Monday, December 31, 2007

Big, Fun, Scary

I love the new year.

It’s like the morning -- or a new piece of writing -- that stands ahead, wide-open and welcoming.

The possibilities are infinite.

Wanna read about some possibilities? Check out what the NaNoWriMo folks have put together at The Big, Fun, Scary Adventure Challenge (read the overview here). Then read the list of challenges people have taken up for themselves. Guaranteed, some will resonate as ideas for your characters.

Maybe even for yourself.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

888 Challenge

I’m taking the 888 Challenge: "Read 8 books each in 8 different categories in 2008."

It feels big -- 64 books! -- since I’ve read only ~45 books per year in each of the last 5 years. But my choices are well-screened: every book (except four) in the first 7 categories comes from my to-be-read shelves -- books I already own and am so excited about that I’d buy them again in a nanosecond.

And the best part? I left a whole category open for books I discover in 2008!

I’ll be posting updates ... accessible through the link on my blogroll.


Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman
Girl Sleuth by Melanie Rehak
I Could Tell You Stories by Patricia Hampl
Journal of a Novel by John Steinbeck
Letters to a Young Doctor by Richard Selzer
The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr
Under the Duvet by Marian Keyes
Waiting for Snow in Havana by Carlos Eire

I’ve Started and Want to Finish...
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
Story by Robert McKee
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

By My Favorite Writers
Airframe by Michael Crichton
Gold Coast by Nelson DeMille
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie
Talk Before Sleep by Elizabeth Berg
The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett
The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Holes by Louis Sachar
Inkheart by Cornelia Funke
Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

The Annotated Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott
The Man Who Tasted Shapes by Richard Cytowic
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
The Quantum Zoo by Marcus Chown
The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell
The Zen of Eating by Ronna Kabatznick
This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin

Short Stories
Ideas of Heaven by Joan Silber
Stories of Anton Chekhov
The Best American Short Stories 2007
The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel
The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver

On Writing
Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri
Dialogue by Gloria Kempton
Fingerpainting on the Moon by Peter Levitt
If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland
Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell
The Anatomy of Story by John Truby
The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler
Writing Alone and With Others by Pat Schneider

Discovered in 2008!
(all tba)

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Number 1,014

At 8 a.m. one week ago, at a Marysville, Washington Starbucks, a woman paid for her drink and then extended season’s greetings to the next customer in line by paying for that drink, too.

That customer did the same, as did the next, and the next, creating a pay-it-forward chain that grew through Wednesday and Thursday and involved 1,013 customers by Friday morning.

For now, put a pin in whether you think this kind of cheer chain is spontaneous or a corporate PR tactic. Instead, imagine a writerly interview with Customer #1,014 … conjure the story that led him or her to break the Marysville chain at 6:20 last Friday morning.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Say Yes

"Scales fell from my eyes" … a couple years ago when I learned that, in good improvisation, the actors always say yes to one another. Not a literal “Yes” of dialogue, but a creative Yes -- an agreement to openness; that whatever is offered from one actor is accepted, built upon, pivoted on, by the other. Saying yes moves the improvisation forward; otherwise, it dies.

Yesterday, while marinating on Astrapo’s comment about how to construct ideas, improvisation came again to mind. But how could a solitary writer use it to develop a story?

A few hours later, a writer-friend handed me Ron Carlson Writes a Story. Discussing first sentences, Carlson writes that, disregarding (during the writing phase) whether it’s good for the reader, a first sentence is good for the writer if it creates...

What I’ll call inventory -- there’s something in it. The writer David Boswell says it perfectly: “ ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ is not a terrible sentence from a reader’s point of view, but it is a terrible sentence for the writer because there’s no help in it. ‘Lightning struck the fence post’ is much better because there’s that charred and smoking fence post which I might have to use later.” I’m constantly looking for things that are going to help me find the next sentence, survive the story.
Say Yes to your drafts. More scales!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

On Storytelling

It's worth taking 5 minutes each to watch these four video snips on storytelling from Ira Glass, host and producer of public radio's (and now, premium cable TV's) This American Life:

#1 Components of story: action and reflection

#2 Finding the story ... trimming the story ... and (sigh) sometimes killing the story

#3 Pursuing through the it's-not-as-good-as-you-want-it-to-be phase

#4 Finding your voice and including others' voices

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


I’ll never again read about Hanukkah and be satisfied with a generic image from the term, “menorah.”

Nope, not since Dr. Dino shared photos of the literal works of art in his [my favorite!] menorah collection.

He defines the relevant terms and orders them from general to specific: candle-holder, candelabra/menorah, hanukiah. A writer always likes specific words best. But as Dino’s photos show, even “hanukiah” is far, far, far from specific.


Saturday, December 8, 2007


From the xkcd blog: "Wikipedia’s entry on blogs, with everything that is not the word ‘blog’ (or a derivative thereof) removed."

Exaggerated, maybe, but something to think about: What do you do too-much-the-same-of in your writing?

[For a fun side trip, click on the picture to get a larger view, then let your eyes lose focus and cross -- as with those Magic Eye pictures from the '90s -- until you see the words in 3-D ... until they pop like John Nash's hallucinations in A Beautiful Mind.]

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Cluster Effect

In the first-season finale of The Gilmore Girls, a thousand yellow daisies were prelude to a marriage proposal.

What purpose might a cluster of something serve ... in your story?

Friday, November 30, 2007

Mr. Nice Guy

In a writers’ workshop, each participant chose a bunch of their favorite words and wrote a different one on each of a bunch of index cards. (A solitary writer could gather words by pointing blindly in a dictionary.) Then participants exchanged cards and used their new stack of words in a story.

My word stack:

My story:
Yeah, I like to please the customer, I like to get accolades from the boss. But what can I do on the jobsite when I’m halfway through pouring cement and snow starts falling -- those intricate little flakes that melt into drool all over my work? C’mon, do I have foreknowledge of the weather?

And right away, the obnoxious little lady-of-the-house comes tearing out the front door, her wrists loaded with those flashy bracelets that make her jangle like she’s wearing silverware. She barrels down the steps toward me and screams that her sidewalk’s ruined. I want to tell her it’s not even done yet! It’s gonna have perfect usability, she just needs to exercise a little patience. But she’s from that genre of female that should only come out after dark -- the kind that inspires me to forget my role as a nice guy.

