Favorite blog post #1

womanDecember 31, 2014 — Taking a holiday break, so here is one of my favorite blog posts, originally published on September 9, 2012. Happy Holidays!

A Word by Any Other Name

My mother made the comment recently that she’s never used the “F” word.

She confessed this juicy tidbit while on vacation a few weeks ago, and in a Manhattan induced state of relaxation. I’d had a consumed my fair share of tequila and was feeling equally relaxed, so I boldly told her to free herself and just go for it.

As if I coaxed her to commit a horrendous crime, my father shouted, “No,” and covered her mouth with his hand to stop her. Most likely, she would not have said it anyway, but my father’s extreme actions just reinforced my curiously about this particular word, the emotion it evokes in people, and its origin.

I remember a similar conversation when I was a teenager. My father told us that men didn’t use that word in front of women out of respect. That prompted me to ask why they would use it at all; didn’t they respect each other? Or themselves? His answer made even less sense – “Well, I was in the Navy,” – as if using it was a prerequisite to joining the service. My comeback, if I can remember correctly, was that it’s just a stupid word, and its people who put the meaning behind it and make too much of it. About 15 at the time, I thought that was pretty philosophical.

I still believe that analogy to some extent, but when I spoke to my son about this topic during his formative years, back when he used to come home and share the word of the day he’d learn in the school yard, I explained that it can be an offensive word, and that he probably shouldn’t use it because it might upset someone who hears him say it.

So exactly what are the origins of the “F” word, and who were the first people to use it? It is, after all one of the more graphic words in the English language, it’s in the dictionary, it can be used as a noun, a verb, an adjective or an adverb, and I hear it said openly, a lot more these days than when I was a kid.

According to a web search, although not empirical in nature, in ancient England a sign to hung on the door of all brothels that stated “Fornication Under the Consent of the King”, which was later turned into the acronym we all know. Another variation is that it came from “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge”.

A visit to Snopes.com showed both origins are false – no surprise there — but you have to give props for creativity.

The plain truth, according to straightdope.com, is the word is one of the oldest in the world, and has roots to a number of Germanic languages that simply refer to sex. I can’t find anything about when it was first considered profane or taboo.

So, my mother will live the rest of her life comfortably without ever uttering the “F” word. And that’s fine. My father, who spent four years in the Navy, can only say he’s lived his life without ever eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

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Favorite Post #2

imagesDecember 29, 2014 — Taking a holiday break, so here is one of my favorite blog posts, originally published on November 19, 2010. Happy Holidays!

The House at Pooh Corner

My parents told me recently that they plan to move in the spring. The house is too large for them now, the neighborhood is changing, and it’s the right thing to do. Still, I’m sad when I think “we” won’t live there anymore.

We moved into the house when I was a few weeks old so it’s the only childhood home I’ve known. Families populated the street with lots of children, there was always someone to play with, and many of the neighbors were second families to me.

The environment was Norman Rockwell like, but with alcohol because the grownups liked to party. We had wiffle ball games in the street on Sundays where the adults played and the children cheered from lawn chairs that lined the pavement, and block parties every Memorial Day, July 4th and Labor Day. Not to mention the water balloon fights and the Big Wheel races that my brother always seemed to win.

The family across the street had tracks in their yard with a miniature train that could transport about five or six kids at a time and it was a treat to be invited for a ride. And there was one incredibly hot summer when I remember many of the neighbors in our pool floating on large blocks of ice while listening to Frank Sinatra.

Every Tuesday night back then I would babysit my younger sister and brother, and it would always end with the three of us in a corner smacking each other with kitchen towels, kicking and screaming. I can’t remember why we fought, but we did.

I shared the middle bedroom with my younger sister. We swore it was haunted because sometimes our beds would shake and feel like they were rising off the box spring. I’m not exaggerating … and to this day I still can’t think of a reasonable explanation.

The parties hosted in the house through the years were incredible. My parents threw some epic events, and so did the four of us kids every time they went away. As a teenager, coming in late on a Saturday night, it wasn’t uncommon to be met at the door by my parents and other neighbors in a train line whistling and laughing as they made their way outside and down the street.

The house is over 100 years old now, with a high wrought iron railing surrounding the porch that was great for climbing. One spring day comes to mind when my sister and I were hanging off of it like a couple of monkeys (we were both teenagers at the time) and my mother was running up and down the porch steps (exercising). People in passing cars probably thought we were crazy, but the neighbors were used to us.

Although they may have thought differently the day my older sister left her son behind in an infant seat and ran like a banshee from the front porch down the street, just to avoid a few swarming bees while screaming, “Save my baby!”

I also spent many summer nights on that porch with my father listening to Phillies games on the radio and swatting the mosquitoes away. I think it’s the place I’ll miss most.

