Sunday, July 31, 2011


I wonder how much time Dr. Seuss spent looking at aquariums?
This animal reminded me of some of his wonderfully odd-shaped creatures.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Magazine Writing is a Sales Job

Ideally, freelance writers could sit and write to their hearts content. Words would flow from their souls, through their arms, directly to the page. In a dream world, this would be enough. But in the real world, freelance writers have another job to do: sales.

I'm not one who minds the sales job that comes hand-in-hand with freelance writing. I don't mind researching markets, writing queries, pitching ideas and writing on spec. I'm okay with getting assignments, and will revise a piece to an editor's satisfaction, though sometimes their vision is not quite what I had in mind. Still, it's all a part of the process.

But when the sales job turns into a bill-collector's job, that's when I wonder whether I have the thick skin required for freelancing.

Whenever I hear someone's false illusion that writing is an easy way to make a lot of money, I know that they have never set out to be a writer. That scenario is as fictional as a fairy tale. I wish it were so. I wish I could just sit down, whip out a masterpiece, and sit back while the money rolls in.

Instead, I get a glimmer of an idea. I let it ferment for a while. I do a little research to see whether what I want to write has already been written. I research the markets to see where it might sell. Then I craft a query, pitching my ideas and selling myself as the person to write the piece. I sit back and wait for a response, and hopefully a contract, while my enthusiasm for the piece slowly begins to wane and I dream up other article ideas.

With any luck, a contract comes through the mail (or email). It specifies a certain length, a deadline, and the terms of rights the magazine wants to acquire. I eagerly sign and return the contract, then sit down and try to remember what I thought I'd wanted to say, because it's been months since I sent the query, and the notes I took and the draft I wrote back when the idea was fresh, are now a little stale.

I tweak the piece, revise my words, pass it around to family and friends for review. I check again to see whether what I'm saying has already been said. I do a little more research, finish my revisions, and send it in. The editor may or may not ask for changes. I may or may not ever hear from the editor again.

Then the LONG waiting game begins. It may be months or even a year before my piece is published. The original publishing date may have changed, and it's unlikely that anyone at the magazine will tell me. I just have to keep my eyes open and wait until that glorious day when my byline is finally included in the publication. Then I get paid. (Sometimes I am paid when the contract is signed. More often, it's after publication.)

So months, possibly years have elapsed and I'm just now getting paid for my work. I send in my invoice, billing them for the agreed-upon terms, and wait again. This is when I start to hate the freelancing life. Because how long are you supposed to wait before you have to start following up, pestering editors to pay you? Wondering when you're finally going to get paid?

That's the part of freelance writing I hate. I don't mind being a salesman. I'll sell myself and my writing because it's part of the job. But I hate, absolutely HATE, being a bill collector.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Forces Beyond Her

Nina let the force of the machine press her back against the hot metal. The ride began to spin, whirring loudly as the engines revved and momentum built. They spun faster and faster until Nina felt her muscle control release. Her feet were forced back against the grate. Her legs were locked into straight lines. She held on tightly to the hand rails as the round pen began to tilt, turning onto its side as its passengers shrieked and laughed. She'd been waiting for this.

Nina let the weight of her body rest against the bars behind her as physics took over. She could turn her head to the side, but not forward. Forces were against her. She let go of the bars and let gravity play. They were perpendicular to the ground now. She swayed with the movement as her body swirled to the top of the rotation, then was slammed back as they circled toward ground.

Nina watched the little girl across from her. A diametric opposite. Just as Nina felt involuntarily trapped in place, the little girl was in the midst of free movement; laughing, giggling, trying to raise her feet off the ground and let her knees form a triangle in space. Nina had no such urge.

She closed her eyes and let the white noise of being vacuum-packed fill her head. The play of sunshine and darkness filtered through her eyelids. The other passengers continued their intermingling laughter and screams while Nina surrendered to the forces pressing her against the metal cage behind her. Everything was beyond her control right now; she couldn't free herself even if she tried. She smiled. Finally, release.

Thursday, July 28, 2011


The only real reason to travel to Hell, Cayman Islands, is to pose in the devil cut-out
and to send a postcard to your frenemies saying,
"Wish You Were Here!"

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Celebrating at Breakfast Time

The Nibble (specialty foods magazine) says that July 27th is National Creme Brulee Day. Thank goodness I had some creme brulee creamer in my refrigerator. I started celebrating as soon as I woke up.

Once the coffee hit, I started to wonder how these crazy "holidays" are decided? So I looked into it. A true federal holiday (not national, as we commonly call them) is an act of Congress. There are currently 11 federal holidays, legally applicable to federal employees and the District of Columbia. If these holidays were to become national, that would be binding to all 50 states.

To form any other kind of "Day", you really just need a group to back you and a way to promote it. You can even copyright your day, if you want to take it that far. But for the most part, special days declared by special interest groups are one-offs celebrated once or twice by a small group of people before they're forgotten altogether.

I'll toss my hat into the ring. I would like to make today "Julie, You Can Go Home From Work" day. The only calendar I need to get this on is my company's. Naturally, with it being a holiday, I would still get paid.

So, I proclaim today "Julie, You Can Go Home From Work Day!" If your name is Julie, celebrate with me.

Happy National Creme Brulee Day to the rest of you!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Cast of Characters at Every Preschool Performance

"Synchronized" is not in the vocabulary of preschoolers.