I step aside and let the silly woman march right into the muck.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Three Day Dirty

Our Protagonist stands next-in-line for coffee and sees the blonde barista step back from the espresso machine. He watches her tug a scrunchie off her pony tail, run both hands across her scalp, shake out her three-day-dirty hair, then pull it into one bunch again and twist the scrunchie around it in a couple of figure-eights. In the moment it takes her to step to the bar again, he considers fleeing the line.

Too late! “Sir?” the cashier asks, and he reluctantly gives his drink order. While the cashier marks his cup, the barista impossibly steps back again and removes the scrunchie, fluffs her hair once, twice, three times, then leaves it loose. She reaches for a gallon of milk and a frothing pitcher. At the register, the cashier’s face startles when she meets our Protagonist’s eyes. He leans in. “Tell her to wash her hands!”

What happens next?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Road Trip

You're driving a rental car, a thousand miles from home, and come up behind a car like the one back home in your garage.

And not merely its model, you realize, but its identical twin.

You draw close enough to read the license plate. Your eyes widen.

What's the story?

Monday, November 26, 2007

Prompt Yourself #2

As I do periodically, I collected writing prompts yesterday by running through the TV channels and writing down the first sentence I heard on each.

I narrowed my list to the following dozen. Pick five or ten and let your subconscious connect them into a story.

How’s that harmonica solo coming?

I don’t want to say my vows with you.

I’ll forgive you if you want to use a fork.

I’m going to make the most of the daylight.

It’s all going to be done by e-mail.

Mom’s cooking sucks!

On an unrelated note, why don’t you take this pie?

One of my colleagues developed an instrument.

They laid sod over it.

We always follow state regulations.

Who cares about better blood-sugar control?

You remembered my name?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


My husband is certain: only Melvin Udall (below) and I pack like this.

So how can the TSA think a one-minute video will convert the traveling public?

Monday, November 19, 2007

No Na No

I’m not doing National Novel Writing Month this year, but when a fellow WriMo (hi Leo!) challenged me to race him to write 10,000 words over the weekend, I couldn’t resist. He’d work on his novel; I’d draft a short story I’ve been marinating.

Surely anyone who’s interested already knows about this annual novel-writing frenzy that includes 99,000+ writers in its ninth year this year. But as I wandered around the site yesterday, I peeked into its Young Writers Program (an off-shoot that supports independent writers age 12 and younger, and in-school writing programs in grades K-12) and noticed a couple things to mention here. One is the archive of writing prompts in the Writers Block (if you’re not up for fun, just the merest flip of a brain cell can turn silliness deliciously serious). Another is the downloadable Young Novelist Workbooks, which include NaNo founder Chris Baty’s not-to-be-missed Magna Carta premise -- that what you love most and hate most while reading novels are exactly what you should include and exclude, respectively (and will be easiest/hardest for you to write), in your own novels.

In the end, a weekend of high-velocity writing reminded me to turn off the editor and create ... forward, forward, forward; to "turn the camera out" occasionally (thanks Nancy Beckett!) and be amazed at the surprises a wide angle will capture; and that I need about 100 times more plot than comes easily.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Obvious Story ...

... is that the sock slipped off a baby's foot during a neighborhood walk, and whoever found it posted it in hopes the parents would reclaim it on their next walk.

But the sock is still there two weeks later.

So what's the not-so-obvious story?

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Location, Location, Location

A woman, stopped at a light on a 4-lane street, noticed the driver in the car alongside motioning for her to lower her window.

“Can you tell me where we are?” he asked.

She named the street and said they were heading northbound.

“No, no,” the other driver said. “What city and state?”

It really happened -- but what are the circumstances that would make it believable in fiction?

Reverse the genders and see what happens. Fiddle with the ages and see how your story changes.

[Inspired by a caller to the John Williams radio show.]

Monday, November 5, 2007

Mail Pouch

When I opened a letter today, the lining pulled away a bit from the envelope -- enabling something to be secreted inside between the layers.

What could be there … and what's the story?

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Addams Family Exorcist

The most horrifying movie ever? The Exorcist -- scary on the surface and profoundly disturbing deeper in.

Still, I'm drawn to watch it.

No, it's too intense!

This year, I stumbled on the perfect solution: audio and video of The Exorcist via my TV's smallest picture-in-picture window ... diluted by full-screen images of an all-day Addams Family marathon.

With a nod to Joey Tribbiani, who kept his copy of The Shining in the freezer.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Two Newspapers

A Sunday paper and a daily paper, unretrieved. What's going on?

My mind's first three possibilities are obvious or cliche: 1) the paper boy delivered to the wrong address; 2) the household residents are away; 3) they're ill or dead or being held captive inside the house.

My second three: 4) a neighbor planted the papers there; 5) a tornado dropped them from a distant city; 6) squirrels dragged them into position along an earth-energy line.

What's another possibility?

Monday, October 29, 2007

Decades Ago

Okay, I’ll consider myself tagged by Dr. Dino’s meme: What were you doing 10, 20 and 30 years ago?

My old day-planners let me drill down to the actual days and their surprising details.

30 years ago, I was 20 and in my third year of pharmacy school in Michigan. I’d had exams four days that week and had worked the other three in a hospital pharmacy. Always the least boy-crazy girl in the room, I’m shocked to see notations that “Steve called” and “Jerry called” and I “sat with Al at the library” (ah, I remember them all); and that I “saw John!” at a bar (he got an exclamation point then but now I have no idea who he was). My planner: Hallmark’s “A Woman’s Year” with two-pages-per-week spreads.

20 years ago, I’d been married a day shy of 2 months and there isn’t an entry in my planner for weeks in either direction of this date. I’d moved from Michigan to Chicago, leaving my apartment, friends, some nearby family, and my job as director of a hospital pharmacy. Probably, my days were filled with sex, errands, museums, parties, and generally getting to know Chicago before I looked for work after the holidays. But it had been a lot of change that never felt adequately acknowledged, and I’m freshly stunned to see my response reflected on page after blank page. I’m desperate to peek into the next year’s calendar to be comforted that life did quickly pick up again. My planner: The New Yorker Diary with two-pages-per-week spreads.

10 years ago, I was free of an abusive boss, but also out of a job I’d loved. Considering paths for the next half of my career life, I had coffee with a hospital exec, lunch with a non-profit exec, and bought an LSAT (law school admissions test) review book. (In the end, I rejected all three.) My planner: FranklinQuest (now FranklinCovey) Seasons, Classic size, two-pages-per-day spreads. My penmanship was beautiful--the only time in my life I can claim that.

