The Professional Sounding Board


43668673 - image of woman lying on couch in psychiatrist office

It occurred to me this morning that there should be such a thing as a professional listener, somebody who would let you pay a fee to lie on the couch for an hour and complain bitterly about whatever you found particularly annoying that day. I know, I know, there are shrinks out there who perform something like this service, but that isn’t what I mean.

Your shrink, your psychiatrist, psychologist, or psychiatric social worker, is there to help you make sense out of your mental problems, or your social interactions, or the fact that you have never been able to get along with your mother. I need—probably most of us over a certain age do—someone to bitch at, someone who will pretend to listen to complaints but will offer no advice and make no judgments. My feet hurt. My teeth hurt. Next week a molar has to come out. I’m losing my eyesight. With what’s left of my eyesight I see things I don’t want to see. Nobody likes to be told stuff like that. Unload such complaints on your friends and they will soon begin avoiding you. Unload them on your spouse and he will think you’re blaming him.

When I was quite young I had a friend who was so self-absorbed that  I could tell her anything, secure in the knowledge that she would forget it at once. I, on the other hand, was so self-absorbed that she could safely do the same. Years later I realized she had pointed something out to me that I refused to see at the time, that I was in love with a fellow I considered a mere friend. In those days I probably needed an actual shrink, or a very wise mother. My mother had her own problems. She could have used an hour on some stranger’s couch to complain about her life.

And who couldn’t? After an hour with the Professional Sounding Board we might dry our tears and go forth into the world with smiles on our faces, our dispositions outwardly as sunny as a day on St. Thomas. But what sort of qualifications would this person have to have?

Years ago there was a computer program called Dr. Sbaitso. It came with Sound Blaster and ran on a PC. You typed in questions or observations and Dr. Sbaitso answered you in a strange mechanical accent. “What is your problem?” “How would you usually deal with such feelings?” The good doctor promised to wipe all memory of the session away when it was done. People liked that. They got so deeply into it sometimes that they forgot they were dealing with a machine. But this would not be the function of my Professional Sounding Board.

The PSB would not ask you how you were dealing with things. The PSB would not care. As far as fixing your problem goes, you would be on your own. In fact the ideal PSB would have no idea what you were talking about. Maybe he or she wouldn’t even speak or understand English. The PSB would simply sit there and appear to listen, perhaps nodding from time to time. Any insights you gained from your fifty minutes of whining would be a gift you gave yourself.

I like it. Now if only we can get our health insurance to cover it.

Working the Polls


I have been seeing troubling rumors on social media, from both the far left and the far right, of how they expect the coming presidential election to be stolen. They don’t say how. It’s mysterious. Maybe it will be done with computers, by the people who count the votes. Maybe bad people will come to the polls and impersonate people who are dead.

I’ve been a poll worker for more years now than I can remember. We have seen a lot of amazing things, but we have never seen an election get stolen out from under our noses. Our voting machines here in Hunterdon County are antiquated, which means that no one can hack them. (Having spent thirty years in the computer industry, I believe I’m qualified to say that.) At the end of the voting day the machine prints out a tape of who got the votes. It’s posted on the firehouse door or wherever, and a copy goes to the County, to be added to the others and fed into the great stream of national election results.

People don’t show up and vote pretending to be other people, dead or alive. There is no need for voter ID. In New Jersey, those of us who work the polls are forbidden to demand ID from the voters. We know our voters  here in Lambertville, because it’s a small town. Every voter puts a signature next to the signature in the book. Okay, that’s you, here’s your ticket.

If there are too many voters in your district—one hears of such things happening in, say, Pennsylvania—if there is a line outdoors and around the block, such a crush of confusion inside that poll workers can lose track of who is actually voting, if the people outside are giving up and going home, then the answer is smaller districts and more polling places. The process is being mismanaged by your election commission. It’s not a fraud problem.

Gerrymandering is as close as anything comes these days to a stolen election, but that is already in place. If it comes as a surprise to you, you aren’t paying attention. They told you about it in high school civics. It’s a very old practice.

