Sunday, December 12, 2010

Bonding with the parental units

Husband No. 1 and I recently returned from a roadtrip to Washington, DC, to engage in some "parental units bonding," a phrase our sons use to describe what they term our "interesting" visits to their worlds.

I fear that in their view, bonding with parental units includes far too many occasions to be interrogated by a mother who seizes upon the opportunity to also closely monitor their reactions and body language during the same type of intense questioning they regularly endure during the mandated weekly calls home.

From our perspective, the delight of being able to spend time with these wonderful young men often includes using a credit card on their behalf. For me, it also means being the target of their jokes -- or the eye-rolling or head-shaking that follows when I say something they consider outrageous. I should note there that this seems to include nearly everything, but what set them off this time was opening a discussion about thongs and whether they truly qualify as underwear. Apparently they do not consider this to be appropriate Thanksgiving conversation.

So I suppose it should not surprise me that No. 2 son has declined an invitation to bond with his mother and her two best friends from high school during a cruise at the end of January. But I felt I owed him an invite as I took No. 1 son on a cruise during his college years. However, No. 2's response was "If you're going with Sheila and Diane, I think there will be a lot of stories, and I don't want to be part of them."

Still hoping to persuade him in order to remove any guilt, I persisted: "But Dad says there are nude beaches on the Turks and Caicos Islands -- wouldn't that be interesting? I told him I better stay on my diet." Long pause. Finally, he responded with a deep sigh and a weary voice (although it also might have been trembling with fear): "Please don't take any pictures, Mom."

This response also implied that if I ignored his request, it could lead to many years of therapy for him.

It occurred to me afterward that No. 2 son's ability to avoid bonding with his mother dates back many years. I first became aware of this when I happened to discover a "personal narrative" he wrote for an English class at the age of 13. It was entitled "The Halfway Interesting Trip To and From Texas (without the Texas)" and recounted our 2003 trip together to Fort Worth. This journey began with a bus ride to Boston to catch the Amtrak train and in the words of No. 2, "The bus ride was not horrible. I just sat there and listened to music the entire time even with my mom trying to 'bond' with me."

The narrative then went on to complain that we had to travel for more than two and a half days by train because his mother refused to fly and also was too cheap to pay for a sleeping car. In his words:

"It was extremely uncomfortable because I shared the seat with my mother and I could not get comfortable so I got very little sleep that night. If you have ever been on a train and sat next to someone, you know how it feels wanting to scream at the top of your lungs because you can't find a single comfortable position."

Next came what I consider to be the most revealing part of the narrative:

"After the restless night, I just did what I had done the entire trip so far: listen to music, eat food, read, sit and stare blankly out the window, repeat. This was a very sufficient system that enabled me to survive the trip of extreme boredom (and still managing to avoid 'bonding')."

Despite this proof that my son would rather be bored out of his mind than bond with me, I have continued to persist in my quest. And even though I tell him his refusal to comply could lead to years of therapy for ME, he still claims an avoidance to bonding. Maybe I should threaten to talk more about thongs unless he agrees to more bonding time with Mom.

Also, I should note here that this is the same son who gave up weekend plans with friends to accompany me and Husband No. 1 on my birthday trip to a Maine island a couple of years ago and also joined us on my birthday quest to see a moose in the wild last year. So maybe bonding with parental units isn't so bad after all.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

You may carry a gun, but I have a clipboard

The bulky white jacket I am wearing over multiple layers of clothing in this photo has the words "Event Staff" on the back, but it really should say "Parade Princess."

I much prefer this term to "Coordinator" of the City of Portsmouth Holiday Parade, which means I have been in charge of this seasonal venture for four consecutive years now. Besides, "Parade Princess" sounds so much better than "The Grinch," which is what some of the local cops were calling me last night.

There was a point where I nearly told one of them, "You may carry a gun, but I have a clipboard so please call the $#@% tow truck and get these cars hauled outta here." By waving my clipboard as a wand, I did succeed in getting five vehicles ticketed and hauled away for violating the "no parking after 4 p.m." notice near the downtown reviewing stand. Ho Ho Ho.

I lost count at the number of illegal vendors I urged the police to eject, along with their cheap balloons and crappy light sticks, but it was at least six. Nothing says Christmas like "you're outta here." Ho ho ho.

Then there were the problems with floats. We are extremely strict about safety following a terrible tragedy in the 2006 parade when a 9-year-old Cub Scout fell off a float and was fatally injured by the float trailer's wheels. Since then, the City has retaken control of parade planning and banned "outrigger" wheels --those extending beyond the footprint the float. This is clearly stated on the application, at a mandatory safety meeting and in every other way possible -- but there are always issues.

This year, one of the complications involved trying to explain the requirements to the NH Association for the Blind. After several attempts by the sighted person building the float were rejected, we convinced them to use a piece of plywood to extend the float platform over the wheels. But when the apparatus arrived at "Float World," the police officer conducting the safety check discovered adding the platform also eliminated the safety railings needed when children ride on floats.

His solution? Require that the child be strapped to the fake lighthouse, as you can see in the photo. But it worked and the float could participate! Ho ho ho.

Lest you think that we lack Holiday Heart, the announcer and I (shown here) were part of a romantic gesture last night. As we were awaiting the start of the parade, a young man climbed the stairs to the "Reviewing Stand," which is actually a flatbed trailer brought in for the event. Before I could sternly order him to leave, he sheepishly asked if he could borrow our microphone because he wanted to propose to his girlfriend. The guy pulled out a diamond ring to prove he wasn't joking and we readily handed over the portable mike. (It should be noted here that I would NEVER surrender my clipboard.) He marched into the middle of the downtown square in front of the Reviewing Stand, requested over the public address system that his girlfriend join him, got down on one knee and proposed. She burst into tears but nodded "yes," which was a good thing because he planned to make her walk home if she said no.

Other than some of the issues mentioned earlier -- plus a lost $1,000 check, two bands waylaid en route to staging locations, a confused trolley driver, having to tell religious groups that giving away free cocoa could violate our food safety codes, the Seacoast Mothers group cancelling at the last minute and four more fire trucks than expected showing up from area towns to accompany Santa Claus (changes that wreak havoc with my carefully prepared narrative for the announcer to read) -- the parade was a success. There were easily 8,000 people along the route and the weather was a balmy 30 degrees (although I was prepared for far worse with another coat, long underwear, fleece socks, shirt and gloves, etc., under my lovely white Event Staff jacket).

This year's theme was "A Nautical Christmas" because Portsmouth is the official host community for the USS Virginia nuclear sub undergoing work at the nearby Naval Shipyard, but they almost didn't get to pull a 21-foot-long sub replica behind a truck accompanying the officers and crew marching in the parade. You guessed it -- the trailer had outrigger wheels, which we only learned a few days ago. But because the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard is the nation's most efficient, workers there quickly welded on a steel "skirt" to make it legal. Ho Ho Ho.

The nautical theme resulted in a variety of offerings, but one of the favorites was this "clipper ship" with a working hot tub that had swimsuit-clad "Santa Babies" in it. Although I warned this year's judge that no extra points were to be awarded for bikinis in December, he still chose this float as Best Commercial Entry. But since the creators were clever in using lights and integrating a hot tub into their theme, it was hard to get too mad about it.

Maybe I've mellowed since the last time I blogged about my Holiday Parade chores (click here to read that entry). Or perhaps it's just that there's only so much a Princess can do. Maybe next year I should go for Queen.

Monday, November 29, 2010

So you want to write a novel....

I'm still recovering from a weekend trip to Washington, DC, and Thanksgiving with my beloved sons so instead of a blog entry about that "bonding with parental units" experience (look for it next week), I offer instead this amusing look at what some people believe is involved in writing novels.... (Press the arrow and enjoy!)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Battle With Plastic Discs

Notice anything different about me in this photo?

(Other than the fact that I am holding my third consecutive award for Excellence in Annual Reports from the NH Local Government Center, she noted quite immodestly.)

The real answer is that I'm wearing contacts instead of the eyeglasses that age forced me to add to my daily apparel almost 15 years ago.

And I feel inclined to mention that I'm wearing contacts because, quite frankly, not enough people have noticed this change on their own, particularly in relation to the pain and suffering I've experienced in succumbing to vanity.