Wanna play? Consider yourself tagged!

Thursday, October 25, 2007


When you can't get out to observe people and gather up prompts from their interesting backstories and current conflicts...

...the Internet can bring them to you via Found -- a peek inside people's lives through their found notes, lists, and stray papers.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A Million Words

"They" say that career-ending disaster strikes when someone is promoted up to their level of incompetence.

But I think it’s less a case of rising too far and more a case of just too fast.

Consider this, from Buzz Bissinger’s New York Times profile of Chicago Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood:

"Although the act of pitching a baseball repeatedly is exceedingly stressful, doctors now generally accept that it is not the act itself that causes injury nearly so much as pitching while fatigued. …

"The tried-and-true method of preventing young pitchers from throwing when they are fatigued has been to keep them on strict pitch counts in the minor leagues -- 100 pitches per game has become something of an industry standard. ... [But] pitch counts prevent young pitchers from learning to pitch while tired, to pace themselves during a game, to get out of jams without simply handing the ball to the bullpen. …

"Instead, too many young pitchers, particularly those who have attracted media attention, come up to the majors too soon and feel an obligation to go full bore all the time. They are constantly reaching back for extra velocity, and if they are doing it as fatigue begins to set in, the possibility of their arms breaking down only multiplies."

Similarly, in the New Yorker article Fallen Idols (abstract online), David Denby makes a case for the 20th century’s movie-studio contract system over today’s free-agency:

"Seventy years ago, these actors would have been tested in a variety of small roles or B-movies -- tested to see whether both they could act and whether the audience perked up when they came onscreen. They would have been allowed to grow slowly. Now they are thrown into big roles in expensive movies, and they’re forced to overdraw on themselves before their temperament has found the right shape. They don’t know the camera yet, and the camera doesn’t always find much in their faces."

Reading two such similar cautions should perk up writers to the message for our own work. We learn the craft of writing; then we need to stay buckled down, doing the daily pages -- practicing the techniques one by one and in combination, practicing them when we're fresh and through fatigue, and noticing the effects on readers.

"They" also say that it takes a million notes to make a musician.

And a million words to make a writer.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

But It Really Happened, Part 2

I live a generally careful life, unwilling to give too robust a test to the down side of karma. Fine. But then I need to at least give my imagination free rein ... to somewhere near the realm of things that happen, one after another, in real life.

We cynics get a bonus in the last paragraph.

We realists get smacked by the more somber reportage here.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Your Interesting Life

Inspiration from the November 2007 Shambhala Sun’s Q&A with director/writer/actress Miranda July (or treat yourself to her book website ) -- on what holds people back about making art from their lives:

There's not a lot of positive feedback, especially early on. You need people around you saying, “What happened to you today that was interesting?” You have to genuinely believe that there is something interesting and special about daily life and your experience of it. I think people feel this innately [… but …] you’re quickly told it’s self-indulgent or selfish or just so off topic.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Committed Co-worker

Prompted by the release of the film Michael Clayton,'s Juliet Lapidos writes that most anyone, including a co-worker, can petition a judge to involuntarily commit a person to psychiatric care.

So go on, indulge yourself. Draft the petition letter about some current or former co-worker.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Measuring Stick

This ruler seriously disturbs my brain.

Sci-fi and fantasy novelists could build worlds where its rules make sense.

But in my real world, when people's behavior seems as crazy-making as these markings, it's time to pay attention.

[Ruler is from a print ad for Accenture Technology Consulting.]

Friday, October 12, 2007

She Nodded

Characters tend to nod a lot in the first drafts of my stories. So I was delighted to hear Fred Shafer (scroll down) speak about gestures yesterday at the Off Campus Writers’ Workshop. His premise: gestures are useful not only in showing character and driving plot, but also -- during the story-drafting process -- in aiding a writer’s discovery of character and plot.

Shafer referenced Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer (Chapter 9) and echoed her advice to not use gestures merely to fill space on the page or as beats to alter the pace. But it’s no good to leave them out altogether, either.

Rather, writers must find the right gestures. They need to go beyond the first ones that come to mind -- the stereotypes, the cliches -- and be willing to discover the spontaneous / unusual / uncommon gestures that actually mean something ... that tilt the direction of an interaction (and maybe even the story) one way or another.

He acknowledged that it’s difficult for writers, alone at a keyboard, to think up gestures. So he suggested that writers be like actors, who observe people and then steal their gestures. He told of a director and actors in rehearsal, needing a meaningful gesture but not knowing what it should be. Eventually, the director called over a theater cleaning lady and offered her a sheet of paper. He got exactly the gesture he needed: before she took the paper, she wiped her hands on her uniform.

But what’s a writer to do without a notebook full of previously observed gestures, or someone upon whom to experiment? Use the imagination to experiment, Fred advised. Stay deeply within the scene and watch the characters. More importantly, watch them long enough -- often, what begins as a cliched gesture continues into something more telling. He offered examples from the short stories of Antonya Nelson to illustrate that staying with characters a moment longer leads to discovering unique details:

Abby grabbed Lucia’s hand and Lucia returned the squeeze.

Lucia leaned her head back, her throat moving with her last swallow.

“No,” she said, shaking her head, her hair loosening as she did so.

Edith put her face to his and kissed him, not on the mouth but around it, the way you might kiss an envelope containing a letter to your beloved

Monday, October 8, 2007

Morning Break

Quarterly Orkin pest-prevention service: $84.80.
Grande whole-milk latte: $3.68.
Side glass of ice-water: free.

An hour's escape to Starbucks to read The New Yorker while the house airs out: priceless.

Friday, October 5, 2007


I've been thinking about yesterday's post, which touched on my feelings about the preparatory stages involved in whatever I'm doing ... and my frustration when the preparations cause delays.

It reminds me of a passage from E. L. Konigsburg’s novel, "The View from Saturday", wherein sixth-grader Noah learns calligraphy from Tillie, a friend of his grandparents. But before the calligraphy, comes the intricate, six-step process of filling the old-fashioned pen with ink. Noah narrates: "When I told Tillie that six steps seemed a lot to have to do before you begin, she said, 'You must think of those six steps not as the preparation for the beginning, but as the beginning itself.' "

My frustration with delays leaks into writing, too, where progress is tracked mostly by word-counts or page-counts. It helps me to remember Jerry Weinberg's counsel that "Writing" involves many stages … and the "writing down the words" part is but one of them.

