Saturday, September 29, 2007

My Baby's Gone

by Brian Mullen

Not a real baby, mind you, but my manuscript. I've written a novella and have sent it off for a contest. Every year the Miami University Press hosts a novella contest where first prize is publication. Entries this year must be postmarked by November 1 and the winner will be announced in May, 2008.

And I must wait. In silence.

My mother would probably call this poetic justice for when she sent me off to college for the similarities are uncanny:

My baby will not call or write me to tell me how it's doing. I was notoriously bad at keeping in contact while I was gone as well.

I will only know my baby has arrived safely. I sent it "delivery confirmation" and can track it's progress on-line. My mom knew I had arrived at college safely by dropping me off there.

My baby will be off being judged by others - getting graded, passing or failing, being talked about (maybe), based completely on its own merits. There is nothing I can do but hope I've molded it into the best it can be and offer the occasional prayer and good wishes.

But I do have an option available to me that makes a difference. I guess my mother had the same option but chose not to. However, as a writer, I must take this option for my own survival. While my baby is out in the real world, unable to contact me, and I unable to contact it, I will be focusing on something new.

I'm going to make another baby.

Friday, September 28, 2007


Kathie Shoop

Okay, bear with me while I reference a show that will either warm your heart or make you stick your finger down your throat in that very descriptive way, the 1980's non-verbal sign for gag me with a spoon.

Brace yourself for...

The Waltons.

Yes that show. For the last month or so, my background noise for writing has shifted from the easy to ignore (until they slip a truly great flick into the mix) Lifetime Movie Channel to the Hallmark Channel.

And, as a newcomer to the Waltons scene I've been blown away by some great story lines and even better lines of dialogue. I also realize its shortcomings, but with the turns that modern television takes can we really be critical of the oldies?

Of course I've not written any of the great lines down and I can't call up specific exchanges between Mary Beth and John Boy or John Boy and the rich fellas he meets at college while wearing beanie and bow-tie.

But, two things stand out in my mind from the show. One is a scene with Mrs. Walton as she attempts to garner work while the lumber mill is going in the toilet due to Mr. Walton's illness. She's interviewing at a temp agency and the man rattles off a list of qualifications (three) Mrs. Walton should possess in order to be employable. Of course, the two types of shorthand and number of words a person can type mean nothing to her and she leaves absolutely mortified that she is trained to do zilch in the world other than bear children and care for the home that now is in jeapordy due to the illness!

It was an interesting scene in that Mrs. Walton was deemed unemployable after the man only offered three criteria, as though there was nothing else happening on the planet except for, apparently, women being warehoused and exploited for two very specialized office skills.

It was uncomfortable to watch Mrs. Walton as her mind processed what it meant that she was entirely skilless (not a word???) and incapable of contributing to her family once she wound down the road to the bottom of Walden Mountain.

It was a striking tv moment, really it was, and for that segment of time I felt trapped with Mrs. Walton, with the idea that there were limits to her life and some of them were self-imposed and others laid down by society.

And the whole thing made me think about the limits on me these days, many of them, in many ways, most of the time, happily self-imposed (in other words, life). And I thought of how fortunate many of us are, to sometimes see or experience the limitlessness of opportunity when a little good fortune is sprinkled on top of hard work.

And of course the Walton family wrangled their problem into submission, finding a little luck to go with commitment to saving their business and house. Yeah, that's the sugary part, isn't it? Nothing wrong with a little sweet once in a while...

Well, I ran out of time to share the funny little grave-site anecdote that took place between Grandpa and Grandma, but if you really want to hear it I'll post it in the comments.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Staying Sane

by Joyce Tremel

I’ve been trying to amuse myself this week. I’m still doing citations and the only way to keep my sanity is to find some way to make it not so boring. Okay, it’s still boring, but I’ve kept most of my marbles intact. Although, come to think of it, some people might dispute that fact.

Most of the citations I’ve been entering over the last two weeks are for speeding (PA MVC section 3362, if anyone really wants to know that). Almost all of them are for idiots driving more than 20 miles over the speed limit. I had one where the kid was clocked at 98 mph in a 40 mph zone at 12:30 in the afternoon. Anyone who is familiar with Route 8 knows how stupid that is. Even on one of the residential roads where the speed limit is only 25 mph, drivers were ticketed for going 45-50 mph. (Oh, and for the record, I found out that the township makes a mere $12.50 per citation—that’s why we have to rely on grants to pay the officers for their time.)

Anyway, to amuse myself, I’ve been compiling some mental statistics. I’ve been looking at cars and colors, and at driver’s age and gender. It’s completely unscientific and I didn’t write anything down, but I’ve noticed some trends.

Here’s what I’ve found:

Most of the speeders are male, regardless of the time of day or night. The ages vary according to the time of day they were pulled over. In the evenings, they were predominantly under the age of 30. During the day, I was surprised to see a majority of senior citizens. I don’t know about you, but the idea of an 85 year old driving 70 in a 40 zone scares me. I’d rather take my chances with junior—at least he has some reflexes left.

Black seems to be the preferred color of vehicle for speeders, especially males under the age of 30. White is the preferred car color of the senior citizens. The next most popular color was red, followed by silver.

Like I said, none of this is scientific, but I found it interesting, especially the older people zipping around. I want to know why I never get behind them in traffic, especially when I’m running late for work in the morning. I always get stuck with the one going 20 mph, who lets everyone out at every intersection he passes, then takes about three years to turn into the church parking lot. It’s nice he goes to church in the morning, but can’t he wait until I get to work?

What does all this mean? I have no idea. Maybe someone can use this info for something worthwhile. If nothing else, it’s kept me from doing bodily harm to the guys I work with every day.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


by Gina Sestak

As most of you regular readers know, I've been writing about the many jobs I've held every two weeks for more than a year now. So far, I've covered about half of them. There is one job, though, that I remember almost nothing about.

It was a work study job for a department or group at the University of Pittsburgh. I remember that much. And I held it for at least one semester while I was an undergraduate. There were other people working there. Phil and Bruce and Karen and Jim; a few more whose names I can't recall. I even remained friendly with Bruce afterwards, talking with him on and off for years. I just can't remember what I did or where the work took place. I know that it was meant to have something to do with keypunching or typing. Unfortunately, I was able to do neither -- I'd broken a finger in karate class and had one hand in a cast. [Never do a sloppy down block on a front kick!] It may have involved some type of geographic mapping. I'm not sure.

