and looked over at the van and there he was, staring straight back at me. He had his very thin arms hooked over the steering wheel. He had a black beard and lots of black wavy hair. In those days, skinny guys, --normal-- skinny guys with dark hair and dark eyes avoided the overgrown, un-kept, crazy Manson-look. When the light turned green I sped off, the van leisurely followed me and then pulled up beside me at the next red light. When I glanced over, he was staring at me again, but now he had smile, a sliver of white teeth showed between his lips. When the light turned green, I stayed where I was. The van pulled out and drifted slowly down the highway towards the next light, where it sat, though the light was green.

I sat through the green and when the light turned yellow, I turned left. I sped down the dark residential street about three blocks, then pulled into a driveway with a high hedge on both sides. I turned off my lights and lay down on the front seat. All the houses on the street were dark. I laid there for about a half an hour. I heard a vehicle pass slowly down the street, but it didn’t stop. I might have been him. I didn’t look.

I backed slowly out of the driveway and kept my lights off for several blocks. I took the back streets home.

My apartment building was a large rectangle divided into four ground floor apartments. All four apartments opened onto a strip of parking. There were another four units across the parking lot. We were the very first tenants in this new complex and, until earlier this afternoon, we were the only tenants.

When I pulled into the parking lot there was only one other car in the lot and no lights except for an orangey vapor light overhead. I hadn’t thought to leave a light on in my apartment and the guys that had moved in next store where probably all asleep.

I pulled into the spot right in front of my door. I cut the engine and paused, the white van rolled into the parking lot and pulled tightly up behind me. The van was angled so that the sliding back door was almost touching my left bumper and the passenger door of the van was only a few feet from my car door. The guy stared at me. He was smiling a little more, looking down at me from the van. I glared back at him, and then, with both my hands, I leaned on the horn. The sound startled and panicked me. It was so loud. It was 3 in the morning and the sound bounced off the stucco walls in that empty lot. I wanted to stop blowing that horn. The noise made me want to cry and scream, but the guy was still just staring at me. I stared back and tried to make my eyes as dead as his.

Lights came on in my only neighbor’s apartment. The guy in the van glanced at the lighted windows, put his vehicle in reverse and left. The three young men that had moved in next store all tumbled out of their apartment, one in just a pair of boxers.

I spent the night on the floor of my new neighbors apartment, the next few nights one of the guys slept in my roommate’s room. By the time she got home I’d had the landlord seal the windows and soon a lot more people moved into that lonely complex. I never felt at ease the two years I lived there and when the time came to buy a mini van, 15 years and two kids later, I seriously thought about passing on the now beloved Moby, a great white whale of a van, but I didn’t, and that I consider to be a small victory over fear and superstition.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Taking Time To Reflect

by Brian and Jennifer Mullen

Well, there can be no doubt that summer is here. If the blooming flowers, sweltering heat and swimming pool advertisements weren't enough to convince you, there's the sight of lots of teenagers fresh out of school to drive it all home.

So far this summer Jen and I have attended three commencement ceremonies for nieces and nephews which also means we have heard three commencement speeches. I don't remember much about the commencement speech at my own graduation ceremonies except how amazingly long they were. At the time I had been surprised anyone could babble on for as long as they did without saying anything of interest. But that's probably an unfair recollection. When you're the one graduating, your mind is filled with countless other thoughts: seeing friends and family, going on vacation, celebrating afterwards. The speech is an obstacle to these things and, as such, is hardly of interest.

To my surprise, it was a completely different experience as a guest sitting in the audience, unconcerned with what was happening later and, therefore, actually LISTENING to the speeches.

Three different speakers, three different speeches, but one common theme: enjoy the journey of life for it is a gift.

If this was the same message in my graduation ceremony, I'm sorry I hadn't paid attention then. That would have been the best time to hear it, when you're young enough to experience life to the fullest and before the routine drudgery starts to weed its way into your life.

When we are young, the time does not seem to go quickly enough. When will I be old enough to stay up later? When will school be over? When are we leaving? Are we there yet? How many hours, minutes, seconds? The seasons can't change fast enough.

Then we graduate from High School, and we can't wait to graduate from college, get our own apartment, buy a car, get a good job and finally have some real spending money. Then we become consumed with getting newer and newer cars, better paying jobs, a bigger and better place to live. We yearn to pay off the mortgage on our home, our student loans, our car payments, our credit card debts. Soon we're yearning for retirement and an end to the rat race. We can't wait to reach Social Security and get checks so we can finally relax - travelling the country at a leisurely rate, seeing family, laying outside in a hammock with a glass of lemonade and no responsibilities whatsoever. Enjoying life.