Good advice, both, which I am learning to follow.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Mending Kits

I traveled often in a previous job, and the only hotel freebies I routinely collected were shower caps and mending kits.

Last weekend, when I could no longer close the catch-all drawer of my bedroom dresser, I purged and reorganized its contents, including dozens of remaining mending kits. Those pictured here on the right surprised me in their sameness and now prompt some kind of story reminiscent of Groundhog Day.

But I remember the reverence I felt toward hotels that supplied the kits on the left, with their pre-threaded needles -- a requisite, I’d assumed, for male guests, and pure luxury for women. It’s not difficult to thread a needle (although I haven’t tried lately, with presbyopic eyes); it only requires a molecule of spit to seal the thread's flyaway end, and then a moment’s pause in breathing while the end is aimed to and through the eye of the needle. It’s the delay that frustrates -- the 10-second pause in the midst of getting on with things and out the door.

And now I notice the unique kit here -- with its 10 colors of thread and needle threader; buttons, needles and pearl-topped straight pins; scissors; and a tape measure! The tape measure -- a tailor’s tool, not a mender’s tool -- is what prompts this kit into its own story.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Pick 3

You have three pair of ladies' legs in your life, yes? What's the story?

Better yet, pick a pair from a woman in each of three different stages in your life and put them together on the sofa.

I remember a nun -- {{shudder}} school principal and my teacher in seventh and eighth grade -- whose legs looked like this, newly visible in the shorter-skirted habits that emerged in the late 1960s. I think I'll toss her into the mix.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

So Many Writers ...

… so little time. I can’t possibly listen to all of the web’s audio/video about what writers write and how they go about it. But I do check the following sites periodically and choose judiciously:

Amazon’s Amazon Wire

Barbara DeMarco-Barrett’s Writers on Writing

Barnes & Noble’s Meet the Writers

Penguin USA’s The Penguin Podcast

The Tattered Cover Bookstore’s Authors on Tour


Live (*note -- not recorded*) audio from Prairie Lights Bookstore’s visiting authors, streamed at WSUI online

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


I'm intrigued by class distinctions, for example the differences in accommodation among the various passengers aboard the Titanic. But comparing differences at the big-picture level of staterooms, or dining rooms, feels abstract and distant ...

... getting down to the details feels personal ... and a story begins.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Cover Story

Are you a writer who can develop the initial burst of inspiration from a visual prompt into a full short story?

Then take a look at this cover-art prompt for Ruins Metropolis, an upcoming anthology of mainstream and genre (science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance) stories.

See guidelines here. Submission deadline is October 31, 2007.

Friday, September 21, 2007


The thing I’m enjoying most about Jonathan Safran Foer’s ”Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” is the 9-year-old protagonist’s mission of talking with every person named Brown in New York City -- and its affirmation that an interesting life exists behind each anonymous face and closed door.

It reminds me of Steve Hartman's “Everybody has a Story” segments on CBS News. Hartman throws a dart at a US map to choose a city, then randomly opens a phone book there and chooses a person to interview. He invariably discovers a fascinating story.

It reminds me of The Oxford Project, wherein Peter Feldstein photographed every resident in the tiny town of Oxford, Iowa. Twenty-one years later, in 2005, he photographed the same residents again, this time accompanied by writer Stephen Bloom, who interviewed them. And hidden behind one ordinary face in this flyover-country town is Jim Hoyt: “… the last living of the first four American soldiers who liberated Buchenwald concentration camp.”

Novelist Orson Scott Card wrote, “If you look at somebody and think he or she is normal, that often means you don't know them well enough yet.” Gustave Flaubert wrote, “Anything becomes interesting if you look at it long enough.”

It just takes some excavating around the details.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

On the Edge

I'm a believer in method writing. Should you find yourself stuck about what a moment of panic feels like, here's inspiration.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Point of View

If you're not periodically checking out the sites on my Blogroll, you're missing interesting ideas ...

... and alternative views, like this one from Cute Overload.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Truth in Advertising

The quietest solicitor, ever, stood outside the coffee shop this morning.

In his forties, outfitted with a donation canister and an identifying tie-on vest, he held a neutral face mostly toward the cars passing on the street rather than to the people passing next to him on the sidewalk.

Inside, I waited for my latte and watched him pace slowly, a few steps this way, a few steps back that way. I wondered what charity he was (not very effectively) soliciting for, and when he turned, the lettering on the back of his vest answered: "Help Kids With Autism."

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Separated at Birth

Which is Archbishop Fulton Sheen (shown circa 1956 from an EWTN program) ...

... and which is vampire Barnabas Collins (shown circa 1967 from Dark Shadows)?

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Back to School

Schools in my suburb started a couple weeks ago, but Chicago-proper's first day was today. It influenced the small talk at my coffee shop this morning, and characterized the moms in line.

Barista: "Are your kids back in school?"

Customer #1: (smiles) "Yeah."

Customer #2: (answers via a solemn, silent nod)

Customer #3: (flips hair) "Two weeks already."

Friday, August 31, 2007


On this Labor Day weekend, I'm grateful that my Fridays aren't nights for exhausted celebration.

That the end of each workday isn't the happiest hour.

That Sunday evenings don't build into a feeling of dread.

I'm grateful to be a writer.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

A Talking To

I’d been out of touch with news over the past few days, so brought a little radio on my morning latte-walk. But just a couple of blocks into the walk, a noise drowned out my radio as if I’d turned the volume to mute.

I removed an earbud and looked around, finally catching sight of a grey squirrel perched in plain sight on a low tree branch ahead. He (she?) faced me directly and squawked ferociously.

Giving a passing thought to rabies, I kept my eyes on him as I approached. He didn’t scrabble around to hide behind the tree, as squirrels tend to do. Instead, as I passed, he moved around toward me, his body stretched forward like a pointer dog, his head extended tautly. Squared off, he continued to yell at me!

I’ve heard the cautions about human behavior: when you see something unusual going on, it’s likely a staged distraction away from something even more interesting ... like a pickpocket. Did humans steal this strategy from animals? Because, judging by that squirrel’s squawking, there must have been some kind o’ somethin’ he didn’t want me to notice. Maybe babies, out on their own?