You're probably all thinking that I must have really enjoyed the sixties. Well, maybe I did, but that isn't why I remember so little. It was the seventies when I held this job. The problem, I think, was the utter chaos in my life at the time.

I've mentioned my ex-husband a few times in prior blogs. We fell in love in 1970 and planned to marry that August. Then we got cold feet and moved in together. Then we broke up.

Breaking up is hard to do. Doo wah, doo wah.

But it was an amazing time in many ways. Emotional turmoil has a way of shifting one into an altered state of consciousness. In mid-winter, I'd sometimes find myself halfway to school without a coat, and realize that I didn't even feel the cold. Of course, I blamed the heartbreak for this new-found talent, but I explored the sensations from the inside and used the understanding I found as a base to develop the ability to control my reaction to cold. It's actually quite easy. You just relax into the cold, and let it dissipate around you. The same technique works well for getting rid of headaches. You lean into the pain until you realize that it's nothing but a group of separate things, like trees within a forest, and you relax into the painless space between.

I was attending school full-time and working to support myself and pay tuition. I found a sleeping room in an off-campus boarding house run by an old woman who refused to accept the fact that I really didn't want to eat with her and her family and the other (all male) boarders. It was cheaper if I scrounged for my own food. Then she kicked me out on one day's notice, claiming I had tracked mud into her house. I'm not certain if I did or not.

I was homeless for awhile. She didn't give me back my security deposit right away, and I had no money with which to find another place. I took to sleeping in University buildings or on friends' couches and floors. When I finally got the check for my refund, the bank it was written on refused to cash it because I didn't have an account there, even though I had good identification and it was clearly a business check. Having not eaten in three days or so, I lost it, cursing the bank employee and fighting off the temptation to whack him over the head with the triangular name plate on his desk until a bank guard threw me out. I still refuse to do business with Mellon. I used to hope I'd hit the lottery, just so I could deposit all my millions somewhere else.

I was able to cash the check eventually. I got other jobs, finished school, reconciled with Terry, married him, and then divorced. But I remember how to keep from feeling cold. And I can often enter altered states of consciousness at will.

You're probably wondering why I thought to write about this job today. The temperature in Pittsburgh hit the upper 80s, so I didn't need to use my skill with cold. I was reminded of it by the thought of keypunching, and how far computer use has come in the last few decades. This week and next, I'm participating in an on-line conference sponsored by the International Association for the Study of Dreams [], a psiber dream conference! [The spelling "psi" is on purpose.] More than a hundred people from all over the world are sharing discussions and dreams, something no one thought possible back when I held my unremembered job.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Harder I Work, the Luckier I Get

By Martha Reed

In my last blog, I talked about research. In this one, I’m going to talk about luck.

Some folks might call it coincidence, but I’ve noticed that when I start to work toward a creative goal, if I keep my focus on it, odd things happen. There was a huge fire in my mystery novel, and as I wrote the chapter I was having trouble describing what it looked like, because I’d never actually seen, up close, a really big fire. Giving up, I went for a walk and stopped at my sister’s house. We sat on her back deck for a good five minutes before we saw the smoke – the neighborhood Presbyterian church was on fire and everyone ran down to watch our volunteer firefighters in action. And there it was, my first big fire.

Today it happened again. I’m working on a story about retired circus people, and I’ve done a bit of thinking about where they would live and what a, say, retired trapeze artist would do for fun after his knees gave out. Out of the blue, I got a phone call from an old friend who invited me to Sarasota, Florida at the end of the month to help her use up her timeshare. Sarasota Florida, the winter home of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus.

Things that make you go hummm. My sister says I should write a story about hitting the Pennsylvania lottery and then play those numbers.

How about it? Any odd creative coincidences out there?

Monday, September 24, 2007

Collections Management Exposed

by Brenda Roger

Anyone who has ever been to a museum may wonder how museums keep track of all of that “stuff.” If you haven’t been to a museum, stop reading this right now and go –hurry! The process of managing a museum collection is actually quite intricate, and you must really love objects in order to embrace the process enthusiastically.

Ideally, all of the information about every object in a collection will be kept in “collection files.” The art museum where I work has an ideal set of collection files. An energetic and thorough young woman reorganized the collection files recently, and each time I open a large, fire-proof drawer to find a file, I am impressed all over again. The legal sized folders are neatly hand labeled with the accession number and the title of the object. There is even a specific order to the types of information contained in the folders. Reading the file on a painting is like reading a novel, if you are an art geek like me, anyway.

Every object in a museum collection has an accession number. The accession number indicates the year of acquisition and the order of acquisition for that year. In other words, if you were to give a painting to our museum today, the number could be 2007.8, indicating that it is the eighth thing acquired in the year 2007. Most museums have to think carefully about accepting new things into the collection because storage space, care, and conservation are all expensive concerns.

You only see part of a museum’s collection on display when you visit. Most museums have many more objects in vaults and in off-site storage facilities. There are volumes and volumes of manuals on storage of objects. Temperature and humidity must be strictly controlled depending on the specific materials. The objects must be hung or shelved in a way that does not cause damage or stress.

Now you are thinking that you wouldn’t like to be the person who has to move those valuable things around. Well, thank heavens there are people specifically trained to do just that. Art handlers, or art fondlers as some like to call themselves, are the brave and careful souls charged with that task. Even though they are professionals, I still hold my breath when they move very large paintings or extremely delicate porcelains.

One of the joys of working with art collections and exhibitions is the execution of a condition report. How can a report of any kind be a joy, you ask? When you fill out a condition report, which is done on loan objects when they are incoming and outgoing, you get to look at the painting up REALLY close under bright light. Paintings and prints are never, ever displayed under such bright light, so it is truly a treat. The courier who accompanied the last temporary exhibition at my museum, stood on a ladder with a tiny little flash light and examined every inch of the surface of each large painting. What a task! It was fascinating to watch.

The added bonus of all of this behind-the-scenes action that I witness is that I am forever thinking of new places on the site to hide a body –in a story, of course.

If you have any behind-the-scenes museum questions, please ask.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

I'm in LOVE!

by Tory Butterworth

Okay, I'll confess. I'm in love. And it's not with someone rich, or famous, or good-looking. It's not even a someone. I've fallen in love with computer graphics.

That's not to say I'm very good it. At least not yet. I'm sure there's many out there who are far, far better than me. I have to learned to play around with background, layout, clip art, and a tiny bit of animation. I haven't even touched sound and video.