I don't care if it's a dance recital, concert, or simply a recitation of the alphabet; if you put a group of preschoolers on a stage, they will each assume one of the following roles:

The Prepared Kid - there's one in every group. This is the child who has actually paid attention, remembered his/her lines, and even practiced by performing for her parents at home. Every now and again, take a glance at this child so that you get some idea of what they're supposed to be doing.

The Pop Quiz Kid - there are often several of these kids. They stare at the Prepared Kid as though they'd never seen him before. Songs to sing? What songs? Recital? Wha-- what?? Are they even supposed to be on stage??? This expression is sure to be repeated over the next twelve years of school.

The Stage Fright / Separation Anxiety Kid  - This kid has to be gently pushed onto stage. Almost immediately, he turns his body away from the crowd until he spots his parents in the audience, waving and smiling encouragement. His hands turn into fist-shaped eye patches. He rubs his eyes furiously while he cries, sure that he will soon be taken off stage. He won't. There are two more songs to perform and he's about to learn: The Show. Must. Go. On.

Old Yeller - Ah, another kid that is actually prepared. He knows the words to the songs. All of them. He'll prove it. He'll yell them out. Melody? What melody?

The Peep Show Kid - If it's a girl, she'll raise the front of her dress. If it's a boy, we'll see his belly. It's all part of the show, folks.

The Prop Master - Put reindeer antlers on this kid and he's sure to play with them through the whole performance. She'll wave her cardboard sign-on-a-stick through the whole song, if you'll let her. The boy in the back is too busy pulling his halo on and off to pay attention to anything else going on. And now the kids standing next to him are totally enthralled with what he's doing. Only Old Yeller is still performing at this point. That's why preschool teachers know that they can't hand out jingle bells until it's time to sing "Jingle Bells."

Madonna - Despite the fact that this is the first time any of these kids have been on stage, one kid in the group knows that at the end of a performance, you take a bow. So she does. Again and again, while her classmates file off stage. But there's going to be one Wannabee Madonna who hurries back onstage to take her bow, too. Keep your cameras out, Folks. The show isn't over until the preschool teacher drags them all off stage.

You've just experienced a virtual preschool performance. The real thing is even better. Enjoy them while they last.

The End

Monday, July 25, 2011

Vacation Digs

My favorite rental house to date: The house with a view in San Francisco.

About six years ago we travelled to Maine and decided to forgo hotels and instead rent a cabin. It was a decision that forever changed the way we travel.

Since then, if we have more than three people and are staying more than three days, we always find a place to rent. What we've come to appreciate is that:
  • We have space to spread out and do our own thing after a day of activities or sightseeing.
  • Unlike in a hotel, we don't have to all call it a night at the same time and turn off the lights and TV so that everyone can try to sleep.
  • We don't have to eat out morning, noon, and night. We very often cook a few dinners when we rent apartments or houses, and always eat in for breakfast. It's saved us time and money.
  • We no longer need to call from one room to the other, seeing what the other people in our party are doing, or whether they're ready. We can just hang out in the living room, dining room, or kitchen and make ourselves at home -- because we're in a HOME.
  • The apartments, condos, townhouses, cabins and houses are less expensive than booking two hotel rooms each night.
Most of all, we find incredible places to stay and usually wish we could live in the vacation homes we rent. So, where do I find these?  On (Vacation Rentals By Owner),, and Sweet Paris Home. Though I always feel a little nervous about signing the rental agreement, forking over a refundable security deposit and figuring out the procedures for collecting the keys, we have always had great experiences. We have yet to be dissatisfied or to encounter a problem.

Renting accommodations is certainly not for everyone, but it's changed the way my family travels. Now, finding a place to rent is simply part of planning a trip.

We loved this yellow kitchen at the house in San Antonio, Texas.
Our townhouse in Washington, D.C.

Our rustic cabin in Maine.

View from the loft and the very unique staircase in our modern Paris apartment.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

My Michael Phelps Love Affair

This week, I continue my adoration of Michael Phelps. My husband likes to accuse me of being in love with him, but that’s ridiculous. I’m old enough to be his mother. Which is kinda the point.
Like most of America, I did fall in love with Michael Phelps during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. I enjoyed watching him swim, but even more, I craved watching his interactions with his mother, Debbie. I lived vicariously through them and felt her joy each time her son broke another record or won another Gold. They were my substitute mother-son relationship that summer since I couldn’t watch my own son pushing himself to his limits. While Michael swam in Beijing, my son Mac was completing boot camp in Texas. But that wasn’t televised.
I have to mention that Mac and Michael look quite a bit alike. I think Mac is much handsomer, of course, but their height, build, hair, and facial features are pretty similar. So while I watched Michael Phelps swim, it was easy to picture Mac. They have another strong commonality: they were both raised by single mothers, and that changes boys in a way I can’t explain. Mac and I shared the same close bond that Michael and Debbie shared. I truly believe that if Mac had been swimming in the Olympics and won a medal, he, too, would have jumped out of the pool and sought me out in the audience. I don’t think I’m fooling myself. It made so much sense to me. Debbie had witnessed every other event in Michael’s life; naturally, he would want to make sure that she’d witnessed those, too, and wanted to share his triumphs with her. I was mesmerized by that, and so, so envious.
Like I said, I lived vicariously through them. I couldn’t even imagine what Air Force boot camp in Texas was like that August. I knew the heat was suffocating. I knew the intent of basic training was to break the men down and build them back up. I knew that Mac’s individuality would be snuffed enough to make him a uniform airman. But I didn’t know how he was handling it all. Was it as grueling as the movies made it out to be? Was he being pushed to his limits? Had he succeeded? Had he failed?
I didn’t know. I only got the briefest of letters from him that the Air Force mandated they send. Index cards, actually. And they told me nothing. So I turned to Michael and Debbie and dreamed that Mac was proving himself to the United States military and himself. When the anthem played for Michael, it also played for Mac. When Michael hugged his mother, I mentally imagined Mac hugging me. I fell in love with Michael and Debbie that summer. And this week, I get to watch him swim again in the FINA World Championships.
Mac did succeed in boot camp. In fact, he loved it. He even considered becoming a drill instructor himself someday. At the end of August we flew to Texas for the graduation ceremony. He stood proudly in the Texas heat and earned a coin that I equated to Olympic Gold. I watched him and knew exactly how Debbie felt: that she was proud of her son for achieving something great, but was even prouder of the man he had become. I felt that, too, as the anthem played and my son was honored. Then they released the audience. Mac found me in the crowd and just like Debbie, I got my hug.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Mimi the Clown

