Sunday, December 28, 2008

Everyone loves a parade... almost

I just can’t let the holidays conclude without sharing this behind-the-scenes look into the world of holiday parades…. for your amusement:

Everybody loves a parade. But making one happen isn’t as easy as you’d think. Take it from the official “coordinator” of the City of Portsmouth’s 2008 Holiday Parade. I spent weeks working on an event that took a grand total of 37 minutes to pass by. Ho, ho, ho.

Now, you’re probably thinking: “What’s the big deal? A bunch of people line up and then they march down a street. "

If only it were so easy. There are news releases to write, applications to process, money to collect from commercial entries, questions to be answered from the public, bands to be recruited, rules to be followed (“no throwing of candy into the crowd or you will be removed), parking to be banned, streets to be closed, prayers to be offered to the weather gods, and numerous meetings with all the city departments with a role in the event.

Yes, it takes all this and more to make a parade. And some of it can really suck the holiday spirit out of you.

This year, there were 65 vehicles, floats, walking units and bands to orchestrate. Part of my job as coordinator is to carefully choreograph the procession to provide a visual treat to the more than 8,000 people lining the 1.1-mile parade route through downtown.

Designing the perfect lineup beforehand is challenging for anyone as numbers-impaired as I am. It’s also complicated by entries pleading to be allowed in after the deadline and others dropping out. The primary goal is to evenly space out the bands, big vehicles, walking units and this year – the beauty contestants. “But only mine can compete for Miss America,” harrumphed one pageant sponsor.

Fearing a beauty brawl, I had to figure out how to separate Mrs. Senior New Hampshire, Miss Strafford County, the Miss New Hampshire-Massachusetts Teenager Scholarship group, and the “Iron Brides” competing for a bridal package in a regional reality show. I agonized over who to place at the front. In the end, I respected my elders and chose Mrs. Senior New Hampshire. If anyone was disappointed, you couldn’t tell it from their perfect smiles and beauty queen waves.

There also were philosophical issues to consider, such as how close should the peace group be to the Veterans of Foreign Wars color guard? Should all religious walking units and floats be lined up together? And, would anyone appreciate the irony in having the NH Bureau of Liquor Enforcement vehicle following a float with fans of Jimmy Buffet of “Margaritaville” fame?

Imagine the pressure.

Then there’s the music. Not which kind – it’s all holiday stuff – but how much is heard beyond the marching bands. Floats and walking units want to be accompanied by boom boxes or other musical devices. If they’re not properly spaced, the result is one big jumble of holiday tunes.

There’s also the issue of where to stage people. There isn't an area large enough to line up all the entries beforehand. A vacant property along the route becomes "Float World" while everyone else feeds in from narrow side streets to form the procession I design. It takes great precision – and lots of hard-working people with walkie-talkies – to pull it off without incident.

Parade incidents, you ask? Sure. For example, someone marching out of order can cause problems for the parade announcer, who reads from the script I've prepared beforehand. This year, we taped the parade for broadcast later, though our plan nearly was thwarted when the cameraman briefly knocked out the power at the reviewing stand 10 minutes before the start of the parade. Ho, ho, ho.

This was also the year I faced down the illegal vendors – out-of-state guys wearing fake licenses and pushing around grocery carts filled with cheap plastic items or selling food without Health Department permits (and taking business away from the local restaurants). “You have 15 minutes to pack up your stuff and get out of here,” I said with my best holiday spirit -- and a police officer standing behind me. It wasn't nearly as fulfilling, though, as calling in the tow trucks last year to remove cars whose drivers had ignored the humongous “No Parking” signs I'd made. I never anticipated how much towing could back up traffic. But I digress.

This year’s biggest unexpected wrinkle came in the form of parade crashers – people who jumped in the parade in progress. The first was a guy in holiday attire weaving his decorated bicycle in and out of the parade near the somber Police Honor Guard. “You’re not in this parade,” I said when I caught up to him. “Yes, I am,” he replied. “Not anymore,” said I, motioning for a nearby police officer.

A short time later, the announcer and I were flabbergasted to see a 7-foot yellow chicken marching down the street accompanied by five young women wearing shirts advertising a local chicken wings restaurant. It was an illegal entry that hadn’t paid the requisite $30 commercial fee. The quick-thinking announcer shrugged and said, "Here comes a big chicken from .... "

I was paralyzed by indecision. Should I leap off the reviewing stand and tackle him in front of thousands of people, beating him senseless with a cell phone and walkie-talkie? Call in police reinforcements? Grab the microphone and scream, “Get out of my parade you low-life piece of fowl”?

None of those choices seemed very holiday-ish. In the end, I opted for a phone call afterward. “Have the check on my desk Tuesday,” I said firmly. Two days later a guy with “big chicken” on his business card delivered it with a bigger smile. All was forgiven.

So next time you’re enjoying a big parade, I hope you'll consider the amount of work – and heavy-handed enforcement -- it took to bring it to you. Ho, ho, ho.

Monday, December 22, 2008

A mother's lament

As I write this, my firstborn is beginning a new life 500 miles away.

I blame myself. If I’d allowed him to have a toy gun as a child, maybe he wouldn’t be reporting to the DC Metropolitan Police Academy in the predawn darkness three days before Christmas.

But this also is the child who skirted the gun ban by making weapons out of everything: sticks, rulers, even processed cheese. He’s also the son who loved to dress up in uniforms as a child. Although this made it easier when it came time to begin Catholic school, I had hoped the astronaut getup would be the one following him into adulthood.

Instead, he's thrilled to be starting a career in law enforcement in the nation’s capital, which is ironically the same “big city” life we escaped 13 years ago and where his younger brother now attends college.

I awoke unusually early this morning, worrying as his 7 a.m. report time neared. Did he wake up on time? Were his shoes polished? Did traffic delay him? The weather report says it was 16 degrees and clear so there was no snow or ice to make him late. But maybe he’s cold: he doesn’t own a dress coat to wear over his suit.

It took every ounce of restraint I possess not to call his cell phone. But I think of him with every mile he drives and every step he takes to the front door of the academy where he will spend the next 28 weeks.

I know he has to do this alone. And yes, I know this is part of life. We want our children to be independent and chart their own courses in life. But it does not prevent my tears at 7 a.m. There’s no turning back now. He’s truly left us.

How strange this all feels. As Husband No. 1 observes, we’ve been with this child through 23 years of school, sports, activities, etc. I remember his first day of preschool, elementary school, high school and college – and his last ones, too. Now he’s beginning the most exciting phase of his life and we aren’t with him. Nobody warned us about this part of parenting.

Some say this experience is not unlike what happens when you sell a novel. After being totally immersed in its development, day and night, sometimes for years, your progeny leaves your control and takes on its own life. If you’re lucky, it reappears in a polished form you recognize.

Will my son become a man I no longer recognize? I pray not. But there’s no doubt he will have experiences I could never imagine. I am proud that he's taking a huge leap into his future. But the Mom part of me is a little sad about how far that leap is taking him away from me.

Monday, December 15, 2008

A bad-hair, ice storm kind of day

Women understand that while it’s OK to delay some appointments, a date with the hairdresser isn’t one of them.

When I awoke last Friday to a frigid house surrounded by large trees downed in the worst ice storm in New Hampshire history, there was no heat, electricity or phone service. But I still intended to keep my 12:30 p.m. salon appointment.

Scheduled for color “enhancement,” there was no need to wash my hair – leaving precious gallons of hot water in the tank for others. It was my day off and the lights were out. Who’d care that my hair wasn’t squeaky clean?

Heading out in search of caffeine, I found restaurants and coffee shops as dark as their coffee. With no working traffic signals to impede my progress, I quickly reached downtown and spotted a coffee oasis beckoning from the darkness. The shivering masses seeking comfort inside included two colleagues. I confided to one that I’d dressed without light and probably looked terrible. He seemed too preoccupied with scoring hot coffee to care. Later I discovered he’d also been too preoccupied to notice the large, red Velcro hair curler stuck to my black shirt – or was too nice to say anything.

“You wear such weird jewelry he probably thought it was supposed to be there,” observed No. 1 son.

With daylight now filtering into the cold, quiet house, I caught a glimpse of my hair in the mirror. Comparing it to a bird’s nest would have been a compliment.

My cell phone rang. “How are you?” my boss asked politely. “Cold,” I replied. “It’s warm at City Hall. Why don’t you come down and help with the media?” he said.

I looked at my watch. There was enough time to write news releases and still be in Sheila's chair on schedule. Everyone would be too busy answering the calls coming into the Emergency Operations Center to notice my hair. I forced a brush through it anyway.

Dodging fallen tree branches along the route, I spotted a downed tree and power lines in the street near my hairdresser’s home. My mind raced. In just a few days I was scheduled to receive a municipal award that would be televised on the local cable channel. My hair required “enhancement” and soon. Surely the debris could be cleared in time for my appointment.

The Emergency Operations Center was humming with lights, heat, coffee and working phones, courtesy of a big, honking generator. Hours later, it set the roof on fire, forcing its own "emergency operations."