This fall I'm preparing the 25 or so new trainings I will be presenting in 2008. So, I started by creating slides. And then, of course, I had to play around with background color and layout. And then I realized what a difference it makes if I add clip art or figures to the presentations.

Last year at the Pennwriters' May Conference, one of the critiquers in my "read and critique" section suggested I use the "Mind Mapping" technique before writing my book proposal on compulsive overating. Some people describe this technique as, "Making outlines with colors and pictures."

That's similar to the way I use the computer graphics, where I think about not just what I'm saying in the lecture, but how color and image create a certain mood in the presentation. I try to include a piece of clip art on most of my slides. Somehow, including these visual images frees me up to be much more creative than just by putting down words.

And it's fun!

I think about it like setting in fiction. A setting creates an emotional tone for the work. I noticed this when I put together a slide show for a co-worker doing a presentation titled, "From Arrest to Treatment," explaining the process by which people who are arrested can be diverted to the mental health system. As a background for the slides, I chose a picture of bars on a jail cell.

Usually, those sorts of pictures are a monochrome grey, and extremely depressing. I chose one that had many subtle colors in it. I'm hoping it won't be so stark, but will still bring training participants back to the bottom line: these are the options the mentally ill have so they won't end up in jail.

What's next? I think I'll use my new-found computer graphic skills with my compulsive eating book. I'm going to create a workbook!

Have you experienced the joys of computer graphics?

Friday, September 21, 2007

Meet Me at the Vortex

by Cathy Anderson Corn

An article in the Summer 2007 "Point of Light" magazine sparked my husband's and my interest. "In Search of Healing Places in Somerset County" told of energy vortexes along the Casselman River Trail. The two vortexes discussed in the article can be accessed on the bike trail that connects Pittsburgh via Confluence, Pa., with Washington, D.C. via Cumberland, Md.

Alan and I waited until the hot, humid days had passed so we could enjoy the experience, and then drove out from Pittsburgh to the Markelton trail head. Last Sunday was a gorgeous, bright day, and we made the most of it as we pedalled along the trail, over a former railroad bridge, and then located the path down to the Casselman River.

Massive rocks faced the river, and we tripped out onto them to savor the first vortex. (A vortex is a place of high energy on the earth, a place of natural beauty, and a special healing spot where one feels more alive.) I don't know about you, but I can always use a jump start, so this sounded great to me.

We weren't disappointed, and both of us felt an energizing effect, especially as the river cascaded through many rocks, before it wound by more sedately past our rock perches. We meditated separately, when I noted a hawk circling not too high above Alan, then it wheeled off, calling "kree." Best of all, we ate lunch on the rocks; no vortex is complete without a sandwich or two.

We didn't visit the Fort Hill vortex, as it was a ride downhill from the trail and we were vortexed out by then. But we stopped on the second bridge and gazed way down below at the river, rocks, and trees. Such a panoramic view, with no houses, cars, or billboards. We also saw only a handful of other bikers. Right before our bridge stop, I spooked our second hawk that flew up from beside the trail and perched in a nearby tree watching us. (I'm big on hawks--always makes my day.)

For the next day or two, I felt especially good and excited about our day trip. So of course when we booked a short vacation this week, I remarked on the recurring theme of vortexes. We'll visit Sedona, Arizone, in a few weeks where the grandmas and grandaddies of all vortexes lie waiting to energize the fortunate. My daughter and I visited there four years ago and the experience was awesome, also fodder for another blog.

So what does all this have to do with writing? These spiritual experiences fuel my writing and send my mind where it needs to go. Writers need life experiences and direction. Plus my day job as healer/massage therapist figures in here, for the healer needs to be healed, too.

I'm sure you all have experienced vortexes, too. Where are the places in nature you find powerful? Where do you feel more alive? Have you recently visited Pittsburgh's vortex or heard where it is?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

To Shoot or Not to Shoot, That’s the Question

by Lee Lofland, author of Police Procedure and Investigation

The most frequently asked question, by far, in all the seminars and workshops I've done over the years is, "Have you ever shot anyone?" The reactions I get when I say yes are varied; I've learned that people expect my answer to be no. I was once involved in an extremely violent shootout with an armed bank robber, and that day my training proved to be very effective. I survived, and the robber did not.

On any given day, a police officer may be required to use deadly force to save their own life or the life of another. In the far corners of their minds every officer wonders if they have what it takes to pull the trigger and send a tiny piece of hot lead on the path to end someone's life.

Police officers are not trained to fire warning shots, nor are they trained to shoot to wound. Those things only happen on TV and in the movies. The split second it takes to fire a warning shot may be just the amount of time the bad guy needs to kill the cop, a hostage, or an innocent bystander. The idea of shooting to wound is also unrealistic. In a tense situation, like a gunfight, a person's ability to think clearly or to aim for a precise target is diminished greatly by stress-induced tunnel vision.

Officers are trained to shoot for center mass, meaning the center of whatever target they are shooting at, be it an entire body or—in the case of a partially hidden suspect—the center of a visible extremity.

During training sessions, officers are taught to react instinctively. Their survival skills are sharpened by many repetitive exercises, much like the exercises we humans use to train our pets to sit, speak, and roll over. They spend hour after hour on the range, both in daylight and in total darkness, going through the motions of draw, point, shoot, and holster; draw, point, shoot, and holster; so that the action becomes second nature to them. It has been proven that, in stressful situations, police officers revert instantly to their training and react accordingly without thought.

Deadly force is always used as a last resort and, all too often, results not only in the death of the suspect, but also in the destruction of the lives of those left behind.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Men vs. Women

by Annette Dashofy

A few weeks ago while away on vacation, my hubby and I had an interesting conversation over dinner. We talked about crime. Doesn’t everyone discuss crime while vacationing?

In particular we were talking about ways of defending yourself. Or myself as the case may be. Hubby was surprised at how many tricks I knew, considering I’ve never taken one of those self-defense classes. I’ve become aware that my hubby is clueless about the things that go through a woman’s mind. He seemed amazed that I had given any thought to it, never mind that I carry my keys in such a way as to turn them into a weapon were I to be jumped while walking to my car.

I became aware of this cluelessness a few years ago when he called his sister’s house and asked his young niece if her mom or dad was home without identifying himself. She responded that they were home, but couldn’t come to the phone. An appropriate response, right? Never let a stranger know you’re home alone. Hubby continued to harass the girl demanding to know why she couldn’t produce one of her parents to talk on the phone. But he steadfastly refused to tell her who it was. She should know, was his defense when I scolded him about giving the girl a rough time. He also felt, if they weren’t home, she should say so.