Street artist Miguel Donvez has created "Mimi the Clown," as part of his rage against capitalism. Here's how he explains his art on his website:

After studying knife-throwing and as a failed tap-dancer I started to take an interest in the world of show business, circus and masks. By going to the SUPERmaRket, by watching TV, by listening to politicians and slaving away every day for a few euros I realised that the show went much further than the stage that used to fascinate me. It was everywhere. Everywhere!! With intelligent giraffes, elephants and poodles!! Zebra tamers, acrobats but above all clowns. A countless number of ClowNs, everywhere! Wooooow, isn’t (real) life magic!

6 and a 1/2 years of internments as well as of exhibitionS in every clinic in France later AND still I go on PAINTING. Painting that is intentionally miLITAnt, offhand and concession free ($$$$).

Oddly, everytime I look at this picture, the song "Send in the Clowns" starts playing in my head with a whole new macabre twist. Like calliope music on a warped record.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Tour of the House

A room in Les Maison Victor Hugo at Place des Vosges, Paris.

"Like it, Honey?" Victor asked his wife.

She studied the intricate details of the Asian artwork, the ornate carvings and the collection of plates. Victor stood next to her expectantly. She nodded her head and smiled. "I do, Victor. It's wonderful."

Victor clutched her elbow and led her to the next room. Another green room with heavy brocade greeted her. She quickly cooed, "Beautiful," as he led her into their master bedroom: a deep, red room with an intimidating four-poster bed.

They stood there, close, staring at the dark, heavy furniture. Victor gazed at his wife while she let her eyes adjust to the dimly lit bedroom. She did not think she'd spend much time here. The red walls and ceiling were overpowering, but she knew Victor was especially proud of this room. She turned her face to him and smiled. "It's beautiful. The whole place is beautiful, Victor. You did a wonderful job decorating."

Victor beamed and turned his wife's body so that it was facing the far wall. He unfurled his arm and grandly pointed toward the high desk set against the wall.

"And here," he said proudly, "Is where I will write. I have an idea for a story set near Notre Dame..."

This is Victor Hugo's desk, where he stood and wrote. It was well worn.
Unfortunately, none of the pictures I took in the red rooms turned out very well.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Guest Post: It's Not Whether You Win Or Lose

by JoJo McGuire

I want to be Mia Hamm.
I want to teach math in third grade.
I want to… (insert female hero of the day)
It is amazing to look at my daughter and see how her goals and dreams change based on a positive female role model that she has encountered or seen.  One minute she wants to be her favorite teacher and the next she is emulating the latest soccer moves that she watched. That is one goal that never changes, her goals always involve soccer. (Either being a professional or just playing for the heck of it on a team. She always includes the sport into her plans. “Do they have soccer at Stanford, Daddy? What about Miami?”)
Last year I was able to take her to see an actual MLS soccer game. We jumped into the car, drove for two hours and took to our seats in the stands, right as the rain started, and continued for the remainder of the game. She did not care, she just sat, enthralled and captivated by the lights, stadium and the tiny specks of people down on the field. She studied their every moves, cheered for her team and was upset when they lost.
 Flash forward to the next day…
“Do you want to play soccer?” She dribbles the ball through the house and into the back yard, immediately attempting to fix the broken goal that we use (and fix) every day. Blonde hair bouncing as she sets her jaw and begins dribbling towards it, trying to use a move she saw the previous night to fake out an imaginary opponent. She continues to try to incorporate the moves witnessed the previous night into her game. When corrected, or it is suggested  to use the moves she knows, she argues that she is just doing what comes naturally and she is not trying to act like they did. (She is. I can remember emulating my sports heroes and trying to be like them. I wanted to be John Elway, Steve Prefontaine.) We play on.
Fast forward to the past month. FIFA Women’s World Cup. We had watched all of the men’s World Cup last year, every single televised match. We tried to watch as much of the women’s as we could as well. I wanted her to see the women in action. It is all good and well to love a sport but you need the role models as well. I am a strong believer that girls need strong female role models that match their interests. Not just the Miley Cyrus or Brittany Spears that all girls try to emulate. (And, I might add, who continue to show that they should not be role models.) But actual role models with character regardless of what field, sport or occupation they are in.
 Enter Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan, Shannon Boxx, Megan Rapinoe, Hope Solo and all the others. For the past month, she was able to watch these women pull out win after amazing win and compete in the finals. For 120+ minutes on Sunday, she sat on the couch between her mother and me, studying every move, telling me to quit complaining and watch the game, supporting “her” team even as they lost in penalty kicks.
“Dad, they did the best they could. They did not give up and they tried.” No mention whatsoever that they lost. She knew it and did not need to state it. Intelligent observations for a ten year old.
She is right. They did. There was not the rolling on the ground as she witnessed the previous year during the Men’s games (stall tactics, constant posturing, frowning, yelling and arguing). These women played with their hearts and souls. I enjoyed watching her as she studied the game, smiling when they did over a shot that went high, shrugging and smiling at the refs, smiling and having fun. Smiling.
As the final kicks were taken and bubbles burst, she turned to me and said, “Do you want to play soccer? I am going to be Hope Solo.” 
She grabbed her ball and headed out into the 95 degree heat. Who was I to hold her back? I am just glad that she got to see the match. Hopefully, as she gets older and decides whether to play or not, she does not just emulate their moves on the soccer field. Hopefully she emulates their attitudes as well. The attitude that even if you  lose, you can still have fun, laugh at your mistakes and enjoy the game while it is happening.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Zoo Haiku