Some people can tell there's been a change in my apperance, but have a difficult time identifying exactly what that might be. My own mother didn't even notice and when I asked, she said I didn't usually wear my glasses all the time anyway. Perhaps she meant prior to the past 15 years of daily wear and, in her defense, she's known me far more years without them.

This "contacts" experience has not been especially easy, although my viewpoint may be skewed by the fact that the other person experiencing a one-day contacts tryout offered by my eye doctor was a 9-year-old girl, who had NO problems adjusting to plastic discs plastered across her eyeballs. As someone else noted, there are many things 9-year-olds can do that I can't, but wouldn't you think decades of life experience would give me at least a little edge? I mean, a 9-year-old???? Then there are the millions of other people in the world who quickly pop in their contacts every day. Why can't I be one of them?

I moved on to the training session where contacts technicians -- all of whom were wearing eyeglasses I should point out -- attempted to teach me how to insert and remove the contacts. You'd have thought tears of frustration would have made it easier, but when it looked like my lesson might continue into the next morning, one gently suggested I consider returning another time. But I had resolved not to let little round pieces of plastic or a 9-year-old get the best of me.
Eventually I was considered proficient enough to leave with my new vision apparatus, support materials and pitying looks on their faces.

They suggested that I turn to No. 2 son as a resource as he has worn contacts for years. When I telephoned him in Washington, DC, to inform him of this, he wasn't exactly receptive. Incredulous might be more like it when he said, "You want me to fly home and help you remove your contacts?"

I hesistated. "Yes, I think that would be a lovely thing for a son to do."

"Sorry, you'll have to figure this out on your own, Mom." (And this is how a child gets removed from his mother's will, by the way.)

The next day, it took almost an hour for me to insert the contacts but a fuzzy spot had developed in the left eye. Days later, I still could not see clearly. As it turns out, that eye has a larger field of vision so I needed a larger contact lens. (If I ever figure out if a larger field of vision is an advantage, I'll let you know.) Meanwhile, it still takes forever to get the contacts in and out, and I'm not sure how much longer my employer is going to allow me to continue with this folly that often further delays my arrival at work.

At last Friday's follow-up appointment, my eye doctor asked how things were going.

"Well, the number of obsecenities uttered during the insertion and removal process seems to have decreased," I said proudly. "And it's no longer taking 45 minutes to an hour to get them in and out."

The doctor laughed. He thought I was kidding.

"But I still can't see as well as I could with my glasses," I added.

"Well, there are some areas that will always be compromised," he noted.

Hmm... Perhaps I should rethink this experience, but I really don't have time right now because I have to go put some pieces of plastic in my eyes.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Murder, Vampires and a Year of Work Ends

I'm delighted and relieved to report that my year of hard work came to successful fruition this past weekend at the New England Crime Bake for Mystery Readers and Writers.

While it has been exciting and stimulating to be co-chair of a conference totally run by mystery-loving volunteers, it also has been challenging and required much effort. It also has eaten up a great deal of writing (and other) time and I will be extremely thankful to get that back.

Crime Bake, now in its ninth year, takes place in "DEAD"ham, Massachusetts, and is co-sponsored by the New England chapters of the international mystery organizations Sisters in Crime (SinC) and Mystery Writers of America (MWA). Traditionally the co-chairs are the presidents of the local organizations, which in my case means not only presiding over an active SinC chapter that spans six New England states, it also required heading a Crime Bake committee of 20 people who hail from three of them -- and with someone I'd met only once before. In addition, this was only my second year on the Crime Bake Committee and it was MWANE President Margaret McLean's first so some of it we made up as we went along. (Here I persuaded Margaret that we should open the conference in vampire capes due to our Guest of Honor -- and sunglasses as daylight is a definite problem for vampires!)

We were aided in our conference planning by a strong cadre of dedicated fellow mystery writers who deeply love Crime Bake, which is known as a writer's conference. Sure, there were issues, false starts and some mistakes, but I was so grateful for the hard work of each of them because it has been vital to this venture and responsible for us selling out at the beginning of August.

Another major factor in our success was our guest of honor -- the incredible Charlaine Harris with four, count 'em four, mystery series, including the Sookie Stackhouse "Southern Vampire" books on which the HBO series True Blood is based. Charlaine was incredibly gracious, extremely generous with her time and writing advice, and one of the funniest women you'd ever meet. I had the privilege, along with my co-chair, of conducting a 45-minute Guest of Honor interview with this smart and engaging woman in front of a luncheon attended by almost 300 conference attendees -- and it was a highlight of my weekend. One of the things she told us is that in writing the Sookie series, she also is writing about discrimination, especially against the gay community.

This Arkansas mother of three has been a published author for 25 years (her second husband gave her what I consider an extremely romantic gift -- a typewriter for her to become a writer -- as a wedding gift so, as she says, she "kept him"). One of her characters has inspired a video game coming out early next year and CBS is developing a series based on her Harper Connolly books. We were very fortunate to have her as our Guest of Honor.

Our weekend lineup also included best-selling New England authors Dennis Lehane (seen here and personally invited by yours truly after stalking him at my local chain bookstore), Julia Spencer-Fleming, Hallie Ephron, Sheila Connolly and so many others, as well as exciting debut authors like Barb Ross. The schedule of fascinating panels also featured fabulous forensics experts, as well as 10 agents and editors from New York and New England. How could we not succeed?

This conference is always stimulating and energizing because the rooms are filled with so many enthusiastic mystery writers dedicated to improving their craft and talking about it. Let's face it: there also aren't many conferences where people can legitimately allow themselves to be excited about discussing murder, ways to dispose of a body or blood spatter patterns.

This year, we added a Vampire Ball to the activities in Charlaine's honor and urged people to dress in costume (the lobster and Vampire bride were among my favorites) or red and black, which are the official Crime Bake colors. Some, like me and "Dirty Business" mystery series author Rosemary Harris (photo at far right) also added the colors to our hair. The photo to the left below shows a bit of my red hair extension and two my fellow Working Stiffs bloggers after we met in person instead of the virtual world. Husband No. 1 (shown trying to keep up with me on the dance floor) opted for a blood red shirt to follow the red and black theme.
This weekend once again reminded me how blessed I am to have found my way to the mystery genre and to now be part of such an amazing community of writers. And I was giving thanks for this experience throughout the entire weekend, both when I was wearing my vampire cape and fangs -- and when I wasn't.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Makeup, Nancy Pelosi and Cleavage

A male reader (yes, there a few beyond Husband No. 1) noted following last week's blog entry about "The Beauty Bias" that women demand honesty in their relationships with men but:

"Those same women won't allow men or other women to see them before they have covered their lips in gloss, colored their hair to be something it isn't and in other ways changed their appearance so that they don't appear to be what they actually are at all. There's no truth in advertising here, is there? It's like "I want you to be honest" but "allow me to advertise myself as a beauty queen when in fact I'm not that at all."

As one who admits to wearing makeup and possibly "enhancing" my hair color, I suppose I might fall into this group. But I never claimed to be a beauty queen -- I gave up that dream long ago, but only because of the stilettos requirement (see previous blog entry).

In any case, the male reader's sentiments would seem to support a major point of "The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law": Men don't have to shell out money for makeup and hair color to be considered attractive.

And, as this reader points out, I married Husband No. 1 despite his long hair, beard and lack of makeup. (In my defense, I was going for income potential.) I also married him without having seen his bare chin. When he shaved his beard 10 years later on his 40th birthday, No. 1 son, then a toddler, ran screaming from the bathroom from the shock of seeing his father's naked face. At least I stayed in the room.

In any case, makeup seems to be one more area where expectations for men and women are different, and not always in a good way, which brings me to Nancy Pelosi. In New Hampshire, the nation's first female House Speaker was the devil in many of the vicious election campaign ads targeting Democratic incumbents. "Candidate X voted with Nansy Pelosi" or "He voted for Nancy Pelosi's health care plan," etc.