Agh! My parents always preached to me to never let on that I was alone. Even now, if someone calls for my hubby while he’s at work, I’ll simply say he can’t come to the phone right now and may I take a message. It’s been ingrained in my psyche.

This leads me to wonder if all men think differently about these things than women? Do parents lecture their sons about the perils of the world? Or are boys believed to be invincible and able to fend off attackers? Is this a wide spread phenomenon or is it limited to my no-one-would-mess-with-me husband?

Women are taught to automatically survey their surroundings, to take note of who is close by and who might be following. Women are taught to leave hitchhikers alone and not offer rides to strangers. Aren’t we?

My hubby never notices other people in dark parking lots. He once gave a ride to a total stranger who seemed to me to be acting suspiciously. “I’ll be fine. He can’t hurt me,” hubby assured me.

Tell me, folks, is my suspicious nature a result of an overactive crime-writer’s imagination? Or do all women distrust strangers? Am I the only one who thinks about things like the best parts of a man’s anatomy to strike at if they threaten me? And is my hubby the only man out there who believes he is indestructible?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Assorted Musing (some even writing related)

by Mike Crawmer

Last Friday evening, around 8:30 or so, I was floating in the bathtub-warm water of the hotel pool at Carolina Beach, looking up at the stars and wishing the moment would last forever. Of course, it couldn’t, but I it didn’t hurt to wish.

We left the North Carolina coast Saturday morning, heading north for D.C. En route we stopped in Petersburg, Virginia, to check out the local architecture and history. The quart of ice water I downed at lunch offered relief from the hot, humid day. But by evening we were sorry we hadn’t packed jeans and a sweatshirt—D.C. was downright chilly, though warm compared with the frigid house that greeted us in Pittsburgh the next afternoon. Truly, what a difference a day (and several hundred miles) makes.

North Carolina isn’t the Deep South, but I’m happy to report that the rich, languid tones of the southern accent are thriving down that way. I’ve always been fascinated (if occasionally befuddled) when exposed to a true accented American English. It all started when my family moved from York County (the very definition of “homogeneous”) to a new D.C. suburb back in the 60s: one set of neighbors was from Massachusetts, another from Texas, and still another from New York City. It was like a United Nations of English dialects. That, and studying Latin, French, German and Russian, has left me with, I think, an ear for the subtleties of language and a facility with writing dialogue (cue for my critique group members reading this to chime in with any contrary assessments).

Getting to and from North Carolina meant hours in the car searching the dial for a compatible radio station--not an easy task down South where fully one third of the stations require a twang in your singing voice and another third require some familiarity with the New Testament (especially Revelations). But one day I did hear a bit of chatter, and this example of the further debasement of our common tongue: “Before I came from being single to being married….” Honey, I wanted to scream, you didn’t “come” from one to another, you “went.” Apparently, I’m not with the times, where it seems “go” is succumbing to “come.” I would no sooner start this paragraph with “Coming to and from North Carolina” than I’d say, “Go on, let’s come” when trying to leave the house in a hurry. Why don’t people “go” anywhere nowadays? Why do they always “come” and “came”? (And don’t get me started on the almost complete replacement of “take” with “bring” in all uses.)

Lesson learned from beach vacation: Leave the laptop at home. Best intentions to write (something, anything) were never realized. Every day brought a new distraction (usually sun, sand and beach). Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be when you’re on, as the Brits say, holiday? But when I do write, I want to be in that “flow” I heard so much about on Ira Glass’s This American Life (again, while driving). That’s the state where all your creative energies are focused on the task at hand, where through discipline and diligence and a love of craft, you, the creator (of words, paintings, pottery or the crocheted pot holder) are for that time truly in the moment, unaware of time or self or the immediate world around you.

Here’s hoping you’re all experience that flow in your writing lives. It’s something I find all too rarely—though there were plenty of opportunities to enjoy the moment bobbing around in the ocean last week.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Time After Time

By Guest Blogger Victoria Thompson

Victoria Thompson is the Edgar-nominated bestselling author of 20 historical romances and the popular Gaslight Mystery Series. Her latest hardcover novel, Murder in Chinatown, was published in June 2007. She will present her popular writing workshop, "Clues and Red Herrings: Plotting the Modern Mystery," on Saturday, October 20, 2007 in Pittsburgh, an event sponsored by the Mary Roberts Rinehart Chapter of Sisters in Crime. Cost is $65 and includes a buffet lunch. Deadline to sign up is October 1. Contact for registration form and more information. To learn more about Victoria, visit her website at

When I first got published, the question I heard most from people who were non-writers was, “Where do you get your ideas?” Like most writers, I found this question frustrating to answer. As we all know, ideas just come! You can’t stop them, even if you want to! But after a few years, I began to understand that the ideas only come to a select few of us. Most people don’t see a story idea every time they pick up the newspaper or have a dream or chat with their neighbor for a few minutes over coffee. Most people don’t hear fictional characters having conversations inside their heads. Most people are normal! So now when people ask that question, I explain that writers are born with a defective gene, and we get ideas from everywhere. We can’t help it. This seems to satisfy the normal people of the world—writers are just different.

Nowadays, however, I get an entirely different question. A little over a decade ago, when my writing career died an ignominious death, I had to get a day job, and eleven years later, I’m still working fulltime. I was lucky enough to get another writing gig a couple years later and have published regularly ever since, but my writing income has never again reached the halcyon days when Romance Was Queen and one could actually live on it. So I’ve kept my day job. And now when people find out I’m a published writer, the question they ask is, “How do you find time?” This one is even harder to answer than the question about where ideas come from. The ideas just come, but the time sure doesn’t. It just flies. Away.

So my answer to this question of how do I find time is simply that we find the time to do what we want to do. And if we don’t find time to do what we want to do, we shrivel up and die. Maybe not literally die, but die inside. Our dreams dry up, our tomorrows become just blank pages on the calendar, and life simply isn’t worth the living anymore. I can’t face blank pages on my life’s calendar. I can’t imagine life without writing. I can’t stop the voices in my head. I can’t stop writing, so I make the time, I find the time, I cheat and steal the time. I have time to write because that’s what I want to do most in the world.

How about you? Do you have time to write?

