Category Archives: musings

The End Times by John E. Stack

We are in the end times and there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. What? No, not THOSE end times, but kids are out of school and report cards come out next week.  Teachers are still working.  The end of the year is full of surprises for students and teachers alike.  I do many things like writing, foster parenting, drawing, woodworking, helping take care of a seven-year-old, and the list keeps going.  But, out of the many things that I do, my main job is that of a middle school teacher. 

I have observed many things.  Some kids will find out that they are not as smart as they think they are.  And, some parents will find out that their kids aren’t as smart as they thought they were.  Some will find that their child was smart and could do the work.  Others will find out that their smart child doesn’t work up to their potential.  And, a lot of this will be the teacher’s fault.

Now-a-days, almost everyone gets promoted, whether they need to or not.  Sometimes the child is just too old be with younger children.  I think fifteen is the maximum age for kids to stay in middle school, so off they go to become someone else’s problem.  Sometimes those children have an epiphany in high school and realize that their free ride is quickly coming to an end and making minimum wage is not enough to survive on.  Others never get it.

I was blessed this year and taught some super kids and I will miss them.  I had an unusual assortment of teaching positions this year.  On one day I taught math study skills to multiple classes of middle school boys and on the next day I was the in-school suspension teacher.  At the end of the second quarter, a teacher went out on maternity leave and I was asked to take over her classes.  Job Change!!!  I became a sixth grade math teacher.

I’m in my nineteenth year of teaching math and I have never taught sixth grade more than one day when another teacher was absent.  It scared me to death.  These were little tiny sixth graders, except for the couple of eleven-year-olds that stood over six feet tall.  I was told I needed to tone down my personality.  But, no matter how hard I tried, that 8th grade teacher inside of me (yeah, the loud one) kept sneaking out.  But I made it to the end, and some of the sweet children actually cried when I had to leave.  They were either tears of joy or sadness, I’m not sure which.  I’ve always said that I bring joy into the life of everyone that I meet, some when I come into the room and others when I leave.  I choose sadness.

But, just like children get promoted, so do teachers.  I spent time in sixth grade and next year I get to spend time in seventh grade.  I don’t get to teach math, though, I get to teach Social studies, American History, to be exact.  Now, I’ve spent a lot of time in the social studies classrooms, usually to harass the other teacher, but never to teach.  That is unless you count my student teaching nineteen years ago, when I taught two math classes and two social studies classes.  Maybe it’s because I’ve lived through a lot of US history, not most, but a lot.  In all actuality, a friend of mine retired and my school lost a math position, so in order to keep me at the school I was selected. Therefore, I still have a job.  There are few things better than a regular paycheck.

So, now I’m out for the summer and real work begins.  Don’t start on how teachers are so lucky, because we get two months paid vacation, ‘cause we don’t.  We are employed for 10 months, so we can elect to have those checks paid over twelve months or we have to figure out how to save and pay ourselves for those two months.  Anyway, I will probably work harder over the next two months than I did most of the year.  My honey-do list awaits.

By the way, since you’re reading my blog, click the link and check out some of my other writings.

 

***John E. Stack is the author of Cody’s Almost Trip to the Zoo, Cody’s Rescue Adventure at the Zoo, and Olivia’s Sweet Adventure.

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How Not To Write A Novel by Sheila Deeth

The problem with being a published author is that friends sometimes assume I know what I’m doing. I don’t. But I am learning. So here is a list of things I’ve learned about how not to write a novel:

  1. Don’t write what you don’t know. My first novel, written in elementary school, included a woman getting pregnant and giving birth six weeks later. I suspect if I’d had any readers they might have said this couldn’t be true.
  2. Don’t tell your characters to go away. In high school and young adulthood I still wanted to write. But every time I started a novel this character, someone awfully like me, demanded I let her take over. I didn’t want to write about her. I wished she’d go away, but of course, she wouldn’t. Characters rarely obey.
  3. Don’t write about yourself. Hoping to dispel my intrusive stranger, I tried my hand at autobiography. It didn’t work. She  was there again, complaining, “No, that’s you. It didn’t happen that way to me.” I gave up and wrote her story instead, and learned a lot from her. Later she introduced me to someone else, a character in my first-ever published novel, and at last she stepped aside. Thus Infinite Sum was born.
  4. Don’t forget the timeline. But that was later. Before then I gave up on writing novels, assuming they’d need too much time. I stuck to short stories–tons of them–where the same set of characters kept reappearing and meeting over again. One of these turned out to be a murderer, much to my surprise (probably his as well), at which point I decided to stick the stories together into a novel. All went well until my wonderful editor pointed out that one sister aged two years while the other didn’t change. Time for a timeline! Lesson learned.
  5. Don’t expect it to sell. Still dreaming, I still hope that first novel might turn into the start of something spectacular. It’s called Divide by Zero. It’s a tapestry of small town lives woven around a small town singularity. It’s moderately invisible on Amazon. But…
  6. Don’t stop writing, because the more novels you have out there, the better chance you have that one might sell. (That’s the mathematician in me, checking out the odds…)
  7. Don’t write in first person. They told me that long ago and it was easy when I wove Divide by Zero together. With so many characters each chapter clearly belonged to someone else–first person would have been hopelessly confusing. But my second novel was different. My character wanted to tell her tale her way, which meant I had to make sure I wrote in her voice and never mine. Harder work than I expected.
  8. Don’t write from multiple points of view. I didn’t hear this instruction until too late. Divide by Zero was inherently created from multiple points of view. But Infinite Sum enjoys just one narrator (yes, first person), so it’s more straight forward. Then comes my third novel, with two viewpoints warring, and a cat. It’s called Subtraction, and it due for release on August first.
  9. Don’t try to change the time and place. With Subtraction speeding toward release, I’m working on novel number four. In its first life this one was set somewhere else with different characters living in a different time. Now I’m reworking it for the Mathemafiction Series. I have to check up when people started using cell phones, computers, reading online, wearing different clothes… Whatever possessed me to think I could do this? (The characters, of course. They insisted I’d got everything wrong first time.)
  10. And finally don’t rewrite before rereading. Sadly, I needed that piece of advice before Imaginary Numbers took over my life. I don’t even remember where the plotline is meant to go. But the characters aren’t concerned. They assure me they’ll take the right way this time, implying, of course, that I got it so terribly wrong before. They’re bossy, my characters. And they really don’t care one jot about my flagging self-esteem.

So those are my ten don’ts. And now for my dos.

  1. Do read.
  2. Do write.
  3. Do listen.
  4. Do let someone else read what you’re writing.
  5. Then listen well to their advice. It’s sure to be better than mine.

Sheila Deeth is the author of the Mathemafiction Novels, published by Indigo Sea Press. Her first novel, Divide by Zero, weaves a tapestry of small town lives around a singular death. The second book, Infinite Sum, presents the story of a wounded woman finding a path through the infinite sum of troubles in her past. Book three, Subtraction, will be released on August 1st. It tells how a man who’s lost everything might seek a missing child and find himself. And in Imaginary Numbers… Who knows? The novels explore guilt and forgiveness, and Sheila begs your forgiveness for her inability to tell where Imaginary Numbers will go.

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Medicare Redicare

For the last three years, I’ve had the same Medicare company and so this year I assumed my healthcare appointments, coverage, providers, etc. would probably remain pretty much the same as in previous years. However, I’m finding changes and they’ve kind of surprised me. A couple of days ago, I received a letter from my company stating they are “making it easier to take charge of my health.” Are they saying it’s going to be easier for ME to take charge of my health, or that they are making it easier on THEM to take charge? Hmmm.