We were evacuated and I panicked -- not because of the fire, but because my work wasn’t done, I had no idea when we’d be allowed back inside and “Hair Time” was imminent. Yes, 75 percent of my city and half of the residents of New Hampshire lacked power, but I had an appointment to keep. From the look on his face, I suspect the Fire Chief realized my repeated inquiries about his firefighters’ progress went beyond simple curiosity – or he was mesmerized by my stringy hairdo.

It was looking bad for keeping my sacrosanct meeting with the one person who could cure what ailed my hair. I visit Sheila more frequently than my personal physician. We know a delay in treatment can widen a thin line of gray hair roots into a boulevard.

I telephoned the salon. No response. I telephoned Sheila’s home. Miraculously, there was an answer, but it wasn’t good. Her route remained blocked and even if she could get to the salon, it had no power. I wouldn't be able to even try to bribe her to walk to City Hall to do my hair in a bathroom. My hair would not be rescued that day.

It wouldn’t be easy to get another appointment during her busiest season. But finding a big, fancy hat to hide my gray would be impossible in the aftermath of an ice storm. I began to hope that the fire knocked out the TV cameras scheduled to record my award a few nights later.

Partial salvation came with the news the power was back on at home and at least I could wash my hair. Hundreds of thousands of others weren’t so lucky. My neighbors went without power for over 63 hours. Even with fireplaces, temperatures dropped to 39 degrees inside their homes. Basements flooded without electricity to power sump pumps. Roofs and vehicles were impaled by pine trees. Yards resembled war zones.

There was no TV or Internet to get weather updates. Phone service was intermittent. Area hotels were full. The unlucky became so desperate to shower that they paid rare visits to fitness center locker rooms or the bathrooms of neighbors with heat. Some drove around in their cars to keep warm and recharge cell phones. Others cursed themselves for not buying generators months earlier. Thousands are still in the dark today.

Some say this experience has given them new sympathy for the homeless. And there's been little talk about the inconvenience of a devastating ice storm so close to holidays. I no longer care about advancing lines of gray roots. Like so many others, I’m just grateful to be safe and warm.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The glamorous life of an author

I want to tell you that being an author is extremely glamorous. But that would be a lie.

For example, just last week I accompanied a fellow short story writer to a literacy fund-raising event in a city about an hour away at the suggestion of one of the publishers of the new mystery anthology containing our latest short stories.

We were to be among “a select group of authors” selling the products of our creativity to admiring readers who’d pay $10 for the privilege of being with us while enjoying “light refreshments.” Our presence would support literacy efforts, allow us to sell books and provide an opportunity to network with readers and other writers.

The fact that one member of our “select group” was identified as “The Icky Bug Man” should have been a sign of things to come.

Chronic lateness, traffic interruptions from a major auto accident and less-than-precise directions caused us to arrive minutes after the scheduled start of the four-hour event. We walked in to find over 30 authors and illustrators smiling hopefully behind long tables lining two small meeting rooms at the back of the restaurant.

The authors and illustrators far outnumbered the customers. And they occupied every square inch of table space. When the event organizer gently urged several of them to make room for us and our book, no one moved.

Eventually, a book distributor took pity and offered a table from her car. Due to space limitations, we found ourselves huddled at one end of the table with “Deadfall: Crime Stories by New England Writers” displayed at the other. We searched for chairs. No one would surrender even an empty seat.

When we looked around the room, we saw that nearly every other author and illustrator was selling material for children. There were dozens of sweet and beautiful children’s books. I wondered if some were written by people who poured all of their sweetness onto the page.

“Don’t they know we write murder mysteries?” my companion whispered. “You’d think they’d be nicer out of fear, if nothing else.”

As the evening progressed, it became painfully clear that the crowd was much smaller than anticipated. It also appeared to be primarily comprised of elementary school teachers. They weren’t even buying many kids’ books. It was beginning to look like “Crime Stories by New England Writers” wouldn't end up in their classrooms, either.

Nonetheless, a few people picked up "Deadfall" and then put it back down. Some even made polite conversation first. One woman said she'd like to buy the book but couldn't because she’d used all the checks she’d brought.

“That’s OK,” I said in desperation. “We’ll even autograph it for you. Just send us the check later.”

It was the only book we “sold.” I was relieved when the woman’s check arrived a few days later. Even so, our meager profit didn’t cover the cost of gas, the peppermints we offered at our table or the copy of “Deadfall” we'd donated to the silent auction.

But we did get something out of the evening: A reality check on the glamorous life of being an author. We also learned that people don’t have to be nice to write nice books. And, in the spirit of life experiences providing “novel material,” I must confess that we came home with some fabulous murder mystery plots involving children’s book authors.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Family Ties, Family Lies

On Thanksgiving day, my family learned that one of our older relatives maliciously broke 13 windows as a 6th-grader, another family member (now a teacher) once called her teacher a not-very-nice word, one of my calm in-laws wishes she was Tomb-Raider Lara Croft and another drove a car over 110 mph down the local highway.

These revelations were not the result of too much alcohol or stories whispered behind closed doors. Rather, they were shared amid much hilarity as we played our own loud and enthusiastic version of “I Don’t Think So.”

The object of the game is to figure out who’s lying, and who’s not, when people respond to a written or spoken prompt, such as “The meanest thing I ever did at work or school was….” or a question like “Who did you have a secret crush on in high school?” (Questions, by the way, that are similar to those used in writing exercises designed to help authors give depth to their characters.)

The others in the “I Don’t Think So” game attempt to guess whether the response is the truth or shout, "I don’t think so” if they believe the speaker is being less than honest. Each correct guess equals a point. (We put pennies in a cup to keep score.) The winner is the person with the most correct guesses after everyone has at least one opportunity to spin a story (or not).

There were 14 people of all ages around our Thanksgiving table and some were unexpectedly good liars. That, in itself, was revealing. And in these days of young people constantly connected to text-messaging and other technology toys, it was a pleasure to watch them listen to their relatives. Although my college freshman niece claimed the prize at game’s end, we were all winners. We’d learned new things about each other and shared some hilarious – and surprising – stories from our pasts.

I think all of us are still chuckling at my father’s response to “the most outrageous thing I ever said was…..” With a straight face, he quickly replied: “I do.” This prompted much laughter, a few shocked looks, and more than one shout of “I don’t think so!”

He smiled and said, “Of course, I was lying.”

Harmony restored and a great story to recall at future family gatherings.


For those interested in playing “I Don’t Think So,” I've listed our prompts. But the beauty of this game is you can make up prompts, or questions, to fit any audience or occasion. You can require everyone to answer one question, or take turns and all respond to several. The questions/prompts can be posed by an “emcee” or written on slips of paper to be drawn from a hat. Here are the prompts we used:

The meanest thing I ever did at work/school was …
The thing I got away with that my parents never knew about …
The worst Christmas present I ever RECEIVED was … (because)
The worst Christmas present I ever GAVE was … (because)
The character in a book or movie I most want to be like is … (because)
The naughtiest thing I’ve ever done …
The first time I smelled marijuana …
The most embarrassing thing that ever happened to me was …
The best job I could ever possibly have is …
The thing that I pretend to like that I don’t really like is …
My perfect vacation spot is (or would be) … (because)
When I want to waste time I …
The food I hate the most but pretend to like …
The fastest I’ve ever driven a car, truck, motorcycle or boat …
My worst nightmare is …..
The craziest dream I ever had …..
The craziest plan I ever made ….
The most outrageous thing I’ve ever said is …
The stupidest thing I ever did….
The celebrity I would most like to meet is…


Sunday, November 23, 2008

Thanksgiving!


After I posted this blog, my friend Diane sent me the picture of herself from that turkey-hanging Thanksgiving so you won't think I made up the story. The gun wasn't real --

I love Thanksgiving, don’t you? We get to eat pie, no one seems to object to the holiday on religious or philosophical grounds, and people usually are in a fairly good mood because they're thinking about why they should be thankful, even if it’s only, “Thank God we don’t have to go to Aunt Edith’s house this year.”

Although it's a food-filled celebration, many of us don't worry much about the menu -- beyond who’s bringing what -- because there’s so much tradition attached to this holiday. Certain elements are a given in many households -- like turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce. I've also learned that breaking with tradition can lead to disaster, such as my sister’s attempt to try something new in pies. Believe me, peanut butter and squash should never be combined.

I once tried to insert homemade cranberry sauce into our feast, but met great resistance from a husband overly enamored with the Ocean Spray jellied version with ridges. Since he also cooks the turkey after one too many instances of being served a bird with its plastic-encased innards still inside, he gets his way on the cranberry sauce. There are cans chilling in our fridge at this very moment. (And at least one will be there until Thanksgiving 2009 because he buys too much and he only eats cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving and before Christmas.) I try to class up the canned stuff by serving it on a stunning rainbow glass plate that was a wedding gift to his parents over 60 years ago. The plate is now its own tradition.