A hundred years ago the money that the parties poured into the electoral process went straight into the hands of the voters (who were all men, by the way), in the form of bribes-for-votes, $2.50 a vote, $4.00, $5.00, or straight down their throats in the form of free drinks. No expense was wasted on advertising to win hearts and minds, just pure graft. They didn’t tell you that in high school civics, though you may have wondered why it was illegal to serve liquor on election day in certain states. Now, instead of the voters being paid directly, the middle men in TV and the internet are getting rich by airing political commercials. I guess that’s progress. But you can’t exactly call it stealing the election.

No election will be stolen on our watch, not in Lambertville. We poll workers take our responsibilities very seriously. To a certain degree the firehouse is sacred space on election day, where voting is a holy ritual of democratic life. It’s true that there are voters who show up without proper preparation, like church parishioners who come to Mass only on Christmas and Easter. Maybe they’ll come to the primary election and try to vote as an independent. You can’t do that in New Jersey. You have to vote as a Democrat or a Republican in the primary. Or maybe they’ll fail to read their sample ballot and get into the booth with no understanding of the questions, whatever they might be. Then they hold everybody up for ten minutes while they figure it all out. Questions, as framed by our legislators, can be quite difficult to understand. Still we are happy to see anyone who comes in the door, prepared or not. They are our voters. We are here for them.

So don’t disturb yourselves over the specter of stolen elections. The republic has weathered all sorts of chicanery over the years and has managed to right itself time after time. The will of the people is heard, and the non-winners contain their disappointment until the next election, when they can have another go. In a democracy there is always tomorrow.

What I Do All Day

I had a nice visit last month with my hundred-year-old mother-in-law, a marvelous woman, still sharp as a tack. In the course of our conversation she asked me, as a matter of curiosity, what I did all day when I was at home.

I didn’t know.

I know what I’m supposed to be doing all day. Pursuing my writing career, keeping the house tidy, having a good time with Harold. Maybe cooking. Not sewing, anymore. I seem to have quit sewing. Maybe practicing jigs and reels on my English concertina, the one I haven’t seriously done anything with since I was pregnant with John, who will be, I think, thirty-three next month. But, actually, what—?

So I started thinking about it and keeping track.

About the writing career. As you must surely know by now, I’ve finished a 7,600-word World War I spy thriller called FIREBOMB, about a ring of German saboteurs working out of New York City and the young movie stunt girl who breaks up their operation. To get anywhere with this I’m going to need an agent. So far I have approached a number of agents, and those who admit to having read the manuscript have urged me to keep shopping it around, as they sort of liked it but were unable to fall madly in love.

As a result my plan is to keep shopping it around. I must confess a certain feeling of discomfort about the whole process, given that what I conceived of as a search for a business relationship might better be pursued on E-Harmony or The latest Authors Guild Bulletin features a round-table discussion among a few famous and successful agents. What do they want in a query letter? They want you to explain how your book fits into the current publishing scene, how it compares to everything else out there so they’ll know who to submit it to and what sort of sales figures to expect.

Well, that seems as strange to me as expecting to fall in love. Isn’t that the agent’s business, to know the market? It’s almost like the way your publisher, should you find one, wants you to tell them how to publicize and sell your book.

So anyway. What I do all day. The three hours after breakfast are dedicated to furthering my writing career. I spend it collecting the names, addresses, and submission guidelines of agents. Then I think about writing some queries. Then I go on Facebook and page through the interesting political rants, occasionally putting up a dance video or a picture of some really interesting shoes.

Then I make myself some lunch, if I’m home alone, or if Harold is here we go out to Snedden’s for hot dogs or soup or whatever, where we see friends and acquaintances from town.

Sometimes I shop for food. Sometimes I balance the bank account and pay the bills. Tidying up the house is much less of a chore now that our beloved cat, Shadow, has crossed the rainbow bridge, may she rest in peace. Half the time Harold cooks dinner, because he likes to, and I don’t like to mess with shrimp. Occasionally I’ll make notes for some future literary project. Occasionally I’ll binge-watch something like Grand Hotel on Netflix. Now and then I’ll read a book. Right now I’m reading Henry Kisor’s Tracking the Beast, available on Kindle. It’s good.

And that’s how I spend my day. Once a week I write a post for my WordPress blog. The WordPress people want me to subtly urge you all to register and vote, so consider yourself subtly urged.