I decided to continue reading to see if the answer lay further on. Ah, ha! The very next sentence stated my company was working with another company to bring a mobile clinic to my neighborhood in order to give me preventative health screenings close to home. And these screenings would be custom geared to my specific health needs and could be completed in one appointment. Then to top it all off, these screenings would be provided to me at no extra charge. Gosh, I feel as though I’ve won the lottery! All I needed to do was call a certain phone number and I could get scheduled. Wow, huh?

I couldn’t decide what to do with the letter, so, like Scarlett O’Hara I left it sitting on the counter in my kitchen and went on with my day. Then the next day, I received a phone call from a cute sounding young man from my company (we’ll call him “Brad” since he may have called you, too) who asked if I’d gotten a letter from them recently about this screening company. I told him I had and he said he was calling to get me signed up and scheduled for an appointment. How efficient! “Brad” explained that when the results came back from the different tests conducted, they would be sent to my primary doctor and she would discuss the results with me in a subsequent visit.  I told him I thought that would work out well since I was already scheduled to see her for a checkup in early August.

I secretly was thinking it seemed strange to me to have this company schedule screenings this late in the year since each Medicare year begins in January. I may have already had these screenings because I see my primary doctor for a checkup about three times a year, as it is, and each time she covers a screening or two—but what do I know.

I asked “Brad” where the location was of this screening place and he told me it was a mobile unit near my local Winn Dixie grocery store. Then he asked me if I was able to climb a few steps. I told him I was old, but not too old to get into a trailer. I guess it must have been the way I said it, because “Brad” burst out laughing, which caused me to get tickled, too. I was becoming fond of “Brad.” He told me I had a good sense of humor and suddenly I thought of him calling seniors all day who were likely seriously obsessed with their own health issues and probably not much fun to talk with. Poor kid. I asked him if his job was tedious and he said, not at all. He was helping people get the care they needed. Okay, his reply may have been scripted, but he answered so quickly, I felt he was being sincere. Now I was ready to adopt “Brad!”

So I can honestly say I spoke with someone today who seemed to sincerely care. How often do we feel that way these days? I hope all you other seniors out there get a call from “Brad.”

 

Coco Ihle is the author of SHE HAD TO KNOW, an atmospheric traditional mystery set mainly in Scotland.

Join her here each 11th of the month.

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Lessons Learned in a Bluebell Wood by Sherrie Hansen

My love of bluebells is no secret.

Bluebells

They bloom in the woods near my B&B every year in late April or early May.

Sporing - bluebells

cropped-bluebells-08.jpg

I’ve watched their pink and purple buds turn into intense, periwinkle blue flowers, then fade to a soft, sky blue, since I was a little girl.

Blue Belle - Jump Canva

I’ve written a book named Blue Belle. The B&B and tea house I’ve owned for 25 years is called the Blue Belle Inn.

BlueBelle 2016

Familiar as bluebells are to me, I’ve recently learned a few new lessons while walking through the bluebell wood.

bluebells - dense

It’s possible to be broken, bent, and beautiful at the same time.  One most likely leads to the other, like the beauty of a mosaic made from broken pieces.

bluebells - broken

You can focus on the beauty of a place, or the ugliness. Stuff happens. It’s your choice what you dwell on.

bluebells - dung

For every hill you struggle to climb, there’s an easy cruise down the other side, and a beautiful view from the top besides.

bluebells - hill

 

Even when you feel hollow and empty inside, you’re a thing of beauty to someone who needs shelter from the wind.

bluebells - hollow tree

Finding your own little niche to grow in is one of life’s greatest gifts.

