Category Archives: writing

Scheduling Rejection

I’m a writer and right now I have a book manuscript floating around the Internet, looking for an agent. Which means, of course, that I’m collecting a lot of rejection slips (emails, really).

A lot of books and articles and blog posts purport to teach you how to deal with rejection, usually by telling you about famous authors whose novels were rejected any number of times before they were accepted. This doesn’t cheer me up or comfort me any, as all I can say is, “Well, I have way more rejections than J.D. Salinger ever did.” It’s a competition I don’t care to win.

Instead, I have decided to schedule my rejections, so that they come in a little more slowly and I can handle them, psychologically. To me, at least, getting a few rejections at a time is better than getting hundreds all at once. That would truly drive me into depression and immobility.

Actually, no one gets hundreds of rejections. Most agents have a policy of “no response means no.” This means that many of my query letters, writing samples, and submissions are lost in limbo – not a yes, not a no, just nothing. (Yes, I know the Catholic Church has given up on Limbo as a Thing. That doesn’t make my metaphor any less appropriate. But I digress.)

So, here’s my schedule: Every day I send out queries – but only three. That’s just the basics, though. Every time a get a rejection email, I cross that agency off my master list of queries sent, and I send an extra query that day. And add it to the master list, of course. The master list also contains the date the query was sent and the name of the specific agent it was addressed to, as well as the agency.

When I say “cross that agency off,” I mean it literally – I don’t delete it from the list. (Strikethrough is a function I use often in Word.) The info remains encoded in ones and in zeros. It’s just that I can’t remember the names of all the places I’ve queried. So whenever I find another potential agent, I use “Find” to see if I have sent to them, been rejected by them, or whatever. (I know there are apps like Query Tracker and just any old database that would do this for me, but I stubbornly stick to my low-tech version.)

I also use the list to keep track of any additional notes: “Closed to queries until March 1st.  Try again then.” Or “Re-query in eight weeks.” (That one’s a rarity.)

I must admit that I am running low on agents to query. I don’t think I’ve contacted every available agent in the US, but I’m having a hard time finding lists of agents who are willing to consider mysteries or lists that contain a number of agents to whom I haven’t already submitted.

I have received one semi-positive response – one agent wanted to see a copy of the whole manuscript. And another rejection email – one that I considered a good one – said that I could try them again when I had another project. Although if they didn’t want the first one, I don’t know why they’d want the sequel, which is what I’m now writing.

Maybe I should take on a different project altogether. I don’t really love the genres, but maybe a cozy mystery (if only I could think up a suitable career for the “detective” to have and a, well, cozy setting). Or a romance, though I wouldn’t be able to use my own experience to base it on. I haven’t had a “meet cute” since I met my husband, mumblemumble years ago, introduced by mutual friends at a folk festival.

Actually, what I’m working on is a sequel to the mystery novel I’ve been sending around. My theory is that publishing companies like series more than they like stand-alone novels. Or maybe I should resurrect my early attempt at a mystery novel in which I killed off my rotten-ex-boyfriend-who-almost-ruined-my-life. If that doesn’t make me feel better, I’ll kill him off again in the sequel.

 

 

Missing My Friend

Last week I received an answer to a query. An agent I had contacted about my mystery novel had asked to review my complete manuscript.

My first thought was, “I have to tell Robbin about this!” But I couldn’t.

No, Robbin doesn’t have COVID and she isn’t dead. But she had a severe stroke last month and is in a nursing home. I can’t visit her or even call her on the phone. 

Robbin has a limited range of motion on one side of her body. With the other hand, she keeps trying to pull out her trache tube, which has made her life a tennis match between hospital and nursing home. Hospital to insert the tube, and back to the nursing home until she pulls it out again. Evidently, the nursing home does not have personnel able to put in a trache.

Robbin’s daughter and husband have had “window visits” with her, and now Stu is allowed to visit her in person. Stu and Kelly phone me frequently to give me updates on her condition, though there isn’t really much to tell, except transfers to and from the hospital and occasional infections and fevers. The latest update was that they’re now treating her for pneumonia. None of it is in the least encouraging.

I fear I will never have my friend back again.

Robbin and I met when she applied for a temporary job at a publishing company where I was working. I remember seeing her credentials and editing test and thinking, “We’ve got a live one here!” She only worked at the company for a few months, but it was enough to bond us.