Do you remember another election where candidates were skewered for affiliation with the US Speaker of the House -- and would it have happened this year the California congresswoman were male? No matter what you think of Pelosi, is it possible that some of these attacks were not connected to partisan politics or her effectiveness in getting legislation passed, but because there are those who find it extremely threatening to see a strong woman in a position of power? So much for breaking through the "marble ceiling."

Last week, ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer interviewed Pelosi following the Republican tidal wave that ousted her, and the Democrats, from power. After asking Pelosi about the election and being a role model for women politicians, Sawyer said, "Now what about your grandchildren? Will you be spending more time with them?" I couldn't hear her response because I was screaming at the television set: "Would you ask that of a man?" I got my answer not long afterward when she interviewed the incoming speaker, Ohio Republican Congressman John Boehner: There were no questions about grandchildren.

And this brings me to cleavage. Has anyone else noticed that many young women seem to be displaying a lot of it? I don't consider myself a prude, but when a young female reporter recently arrived at my office to interview me, I couldn't avoid noticing that her idea of professional attire included a blouse that showed at least three inches of cleavage. Is this the new fashion? Is it some sort of empowerment thing that no one's told me about? Does it occur to them that if people are looking at their breasts, these same people might not be listening as carefully to their words?

And then I have to ask: If women are showing cleavage because they think it makes them attractive, why don't men? I posed that question recently to a group of middle-aged woman and one reacted by saying, "Yech, who'd want to see that?"

Well, me for one. If nothing else, that would mean one less area where men and women are treated so differently when it comes to appearance. But my true preference would be that everyone cover themselves up, especially in the professional arena, so that people will be spending more time thinking about what comes from a person's brain than her -- or his -- body.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Shoes as a feminist issue


In her recent book "The Beauty Bias," Stanford University Law Professor Deborah L. Rhode asks: If men can manage to be sexy without help from their footwear, why can't women?

I wish I knew the answer to that, but right now I'm obsessing over the possibility that my search for blood-red heels for a major event two weeks hence might indicate I'm not a feminist. And this troubles me nearly as much as my inability to find the perfect shoes.

According to Webster, feminism is the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes. While I have believed in this my entire life, three decades of living with males have finally forced me to concede that there is no equality in how men and women think -- or behave. Nonetheless, I consider myself a feminist because I believe the same opportunities should be available to everyone, irrespective of gender.

But does feminism have to apply to shoes? Or wearing nail polish? Or whether I decide to cover the gray in my hair like two-thirds of American women? Can't it just pertain to equal pay and opportunity? I really do think I need those red shoes.

Rhode says her interest in the "Beauty Bias" -- that women face standards of beauty more exacting than those for men and that unattractive people are less likely to be hired, promoted or make salaries equal to their more attractive co-workers -- began with the observation that so many accomplished women were standing in lines for taxis or late for meetings because they couldn't walk far in their fashionable "killer shoes."

She goes on to cite the statistic that four-fifths of women experience back and foot problems because of shoe choices, and women account for 80 percent of foot surgery -- much of it related to wearing high heels. And while she acknowledges that shoes do not rank among the greatest challenges facing women in a country where 4 million of them are victims of domestic violence and 20 million live in poverty, she believes they could be symbolic of the bias that women find themselves facing when it comes to physical appearance and societal expectations -- and the subsequent civil rights issues. (Again, why don't men need shoes to be sexy?)

As a woman with large feet, I'm not sure I've ever considered my shoes sexually appealing. And since I generally care more about whether I can get from Point A to Point B than how my feet look, I also don't own a single pair of "killer shoes." In fact, I suspect my shoe "collection," such as it is, is the smallest -- and most boring -- of all of the women I know. Most pairs are black, all have low heels and each was chosen for the ability to be worn without discomfort for long periods --and to prevent risky encounters with the ground. As a result, my feet are blessedly free of imperfections like hammertoes and bunions, but people rarely have the opportunity to admire them because they are usually encased in practical black shoes.

However, I won't deny that I have succumbed to other societal pressures affecting women, such as makeup -- which, as Rhode notes, is not an issue for men. She also observes that three-quarters of women consider appearance important to their self-image, and over a third rank it as the most important factor.

She goes on to say that our annual global investment in appearance totals close to $200 billion—and female consumers account for 80 to 90% of those purchases. Equally disturbing are the statistics that 80% of the 10,000 ingredients in cosmetics and personal care care products have never been assessed by the Food and Drug Administration -- and the findings of an Environmental Working Group survey that nearly 400 personal care products sold in the U.S. contained chemicals prohibited in other countries. I wonder if the statistics would be the same if men comprised the predominant buying group.

Rhode also notes that society and the media focus more on a woman's appearance than a man's. For example, the media might describe a prominent woman as dowdy, but would never use a similar appearance-related description for a male. Or consider the media circus that followed the news that then-presidential candidate John Edwards spent $400 on a haircut, but the response was far more muted to word that the Republican National Committee was spending $750 a day for a traveling hair stylist for vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and forked out an additional $68,000 for a makeup artist.

Taken together, these statistics and findings do give one pause. I know they have caused me to reevaluate my thinking regarding fashion choices and my shoe quest. However, it also has not escaped my notice that the red shoe on the cover of "The Beauty Bias" would be perfect for my outfit.

Does anyone know where I might find two of them?



Sunday, October 24, 2010

Travel mugs, shoes-Part 1 and another hike

Husband No. 1 considers spending $20 for a travel coffee mug excessive given that his commute is down one flight of stairs, although I have tried to convince him a Contigo container would mean he, too, could have hot coffee still waiting in his car after a workout at the gym.

I love a mug that can keep coffee hot for four hours and cold items in that state for 12. And as we were driving 1.5 hours north today en route to another mountain to scale, I couldn't resist noting my coffee was still hot and his was not. "It's funny how the small things can make you happy, isn't it?" I asked. HN1 did not respond.

Looking back, that may have been the happiest moment connected to today's outing -- Take A Hike #3, purposely scheduled the same weekend as the infamous 5K race I planned to run (despite qualms related here earlier) until I discovered I REALLY hate running.

Good thing I never bought those expensive running shoes. Experience has taught me not to invest in footwear for a specific activity until I'm certain it will last more than a few weeks, which is why I was the only person hiking Mount Kearsarge in sneakers today. But I digress.

The attendant at the entrance to Winslow State Park informed us ice had been reported on our intended trail "so be careful because we don't want to call in the rescue people again." I exchanged glances with Husband No. 1 and gulped. "There's just a little mist and hopefully the rain will hold off until this afternoon," she added cheerily.

This caused HN1 to peer at the water-soaked windshield and then at me. "Didn't you tell me the forecast called for 50 degrees and sunny? That sounds like pretty loud mist," he said.

These should have been signs to go home: Ice, rain and the only restrooms were portable. "Why are we doing this again?" HN1 asked.
"To do something fun together," I replied.
HN1: "Couldn't we have fun together at a 5-star restaurant? There's no ice or rain, and it would have a real bathroom."
Me: "But we wouldn't get any of those exercise endorphins. Come on, this will be great."
HN1: (Insert grumbling here.)

Rather than bore you with a description of the grunting, tangled tree roots, slippery rocks, sweating, ice encountered (see photo to the right) or the mud, let me just say that when we came upon a pile of rocks (see photo below) I suggested that perhaps it was a monument to all who died on the mountain before us. "You mean this month?" HN1 said. Then we heard birds, really loud ones. "Do you think those are vultures?" I asked.

"They're probably just tearing off skin now," said my mystery-writing hiking partner in an attempt to comfort me.

"I bet it's someone with sneakers," I noted. "By the way, how many feet high does something have to be for it to be a mountain because I'm beginning to think we should have started at 1,000-footers or below, and worked up to 2,937 feet like this one."

"That's not a question you'd ask in a 5-star restaurant," he observed grimly.

When we encountered an athletic-looking couple in full hiking attire and accessories heading down the trail, it gave us an excuse to rest. "How far are we from the top?" I asked between wheezes. The man looked at my shoes. "About 20 minutes. The views are great, though."

Forty minutes later we reached the bald rock top of Mount Kearsarge. You may already know this, but when they say "bald rock" in a trail description, they're not describing someplace with handrails -- or guardrails.