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Body Electric

by Kathy Miller Haines

There’s been a lot of discussion in Pittsburgh lately about the upcoming exhibit at the Carnegie Science Center, "Bodies: The Exhibition.” For the uninitiated, the exhibit consists of dissected human corpses, organs, and fetuses that have been plasticized in a polymer solution to preserve them. The process allows for a unique look at body systems we wouldn’t otherwise be privy to.

In other words, it’s awesome.

The source of controversy is multi-fold. There are of course religious objections to exhibits of this sort, but the primary issue for many people are questions that have arisen about where the bodies being used in the exhibit came from in the first place. There is concern that these anonymous corpses are in fact executed Chinese political prisoners who had no choice in being used in this manner and that the thriving plastination industry may be further driving China' s illegal organ trade. Lest these worries seem far-fetched, the specimens are unidentified, unclaimed bodies “on-loan” from Dalian Medical Center in China.

(Can you imagine the paperwork involved in borrowing a body? I had to fill out five forms to rent a carpet cleaner.)

There is further controversy about what constitutes art and whether or not observing human bodies on display in this way desensitizes us. For the record, I don’t think it does (anyone who views this exhibit dispassionately walked into the exhibit that way). I must confess, though, that when I heard that school children were being brought to the exhibit I was alarmed, not for the kids’ sakes, but for the bodies themselves. I’d hate to think of my own corporeal being on display while a bunch of twelve year old snicker about my saddlebags.

I first learned of exhibits of this type in a 2001 New Yorker article. That article wasn’t profiling this particular exhibit, but the work of Dr. Gunther von Hagens, who invented plastination (pity the poor man’s pets) and created exhibits using corpses as described above, but typically arranged with more artistic flair. The difference between von Hagens’s work and that of the exhibit at the Carnegie is that von Hagens specimens are all donations. In fact, if you go to his website, there is information about how you can donate your own body for a future exhibit (talk about being part of an exhibitionist society: at one point the donations had to be halted because of the overwhelming response). The extensive FAQ provided for the sites hosting “Body Worlds” (the name of von Hagens’s exhibits) delves into the ethical issues and makes it very clear from whence the bodies came.

After reading about von Hagens, I desperately wanted to see “Body Worlds,” which was only abroad at the time. When I heard about the upcoming exhibit at the Carnegie, I assumed that it was one and the same (how many people are dipping bodies into polymer and displaying them, I asked myself). It was only after hearing about the controversy that I realized that these were two competing exhibitions (and there are many more; China now has 400 of these plastination factories and von Hagens is, understandably, disturbed that people have taken his idea and run with it).

I’ve been second guessing my enthusiasm for “Bodies: The Exhibition” ever since. I don’t have any problem with people wanting to see this sort of thing (I’ll be the first in line if “Body Worlds” ever makes it here) but I do have concerns about honoring the wishes of the dead. These “specimens” were real human beings and the fact that they may have been placed on display by a choice that was not their own bothers me. The fact that their deaths may have been at the hands of their government mortifies me.

And I don’t even want to get into why a museum would choose between an exhibit that could document the source of its specimens and one that could not.

I’ve long been fascinated by the sideshows of the 19th an early 20th century, when medical specimens were a huge part of the draw. People came from all over to see congenital defects and racial or ethnic anomalies, showing very little compassion in their quest to be amazed and entertained. Because they were considered freaks of nature, there was often no other means of employment for the people who populated these exhibits; one could hardly say they were there by choice. I fear that we’re approaching the same territory, putting people on display who have no voice in the matter because their society has eliminated their right to speak.

That isn't about desensitizing the audience; it's about taking away the humanity of the people we're looking at.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Michael Who?

By Lisa Curry

After the recent flurry of news surrounding former Atlanta Falcons’ quarterback Michael Vick’s confession of dog fighting, a friend remarked, “Your poor kid must be heartbroken.”

He meant my 10-year-old son, Rainman - so nicknamed for his ability to memorize sports statistics - who managed my fantasy football team, led by said dog fighter as starting QB, to the championship game last year. (See my blog of Nov. 5, 2006.)

“Uh…yeah, sure, I guess,” I said, thinking this friend really must not know my kid at all.

It’s true that Michael Vick was at one time Rainman’s favorite NFL player. And he owns quite a collection of Michael Vick memorabilia. But heartbroken? Not on your life.

I was sickened by the ESPN stories on the grim realities of dog fighting and had to change the channel becauise I knew they'd upset Rainman's much softer-hearted younger brother. To Rainman, though, I think Michael Vick's worst crime is stupidity.

To my little Rainman, sports is serious business. Football has nothing to do with sentimentality or even with loyalty in the conventional sense. Football is about winning. If you play well consistently, you’re a hero. If you play poorly on more than an occasional basis, you’re a bum and don’t deserve loyalty.

And if you don’t play at all, because you’ve been booted out of the NFL and are on your way to jail, because you were STUPID, well, then, you’re the biggest loser of all and aren’t worth a second thought. We’ve got Ben Roethlisberger and Donovan McNabb as QBs for our fantasy football team this year. Sayonara, Michael.

“Do you think you'll ever wear your Michael Vick jersey again?” I asked the other day.

Rainman shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t know. It was the first football jersey I ever bought with my own money.”

“I know,” I said. “What are we going to do with that Christmas ornament? Do you actually want to hang it on the tree?”

Santa brought him the Hallmark NFL player ornament the past several years. The Christmas 2005 ornament was Michael Vick.

He shrugged again. “Maybe I could let Brandy chew on it and sell it on eBay.”

“Yeah, too bad someone else already thought of that with Michael Vick football cards. I think the novelty has worn off.”

We left the conversation at that, but I’m still thinking about that ornament. Maybe I’ll go buy some rubber dog poop at Spencer’s and super-glue Michael’s tiny little plastic-resin feet in it. Seems appropriate, ’cause Michael’s in deep shit.

Anybody have a better idea?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

A New Toy for the Boys

by Joyce Tremel

If any of you drive through Shaler Township in the near future, I'd advise you to watch your speed. Our boys have a new toy: the ENRADD. Never heard of it? Me neither, until recently.

ENRADD stands for Electronic Non-Radar Device. (In PA, only the state police are permitted by law to use radar.) It uses wireless infrared beams to measure speed. A sensor is placed on each side of the roadway and as the vehicle crosses through the beam, a signal is transmitted to a police car. The cool thing is that the police car can be up to 2000 feet away. By the time the driver spots the police car and slows down, it's too late. It's the most accurate speed timing device on the market. And there's no chance of human error, like with VASCAR.