Bluebells - log

No matter how bad you have it, someone else always has it worse.

bluebells - mud

Being front and center isn’t always the best place to be. Wallflowers are much less likely to get stepped on than flowers that grow in the middle of a pathway.

bluebells - path

You can lift your eyes upward to the tree tops, or follow the shadows down into the valley.  Your choice.

bluebells - ridge

Being uprooted is never fun, but there’s always a bright spot on the horizon.

bluebells - roots

Sunshine or shadow – it makes all the difference.

bluebells - shadows

Some people live lengthy lives in obscurity, others are chosen to be loved intensely for but a moment.

bluebells - smashed

Some are fortunate enough to find a clear, straight, well-marked path.

bluebells - straight path

Sometimes the path winds  so much that you can’t see what’s around the bend. But that’s okay. It’s good to be surprised.

bluebells - winding path

Everything you do and say is a reflection on the things you love most – the real you.

bluebells - water

 

I’m in a time of transition in my life. Are you? Wandering in the bluebell wood, I was reminded that there’s no better way to find your way than in new lessons learned from the comfort of the familiar.

 You can see what’s Sherrie’s up to at: 

https://www.facebook.com/BlueBelleInn

 https://sherriehansen.wordpress.com/

www.BlueBelleInn.com or www.BlueBelleBooks.com

https://twitter.com/SherrieHansen

https://www.pinterest.com/sherriebluebell/

http://www.amazon.com/Sherrie-Hansen/e/B007YXQJ4W/ref=dp_byline_cont_ebooks_1

Sherrie’s newest release is Sweet William. https://amzn.com/B01H2TUD3U

He’s a real sweetheart. She’s a wee bit tart. When Minnesota farm boy, William McKnight, and sassy Scot, Lyndsie Morris, are forced to work together in the kitchen of Rabbit Hill Lodge, the atmosphere is as charged as an episode of Chopped. Will someone get cut, or will they find a recipe that works? Things just start to get spicy when an angry bull butts his way into the picture, and Lyndsie has to decide if she loves William more than everyone and everything she holds dear.

Sherrie’s next Wildflowers of Scotland novel, Golden Rod, is coming soon from Indigo Sea Press.

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The One-Way Mirror, by Carole Howard

Violinists sometimes claim they play the most difficult instrument. After all, there are no keys to press that automatically produce “C#.” Nor are there frets, as on a guitar neck, for guidance. You need to just know where to put your finger. For every single note – and there are so many of them. (Have you guessed I’m a violinist?)

I have to admit, though, that pianists have it rough, too, with two different lines of music, one for the left hand and one for the right. As if that weren’t enough, the two lines are written in different clefs. (Non-musicians: let’s just say that black dot on one of the five lines of a musical staff can mean different things depending on which clef it’s in.)

Each group has a point. Or, as my friend’s mother used to say, “There are pros and cons on both sides, and they’re all bad.”

Having been a fiction writer who dove, somewhat naively, into memoir-writing, I see that there are pros and cons in both genres. In this case, of course, they’re not all bad. But they sure are different.

My first novel was character-driven. I could use incidents from my own life, but got to pick and choose, and had the freedom to make up whatever I wanted. Having come from the corporate-writing world, it seemed heavenly to give free rein to my imagination, my creativity. Readers didn’t know which parts were fact-based and which were fictional. When people asked if the protagonist was really me, the short answer was no.

And yet, there was that intimidating blank-canvas thing.

The second novel was a murder mystery. Only a little was drawn from my life, and the canvas wasn’t so blank because mysteries have to be constructed in a certain way so they wind up being….. mysterious. Red herrings, false clues, buried truth. So the “rules” were comforting. But they were difficult, very difficult, to follow.

Like I said, pros and cons.

My most recent book is a travel memoir about five volunteer trips, each two months long, to the developing world. It’s not a travelogue: no recommendations for hotels or restaurants. Yes, it recounts experiences I had while traveling – some funny, some inspiring, some surprising, some sad. There was the time I was twenty feet from a silverback mountain gorilla with nothing between us except trees. Or the time I coached sex workers on their presentations to colleagues about the correct use of condoms. We used wooden props – use your imagination!