But that's the whole point of the speech, isn't it?

This morning I woke up at 6 a.m., took a shower, got dressed and drove to work. I worked all day, climbed back in my car and drove home. I made a quick dinner, collected the dirty clothes and started the laundry. The wife came home from work and we sorted the mail, prepared the bills and straightened up the house. Now I sit writing this blog and she has crawled into bed.

But I know as I write this that tomorrow is going to be different. I'm going to make it different. Tomorrow there will be dinner out and a movie. If the weather's nice, maybe we'll walk around our local park. I'm going to make a point to enjoy the journey of life tomorrow.

Dumped by Thumper

By Susan Helene Gottfried

Ever since the flyer came to my mailbox, I've wanted to do this: Ride one hundred miles around Lake Tahoe. On a bicycle. In one day.

They're called Century rides, and they happen all over the country (perhaps the world, but let's feed one ambition at a time, shall we?), usually but not exclusively in conjunction with a foundation that's raising money to fight a disease. The Tahoe ride was brought to my notice by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's Team in Training.

The idea chewed at me even though I'm a walking orthopedic disaster. My sports medicine doctor says it'll take an Olympian feat for me to be able to pull off Centuries.

Still, I dream.

Every Wednesday morning, I jump on a spin bike at my gym and fantasize I'm doing that Century. I push myself with promises of seeing my children and husband cheering for me at the finish line.

I dream of putting together teams decked out in West of Mars jerseys. Of constantly hitting up friends, acquaintances, and blog visitors for donations for this month's ride. Of learning how to pack and unpack my bike, how to use chamois cream and how to take a drink from my water bottle even though I'm flying.

Thankfully, the Tour Manager's as supportive of this as he is of my writing. One thing we've discovered with my weird body is that biking is one of the few things that doesn't induce pain. And as much as I love my mountain bike, hauling it up the hills around here isn't the easiest thing in the world. Thus, I am now the proud owner of a Trek Pilot bicycle -- a real road bike.

We're just getting to know each other, me and my Pilot. As I write this, I've only had her for two weeks. She's effortless to pedal; I described the experience as riding a Thoroughbred after years on a Clydesdale.

Of course, though, Thoroughbreds are known for being skittish animals and while my new skinny tires may zoom, I'm finding that they aren't as forgiving when I move suddenly.

Like tonight, for instance. I was headed home after a short ride that took longer on my mountain bike, envisioning the lake. I was pulled back to reality by a rustling in the brush beside me.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw movement and swerved, almost falling off from the jerk I'd just given my handlebars.

Two brown bundles rolled over as they tried to stop themselves from falling off the curb and taking me down to the street with them. I saw white ears, white underbellies, maybe a white cotton tail, and then I was past and straightening out, still on the bike, still pedaling. I hadn't even reached for the brakes.

I biked the final quarter mile with a shiver teasing my spine. Instead of Lake Tahoe, all I could think about was what it would have felt like if I'd been dumped by Thumper.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Cops and Cars

by Joyce Tremel

Middle aged men should not be permitted to buy cars. To be specific, they shouldn't be allowed to buy police cars. Our department just purchased the world's ugliest police car. It looks something like this, except without the NYPD logo.

What were they thinking? A Dodge Charger with a V-8 engine and mag wheels. Whoever heard of a Dodge Charger for a police car? Police cars are Crown Vics, or Impalas like our other cars.

The only reason I can think of is midlife crisis. The guys who pick the cars are no longer twenty five year old rookies. Their personal vehicles are trucks so large they don't fit into the slots in the parking lot. They are waxed to perfection and heaven forbid they get a spot of dirt on them. I'm sure their wives aren't allowed to drive them. They've been banished to the minivans full of toys, sippee cups and stale Cheerios.

To their credit, the other new police car is an Expedition. Now that makes sense to me. A four wheel drive behemoth can come in handy during our long Pittsburgh winters. What are they going to do with the Charger the four or five months of the year when there's snow and ice on the ground? Put it in the garage for the winter? Obviously this was not a well thought out purchase. And did I mention the car is ugly? The only car we had that was worse was a Dodge Neon. We used to call that one the Clown Car.

My solution? A woman should be in charge of the police car purchases. Like me, for instance. If I were choosing the car, I'd be looking at practical things. You'd never hear me saying, "Dude, this car is so cool!" I'd want to know how well it handled in the snow, not how nifty the skid marks look when you hit the brakes. Is there enough room for the equipment or is the laptop really going to be in my lap? Am I going to hit my head on the video camera when I get into the car (yes that is what happens!)? Does the shotgun fit over the rear window or is the back of the car too small?

See what I mean? I'd at least make sure the cars had enough cup holders.