My husband also demands green bean casserole with Durkee fried onions on top. My children won’t eat it and neither will several others who will be around our table on Thursday. But he’s found an ally in our beloved sister-in-law so it’s usually on the “to-bring” list for her or one of her children. I do think he secretly misses making the gooey concoction, so we let him prepare his own version at Christmas and then throw most of it out with the wrapping paper.

There are some long-gone Thanksgiving traditions that I still miss. In our younger days, my cousin and I spent Thanksgiving mornings stuffing dates with cream cheese and peanut butter, rolling them in sugar and then topping them with a walnut piece. Back then, we were still too innocent to realize that stuffing a date might be far more fun than actually going on one.

Years later, many a Thanksgiving in Virginia was shared with the family of my husband’s cousin, who is married to a lover of rutabaga – a vegetable as foreign to me as kohlrabi. We left that tradition behind when we moved north. I don’t miss the smell, but I sure miss all of them.

There also were many memorable Thanksgivings in Texas. I’m still surprised we survived the year my friend insisted on hanging the turkey upside down to drain in her garage the night before cooking, claiming it would result in a moister bird. Since the overnight temperature in Fort Worth is in the upper 50s at this time of year, I suspect the juiciness was the result of a very high bacteria count. Fortunately, enough liquor was consumed to kill all germs.

Do you have Thanksgiving food traditions or funny memories? Do any of them involve stuffed dates or rutabaga?

(If you want to post a response, click on comments. Type in your comment and then retype the word you see in color into the word verification box. Under "choose an identity," click on "Name/URL" and put in your name ... or click on Anonymous. Then click on "post your comment.")

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Judging Others

Over the weekend, the 2008 winner of the prestigious Al Blanchard Award for short crime fiction was announced at the annual New England Crime Bake Conference for mystery writers and readers. I had the privilege of being one of the judges who selected the winning entry because I received the award last year.

As I watched Margaret Press accept her well-deserved prize for “Family Plot,” I thought about the process that led her to the stage. It reminded me that literary success, like so many things in life, can be arbitrary.

Individual taste determines our choices in love, career, foods, hairstyles, etc. What we prefer one day may not be our choice the next. Why would we expect it to be different in fiction? The legends about authors who endured repeated rejection only to eventually land atop the best-sellers lists or in the library “classics” section are what keep writers going as we struggle to finish manuscripts, get an agent, find a publisher, attract readers, win recognition, etc.

I once believed talent was all that was necessary for literary success. But after my stint as a judge, I suspect it may be much more subjective: affected by an agent or publisher’s mood the day they see your work, how many similar proposals they’ve received, whether they’re willing to ignore that you violated their favorite grammar rule, and so on.

The process
Between November 2007 and April 30, 2008, a potential half-million words of crime fiction – 114 stories of 5,000 words or less – flew into my e-mailbox. A neutral party had stripped each Al Blanchard Award entry of all identifying info beyond title, word count and state of origin. (One story was disqualified because it did not meet the contest requirement of having either a New England author or a New England setting.)

By April 1, I’d carefully read and ranked the 41 stories submitted, amazed at their diversity and the talent of their authors. It would be difficult to choose a winner. Then another 73 stories flooded my e-mailbox by the April 30 deadline -- 42 of them in the final week, alone. I faced the daunting task of compiling a “Top 10” list to exchange by e-mail with the other judges by our deadline in advance of meeting in person to select the winner.

I was surprised by the variety on our “Top 10” lists. Choosing just one winner and four honorable mentions from 113 stories would not be easy. So many deserved to be published. But only the winner would receive the honor of leading the new anthology “Deadfall: Crime Stories by New England Writers” (which also contains my story “Circulation,” by the way.)

A few weeks later, we met at a coffee shop to discuss each short story that made a judge’s “Top 10” list and the reasons why. All of us sitting around the table that day had read all 113 entries in their entirety, even those we didn’t immediately love, out of respect for our fellow writers. I well remember how I struggled over writing and rewriting “Mercy 101” before I submitted it to the contest last year. I couldn’t imagine how many hours has been invested in creating the stories before us.

As we reviewed our lists, it was fascinating to hear why a story might not be the favorite of another judge. One thought the plot of my top choice was implausible. Another found a different story offensive. A well-written entry didn’t have enough mystery. There were some with themes that seemed too similar. And so on.

Although Margaret's story is extraordinary, it occurred to me that our reactions to the stories might be similar to what happens when writers submit their work to an agent or a publisher. Rejection doesn't necessarily mean it’s not good work. It might just be that the story/novel/article isn’t right for the specific outlet, that particular time, or for the person reading it that day.

In writing, as in life, maybe you just gotta be able to take the “no’s” – as my wise friend Jeanne’ would say – and keep going, holding on to that glimmer of hope that somewhere out there you'll find someone waiting to make a judgment in your favor.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Proud, Optimistic... and Excited

According to a Gallup Organization poll taken the day after the voting, two-thirds of Americans are proud and optimistic following Barack Obama’s election. And 6 in 10 say they’re excited.

The "excited" numbers might have been higher had the Gallup people called my house, where several young people in their mid-20s celebrated into the wee hours. There's no way to adequately describe the joy on their tired faces. All those hours spent knocking on thousands of New Hampshire doors, seven days a week, for over a month on behalf of Obama and progressive causes had been worthwhile.

No. 2 son also was among a pretty excited group in Washington, D.C., where thousands surged toward the White House to shout “Yes, we can” and to sing, “Na Na Na, Hey Hey Goodbye” until early the next morning. This was his first election and he'd spent Election Day working at the D.C. polls. Husband No. 1 worked all day at the Portsmouth, NH, polls while I rested my tired fingers after hours of data entry for the Obama campaign (You’d be surprised at how much info the VoteFinder database contains on everyone who’s ever registered to vote).

No. 2 son, meanwhile, said voting was enough for him. Gallup probably wouldn't put him in the excited category. But what about the folks who were included? History and transition of power aside, do you suppose any of them were also excited that the election is finally over?

I never thought I’d be glad to see television ads for Depends and Viagra, but they’re a welcome change from months of campaign commercials about alleged terrorists and economic idiots. A tremendous amount of money was spent to bombard all of us this election season. With two weeks left to go, the campaigns already had purchased $14 million worth of TV ad time from NH’s lone statewide television station, alone. I imagine WMUR is among the TV stations nationwide that are sorry to see an end to those election dollars.

I’m also thrilled to answer the telephone without fear Caller ID failed to reveal another enthusiastic campaign worker reminding me to vote. Gee, really, is there an election? I’m sure I also share the excitement of the U.S. Postal Service to see an end to the volumes of slick campaign literature shoved into mailboxes and weighing down doors.

Friends who volunteered for campaigns also are pleased to no longer have to take direction from people half their age, but with 10 times the energy, asking them to do more. I’m still chuckling about my beyond middle-aged friends who hid in a bathroom and escaped through a side door on election night, rather than face the 20-something campaign manager ordering volunteers to keep working to get out the vote even though the polls were closing in 20 minutes.

The Gallup survey also said less than a third of Americans are feeling pessimistic or afraid.
I wondered about the "afraid” part until I saw news reports that people are rushing into gun shops to buy assault weapons before an Obama administration bans them again. Was that your first thought when you heard the election results – better get out and buy me some Uzis and AK-47s?

When I commented on how crazy that seemed, No. 1 son said he’d heard people talking about it. I asked why anyone needs semi-automatic weapons, especially in peaceful, nearly crime-free NH. For target shooting, he replied. These guys can’t shoot tin cans with a rifle or a handgun? They need to obliterate their targets in a flurry of rapidly fired bullets? That kind of thinking is enough to make anyone afraid.

However, I intend to remain optimistic. Before he announced for president, I heard Barack Obama say in January 2007 that sometimes it's harder to be hopeful. I decided that day that I was tired of being against things and I wanted to be FOR something. The Audacity of Hope. That's what we saw on Election Night 2008. May it continue.

Bonus blog: I blogged about being an Al Blanchard short story contest winner over at http://crimebake.org/blog/ -- third item down last I checked.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Random Thoughts….

Although I'm fairly election-obsessed today, I'd like to briefly discuss plastic wrap instead.

Yep, that clear stuff that drives you crazy because it usually comes flying out of its box when you’re trying to tear off a piece in a hurry or it gets stuck together no matter what you do.

Apparently the manufacturers are aware of these problems and many of them have provided little tabs on the ends of the plastic wrap (and aluminum foil) boxes to push in to hold the roll in place and avoid all this aggravation. Did you know this? I found the revelation amazing – along with the fact that I learned about it in a forwarded e-mail that actually turned out to be true.

(I’m talking about those e-mails people send without bothering to remove all the other forwarding info or e-mail addresses of the previous recipients. I’d recommend “cut and paste” but maybe we’re supposed to become friends with those folks, too, since someone thought we shared a common interest in that particular e-mail.)

Anyway, the tabs are wonderful things. If you’re wondering why the manufacturers don’t publicize them, maybe it’s because we’d be wasting – and buying – a whole lot less plastic wrap. This way, they can claim to do the right thing, even if they hope we won't find out. So, I'm doing my part to help spread the word!