But the point of telling about these moments in the memoir is not necessarily, “This is great – you should do it too.” There’s a lot more. Character. Reflections. Truth. Certainly, the tools for writing fiction were also crucial for memoir: setting the scene with physical description, creating tension, using punchy dialogue. But making it all into a story was quite a hill to climb.

The strangest thing about having written a memoir, though, is realizing there are a whole lot of people out there who know some pretty intimate stuff about me. Not only do I not know intimate details about them, I don’t even know who they are!

When I’m speaking at a book store or library, this asymmetry is particularly disorienting. And there’s irony, too: People in the audience, if they’ve read the book, know how uncomfortable I feel about public speaking, and yet here I am, speaking publicly. Through the looking glass, or should I say the one-way mirror?

I guess it’s like being naked when everyone else is clothed, aka EVERYONE’S WORST NIGHTMARE!!

  •     *     *     *

Carole Howard wrote Deadly Adagio, a mystery with a musical undertone set in West Africa, published by Indigo Sea Press.

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Read or Not Read

Did my title confuse you, dear reader? Don’t worry, I’ll explain. After my publisher launched my debut book, SHE HAD TO KNOW, in 2011, I gave a number of talks and signings for various organizations to familiarize people with me and my work. In addition, I was on several panels at writers’ conventions in which the subject of the panel had something to do with the panelists’ books, and a signing followed so attendees could purchase said books. For me, there were talks with signings at libraries, art galleries, and civic groups, but there was one thing in common with all these talks. No one had read my book yet. Of course, I’m referring to the public, not people who were associated with the publication of the book itself.

I had been attending writers’ conventions and conferences for a number of years before my first publication, so there were lots of writers whom I had met and also lots of aspiring authors like me with whom to share experiences. In fact, an author friend introduced me to her agent. Although my author friend’s agent wasn’t looking for my particular book, it was a good experience for me to have contact with her. I also did several pitches to agents and editors at these conventions and finally I acquired my agent at a convention. It was all so frightening, exhilarating, exhausting, energizing, deterring and inspiring, and produced both insecurity and later a bit of confidence and I loved most every moment!

In all of these instances people had not yet read my book, so in delivering my talk, I was always aware not to give away any important clue, or say too much about any character. My subject matter covered my motives for writing this particular book and what went into doing so. I talked about how I accomplished the research needed. Everything was general and somewhat vague, so as to not spoil the book for a new reader. I only realized this recently when I was scheduled to give a talk for a book club in which everyone had read my book.

The first part of my talk with this group was like previous ones since most of my audience didn’t know me, but I started seeing smiles of recognition as I went on. I was able to talk more freely, specifically about placement of red herrings, or why a certain character acted a certain way. During my question and answer period, I received some interesting questions that I was able to answer fully without having to be concerned that someone’s reading experience would be ruined by a spoiler. This was the first time since my book came out that I had specific feedback on it.

As an author, this experience was more helpful to me from a writer’s perspective. I guess one could call it a critique session from readers. I really enjoyed this. In this case, my audience was too kind to give me any negative feedback, but I would have welcomed that as well, because one learns from all criticism.

Reviews and comments on Amazon and Goodreads are good too, but in the case of the book club, I was able to interact with my questioners. That isn’t possible, of course, in a review.

The only drawback to doing a talk for a book club is that the author probably won’t sell many books, if any, because book clubs usually read lots of books over time and book stores and libraries usually don’t have enough copies for all the members to share. Since costs of books would get prohibitive, often the prospective readers will buy used books or ones from another vender than one that would provide a royalty to the author. I certainly understand that, but I have to say that’s not a reason for an author to not do book club talks, because I certainly learned a great deal from my experience and I would do it again in a heartbeat. Yes, we do want to get paid for our work, but sometimes the lessons we learn along the way can be much more valuable than the cost of a few books.

I’d love to hear what you writers feel about this subject.