On display at the Cincinnati Zoo

Stephenie Meyer's
Coupling of opposites?
Absurd! laughs Aardwolf.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


A view toward San Jose, Costa Rica.

"We're so far away," Selena sighed. "It looks pretty from here."

Miguel rested his hand on her knee. A balmy night breeze whispered against their skin as they sat atop the mountain waiting for their overheated engine to cool down. Miguel listened to the symphony of crickets and boisterous frogs. In the village he only heard donkeys and chickens. He was sick to death of farmyard animals. He snuck his arm around Selena and pulled her closer to him for a kiss. "We can go back if you want to."

Selena leaned into him, relishing the warm feel of his skin against hers. It was easy to imagine that life could always be this perfect: a beautiful view, a wonderful boyfriend. Then the snap and pop of the engine behind her transported her back down the mountain where she was one of three sisters who were charged with cleaning rooms, cooking, and doing laundry at her father's ramshackle guesthouse. They worked morning til night, always scrubbing and scraping the relentless dirt.

Selena looked back down at the city. So pretty at night, from far away. She tilted her head and nuzzled Miguel's neck. "No. Let's keep moving."

Monday, July 18, 2011

Lucy in Paris

As I've previously mentioned, I am a huge fan of I Love Lucy, as are my mother and daughter. So when we found oursevles in Paris at an outdoor cafe, we had to re-enact part of Lucy's French adventure episode. I ordered escargot intentionally, unlike Lucy, who had no idea what she was ordering in French. The waiter brought out our delectable dish and I almost -- almost -- asked him to bring me a bottle of ketchup like Lucy did. But I couldn't bring myself to do it. I was afraid he'd whisk my plate of snails away.

Luckily, I was with two fun-lovers who will do anything for a laugh, so they did re-enact Lucy's next stunt: they clamped the escargot tongs onto their noses just like Lucy did. Nearby I Love Lucy fans knew what they were doing, but to anyone else walking by, they just looked like crazy Americans.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The X-Y Connection

I once worked with a woman whom I had little respect for, mostly regarding her family life. Hers was so different than mine. She found ways to avoid going home; working long hours and speaking disparagingly of her sons. Both her high school senior and her college dropout sons were total screw-ups, in my opinion, and were greatly overindulged by this woman who had little parenting sense as far as I was concerned.

For instance, when her 17-year-old son got his third traffic ticket in six months, she reacted completely differently than I would have. If it were my son, he would have been grounded, his car would have been taken away, and I doubt I would have let him drive for the next year. That might have been just the beginning. But what did she do? She hired a lawyer for him since he decided to plead 'no contest.'

When the same son was put on academic probation for bad grades AND plagiarism, as a parent I might have again grounded him, taken away every bit of entertainment and joy that he extracted from electronic devices, and sat on him until he did his work and got his grades back up. My son can attest to this. He now jokes that he's such a strong reader because he only got to watch a few hours of TV during high school since I was never happy with his grades.  But her son? He got sent to Spain for two weeks to "get a new perspective on things."

I think his "new perspective" probably matched mine: he would never suffer any real consequences for any of his actions.

So when my co-worker came into work with a new iphone and said she'd bought each of her sons one, too, I shouldn't have been surprised. But I was. She'd been telling me for the past month that her sons weren't even speaking to her. And now she'd rewarded them with iphones? I just shook my head. She explained that she hoped it would bring them closer and then she started talking about "Angry Birds." She said that she started playing it since her sons did and now they had something to talk about. I found that incredibly sad.

But then my son moved away. I'd always enjoyed a close relationship with him and missed him terribly. We emailed each other and talked by phone, but over time, those calls and emails became more infrequent. Then I got an iphone. (He'd already bought one for himself years ago.) I didn't think it was any big deal; I certainly didn't think it would bridge the gap between our generations, but then he started asking me if I played this, or I played that. I resisted at first, but then started texting with him, sending pictures randomly during the day, and playing "Hanging with Friends" with him. Suddenly, I started to see how my co-worker had found this to be a bonding opportunity with her sons.

I'll never been as "connected" as my Gen Y children, but I've made a lot of progress in the past year. I am finding fun ways to connect with them both in their digital worlds. I almost want to apologize to my co-worker for judging her parenting skills so harshly, but I can't. I still have little respect for how she's raised her kids. I have a feeling that "Angry Birds" is pretty much the breadth of their bonding. I am grateful that I have relationships with my own children that go beyond that. But playing games online with them is fun, too. Maybe I'll text her a quick 'thx'.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Odd Traffic Sources

Another picture of the "giant crabs" I wrote about.