"Boy, that's a big drop. If we fell, we'd have a long way to hike back up," I noted.
"I don't think you'd be thinking about hiking back up," HN1 replied.
"Because I'd be dead?"
"That would be just like you to die and leave me with the dog," my spouse observed. I was too busy trying to pull my way up the rocks to offer an appropriate response.

As you can see from the photo to the right, we eventually reached the summit and when we sat down to eat lunch, HN1 gazed across the cloudy vista and said, "Is this what 50 degrees and sunny looks like?"

"But isn't it peaceful up here, with the wind and all?" I asked, watching to make sure he didn't eat his second sandwich in case we needed to live off that one PB&J if we got lost.

"I thought that was the blood rushing through my head."

Climbing up a bald rock face means you have to climb back down it, too. I'd already had enough encounters with the trail to wonder if there might be a market for T-shirts that read, "My butt kissed Mount Kearsarge." I could feel a whine coming on. " This is too steep. I really don't like this," I said.
"OK, we'll only hike flat mountains from now on," HN1 offered.
"And where would those be?"
"Kansas."

About an hour later I shouted, "Cue the theme from 'Rocky,' I think that's the parking lot. Wait a minute, I shouldn't jinx this -- I did fall just 15 feet from the parking lot on the last mountain and still have the bruise."

"It's a mountain mirage," HN1 said glumly. "It's just more rock."

It was beginning to look like we might need that PB&J to survive after all. Meanwhile, the mist was now a downpour, my sneakers were soaked from mud and ice, and all that butt-kissing with the mountain had taken its toll. And when we reached the car, my coffee was cold. Could things get any worse? Then I noticed the bumper sticker on a nearby vehicle that read: "Pain is weakness leaving the body."

With all that weakness gone, there was room for something else. "Where can we get some hot coffee and pie?" I asked. "We don't need a 5-star restaurant for that."

Note: Shoes Part 2 next week will discuss why the search for blood-red heels has become a feminist issue. Contigo travel mugs can be purchased online, at Target and sometimes at Costco.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

There's a name for people like me....

As Husband No. 1 tells the tale, we were mid-meal when I looked down at the dinner he had prepared and announced: "I can't eat this -- I don't eat red meat."

This declaration apparently came as a great surprise to my family, especially HN1. As he noted in our holiday letter that year, no such aversion to meat, red or any other kind, had been expressed during the preceding 25 years of marriage. However, you'd think he'd be used to unexpected declarations by now.

In my defense, I had been considering the red meat issue for some time. I guess I just forgot to mention it to the people living with me, including the person who cooks the majority of our meals. When my family asked why I was adopting this new lifestyle, I explained that owning a dog had changed my view.

"You're doing this because of Buddy?" asked an incredulous No. 1 son. "I really don't think he cares, Mom."

No. 1 son also was incredulous several months later when I noted the waitress taking our lunch order seemed perplexed and reluctant when I ordered my vegetarian burger "western style" with barbecue sauce -- and bacon.

"That's because you're the world's worst vegetarian," he said as he bit into his burger.

OK, so I'm not a strict vegetarian. I'll admit to a longtime addiction to Five Guys hamburgers (even driving over 80 miles to eat one), as well as a fondness for bacon and shellfish. But I've given up every other kind of meat, because spending so much time with a dog has heightened my awareness that animals can think and reason, and develop individual personalities. I am reluctant to eat creatures with these capabilities.

Even chickens have personalities, according to people who raise them. Yes, I know, so do pigs and the cows used to supply Five Guys. I feel really bad about that. Fortunately, I haven't seen any studies or YouTube videos that indicate shrimp, clams, and scallops are in this category but if I have missed this disturbing news, please do tell me.

So what am I? I can't honestly call myself vegetarian, although the majority of my diet is vegetable-based. And I'll never be a vegan because I love cheese too much (and cheese doesn't kill anything other than possibly some humans who've succumbed to cholesterol-related issues).

Fortunately, I have discovered that my semi-vegetarianism is not all that unusual and there's a name for people like me -- Flexitarian!

That means we're flexible vegetarians, according to experts like the Mayo Clinic. And we're so trendy that cookbooks are being written for us.

To quote a September 2008 Newsweek article: "It might seem like being a vegetarian of convenience isn't particularly inspiring, but a growing number of experts and even some famous foodies are fans. They say that cutting back on meat, rather than abstaining completely, may be a practical compromise that benefits our bodies and our environment."

Flexible? Trendy? Practical? And doing good for the environment? These are labels I don't mind having. They sound so much better than "world's worst vegetarian."

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Care to Wear Pink? And other topics...


Pink has never been my color and quite frankly, I've always considered it a little too girly for my personality and politics.

In fact, prior to this weekend, my only piece of pink attire was a "Keep Austin Weird" baseball hat given to me by a dear friend. I wear it partially as a joke because my dad's name is Austin and he's a bit unusual, though in a good way (sorry, Dad).

But, as you may have noticed, it's Breast Cancer Awareness Month and lots of folks are donning pink. Last week, one of my work tasks involved spending the day with the Governor and his Executive Council (which in NH makes many of the decisions governors in other states make on their own, FYI) and one member of the august group had a dark pink strand in her bangs as her way to help raise consciousness about this terrible disease that has impacted far too many women.

Then there are the companies cashing in. Buy a pink version of Dannon yogurt and log in online and the company will donate 10 cents to the National Breast Cancer Foundation (and Dannon no doubt will capture your information for future marketing). Buy something made by Proctor and Gamble, and that mega-company will contribute a whopping 2 cents per item (and also capture your information). I suppose if pink products raise awareness of the importance of breast exams and that too many women are being diagnosed with, and dying from, breast cancer, it's a good thing. However, the cynical me wonders if any pink products also contain chemicals that lead to breast cancer because, yeah, I do believe toxins added to our environment might be be to blame for nasty elements lodging in fatty tissues like breasts.

But when I found out my local Fire Department was taking part in "Care to Wear Pink" and all the firefighters will be wearing pink shirts on their calls this week, I wanted one, too, because the money goes to support Portsmouth firefighter Sarah Fox, a young mother of five who has terminal cancer, and the Susan G. Komen Foundation (which has a slightly higher charity rating than the previously mentioned foundation).

Firefighter and paramedic Sarah Fox is just 38 years old and as of last spring, was told she had less than a year to live. She received her breast cancer diagnosis literally hours before her twins were born on Oct. 10, 2007. After chemotherapy, surgery and radiation, she was back at work by August 2008. Then the pain started and what she thought was a groin pull turned out to be a significant tumor. The breast cancer had metastasized. Although she has health insurance, the co-pays and other family expenses are formidable. The Portsmouth Firefighters Charitable Association has staged a number of events to raise funds on her behalf.

In this case, I very much like the idea of "spending local" and supporting someone connected to my community. I hope you'll do the same in yours during this Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

If you'd like one these $15 shirts, they're on sale at all Portsmouth Fire stations and http://www.pffca.org/. To learn more about Sarah, visit the Firefighters Charitable Association site or click here to read a local newspaper article about her.

Calendar Girl...If you saw this photo in the Oct. 4 date block on your calendar with the caption "Call your mother!," wouldn't you do it? After all, how could anyone miss such a ridiculous and unflattering photo?

Apparently you can if you're one of my beloved sons. When the phone didn't ring last Monday, I knew that once again this year they'd failed to spot the "call your mother" photo randomly inserted to gauge their use of the calendars I created for them the past two Christmases following many hours of labor. (Beginning with birth, these children have not always adequately appreciated my labor on their behalf, mind you.)

It appears I'm going to have a whole lot more time to devote to things other than calendars this Christmas season -- like figuring out another way to get them to call me. Since neither calendars nor guilt seem to work, I'm open to suggestions (and not above blackmail, by the way).

Speaking of Holidays...Spooky is October's theme at the other place I blog, Working Stiffs, and I am having a difficult time coming up with anything scary or otherworldly to discuss. Apparently I'm not interesting enough to have such experiences on a regular basis, unlike my fellow bloggers who have been visited by dead heroes, pets and relatives. But I have to fill the space. Husband No. 1 suggests something related to our Lhasa Apso because according to legend, this breed was used to guard Tibetan temples against evil spirits. And while our dog often barks at the wind, it will take some imaginative writing to make a cute canine named Buddy into something scary. If you get bored this week, stop over at http://workingstiffs.blogspot.com/ on Tuesday to see if I've succeeded.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Aboard Ambulance One

I made three trips by ambulance in a five-hour period last Friday night and was never examined by medical personnel.

