I SEE DEAD-ISH PEOPLE

In this age of alternative facts, whom do you doubt? Whom do you believe without questioning?

A few years back, when talking on the phone with my grandmother, Benedetta (104 years old), she mentioned that her baby sister Israela (about 100 years old) visited her at the nursing home.

How could that be? I’d lost track of Israela decades ago, after her only child and his family moved to California. A few years before, I’d heard that the son had passed away. I figured it was quite possible that Great Aunt Israela may not inhabit the land of the living.

During our next call, Benedetta said that the two of them had gone to Bingo in the activity room, but Israela refused to play. In a later conversation, Benedetta described a squabble with Israela and complained about her sister’s persistent grumpiness. My home is in Virginia and my grandmother lived in Connecticut, so I couldn’t verify the Israela sightings.

However, my grandmother’s reports about the squabbling rang true. Of Benedetta’s twelve siblings, Israela had a reputation for being a wee bit cantankerous.

Regardless, I couldn’t establish the truth of Benedetta’s claims. Given the unlikeliness of their veracity, I assumed that finally at age 104, my grandmother was experiencing space and time in a more flexible manner.

But then, my cousin drove down from Vermont for a visit. She discovered Israela, in the flesh, rooming several doors down from Benedetta. How did that happen? We had no idea. Unlike her big sister, Israela was not oriented in space and time and couldn’t tell us.

Here’s one more story about seeing dead-ish people: When traveling last fall, I got stuck in Charlotte, NC for seven hours, waiting for a thunderstorm to clear.

Some time after one in the morning, a flight attendant yelled, “There is a brief lull in the storm. Grab your belongings and RUN onto the plane.” So, I grabbed and ran.

After a bumpy ride, we landed in Charlottesville about 3:00 a.m. I staggered through the airport, dragging my suitcase. People rushed past me and headed out the door. Clearly, in any survival of the fittest situation, I would die first.

By the time I arrived at the curb, the last cab was leaving. The driver rolled down his window, “Sorry, I’m full. But there ‘s a fellow down there…” He pointed to a figure in the shadows. A stout, disheveled man emerged, looking at me with red-rimmed, unusually bright blue eyes. “Need a ride?”

I didn’t see a taxi. “Are you a taxi driver? Where is your car?”

“Yonder.” With his shoulder, he pointed back into the darkness.

I felt bone tired, much too tired to figure out an alternative way to get home. So, I decided to follow the man to the far end of the sidewalk, near the airfield for private airplanes. Sure enough, I saw a taxi, battered and old, but a taxi nonetheless. As we drove down Earlysville Road, the man told me he’d spent much of his life in a cab. His father before him was a driver and as a toddler he’d ridden along. Now he often slept in his cab. When he slept, he had prophetic dreams. Once, he dreamt about his uncle, whom he hated. When he next visited his mother, she greeted him at the door saying, “Your uncle is dead.”

Right about then, we were cruising over the bridge by the reservoir. Eager to change the subject, I said, “You must meet some interesting people.”

He laughed, “Well, I’m never lonely, that’s for sure.” He paused. “My father rides with me lots of the time. We have some good conversations.”

“That’s nice. He’s stopped driving his own taxi?”

“Hell yes. He’s been dead about ten years. But he shows up and rides with me every now and again.”

My hair stood up on my arms. Don’t judge me. It was three in the morning and we were driving past that wooded area by Ivy Creek. Your hair would stand up, too.

To my credit, I did not jump out of the moving cab. Instead, when we pulled into my driveway, I handed the driver some cash, snatched my suitcase then ran into the house, lickety-split, hoping the guy’s dead father would not follow me in.

So, in this age of alternative facts, whom do you believe? Whom do you doubt?

As my mother would often say, “The truth will out.” And over the years, I’ve come to learn that if you keep your eyes open and your mind alert, the truth usually does emerge and may surprise you.

 

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Movie Review–RAGIN’ CAJUN REDNECK GATORS (and Workshop Plug)

This movie review appeared in the WriterHouse Summer Newsletter:
Recently, I watched a terrible movie on the SyFy network: Ragin’ Cajun Redneck Gators. (Don’t judge me. I was having a low day.)

A Cajun man dumps toxic moonshine into the local bayou, thereby creating mutant alligators that crave human flesh. These badly rendered, computer-generated reptiles use their tails to hurl lethal darts into people. The hapless victims then re-appear as humanoid gators who go on to torment their former family and friends. In many cases, the loved ones become lunch.