It always interests me to see what search words bring people to my blog. Most are pretty straightforward, but sometimes weird combinations show up in my Traffic Sources. I jotted down a few of the ones I thought were fun and share them here with you.

adam richman skinny legs slurred speech
Wow. I did write about hearing Adam Richman of “Man vs. Food” speak, and included his joke about skinny jeans, but this searcher seems to have been looking for some celebrity dirt. Sorry -- I didn’t dish any out.

bathroom spying spyware
So, so many searches that included words about ‘bathroom spying’ led people to my blog. It’s a little scary how many people want to learn how to spy in bathrooms. My blog titled “Bathroom Spying For Dummies” must have been a HUGE disappointment.

feet tickle sticking out
I thought these words were pretty weird search criteria. I highly doubt that the person searching this (who I can’t help but picture as a foot fetishist) wasn’t really looking for my account of spending the night ghost-hunting at Waverly Hills Sanitorium.

does it smell in Nicaragua
Why yes, it does. That’s exactly what my blog was about. Hope I answered this searcher’s question.

history of tuesday mary go round pic
Another weird search combination. I don’t know whether the searcher was looking for the history of Tuesday? Mary? Mary Go Round? (Did he really not know it’s Merry Go Round?). Regardless, I don’t think he found what he was looking for in my travel piece about the Merry Go Round Museum in Sandusky, Ohio.

attire to national chemistry week
This search made me giggle. What does one wear to National Chemistry Week? Lab coats? I was simply writing about hating high school Chemistry.

another name for mother in law
Dangerous search here. But my use of the phrase “another name for mother in law” was just part of a fictional story about a manipulative woman who was based on a real person, but NOT my mother-in-law!

giant crab attacks human Australia
Yikes! I wrote a fictional story about this. Did it really happen?

Friday, July 15, 2011

A Day Too Beautiful To Waste

"Get off the couch and go outside. You're not going to sit inside and waste this beautiful day!"

Lisa protested, reluctantly unfolding her legs from beneath her. She slowly rose from the couch, still holding her book open in front of her face even as her mother pushed the vacuum closer and closer to Lisa's feet. The rubber bumper of the machine kissed her heels and Lisa stumbled forward. "Go!" her mother commanded again.

Lisa tucked a 'Hang In There' kitten bookmark into her book and gave the novel one last lingering glance before she resignedly put on her shoes and opened the back door. The heat hit her immediately, as did the brightness. She heard her mother's vacuum roaring furiously in the next room now and closed the door behind her. She stepped off the stoop directly into the sunlight.

The meadow before her buzzed with frenzied insects. Just looking at the tall grass made Lisa itch. She shielded her eyes with her hand and peered through the blinding sunshine for a spot in the shade. She trudged toward the tree and checked the bark for spiders. A few ants diligently scurried along the bark, but Lisa didn't see any spiders. She dropped to the ground and sat in the shade, careful to keep her back from touching the tree.

She stared out into the meadow before her. What was she supposed to do? She wished she'd brought her book outside. She could have read in the shade, but she knew her mother expected her to play. Don't waste this beautiful day, she said every time it was sunny. Lisa grew to hate sunny days. Always forced to partake of eye-aching sunshine that produced quick sunburns and heat rashes, Lisa equated summer days with guilt. She never enjoyed them and ended up 'wasting' every one. She much preferred the low-key expectations of rainy days in fall when she didn't waste a single minute sitting outside under a tree, but stayed inside near a window, reading her book.

Thursday, July 14, 2011


I am always overwhelmed by the role that Ohio played in the history
 of slavery. The Margaret Garner story and factual information about a resort
near Xenia that Dolen Perkins-Valdez fictionalized in "Wench" are just two instances.

In the Author Interview at the end of her debut novel Wench, Dolen Perkins-Valdez explains what inspired her to write the book:

I was reading a biography of W.E.B. Du Bois and, during a section about his tenure at Wilberforce University, came across a stunning line about the existence of a summer resort in Ohio that was popular among slaveholders and their enslaved mistresses. I could not get this idea out of my head. I had so many questions...

Unable to find answers or any records of the slave women who "vacationed" at the resort, Perkins-Valdez instead turned to fiction. The result was absolutely captivating. I could not put this novel down. Like the author, I was fascinated by the idea of a resort where slaveholders took their concubines. It seemed such a contradictory concept; I often had trouble wrapping my mind around it as I read.

Then Perkins-Valdez took it a step further: one of the slave women, Lizzie, is in love with her master, and cherishes these trips with him. I almost couldn't fathom it -- except that I could. It reminded me of so many women that passed through the domestic violence shelters where I worked. Those who don't understand the cycle of violence and all the intricacies of abusive relationships often throw up their hands and wonder why battered women don't just leave. They see it as a simple solution to a very complex situation. I saw that parallel in Wench.

In fact, the dilemma of whether or not Lizzie will escape her situation is one of the themes in the book. She is brought to Ohio, a free state, and is allowed liberties that give her the chance to make an escape attempt. But again, like the women I've encountered in the shelters, her love for her abuser/master cannot be so easily overlooked. Nor her fear of the unknown and the risks involved. Plus, they have children together; children she is hoping that he will free rather than keeping as the slaves they are raised to be.

I am not minimizing the atrocity of slavery. I know that there was no choice in the matter. Likewise, I am not saying battered women are slaves. I just simply saw these parallels in the dynamics of Lizzie's relationship with her master, Drayle.