Now, some non-specific election thoughts….
Even if you're tired of election polls, you might find this one interesting. It involves the characteristics that we Americans say we absolutely won’t accept in a presidential candidate. Care to guess what they are?

The first is an atheist (and this may explain incumbent GOP North Carolina Senator Elizabeth Dole’s appalling “godless Americans” smear ad against her Democratic opponent). Second, is someone who’s gay and third, Muslims.

Interestingly enough, the academics presenting these findings noted that 10 years ago, being black or female was on some “absolutely not” lists. Makes you wonder about our candidates a decade from now.

Speaking of candidates, I heard John Kerry speak over the weekend. As I listened to the former Democratic presidential nominee talk (and marveled at the size of his head), I couldn’t help but think how different we all feel about the presidential race this time around. Four years ago, Kerry and the now disgraced (and disgraceful) John Edwards were campaigning to oust George W. Bush. Today, Democrats AND Republicans can’t wait to see W go. Ever think about how different our world (and bank accounts) would look if Kerry had won in 2004?

I do. But this is not a time for looking back. It's time to look forward. So push in those plastic wrap box tabs and get out there and vote!

Monday, October 27, 2008

What kind of a reader are you?

If you aren’t overly fond of the book you’re reading, do you continue to the end anyway? Or do you quickly put it down – without a single twinge of guilt – and pick up another?

Only recently did it occur to me that there might be various schools of thought* on how to react following the realization that a book isn’t as good as expected.

The revelation came while listening to Joe Hill, author of the best-selling “Heart-Shaped Box” and the new “20th Century Ghosts,” who told readers at my local independent bookstore that he nearly always reads a book to the end – even if he doesn’t like it that much. His wife, however, quickly decides whether a book is for her and throws it aside if it’s not.

In my house, it’s my husband who begins and rejects books so quickly that I’m never sure what he’s reading. I usually keep plugging along unless the writing is beyond wretched or the plot is so convoluted that I’d rather poke myself in the eye than try to figure it out.

After listening to Joe Hill**, I wonder if how we pursue our reading is merely habit or something deeper, like a personality trait that someone should be studying. (I'm sure hoping it's not one of those things that requires therapy, though.)

I hadn’t thought much about it before, but I believe I keep reading because I’m afraid I’ll miss something good that might be still to come. Or maybe I just want to give my fellow writers the benefit of the doubt that they’ll eventually enlighten and/or entertain me.

After all, it takes a tremendous amount of time and effort to write a book and get it published. If a book makes it to the store shelves, it must have some redeeming value, right? Unfortunately, I’m often disappointed in my quest to find it. Aren't you?

I recently learned that 411,000 new book titles were sold in America last year. That’s an average of 1,126 new books published every single day. Those numbers alone should be enough to convince us a) we can’t read every new book and b) odds are not all of them are great – and maybe a whole lot aren’t even good. How to find the best ones is a topic for another day, however.

In the meantime, I’ve decided to try to train myself to quickly put down bad books and only keep reading the really good ones. Life’s just too short to read mediocre books. Don’t you agree?

After posting this blog, I received e-mails from people who say that if they're not sure they like a book, they read the ending and then decide whether to go back and read the entire thing. But why read the book if you already know how it ends? I suppose some of us enjoy the journey while others focus on finishing. And I suspect there are as many ways to read a book as there are to write one. Maybe that's what helps make reading so satisfying to so many people.

(**Joe Hill, by the way, uses the inside blank covers of the book he’s reading to make his own scorecards of Red Sox games. Like his father, Stephen King, he is a Sox fan and also brings along the book he’s currently reading to enjoy during breaks in the game.)



Monday, October 20, 2008

Commitment

This is a view of the USS New Hampshire nuclear submarine moving up the Piscataqua River to the site where it will be officially commissioned into the US Navy later this week. It carries more than 100 sailors committed to serving and protecting our country. Many are in their late teens and early 20s.

As I watched the sub make its way to the nation’s oldest shipyard, guided by tugboats and accompanied by a welcoming flotilla of local watercraft, I was reminded once again that there are young people still willing to risk everything for the greater good.

It gives me such hope for America.

I am now of a generation that often shakes its head over “young people today” and worries they lack direction and a willingness to commit to something bigger than themselves. There are days when I fear our nation has become so cynical that we have given up; that we are paralyzed by disillusion.

These sailors are proof that I am wrong.

So, too, are the young people who tiptoed through our house at 6 a.m. yesterday. For the past week, Annie from Wisconsin and Tommy from Maryland have been sleeping here for a few hours each night, departing early in the morning and often returning around 1 a.m.

They arrived at our door with their own towels, bedding and sturdy shoes, prepared to sleep on a stranger’s floor, if necessary, so they could pound the pavement in support of their beliefs. In their mid-20s, they’ve taken leaves of absence to work for the grassroots group “Progressive Future,” which is trying to get out the vote for candidates who support health care, education and the environment.

They came to New Hampshire because it was considered a “swing state” with four precious electoral college votes. When I asked if they might be able to cut back a little on their insane schedule, they told me there was too much at stake on Nov. 4.

Yesterday they were up early because Tommy was being shipped out to Denver. “Gotta go where the fight is,” he said in the thank you note he left behind. I suspect that somewhere else in this country, young people with opposite beliefs also were preparing to leave for Colorado. It's become a key battleground state for nine electoral votes while NH appears to be leaning toward Obama.

As the election gets closer, more Tommys and Annies will be pouring into states that could ultimately decide the next administration of our country. They will be from all walks of life and support candidates across the political spectrum – Republicans, Democrats, Independents, etc. And most of these campaign workers will be young.

Commitment. Standing up for what you believe in. Supporting a cause. Yes, young people still do that – in service to their country, in election campaigns and in a thousand other ways.

Whatever your political beliefs, doesn’t it make you proud to be an American?

Monday, October 13, 2008

Fear in black and white

I ate lunch last weekend at Mabel’s Lobster Claw, a classic seafood restaurant in beautiful Kennebunkport, Maine, that's within walking distance of the Bush Maine estate. Former President Bush had dined there two nights earlier and ordered his favorite swordfish. The waitress told us he tips at 20 percent and is showing his age at 84.

She also told us she’s afraid to vote for Barack Obama because she fears he’ll be assassinated. I tried to remind her that white presidents get assassinated, too, and unfortunately there have been far too many attempts on the lives of all of our presidents.

I also asked her: “Should we elect our president based on fear?” (This was, of course, before Wall Street’s worst week in history.)

Although I believe her fear of assassination for the first black president of the United States is shared by many in this country, I wonder: is that fear just another shade of racial prejudice?

No one is talking about concerns that John McCain might be assassinated. Personally, I'm terrified of who would be a heartbeat away if the 72-year-old McCain were to die in office – whether it be from a fifth bout with deadly melanoma or something else. Others say this fear is a factor in their election decision, as well.

So, are we now electing presidents based on life expectancy rather than who can best solve a crippling financial crisis, get us affordable health care or end the war in Iraq? Have elections come down to voting for the person least likely to die in office? Or is it really that we can’t forget that Obama is half-black and McCain is all-white?

I wanted to believe racial prejudice isn’t part of this year’s presidential race – or a major factor in America today. But judging from a recent poll that found one-third of white Democratic voters surveyed agreed with at least one negative adjective about blacks, Martin Luther King’s dream of a society where people are judged on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin apparently is just that – still a dream.

A thought-provoking essay on white privilege is making its way around the Internet. White privilege means if you have white skin, certain doors are open that aren’t open to people of other races. For example, most of America doesn’t immediately form an opinion about a white person based solely on skin color.

Think about the concept of white privilege for a minute. John McCain cheated on his disfigured first wife after his return from Vietnam, divorced her and married a rich heiress. Would such a marital history be a campaign issue if he were a black candidate? Barack Obama has attended the same Christian church for 20 years. If he were a white candidate, would anyone allege he’s secretly a Muslim?

(No matter what your political leanings, the white privilege essay is worth reading if it makes you consider how your views of the candidates might be skewed by skin color. Click here if you want to read it.)

I have a friend who believes some Americans' views of Sarah Palin are slanted by her beauty contestant past and high heels. If she were a white man, or a black one, would we evaluate her conservative views more closely or question the fact that it took her five attempts and six years to get a four-year college degree? Is her candidacy benefiting from the privilege of being white AND the first female Republican vice presidential candidate?

No one wants to believe they're prejudiced. But maybe if we acknowledged our fears and prejudices, it would be easier to put them aside and vote based on the issues. I believe our future depends on it, don't you?

Monday, October 6, 2008

Leaving a Google footprint

There’s lots of talk about carbon footprints these days, but maybe we also ought to be thinking about our “Google” footprints – those traces of our past captured forever in cyberspace.

