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


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?

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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 -- 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!