Life in the McMaster house certainly wasn’t dull. I know I’ll always have those memories and I’ll try to take comfort in the closing line of The House at Pooh Corner:

“Wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the forest, a little boy and his bear will always be playing.”

Favorite blog post #3

editing2December 26, 2014 — Taking a holiday break, so here is one of my favorite blog posts, originally published on January 4, 2012. Happy Holidays!

When should a writer stop editing and other crazy thoughts that prevent me from moving forward?

There comes a time during the writing process when an author has to stop editing.

They need to take what they’ve written and do with it what they will, whether it’s posted online, sent to a publication or agent, filed it in a drawer or on one of those handy external hard drives, and move on to the next project.

The ability to know when to stop is important. For me the line is blurred and I cross it every time, which is why exercises/assignments (like this blog) with hard deadlines work particularly well for me.

For many writers the editing process is separate from the revision/rewriting process, but in my mind and for the sake of this article, I’m combining these tasks into one. Which leads back to my question: when should a writer stop editing?

One good habit I’ve developed is that I typically don’t start editing/revising until I have a final draft of a complete story. The urge to edit while I write is there, but I force myself not to, telling myself that I’m not particularly concerned with how badly written my first draft is; it’s more important to get the story down on paper (or in the computer) and polish it from there. It’s after that step, when the first draft is complete that I lose myself in the endless circle of editing especially when I have the luxury of time. I’ve always worked best under pressure.

Take my latest project, for example. One of my resolutions for 2012 is to write more fiction. The entire time I was laid off I promised myself I would work on writing fiction, perhaps be inspired to write a few short stories, or really dive in and write a novel. That didn’t happen. However, I gave myself a break since I managed most of my time off wisely by taking classes in public relations and social media, and learning all I could about search engine optimization (which I need to apply to this blog). That way, I figured I would increase my communication skills and stay relevant for the job market.

Now that I’m working again and back to writing business communications on a regular basis, I am itching to start a new work of fiction. This girl’s dream is still to sign a contract with a major publishing house, and I’m more inclined to write fiction when I’m employed. Perhaps it’s the discipline of writing every day that fuels the desire.

The real dilemma is that little voice in the back of my head keeps telling me I can’t move on to anything new until I finish what I’ve already started. But here’s where it gets tricky: some of these works in progress are 15 years or more old. They’ve been through several rounds of editing already, but each time I re-read them I find something I want to change and the cycle begins again.

Sure I can fool myself by believing it’s because I am a better writer now with much more experience than I was when I started those projects years ago. And I believe wholeheartedly that they still have promise and can improve or I wouldn’t waste my time. But honestly it’s also about fear. Every time I think about starting something new I freak out and suddenly I’m lost and don’t know where to begin. The ideas are there, yet I stare at the blank page with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, and then berate myself about not being a serious writer. The quick fix is to reach for my comfort food, also known as those works of fiction waiting to get better that never let me down. And when I start editing – or rewriting – I am high on life with joy surging through my veins, happy that I am participating in the writing process again.

There is plenty of advice available for writers in bookstores, in writing groups and on the Internet, and so much advice that contradicts other advice, so where’s a girl to turn? I suppose I have to find what works for me and ignore the rest.

For instance, I’ve read that writers should never edit their own work because they are too close to it to be objective. That’s definitely true during the publication process, when a professional editor takes over. But it’s seems crazy to avoid editing before it goes to the publisher. Others believe writers endlessly edit certain pieces because they are lazy. Starting something new takes a lot of effort, so that’s plausible. But then I’ll shove that notion aside, rationalize that rewriting is just as important as writing and go back to editing until I’m satisfied.

So what if I want to hang on to the friends I already have instead of making new ones. That doesn’t make me completely antisocial. A little lazy perhaps, but I prefer to think of it as being choosy.

Help…

My favorite blog post #4

December 24, 2014 — Taking a holiday break, so here is one of my favorite blog posts, originally published on June 5, 2013. This one’s a little special to me because it earned me a spot on the Freshly Pressed blog reserved for the best blogs of the day according to Word Press. Happy Holidays!

Special of the Day

Here’s a humble attempt at the WordPress “A picture is worth 1,000 words” challenge, which asks bloggers to write a story about the image below. Flash fiction isn’t usually my thing; I like to mull it over, change the story, and edit it to the extreme before allowing anyone to read it, but sometimes you have to jump off the high dive.

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Presentation is everything.

Those words, straight from the culinary bible, and driven into our heads by a commanding instructor with the demeanor of Joseph Stalin, became my credo while studying the fine art of food. I disputed the words at first, but came to agree with them in theory. You can’t always assume that the better food looks, the better it is. I’ve tasted too much bad sushi to believe that. However, if the dish is good from the start, it will taste better if it looks pleasing.