Robbin has been my partner in crime, my commiseration buddy, my writing cheerleader, and my test audience. We have compared notes on our mental and emotional states, bitched about our husbands, given each other gifts, talked for hours about everything or nothing much. We have crashed parties together. We have made rum balls together. (My contribution was to taste them and advise, “Needs more rum.”)

She has taken me shopping and dressed me up like her own personal Barbie. Until she came along, I didn’t know there were any colors other than beige, olive drab, and camo. She took my husband shopping too, when he needed a suit for his class reunion.

When a tornado destroyed our house and my husband and I were stuck in a Red Cross shelter, Robbin and Stu gave us a lift and the use of their credit card to get us into a motel, where we stayed for a number of weeks.

I gave Robbin the first cat she ever had (Norman), thus starting her on a long career as the local Crazy Cat Lady. We’ve supported each other and cried our way through many a feline illness and death, and reminisced about our little friends afterward. I know her cats and her little chihuahua Moochie are missing her too. (This cat would surely remind her of Sandy, or one of the many others she opened her heart and house to.)

Robbin has never been good at diplomacy. She says what she thinks and doesn’t sugarcoat it for anyone. You always know where you stand with her. She has a generous heart and a raucous laugh that I fear I will never hear again. Her absence is a hole in my life that no one else can fill.

I know that the odds are not good for her to recover from this, the second stroke she’s had. I know I will likely never get my friend back the way I knew her. And I know my feelings are as nothing compared to those of her husband and daughter.

But I wish I had the Robbin I knew back, even for just another phone call.

Mysteries I Love and Hate

Cozy mysteries are a thing, and I do not like them. As all my friends know, I am a mystery lover – I’ve even written one, which is now making the rounds of agents.

But cozy mysteries have gone too far. These are the kinds of mysteries that take place in bed and breakfasts or bookstores, that have chefs or weather forecasters as their sleuths, and exhibit little to no blood, despite the crimes. They are called cozies, I suppose because you can cuddle up with a cup of tea and read them, safe in the knowledge that nothing really bad will happen.

And the titles! Most of them are puns – usually lame – based on whatever setting they have. I just can’t bring myself to read something called Chilled to the Cone (bakeshop), Premeditated Mortar (fixer-upper), Absence of Alice (garage sales), or The Malt in Our Stars (literary pub). The “detectives” are never real police officers, obviously. And most often the (supposed) humor and (artificial) quaintness fall flat.

I must admit to reading several cozy series many years ago. These were usually ones that had a setting I was interested in or characters that were well-rounded and well-drawn, or contained cats (sometimes as the sleuth). Susan Wittig Albert did a series based on an herbalist. Diane Mott Davidson did a cooking series, complete with recipes that I never tried. There was a series, the Amanda Pepper mysteries, that was set in a Philadelphia prep school, and the Kate Fansler series, set in the English Department of a college.

One that I used to read devotedly, but finally gave up on in disgust, was Lillian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who mysteries starring retired newspaperman Jim Qwilleran and his two cats, Koko and Yum Yum. (I also like Mikado references.) The first three came out in the 60s, but there was an extensive hiatus until 1987, when the series reappeared and continued yearly until 2008, with The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers. I gave up in 1991, with The Cat Who Moved a Mountain, a dreary, supposedly amusing book set in the Potato Mountains, concerning a conflict between two clans known as the Spuds and the Taters. It was just too cozy for words.

Some writers are able to switch gears and write both cozies and grittier novels. Linda Barnes, for example, started with the Michael Spraggue mysteries set backstage at a theater but switched to the much more robust Carlotta Carlisle series when, as she said, Spraggue ran out of friends and relatives to be killed off. Carlisle, a former police officer, drives a cab in her off-hours but encounters plenty of hardened criminals and deaths. These I read whenever Barnes writes a new one.

The other cozy mysteries I read are the Mrs. Pollifax series by Dorothy Gilman. They are typical in that when you read them you know that nothing terrible will happen to any of the main or even subordinate characters (who are colorful, if unbelievable). The thing that attracts me about the Mrs. Pollifax books, other than the goofy premise that she is a grandmother who works for the CIA, is the extensive travelogues of wherever her handler sends her: Mexico, Albania, Turkey, China, Zambia, Hong Kong, etc. I find her novels soothing rather than irritating, the sort of thing I read when I’m stuck in bed with a really nasty flu.