Even in the world of science fiction, the plot made no sense, which meant there was little narrative tension and even less engagement of a non-stoned viewer. Worse yet, many of the off-putting characters behaved reprehensibly, making them unsympathetic. For example, to distract a ragin’ gator, one guy tosses the family mutt to the beast. Really? Maybe a surly teenager–but cute little Fido?

By the end of this movie, I was rooting for the gators. I felt thrilled to see the gruesome demise of each townsperson, not caring about any of them.

So, this awful film got me to thinking–as a writer, how can I capture the attention of my readers and also create characters they care about?

One way to engage a reader is to write prose that decreases the emotional distance between the reader and my protagonist. Successful use of the literary device, point of view (POV), will grab your reader’s attention. Point of view is the perspective from which a story is told. It is the type of narration an author chooses in order to place a reader into the fictional universe of a story. A writer’s successful rendering of POV provides a reader with the eyes, ears, heart and mind through which she experiences a story. A writer’s choices re: POV can allow a reader entry to the fictional world they’ve created and access to the greater reaches of the tale.  Successful use of POV can keep a reader riveted to her seat.

Once you’ve determined your POV, that is, once you’ve chosen a narrator through whom you will tell your tale, how do you create ongoing and intensifying sympathy for your character? There are myriad ways. Place your character into difficult situations and then escalate. Create a character who is an outsider.  Portray a character with baggage, for example, someone who has had a traumatic childhood.

Would you like to explore how to write a strong and vibrant point of view in a fictional piece? Want to play with ways to create sympathetic characters?

Attend Keep the Pages Turning: A Mini Retreat at my home on Saturday June 10th from 10:00 am to 3:00 pm. Attendees will listen to brief (painless) talks, participate in a few (fun) improv exercises, respond to (inspirational) writing prompts, write (brilliant) paragraphs of their own and (kindly) critique each other’s work.This is for writers of all levels. We will discuss elements of point of view and explore ways to create sympathetic characters. Also, we will take a look at how to break out of writing habits and consider new ways to approach universal writing challenges. Think of this as agility training for your mind.  And who knows, maybe some day you can create a screenplay for a movie involving mutant alligators that actually hooks your audience. Think big.

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TIME TO LEARN RUSSIAN HISTORY?

Russia is much in the news these days. Want to learn more about the first nine centuries of this country? Check out my iBook CZARS AND CZARINAS. You can also find this book by going straight to iTunes and searching for it.

The interactive book uses cutting-edge technology to present a funny and educational look at Russian history.

The iBook focuses on Ivan III, Ivan IV, Peter the Great and Catherine the Great. It includes: slide shows, charts, a theme song, sound effects, (bells ringing, horses whinnying, thunder). Wisecracking self-tests appear at the end of every chapter. The humor is Monty Python-like in style. Portraits express opinions of their own. When you click the sound button, Peter’s wife Eudoxia, declares their troubled marriage was “All Peter’s fault.” In a section of the book about Ivan the Terrible’s search for a wife, you read his Personal Ad: “Lonely Czar seeks wife. Loves long walks on the tundra, sipping borscht by a hot fire, pillaging a village or two…”

Here is a review from the PHI BETA KAPPA  magazine: http://www.keyreporter.org/PbkNews/PbkNews/Details/1224.html

You can visit the iTunes Bookstore to view a free sample chapter.

Great for ages 9 through adults.  Available for $7.99 on iTunes, for iPads, iPhones and Macs.

 

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A FROG IN HER THROAT

Benedetta with great-great grandchild, Ava

This essay just appeared in Sunday’s Daily Progress.

 

I used to phone my grandmother every Saturday morning. Even though Benedetta died two years ago at age 106, on some Saturday mornings I still wake up ready to dial her number.

We’d start out the same way:

“How are you, Grandma?”

“I’ve got a frog in my throat,” she’d say, followed by a loud, dramatic clearing of said throat. After that, the conversation might head in any direction:

  1. Cautionary Tales: “You making lentils for supper? Check for stones. They could break your teeth. Also, don’t eat raw pork.” My Aunt Chubby had nibbled on raw sausage and almost died.)
  2. Current Events: “Michael Jackson shouldn’t have died of an overdose. His doctor is a quack. Belongs in jail.” (Benedetta fixated on this topic for months. Who knew she was a Michael Jackson fan? Throughout the years, I’d only heard Tennessee Ernie Ford crooning hymns from her record player.)
  3. Romantic Advice: “Why buy the cow if you’re getting the milk for free?” (Duly noted, Grandma. I promised to avoid distributing free milk.)