I'm afraid if they don't put me in charge, the next car will look like this:

Heaven help us.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007


by Gina Sestak

In the mid-1980s, I hung up a shingle and entered into what is called a "solo practice" of law. Like many people who had never been in business, I had unrealistic expectations about being self-employed.

Self-Employment Myth No. One: Your time is your own. Not true - you work 24/7, and your time is structured by your clients' needs. You can't take the day off when there's a hearing scheduled, or close the office early when you're working to meet a deadline. I should mention that most legal work has very strict deadlines. If a brief isn't filed on time, you lose the case. If a case isn't filed on time, you waive your rights. Legal deadlines are not like when Mommy and Daddy say, "Be in by midnight," and you know that everything will be okay if you show up at 12:01. Legal deadlines are like when the terrorists call and say, "The building will blow up at 2:00." If you lollygag around until 2:01, you won't survive.

Self-Employment Myth No. Two: You get to keep whatever money you make. This one goes hand-in-hand with, "You can charge a lot of money." People who have only been employees often don't understand the difference between an hourly wage and hourly charges. An hourly wage is yours to keep, after your employer has graciously deducted all applicable taxes. An hourly charge makes up the total income of a business. Office rent, equipment, supplies, business taxes, etc., etc., come off the top before even a penny gets to you. Then you have to take a substantial portion of the paltry sum that's left to pay your own taxes, including much higher social security tax because you're paying both the employer's and employee's share. And it's impossible to budget when you never know from month to month how much money will come in. My net monthly income ranged from $242 to $2500.

Office rent is a big expense. Early on, I shared space with a group of other lawyers who had rented one floor in a building. The rent was relatively cheap. You get what you pay for. At one point, I was in a square office that had previously had a secretarial station carved out of one corner. The station walls had been removed but, since the light switch had been on one of the now-missing walls, the light switch hung from the ceiling on a cable and would swing distractingly. Later, I entered into a time-for-space arrangement with a friend from law school whose solo practice was better established. I got the use of an office and access to computer equipment in return for working on her cases a set number of hours per week.

While in private practice, I handled a wide variety of cases, everything from child support to felonies. It's very scary being responsible for such important things in peoples lives, and knowing that any mistake you make can result in them losing income or assets, losing contact with their children, or losing their freedom.

I left private practice at the end of 1985 and went into another business, but that's a story for another blog.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The Estate of Publishing Hype

by Judith Evans Thomas

In the June 4 edition of New York Magazine, the editors of the "Culture Pages" have taken a bold stand. Imagine, they say, that the "American Idol" contest model could pick the next best novelist. Consider also the books that are true gems, but have gone unnoticed. After that, let the instructors of New York's top creative writing departments pick a favorite student and see if he or she has the "it" factor to come out on top in a writing contest.

I say Hoorahhhh .

If you are looking for a reading list for the summer and fall here 'tis. And if you get perverse pleasure out of watching creative writers squirm under the spotlight of being made famous before having published'll love this. Better yet, if you wonder which of our current novelists will be remembered fifty years from now, the top writing teachers have voted. I'm embarrassed to say, I didn't know half of them.

Starting with the future Hemmingways and Updikes (reported by Lori Fradkin on pgs 59-69), have you read Helena Maria Viramontes, Zadie Smith, Andre Aciman, Amitav Ghosh, J.M. Coetzee, Chris Ware, Colson Whitehead, Gary Lutz, or W.G. Sebals? I haven't but I will. The two authors listed that I have read and love are Ian McEwan and Jhumpa Lahiri.

On to the "Best Novels You've Never Read" as reported by Katie Charles on pages 56-58. Ms. Charles interviewed sixty-one book critics and asked them to pick their favorite under-rated books of the last ten years. The critics' choices ranged from Craig Seligman of Bloomberg News's pick, "Suzy Zeus gets Organized" by Maggie Robbins, to The Wall Street Journal critic Jeffrey Trachtenberg's choice, "The Road Home" by Jim Harrison. And the winner, with the most votes, was David Markson for his two books, "The Last Novel" and "Vanishing Point". I have not read either one.

At this point I am sure there is moss growing where my brain used to be. Either that or I have corn growing between my toes and am in desperate need of a pedicure. Where are the writers I love to read? Is the literary establishment anti-genre?

What do you think?

Monday, June 04, 2007

Reflections on a Noble Pursuit

by Brenda Roger

Recently, I “googled” a boy who broke my heart in college. I was hoping to find him mired in a pit of despair. Not really. Anyway, he serves on boards of multiple charitable organizations, participates in fundraisers, and is married with two daughters. He is some sort of portfolio manager. There was probably not ever a chance that he would be anything less than successful. Kind of like the male version of me –in a parallel universe.