 

Coco Ihle is the author of SHE HAD TO KNOW, an atmospheric traditional mystery set mainly in Scotland.

Join her here each 11th of the month.

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Be the Example by John E. Stack

 

I had a date this past week and my date was one of the prettiest girls there.  I’m sure that every other guy believed the same about their date, but theirs didn’t even come close. She wore an emerald green dress and her hair was fixed just so. She looked good and she knew it – you could tell by the way she carried herself.  She was ready for an evening of partying and dancing.  This date had cost me at least $50 and we hadn’t even dined or arrived at the dance.  Who knew what to expect.

 

When she saw me, her eyes just sparkled.  She told me that I looked very handsome – not something most men hear when they arrive to pick up their dates.  We were running a little behind schedule, but we knew that we would arrive at the Father/Daughter dance right on time. 

 

I decided many years ago, and I was strongly encouraged by my wife, that I would be the first guy that my daughters dated. I hoped that the example I presented would help influence the decisions that they would make in the future.  I wanted them to always believe that they were special and they deserved to be treated that way.

 

My dad taught me the proper way to behave toward ladies, and it is a shame that the dads of today don’t believe that it is important.  I was born in the 50s, 1953 to be exact, and I still believe what my dad said. Too many men, today, believe that men and women should be treated equal. 

 

Dad said to always treat a girl with respect. What does that mean?  First off, when you pick her up for a date, ask for her at the door, don’t blow the horn from the curb. Then open doors – car doors, restaurant doors, any doors. And by all means, don’t use foul language around her. And last of all, be even nicer to her mom (this one will go a long way.) Oh, and one more thing.  Just because you asked a girl out on a date and paid for it doesn’t mean she owes you anything. Yes, the guy should pay for the dates until you both have discussed taking turns paying.

 

Any time I take my wife out, this is how I behave. So, when I take my daughters out I act the same way.  I want to be the example that my daughters compare their dates to.  My opinion is that if the guy doesn’t treat you better than I do, then he doesn’t appreciate you for who you really are.  Therefore, that guy doesn’t deserve to go out with you.

 

Though I would never admit it when I was young, my dad was a lot smarter that I wanted to give him credit for. He gave me advice on a lot of things, but I won’t go into them right now. I need to get back to the story of my date. 

 

She was kind of shy at first, but when she saw everyone dancing we had to hit the floor. We danced several songs and she got thirsty, so we took a break to get food and something to drink.  We were back on the dance floor after a few bites and really had a blast.  It is difficult to slow dance when you are six foot and she is only three and a half feet.

 

I only really embarrassed her once.  I tried to get her to do the chicken dance, but she was having none of that.  So, she laughed at me while I danced.

 

I got her back home before curfew, around 8:30, and right before bedtime.  He mom was happy that we made it home with time to spare.

 

Dads, I challenge you to be the example for both your sons and your daughters.  Teach your sons the correct way to behave when dating, and tech your daughters to except nothing less.  You will seldom be disappointed.

 

 

 

***John E. Stack is the author of Cody’s Almost Trip to the Zoo, Cody’s Rescue Adventure at the Zoo, and Olivia’s Sweet Adventure.

 

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Dancing With Willard

I was sitting in my office looking around trying to decide what I’d talk about in my blog this month when my eyes rested on a letter on the wall from Mr. Charles A. Whitehurst, Vice President and General Manager of WSFA, a local TV station in Montgomery, AL. It was dated September 21, 1983 and it made me smile.

At that time, I owned my own G-rated “bellygram” service in which I visited businesses, hospitals, restaurants, etc. to help people celebrate their birthdays, anniversaries, farewells, get-wells, etc. Instead of people sending flowers to someone they admired, they sent me. During my lively ten minute dance routine I presented the guest of honor with a personalized banner announcing the special occasion and I crowned them with my veil and tambourine. My job was really fun and I enjoyed it immensely.