Yet, I watch these buffoons – a head chef and his sous chef — prepare a dish that resembles something a dog would turn away. Don’t they know the first rule of food preparation? This is not what I signed up for when I accepted the line cook position at a small bistro in a Maryland beach town. I’d rather work at a swanky downtown restaurant where people appreciate fine culinary skills, and not at a place that caters to families after a day at the beach.

I had an inkling this was a bad move yesterday, my first day, when I witnessed the pastry chef pour warm caramel sauce over a poached pear as if he were drowning a meatloaf in onion gravy. The first thing you learn in food basics is how to drizzle sauces with a delicate hand that frames the dessert and the plate, before topping it off with a sprig of fresh mint. I’m not sure how much more of these amateurs I can take.

“I quit,” I shout, but only in my head. I need this job. However, I am grateful it’s only 10 weeks before I head back to school for my last semester at the Culinary Institute.

“And there you have today’s special, Chesapeake Crab Cakes,” the head chef says, proud of his creation. It’s not as pretty as the crab soufflé I created a few years back, but it doesn’t look like dog food anymore. Somehow, like the artist on PBS who creates landscapes with a paintbrush you’d use on the walls of your home, the head chef worked it out in the end.

People around me applaud, and I join in but I do not smile. That would show too much approval for something I know I could do better.

“Wait,” the sous chef says, “let’s not forget the finishing touch.” He picks up a shoot of parsley and lays it on the plate, then lifts it high as if he’s presenting the host at Sunday mass.

“Presentation is everything,” I shout, but this time it’s out loud. Oh crap, that was unintentional. The corners of my mouth turn up in a smile to hide my embarrassment, and the head chef nods, acknowledging that I get it.

“You can help the sous chef prepare the crab mixture,” he says, a coveted job for sure. I smile, but realize he’s not looking at me. Instead, he’s talking to the guy next to me.

“And you,” he says looking at me, “go home! Return tomorrow with a clean and pressed uniform and a better attitude, and I may allow you to wash the dishes!”

With a crooked smile, the sous chef looks at me and says, “Presentation is everything.”

My favorite blog post #5

imagesDecember 22, 2014Taking a holiday break, so here is one of my favorite blog posts, originally published on January 4, 2011. Happy Holidays!

One writer’s reality is another writer’s delusion

I once read that writer Tom Robbins of Still Life with Woodpecker fame quit his job at a bank to focus on his writing career. He called his boss and said, “I’ve been sick for many years, but I’m well today so I’m not coming in.”

I love that quote. In fact, it’s one of my favorites. It might not be as inspirational as something said by Emerson or Thoreau, but it’s clever and it made me wish for the day when I could do the same.

Funny, when you get what you think you want it’s hardly ever what you expected.

After spending the last year in the throes of unemployment, I’ve learned great deal about myself and my writing habits. I always thought if I had time, I would write more fiction, since my day job, among other tasks, was writing nonfiction.

Yet, I rarely wrote any fiction at all in the past year. Instead, I perused the job boards, grew my freelance business, created a Website to highlight my past work, and started this blog. Sure, the job search is priority and the blog features a few short stories here and there, but none were written in the past year. The point is I was given the time, I just didn’t spend it the way I envisioned.

The realization is that I enjoy writing fiction a whole lot more when it’s something I have to fit in. I suppose it’s a creative outlet from the daily grind, something that makes me joyful to think about when my time isn’t my own. I simply appreciate it more.

Writing is a solitary career and for a social person, that’s sometimes difficult. The trick is to combine the two, which I managed nicely. I could work from home or go to the office to interact with my fellow employees and still get my creative juices flowing. And I never dreaded going to work, even though I believed I needed more time to concentrate on fiction.

As much as I admire the cleverness and dedication Robbins gave his craft, I feel at home in the corporate world and in the world of my imagination. His quote still remains one of my favorites, but now that I’ve gotten to live it, I realize it needs a little tweaking to apply to me.

Note: I’m lucky that I’ve been back in the corporate world for the past three plus years now, yet I’m back to wishing I had more time to write fiction. I guess it’s true what they say about the grass being greener on the other side.

My favorite blog post #6

imagesDecember 19, 2014 – Taking a holiday break, so here is one of my favorite blog posts, originally published on May 1, 2013. Happy Holidays!

A letter to my fifth grade math tutor

Dear Ms. Kasmir:

On behalf of my parents and me, I wanted to apologize for the horrors you endured when trying to help me with my math skills.

You left my home frustrated and in tears on many occasions, especially when I didn’t make any progress, didn’t pay attention to what you were trying to show me, or dropped my pencil under the table for the umpteenth time to escape your instruction for a few seconds. You probably told yourself I was hopeless, and it turns out you were right.