That's because I was riding the Portsmouth Fire Department's Ambulance One for research on my novel-in-progress, which has a paramedic as one of the main character's love interests. Any member of the public can request permission to do an ambulance ride-a-long and I wanted a busy shift in the busiest area of the city.

My first challenge was deciding what to wear. I knew it should be something that could withstand stray blood or other bodily fluids, be comfortable, and not make it too obvious that I wasn't a legitimate member of the ambulance crew. I opted for a City of Portsmouth polo shirt, dark pants and sneakers. Just to make sure no one drove into me at accident scenes, they handed me a Portsmouth Fire Department reflective vest that I sort of forgot to return, if you know what I mean.

I was told to report at the beginning of the 5:30 p.m. shift to be assigned to the firefighters staffing Ambulance One out of the Central Fire Station. All firefighters in Portsmouth are trained as intermediate Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) but the most trained also have attained paramedic status after up to two years of additional study, which allows them to dispense up to 40 medications and do cardiac monitoring in the field. This is important in stabilizing the patient by doing much of the activities that would be done if a patient were to go directly to the ER -- and reduces the great need to drive at breakneck speed to the hospital, possibly causing an accident.

However, our first run was to the grocery store so the junior man on duty (only five years with the Department) could do the shopping for dinner, which he also had to prepare and then clean up afterward. As his more tenured partner noted, "Seniority sucks unless you have it." The five men on duty wolfed down their American chop suey, heads-down, after confiding they employ this eating method because 40 percent of the time they get called out and don't get to finish a meal. However, they noted this style of eating has become a habit that is not appreciated by significant others at meals outside of the station.

Station One, also known as the Central Fire Station, has two firefighters assigned to the ambulance and two to the fire truck that also would respond to any medical emergencies. One of the four on the shift must be a paramedic. Portsmouth has the same arrangement at its Station 2. The fire truck responds with the ambulance in case there is a need for more than two EMTs on a call. The crew quickly determines whether the fire engine guys are needed and if not, they return immediately to the station. In a city of 21,000, you'd think two ambulances would be sufficient but last Friday night, there were three ambulance calls within the same time period. Apparently this happens often (19 to 25% of the time)-- and depending on the geographic area of the call, an ambulance from a nearby town is asked to respond.

Over the course of my five-hour shift, we had three runs: a minor traffic accident (no transport after evaluation and after the victim signed paperwork), a woman said to have heat prostration but it might have been vertigo judging by repeated nausea each time she moved, and a seizure suffered by a nursing home resident rehabilitating from a stroke. Each time, the EMTs calmly evaluated the potential patients and methodically went through their mental checklists. En route to the calls, I sat in the paramedic seat in the wagon, facing backward, but in the front seat on the way to the hospital. Both were exciting.

When I asked what type of personality is preferred for the job, one of the EMTs said, "Good people skills -- and you need the ability to be able to defuse aggravated patients; you have to be a good organizer so you can prioritize and you have to have a strong stomach." Lacking in all three areas, I decided this would not be a good career change but it gave me a new appreciation for those who have. Later, the EMT elaborated on how important it can be to be able to calm patients, noting: "It's not much of a stretch for someone who's suicidal to become homicidal." Scary stuff.

During our down-time, I separately asked each of them about their worst calls. Both said they were incidents involving young children. Death is a little easier to deal with, they explained, if the victim is elderly or has engaged in behaviors that could be responsible for their demise. But children dying is another matter.

They also said they often receive calls from people seeking transport to the hospital when their issues might not seem sufficient to warrant an ambulance ride that will cost them, the insurance company or the government $400 each. But, they note, "not everything is what it seems." And if the patient complains of difficulty breathing, the EMTs cannot take the risk of not doing a hospital transport. "We picked up one woman 52 times in three months," he said. "But one of those times, she was very ill."

However, it's these types of non-emergency calls that may cause an EMT to say he's driving the "pinky wagon" -- meaning the patient being transported has a complaint as minor as an injury to his pinky finger. I learned that other common terms for an ambulance are the rig, truck and wagon.

The Portsmouth EMTs work two day shifts of 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., followed by two night shifts of 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m., and then get four days off. This type of schedule makes it easier to commute from long distances or take second jobs. During the night shifts, they are required to remain awake until 10 p.m. but can then try to sleep. They say about 10% of the time, they go through the night without a call. Other times, they're called out repeatedly.

I've heard that some folks describe the night shifts as "dozing for dollars," but imagine what it must be like to go to bed knowing you likely will be forced out of a sound sleep in the middle of the night and have to get dressed, run out the door, and hop on an ambulance in 90 seconds or less. In addition, you have to be alert enough to deal with the unknown, knowing that failure to do so could result in death -- the patient's and possibly your own.

I'm not sure there are enough dollars in the world for me to take on a job like that, but I certainly have a new appreciation for the men and women who do.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

More adventures in DC

Last weekend I stayed at No. 1 son's apartment during a whirlwind "Mom this really would be the most convenient weekend for you to come down and help me set up my apartment" trip to Washington, DC, on behalf of the College Junior -- also known as No. 2 son.

Needless to say, my credit card was well-used, I was grateful No. 1 was available to help with the unloading (this photo was taken after the job was completed) and I was only moderately concerned about being decapitated by a loose baking pan if forced to stop suddenly while piloting the packed Taurus some 500 miles down traffic-jammed I-95.

I was slightly more apprehensive about my first experience lodging with one of my children in his own domain, but hoped it would offer the rare opportunity for Mother-Son bonding without the use of a credit card. (Husband No. 1 managed to avoid the dreaded DC trek because there wasn't any room for him in the car.)

I must say that spotting the handcuffs in No. 1 son's bedroom didn't shock me as much as it might have if he weren't a police officer. The gun safes didn't bother me much, either. (As noted previously, I spend a lot of time in the Land of Denial). But it's been a long time since I've slept on a mattress on the floor -- and this trip reminded me why. It also took a great deal of restraint to not do any straightening of his bedroom. (Unfortunately he seems to have inherited -- and exceeded -- his mother's belief that neatness is for people too lazy to look for things).

Although I knew enough to pack my own towel and facecloth, it didn't occur to me that neither my son nor his cop roommate -- both of whom have closely shaved heads -- might not possess a hairdryer. As a result, I spent the weekend apologizing to friends and strangers about my hair. For a while, I also was concerned I might have to apologize for my scent because guys who use that manly smelling body wash stuff apparently see no need to own bar soap. When I mentioned this, No. 1 son's response was: "You expected me to go out and buy soap for you?"

Hmmm. I considered whether to remind him of all the things I've gone out and bought for HIM over the years -- or even the occasions I battled other crazy parents in Toys R Us to obtain a coveted action figure. But since he was cranky after just five hours of sleep in 48 hours, I opted instead to use the sink-side "Shea butter" pump soap (and can now report they could advertise it as offering a less masculine odor than Axe body wash).

Apparently No. 1 also saw no need to go out and buy coffee, despite his mother's well-known habits in that area, nor anything that could masquerade as breakfast. It seems that guys who work until midnight or 4 a.m. don't eat regular breakfast food at the end of their sleep cycles.

Their schedules also made for interesting logistics. The plan seemed so logical beforehand: No. 1 would leave for work at 7:30 p.m., I would sleep in his bed and be up by the time he returned from work the next morning so I could let him in (the keys couldn't be duplicated) to get his rest. The roommate would still be asleep, having returned after midnight. The flaw in the plan was I didn't realize that my son actually gets off work at 4 a.m. When he saw the shock on my face, he graciously agreed to go to the gym or finish his paperwork so he would not return until my normal 6 a.m. waking time. When he hadn't showed by 6:30 a.m., I called his cell phone and was advised he didn't know when he'd be returning as they'd arrested some guys with guns and would be going to court soon. This is the kind of reality that makes it difficult to fall back to sleep, I assure you.