I won't delve into the triangular relationship that Lizzie and Drayle's relationship caused with his wife, Fran. But that was equally confounding with its many gray areas. The author did a fantastic job with Fran's character.

The novel was absolutely riveting, not just because the storyline and writing were top notch, but because it was based on that scrap of fact that Perkins-Valdez could not let go. There was an actual resort near Xenia, Ohio. Slaveowners and their mistresses did travel there. So little was documented about it that we can't ever know what it was like for those slaves ("wenches") that were brought there. But I am satisfied with the picture Perkins-Valdez paints. As unimaginable as it seemed, her portrayal of it was real enough for me.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Writing Myth?

Picture this:
A frustrated writer stares at the blank piece of paper taunting him from his typewriter. He furiously types a few lines, slamming the return bar in his rush to finish his thoughts. Sated, he peers at the page in front of him and re-reads his work. He frowns. Then he rips the page from the machine, crumples it up, and tosses it toward an overflowing wastepaper basket.

Can you picture it? A tortured soul with writer's block. So cliche.

Isn't it???

I thought about taking a picture of an overflowing wastepaper basket to put with this blog post, but I don't have one. I've never had one. I do have a picture of empty dumpsters, and actually found that more fitting because I don't believe I have ever thrown away my work. I can't even imagine it. I can relate to writer's block, and dissatisfaction with the words I've put on paper, but I can never bring myself to throw my writing away.

Is it just me?

I will cross things out. I will scribble notes, draw arrows, and even write questions to myself in the margins of my pages. Then I file those papers, save those document files, or tuck away those notebooks. I've got filing cabinets and computer folders full of bad writing. I probably could fill a dumpster. Except that I'm a hoarder. I can't let go of those scraps of paper. I always think that there must be something in there. I must have been trying to say something, and maybe someday I'll want to come back to it and revise it/fix it/flesh it out.

I can't help but wonder if the image of the writer with discarded balls of paper all over his desk and office is just a myth. My wastepaper basket is empty. Is yours?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Doggie Wisdom

"Gather around, Puppies. I have lessons to teach you." Dakota panted heavily. The walk over the hillside had winded him. The arthritis in his hips was getting worse. He wouldn't make many more trips to the creek, he feared. Before him, Bandit and Sissy Sue frolicked and romped. They rolled around in a clumsy ball of fur while Dakota tried again to get their attention.

"Puppies. Stop. I have things to tell you." The two siblings lay still for a moment, completely entangled. Dakota continued.

"Your real father isn't here to teach you, but there are some things every dog should know. First, don't do any tricks until you see the treat. Got it? Smell the treat, then do the trick. Humans need to be trained right from the start.

"Secondly, when you bury a bone, wait at least three months to retrieve it. You want it to get moist and soften up. Let the worms do some work. When you think you're just about to forget that you even hid a bone in the first place, that's the time to go find it. Trust me, the longer you leave it buried, the better it will taste."

Sissy Sue licked her chomps. She liked all this talk about treats and bones.

"Last but not least," Dakota imparted, "Don't follow the beavers down the creek. They're mean and they don't have anything you want anyway. Stick to shallow water. That's where the best rocks are. Wade in a little bit until you step on a rock that feels big enough to sink your teeth into."

Dakota closed his eyes as he mentally savored a creek rock. Sissy Sue sniffed in the direction of his mouth. She loved rocks and Dakota often had rock-breath. She breathed in the fumes and waited for Dakota to finish. But Bandit, who was not quite the foodie that Sissy Sue was, tackled her again. He'd listened to Dakota, but now he wanted to play.

Sissy Sue rolled beneath him. She nipped at his ear and imagined it was the tender weathered bone that Dakota talked about. Dakota watched her and then lay down his head. He'd done all he could. They'd grow up to be whatever types of dogs they would be. He'd shared his wisdom and that was all he could do. It remained to be seen whether the old dog could teach these puppies new tricks.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Guest Post: Belly Laughs & Belly Dancers

by Joann Storck

What could create more belly laughs than a bunch of 60 and 70-somethings dressed in exotic belly dancing garb hoofing around the dance floor, facing an entire wall of floor to ceiling mirrors? 

My wonderful group of lady friends that I have known and worked with for over twenty years, are capable of finding any and every amusing situation for us to dive into.  A two-hour belly dancing session was just the latest laugh-in.  We also have a book club to keep up a modicum of respectability, though our Literary Ladies Book Club boasts that “Our book club can drink your book club under the table anytime!” with an upturned wine bottle and glass painted on the sign which hangs above the door of the current host.

Getting back to the belly dancing… one of the ladies in our group brought beautiful, bejeweled “caps” (for wont of a better word) that looked like ten Cleopatra impersonators had invaded the room.   Bev had actually bought them in Egypt on a trip there with her husband.  There were a few of us that didn’t “get it” that the long strings of beads would go in the back and the short ones on your forehead, so that misinterpretation began the belly laughs. 

Our instructor, Della, who moved like a Python, started the music and began with the basics of the hypnotic dance.  Let me say that while some in the room were better than others, no one moved like her.  The coins on her hip scarf bounced and tinkled and drew gasps from her appreciative audience.   She had grace; she had great timing and moved her hips like a seesaw, only faster!  The mysterious, hypnotic music filled the room and our eager hips twitched in anticipation to begin this dance of seduction!  Della stopped her dancing to instruct us on what we had just seen her do.  You would have to imagine this bloom-off-the-rose group, some with knee problems, arthritic fingers, one with a new hip, and one with steel rods and pins in her back trying to appear liquid and alluring.  The sight of us in the wall of mirrors set up a howl that passed down the whole row of gals.  The “cap-things” had dipped over our faces and two hip scarves lay on the floor tangled in feet. 