I wish I’d thought to look anywhere but at him.

Thursday, August 23, 2007


In memory of my dad (who would have turned 90 today), I’m making clam linguine for supper.

I’ve adapted my recipe from his, which he adapted from “Enrico” - a friend, or chef, or restaurant; I don’t know which.

In retirement, Dad would spend an afternoon preparing the ingredients for this recipe -- mincing parsley, oven-drying then crumbling bread, shredding Parmesan -- until the countertop next to the stove was dotted with little measured dishes of each.

All his effort seemed impressive ... which confuses me now, since I mostly guesstimate the quantities, and consider this one of my go-to recipes when in a hurry for something at the last minute. I do use short-cuts -- packaged bread crumbs, pre-shredded Parmesan; sometimes even -- ack! -- dried parsley, though not tonight. And Dad would sip from a glass of bourbon or scotch while he prepared this recipe; I’ll pour chardonnay.

But when I lean over the skillet to breathe in the steam from garlic sauteing in butter, I’ll imagine us agreeing that it’s the best aroma in the world.

2 Tbsp butter
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 can (10oz.) whole baby clams w/liquid
Splash of white wine
1/2 cup frozen peas, thawed
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley
1/2 lb linguine (cooked, hot)
1/3 cup soft fresh bread crumbs
Shredded parmesan cheese, to taste

In large skillet, saute garlic in butter. Add clams (including liquid) and wine; simmer until reduced a bit. Add peas and parsley; heat through.

Remove from heat and toss with hot linguine and bread crumbs. Sprinkle with parmesan to taste.

Servings: 4

[Prepared in photo with penne, served on a luncheon plate, accompanied by a chopped Caprese salad.]

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Artist Date

A few times in my life, I’ve bought an issue of Vogue magazine -- the September fashion issue (invariably their “Biggest Issue Ever!”) -- to see what was in, see how far out I was, and gauge how I felt about that. Always, I was 90% out-of-style, and 90% okay with it.

My most contemporaneous brush with high fashion was a time I recognized it on someone else -- on television. Circa 1990, Vogue had filled its September issue with plaids -- and not long after, there was Murphy Brown's Corky Sherwood, costumed in a fitted plaid blazer lifted right off the issue’s pages.

But as I’ve been encouraging my creativity, I’ve found myself seeking out the September issue every year. I bought it at Border’s this week, where a seventysomething checkout lady barely managed the leverage needed to drag its 840 glossy pages across the barcode scanner. “Only $4.99?” she marveled. “It’s all ads,” I said.

At least for the first 300 pages -- editorially, only the table of contents, editor’s letter and masthead appear there. But the creative ads make the issue so much fun! I like the 8- and 12-page spreads that sometimes build into little narratives ... and I like noticing them excerpted in 1- or 2-page Cliffs Notes versions later, in other magazines.

It seems that every writer knows about Morning Pages, from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron -- three pages of handwritten, stream-of-consciousness writing done first thing every morning, intended to clear the mind. But few writers acknowledge Cameron’s twin creative tool, Artist Dates -- solitary playtimes intended to repopulate the mind with pleasing images and energy.

When I reached page 51 of Vogue and saw the ad of a young woman resting on a woodpile in a barn -- dressed in couture! -- and caught myself wondering about her backstory … I realized this issue is going to be a terrific Artist Date.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

From the Classroom

There's no way the text from this page in IKEA's 2008 catalog was written by someone in the USA …

... unless the marketing team included an ex-middle-school social studies teacher, fresh from lessons on imports and exports.

Seriously -- textiles?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Map It

When I was 11, I watched until my neighbors across the street were gone, then crept into their house and drew the floorplan on a page in my writer's notebook.

I look at the diagram now and wish I'd included enough detail to bring the rooms to life this many years later. Yet I also smile, because the major item of interest on their property didn't require a break-and-entering, and doesn't even require a notation for me to remember it. It's off the page at the upper left, at the alley-end of a fence that ran along their driveway. Each week, the trash cans there held (to my mind) an intriguing number of empty beer bottles.

These days, if I feel stalled while writing a story, I'll draw a map of the setting (a room or workplace or city) and make marks in areas that interest me. When I figure out why they're interesting, the story usually gets going again.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Over the Top

When I channel-surfed onto a Food Network segment of Semi-Homemade Cooking, the set decor hijacked my little-girl eyeballs.

I stopped. I stared. I snapped a photo of the TV screen so I could keep looking at the hues and textures.

I used to love peppermint-stick ice cream, too.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Battle at Kruger

With more than 10 million hits, this You Tube video of a South African lion-buffalo interaction is a must-see.

Beyond fascinating and horrifying -- and eventually cheer-inducing! -- it's a terrific real-life illustration of how story tensions rise and resolve toward an ultimate conflict.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Behind the Bridge

When I set fiction or essays in a pharmacy, readers gobble up the behind-the-scenes aspects and ask for more. So when I found myself gobbling up the details in a recent post to a pharmacy listserv I belong to, I paid attention.

Scott Knoer, director of pharmacy at a Minneapolis hospital, gave permission to distribute the following -- excerpts from his personal observations and learnings during the first hours after last week’s collapse of the I-35 bridge.

At approximately 6:30 I received an Orange Alert page and immediately drove to work. By the time I got there, the response from our staff was overwhelming. We never had to initiate a call tree because so many people either called us or just showed up and asked how they could help.

One learning from this is that when a major artery like Interstate 35 is closed, it has a ripple effect on traffic. It took me about an hour to make a 20 minute drive to the hospital. Another learning is that cell phone communications are difficult as the system is overwhelmed by people across the country checking in with loved ones. I had about a 10% success rate when trying to contact staff and the hospital on my way in.

All of the disaster training really pays off. When I pulled up, there were police at the entrances ready to direct and guide traffic. The ED [Emergency Department] was full of physicians, nurses, pharmacists, lab staff, etc. Everyone had their occupation taped to their back so they were easily identified. Signs were on the walls indicating where you could find Pharmacy, Lab results, etc...

At one point we had four pharmacists and three technicians in the ED, running up supplies, drawing up doses, checking allergies and interactions, and handing out morphine, antibiotics, vaccines, etc. The rest of our team manned their stations, keeping supplies moving, entering orders and answering a tremendous number of phone calls.