On Cats

I was thinking about cats today. It’s hard to get away from them if you spend much time on Facebook. But the cats on Facebook are like the babies on Facebook. They represent a sort of generic charm and adorableness, rather than the unique qualities of a particular cat.


I have not been without a cat in the house since before I was three. A few months ago I lost Shadow, probably my last cat, seventeenth in an unbroken line of feline house pets, a small beloved animal with soft, dense black fur like seal fur and a host of horrible habits. I miss her sorely, but I can’t bring myself to replace her. It’s nice to be able to control the way the house smells.

Strangely, I don’t remember the cats of my childhood causing anyone the least amount of trouble. My mother must have taken care of all the cat grief. Okay, there was the time that Haile Selassie took a dump in one of my father’s shoes, and my father chased his furry posterior around and around the house until he got tired and lost the urge to kill. But that sort of thing hardly ever came to my attention. The cats were for petting, as far as we were concerned.

Every one of the seventeen cats was a unique personality. Even Pansy’s kittens. What happened to Pansy and her kittens was too sad to write about, so I’ll just slide over that and tell you about Richard the Chicken-Hearted. Richard came with the house we bought when we moved to Crystal Lake, Illinois, in 1947. He was supposed to be good for the mice, but when my mother put him in the basement he ran away from them.

Haile was our next cat after Richard. I chose him from a litter that was born to the cat next door. He was all black, silky and soft, and when he was grown to adult cathood his fur was long as an angora cat’s. A handsome creature.  We took him with us when we moved to North Plainfield, New Jersey, where he escaped death many times. He was never fixed, so he would roam the neighborhood and get in fights with bigger and tougher cats. The vet bills were so high that my father tried to take him off on his income tax as a dependent.

“I don’t understand,” the IRS auditor said to my father. “Do you raise cats for a living?”

“No, he’s a member of the family,” my father said.

“I’m sorry, sir, you can’t deduct his medical expenses.”

Since Haile Selassie all the cats I’ve had have been rescues or volunteers. We found Persephone in a tree, out in the country. She was mewling so loudly that the neighbors thought she was a catbird. Someone or something had cut off her tail. She became our little child substitute until John was born, and then she had to take a back seat, which put her nose out of joint considerably.

Rex, who would become John’s cat, appeared at the top of our cellar stairs in Lambertville, having got over the joists from the row house next door in hopes of better food than his master was giving him. A young single fellow, our neighbor had the kitten inflicted on him by a girlfriend. When he moved he pretended to take Rex with him, but—surprise!—little Rex got loose and came to stay at our house.

It almost seems strange to me that no cat has come to my door begging to be let in or fed since the demise of Shadow. The neighbors’ cat sleeps on our porch, where she is perfectly welcome. But when we took off for the Southland for three weeks we left no cat behind to be taken care of, and when we returned the house still smelled good. So I’m conflicted. I’d like to have a cat to pet, but I’d like to be free to travel.

Don’t call me and tell me you have a kitten for me.

Views of New Orleans

The main reason we went to New Orleans was to attend Bouchercon, the premier conference for mystery readers and writers in the USA. Since Harold was with me, though, what we mostly did in that astonishing city was to hang out in the streets and be tourists. It was hot. It was humid. Sometimes it rained. Here are a few pictures we took.jacksonsquareJackson Square, the heart of the French Quarter. The newspapers said that some group was planning to ambush the statue of Andrew Jackson and pull it down for some political reason or other. I would hate that. Whatever you think of Jackson’s treatment of the Cherokee, he did keep the British out of New Orleans. Anyway tearing down that statue would be disrespectful to the horse.alleyway

fleurdeparisThe French Quarter is full of charming alleyways and streets.sharps4shot

superheroesOne of the things I like best about New Orleans is the shops, fusty, dignified, relics of a bygone age. We visited one where antique guns and collectible superhero figures were displayed in glass cases like fine jewelry.costume

masksOthers had what I guess must be Mardi Gras wear displayed in the windows. Or Hallowe’en costumes.It rained off and on, but never the frog-stranglers we had experienced the last time we were in New Orleans, years ago, when the water rose to our ankles. This time it was good weather for walking around and seeing the sights.

