Thursday, July 31, 2008


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Oops, they did it again

[I copied this one from my blog on the Inked-In site.]

Imagine this. You're sitting in a living room in a quaint cottage on a winding country road in Wales. A crocheted blanket is draped over your lap and a steaming cup of Earl Grey sits on a lace doily on an antique table. You are reading a novel--perhaps a cozy mystery or a Regency romance. Suddenly, you feel a rumbling and you notice that your tea has broken out into little ripples. A low sound in the distance is growing louder by the second. Two bright lights shine through the windows and illuminate your Thomas Kinkade painting, which hangs above the crackling fire in the hearth. Just as you turn your head to see where they are coming from, a truck crashes into your house. Wow. Freaky, right?

Now imagine that this has happened to you 16 times.

As they say, life is stranger than fiction. This story, minus the cottage decorations, appeared in the Weird But True section of today's New York Post.

Apparently, a satellite navigation system is "telling drivers the extremely narrow street is a shortcut."

The woman who lives in the house says it has been stressful and traumatic and that her insurance premiums have gone sky high.

Hmmm. Is the practice of law legal in Wales? The first time this happened to me, I'd be on the phone with a lawyer trying to determine if it was the fault of the GPS manufacturer, the company who creates the software for the device, the trucking company, or the moron who was driving the truck who trusted a machine more than his eyes telling him there was a house blocking his path. Instead, this woman is paying a premium to live in a death trap, albeit a lovely death trap if only in my imagination.

After the second time it happens, perhaps a global recall is in order. Maybe even a giant billboard like in the cartoons: Turn Back Now!!! But sixteen times?! I can't imagine it. Perhaps my assumption that this woman hasn't taken any action has made an ass out of u and me. But even if she has, after 16 times, doesn't her stubborn insistence on staying put point to a possible death wish? Someone call the twinkie van, and have the men in white coats take her to a nice, relaxing place. She deserves it. Then put that baby on the market. Uh, ixnay on the Open House--maybe a direct sale to the Department of Highways would be safer.

The scary part is that this is not an isolated incident (I'm taking the 16 incidents as a whole here). I've heard other stories of people who have driven into swamps, bodies of water, ditches that obviously were not a road all because their GPS device told them to. The voice of a certain parent comes to mind: If the GPS device told you to jump off a bridge . . . . Apparently, we need a new driving designation. How about DWC--Driving While Comatose?

It's kind of like a sci-fi story: GPS device (played by HAL) subliminally brainwashes people into handing over all common sense and blindly following directions. Long haul trucker (played by William Shatner) boldly goes where no man has gone (more than 16 times) before.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Doctors do appendectomies; tech writers do documentation. Get it?

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I have enough pet peeves to open a pet shop. Among them:

  • Tissues that have tiny dust particles in them that make you sneeze. Why can't they make them out of the same stuff they use for toilet paper? (I once worked with a woman who swore this was a conspiracy to get people sneezing and buying more tissues.)

  • Deli workers who put on gloves to make my sandwich, then leave them on to hand me my change with bits of lettuce and dressing clinging to my quarters, then make the next guy's sandwich with the same gloves that just handled money.

  • The cashier at the cafeteria who responded to my comment that there wasn't any coffee left by saying she doesn't make coffee at 10 AM because most people are like her and have one cup early in the morning. To which I could only reply "Really?" as I struggled to unfold the fingers in my clenched fist and took a DEEEEEEEP breath.

Heading back to the office sans coffee is already one step in the wrong direction. So, it's no surprise that small things can set me off--never mind the whoppers.

Imagine my delight when I received an email from a colleague with no writing or instructional design experience who decided he should take courseware created by three professional technical writers and make some changes to it to make it more fun for the audience. I opened the first file--a PowerPoint presentation meant to provide an overview of the process in a training session.

The hyperventilating started immediately.

There were nine different fonts on the first slide in six different colors. The next slide had an animated fireworks display to start the session off with a bang. Having heard that a picture is worth a thousand words, he included a few graphics--cartoon characters, some smoke stacks in the background, a shopping cart filled with computer equipment that looked like it had been salvaged from the local dump, and a cornucopia filled with autumn's bounty. Too bad he never heard the part about the graphics needing to have something to do with the subject matter being presented.

No joke, this presentation was like a 1980's laser rock show at the Hayden planetarium. Oh and he even had a soundtrack to go along with it. Just click that little speaker icon in the corner of the PowerPoint slide. He assured me it was supposed to be Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 "Choral": IV (because all training presentations are an ode to joy, right?). Unfortunately, Sympathy for the Devil must have been the file just above it in his music library. (Mick Jagger would be my only solace for the day.)