Also difficult was ignoring the chaos in an apartment shared by two men who obviously don't spend a lot of time thinking about housekeeping judging by the fact that some of the items that hadn't been put away when I first saw the apartment in May were still laying out three months later. I couldn't help noting, however, that nothing blocked the view of the big screen TV.

I've decided I probably ought to rethink my lodging arrangements for future solo trips to DC. Given that No. 2 son's place also has beds on the floor -- combined with the slightly seedy feel of a college apartment (plus two roommates) -- his new home isn't such a good option, either.

Perhaps future mother-son bonding should occur at someplace like the Hilton -- where I hear they offer soap, hair dryers, coffee, and even beds on box springs.

Monday, August 30, 2010

"Live Free or Die" and Ta-Da Lists

Since I'm still trying to recover from an 11.5-hour drive back home from DC last night, I'm delighted to have my writing friend Jessie Crockett paying a visit today to talk about the joys of "Ta-Da" instead of "To-Do" lists.

Jessie's debut novel "Live Free or Die" has just been published (and available at Amazon by clicking the title link) and although I haven't yet had the opportunity to read it, I adore the title because it's also New Hampshire's motto -- and one we all very much take to heart, though not always in a good way: no mandatory motorcycle helmets, no seatbelt law over 18, and local government splintered among 234 fiefdoms, er, municipalities. But I digress.

Here's what Jessie has to say about making lists:
Are you a list maker? You either are or you aren’t. I adore lists, from Grocery to Christmas to Bucket. Every time I throw a party I revel in them: to cook, to buy, to make, to clean.

In keeping with a theme of New Beginnings, I decided to share an approach I use to list making. A lot of beginnings get started with a list and most of those seem to be the classic To Do variety. Despite my life-long love of lists there is one type that comes out on top for me every time. And even if you aren’t typically a fan of lists perhaps you will consider giving this sort a try. It’s a Ta-Da list.

Each morning I make a two column list. In the left column I make a list of emotions I would like to experience that day. In the right column I mark down activities that will help me to reach that goal. For example, a few days ago my list looked like this:

Joyful--------- read new fiction novel I picked up at the library
Creative-------reach daily word count quota for my work-in-progress
Productive------respond to unanswered emails and phone messages
Organized------conquer laundry backlog
Healthy--------drink 8 glasses of water; get to bed at a decent time

Ta-Da lists consider the journey rather than simply the destination. They help me to enjoy the things I’ve included on the list because the activities help me to reach for things I really want to experience in my life.

For me, this approach also works for my writing. When I am working on a project I ask which feelings I would like the reader to experience as he or she reads my work. Then I add dialogue, action and settings that I hope will produce the kind of emotional journey for the reader I had in mind. If I want the book to make people experience surprise I had better include some unexpected twists. If sorrow is what I am after, I need to add some kind of loss or disappointment. My manuscript Ta-Da list helps me to evaluate ideas from the perspective of the emotional journey and I think they have improved my writing.

Here’s hoping all of your back-to-school beginnings are more Ta-Da than To Do!

And here's some info about Jessie's book -- and about her:

Life in tiny Winslow Falls, New Hampshire is pretty darn good until an arsonist
decides to ruin everyone’s Christmas.

The way volunteer Fire Chief Gwen Fifield sees it, her life in rural New Hampshire is as good as it can be. Sure, she’s gained 20 pounds and her property taxes have skyrocketed, but her basement didn’t flood this year and the general store started delivering pizza.

All things considered, Gwen’s got no complaints….that is until she finds a body sizzled like a sausage in the smoldering remains of the Winslow Falls museum. When an artifact from the museum is traced to an immigrant family, most local residents are quick to blame the outsiders. But clues from the past convince Gwen that the town she’s always trusted is harboring a home-grown murderer.

About Jessie Crockett: A nearly life-long resident of the Granite State, Jessie naturally adores black flies, 98% humidity, killing frosts in August and snow banks taller than the average grandmother. When not working on her next murderous adventure she enthusiastically putters in her greenhouse, designs bento lunches and throws parties. She delights in mentoring young writers at the local elementary school. Jessie lives with her dark and mysterious husband and exuberant children in a village so small most other New Hampshire residents have never heard of it. Hearing from readers makes her day so please drop by for a visit at jessiecrockett.com.

Anyone want to guess the name of Jessie's village?





Sunday, August 22, 2010

A Gift from the Past

Since we had not seen each other in well over three decades, the experience of sharing coffee with my high school boyfriend this past weekend was somewhat surreal. But the biggest surprise came when he handed me a packet of long-forgotten stories and poems I had composed during our youthful romance.

The pieces would, he assured me, provide an interesting insight into my thoughts and aspirations all those years ago. Although I was stunned to learn such products of my high school persona survived, I thanked him and put them aside as we continued a delightful conversation about where life has taken us since we last saw one another.

It was with some trepidation that I later examined his gift from the past. Oddly, my first reaction was how much better my penmanship was then. (Click here to see a previous blog entry on the problems it causes today). I was amused that some of the pieces bore grades from my high school English teacher (A's of course) while others were poems written outside of class. Although I do still possess some examples of my anonymous "Mary Muckraker" columns for the high school newspaper, I thought my more creative efforts from that time period were discarded long ago.

I suppose it is not unexpected that I would view them as the writer and person I am now. It was as if I were reading the work of a stranger. For example, I cringed where the author used the same word twice in a paragraph --- something I assiduously attempt to avoid in my writing today. Then I reread the pieces in the hope of recalling what prompted me to create them, especially the free-form poems. However, given that I can't remember where I left my purse most days, you can understand why it might be impossible to recollect the impetus for verse composed when I was 17 and 18. On the third read-through, I could feel the angst and emotions of those teenage years that I often struggled to make sense of with my pen. Then I wondered when I stopped writing poetry and why.

As I study these papers now, I feel fortunate that my high school boyfriend kept my writing for sentimental reasons -- and not for blackmail or in the hope that he would be able to profit from it when I became rich and famous (obviously he's given up on that hope, if it ever existed).

And I will remain forever grateful that he has now returned these pieces of me.

Have you ever unexpectedly discovered something you wrote long ago, or something else you kept from your past? Did it bring back wonderful memories or did you struggle to try to recall why you kept it?

For your reading pleasure, here's a poem entitled "Oceans and Roses' that earned me an A. (And no, I don't remember the reason for the reference to the yellow rose, but it was obviously important at the time. I wonder what a high school English class would interpret this poem to mean today...)

Oceans
I love.
They're blue
and gray
and green.
Chameleon color change
Ever-changing --
(like me).
Sparkling water
Reflections of the world
Everything
Except me...
It sees me
But, does not reveal --
It's better
That way,
Maybe --
The key was
A yellow rose.
I wonder --
For if a token
Isn't genuine,
It becomes
Only
A feeble attempt --
You'll give
Me
What I like.
Well,
Almost everything ...
But, all the while
I seek
That
Everything,
Roses wilt
And die...
Oceans rise
And fall...
Leaving me
Washed up
Upon the beach
Of dreams.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

High School Reunion

My recent high school reunion and the related social activities were a blast, but I was a little surprised by some of the things people I hadn’t seen in decades chose to share.

And, as always, it was all novel material.

It also was a delight to see classmates from that intense, hormone-ridden four-year period known as high school and walk away believing that for the most part, they now lead decent and happy lives. (The few who’ve done jail time – including our class president – didn’t show and another classmate is currently serving a life sentence for murder.) At my age, it's also a comfort to know so many people from my past are still alive.

Without a doubt, the women looked better than the men at this reunion. Maybe it’s because woman will take advantage of generally accepted options to fight the appearances of aging – like hair dye, cosmetics and plastic surgery. Many of the men looked old – lots of hair lost and pounds gained – and some were recognizable only by nametags or voices. Hard to believe these old guys were in the same high school class as me.

I was fortunate to experience the weekend with two women who have been my very close friends since high school even though each lives in Texas now. Since Husband No. 1 refuses to attend reunions, these women make great dates. Between the three of us, we can cover a lot of ground and collect a lot of news/gossip to rehash later over wine.

But I always seem to collect the juiciest items, possibly due to my years of practice asking questions as a journalist. And while we all self-edit the information we choose to relay to others, I was surprised by some of the revelations – and how quickly they were shared.