If you’ve ever “Googled” yourself or someone else, you've seen just how much you can learn from putting a name or a few words in the “Google search” box at http://www.google.com/. Google is a terrific resource for research (especially for us writers), previewing the menu of a new restaurant, investigating your neighbors (or your children) ~ and discovering what everyone else can find out about you. (For those who’ve never tried googling, instructions are at the end.)

And while all the information on the World Wide Web isn’t always accurate, it can be interesting to see what the Internet says about you.

A search of the Web for my name, for example, finds Pat Remicks in Florida, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and the other one I’ve always known about – my mother, a former real estate agent who shared her name with her firstborn (a future subject for a blog entry or maybe therapy – but I digress).

Nearly all the citations on the 29 separate Google pages refer to me. I wonder if the other Pat Remicks are incredibly jealous or simply curious about why our name appears in entries in Japanese, Chinese, German, Russian, Italian, French, Norwegian and Danish. The reason is most are connected to the two non-fiction books I wrote with (husband) Frank Cook and the numerous web-based outlets where they can be purchased.

Our “Candidates as Caregivers” freelance article about the presidential primary candidates for AARP Bulletin also appears a few times. Most surprising was learning from a Google search that it won an award from the “Society of National Association Publications,” or SNAP. Our editor forgot to mention this, as well as another award it earned for AARP.

News articles composed before most of us knew about the Internet also turn up in odd places on the Web today. A United Press International report I wrote in 1983 is cited in the notes of the 2002 book “The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right” and also in “The National Intelligence Service – Murder and Mayhem: A historical account.” I’m too cheap to buy the books to remind myself what I wrote and you can’t expect someone who forgets where she puts her purse to remember the subject of one of hundreds of articles written 25 years ago. It must have been brilliant, though.

A 1982 article I wrote about Oil City, Louisiana, (home to the first over-water oil drilling platform) apparently is part of Southeastern Louisiana University’s “Clark Forrest Collection, Box 6.” I have no idea who Clark Forrest was, but I suspect his heirs wanted at least a tax deduction for all the boxes of newspaper clippings he probably left behind.

A 1977 photograph of my UPI softball team— “Dr. Darkness and his Night Writers”—also is on the Web for the world to see. I gave up softball, but kept Dr. Darkness. (I’m the third one in from the right and he's the scary-looking guy in front.)

Google also has captured my pithy quotes in articles about our dog running the house, education funding, the local holiday parade, elementary school discipline, an immoral bishop, and a variety of other topics. Great news for those who haven’t heard enough of my opinions, but bad news for my children and theirs, I suspect.

A word of caution: A “Google” search isn’t perfect. It reflects what’s on the imperfect Web. A search can’t always clearly differentiate between two people with the same name. The criminal history of a man who shares the name and home state as one of my relatives has caused him undeserved embarrassment. Unfortunately, he has no recourse because the court document left a “Google” footprint that may never fade.

So, if you haven’t tried “googling” yourself, you should. If you already have, did you discover anything that surprised you?

Google Instructions:
Go to
www.google.com. You should see this series of words in the upper left corner: “Web, Images, Maps, News, Shopping, Mail, more.” The word “web” should be black. If it’s not, click on it. Then move your cursor to the blank search box. Type in your name with quotation marks around it (i.e., “Pat Remick”) and then click on the gray box below that says “Google search.” If there’s more than one person in America with your name, you may see lots of pages returned that don’t apply to you. You can try searching again and putting in your hometown next to your name in quotation marks, add a middle initial or even your profession. Give it a try. You might be surprised by what you find.

Monday, September 29, 2008

It's all about the (body) heat

As the leaves change color and the nights become cooler, my thoughts have turned to how to heat the house without spending the additional $2,000 it will cost just to keep it as warm as last year. I think I’ve found the answer: Entertain more.

According to one estimate, each additional guest is equal to a 175-watt heater. In other words, the more people there are in your house, the lower you can set the thermostat. Good news for those of us heating with oil, which these days is worth more than most U.S. banks.

At first I was a bit concerned I’d have to stand very close to my heaters, I mean guests, the entire night. Some might view such proximity as an invasion of personal space, which could be a problem. Winters are long in New Hampshire and I need my heaters/guests to come back.

But I'm hoping they can just circulate, heating my house wherever they go during the evening. I've considered inviting a balance of personality types: warm and fuzzy folks to counteract the more distant sorts. Then again, it’s not traits that matter – just body heat.

I was really excited about this party-as-heat theory until I realized I have to invite at least 8 ½ guests just to equal the output of a normal space heater. Therefore, we'll be hosting large parties instead of intimate gatherings--especially in January.

What about the additional expense of entertaining all these people, you ask? Fortunately, pot luck is acceptable, and often preferable, in my part of New England. Most people don't want to take home the leftovers, which will help feed my family for a few days and reduce the grocery bill. Thanks to NH’s pesky open container law, the alcohol can remain here, too, for the next event. And let's not forget forget that candlelight is not only festive, it cuts electricty costs.

Yes, I know the experts recommend saving heat by sealing leaks with insulation, caulking, weather-stripping, etc. I'm trying to figure out how to convince people these are party games.

In the meantime, I’m working on my list of excuses, I mean reasons, to entertain. And I’ll be shopping for new party clothes. Apparently layers of warm cotton clothing in dark colors absorb light – and heat.

Shall I pencil you in for Wednesday night?

Monday, September 22, 2008

Memories and facts

I attended three very different events over the past week that not only were extremely thought-provoking, they also all were related to historical perspective in some way.

The first was a presentation by the nation’s foremost historical photo detective. Maureen Taylor can determine the era, and often the exact year, of old photos by the type of photography used and the clothing and other items in a picture. She also may attempt to guess the story behind photos by the composition and body language of the people in them. For example, as she told my Sisters in Crime New England chapter, a wide gap between what appears to be a husband and wife in a family grouping might indicate emotional distance as well.

It concerns me to think about someone trying to interpret our photographs decades from now. To prevent this, maybe we should all stand close to loved ones in future photographs, label old pictures the way we choose, and destroy any that could be interpreted the wrong way. On the other hand, a photo detective’s stories might be much more interesting to our heirs than reality.

Speaking of reality, New York Times cultural reporter David Carr visited my local independent bookstore to give a fascinating talk about his new book “The Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life. His Own.” Carr, a journalist who became a cokehead and alcoholic with 15 arrests and five trips to rehab, researched his past by interviewing (and videotaping) people from the dark periods in his life.

Carr says the “night of the gun” refers to a watershed event that made him realize he’d hit bottom. He recalls becoming so violent that a childhood friend pulled out a gun in self-defense. Only later did Carr learn through his interviews that he was the one with the gun, something he finds baffling because he doesn’t remember even owning one. While addiction obviously affected his perspective, it took methodical research to reveal the inaccuracies in his personal history.

If you interviewed people from your past, would they remember the stories of your life the same way you do? (Another reason to label those photographs?) The bigger question might be – whose historical perspective is the truth?

History is very important to the “American Treasure” Music Hall of Portsmouth, a 900-seat theater built in 1878 that celebrated the grand opening of its new lobby this past weekend. The challenge facing the oldest performing arts theater in NH and the 14th oldest in the United States was not only to remove tons of shale to extend its bottom floor into a magnificent vestibule, but also to create something new and magical while honoring its past. That history includes hosting a wide variety of performers and luminaries, including such diverse people as John Barrymore, Frederick Douglas, Buffalo Bill Cody, John Wayne and Pulitzer Prize winner Doris Kearns Goodwin. One solution was to design special wallpaper reflecting memorabilia from the Music Hall's archives: ticket stubs, advertisements for shows and newspaper clippings.

Think about your memorabilia. Does it accurately reflect your past? Does it need to? (And how would it look on wallpaper?)

I certainly don't have the answers to any of these questions. But these three events have me thinking about the many ways we recall the past and how memories shape who we are today, what we become and how we're remembered.

This is good to keep in mind when writing fiction but probably even more so when it comes to writing--and reading--non-fiction. As ABC television anchor Diane Sawyer reportedly said, "I'm always fascinated by the way memory diffuses fact." Me, too.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Are we smarter than the media?

It seems like some people think all we care about is lipstick on pigs instead of real issues this election, which may be the most important in our lifetimes. Are you as tired of all the political lies and half-truths as I am? Check out www.factcheck.org/ if you really want to see just how bad it is this election. (Even the media can't keep pace...)

Or, check out this funny, thought-provoking video of a monologue by comedian Craig Ferguson. Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican or somewhere in between, I hope it will make you laugh AND think about what we all should be doing between now and November 5.



If you care about more than the fact that both presidential candidates used the "lipstick on a pig" expression and want to know what these people are planning to do for our country on taxes, the economy, the war, health care, environment, etc., visit:
http://www.barackobama.com/ or http://www.johnmccain.com/

Do you think the media is taking this election seriously? Are you?

Monday, September 8, 2008

What mood are you in today?

If you've ever dreamed of having a personal librarian or favorite bookstore employee available round-the-clock to recommend great books to read, you’ll love “1001 Books for Every Mood” by Hallie Ephron.