When Channel Twelve called me they said they realized I was a belly dancer, but did I think I could do a Carmen Miranda routine instead of a belly dance? They explained that Willard Scott was coming to Montgomery for a charity event and there would be a huge welcoming for him at the airport when he arrived. High school bands would play, Mayor Folmar would present the Keys to the City, that sort of thing. Just days before, Willard had accepted a challenge to dress up as Carmen Miranda on his weather spot on NBC’s The Today Show to raise money for charity.  His appearance caused a huge sensation all over the U.S. In fact, Al Roker later said, “If the Internet had existed the day Willard Scott dressed up as Carmen Miranda, he would have broken the Internet.”

Channel Twelve’s proposal sounded so intriguing, I accepted right away. The problem was, I needed a costume and music and I had a day and a half to pull that all together. Yikes! Furthermore, I didn’t have time to go to the library for research. I had to rely on my memory of Carmen Miranda, the famous Portuguese-Brazilian singer, dancer, actress and film star who was popular from the 1930s to the 1950s. I scrambled together some bright, colorful fabric from my costume supply and started making ruffles like crazy. Papier-mâché fruit I had crafted years before became incorporated into a headdress to top off the costume. Then I rummaged through my varied music selection, and stayed up all night getting it all ready for Willard.

I called my next door neighbor, Chi, who heartily agreed to come with me to the airport. I was supposed to be hidden until Mr. Scott arrived and when he made his appearance in the terminal where everyone was congregated, I needed her to punch the play button on my boombox to start my Carmen Miranda music.  I’d take it from there.

Little did I know how cooperative Willard would be! When the Latin music began and I made my surprise appearance, he came right over and started dancing with me alternating hand to elbow, hand to elbow with the beat, and he even bumped my hip so hard, I thought I was going to sail into the crowd! My nervousness disappeared when I saw him having so much fun. His joy was infectious and the crowd went wild. When the news came on TV that night, Chi and I watched it and relived the whole experience, all over again.

The letter I received from Mr. Charles Whitehurst, which hangs on my office wall, was one of thanks for my participation in making what Willard declared, “a most warm and wild greeting,” with a request he be invited again. Every time I look at that letter I smile as I remember a gracious and fun-filled man.

After note: In December 2015, Willard Scott officially ended his 65 year career at NBC; 35 of those years were with The Today Show. I hope he is enjoying his retirement. He certainly deserves it.

 

Coco Ihle is the author of SHE HAD TO KNOW, an atmospheric traditional mystery set mainly in Scotland.

Join her here each 11th of the month.

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People and Things, by Carole Howard

My mother died in 1997 at the age of 80. She’d been losing weight and the docs neither found out why nor ended her slide, even after I insisted they admit her to a hospital and get some nutrition into her body.  Still, it had never occurred to me that she was gravely ill. So it was a shock when I got the phone call. Naivety, I guess. Or maybe denial.

My brother and I flew to Florida to pack up our mother’s things and help our dad decide where he’d live. (He couldn’t care for himself — that had been my mom’s job – because of Parkinson’s.) The packing-up process practically smacked me in the face with, “All this stuff we accumulate, in the end, it’s just….. stuff.”

But the hangers in the closet did me in.

After I took some pieces of her clothing that I wanted, I sorted the rest (which involved removal of my mother’s notes to herself, like “This blouse goes with the blue pants or the green skirt plus the paisley scarf), then donated it to the nearby synagogue. But they didn’t want the hangers. What was I to do with them? It felt wrong to just throw them out.

The hanger issue tormented me. I gathered them into bundles and used twist-ties to join them at the curvy ends. They were unwieldy. I unbundled them, then put them in cardboard boxes. It took a lot of boxes to accommodate those pieces of wood, plastic, and wire. And I was still left with the question of what to do with them. In the end, I put them back in the closet, neatly arranged according to type. Closure. Logic. Neatness.