Another learning is that while we have a stockpile for disasters, it is aimed primarily at bioterrorism. The things we really went through for this trauma event were cefazolin, lactated ringers, and tetanus vaccines. We also quickly overloaded our [pneumatic] tube system's capacity and had to use runners to get things from Pharmacy to the units.

Our Command Center was also not prepared for the huge volume of phone calls from the media and families calling the hospital. We needed more phones and people to answer them in our Hospital Command Center. We were also unprepared for the number of families that showed up at the hospital looking for loved ones. Our plan was directed at patients, not families. We did initiate a lockdown.

You generally think of physicians, nurses, pharmacists and other caregivers in a response like this, but I got to witness every department in the hospital putting their plans to work. Our Food Services staff were wheeling carts of water and sandwiches to the ED personnel. They also set up coffee and food for the families in the lobby. Our facilities people were dealing with tube volume issues and our security people were everywhere. Our volunteers and social workers were here to help patients and families.

Well done, Minneapolis! Thank you, Scott!

As for me ... I've already tucked away the “occupations taped to their backs” detail for a future story.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Family Portrait

True incident:

A house in my friend’s neighborhood was for sale. Curious by nature and interested in housing, he wandered over during a realtor’s open house to take a look inside and see the price.

The entry was unattended but, seeing the front door ajar and hearing voices deeper inside, he opened the storm door and stepped into the tiny foyer. And found himself nearly nose-to-portrait with a large, framed family photograph that hung directly opposite the door.

He recognized the man, woman, and some of the kids in the photo. He admired their casual arrangement into a pleasing composition of figures. And he noticed their dress: everyone in jeans faded to the same hue; everyone barefoot ... and everyone topless.

That’s the set-up. What’s your story?

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Dress Code

The smiles and waves say it's unlikely that this group gathered at a funeral.

So -- what other event prompted such consistent dress?

Monday, July 30, 2007


At a SETI Institute ("Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence") listening post, devices constantly monitor the air for evidence of alien signal transmissions.

To date, they haven't found evidence of aliens ... but what might they have found out about your next-door neighbors?

[Photo from Opentopia.]

Friday, July 27, 2007

Taking Leave

In the sobfest that is "The Way We Were," Hubbell Gardner breaks up with Katie Morosky and leaves her apartment key on the table.

But keys are exchanged in matters other than romantic relationships, and their return doesn't always have to be sad.

Why not twist it -- and imagine a situation where the return marks an all-out celebration.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Emotional Distance

Several people have recently expressed awe over health-care workers’ ability to keep an emotional distance from their patients and their patients’ families.

I don’t remember receiving formal training in that objectivity -- other than via medicine’s many analyses and algorithms, which, I suppose, do help to keep things fairly well up in the intellect and away from the emotions of doctors and others.

It’s similar, I suppose, to the choreography of the uniformed officer who strode to the gravesite last Saturday and retrieved the folded American flag from atop my father-in-law’s casket. He brought it to my mother-in-law and stooped toward her. His voice was clear and even: “On behalf of the President of the United States and a grateful nation, this flag is presented as a token of appreciation for your husband’s honorable and faithful service to his country.” He straightened to full height, took one step backward and raised his hand in a long salute to the flag.

Then he turned left-face and strode away, generating a breeze that made my cheek damp.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


New Scientist magazine calls this Alex MacLean photo (of approximately 200 houses outside South Jordan, Utah) an "exurban" development, "driven by the American dream of owning a detached house with a large backyard."

Um, that's all? -- a house with a yard? The isolation seems extreme, there's gotta be more to it. What else is going on here??

For more amazing aerial photos by MacLean, check out "Designs on the Land" and "The Playbook".

Wednesday, July 11, 2007


Saw this photo of Sao Paolo, Brazil in an issue of New Scientist magazine.

It begs for a writer to choose a couple characters from the wildly different domiciles -- then put them together in a romance ... in a workplace ... in a courtroom.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Running of the Waiters

Tomorrow's running of the bulls ("El Encierro" -- run daily during the July 7-14 Fiesta de San Fermin in Pamplona, Spain) ...

has nothing ... over the procession of cruise waitstaff on Baked Alaska night!

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Squirrel Lady

Forget about personifying animals with human qualities -- humans who act like animals are much more interesting!

As I walked home with a latte this morning, a woman came out of her house to get the newspaper from where it had been delivered on her lawn. Too far away to comfortably say hello, I closed my eyes and tipped my latte to take a sip; when I opened my eyes, she'd disappeared!

I glanced at the door to her house but really, there's no way she’d had enough time to hurry back inside. By then, I'd taken some more steps -- and there she was, nearby but behind the trunk of a big elm. I wasn’t sure what she was doing, but in another step or two, I figured she'd be in sight again, and we could exchange niceties. Yet as I took those steps, so did she -- just like a squirrel that moves itself around a tree trunk to keep just out of sight.

I gave up, but when I turned the corner some seconds later, I did glance back. She’d emerged from around the far side of the tree and was walking toward the door to her house.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Happy 231st, USA!

And what better way to celebrate than the deletion of the American Bald Eagle from the Endangered Species List.

I snapped the photo of this snazzy, tuxedoed parent and its three, nine-week-old nestlings from my PC screen.

You can view live streaming video of the now-flying, four-month-old chicks (plus lots of archived photos) at the Norfolk Botanical Garden's Eaglet Nest-cam.

Monday, July 2, 2007


I've seen and heard and used the acronyms ASAP ("as soon as possible") and PDQ ("pretty damn quick"; in fact, my favorite childhood chocolate-milk mix was PDQ granules -- which did dissolve instantly).

And I've heard another phrase that means "right away," but hadn't used it myself -- (whew) -- or even seen it written until a few weeks ago, when an editor copied me on an email in which she asked that something be sent to me "tout de suite."

Ack! -- I hadn't known the phrase was French, and was intensely ashamed at whatever ignorance had led me to imagine it as "toot sweet." But I felt a little better after some research, where I learned that English-speaking soldiers had anglicized it to exactly that during WWI.

I emailed the editor and thanked her for the best thing I'd learned that week. She responded that it was nothing -- it was the writers whose emails and manuscripts included "wa-la!" (um, "voila") that surprised her.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Starboard Center

There are lots of directions to take in developing the bigger story of this picture.