VASCAR is the former way our PD clocked speeders. The traffic officer used a special stopwatch to time drivers between the two white lines painted on the roadway. The problem with this method is the officer had to start and stop the timing device. With ENRADD, the officer is not the one calculating the speed, the machine does it for him.

Yes, the guys love it.

And I'm sure I'll hate it. I'm the one who has to enter all those citations into the computer. I like citations about as much as the people who receive them. It's pure data entry and it is BORING.

They set up the ENRADD today on Route 8 (the major road through the township),so I'm sure I'll have lots and lots to complain about next week. They expected to write about 70 tags. I'll be sure to whine about every single one them.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


by Gina Sestak

One of the many short-term jobs I held as an undergraduate involved end-of-term surveys. I think we were paid $15 per class to show up on the final day and pass around a list of questions through which students could rate the professor. I would collect the surveys when the class ended and turn them in.

I remember one bleak December day, in my third or fourth year. I'd been up most of the night working on a research paper. I rolled out of bed after two or three hours exhausted slumber in my hovel -- ahem, I mean, my lovely off-campus sleeping room, took a quick shower to wash away some of the grogginess, dressed in the same torn jeans and T-shirt I'd dropped on the floor the night before, grabbed my old coat, and ran the quarter mile or so to the Cathedral of Learning. [For anyone unfamiliar with the University of Pittsburgh, this is a tall beautiful Gothic building in which classes were held.] The 8 a.m. class was full of first-year students. They were all neatly dressed, clothes clean and pressed, hair combed, and faces washed. Alert. I passed out the surveys and leaned against the wall, too tired to stand. While the students filled them out, I amused myself by cracking the little sleeves of ice that had formed around my damp hair in the sub-zero temperatures outside, and I realized then that I would never be "normal" in the sense that these kids were normal. That's when I knew I had to skew the norm to make it more like me.

"How can you do that?" you may ask.

"By taking surveys," I reply.

And ever since, I've been filling out a lot of questionaires. I'm flattered that marketers want to know what kind of toothpaste I prefer, or whether I'd like to see dead loved ones' faces etched into their tombstones. I've participated in focus groups and even, when I was still married, spent three months filling out daily forms on sexual behavior. My ex- and I were one of only TEN heterosexual couples in the study. [Isn't that a scary thought?]

That's not to say I enjoy taking any survey. I hate the ones that try to make you chose a particular answer, like:

I firmly believe that (choose one):

a. George W. Bush is the greatest president ever, OR
b. We are all pawns of Satan, destined for everlasting torment in Hell.

I also detest wishy-washy choices that include the word "expectations" because that word is so subjective. Whenever I'm asked whether a particular event met my expectations, I'm tempted to write, "No. I expected it to be the stupidest, most boring half-hour of my life, but it was even worse. It EXCEEDED EXPECTATIONS!"

Do you fill out surveys? If so, do you think:
a. questionaires are really boring OR
b. this is the way that we can really change the world!!!

Let me know.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Not From Lack of Trying

By Martha Reed

Last March I had the great good fortune to visit Florida’s Gulf Coast for ten days’ vacation. After a grey Pittsburgh February, I reveled in the sunny climate, the flowering bougainvillea running wild, the palms, even the alligators dozing along the canals. We took long bike rides and stayed near one of the great beaches, and I woke up extra early every morning to walk the tide line gathering a bucket of shells. This idyll went on for a couple of days before my sister noticed that I had taken to staring off into space and mumbling. ‘You’re working on something, aren’t you?’ she inquired suspiciously.

Yes, yes, I was. You see, the one thing about my writing habit is that every time I’m given a new setting I almost immediately try to frame a story into it to see if one will fit. Introduce me to a new ‘native’ and I want to hear details about the local color, especially if it’s anything funny, ironic, or involves a ghost. Right away I start to research the local customs and people, their background and history as my brain starts tinkering with an idea. And that is exactly what got me into trouble last March.

In Florida, at a cocktail party, I heard a funny anecdote that I thought would make a great opener. I met some of the local folks, and started testing a set of characters. I wanted to use elderly retirees to show that even though these folks were old, they were still the same vibrant people they had been when they were younger; they just got old, and that’s going to happen to all of us. And I had to make these old folks tough – tough enough to kill. So my mind took in that 80-something age group and I decided I would need: 1) a retired lawyer (who would know the local probate law) 2) a retired Naval officer (who could handle a boat), and 3) two women as close as sisters. I made them Army nurses, who had survived Bataan and a Japanese internment camp together, and that made these women about as tough as you can get.

My grandfather served in WWII in the Pacific arena (4th Marine Division, Saipan and Tinian, and let me tell you that was no cake walk either), and Pop used to tell me stories about what happened, carefully filtered for my young ears. Being a diligent author, I wanted to get it right, so I picked up a terrific book about the experiences of the Army and Navy nurses, WE BAND OF ANGELS by Elizabeth M. Norman. Over the weekend, I read the book, and as I read chapter by chapter a dreadful thing happened: as I dug into the war-time experiences of these nurses, as tough as they were, they would never cold-bloodedly murder anyone – and my beautiful story fell apart!

On the theory that we have to suck it up and use what we are given, I let the idea cool down and reconsidered my original plot. Then I came up with another idea that I’m hoping will work out even better than the first. But has that ever happened to you? Have you ever researched an idea and worked yourself right out of a job?

Monday, September 10, 2007

A Woman in Pants

by Brenda Roger

I love a good story -especially one with costume changes. In the process of preparing a gallery talk on the nineteenth-century painter Elizabeth Jane Gardner, I expected to find a hook for my talk in her nineteen-year engagement to teacher and fellow painter, William Bouguereau. I always choose the topics of my gallery talks based on who was sleeping with whom and who was doing drugs. Now I can add "who was cross dressing" to my list of criteria.

In 1872, Elizabeth Gardner was a young, American student of painting in Paris. That sounds so romantic. In fact, it is hard to finish writing this because I want to pack my bags and flee to Paris to be just like Elizabeth, however, I would like twenty-first-century mores to apply.

A painter's training is incomplete without intense study of the figure. It is not possible to paint a realistic portrait of a clothed person unless you have an almost medical familiarity with the anatomy of the body beneath the clothes. When Elizabeth Gardner arrived in Paris, women were not permitted to paint and draw live nudes right along with the men. Therefore, it was impossible for a woman to equal a man in technical ability because she had no access to necessary training. Elizabeth Gardner had a clever solution to this problem.