Why would people I haven’t seen in decades suddenly announce they are in unhappy relationships? Or reveal within minutes that they’re gay? One classmate made sure folks knew she had invested in her breasts. Another made clear her income was higher than most. More than a few took mere seconds to brag about themselves or the accomplishments of their children. We even had a classmate who didn’t care that others knew she was smoking a joint during a break in the festivities.

Then there were the undercurrents – like the classmate who reportedly has been stalking another one, off and on, for decades. There also were those who seemed to think the high school castes still should exist after all these years. Others appeared reluctant to consider that people might change or mature since high school. And some believed boyfriends or girlfriends from that era still carried a torch for them -- or they, themselves, confessed to crushes on fellow classmates.

Yes, it's the stuff novels are made of, isn't it?

But when you really think about it, isn’t it odd that we have high school reunions every five or 10 years to see people we might have spent just four years – or less – with during our teenage years? True, some of my high school classmates go back to elementary school days, but I’ve rarely seen most of them since high school graduation, either.

Yet, there is a connection. And it continues to link us in some way through the years as we move in our different directions and worlds. But exactly what is that connection?

Is it because seeing our classmates again takes us back to more innocent times when our whole lives lay ahead? All things seemed seemed possible then. Or is it because high school is where many of us first truly became aware of the dynamics of friendship and formed relationships we thought would last forever? Or perhaps we experienced the thrill of first love that set the standard for every relationship that followed?

Whatever it is, something prompts many of us to keep going back to these events. At the same time, I can understand why others avoid them. What about you? Have you attended your high school reunions? Why or why not? Do you enjoy them? Did people share intimate details of their lives with you or others?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

My kids think I'm "nuts"

(Warning: Intimate body parts will be discussed in this week's edition)

In my never-ending quest to continue being a good mother beyond the time my children apparently need me to do so, I apparently stepped over the line recently and I'm now worried that it could lead to years of therapy for each of them.

It all began when I recently attended a health fair and spotted some nifty little placards to hang in the shower that illustrate how to check for testicular cancer -- and keep track of the monthly examination. As one who never passes up an opportunity to send helpful information to my children, either through the mail or via Internet -- and whether they need it or not -- I snagged two of the cards and mailed one off to each son with a note that said "I know you think I'm 'nuts,' but I care about your health."

To my surprise, there was no acknowledgement of this latest Mom effort. Finally I asked No. 2 son if he had received the item as it was included in the same envelope as a check he needed to take to the college financial affairs office and a grocery store gift certificate.

"Oh my God," he spluttered. "Yes, I got it. Did you forget I share a bathroom with seven other people?"

Whoops. This had not occurred to me. "Oh, I'm so sorry, did I embarrass you?"

"Yes, you embarrassed me. But then I thought, it's just my crazy mother again," he said. "But how would you like it, Mom, if I sent you something that told you how to check for breast cancer and wrote a note that said, 'maybe you think I'm being a boob...'?"

I considered the best way to answer. Finally I said, "I would think that you loved me very much -- and cared about my health."

"GRRRRR....." was his response.

A few days later I asked No. 1 son, who works an 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. shift, if he had read the article I sent about avoiding drowsy driving in the same envelope as his placard. "No, because when I opened the envelope and saw the cancer of the testicles thing, I stopped reading and threw it away."

"You didn't even look at it?" I whined. "I was only thinking of your health."

"Not only did I not read it," he said in an abrupt tone of voice. "We will never speak of this again."

Whoops again, I guess I just did.

It occurs to me that this incident might make a good addition to ongoing list of ways I've embarrassed my children. So all you parents out there, I'd certainly appreciate it if you'd let me know I'm not alone.....

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Gun... Control?

I am giving serious thought to buying a gun. As a woman who has marched for gun control and who does her best to live in the Land of Denial about the piece of metal her son carries to work every night, this is a radical shift in attitude.

OK, it won't be a really bad gun. Maybe just an airgun or a squirt gun. But desperate times call for desperate measures. And what is made me so desperate? This little varmint who keeps raiding my "squirrel-proof" bird feeder (notice how full his pouches are). In order to be able to view the feeder from the house, we attached it to the deck, which also has become home to the first tomato and sunflower plants ever owned by Husband No. 1, now known as Farmer Frank.

I think my neighbors are beginning to question my sanity after hearing me repeatedly yell "Get off of there!" and seeing me run out onto the deck waving a broom. This seems to have little effect on the chipmunks and squirrels, however. So I did some research on the Internet and although adding lots of red pepper to the birdseed has seemed to keep away most of the squirrels, I just learned that the pepper that keeps me sneezing for days apparently doesn't bother chipmunks due to their fur-lined pouches.

I was complaining about this wildlife development during a weekend telephone conversation with No. 1 son when he asked: "How do you know it's the same chipmunk?"

"Because he's taunting me," I replied. "I fill the bird feeder and the damn thing keeps jumping on it and draining it before the day is over."

"How can you be sure it's just one chipmunk?" he persisted.

"Stop talking like a cop. I've got evidence," I grumbled as I continued my surveillance of the deck through the glass doors. "Dammit," I suddenly yelled. "There ARE two of them."

No. 1 son then wondered why Buddy the dog wasn't enough to frighten the creatures away from the bird feeder so close to the house. "Are you kidding? That dog barely even woofs at them anymore," I said. "No one would ever mistake Buddy for an attack dog. But he does seem to bark if the wind changes direction," I added.

No. 1 son then allowed as how a BB shot or an air pellet in a chipmunk's butt might do the trick. As I considered this option, I saw the little critters scurrying toward the "crops" and alerted Husband No. 1, who was on the extension. "They're stealing your tomatoes!" I yelled.

Husband No. 1, normally so laid-back that some people think he must be from California instead of Kansas, erupted. "That's it. We're getting a .357 Magnum."

No. 1 son exploded in laughter. "The gun will be bigger than the chipmunk," he wisely noted.

"I don't care," proclaimed the man who once led peace marches. "We're talking tomatoes now. This is war."

So, does anyone have any ideas on how we can at least win the battle of the chipmunks -- short of purchasing heavy artillery?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

After 24 years, a sad journey by plane

Last Sunday I got on an airplane for the first time in 24 years. I decided that if my friend Phil Valley could face his impending death with such courage and dignity, I could overcome my fear of flying to get to Texas in time to say goodbye to a man I've known longer than my own husband.

It wasn't easy. And yes, it did require a little chemical help, although far less than expected. I considered Amtrak -- my long-distance mode of travel over the past two decades -- but my last trip to Fort Worth took 59 1/2 hours. Husband No. 1 and I weren't sure we had that much time.

Although Phil could no longer speak because of his breathing tube, he could mouth words. As ill as he was, he had a twinkle in his eye when he asked: "Five hours vs. 59 1/2 hours -- what do you think now?" We both laughed. I told him he had inspired me and along with the precious gift of his friendship, he had given me the courage to face my fear of flying. I will be eternally grateful for both.

I first met Phil on a sultry Texas evening in the late 1970s. I was visiting my college roommate in Fort Worth and we realized over margaritas that our dear high school friend Diane, whom we had lost contact with during college, lived not far away. Phil watched in disbelief, one eyebrow cocked, as Sheila and I barged into their apartment searching for Diane, who was sick in bed with bronchitis. The three of us quickly resumed our lifelong and laugh-filled conversation as if we'd never been separated. Phil had no idea of the force that had just blown into his life and I don't believe his eyebrow ever went back down in the 35 years that followed.

There were countless escapades, shared holidays, many life changes and, always, much laughter during that time. Phil is the handsome man in the rear in this photo, taken so long ago that the squirming child in my lap is now a policeman and the guy next to Sheila is no longer her husband.

Phil, who spent his final 10 years in a wheelchair after sheer will no longer was sufficient against a devastating diagnosis of muscular dystrophy, fulfilled his dream of accompanying the sweet little blonde girl in the yellow outfit in the middle down the aisle in March.