A feature of city life these days is the mimes. I guess you call them mimes, although they don’t move around, but dress up in strange clothes and hold poses. Here’s one outside the Cabildo. I loved his hat, but his boots were truly remarkable.mime2

I Took a Trip on a Train

AMTINDP8269_18X24_CT POS.inddLast week Harold and I traveled from New York to New Orleans on the fabled Southern Crescent, now called simply the Crescent by Amtrak. Wanting to lie flat down and sleep through the night, we engaged a roomette in one of the sleeping cars, an experience I haven’t had since I was seven. Come to find out this entitles passengers to first class treatment. From the time we arrived at Penn Station in New York to the time we got off in New Orleans we were treated like royalty.

First of all the lady behind the counter at the entrance to the Amtrak passenger lounge, upon glancing at our ticket, cheerfully told us we were in the wrong place. “You want the first class lounge. It’s on the other side of the waiting room, through the gold doors.” Gold doors! Yes!

HaroldReadingThe first class lounge receptionist told us to find seats and wait for the escort to take us to the train. Comfortable chairs! Free refreshments! The escort showed us right onto the train and steered us to our “room,” a cubicle with just enough space, taller than it was wide. A little table folded out between our seats with a chessboard on it. Sadly, we hadn’t brought chess pieces. Harold read, I knitted. The scenery in the East is not as inspiring as the scenery you can see from the western railroad trains, they say, but it was pleasant enough.

Robert, the  porter for our car, a tall young man with amazing dreadlocks, stopped by to tell us he would be back and make up the beds when we were ready to go to sleep. After awhile he strolled through the car announcing the first call to dinner in a booming voice. A real dining car! Waitress Tanya was pleasant and charming. The food was tasty.

Roghoststationbert made up the beds by flipping the seats around for the bottom berth, putting a three-inch mattress down, lowering the top berth from its place near the ceiling, and presenting us with blankets. Harold chivalrously took the top bunk and closed his curtains. I left mine open so as to experience night on the railroad. Lights from oncoming trains woke me sometimes but it was all good. At two in the morning the train stopped at Greensboro. (My iPhone told me it was two o’clock and we were in Greensboro.) I was charmed by the way the station looked, all empty, and took a picture.

And so it went. Robert called us to breakfast. I like being summoned to eat food. While we were eating he put the beds back into seating. The day passed in watching Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi go by the windows. We were late getting into New Orleans, but being on time wasn’t the point.

Was it like it used to be? Was it like the last trip I took with my mother and sister from Philadelphia to Bangor, in 1947? Was it like in the movies, Twentieth Century Limited, Some Like it Hot?

Not exactly. I remember our old roomette having more room. The old bathroom was separate, for one thing, whereas the potty in the current roomette is kind of an emergency convenience under a fold-down shelf which is used to step up into the upper berth, as is the shelf under the fold-down sink. It’s rather a climb. There is certainly not enough room  in the roomette for Carole Lombard to throw a good tantrum, or enough room in the bunk for two, even if they were very thin, except maybe two small children sleeping foot-to-foot.

I recommend it, though, train travel, certainly over modern air travel. It may not be quite what it was, but what is? I thought it was great, the whole trip.

New Seasons

autumnpearsThis morning I came downstairs to rooms that were cooler than 70 degrees Fahrenheit, with the air of the town blowing through, for the second day in a row.

Glorious! It feels like new beginnings, the start of another year. For almost the whole summer the air has been so thick and hot that we had almost to push our way through it, laboring to get it in and out of our lungs. A person could drown just standing on the street. Today is a taste of what fall might be like if we all live to see it.

I’ve had a look at the fashion magazines, and the ladies are going to be wearing the same things I wore last year, except for the silly stuff that nobody wears anyway. My wooly sweaters will do fine. If I can fasten my winter pants I should be all set. I’ll have all the time in the world to devote to Art, Literature, and improving my mind. (And extensive dental work. But I’m not going to think about that right now.) I’ll probably sign up for the gym again. Fitness! Within my grasp! And maybe a series of little dinner parties.

Isn’t it great, the charge of energy you get at the end of a long, oppressive summer? A feeling of going back to school without actually going back to school. I’m ready for a power nap.