Unfortunately, my moods change so often there’s barely time to read one chapter of any book, never mind the entire thing. But with 80 separate categories of must-reads, this guidebook offers an abundance of choices no matter how you’re feeling.

The listings begin with “For a Good Laugh” and end with “To Reinvent Yourself.” In between are sections like “for a Walk on the Wild Side,” “Hug Your Dog” and “to Suffer (No) Fools.” Reading the categories might almost be as much fun as reading the books.

There are even recommendations for when you want to “wallow in the slough of despond.” Think of books like: The Bell Jar, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Miss Lonelyhearts. (And, just for fun, see how people react when you tell them to leave you alone so you can “wallow in the slough of despond.”)

Hallie, who’s also a terrific mystery writer when she’s not playing personal librarian, provides a brief description of each book and rates it by literary merit on a scale of 1 to 4. She adds a symbol if the book is provocative, influential, inspirational, humorous, brainy, easy reader, page turner, challenging, bathroom book, family friendly and/or been made into a movie. Scattered throughout the book are examples of great opening lines and characters, and other trivia of interest to book lovers.

But I do think she might be missing some categories. For example, I’d like to see one for “my teenager has a more active social life than I do.” I suppose “To be Afraid, Be Very Afraid,” “To Get Philosophical” and “For Outrage” are somewhat appropriate, though.

I also searched for books to read for when “my recent college graduate is living at home and doesn’t want to be.” The most applicable options seem to be “To Survive,” “For a Kick in the Pants” and “For Heartburn.”

And what about a category for those days (rare I hope) when you might not be quite as fond of the special person in your life as you should be? There's “To Trip Down Memory Lane,” “For Romance” or “To Love Again.”

These are all great. But quite frankly, there are still days when “to Run Away from Home” and “To Join the Circus” seem most appealing. Fortunately, “1001 Books for Every Mood” offers a myriad of ways to escape without leaving your favorite reading chair.

PS --Some of you may have expected me to blog this week about the GOP VP choice, which is a fascinating subject to me as a political junkie and as a woman, but I don't want to offend anyone -- yet. :)

Monday, September 1, 2008

Please be nice to campaign callers

Once the convention confetti is cleaned up and all the candidates return to the campaign trail, your telephone will be ringing. Please don’t be mean to the political supporter at the other end of the line. It might be someone you know.

It won’t be me, though. I failed phone-banking. Didn’t even make it through my rookie two-hour stint. But it was educational. I’d forgotten how much it hurts when someone slams down a phone in your ear.

My adventure began one evening in a huge open office edged with desks occupied by people as young as my children. Not only was I the oldest person in the room, I may have been the only one from New Hampshire. It warmed my heart to know so many young people traveled here to work for our candidate. Only later did I realize they probably need outsiders because local volunteers like me aren’t tough enough.

I was led to a group of telephones lined up along the far wall (the phone bank) and handed a script so long even I'd hang up if the candidate, himself, was calling. “It’s just a template,” I was told. “The main thing is to make sure they’re registered to vote if they’re leaning our way. If they’re not, politely say ‘thank you’ and hang up.”

I was nervous. But the young people working the phones on either side of me were so animated. I barely noticed how many times they said “awesome” and “fantastic.” I haven’t had that much enthusiasm since grade school.

But I believe in the candidate. So I accepted the 25 pages of names, addresses and phone numbers to tackle in two hours. My task was to call each woman on the list and if she wasn’t registered to vote (or supporting The Other Guy), invite her to a group sign-up event on the 88th anniversary of women earning the right to vote.

I began dialing. Lots of answering machines and phones ringing too many times. Not surprising in New Hampshire, where we’re besieged by phone calls every four years during our first-in-the-nation primary. We’re hardy, but we’re not stupid. If the phone rings between 4 and 8 p.m. and the Caller ID box shows an unfamiliar phone number, we know someone wants something from us.

Finally, an elderly lady answered. I know she’s old because she told me she was 85 and had been registered to vote for years. I marched over to one of the paid staffers. He checked his computer and told me she hadn’t voted since 1980. I was afraid to ask how he knew.

I trudged back to the phone bank and dialed some more. When I identified myself as Pat from Portsmouth to the next woman brave enough to answer (or without Caller ID), she slammed down the phone. More answering machines. Then, “I don’t discuss politics at dinnertime,” another woman growled. “But are you registered to vote?” I pleaded. Slam. Two more pages of no-answers and then this: “Janet Brown? She’s been dead for 12 years.” Followed, of course, by a slammed phone.

Back I trudged to the campaign worker. He was nonplussed. “Great, that helps us refine our list. Keep going. This is a new list and it’s supposed to be women who've never voted or haven’t voted in a while. The guy who put it together isn’t here.” Of course.

Back to the phone bank. More “no answers” to check off on the list. Then I saw a name that proved the list had issues. I trudged back across the room. “There’s a problem with this list if it includes the Speaker of the New Hampshire House.”

"Maybe she hasn’t voted in a while,” he replied. I wondered if the kid had slept through civics. Maybe he wasn’t old enough for the class yet. “I assure you the Speaker of the New Hampshire House votes,” I insisted. He turned back to his computer. “Here it is. She’s listed under Terie and Teresa. That explains it. Keep going. You’re doing great.”

Back across the room. I gritted my teeth and dialed. The next woman who answered was very nice, but confused. “I work for the same campaign. Why am I on the list?” I didn’t ask if she was registered to vote.

Instead, I trudged across the room one final time and said, “I think I might be more helpful to the campaign if I did data entry."

Monday, August 25, 2008

Night Life and Nightlights

For weeks, I checked and rechecked the lists of what No. 2 son should take to college. So it came as quite a surprise when he insisted I take home one of the items we’d just schlepped 600 miles.

It seems that in the flurry of moving him into his dorm room, he hadn’t noticed everything I helped him unpack and put away – until later when he was hanging out in his new quarters with a group of kids he’d just met.

“Hey, I like your nightlight,” one of them reportedly said.

“Whaaaaaat?” he claims he replied.

When his new friend pointed out the simple LED apparatus I’d left plugged into the wall, my son jumped up and yanked it out. He did not share with me what he told his guests. (He hadn’t noticed before because the energy-efficient light only goes on when the room gets dark.) I’m not sure I want to know what he said but I can imagine – this is the child who chose the password “crazymom” for me.

When we arrived the next morning to take him to brunch before heading back to New Hampshire, he tossed the nightlight into my purse and said, “The nightlight thing is NOT working for me. You HAVE to take it home.”

I was confused. I told him he'd appreciate it when either he or one of his roommates came back at night and one of them was in bed. “This way no one has to turn on the overhead light and wake anyone up,” I added with my biggest Mom-knows-best smile.

He looked at me as if I had just arrived from another planet (a look I’ve become all too familiar with, I might add). Just then his older brother jumped into the fray and slapped open his cell phone. “THIS is what college students use to find their way in the dark, Mom,” explained No. 1 son. “They don’t use nightlights, they use the light from their cell phones.”

Oh.

It appears that once again, college is going to be an educational experience for Mom, too. After doing the university thing with No. 1 son, I probably ought to be worrying more about night life than nightlights.

At least I've given my children one more thing to add to their list of ways I embarrass them. I wonder if they'll ever give up hope that I'll see the light. Wait a minute: I think I still have one in my purse....

Monday, August 18, 2008

Eat right and save the world

Your lunch might be causing global warming. Mine, too.

I’m not happy about this. I take the world’s climate crisis seriously. I recycle. I take a reusable bag to the grocery store. I try to find ways to live a more sustainable lifestyle. And just when I thought I was doing my part to save the planet, I find out we’re supposed to be following a low-carbon diet -- not a low-carb diet.

It seems that two slices of pizza, a salad and a couple of cookies for dessert could send more than two pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions into the atmosphere. You’re probably thinking everyone knows that kind of meal isn’t good, right? But guess what: The results are about the same with the seasonal fruit, grilled vegetables and shrimp.

I just hope we don’t have to stop eating to save the world. I’m sure the folks behind http://www.eatlowcarbon.org/ don’t want that. They manage college cafeterias across the country. Nonetheless, they say the food system is responsible for one-third of the world’s greenhouse emissions. This includes fossil fuels burned to transport and process food, agricultural processes that emit nitrous oxide, and the ruminants of the world – those cud-chewing, hoofed animals like cows, goats, and sheep.

Apparently we’re supposed to avoid, or reduce our consumption, of these ruminants and their byproducts (meat, cheese, milk, etc.) because all ruminants naturally emit methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Methane also is released when food goes into a landfill instead of being composted, by the way.

So what can we do? Eat less, minimize waste, and take advantage of locally grown and seasonal foods, which apparently have the lowest carbon ratings. And, according to the web site, remember: “With every meal you eat, you have the power to reduce climate change.”

Imagine that. Writers spend a lot of time thinking about the impact of their words. I guess this kind of knowledge means we all should be thinking of the impact of our eating choices -- not just on ourselves, but on the world.