Phil knew he would eventually die from MD and said many times that he did not want to rely on machines to live. When he was hit by a mysterious infection that ravaged his body, it led to four months of hospitalization and multiple organ failure. A few days before his death, he suddenly became incredibly lucid and let it be known that he would be ready to die after he said goodbye to the special people in his life. As sad as it was, we had the opportunity to share wonderful memories and say the things we wanted him to hear before he departed this world. It was truly a gift.

When Diane asked me to write Phil's obituary, I was honored but also concerned about the task of reducing the essence of such a good man and wonderful friend to just a few words. This was the best I could do:


"Phil was a man of unparalleled determination and courage who inspired others beyond their imagined capabilities and faced his own disease with dignity and grace. He loved to tell a good story as much as hearing one; appreciated baseball and a beer as much as fine food and a glass of wine; and was an intellectually curious man with a brilliant mind and sardonic wit. But most of all, he greatly appreciated his loving family, his friends and the comfort of gentle sunshine on his peaceful patio."
And they appreciated him, as well.

Farewell, my friend.

To read Phil's entire obituary, click here.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

From the pages to the (small) screen....

The new TNT series "Rizzoli & Isles," based on the two primary characters in a gripping series authored by thriller writer (and Maine resident) Tess Gerritsen, premieres tomorrow night (Monday, July 12) -- and I'm not sure how I feel about the way the people I've imagined in my head for seven books are being portrayed on screen.

I suspect I reacted like a lot of Gerritsen's avid readers when I first heard that gorgeous Angie Harmon would portray plain Jane Rizzoli, the no-nonsense, driven Boston homicide detective. My response: Are you kidding me? And forensic pathologist Dr. Maura Isles as a blonde? Say it ain't so.

But I was curious. So when I got the opportunity to see the first "Rizzoli & Isles" episode before it premiered PLUS indulge my relentless quest for free and interesting entertainment, Husband No. 1 and I traveled to Boston on a recent weeknight for an event that also featured the author signing "Ice Cold" -- the newest (and No. 8) book in the series.

I should note here that this experience didn't end up being exactly "free." There was the $6 in tolls, $15 to park the car, $13 for drinks while waiting for the doors to open and the book I had to buy ($18 at a discount). Not counting the food we ate later because we were so hungry after the rest of the crowd crowd mobbed the servers carrying the complimentary hors d'oeuvres, our "free" outing cost $52. But I did get another photo with an author for my collection, a free t-shirt advertising the show, and assurances from Tess Gerritsen that she's more than OK with how her characters look and act on the small screen.

I'm not sure I am -- not that anyone's asking.

Gerritsen, by the way, does not write the scripts. But as she works on future books in her series, I have to wonder whether Jane will become Angie Harmon and if Dr. Isles will begin to look like Sasha Alexander and start acting as girly as she does in the show. Since the TV series doesn't exactly mirror the books, will the books begin to resemble the TNT series? At least one past book covers has been redone to show the TV show actresses and Gerritsen's newest novel proclaims on the cover that it's a Rizzoli & Isles mystery.

I also wonder whether any of the episodes could ever be as good -- or as heart-pumping exciting -- as the books, although I will confess to a gasp or two while watching the premiere episode. Haven't you been dismayed at one time or another by how a movie didn't measure up to the book on which it was based? When I get behind in my popular fiction reading and learn a movie will be made from a book, I don't even bother to read it because I don't want to be disappointed. Or I'll read the book but never watch the movie.

However, I did have a different experience withg the Swedish film version of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." I'd given up the struggle of trying to read the book (too much "information dumping," too many Swedish names, etc.) and I wanted to see the movie because I was curious about all the buzz. The film was so good, and the characters so compelling, that I forgot I was reading subtitles. It left me so intrigued that I picked up the second book in Stieg Larrson's series and intend to read the third. (Warning: the movie does contain very brutal scenes).

Nonetheless, I think even TNT may be a little concerned by how fans of Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles will react to its interpretation of these characters because it put together the following video featuring Gerritsen discussing how she views the changes. As I try to sift through my own reactions, I look forward to hearing what others think about the transition from the pages to the screen.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Happy Fourth of July!

Enjoy.... a tiny taste of the fireworks from Portsmouth, NH (and yes, in frugal Portsmouth, we have fireworks the night BEFORE July 4th because it's cheaper)!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Live Bodies in the Room

Last week I attended an author event at my local independent bookstore that drew over 100 people and because I'm involved in one scheduled there this week, I really hope all those readers don't stay home to finish his book.

RiverRun Bookstore has been predicting Justin Cronin will soon be a household name for "The Passage" -- as big of a name as Stephen King and Dan Brown, which helped draw a crowd that, ironically, included one of King's sons. While I wish Justin Cronin every success, I'm wondering what's going to happen for the writers that follow him on the schedule of over 150 events the bookstore hosts each year.

I'm certain Hank Phillippi Ryan, Sheila Connolly, Susan Oleksiw, Steve Liskow and I will have a great time discussing "Beach Reads" recommendations with those who do come out Tuesday night (June 29). For a mystery author, having live bodies in a room -- even if they don't buy books -- is a wonderful thing. The event also will be "livestreamed" so anyone with a computer and Internet access can watch from anywhere in the world via www.livestream.com/riverrunbookstore beginning at 7 p.m. -- and submit questions via Twitter.

But an author's fear of a small crowd, or no one at all, showing up is not unwarranted. Athough I love attending book events (click here to see a previous post on the topic), even best-selling, multi-published authors can find themselves sitting alone a table waiting for someone -- anyone at all -- to ask for their autograph or about their book.

Click on the video below for Parnell Hall's humorous take on this topic and see if you can spot me in the line -- to meet Mary Higgins Clark.


Saturday, June 19, 2010

"Mr. Monk" and me....

I am such a fan of the television show/crime-solving character "Monk" that I even have a "Monk" bobblehead doll at my workplace.

Adrian Monk, if you're not familiar with the series that ran for eight seasons on the USA Network and whose finale in December was the most-watched basic cable original drama series telecast of all time, was a brilliant -- but obsessive-compulsive -- and damaged ex-detective often called in by the San Francisco Police Department to help solve criminal cases.

As a mystery writer, I loved the many quirks of the character and admired his investigative skills. The dialogue and plots were always smart and witty, and the actor who portrayed Monk -- Tony Shalhoub -- could say more with a raised eyebrow or a single look than most people can communicate in an hour of talking.

"Monk" will probably live on forever in reruns on the USA cable network and also on the written page as he's the subject of at least 10 "Mr. Monk" spinoff novels by screenwriter, producer and author Lee Goldberg. But for me, "Monk" will always be synonymous with Shalhoub, who won four straight Emmys for the role. (He also may be familiar to some as Italian cabdriver Antonio Scarpacci in the long-running sitcom "Wings.")

It's no secret that one of my hobbies is "meeting" celebrities -- it sounds less dangerous than "stalking" (see this previous blog post for my celebrity encounters) -- and my fun goals last year were to meet the mystery author Dennis Lehane (and see a moose). But I never thought I'd get the opportunity to meet Tony Shalhoub, although in a six-degrees-of-separation kind of thing, he's been friends with one of my co-workers since their Wisconsin school days. However, he has yet to visit her at our New Hampshire place of employment and she can visit his bobbing head doll in my office any time.

So I was thrilled to learn he was starring on Broadway in "Lend Me a Tenor" at the same time our children in exile in D.C. agreed to meet their lonely parents halfway -- in New York City. We laughed our way through Tony's performance and those of the rest of fabulous cast, including Anthony LaPaglia (TV show "Without a Trace"), Justin Bartha ("The Hangover" and "National Treasure" 1 & 2) and Tony's real-life wife, Brooke Adams ("Days of Heaven").

At the end of the play, I positioned myself outside the stage door and handed the camera to No. 2 son. Tony was the last of the actors to exit the theater and graciously sign autographs. When I told him about my Monk bobblehead, he said, "I'm embarrassed," which I thought was a sweet reaction for someone who probably thought he'd encountered a crazed fan. He graciously posed for the photo above after I mentioned my co-worker, but jokingly said he would only do so if I could get her to go see the show, too.

Tony Shalhoub is much more handsome than his Monk bobblehead, by the way -- but not nearly as good-looking as these guys. And they were willing to pose for a New York City photo with me without setting any conditions!