I have only one picture of the two of us, a 2” by 2” black and white snapshot. I’m about a year old, sitting on her lap in front of a gray Formica kitchen table. There may be other photos, but not too many, because she hated having her picture taken. Invariably, she’d protest, “I’m going to break your camera,” ostensibly meaning that her face was so funny looking it would damage the camera. However, sometimes “I’m going to break your camera!” seemed more like a threat hurled toward the unruly paparazzi (children and grandchildren) who hounded her for photo ops.

Many years ago, when I attended graduate school in New Hampshire, I decided to visit Benedetta during spring break. Somehow, I misplaced my Bible while traveling. My friends hadn’t seen it. I didn’t bother asking Benedetta, figuring she would have told me if I’d left it at her house.

On another visit, I spotted that same Bible on an end table in Benedetta’s den. When I expressed surprise, she said, “Oh yes, I know the Bible is yours, but I kept it so I could get to know you better. I re-read the underlined verses and the margin notes.”

Before she died, Benedetta bequeathed her journal to me, a volume called, Daily Heavenly Manna. Published in1925, the book contained a page for each day of the year. On that page was a scripture and space for notes. She’d wrapped a rubber band around the crumbling, heavily taped book and affixed a tiny paper rose with “For Debby” written on the back.

Now, I pore through that journal, searching for clues about my grandmother. Tucked in the pages, she kept photos, news clippings, birth announcements, and records of marriages, divorces and deaths.

At seven, Benedetta and her three younger sisters lost their pregnant mother to pneumonia. In a few entries, my grandmother mentioned that she knew that her mother was born in November and died in May, but she seemed distraught because she didn’t know exact dates. However, in one last entry, she’d listed her mother’s birthdate as November 18. I’m glad she’d finally gotten that information.

Her father remarried and had eight more children, three of whom died of heart problems at eleven, twelve and thirty-one years old. At thirteen, she had to quit school and work at a thread mill to help support her family. At twenty, she married my grandfather, Gaetano. On her twenty-first birthday, she gave birth to my mother, Eva, the first of her five children.

Just before her 100th birthday, Benedetta transitioned from living independently and moved to a nursing home. Mostly, she didn’t mind being there, except she seemed perpetually to be searching for her false teeth. “They have feet,” she’d complain.

During one phone conversation, Benedetta confided that she felt shocked every time she saw an older face staring back at her from the mirror. She said, “In my mind’s eye, I still think of myself as twelve years old.”

At 103, she was the oldest person in the nursing home and one of the oldest people in Connecticut. Around the time of her birthday, the whole family gathered to celebrate. A reporter asked her if she was excited about the party. Without one bit of irony, she said, “All I really want is a nice, hot cup of coffee. They serve it lukewarm here…because of all those old people over there.”

The reporter ended the interview by asking Benedetta her secret to longevity. She said, “Lead a clean life. No goofing around.”

Grandma,I have to tell you, I’m working hard on not goofing around. I check my lentils for stones. I stay away from medical quacks. And, in order to ensure that my cow sales stay brisk, I avoid giving away free milk.

I have a granddaughter now. I hope that when Campbell is older, she’ll call and I’ll be able to pass on my own cautionary tales, which, in my case, she may find more amusing than instructive.

 

 

 

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Movie Review–THE GRACE OF JAKE

Within about three minutes of watching this movie, I fell in love: the music, the cinematography, the nuanced acting. I was enthralled and stayed that way throughout the 90 minutes.

Newly sprung from prison in California, Jake Haynes steals a car and heads to Palestine, Arkansas. The drifter-musician intends to shoot his father, Henry Haynes, the man he blames for his miserable life (drug use, imprisonment, poverty, etc.). Opening scenes show that Henry Haynes, a crop duster, is engaged in a decades-old feud with Reverend Lovely. Apparently, Henry routinely buzzes the church during services and seems to have damaged a steeple, which he refuses to pay for.

Here’s what I liked about the movie:

  1. The music (by George Stanford) is gorgeous, bluesy, great lyrics and sung beautifully by Jake La Botz.
  2. The story: Written by Chris Hickey, the story follows the themes of forgiveness and redemption, but not in a heavy-handed way and not in a predictable way.
  3. The cinematography: Lovely, muted, nuanced shots.
  4. The directing: Chris Hickey brings out the best performances from a group of actors, most are not well-known.