She introduced us to the veils.  Who knew there were so many moves and meanings with those gossamer yards of silk?  Everyone loved them and secretly compared herself to Salome.  We veiled our faces and became fascinating as we wrapped them around ourselves and crossed them in the air in a captivating maneuver that, along with the right configuration of hands above our heads, framed our faces and necks as we began the “walk-like-an-Egyptian” trick.  No one in our group could master the side-to-side motion, so we all walked like Canadian geese.
Della held her veil in front of her with arms extended.  She said we could “move seductively forward into your veil”, then quickly back up so the veil is no longer hugging your body.  At this point there was some “tooting” from the gals, but the in and out action of the veils quickly dispelled any lingering odor. 

No one could believe that 1-1/2 hours had passed since we had started this fun.  Well, perhaps Della could.  She invited us to sit and have refreshments while we got our second wind.  We all found a chair and drank tea and lemonade and ate her unusual phyllo dessert.  Della sat in the middle of the floor and we bombarded her with questions about herself and about her belly dancing.  She agreed to put all the moves together and give us a show of what we could look like.  She was adorable and lithe and rhythmic and everyone in our group knew that this was a good place to end the evening.  Creaks and grunts were heard as we rose from our chairs and turned in our costumes and wondered when, exactly, our muscles had turned to putty?  

Sunday, July 10, 2011

5 Things That Surprised Us On Our Trip To Paris

1. Everyone warned us that the French don't like Americans. But we encountered friendly Parisians everywhere we went. Our trip started out with a waitress who was not just friendly, she joked around with us and set the mood for our whole trip. The myth of the American-hating French was disspelled.

2. We'd imagined sitting at outdoor cafes, drinking wine as we watched Paris life pass by. But as it turned out, we liked the Belgian cherry beer Kriek better than wine and ordered it any time we saw it on the menu.

3. We ate at Parisian cafes at least once, if not twice a day, and discovered that their menues are mostly the same no matter what arrondisement we were in. You could count on three things dominating the menu: jambon (ham), bread (baguettes or tartines, which are open-faced sandwiches), and cheese. You could simply order a cheese plate if you so desired. We ate our fill of all three.

4. Walking along the Seine isn't as romantic as the movies would have you believe. It was usually littered, often smelled of urine, and was desolate more often than not. The only times we were nervous in Paris were when we walked along the river where many homeless seem to reside.

5. Some of the best sights aren't in the travel books. Our travel guide didn't include any information about the Biblioteque Nationale, which was right across the street from where we stayed. Once our Metro passes expired, we decided to check it out. We walked in and saw two enormous globes detailing the constellations. They were fantastic. There were floors full of conference rooms, lecture halls, and other informative displays. I wish we'd taken time to explore it earlier in our trip. Next time...

Saturday, July 9, 2011

That Smile

The lady certainly draws a crowd. We entered the Louvre just as it opened, and like the main attraction at an amusement park, everyone made a mad dash for the Mona Lisa.

She draws an estimated 6 million visitors a year, which makes it unfathomable tho think that someone managed to steal her, lifting her right off the walls of the Louvre on August 21, 1911. With glass protection and massive crowds, I doubt that will ever happen again.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Musical Paris

As much as we've been trying to make ourselves look European and not immediately stand out in a crowd as tourists, one thing always gives us away: we carry pockets full of coins and can't help tossing a few into the cups of the musicians we find everywhere we go in Paris.

We were only in Paris for an hour before we headed out to see the sights and boarded our first Metro train. Imagine our surprise, and delight, as an accordian player boarded, too, and began playing all "La Vie En Rose" and those French-sounding songs we associate with France.

Since then we've found music almost everywhere we go: on the Metro, in the stations, at Bastille Square, the Eiffel Tower, Sacre Coeur, etc.. We've heard guitars, accordians, harps, violins, drums, xylophones, and even a woman singing with a microphone and amplifier on the train. We love it. We walk around Paris feeling like we're in a movie with a French score. Others may walk by these wandering musicians and see them simply as beggars. Not us. We stop and drop a few clinking coins into their cups and hope that it's as joyful as the sound of their music to our ears.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Tour Eiffel

When you visit Paris, you have to go up the Eiffel Tower. It's an unwritten law, isn't it? But I must say, I've been to Paris twice now and this was my least favorite experience both times.

At the bottom of the tower is the biggest mass of tourists from all over the world that you are likely to ever encounter. At first, it's charming and thrilling being among such a mass of humanity. You listen to all the different languages and study all the different fashions. You try to guess where people are from. But then you get in a line to buy tickets and you start to dislike them more and more. They shove. They're rude. And you're surrounded by them for at least the next hour just to buy tickets.

After the hours-long ticket line, you get in line to go up the elevator and it doesn't matter that you've all just stood in the same line to buy tickets. It's suddenly every-man-for-himself all over and the pushing, shoving and cutting in lines begins again.

You smash yourselves into an overcrowded elevator with body odors from all over the world and ascend to the first platform. Few get off here. Most continue onto the second platform, where everyone finally breathes and the camera-frenzy begins. The views are spectacular. Spend as much time here as you can. If you're smart, you'll go ahead and start walking down the stairs now before the crushing crowds to come sour your whole visit.

But you can't go down now, can you? You have to go to the top.