Cozy mysteries no doubt have their place in the pantheon of mystery novels. They’re certainly popular, at least. But for the most part, I’ll take Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone or Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski over Reel Murder any day. I want believable plots; well-drawn, interesting characters; crimes that make you care what happens; and real danger. Give me early Robert Parker (before he started phoning them in) or John Sandford or Laura Lippman or even the original Nero Wolfe series, for when I want vintage mystery fiction.

Of course, I read other kinds of fiction (Gregory Maguire and Handmaid’s Tale come to mind), but mystery novels hold a special place in my to-be-read list. Let’s not mess up the genre with The Good, the Bad, and the Lemon Tart.

 

1,000 Books

It goes everywhere with me. It carries over 1,000 of my books. It hands me the one I want at a moment’s notice. It keeps track of what page I’m on without a sticky note. It defines words I don’t know and tells me how to pronounce unfamiliar words. It allows me to sort my books onto different shelves for convenience’s sake and easily find books that I own or that are available in the bookstore. It’s my most faithful companion (aside from my husband) and the best tool that I own.

It’s my ereader, in my case a Nook from Barnes & Noble, though I’m sure Amazon’s Kindle and other devices do much the same things. I’ve gone through several iterations of the Nook device over the years and downloaded the Nook reading app to my iPad. When one gets low on juice, I simply switch to another while it’s recharging.

(Of course, I will need a way to convert all those ebooks to Kindle when the time comes and Barnes & Noble either collapses or stops supporting their own devices. I have a Kindle reading app on one of the readers because there was a book I dearly loved, Rift by Liza Cody, which B&N didn’t offer. But I digress.)

I usually keep two books going at once – one fiction and one nonfiction – and switch back and forth when a chapter or essay ends, or really, whenever the mood strikes me. I have a TBR stack as long as my arm, literally, but it will never collapse on me and kill me. I take my reading addiction wherever I go, never having to resort to reading the labels on ketchup bottles to satisfy my jones.

The iPad with the Nook reading app may be my favorite of all my ereaders, because it allows me to switch to other apps, check my email, messages, and Facebook timeline easily. And it has a snazzy purple case. My second favorite is my Nook tablet, which allows me to do many of the same things and also has a nifty keyboard should I ever want to answer messages, though to tell the truth, I seldom use it. I got that feature so I could blog on the go, but the WordPress app seems unable to accommodate me. The tablet has a spiffy black cover with a magnet to hold it open or closed, and a hinge so I can set it upright should I ever decide to use the keyboard. My third ereader is a basic Nook that fits in my purse.

My husband insisted I get him an ereader too, though he hardly ever uses it. He got one that fits in his back pocket and is linked to my account so he can read any of my thousand books as well. I make sure to buy ones that he enjoys, like Slaughterhouse-Five, A Canticle for Leibowitz, and Fanny Hill, and I introduce him to new ones, like Let’s Pretend This Never Happened.

My one complaint about my ereader is that it does not do pictures well. Once I had a subscription to Barnes & Noble’s version of  National Geographic. The photographs that appeared there were less than impressive. You expect impressive photos from National Geographic. Even the pictures in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children did not reproduce well. And the hand-written letters – I basically had to skip them, even though they contributed a lot to the plot.

Still, I am willing to overlook those flaws. As I get older and my eyes get worse (doc says I’m in line to develop cataracts), I’m going to need my ereader, where I can bump up the point sizes, more than ever. And purses large enough to contain them. Maybe I should carry a needlepoint tote like all the craft ladies I know – containing no yarn. Just 1000 books.

 

How the Pandemic Changed My Life

The pandemic has changed lots of peoples’ lives. They’ve taken up new hobbies, learned new skills, and bonded more closely with family and friends. They’ve learned what things mean the most to them and what they miss the most. Some have lived in fear and others have found new strength.

Post-Pandemic

As for me, since the pandemic struck last spring, I have been working from home, on my Macintosh. Because of that I can – and do – spend most days as well as nights in my pajamas. I have not had my hair or nails done since March.