The movie used a technique I’d never seen before. Several times during a scene, we go back in time or flash forward in time, for just a second, then we return to the present on screen. This technique can be confusing, but just keep an eye on the shirt Jake is wearing to help orient you in time. By the way, Jake wears the most fascinating collection of shirts.

I highly recommend this film.

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The Tuna of My Youth

As a child, I had no idea that tuna could be white and packed in water. I grew up eating yellow fin tuna that was packed in olive oil. See the can below.

I first discovered The Other Kind of tuna when I ordered a sandwich at a cafeteria at the University of Connecticut. Mayo, not oil, oozed from this sandwich. The tuna looked as if it had been run through a blender; tiny white particles smashed together, instead of dark robust chunks. Moreover, the flavor of this white tuna paled in comparison to the zippity doo dah power punch that the tuna of my youth delivered. I felt depressed and homesick.

Several weeks ago, as I wandered aimlessly through the aisles of COSTCO, I spotted six-can packs of THE TUNA OF MY YOUTH—exactly the Genoa brand! I felt a shiver of delight. I bought six cans then drove home and prepared the meal below.

 

Ingredients

Tuna (at least two cans)

Salt and Pepper

Olive Oil

Balsamic Vinegar/Red Wine Vinegar

Flat Leaf Italian Parsley

Carrots (3 or 4)

Celery (3 or 4 with leaves)

Red Onion

Kalamata Olives

Small Potatoes (quartered or halved)

Cannelini Beans (2 cans) (Northern beans okay or anything else you’d like that doesn’t need to be cooked.)

 

As our tax accountant can attest, I am not so good with numbers, so I am not going to bother telling you quantities. Use your judgment. You’ll be fine.

First, get a pot of salted water boiling, big enough to contain those potatoes and just enough water to cover them. Boil them until they are tender enough to poke with a fork. Do not overcook. Err on the firmer side. Drain them and let them cool.

Open and drain two cans of tuna. Empty them into a nice, big pretty bowl. Chop up parsley, celery and carrots. Throw in. Drain beans and toss in. Cut pitted kalamata olives in half and throw in. Add a few highly visible chunks of red onion (just for flavor). Add salt and pepper to taste. When potatoes have cooled, cut into bite-sized pieces and gently mix in. Right before you are ready to eat, add olive oil and some combination of balsamic and red wine vinegar to taste.

 

That’s it, Schmidt. Bon appetit!

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HOW TO HOOK A READER ON THE FIRST PAGE-VA FESTIVAL OF THE BOOK 2017

 

How to Hook a Reader on the First Page

 

Moseley Writers will present the panel Off to a Good Start: How to Hook a Reader on the First Page at Virginia Festival of the Book 2017.

 

When: Saturday, March 25, 2017 from 2:00 pm-3:00 pm

 

Where: Ballroom A at the Omni Hotel, Charlottesville.

 

What:

Submit the first page of a manuscript for a speed critique by the Moseley Writers. The first page must be original, unpublished and no longer than 100 words. No nonfiction, poetry, horror and erotica. PASTE the entry in an email to moseleys2017@gmail.com by Friday, March 17, 2017. A few entries will also be accepted at the door. The Moseley Writers will read (as many as time permits) anonymous first pages aloud and discuss what is working and how what can be improved.

 

Who: Panel members are Meredith Cole, Jennifer Elvgren, Deborah Prum and Andy Straka.

 

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Appropriate for Our Current Times–FATTY IN THE BACK SEAT

 

Please check out FATTY IN THE BACK SEAT,  a book which seems especially appropriate for our times. The novel is about Latino immigrant family in Florida who take in Cuss, the learning-disabled teenager whose middle class parents are too self-absorbed to recognize that Cuss is challenged by dyslexia and not just badly behaved. Available as a paperback, as an e-Book, and as an audiobook. Five stars on Amazon. Check it out here: Fatty in the Back Seat

Here are two of many reviews:

Five out of Five Stars

By Kathy Grimes The key to what makes Deborah Prum’s books such a good read, for teen and adult alike, is given on the last page of the book: “`Fatty in the Backseat’ does not give pat answers to hard questions, instead offers a glimmer of hope . . .” I thought the book offered more than a glimmer of hope and did so with a poignancy that never was maudlin and always had both a fresh description and perspective and a good deal of very good humor to give. Quite a gift–in the author’s writing and in what she gives the reader.