Is it me or is this just crazy? What if I ran into an operating room during an appendectomy and told the surgeon "Wait, give me that scalpel. I think we should make the incision on the left side. It will be much more entertaining that way for the other doctors and nurses assisting at the surgery."

I guarantee you'd be visiting me on the psych floor.

Apparently, there are no special skills required to do technical writing. Anyone can do it.

As I was reviewing the final "improvements" to my courseware, a co-worker stopped by to peer over my shoulder. "Huh, maybe I'll convince my wife to get a job as a tech writer. God knows we could use a second income." Innocent me, I asked "oh is she a writer?" "No, but how hard could it be."

I broke out in a fit of sputum-flying coughing and reached for a dusty tissue. Good thing there was no coffee left at the cafeteria.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Just Crack Your Knuckles and Get On With It

Yesterday afternoon I got a call from a loved one who is going on an audition next week and needs to be able to sing a song to piano accompaniment. Yikes. I knew where this was going. I'm the piano player in my family.

It started in the typical way. Mom heard me plucking out tunes by ear on a toy piano when I was three and thought I was the next Beethoven, but with three kids and a cop's salary there was no way they could afford lessons, let alone a piano. Then, my dad was walking the beat one day in Canarsie and some women asked him if he knew anyone who wanted a piano. It was free if someone would just come and move it out of their home. (Don't try to tell me there are no angels walking the earth.) When my dad got off his shift, he went back with a truck and brought home an upright piano painted . . . brick red that fit perfectly into an alcove in our kitchen that was painted . . . avocado green. Are you getting the visual on this? Has the avocado green given away my age?

At six years old, I started classical lessons and took them until I was 13 or 14. My dad has a great photo of me lying on my back on the piano bench, with one arm and legs dangling to the floor and one finger raised to tap a key. This was my rebellious idea of practicing, I guess, after I had been told a half dozen times.

Needless to say, I was a big hit in my family, as all kids are. I had to play for whoever walked in the door and was asked to play by relatives whenever we visited. People oohed and aahed and, if I'm being fair to myself, I was pretty good for an average (read non-prodigy) kid.

But then something happened, or rather didn't happen. I didn't progress in my abilities. I got to a certain point and just started to feel stagnant. One of the problems was I didn't know how to improvise. So, I was locked into playing the classical songs I knew and whenever I tried anything pop or rock it came off sounding stilted.

In my teens and twenties, I started writing lyrics, which came naturally, and putting them to tunes, which didn't come so naturally. I wanted to copyright them and try to sell them, but once again my lack of improvisation skills made me self-conscious about sending them out. (I did, however, send lyrics out to a Nashville contest and ended up placing in the top 10, which was fun.)

Sometime around twenty years old I decided I wasn't a real musician and from that time on would never again play for a living soul. If it was summertime and I had the urge to play, I'd close my windows so no one would hear. My family told me I was nuts, that I was good. I told them they only thought I was good because they knew nothing about music. Then my son was born and I just stopped playing. I don't think I've played an entire song in the last eight years.

So my phone rang and, as you've guessed by now, I was asked to tape myself playing the piano for the song that would be sung at the audition. I suggested iTunes. They said no good because it had lead vocals on it. I suggested iTunes karaoke version. They said no good because it wasn't just a piano. I grabbed a paper towel and mopped the sweat from my brow. Okay, I squeaked and then spent the rest of the afternoon practicing the hell out of the piece.

The sheet music was easy enough to read. The problem was I suspected a real piano player would never play a sheet-music melody line as accompaniment. I felt I needed to provide another version and that would require . . . cue horror music here . . . improvisation.

Four hours later (and with the windows still open), I taped both versions. They are not perfect. They are not even very good. But they'll be better than nothing at all . . . I hope.

For those of you who read my post A Spanish Major???, you know that it's been a week of challenging requests for me, so I think today I'll unplug the phones and bury my prominent proboscis in a good book. And if any of you musicians out there have suggestions for improving my improvisation skills, send them my way.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Yeoooooowwwwww . . . Body Parts Everywhere

My eight-year-old son is a huge Family Feud fan and for the past few weeks he has been pestering me to find him the theme song from the John O'Hurley version of the show. We sat down together and started searching the internet. One site seemed promising and it had the McAfee Site Security green checkmark of approval (which I have come to realize is a commentary on the anti-viral quality of a site and not a rating of its moral content). So, we clicked and just as my eyes were starting to read, the page suddenly changed and there were body parts everywhere. And worse than that . . . there were body parts doing things to other body parts.