If you want to get an idea of whether some of your favorite foods might be hurting the atmosphere, click on the Low Carbon Diet Calculator. It’s so much fun moving the foods in and out of the frying pan that you might forget we're supposed to be eating to save the planet. But the results may be enough to get everyone to stop obsessing about carbs and start considering carbON, too.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Why don't readers attend author events?

There are millions of readers in this country who bought over $3.1 billion worth of books last year. So why don't more of them come out to their local bookstores and libraries to meet and listen to the people who wrote those books?

I was surprised there were any empty chairs at my local independent bookstore last week for readings by novelists Brunonia Barry (The Lace Reader) and Jennifer McMahon (Island of Lost Girls) because both have sold enough copies to make the New York Times Best Seller Lists. Although I once attended a Janet Evanovich event that drew 2,000 people to a casino, it seems small audiences are all too common for most writers.

I don’t understand this. Author events are such great entertainment. There’s nothing like hearing an author read his or her own work aloud, and no better opportunity to ask questions about it. Most events last only an hour and they’re always intellectually stimulating, even if you don’t agree with the author’s premise. You get to hang out in the audience with other people who like to read. You can bring a camera for a photograph with the author. The bookstore may offer you cookies, or wine and cheese. And the entire experience is free. That makes it a perfect outing—if you’ll forgive the pun—in my book.

Maybe people don’t go to author events because they don’t know what to expect or they’re afraid they’ll have to buy a book they don’t want. But I think writers would rather talk to non-buyers than empty chairs, especially since most authors tour at their own expense. Writing, by its nature, is such a solitary experience that most authors are delighted to talk about their work to anyone who will listen.

Sure, the author and the bookstore would prefer that members of the audience leave with a book. But if they don’t, they still might tell others about it who will purchase a copy. Also, publicity before and after an author event sells books. So people shouldn’t feel too guilty if they don’t buy books at every reading.

Of course, the hope is theyll be so intrigued by the author’s presentation that not only will they purchase a book, they’ll want the writer to autograph it afterward. They can even justify the purchase as an investment. Some bookstores offer “signings” where the writer sits at a table and signs books, but doesn’t read from the work. When an author becomes a literary superstar (or president), collectors and eBay will clamor for signed editions. Although an autographed book is said to be more valuable without a personal message, I think an individual inscription turns a book into a wonderful gift to give yourself or someone else. (But I’m not complaining that Barack Obama only signed his name to The Audacity of Hope during his first visit to NH – some booksellers are asking almost $2,000 for autographed early first editions.)

For those who don't know, there are many ways to find out about author events. Check the local newspaper. Bookstores and libraries list events on their web sites and in e-mail and print newsletters. Authors post touring schedules on their own web sites and an outfit called BookTour will even send you an e-mail about events in your area. Literary genre conventions, like the fabulous New England Crime Bake for mystery writers and fans in November, also offer great opportunities to hear from authors and get signed books (Harlan Coben is this year's guest of honor).

For those still reading today's lengthy post....
I believe an autographed book can be a wonderful souvenir from an interesting encounter with an author. I’m still amazed by Brunonia Barry’s publishing story. She said she and her husband self-published 2,000 copies of the novel it took her seven years to complete. Two months later, thanks to an incredible stroke of good fortune, The Lace Reader sold to William Morrow. Although she can't divulge the amount, the book sold for a reported $2 million. As of last Tuesday, 24 other countries had bought the rights to publish this fictional account of women in Salem, Mass., who can see the future through lace.

Island of Lost Girls is Jennifer McMahon’s second suspense novel after Promise Not to Tell and is the chilling tale of a present day abduction of a young girl from a small Vermont town and another little girl’s disappearance years earlier from the same community. I can’t wait to read it after I finish The Lace Reader.

As you might imagine, a downside to author events is your stack of books that are waiting to be read might grow too high. My independent bookstore, RiverRun, hosts so many wonderful author events that I could be down there almost every night of the week, which is not a good thing for someone trying to finish her own novel!

Monday, August 4, 2008

Lessons from Emma

My minor role in fulfilling this tiny girl's dream of wearing a flower girl dress is so insignificant compared to what 21 cyclists did this past weekend to try to save her life.

When I look at this photograph of Emma, who doesn’t realize cancer may have been in her beautiful little head forever, I am reminded of many things -- but especially of how much heavier are the burdens of others.

I could grouse this morning about the computer virus that ruined my weekend writing plans, or my struggles to get No. 2 son to focus on his approaching departure for college, or any number of irritations in my life.

But I can’t stop thinking about Emma, the 21 members of "Team Emma's Enchantment" or all those 5,000-plus other people riding bicycles through the hills of Massachusetts to try to help her and other cancer victims survive. Every cent raised from pedaling hundreds of miles in the Pan-Mass Challenge goes directly to the Dana Farber Cancer Center for treatment and research that could find a way to stop Emma's tumor. The money raised by Emma's team will go toward unraveling the mystery of low grade astrocytomas like hers.

Emma doesn’t fully understand that she has cancer, or that she is in the midst of nearly a year of chemotherapy. She only knows “headache seeds” make her feel yucky sometimes, that she can’t always go to school when she wants, and at 6, she weighs less than 40 pounds – the magic number that would free her from the car seat like her younger brother. I suspect that's enough to make her suspect that life isn't always fair.

I first heard about Emma a year ago. It was at a wake for my friend's mother. My friend introduced me to a second cousin from across the state, who blurted out. “If you know anyone looking for a flower girl, will you please let me know? My daughter desperately wants to be one.”

“Sure,” I said with a smile, although thinking the conversation had taken an odd turn. My friend later told me about Emma's tumor, that she loves princesses and her greatest desire to be a flower girl was not the type of request the Make-a-Wish Foundation could fulfill.

I enjoy challenges, but I didn’t know anyone getting married. I called churches. No luck. Frustrated, I shared Emma’s story with my co-workers. One suggested a bridal show might still provide an opportunity to be a "flower girl." She game me the name of the organizer of a show scheduled the following weekend.

“Do you still need models for your bridal show?” I asked over the telephone. The woman quickly replied that all slots were filled. “I'm not asking for me,” I persisted, “but for a little girl with cancer.” That was enough to set things in motion. My small part in Emma's fairy tale was over.

Emma’s mother later sent me this picture of that happy day. I keep it to remind myself of many things, including:
· The importance of perspective – not just the obvious conclusion that those who love Emma are dealing with issues of such magnitude that my problems pale in comparison, but also that Emma’s friends and family truly understand how precious every day is on this earth.
· There are more kind and generous people in the world who want to help others than those who do not. My co-worker and Ashley at Occasions Bridal and Tuxedoes responded without hesitation, which brings me to the next point.
· If we really want something, we may have to find the courage to ask for help to get it -- whether it be from a stranger at a wake, or friends, neighbors, co-workers and even family. It can be something as relatively minor as needing assistance to keep the house clean or as welcome as finding time to work on a novel. Or it can be as monumental as doing everything possible to make dreams come true for someone you love.

To contribute to “Team Emma’s Enchantment” PMC fund-raising efforts, click here. To donate to the Seacoast Young PMC TEam, click here.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The sad and ugly reality of the Internet

Did you know it may take just minutes for a sexual predator to solicit a child online and then try to set up a meeting date and place to consummate the crime?

That’s the ugly reality of today’s Internet, according to two women who work with the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force based at the Portsmouth (NH) Police Department visited yesterday by members of my New England chapter of Sisters in Crime (SINC).

We not only toured the station, sat in a cruiser and peeked into empty interrogation rooms, we also heard “The Real Stories of Women in Law Enforcement” from Captain Janet Champlin and fellow SINC NE member Felicia Donovan, who authors the Black Widow Agency mystery series when she’s not acting as the police department’s Information Systems Manager (and being an expert on cyber crime and computer forensics.)

Everyone knows police work isn’t pretty. But some of what we learned yesterday was downright sickening. I was already aware of a study that found one in every seven children under 18 has been sexually solicited online. But until yesterday, I didn’t realize how true it is that sexual predators don’t need to hang around playgrounds in dark trench coats anymore when it’s so easy to find victims from the comfort of their computers.

The Portsmouth PD’s task force has investigators trained to pose as children in chat rooms and identify predators who solicit children to engage in sex acts. Captain Champlin told us there are so many pedophiles online that a police officer posing as a child visiting a chat room will not only be solicited to engage in a sexual act within 5 or 10 minutes, but the predator also is likely to establish a time and meeting place – all in less than 15 minutes.

"It’s like shooting fish in a barrel,” says Champlin, who oversees the task force.

Donovan adds that some predators will “groom” the child over time, sending e-mails and text messages, gifts and web cam images in the hope the child will “perform” for them. This grooming goes on without a custodial adult’s knowledge.

The danger is so great that parents who want to keep their children safe from online sexual solicitation should not allow them to have computers in their bedrooms where adults can’t easily monitor them, say the women. Champlin says giving a child open computer access is as dangerous as handing them the keys to a car without a license.

Both women also strongly believe that no child should have a web cam (small cameras whose images can be accessed using the Web and instant messaging). Predators often urge children to send identifying or sexual images via web cams, or send sexually oriented images to the children this way.