According to a new study, “the size of one’s brain structure and the connections between it and other regions can help identify the children who will hardly benefit from one-on-one math instruction.” In other words, the article states we shouldn’t bother to hire math tutors for our kids because in many cases, it is useless.

That sounds harsh, yet the study indicates that scientists can predict how much a child learns from math tutoring based on the measures of brain structure and connectivity. Clearly, had this data been available in 1970, I would have been labeled as one of those children, and it would have saved both of us a lot of grief. Or, at least I could have served as an interesting outlier. Apparently, my gray matter in the right hippocampus of my brain is not as large, nor does it connect as easily to the area that relates to math problem-solving skills. Who knew?

Perhaps, like Lady Gaga, I was born this way, or it could be because my parents allowed me to roll off the bassinette, which had my head smashing onto a linoleum floor when I was an infant. A similar situation occurred two years later when my sister and her friend carried me home from the park one day via a “king seat” and I ended up taking a header on the sidewalk. You see, it’s not your fault any more than it is mine. It’s either genetics or sheer neglect; either way, we can blame my family.

I think about you now and then, and wonder what you did with your life. I know you were studying to be a teacher when you tutored me, but I heard that you decided it wasn’t the right path for you. If that is the case, I’m glad the time spent with me set you on a more appropriate course to your life’s goal.

Your first and perhaps last student,

Jane

My favorite blog post #7

grandmas-cartoon-picture-hiDecember 17, 2014 – Taking a holiday break, so here is one of my favorite blog posts, originally published on January 5, 2012. Happy Holidays!

The most special person on earth

My son was part of an ongoing game with my mother when he was younger. Each time he’d visit he asked her to make him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich because no one, not even his own loving mother, could make it as good as she could.

“Grandmom makes it special,” he would say. “With love.”

Whether he said it simply to make her feel good and shower him with more attention, or he really could taste that special ingredient that no one else apparently had, my mother devoured the compliment and the game continued for years.

Now that he’s almost 28, my mother doesn’t make him peanut butter and jelly sandwiches anymore, although she would if he asked. He adores his grandmother, and he should. But when I tell him that his grandmother isn’t the same woman who raised me, he gets that glazed look in his eyes and has no idea what I mean.

Something happens to women when they become grandmothers; they suddenly become among the most special people on earth. I adore my mother, too, but she’s different as a grandmother than she was as a mother. Not that she was overly strict or mean raising her brood, but my siblings and I didn’t get the attention that her grandchildren get. In fact, my father is fond of saying that if there’s such a thing as reincarnation, he wants to come back as one of my mother’s grandchildren.

My experience with my grandmother was quite different. I only had one, my mother’s mother who we called Gramsy, and she was already an old woman by the time I was born. I don’t remember her as a dotting grandmother. I don’t remember much at all – she passed away when I was 11 – but I do remember she wasn’t too crazy about kids in her old age. She did, however, have other attributes that made her unique and interesting. I can honestly say she fascinates me now.

Gramsy and her family were poor. I know most people struggled back then during those depression years, but they were really poor because her husband, who died when my mother was a young teen, had a heart condition and couldn’t work. From the stories my mother tells, Gramsy didn’t mind being poor. I suppose she was used to it, or didn’t want to show her kids that it bothered her. But my mother resented not having money and living a life straight from the pages of “Angela’s Ashes”. She never had new clothes and was made fun of by the other kids because she had to wear her brother’s shoes to school. She speaks frequently about those shoes, and of the times when she was lucky if she got an orange and a nickel for Christmas. She also talks about when she and her twin brother were born, they only had one infant tee shirt between them.

I’d give up an awful lot to have a conversation with Gramsy now, to see what she thought about her life. I’d love to ask about her younger days, when she first met her husband. I wish I remembered more about her personality. I can picture her clearly – my cousins used to say she looked like George Washington on the dollar bill. And she did. Her entire wardrobe consisted of house dresses (do they still make them) with nylon stockings rolled down to her knees. I remember that she had a raspy voice from smoking Viceroys, and that she loved to gamble, which is something my mother inherited.

Gramsy also had a sweet tooth and loved butter cake and jelly roll. I can still picture her walking to “the avenue” to the corner bakery whenever she stayed with us, which was frequently. She really didn’t have a home towards the end of her life and took turns staying with our family or one of my mother’s sisters’ families. Can you imagine being tossed back and forth and having no place to call your own?

I realize my son’s memories of his grandmother will be different from mine, but it’s been interesting to experience my relationship with Gramsy and his relationship with my mother, not necessarily to compare them, but to realize how wonderful the differences can be. It makes me wonder what kind of grandmother I will be when I’m blessed with grandchildren, and what my grandchildren will take away from the experience.

It is still several years away I’m sure, but I do look forward to becoming the most special person on earth.