 

Five out of Five Stars

By Aquinasfan

I love Deborah Prum’s writing. The pace is quick, the images are colorful and clear, and the characters come alive (I think I know some of these people!). She handles issues which are painful and sad, in ways that are humorous and hopeful, without passing over their seriousness. She draws the reader into the settings and the situations, and it’s hard to put the book down! A good young adult/preteen read, with stuff to talk about afterwards, or to just think on.

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TRAIN IN THE RAIN

The Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, said, “A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” An interesting thought….

A few months ago, I planned to leave Charlottesville mid-afternoon and arrive in time for an early dinner with my daughter-in-law in Alexandria.

Coming from New Orleans, the train moseyed into the Charlottesville station well over an hour late. I boarded one car, but it seemed full, so I headed to the next in line where I found a seat in the middle of a group of Amish people.

About an hour into the trip, the sky darkened and rain pelted the train so hard that I could barely see through the window. A few minutes later, the train stopped in the middle of nowhere—never a good sign. Next, a train official announced that five trees had fallen on the tracks. He said it would take a while to clear each one of them.

Immediately, my neighbors started speaking to each other in Pennsylvania Dutch. No one seemed interested in talking to me, so I became profoundly lonely. I’d thought the trip would last about two hours and hadn’t bothered to bring a book. So, in addition to becoming lonely, I also became profoundly bored.

After a while, a train attendant announced that they had opened the restaurant car, which meant people could buy alcoholic beverages. People streamed forward through our car to the refreshment area beyond. I saw a young woman with a baby swaddled on her chest. She carried a glass of wine in each hand. “Yes, these are BOTH for me,” she said to someone next to her.

Soon after, a train attendant began handing out a snack pack that included Cheddar Cheese Guppies, not Pepperidge Farm Goldfish, but its off brand twin. Possibly these were the snack fish that had been caught in the tuna nets. I am not a snack snob, so I gobbled them down, off brand or not. Unfortunately, the man right behind me started eating, too, which seemed to set off burping/hiccoughing reaction. At first, I felt sympathetic, but after a couple of hours, not so much.

Finally, a train attendant announced the trees had been cleared. We cheered.

Our elation was short lived. We stopped at the very next station, Burke, I think, but doors did not open and no announcement came from the PA system. Instead, a man rushed through our car followed by three train attendants. The man looked distraught. I heard only a little of what he said, “…should be thrown off of the train.”

Then, we sat and sat. No Wi-Fi, no phone service, no explanatory announcements from the PA system, only the incessant sound of gastronomical distress from the man behind me. Oh, I experienced additional sensory input, too. I neglected to mention my location: only two rows from the overflowing restrooms. Yes, the perfect storm of train hell. At one point, I knew we had to be in desperate straights because an official began distributing REAL Oreo cookies, not a knock off brand.

At around eleven, I grabbed an attendant as she rushed past and asked, “What’s happening?”

Well, in that car behind us, the car I initially passed through, apparently a fight had broken out involving a drunken person or drunken people. She was fuzzy on the details. Regardless, all the train officials seemed to be in that car, trying to keep the peace as we all waited for the police and EMTs to arrive.

Ultimately, the police arrived and we were on our way. I reached the utterly empty Alexandria train station well after one in the morning; too late for dinner and too early for breakfast.

The moral of this story? When it comes to traveling, I have the luck of Jonah. You know Jonah, he is that guy in the Old Testament who thought he was making a simple journey to Tarshish Much to his surprise, Jonah spent a three-day detour, stewing in the digestive juices in the belly of a whale. As for my trip, I wound up spending seven hours stewing in the smelly belly of a train.

So even though Lao Tzu is most assuredly smarter than I am, I disagree with him. This particular traveler enjoys life far more deeply when her fixed plans come to pass and she arrives on time.

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Movie Review–HIDDEN FIGURES

Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures is a movie based on a true story about three African-American women who worked for NASA in the early days of the space program. These overlooked and under- recognized women provided essential mathematical data needed to launch the program’s first successful space missions. Faced with the racism and sexism rampant in the early sixties, they surmounted incredible obstacles, ultimately establishing themselves as highly respected professionals in their field.

I loved this movie. The two hours moved quickly. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae and the supporting cast delivered excellent performances. Peppered with humor, the film explored race/racism/sexism in America in the 1960’s. The movie also provided information about U.S. and Russian relations and why establishing an American presence in space felt so crucial at the time.

And the sound track? Terrific! I’m going to find out if I can purchase a copy.

I’ve noticed that people are raising money to make sure girls get to see this movie. I can see why. Bring your daughters and your sons.

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