In 1872, she pulled on some pants, convincingly disquised herself as a man, and took the entrance exams to study drawing at the Gobelins Tapestry Manufacture, which was a prestigious place to study drawing -as long as you had certain anatomical features. Or a convincing pair of pants!!!

Elizabeth Gardner drew the figure at Gobelins, working from live nude models, for about two months when she realized that she had a little legal matter to attend to. She was required by Parisian law to have a permit to dress in a boy's costume. Incidentally, there was no such rule governing a man's freedom to dress like a woman in Paris until 1949.

If you would like to know how things worked out for dear Elizabeth, then you will have to pull on a convincing pair of pants and meet me in the rotunda of the Frick Art Museum at 2P.M. on September 21st.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Confessions of a Compulsive Eater

by Tory Butterworth

On a previous job, my co-worker and I were trained in a protocol for asking patients about their end-of-life wishes. During the training, she role-played asking me questions about the circumstances where I would like to continue life support and where I would choose to end it.

"And if you could not eat, but had to be fed by a tube, would you want to live?"

"No," I replied emphatically, not having thought of this question before.

What did I imagine? All the pleasure I currently get from food stripped away. Instead, a harsh tube irritating my throat, my only tastes of food from occasional burps into my esophagus.

No, I would not want to live that way.

My co-worker questioned my decision, pointing out to me all the other pleasures in life I could experience without being able to eat: reading, talking to family and friends, stroking my cats. Our instructor stopped her, suggesting that she had my answer, it was not her job to try to talk me out of my wishes.

I looked at my co-worker, the same age as me, who maintains a healthy weight for her height and bone structure. For the first time, I got a glimpse into the world of a non-compulsive eater.

I can't imagine a life without eating, that pleasure sublimated into other things. Though it wouldn't be my choice, I can imagine a life where I am unable to walk, or unable to see or hear. But unable to eat? It feels to me like the whole meaning on which I base my life would be stripped away.

Yet I know people who are relatively indifferent to food, who eat because they get light-headed if they don't, who go out to eat to be with friends rather than experience new tastes and textures.

Around this issue, my empathy fails. I just can't imagine being like that.

At the end of many diet books is this adage: Do you live to eat, or eat to live? I'm afraid I still live to eat.

How about you? Can you imagine a life without food?

Friday, September 07, 2007

Movie Night

by Kristine Coblitz

I love scary movies.

Over the weekend, my husband and I went to see the new Halloween movie by Rob Zombie. I've been a fan of the original Halloween ever since the first time I saw it. The original slasher flick was chilling and gave me nightmares. I don't get nightmares from it anymore, of course, but it's still fun to watch. It's now a tradition in my house to watch it every October. I had to see this new version on the big screen.

As much as I love the original, the major holes in the plot always bothered me. Too many unanswered questions for my taste. The writer in me wanted to know more. Why did Michael Myers kill his sister? What's the connection with Laurie Strode? How did Michael Myers get out of the institution? What internal and external factors turned him into a cold-blooded killer?

Granted, I know a movie like Halloween isn't supposed to be loaded with a ton of backstory or exposition--and neither should novels, for that matter. Fans of the genre want blood and gore. They want teenage sex. They want dead bodies. They want violence. In that sense, the movie delivered. The new version delivers plenty of that, too. True fans of the genre shouldn't be disappointed.

As a writer of suspense fiction, however, I needed answers. I wanted to go beneath the surface of what was portrayed on the screen to find out why things happened. Finally with this new version, I got the answers I needed. Of course they were the answers that fit Rob Zombie's more contemporary vision, but they were enough for me. I was satisfied at the end and felt as if I got closure. It was like finishing a good book.

I found the movie to be an interesting character study into how a child can turn into a monster, and I loved how Rob Zombie brought the entire story full circle at the end. You can check out the movie's cool website HERE.

I won't give any spoilers, but I do recommend the movie to horror fans and mystery writers alike. If you can tolerate the blood and gore, you'll see a lot of the same techniques we use in crafting our novels and our villains, proving once again the similarities between screenwriting and novel writing and how we can learn from each other.

What's your favorite scary movie? Any other Halloween fans out there?

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Illegal Activities

by Joyce Tremel

Last week, when I was researching some Pennsylvania laws, I came across some strange ones. It's hard to believe that some of these are still on the books.

In Ridley Park, Pennsylvania, it is illegal to walk backwards while eating peanuts in front of Barnstormers Auditorium while a performance is going on.

It is illegal in Morrisville for a woman to wear any kind of cosmetics without acquiring a special permit.

You cannot use dynamite to catch fish.

All liquor stores in Pennsylvania shall be run by the state government. (This one explains a lot.)

Housewives are not allowed to clean by brushing the dirt and dust underneath a rug. (What about brushing it under the furniture?)

It’s illegal to have more than 16 women living in the same domicile. It would be considered a brothel if there were more than that.

It is illegal to discharge a cannon, firearm or any kind of explosive device at a wedding.

A person is not eligible to become Governor if he/she has participated in a duel.

All fire hydrants must be checked one hour before all fires. (Firemen have ESP?)

Any motorist who sights a team of horses coming toward him must pull well off the road, cover his car with a blanket or canvas that blends with the countryside, and let the horses pass. If the horses appear skittish, the motorist must take his car apart, piece by piece, and hide it under the nearest bushes.

In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania it is illegal to have sex with a truck driver inside a toll booth. (Don't you wonder WHY they had to come up with this law?)

In Philadelphia you can't put pretzels in bags.

In the Mount Pocono region any group of 5 or more Native Americans are to be considered a raiding party and may be killed on the spot.

In York, Pennsylvania you can't sit down while watering your lawn with a hose.

In Pittsburgh it is still illegal to bring a donkey or a mule onto a trolley car. No one is allowed to sleep on a refrigerator.

In Tarentum horses are not to be tied to parking meters.

The state law of Pennsylvania prohibits singing in the bathtub. (What about the shower?)

You may not catch a fish by any body part except the mouth.

I'm sure there are more of these out there. How about all of you? Care to contribute silly laws from your own states?

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

What is Self-Defense?

by Annette Dashofy

A recent local news story has struck a nerve with me. Maybe it’s because I know the accused. Or KNEW him. I went to high school with him.

