What’s Worth Writing About



Followers of this blog may have noticed that I haven’t posted to it in some weeks. I wasn’t sick, particularly, although I had one of those colds where you have to cough all the time in order to keep breathing. I wasn’t depressed, although my beloved mother-in-law just died and I heard from a respected agent that she thought my latest offering had no discernible plot. I wasn’t too busy to write, although it seemed as if I were doing things all the time, I forget what. I had people over for Thanksgiving. That was fun, but nothing to write about.

I just didn’t feel like putting finger to keyboard.

I still don’t. I know, these are the times that try men’s souls, I should write a protest column. But I wouldn’t know what to say. Others have said it better than I can. The enormity of these outrages has passed beyond my powers of expression, even counting the bad words. I’m going to Washington next month with the other enraged women and I don’t even know what slogan to put on my button. I can’t believe we still have to protest this shit. (Maybe that’s my slogan.)

Personally, our lives are good. We’re having house guests for Christmas. That will be fun, but not something I particularly want to write about. The neighbors seem happy. Nothing to complain about there. If there were, I wouldn’t write about it anyway, because I won’t violate people’s privacy and I detest drama.

Maybe that’s what’s wrong with my book, lack of drama. I have put it aside for awhile to be looked at later. Meanwhile I found another one on an old thumb drive, something, I think, that failed to interest my last agent. Called Broken Sister, it’s all about a mysterious adoptee returning to the town of her birth. The first few chapters struck me as being really good, right up to the part where I revealed the murder. Maybe it doesn’t need a murder. Not every story is a murder mystery. Maybe I’ll cut it down to the place where I still liked it and take it in a completely different direction. After Christmas, when I get time.

Speaking Truth to Unpleasantness

I’m reading another how-to book to energize my writing career. YOUR BOOK, YOUR BRAND by publicist Dana Kaye advises us to brand ourselves, first of all by analyzing our work and figuring out who we are as writers, then to identify our target audience, and then to polish up our brand and put it out there on social media and in other public places where our particular audience can find it and be impressed.

This is great advice. For me, it’s easier said than done.  My work is all over the map in terms of theme, historical period, characters. What all of it is is quirky with a buried edge of cynicism. And funny. So I guess that’s me as a writer. I try to look at things clearly and describe them accurately, so that even my cozies aren’t as cozy as they might be, and this is offensive to some.

Only my intimates know the worst about me, how I curse like a sailor’s parrot, how I can carry a grudge for sixty years. (Don’t get me started about my orthodontist, may he rot.) I’ve always known that my public utterances might gain or lose readers for me, and as a result I’ve tried to be careful. Maybe this is a mistake. I’m a deeply political person. Maybe I should acknowledge that.

When I was twenty-two I was a union organizer. I worked as a clerk-bookkeeper for AT&T, when it was the only telephone company. Being something of an idealist, I took on the position of shop steward in an office full of meek clerks, thinking I could work to uphold the rights and dignity of the working man (or, more accurately, the working woman). Not many of the ladies in the office were union members. My first task, as I saw it, was to recruit them.

My apartment was half a block from the office in Washington, DC, so I invited all the clerks over for lunch one day and hustled them to join the CWA. Only a few signed on, one being the boss’s secretary, an absolutely sweet woman whose name, alas, I have forgotten. She came to me the next day, full of apology, and asked for her membership papers back. The boss had talked her out of joining the union.

Actions have consequences, you see, and not always the consequences you were hoping for. Just before George W. Bush took us to war in Iraq I went down to Washington for a couple of peace marches. I tell you what, when you are upset with the government there is nothing more satisfying than to stand in the middle of Sixteenth Street and scream your lungs out. But the consequence of those marches was not peace. Instead we went to war, but not before ten women were arrested, grandmothers some of them, famous writers. I saw them led away in handcuffs while a squad of beefy motorcycle policemen came roaring up to menace the rest of us.

On November 21 a number of us are going to Washington again, this time to protest the policies of Donald J. Trump. I expect to stand in the street and scream. I also expect the people who love Trump, love him because his victory encourages them to abuse women, persons of color, foreigners, the disabled, and educated folks generally, to show up and be unpleasant to us. The police will be working for Trump. Can I say shitstorm on public media? Will that ruin my brand?

We’re going anyway, called to speak truth to power. You can come too. But be aware that it might not be a nice outing.

Street Fair

In Ocean Springs, Mississippi, the 38th annual Peter Anderson Arts & Crafts Festival is taking place this weekend. It’s fun. I was there this morning with Harold and son John, taking in the sights, buying a hat. I managed to take a few pictures.

Beautiful pottery
Happiness is a tablet and a nuk
Some drawings
A local matron
Boys shooting guns in the bushes
A wooden crab
The happy crowd

Spangles and Feathers

a-pretty-birdYesterday two friends and I went to the preview of an auction. The auction is taking place even now, and also tomorrow, at the Eagle Fire House in New Hope, PA. I would be over there right now bidding on antique garments, beaded purses, and whimsical hatstands, if only I had a few bucks and a climate-controlled place to store them. Moths and dampness  are a problem in Lambertville.

Still, the three of us went over there just to fondle and admire the offerings. When we walked in the door a kind man behind a table offered us knitted white cotton gloves. “To keep from ruining the ca-beaded-bodicelothes?” we said. “No, mostly to keep your hands clean. Some of these things are pretty dusty.” Taking pictures with my IPhone was impossible with the gloves on. The IPhone wants my bare finger.

The clothes were in numbered lots, the elegant antique designer pieces hung on pipe racks, one to a lot, the less rarefied in dusty boxes with other objects of their kind. You had to be prepared to bid (for today and tomorrow the bidding takes place) on a whole cardboard box full of shoes in order to acquire the one pair you desired, which might be tiny-footed, archaically shaped, and made of softest green or magenta kidskin. And dusty. Then I guess the idea would be to sell the ones you don’t want on Ebay.

My friend the duchess

We spent two hours fondling and admiring, and in the case of hats, occasionally trying on. What torture! A roomful of hats and no mirror.

The bulk of the better offerings came from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. We also saw garments from Hollywood movies. Gene London is selling a few things from his fabled collection. At least one dress had been worn by Joan Crawford. Some were designed by Adrian, master of the slinky gowns the stars wore in the twenties and thirties. He dressed Garbo. His name was legend.

And speaking of legend, we saw hanging from the pipe racks the work ofa-fortuny-label the great designers of the twentieth century, made in their ateliers in Paris between the wars. The beads. The feathers.  And the labels. This was what I had come to see. Here’s what a Fortuny label looks like. Fortuny, whose technique for pleating silk has never been duplicated, even in the modern day with all our

Long story short, I was in hog heaven. And you could be, too. As I said, the auction is going on today and tomorrow. Here’s a link to their web site. Be sure to download their catalog with the pictures included. I’d meet you over there, but I have other stuff to do and (as I may have mentioned) I’m out of money right now.




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 Match.com. 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.