I knew my reaction was crazy but, just like the time I went up to the apartment my husband and I were moving from, to get one last thing, and unexpectedly bawled, I knew there was something else involved.

Yet when a very good friend and member of my extended family recently died, I had a completely different reaction to her possessions. “Lily” knew she was dying, since she was the one who had declined chemotherapy. The process wasn’t a mystery, just the timing. In the last month or so of her life, she had friends come over, a few at a time, so she could give away her beautiful (she was an artist) clothing and jewelry. She had a LOT. Every piece had a story. What was unsettling to me was that she took enormous pleasure – glee, practically – in telling the stories and giving the pieces away. Really, glee. I wanted to be gleeful, for her sake, but glee was too much to ask.

Now that she’s gone, I have quite a collection of things that remind me of her: scarves, sweaters, earrings, earrings, and more earrings, and one pair of shoes. So does my daughter. She wears them frequently. I have another approach: I take out one thing and wear it a few times before I take another. Each one reminds me of Lily, one at a time, widely spaced.

I’m not sure what accounts for the difference between my reaction to my mother’s things and to Lily’s, nor the difference between my daughter’s approach and mine. Nineteen years older? Mother vs friend? Cleaning everything out vs accepting some gifts to give Lily pleasure?

I just don’t know. Did anything similar ever happen to you?

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Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, a murder mystery with a musical undertone, set in West Africa.

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The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, by Carole Howard

I’ve been thinking longingly about a sailing trip we once took with friends in the Caribbean. It was a certain version of heaven. A catamaran (to minimize seasickness), with a crew (we don’t know how to sail a boat) and good company. Blue sky, gentle waves, cooling breezes, white sand. There was little to interrupt our tranquility.   And there were pina coladas to boot!

My current longing has nothing to do with the climate, the boat, the rum, or even the friends. It was, rather, that once we left the dock, putt-putted out of the harbor, cut the motor and raised the sails, we were completely out of touch with the mainland. There were no cell phones. No internet. The captain could call ashore if necessary, but that was pretty much reserved for emergencies. We had no idea what was going on in the rest of the world.   Aaaaah. Right around now that sounds pretty good.

Every time I open the computer to my home page, The New York Times, or listen to the radio in the car, or even look at Facebook to keep up with the adorable antics of my grandchildren, I’m laid low with any one, or more, of an assortment of unpleasant emotions. Fear. Dismay. Anger. A sense of powerlessness. Depression.

There’s the situation in Aleppo – not to mention the rest of Syria – and the ones in Yemen, South Sudan, and elsewhere. If you don’t know what’s going on in those places, I envy you, but a lot of it involves children who are dead, injured, or starving.  And massacres. It’s more than I can bear.

And then, of course, there’s the election.   (If you’ve read any of my blogs, you’re not surprised I feel this way.) Chasms where once there were “only” cracks. Our current national fracture has even wended its way to my town, a beautiful historic community with an agricultural tradition where citizens have always gotten along pretty well. Since the election, there have been two incidents that, in the context of this town, were shocking. One was the defacing of a Jewish cemetery, and the other an explosive, almost violent, public meeting about a blue line down one of our streets to demonstrate appreciation for our local police department. Things like this just don’t happen here! But now they do.

And so I’ve been thinking about the sailboat interlude and considering cutting myself off from the news, including Facebook. It feels drastic – and, frankly, I don’t know if I could actually do it – but it would just be temporary, to allow my emotional immune systems to regroup. On the boat, I had no choice, but to self-isolate is a different matter.

I’ve been more-or-less of an activist since the 1960’s, and it would feel eerie to be unmoored from the rest of the world’s events. The deep blue sea. But it feels worse to mourn for my country and the world. The devil.

I’m not advocating giving up. I’m glad others are out there fighting the good fight. This would only be a sabbatical. But I’m not sure it’s a responsible thing to do.

Advice, please?

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Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, a musical murder mystery set in Senegal.

 

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