I no longer go out, except for vital appointments like visits to doctors. I have a mask (actually I have two – one leopard print and one camo) and I wear one or the other religiously whenever I do go out. In general, when I do go out or want to look even semi-respectable, I pull my hair back into the fortunate ‘do known as a messy bun – my favorite of all the recent fashion styles.

My husband takes care of most of the errands, such as grocery shopping. He’s not able to work from home, so most days are very quiet, allowing me to do my work and my writing.

Speaking of writing, I have had time to work on my mystery novel. It’s now in shape to where I can send queries to agents and start collecting rejection slips. (I’ve done this before and am used to them.) I haven’t taken up any other hobbies. I have resisted the allure of homemade bread and jam and homemade Christmas decorations as well.

I don’t really have pandemic panic. First of all, I have a third-degree black belt in social distancing. I have no aesthetic, medical, or political objection to masks. And I’ve mastered the art of creative procrastination.

My philosophy has for a long time been not to worry about things I can’t do anything about, and to postpone worrying until the looming whatever-it-is actually hits. So far the pandemic has not invaded our house (not to put a kinnehara on it). Since I have been taking all necessary precautions, I won’t worry about it until it does.

That said, I can’t really say that I miss my life before the pandemic. You see, it has changed almost not at all.

Pre-Pandemic

I’ve worked from home for a number of years, so that’s no challenge for me. And I can just sit down at my computer and work on my novel as I always have. My typical uniform has always been pajamas, or a nightshirt when the weather is pleasant. I never had much of a social life anyway, mostly conducted by phone and computer. For “formal” Zoom meetings, I could half-dress, which is still true.

I not only haven’t had my hair and nails done since March, I haven’t had them done in years. (Unless you count clipping my nails, which I do regularly, or biting them, which I do occasionally.) 

Also, pre-pandemic, it was rare for me to leave the house, except for doctor’s appointments. And when I did this before the pandemic, I didn’t wear a mask, of course, not even for Halloween or when robbing banks. (I wonder how bank personnel feel about having masked people coming into the branches that are open. It must be at least a little unnerving. But I digress.)

My husband has always done the grocery and most other shopping, as he works in a big box store that has a grocery section. He has worked third shift for years, so it’s always been quiet, both during the morning when he sleeps and at night when he works.

I still have all the things that are important to me – my husband, my home, my work, my novel, my cats, enough food, and my medications (which can be picked up at a drive-through). The pandemic so far has taken none of them away. There is almost nothing I miss.

Except going out for lunch. We’ve done take-out, but it’s just not the same. At home, the cats bug us shamelessly for little nibbles of whatever we’re having. Even if they don’t like the food, they can’t resist sticking their little noses in. At least in proper restaurants, there are no intrusive noses.

 

A Room of My Own

So, we bought a house, a couple of decades ago. It had three bedrooms, which seems a lot, since there’s only my husband and myself. We seldom had overnight guests, and when we did there was a pull-out sofa bed.

What did we do with the two extra rooms? Media center? Exercise room? Yoga studio?

No. One became my study. I needed a place to write my stories, articles, blogs, books, and draft my novel. Someplace where I wouldn’t be disturbed (or could be as disturbed as I like).

Then, of course, so my husband shouldn’t be left out, the other spare room became a study, too. It wasn’t a “man cave,” since neither one of us believes in those things. But it was a place where he could store his curios and fossils, watch TV or do research on the computer, hang his favorite artworks, house his books and DVDs, and just generally kick back.

Then along came the tornado that destroyed our house. It gave me the opportunity to start all over with my study, make it into my refuge as well as my writing space, and decorate it from the ground up – literally.

I’ve included a few pictures of my study for illustration purposes. It’s not really as orange as it looks in the photos, more the clay-like color of used bricks. The carpet is a deep tan. The ceiling, blinds, and windowsills are white. The furniture is a collection of different colored woods, including both new and used pieces. Several of them have electrical outlets and USB ports to accommodate my collection of electronic spaghetti.