A community a few miles from my home has been in the news lately, but that isn’t what caught my attention when I first read the headline in the newspaper. What hit me was the name of the accused. It was a name I knew.

This isn’t the first time I’ve known someone in the news. All too often, I’ve recognized the name of the victim of a crime in the local paper. On occasion, I’ve even recognized the name of the person committing the crime. But usually I see that name and think, well, I’m not surprised. He always WAS a little creepy.

But not this time. This time I read that a sweet, quiet guy that I was friends with in school had shotgunned a teen in the back. My first thought was: something had to have provoked him. He’s not the type to randomly blow holes in people.

I’m not going to mention his name. I don’t want to cause him or his family any more grief. But if you’re in the Pittsburgh area and have seen the news in the last week, you’ve heard the story. Two teen boys in masks confronted him as he returned home from work at 5:30AM. This was the second time. The first time, he’d been able to jump back in his car to avoid them. This time, they had a baseball bat and struck him with it as they demanded money.

My old friend’s mistake was in grabbing his gun and shooting as the teens left. He shot the kid in the back. The other kid took off. Apparently, he didn’t consider his wounded compadre worth the risk of getting a load of buckshot in his own butt. Can’t really blame him. No honor among thieves, as they say.

So because he didn’t go for his gun while under attack, at which point the kids very likely would have taken the weapon and used it on him instead, he is being charged with attempted homicide.

I know, I know. He was wrong. I admit it. Technically, he wasn’t defending himself. But these kids had gone after him before. He lives with his mother. He just wanted to put an end to the harassment.

This guy with the shotgun was not a Rambo or a Terminator. I remember him as a bit of a nerd. Not one of the COOL kids. That was what we had in common that made us friends. Nerds get picked on. Somehow, I suspect he’s still a little nerdy (as mentioned, he lives with his mom). I suspect that he couldn’t take it anymore. Some will call it vigilantism. Maybe it is a little. But in this case, I think more than likely it was fear that drove him to shoot that kid. Fear that it wouldn’t end there. Fear that they would keep coming back. And I’m not so sure that this wasn’t a true case of self-defense. Okay, his life was not in jeopardy at that moment. But he’d already been beaten with a bat. He’d already been intimidated and made to fear for his life. Shouldn’t that count for something?

What do you think? Where do we draw the lines for self-defense and why? Do the laws we have now make sense? Or are changes needed? And should this quiet man who minded his own business and kept to himself until pressed to take action go to prison for attempted homicide? Perhaps most importantly, what would you do in his shoes?

Monday, September 03, 2007

The Scary Boyfriend

by Nancy Martin

While in high school, my daughter had a boyfriend who wouldn't let her go. Everywhere she went, he was wrapped around her somehow--usually with a tight arm locked around her waist. If he could have climbed inside her skin, I think he'd have done it My husband, amused at first, wanted them to wear this T-shirt: Public Displays of Affection R-Us.

Last week in my town, a fresh-faced high school cheerleader was stabbed sixteen times by her lovesick teenage boyfriend, who was enraged that she wanted to break up with him. After killing her, he slashed his own throat. At her funeral, friends and family released pink balloons. After he was discharged from the hospital, he was charged with her murder.

It's a sad, although not uncommon story--the kind of thing that catches the interest of a mystery writer. But the mother in me was seized by the throat and shaken hard.

A parent's nightmare, right? For both sets of parents.

If you have a daughter, chances are she'll encounter at least one possessive boyfriend--a kid who perhaps seems sweet and trustworthy on the outside--maybe with good grades and coming from a nice, church-going family. Maybe he's on a sports team or plays in the marching band, or he performs in the school musical. But he doesn't like to let your daughter out of his sight. He keeps his hand clamped on hers and wants to know where she is all the time. Eventually the day comes when he tells her not to go out with her friends because he wants her to himself. Which, to her, is flattering at first. But soon if he's not in actual physical contact, he's phoning or text-messaging or chatting online or using whatever technological form of communication can best keep him in constant touch with your child. And if he can't reach her, he gets angry. First he might be manipulative, using guilt to get her to obey his wishes. Maybe he eventually turns threatening. You catch her whispering, pleading into the phone in the middle of the night. Or weeping while she taps the keys of her computer in a darkened room when she thinks everyone else in the house is asleep.

To a girl who has memorized the plots of all the Jane Austen movies and knows Colin Firth's dialogue by heart, it's a pleasure for her to have an attentive boyfriend.

At first.

But here's a good example of how these kinds of relationships deteriorate.

It's amazing how fast it happens. Possessive becomes controlling which morphs into verbal and then physical abuse. The boyfriend's got plenty of psychological issues, but your daughter is the one who ends up in trouble. Or worse.

How do you help your daughter develop the skills to cope or avoid such relationships? I know it starts early--long before boyfriends are even in the family lexicon. But how do you build her self-esteen and develop her radar? And give her the cool head and right language to fend off a kid who's determined to become a big part of her life? How do you help her end it when puppy love gets to the Protection From Abuse stage?

People ask me all the time where I get my ideas as a writer. Well, it's stories like this one that make me itch to write a story that will be meaningful to readers. But as a mother, this kind of story is very real.

Happy Labor Day

The Working Stiffs aren't working today. We're all enjoying the holiday with family and friends and hope you, our readers, are, too. We'll be back tomorrow. Hope to see you then.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Wee Morning Hours

by Brian Mullen

As I write this, it is 3:45 a.m. on August 24th. My wife is "meditating" for a few minutes before I force her to get up and get ready. We are going on vacation. Our plane leaves Pittsburgh Airport at 6 a.m. (or thereabouts). We are going on a week-long cruise to Alaska.

Because of the amount of work that goes into making sure our jobs will run semi-smoothly without our hands on the rudders, so to speak, we've barely had a chance to get excited about the trip. Last night, however, I bought a 2007 Alaskan cruise travel guide highlighting much of what we can expect. So, even though we were supposed to go to bed "early", we stayed up reading excerpts and getting excited.

We are entering a strange world. The cities we will be seeing have smaller populations (in some cases) that the capacity of the cruise ship - Seward has about 300 locals - our ship has 2100! Each strives to maintain an appearance of historical authenticity while having all the modern day conveniences.

As a writer, I hope to get inspired by new locations and new experiences and come home with a Jack London "Call of the Wild" kind of destiny. Odds are, however, I'll just come home about 10 pounds heavier.

Still, it's early in the morning and a whole new world awaits. Once we get through security, that is.