I let out a yeeeeeoooooooowwww. My left hand instinctively reached out to cover adorable, innocent 8-year-old baby blues as my right hand frantically tried to close the window, which of course was frozen. I needed my left hand to accomplish an "end task" and told him to look away. Meanwhile, he's responding to my yeeeeeeowwwwww with an aaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhh. I finally managed to "end task" and we sat there laughing. I asked him what he saw and he said a lady wearing a black shirt with a baby. Okaaaay. Sounds good to me.

After things had calmed down, I sat thinking about my first internet experience gone wrong with my son. I realized that my reaction--that initial yeeeoooooow that I let out--wasn't on behalf of my son. It was my own reaction to seeing strange genitalia eight inches from my face on a bright, sunny afternoon. Definitely too much information. One person had this tiny mole right on . . . um, never mind.

They say that men and women have different reactions to things, especially sexual matters. I'm not much interested in generalizing. All I know is that, for me, sexy is a function of attitude, personality, sense of humor, creativity, intelligence, and a tuned-in vibe that puts two people on the same wavelength. Physical beauty plays an extremely small part and without the rest is meaningless to me. Maybe that's why you'll never find me in a crowd of screaming women, trying to put a dollar bill down some anonymous buff guy's g-string. And there's no stranger out there in cyberspace that has such breathtaking physical beauty that I could ever be moved by a full-monitor-sized naked image of him on a bright, sunny afternoon.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A Spanish Major??? What are you gonna do with that?

Many moons ago, I was a Pre-Med student at Washington University in St. Louis sitting wide-eyed in an organic chemistry class trying to process a list of rules when the professor broke out into a list of exceptions to the rules. As a bit of drool dribbled from my open mouth (think Edvard Munch's "The Scream"), I decided it was time to declare my Spanish Language and Literature major.

I had always loved studying languages but, after three years in a High School Pre-Medical Program and another two years in college, this declaration came as a bit of a shock to some. A Spanish major??? What are you gonna do with that? Are you going to be a teacher? Will you work for the United Nations? (I was also taking Italian and Russian at the time.)

Truth was, I didn't know what I was going to do with a Spanish major, and I didn't much care. I was just enjoying my liberal arts education (okay, and the frat parties, too).

Graduation came and so did a job, with the Division of Special Education at the Board of Ed, as an interpreter for suspension hearings. In other words, a kid brings a machete to school, gets in trouble, heads down to the suspension hearings office with his parents (who don't speak English), and there in that room with a sometimes still violent child, a lawyer, and a tape recorder, I would translate the legal proceedings for the parents.

Take a guess--how many of those hearings do you think I interpreted? One, five, twenty? [Sound game show buzzer here.] Try zero.

I bet you think it was the thought of that machete that scared me, right? Wrong again. It was the tape recorder. Some of the parents were not educated people and their Spanish in no way resembled the language I had learned in school. Some of them spoke at lightning speed and chopped off the ends of their words. (I imagine Midwesterners have the same complaint when they speak to me, a New Yorker.) Let me just say there were many repeats on the nightmare channel that season and they all involved a village idiot resembling moi not being able to communicate with parents as the tape rolled in the background.

A short time later I got the job that would eventually lead to my current career as a technical writer, and the Spanish major was no longer an issue. However, I often take the opportunity to point out to my parents just how valuable my knowledge of the Spanish language has been. Like, for example, when my husband needs to know whether the arroz con pollo is on the bone or not. "Your tuition dollars at work," I tell my parents. (I am the cause of a lot of eye rolling in my family.)

Despite the suspension hearings thing, I truly do love learning languages and I enjoy speaking with people whenever I get the chance to practice. I once got to say "In nazdik-tarin raheh" to a cab driver in New York (translation: "This is the shortest way," in Farsi), which was a lot more rewarding than just randomly blurting out "I want to buy apples and cheese." Of course, once I pointed in the direction I wanted to go, the conversation was mostly over.

Then, there was the time I was traveling in Italy with my cousin on a day when there was the rumor of a train strike. My cousin went to the ticket window to inquire about the strike. When I saw the expression on the ticket agent's face, I stepped in a bit closer and heard my cousin ask in Italian if there was going to be a "syrup" today. The difference between sciopero and sciroppo. College Italian saved the day.