Here’s a few highlights of my study:

  • a desk and desk chair, of course, facing a window
  • a bookcase, of course
  • a Mac desktop computer
  • a two-drawer wooden file cabinet that serves as a printer stand
  • my Cornell diploma and an EdPress award
  • a comfy chair in a color called spice, just a shade or two deeper than the walls
  • several pieces of art, including a piece of calligraphy by Dr. Masaaki Hatsumi and a drawing by Debbie Ohi with a quote from Neil Gaiman
  • a Venice carnival-style cat mask
  • a TV and a stand for it, which will also hold my Mr. Coffee machine
  • a cat tree by the window (the window sills are also wide enough for them)
  • assorted plush animals, knick-knacks, and such travel souvenirs as survived the tornado
  • a lamp and a tissue box made to look like old books
  • a concrete armadillo, which serves as my doorstop

I don’t have as many books as I used to, which I know to some is a sacrilege, but now I have them on my e-readers. I still have print copies of The Annotated Alice, The Annotated Gilbert & Sullivan, and several signed mystery and science fiction novels. My CD collection is likewise gone, replaced by iTunes on my computer and my iPod. I have a few DVDs that are special to me, which will reside in my TV stand, along with more plush animals and knick-knacks.

My study is far from finished. I still don’t know how to disguise or hide the powerstrips. Some of the artwork needed restoring, and much of it still needs hanging. My bookshelf is new (to me) and needs to be filled. Somewhere in the basement, I have a decorative wall-hanging brass shelf that I haven’t quite figured out where to put.

At any rate, it’s still a work in progress, but rapidly taking shape. It’s warm and cozy, relatively quiet (after the neighbors get their houses built, I mean). And it feels good to have, as Virginia Woolf said, “a room of one’s own.”

 

Primitive Blogging

I know it’s going to be the modern equivalent of “I walked 30 miles to school in the snow. Uphill. Both ways.” But a lot of us are going to be saying, “I had to use floppy disks to add software to my computer. The printer was dot matrix. The monitor was one color – either amber or green,” and watching kids gawp in disbelief. (There’s a song with the line, “We programmed in ones and in zeroes. And sometimes we ran out of ones.” But I digress.)

At the moment, however, I am experiencing another sort of primitive computing – my environment.

I used to have a nice study. Large desk with drawers and cubbyholes. Printer stand/file cabinet. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Many pieces of artwork on the walls. The lighting wasn’t quite what I might have wanted, but, hey, you can’t have everything. I had a window for natural sunlight and an overhead room light.

That was in the days when we had a house, and the house had three bedrooms. One of them was my study and the other was my husband’s. He kept his computers, TV, DVDs, fossils, and who-knows-what-else in there. (The third, naturally, we used as an actual bedroom.) It was perfect, or as nearly as one is likely to get.

Now, and for the next couple of months, circumstances have forced us to live in a one-bedroom apartment. The bedroom, again naturally, is used for sleeping, which leaves me for a study – practically nothing. I can’t set up my computer in a corner of the bedroom because A) the room is too small, and B) my husband sleeps days, when I most need to compute.

What does that leave for a study? The utility room, where the water heater lives and the washer and dryer are supposed to go. There’s no room for an actual desk, so my husband constructed me a rustic platform from four totes containers with three planks balanced across the top. It’s just wide enough for my computer and keyboard (though the Mac does get to jostling a bit when I really get going typing). The planks are long enough to hold the printer, too. I have a proper desk chair, but not much else. Except boxes of belongings that we have nowhere else to store. It’s a claustrophobic existence.

(My husband’s “study” is the breakfast bar and a kitchen stool. No fossils except a couple of desiccated potatoes that need to be escorted outside.)

Unfortunately, with my makeshift desk taking up so much room, a laundry setup is out of the question. We’re back to scrounging for quarters so we can do laundry in the complex’s communal facility. And I make my husband do that. I’ve read too many true crime books about women who were killed in their building’s laundry room.

There’s also the noise. The water heater makes strange gurgles at irregular intervals, which breaks my concentration, and my husband watches TV during my prime working time (our schedules are just a wee bit peculiar). Which wouldn’t be so bad, if he didn’t watch the Screaming and Explosions Channel. (I think we get it on Roku.)

And then there’s the smell. Gentle floral scents wafting through my room with a quiet hiss every now and then – to cover up the scent of the litter box, which I also share with my utility room, our two cats, a scooper, and a whisk broom.  I’m not sure whether the air freshener is beneficial to the cats – or to me – but I try to pretend I’m walking past the beauty counter at a posh department store and trying to avoid the perfume snipers.

This is the environment in which I must do not only my blogging, but my transcription work till the end of August. I suppose one can get used to anything for a couple of months, especially if it means money still comes in, but one thing I know for sure – the litter box is NOT going to be in my new study once I get one.