Forget any type of order, consideration, or civility. The line for the elevator to the top is cut-throat. It brings out the worst in everyone and suddenly you understand how world wars start. This line will last close to an hour. By now, you've spent hours in one line or another trying to get to the top, where there is little space to look out at the same views you saw below.

The line to go down is chaos. There's little point in calling it a line. Pushing and shoving are the norm. Everyone seems in an even bigger hurry to get down than to get up. You can make enemies here.

One elevator down to the second platform. Then another to the ground. By the time your feet touch earth again, you feel ready to leave Paris entirely. But then you walk a hundred feet away and turn around. The tower is magnificent. You love it. It embodies everything you've ever dreamed about Paris, and like childbirth, you forget the pain of the experience.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

My Gargoyle

I've had a long love affair with this gargoyle. His portrait covers one of my journals. Sometimes I stare at him for inspiration and wonder what he's thinking; what he's seeing. I have loved him from afar, and yesterday, we finally met.

I climbed the 400 winding, spiral stairs to the observation platform of Notre Dame and there he was, waiting for me. I'd passed his brothers, cousins, and casual acquaintances. I knew he'd posed for the cameras of billions of visitors before me. But at last, he was mine.

I stared at him and he stared ahead. I looked at him while he and his friends gazed over Paris.

The gargoyle's view of Paris.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Eric Stonestreet

We're in Paris now, but on our last morning in Brussels we had a star sighting!

We were walking through the Grand Platz one last time, enjoying our Belgian waffles on a quiet Sunday morning when my husband suddenly exclaimed, "Oh my God! That's Cam!" (From Modern Family.) Cam was a few yards past us at that point, and we wondered if it was really him. Only one way to check. My mother yelled, "Eric!" and sure enough, he turned around. We waved to him and his wife. Then we watched them walk away down the street.

Suddenly, we realized the incredible coincidence of it all, so my husband ran down the street to get his picture. Cam and his drop-dead gorgeous wife couldn't have been more gracious. My husband told him what big fans we are of the show and asked to take his picture. Eric and his wife waved to the rest of us again, and offered to walk back to where we stood (starstruck), but my husband didn't want to intrude any more than we already had. So Eric insisted my husband pose with him, and his wife took their picture.

Needless to say, we giggled and gushed about it all day long. What a way to end our stay in Brussels!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Space Invaders

I think we found a piece of street art done by "Space Invader" as featured on Exit Through the Gift Shop. This is in the Montmarte area of Paris.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Atomium

The elaborate architecture of the Grand Platz in Brussels, medieval Brugges, and historic Ghent are all absolutely stunning. But after a week of feeling overwhelmed by the majesty of it all, my American-ness came out and I was relieved to go see something newer: the Atomium.

Designed for the 1958 World's Fair, the Atomium symbolizes an iron crystal, magnefied 165 billion times. It has nine silver spheres connected by 20 tubes and stands 102 metres high. Five of the nine spheres are open to the public, including the uppermost with a viewing platform and restaurant. From there we could see the mini-Europe park below and all of Brussels, old and new.

The cafe, the artwork, and even the souveneirs took us back to 1958 -- not 1258 or 1458 or 1758. I needed that leap back into more recent times. It was a breath of fresh air; an experience that is uniquely Brussels.

Now I'm ready for more history.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Manneken and Janneken Pis

One of Belgium's most famous statues is Manneken Pis -  a small statue of a boy peeing into a fountain. The inspiration is rumored to be that in the 12th century, the son of a duke was caught urinating during the midst of battle and the statue was erected in honor of Belgium's military courage. Another theory is that Belgium was on fire during battle and this little boy put out the fire by urinating, thus saving the country.

Whatever the history, you cannot help but spot images of Manneken Pis all over Brussels. He has been immortalized in chocolate, holding wafles, peeing into beer, expelling lemonade, etc., etc.. He is everywhere. To see the real statues, all you need to do is follow the crowd. A huge gathering always surrounds the small figurine tucked into the corner of a street.

What's even odder (to me), is that they dress the statue daily. He has more than 500 outfits donated by visiting heads of state. The outfits are on display in the Musee de la Ville, but I enjoyed just making a trek to Manneken Pis the past few days to see what the fashionable 17th century statue was wearing.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that there is also a female equivalent of the statue. Erected in 1985, the lesser-known girl is named Janneken Pis. But unlike Manneken, she is tucked into a dead-end alley near the popular Delirium Cafe, and she sits up behind bars where it's harder to get a good view. But I managed to capture her image. Here she is, in all her glory:

Too Much Wine

I hope this doesn't sound too mean-spirited. It was really all in fun. But I'm about to make fun of the sommolier who hosted a wine tasting I attended in Brussels. I can't help it. He was a Frenchman who seemed to take a sip of wine everytime we did -- which equalled four rounds of  "sampling" five or six wines each. We were all pretty tipsy.

At first, I was completely enraptured by the fact that I was at a wine tasting in Belgium. A real, live Frenchman was talking about French wines and it was suddenly all so accessible. This was the real thing. But the wine went to my head fast, and I soon became too amused by the sommolier's speech impediment(?) to learn anything about the wines.  He couldn't say his "r's". They came out like "w's" and it was a little too much like Elmer Fudd talking about wed wines and white wines and wealwy good westauwants.

He started out by bellowing, "You'we all dwinking poison! That's what wine is, you know."

That's the last message I paid attention to. I spent the rest of my time not to let the wed wine send me spiralling into giggles. Today I'm switching back to the Belgian cherry beer, Kriek. It's better tasting, and not quite so amusing.