My dear husband is very good at his job. He advances in his career, participates in important projects and earns a real living. I am really very proud of him. He amazes me sometimes with his extensive understanding of very complex social and political problems.

Both of these successful men were on my mind at the exact same time that I was feeling completely used and invisible at work, so I decided that I needed a higher purpose. You know, something I can contribute to the world. I have since begun a one-woman crusade to bring back the “hostess skirt.” Go ahead. Read it again. You don’t need better glasses. I’m serious. The comeback of the “hostess skirt” is my new reason for living. I believe in attainable goals.

I’ve been reading Vogue since I was fourteen. Fashion is a spectator sport for me. The pattern of trends is so obvious to me that I can predict a color or a trend two years before it ever shows up in a magazine. A few years ago, I saw the caftan coming from a mile away. In the same way, I think the time is at hand for the hostess skirt to return, and just in case Anna Wintour isn’t paying attention, I am going to take matters into my own hands.

The “hostess skirt” for those who have never had the pleasure of experiencing one, was a trend in the late sixties and most of the seventies. Those less devoted to the “hostess skirt” than me might call it a skirt you wouldn’t wear in public. The sixties version of it was quite frequently knee-length, occasionally quilted, and always quite loud. Manifestations of its hospitality range from large prints in silk to provincial calico appliqués. By the seventies, the hemline dropped to the floor and could be complimented by a matching top of similarly offensive patterned fabric. They were whimsical, humorous, or just plain gaudy. Very frequently, the knee-length version is a reversible wrap skirt. Twice the fun! Be still my heart!

There is something appealing, in 2007, about having a cheerful skirt to put on when you are entertaining at home. If my neighbors are any indication, acceptable attire for receiving guests is sweats or a nylon running suit and slippers. I don’t know about you, but I would rather look at a reversible skirt with calico mushrooms appliquéd on it.

I must keep my exact plan for the 2007-2008 version of the hostess skirt an absolute secret. Everyone will just have to chew their nails to the quick in anticipation. In the meantime, I possess a vintage hostess skirt covered in cats, yes cats, and if you are lucky, perhaps you will see me trudging around town in it. It would be such a shame to keep it all to myself.

Does anyone remember the hostess skirt?

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Girls Gone Stupid II

by Tory Butterworth

Lisa's last blog reminded me that I, too, submitted a story to the anthology, "Girls Gone Stupid: Dumb Things Smart Women Do," which never happened. Like her, I thought it was a great idea and, like her, I never found another place to submit it. So, here's my stupid story . . .

* * *

I have a degree from MIT and a PhD on top of that, so I’m not exactly dumb. But when it comes to cars, I’ve always felt really, really stupid. Particularly around car dealers, even those without any degrees.

My seven years of graduate school delayed my independence from my family of origin, and it was in my thirtieth year that I decided to move from Michigan to Pittsburgh, PA to start a new life. I was driving my mother’s Chevrolet Citation then, and had been told by a car-savvy friend that it would probably last until I settled in with a job. “Just don’t expect to get anything for it when you trade it in,” he’d advised. The Citation proved my friend wrong by dying a month after I moved, and I was jump-started into buying my first motorized vehicle.

With a “General Motors family” discount and a substantial down payment from my mother, I somehow managed to wangle a car despite not having a job. At that point, I wasn’t picky. I took whatever was on the lot.

She was a white Chevy Nova and I named her Bonnie. Things officially settled down two months later when I got a job and was able to afford her payments without any financial subsidies from my mom.

Bonnie wasn’t a bad little car. She did have an annoying habit of going through mufflers like nobody’s business. And she gave me a big scare shortly after her last payment, when she needed a new oil pan. I wasn’t sure at the time whether to put her down, but I made the right choice for radical surgery and she lived another four years after that. All in all, she got me there and back again through nine years, 160,000 miles, and sixty small monthly payments.

She did have one peculiarity, though. Her radio reception was lousy. Of course, taking what I could get at the time, I had reconciled myself to no tape deck or cruise control. So I attributed this trait to her inexpensive sound system, manufacturer installed, or perhaps the Pittsburgh hills that made reception difficult.

Still, eventually even Bonnie’s life expectancy came to its end. I was standing in the parking lot of a Subaru dealer with my friend Judy, looking for her replacement, when I complained to the salesman about, “miserable radio reception.” He casually reached over and extended her antennae, which had remained dormant in its black plastic sheath since her christening. No words were needed to express the shock on the faces of either me or my friend.

Judy and I laughed about this incident all the way home. Bonnie’s radio sounded great for the next three weeks, until I traded her in.

Anyone else feel stupid around cars?