Unlike the “catch a predator” TV show segments, police cannot aggressively direct the online contact with a suspected predator. All of the discussion related to criminal activity must be initiated by the pedophile. Even then, it’s all too easy to find adults waiting to sexually victimize children.

Many were victims, themselves, says Champlin, and often have backgrounds that include incidents generally viewed as strong indicators of sexual or other physical abuse: bed-wetting, fire-starting and/or torturing animals.

Unfortunately, they then go on to victimize children and there are not enough police officers in the world to catch all the pedophiles lurking on the Internet.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Considering moderation....

I suspect that when the organizers of the New England Crime Bake mystery conference invited me to moderate a panel of short story authors, they had no idea how much of my life has prepared me for this task.

My job in November will be to introduce four short story writers and ask them stimulating questions that prompt answers to enthrall and educate the audience of a few hundred mystery writers and fans. I'll also try to make sure the authors get equal time (and no riots break out).

This moderating honor comes partly because I won the conference’s short story award last year and another story has been selected for "Deadfall: Crime Stories by New England Writers" to be published by Level Best Books this fall. But other things in my background also make me a good candidate:

· I have experience dealing with disputes about fiction. I once moderated a vicious argument between my children over the location of an invisible stop sign.
· When I was briefly class president in 5th grade, I wasn't afraid to use a ruler to rap a classmate’s knuckles for speaking out of turn. (You can understand why my reign was brief.)
· I also know better than to ask anyone what they plan to do with their book royalties. When I posed that question to US House Speaker Jim Wright years ago, I never anticipated his response might contribute to his downfall.
· I’ve spent untold hours observing Congress, the NH Legislature and local governing bodies. I learned that some politicians use the term “distinguished colleague” when they aren’t being nice. And if they say “with all due respect,” what follows can be downright nasty. If I hear those words, I’m prepared for what’s coming.
· And I've had experience dealing with bad-tempered people. I raised two teenagers. Plus, I’ve taught classes on how to stop smoking. Believe me, there’s no way a mystery audience could ever be as cranky as a bunch of smokers trying to quit.

I believe I'm ready for this wonderful opportunity. But I'll be looking for that old ruler just in case.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Dance like nobody’s watching….

This is a wonderful antidote for a bad day. Invest 4 1/2 minutes watching this video and I guarantee you’ll be smiling when you see a little of what Matt Harding did in 14 months and 42 countries. If you’ve already seen it—over 6 million people have—watch it again.



If Matt came to your town and asked you to dance in his video, would you do it? If you answered “no,” maybe you need “Matt dancing” more than you realize.
I think we all could use some fun in our lives, don’t you?
Go do your own “Matt dance” and see if it helps.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Only in New Hampshire, USA

We’ve met the next president of the United States and have a photo on the wall to prove it.

I love being able to say that. Republicans usually narrow their eyes and look skeptical. The Dems also appear doubtful, especially when I confide their guy once put me in a virtual headlock and even called to chat for five minutes.

Such are the joys of living in New Hampshire: No matter who wins in November, Husband Frank and I can brag we’ve met the next leader of the free world. Maybe his vice president, too.

I am especially appreciative of this as we celebrate the Declaration of Independence. After all, how many ordinary citizens get to meet the king or queen of England?

In America, and especially New Hampshire, we have opportunities to meet the folks running for president. If you’ve heard the joke about the NH voter who was asked if he liked a certain candidate and responded: “I don’t know – I’ve only talked to him three times,” I assure you it’s no joke for some of us.

NH may not have as many residents as Philadelphia, but we do have a law requiring our presidential primary to be first in the nation. That means every candidate wants our vote – and wants it bad.

Although some NH citizens resent hearing their telephone ring non-stop and the deluge of campaign literature, Frank and I are such fans of free entertainment that we have no qualms about taking advantage of the opportunities -- or the free food and drink at the better events. This round, I also wanted my picture taken with every candidate. But with at least 16 presidential wannabes tromping through NH, the quest became a little tiresome and I limited my photo-stalking to the leaders.

I first met Barack Obama in December 2006 when he came to promote “The Audacity of Hope.” During his “reading” (that’s what they called the pre-primary foray into frigid and overwhelmingly white New Hampshire), I watched him nervously moving his foot back and forth behind the podium he was gripping
. A year later, there were no such signs of unease as he, wife Michelle and Oprah Winfrey electrified a crowd of 8,500 at the largest political rally in NH history. In between these events, I saw him at a private gathering and two rallies.

I also unexpectedly encountered him during one of his downtown campaign strolls and confronted him about my inability to make contact for a story Frank and I were writing for the 22 million readers of AARP Bulletin. At one point, he put his arm around my neck and turned me toward the cameras chronicling his every step. It felt like a headlock. But a week later, he telephoned me as promised and we talked for five minutes about caring for older relatives.

Ironically, the sidewalk encounter occurred the same day we met John McCain. Frank was interviewing GOP candidates for the AARP story so we headed to a backyard party where he’d been promised a “walk and talk” between the point that McCain finished addressing the crowd and national media, to when he got into a waiting van.
The task turned complicated when the senator was repeatedly interrupted by admirers. But at least I snapped a photo of the interview.
It’s not easy to write down a candidate’s comments while you’re walking. I had to stop during my walk-and-talk with Hillary one rainy afternoon. Fortunately, she stopped, too, but I can’t forget that she didn’t share her umbrella – until it was time to take the picture.

I’ve posted our presidential photos below. Have you ever seen a president or candidate in person? Which ones would you have liked to have met?


Monday, June 30, 2008

College advanced

I had no idea how much college life had changed until No. 2 son’s orientation last week. Now I’m concerned he’s going to miss out on some important character-building opportunities.

For one thing, he’ll never develop the fortitude necessary to wait in line for hours to sign up for classes and then survive the panic of finally reaching the registration table only to learn your final required course is full or meets at 8 a.m. on Mondays. What personal growth comes from registering online in your PJs or from the local Starbucks?

My son also might never experience the thrill of the hunt and the satisfaction of fighting off classmates to grab the last copy of an obscure textbook that costs as much as the average U.S. weekly salary. I doubt he’ll break a sweat punching in Mom’s credit card number so his books will be waiting in his dorm room when he arrives on campus.

There’s no need for him to learn restraint to avoid the “freshman 15” extra pounds from an unlimited variety of cafeteria offerings if he takes the free advice of a nutritionist who’ll walk him through the dining hall to point out good choices. Apparently “eat your fruits and vegetables” sounds better from an expert than your mother.

My boy also might never learn patience from waiting for a campus shuttle bus. For a fee, Sprint’s RAVE system lets students use cell phones to check the shuttle’s progress. That way they can avoid the major inconvenience of looking out a window or enduring the mild temperatures of Washington, D.C.

But what I’m most concerned about are the life skills he’ll never acquire from doing laundry on campus. In my day it took planning to scrape together enough quarters and snag an empty washing machine at a reasonable hour. Then you waited in a dark and depressing laundry room until your load was done -- or took the risk of missing out on a dryer and your clothing disappearing while you ran up and down several flights of stairs to periodically check the progress of your laundry.

I’m not going to spoil him by paying for a laundry service. Instead he’s going to be spoiled by something called eSuds. It’s the college’s computerized laundry system that lets him check a Web site to find out if a washing machine is available in the laundry room down the hall rather than tire himself out by walking a few feet to check on his own.

If all the washers are in use, eSuds sends him an e-mail or text message when one becomes available. No need to search for quarters or beg from friends – the machines operate by swiping a campus card. And he won’t have to waste any of the 153 hours he’s not in class each week by checking whether his laundry is done because eSuds sends him a message about that, too.

Now that’s a service I’d like in my life -- and not just for laundry. Wouldn’t it be great to get an e-mail or text message notifying you there’s no traffic or lines at the grocery store? Or how about a warning when someone’s in a bad mood so you can avoid them until there’s an update that things have improved? Imagine the possibilities. I’d gladly trade building character for such convenience, wouldn’t you?

Monday, June 23, 2008

How Cultured Are You?

I watched the 1973 film “American Graffiti” again last night, this time as a mother. I was flabbergasted that no adult found it odd that all these teenagers were out cruising around town all night in 1963.

Then there were a couple of scenes where teenagers became marooned but managed to survive and meet up with their buddies without cell phones. That shocked my children.

We were watching "American Graffiti" as part of our quest to view as many film classics as possible this summer, inspired by an earlier English assignment for No. 2 son in which the teacher wrote:

I am often surprised by the number of important films people have NOT seen. Many of the films selected for this assignment have become a part of our culture and are classics in the same sense that many of the novels and plays you have read are classics in literature.”

So, in an effort to “get culture,” we’re watching classic movies borrowed from the local library like "Rebel Without a Cause" and "Dr. Strangelove. " It's surprising how many of the themes are still relevant today and repeated in current films, although not done nearly as well.

How many films on this list have you seen and loved? Can you name any movies that should be added to the list?