But within that bigger story, what's the little story -- what's going on with the rower in the red shirt … that's gotten him or her out of sync with the other rowers?

Thursday, June 28, 2007


A sizeable compound for such an inaccessible location ... what's going on there?

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Psychic Distance

I saw these excerpted recently and, along the lines of show-don’t-tell, thought they did a better job of communicating differences in narrative psychic distance (“the distance the reader feels between himself and the events in the story”) than two pages of exposition would have.

It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.

Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.

Henry hated snowstorms.

God how he hated these damn snowstorms.

Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul.

[From John Gardner’s "The Art of Fiction."]

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Atomic Sombrero

The Teaching Company offers terrific college-level, home-study courses for adults -- in areas of art, history, literature, philosophy, science. They're expensive, but every course is available at an affordable sale price at least once per year.

I'm working my way through a physics series on DVD, where the professor talks from a classroom set that includes a podium and the ubiquitous image of an atom with its circulating particles. It's a fine little set, quite non-distracting -- except when the professor stands in a certain spot relative to the atom.

I finally couldn't resist snapping a picture of my TV screen.

For more about distractions, see Jerry Weinberg's post about how writers break the reader's trance.

Monday, June 25, 2007


"You were injected with a radioactive substance … it may set off a radiation detection alarm …"

This quote is actually excerpted from a little card that hospitals now give to patients after a test or exam that involves the administration of a nuclear medicine -- for the patients to keep handy in case they accidentally set off an alarm while trying to board certain types of public transportation in the subsequent couple of days.

But taken out of this context, the quote prompts story ideas more along the lines of a thriller ...

Friday, June 15, 2007

Stun Sung

Remember in The Shawshank Redemption, when Andy Dufresne locked the prison guard in the loo and then played The Marriage of Figaro through the prison’s network of loudspeakers? Out in the yard, hundreds of hardened prisoners stood agape, stunned in the pure humanity emanating from the speakers.

That’s me -- a hardened non-fan of shows like “American Idol” -- now sitting agape at the performance of Paul Potts … a cell-phone salesman by day and interpreter of Puccini by night in the current season of Britain’s Got Talent.

Finals are Sunday, June 17.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Sound Effect

A caller to the Mr. Fix-It radio show complained that whenever she was in her extra bedroom, she heard knocking from the other side of the wall -- a common wall between her townhouse and the one next door.

Mr. Fix-It's suggestions were along the lines of mechanical (plumbing or heating lines) and canine (a Golden Retriever's thumpy wagging tail).

What suggestions might a novelist offer?

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

What Happened Here?

Go beyond the first answers … your mind will wander deeper ... and stumble upon a more unusual story.

In mine, smugglers have cut out interior sections from loaves of bread, creating pockets in which to hide their loot.

Then they scattered the removed bread for the birds and squirrels to eat.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Reading Room

A book-meme blog received so many answers to its question about where readers read, that it then posed an about-face: Ask Not Where But Where Not?

Most of the answers to “Where Not?” involved predictable matters of practicality and individual preference: not at work, not while riding in a car/train/plane, not in direct sunshine. But while some readers don’t read in those places, other readers do. A decade ago (even a year ago), I’d have uttered “Duh!” at someone’s answer of “not while driving.” But I’ve recently seen it happen … and not just at a stop light, but at both full speed and in stop-and-go traffic.

So, practicality and preferences aside, imagine some characters who do read in these other, less-likely places:

At the family dinner table

While grocery shopping

In the dentist’s chair

In the shower

In a movie theater

At a birthday party

While walking the dog

At a funeral/ wedding/ in church

While sleeping (great sci-fi potential here!)

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Opening Prompts

A recent segment on the Kathy & Judy radio program asked listeners to imagine the memoirs they’d write, and invited them to call in with the opening sentences.

My favorites were short, punchy lines -- openings that set the stage just enough to intrigue and then set the mind adrift in story possibilities:

Let me apologize in advance.

I’m my own fault.

I lived south of I-80.

These genes don’t fit.

She hit me first.

Later, I looked through the published memoirs on my bookshelf. Most of their opening lines were long and immediately specific to the story at hand. But I found three that are general enough to serve as writing prompts:

The first day I did not think it was funny. (From Nora Ephron’s Heartburn -- reportedly such thinly disguised fiction that I’ll call it memoir.)

Here they come. (From Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man.)

Life changes fast. (From Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.)

Friday, May 25, 2007

Two Down

It took me a moment this morning to realize I recognized the sound: the year’s first two 17-year cicadas. High in a 30-foot maple I'd just walked past, one cicada buzzed a 2-second vibrato and another buzzed back in a slightly higher tone. Hooray for them, I thought, and stopped to listen.

Three mornings ago on the same route to get coffee, I’d finally seen some cicada shells scattered on the sidewalks -- a hundred maybe, over the course of a 2-mile round trip. A couple of very warm days followed, and yesterday I'd estimated a thousand shells over the same route. I’d even seen live adults and been fascinated, again, by the shiny metallic green in their coloring -- the purest gold, I’d have guessed, if gold came in green.

But this morning, not much. For all I knew, the shells I did see were leftovers from yesterday. My neighborhood is in transition, its early-20th-century houses being torn down and, along with their yards, replaced by McMansions that fill 90% of each lot. Surely, the construction had disrupted the soil and the dormant cicada nymphs. Certainly, there was less yard space to provide the cicadas with a way out. Maybe this year’s emergence of the periodic bugs would be a bust.

But no! In the tree were two who’d made it out and were home free to spend the next month mating. The noise from just those two was impressive, impossible to ignore. And some black birds didn’t ignore it; perhaps a dozen landed in the tree within moments. The cicadas continued their back-and-forth buzzing and then I heard a quick movement and one of the birds squawked.

And then silence, and the birds flew away.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Run-up to the Cicadas

Every summer, my neighborhood fills with the sound of cicadas.

Annual cicadas, I’d assumed, although now I know that few, if any, species of cicadas undergo an annual metamorphosis from egg to nymph to egg-laying adult. Instead, almost all species are periodic, having life cycles that range from 2-8 years -- most of it spent underground in the nymph stage. Only because each year brings the emergence of a combination of various species, do we hear the "annual" buzz that heralds the dog days of summer. It’s like working with fractions and lowest common denominators to predict which might be the jackpot year -- when the 2- and 3- and 4- and 5- and 6- and 7- and 8-year cicadas will all happen to emerge in the same summer.