While these moments were fun, I have to admit I sometimes yearned for a greater use of my college major. That moment finally came last night when my brother, a real estate agent in Manhattan, needed a translator to assist him with a potential client calling from Argentina. With an hour to spare, I looked up any words I didn't know in the listing and converted square footage to the metric system. When the call came, we managed to communicate.

Tuition dollars at work. ;-)

Make like a cartoon character running through a wall

Yesterday, I had one of those moments when you look at your life, let out a deep sigh of relief, and say "Thank God I'm married and don't have to deal with this singles s&*t."

My friend's cousin met a guy on vacation and the relationship continued when they returned home. She asked him if he had a friend for her cousin. He did. Soon after, my friend received a call. All was going well on the phone--for the first few minutes anyway--when he suddenly asked "What size shoe do you wear?"

Having heard this question only as it related to men (and usually there was some rib-jabbing and winking as accompaniment), I was intrigued to hear where this was going.

My friend was speechless for a moment and then asked why her shoe size mattered? The answer . . .

He's not attracted to women with big feet.

Say what? How many big-footed women has this guy encountered that this has become his lead-off question? Has someone gotten the word out to Manolo?

Hmmm, wasn't there a Jerry Springer show a few years back . . . GUYS WHO DON'T REALIZE THEIR QUEENS ARE OF THE DRAG VARIETY?

Maybe there were some childhood issues . . . that day back in 1978 when he left the marbles from his Hungry Hippo Game strewn all over the floor and his large-footed mother took out her rage with the help of her Tecnica Moon Boots.

Whatever the reason for his question, I was left wondering if big feet were the only deal breaker for this guy. My evil twin would have played a bit--talked up my tiny, dainty feet. Then, just before our first date, I would have stopped at Ruby's Costume Store to pick up a few blacked-out teeth, the beginnings of a goatee, and ears that should have been pinned back in childhood.

With my luck, it would have been love at first sight.

And that's why I'm glad I'm no longer eligible to compete in the love games.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Prayerful Rejection

Okay, so the other day I received the dreaded prayer card (I'll explain in a moment). An agent had responded to my query for Redemption with a request for the first 50 pages. In mid June, I received a letter from her, which I thought was a rejection letter. Instead, I found "It's not a good idea to begin a book with a dream-they're too easy to write and the reader is disappointed. May resubmit."

Hmmm. I didn't start my book with a dream. I started it with a Prologue--a crime in the past--upon which the entire book is based. In Chapter One, I do have a reference to my protagonist awakening from an old nightmare, and you could say the prologue is her old nightmare, but that doesn't mean the prologue is only a nightmare.

What to do, what to do. For those of you who don't know me, I am an assertive, mostly self-confident person. However, I've got to say that all the books on publishing I've read make me feel a bit like the Cowardly Lion on his approach to the Almighty Wizard of Oz. Up till that moment, I had minded all my P's and Q's, not to mention 1" margins, Courier 12 pt. font, double spacing, proper placement of personal information, good quality paper, no staples, paper clips, ribbons, bows. For Pete's sake, after printing my manuscript, I'd hold it up and cover one eye and make sure everything lined up, like some print surveyor. Should I email the agent and request clarification? Would that be annoying? Would I forever be cast out into the zone of WWDICWAAWNSITDS (WRITERS WHO DARED INITIATE COMMUNICATION WITH AN AGENT WHEN NOT SPECIFICALLY INVITED TO DO SO). Hell, I thought, I'm going to need intensive therapy soon. Dr. Tony, are you ready for me?

I sent an email requesting clarification and she told me to redo it. Alas, on July 11th, the dreaded prayer card arrived. Just to clarify, the prayer card was dreaded because it signaled rejection. This particular agent has a listing that indicates she is "a spiritual person and often attempts to soften a rejection with a prayer card; if this would bother you, you may not want to query her." I need all the prayers I can get, so it didn't bother me any.

On the enclosed letter, she wrote "Good storytelling but the college setting didn't appeal. Will pass with my best wishes."

My initial thought was I wish she had mentioned the college setting along with the dream--I could have changed that too. Then I realized that there are some key events in those first few scenes before I jump forward to present time. But it gets me wondering--have I started my story too early. Is there a way to rewrite it so that those events in the past are just mentioned in the present, thereby catapulting the reader into the middle of the present-day action. I'll have to think about this.

In the meantime, I still have some queries out there. So, we'll wait and see. For now, I'll just be happy that an agent wrote "Good storytelling" about something I submitted. We take our crumbs where we get 'em, no?