I hope it’s not this year, because we’re just days away from the huge, synchronized emergence of a species with an ultra-long life cycle: the 17-year cicadas. I’m not surprised. I knew they were coming. I remember them from 17 years ago.

We’d bought our 80-year-old house in the fall of 1989, in an established suburb full of huge elms and maples. We happily spilled out into our yard the following spring and heard about the impending arrival of the periodic cicadas. We scoffed at neighbors who told us we wouldn't be able to hold a conversation outside amid the droning. I remember it eventually being true.

Cicadas aren’t dangerous, they’re not damaging. They’re just annoying: seriously clumsy fliers that bump straight into you instead of swerving; litterers whose shed exoskeletons form a crunchy carpet on sidewalks and patios. With estimates as high as 1.5 million cicadas per acre, that’s a lot of bumping and crunching.

Scientists predict the cicadas will return this week. I hear some have already been spotted in other suburbs. All I’ve seen so far are the signs: shed earthen casings (exit tunnels?) and emergence holes that can make a patch of bare ground look like it’s been brought to a boil overnight.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Rediscovering Science

I wrote this 15 months ago as an opening to an essay:

“The progress is remarkable,” my friend Greg, a prominent researcher, tells me over lunch at a restaurant. “We’ve … blah blah unintelligible words … the genome of … so many, many more unfamiliar words.”

I stare at him.

How long has it been since I’ve heard a sentence like that?

He spears some romaine and secures it on his fork with a ribbon of chilled sirloin. I blink.

This is Greg, I remind myself—the first person I met on our first day of pharmacy school, nearly thirty years ago.

And now in his whole sentence, I recognize only the one word.

My eyes sting and I look down at my bowl of soup.

I miss science.
Since then, I’ve subscribed to science magazines, devoured fascinating new science books and published half a dozen science articles and shorts.

And yesterday, I reconnected with an amazing source of inspiration: my college organic chem professor—an intelligent, animated man renown for the funnest classes; a creative scientist who applied forensic chemistry decades before CSI. In a 30-minute phone call, we batted so much energy back and forth that I think our cell phones gained charge.

Ain’t life grand?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Losing Science

As a kid, I figured my family could have formed a country. Dad was a college administrator, Mom a paralegal, my sister a teacher. One brother was career military, another was on his way to becoming a doctor, another planned to be a priest.

“And what do you want to be?” people would ask me.

“A researcher,” I’d answer, and they’d screw up their faces: “Why, that’s not even a word!”

Researchist, I wondered?

Forced, finally (and privately), to the family dictionary, I was crushed to find them right. Nothing existed between “research” and “re-seat.”

Friday, May 11, 2007

Empty Nest

I often walk past this house.

And every time, I wonder about the long-ago teenager who lived here and shot hoops.

What's the story now?

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Wake Up, Everybody

This is the first place I've admitted it: I've always had a softer spot for geriatrics than for pediatrics.

In high school and early college, I worked as a nurse's aide in a hospital, much of the time on a skilled nursing unit. During that time, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes released "Wake Up, Everybody" -- I liked this stanza best:

Wake up all the doctors, make the old people well.
They're the ones who suffer and who catch all the hell.
They don't have so very long before their judgment day
So won't you make them happy before they pass away?

I'm happy tonight, watching the Zimmers's version of "My Generation."

Friday, May 4, 2007

Rescued From Junk Mail

Woohoo!! to New Scientist ...

for recognizing that some girls like filling their brains ...

more than filling their bodies or closets.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Bad Latte!

Top 10 Ways to Ruin a Caffe Latte:

10. Steam the milk so full of air that the latte feels prepared with helium

9. Use nonfat milk by mistake

8. Use nonfat milk because there’s no whole milk ready

7. Top off with nonfat milk because there isn't enough whole milk ready

6. Top with nonfat-milk foam because there isn’t any whole

5. Top with a cappuccino-quantity of foam (see photo)

4. Top with Styrofoam rather than creamy foam

3. Use lukewarm milk

2. Omit the espresso

1. Argue with the customer about any of the above.

The barista at my new place doesn’t do any of these.

Friday, April 27, 2007

What's in the Bag?

Our "stuff" says much about us, and it's fascinating to get a peek at (and sometimes great ideas from) other people's things: the contents of a house, a car, a drawer, a purse. (For me, a pocket: as often as I can, I leave the house with just keys, my driver's license and a credit card.)

Flickr, a photo-sharing website, gives thousands of these peeks through its cluster of “What’s in Your Bag”-tagged photos. Some people even include descriptions of their bag's individual contents -- click on a photo, then hover over it to see descriptions -- the best ones use specific details that hint at the person's "voice" and open up a backstory.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Twisted Dictionary

Comedy takes something expected and twists it to prompt a surprise. For example, Bill Maher's joke in March, when Cheney saw a doctor about leg pain: "Do you stretch?" the doctor asked. "Are you kidding?" Cheney said. "I linked 9/11 with Saddam Hussein!"

Beyond the smile, I love a twist's illumination of character and voice. Consider this, from an e-mailer to Suzanne Beecher's Dear Reader book club, about a time she was baking with her mother: "I asked my mom if I could have a job. She gave me some suggestions, and then I told her, 'I mean an eating job!' "

For me, the hard part is taking a sentence less literally ... learning to recognize a springboard word.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Thursday, April 19, 2007


Take a look at Hawaii's beach cams from Starwood Hotels and Resorts.

Surf-watch or people-watch -- you decide which, because you can control the camera's direction and zoom views for 3 minutes. You can even snap pictures to save to your computer ... inspiration to write the story up later, offline.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

O Happy Day

What are the four signs
of aging?

The answer is in the Comments.

[Source: Valerie Monroe in the October 2003 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine. Photo source: Hawkin's Bazaar]

Monday, April 16, 2007

Chicago 2016

The Eiffel Tower stood as an engineering marvel at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris. Colored text in this 2005 photo markets "Paris 2012" … from before the International Olympic Committee awarded the summer games to London instead.

Similarly, the first Ferris Wheel stood as an engineering marvel at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. And, similarly, now Chicago needs international Olympic marketing -- having been selected over the weekend as the U.S.'s applicant city to host the 2016 Summer Games!

Following Paris’s precedent (though hopefully not its outcome), how about erecting signage on Navy Pier’s Ferris Wheel?