 

Meeting With a Publisher

The other week, I met with a local editor/publisher, David Braughler of Braughler Books, to pick his brains about the publishing industry and how I could find someone to take on my recently self-published books. (It’s a long story. See https://wp.me/p4e9wS-118.) This was suggested to me by a friend from the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, which I attended a few years back. Actually, I had met Mr. Braughler at that workshop, too, but only spent ten minutes talking to him.

So, here’s what I learned about meeting with a publisher.

First, it’s necessary to dither (at least for me, it is). I wanted to make a good impression, so I had to overplan every aspect of the situation. Where was the Starbucks we were supposed to meet at? What should I order? Would I even know how to order from their arcane menu, this being my first time at any Starbucks? Honey Citrus Mint Tea? Short Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate with 2% Milk? And OMG, what should I wear?

The next thing I discovered was that I needed to be prepared (yes, I was a Girl Scout). I rounded up copies of my two books. I got a small notebook to record any suggestions and placed it in my purse. I acquired a small thumb drive and loaded my work in progress on it, just in case. (I was going to ask for advice about that, too.)

And I followed the publishing company on Facebook and checked out the company online – how long they’d been in business, how many books they’d published, testimonials from satisfied authors, etc. Best to be able to ask a few intelligent questions or make knowledgeable remarks.

Then I started the conversation. What I most wanted to know about was promotion and marketing. I made a list of all the things I had done to promote my first book and ideas I had for the second book. Mr. Braughler validated the things I had done for the first book (a reading/signing, postings on Facebook) and some additional ones I had done or planned for the second book (an ad on Jenny Lawson’s blog page, since our audiences overlap) and an email to an author I know whose WIP is in the same genre as mine. (I never got a chance to give my WIP to Mr. Braughler, but I did give him copies of my two published books.)

I paid attention and made notes. I wrote down the info about the local authors’ day. I made notes on how to convert Word files to Mobi or to convert Kindle to Mobi (the software is free at Amazon) in case I wanted to take advantage of Amazon’s services in order to resurrect my first book, which was going out of print. I asked about Kirkus Reviews and received a suggestion about getting free reviews in writers’ or subject matter newsletters. He told me about a local library that has monthly author days and a local university that has a free workshop.

I followed up. I called the library and booked a date to participate in the local author day (assuming the libraries will be open again in May), and noted their suggestion that I get signage and a credit card reader for the occasion. I wrote to the author about my WIP and received a nice email back. I went ahead with the Jenny Lawson ad and am still debating the Kirkus  Review and an IngramSpark ad. I connected with alumni newsletters from my alma mater.

I evaluated what I learned. Mr. Braughler told me I was doing many of the right things when it came to promoting my books. I discarded the idea about producing a Kindle edition because of all the software hassle and went with IngramSpark to get my second book published and my first back in circulation. I learned that I should keep doing what I had been doing, only more of it.

I am grateful to Mr. Braughler for taking the time to talk to a local author and found the 30-minute conversation very informative and helpful. If in the future I need the services of a hybrid publisher, I shall certainly go to him. In the meantime, I will do my best to put into practice his wise suggestions and hope they will help my books, Bipolar Me and Bipolar Us, go viral.

Don’t Mention It

Headline writers – love ’em or hate ’em. Sometimes they write hilarious headlines (though usually unintentionally) like “Murder victims seldom talk to police.” Those are the ones that make me laugh.

Then there are the ones that piss me off – the ones where the headline writer (usually not the same person that wrote the story) feels compelled to tell the world a woman’s reproductive status as if it were vital to the story. You know the ones I mean:

Grandmother locks intruder in basement

Mother of three wins science prize

Mom of the Year saved from serial killer

In each of these cases, the news is that someone foiled an intruder, won a prize, or escaped a terrible fate. If you must say it was a woman, which may or may not be relevant to the story, at least leave out whether she has managed to reproduce.

“Grandmother” headlines usually indicate that an older woman accomplished something. What do they put if she’s not a grandmother? That’s right, they focus on her age. “75-year-old woman locks intruder in basement.” I say, pick one. Either “75-year-old locks intruder in basement” or “Woman locks intruder in basement.” That’s enough information to make me want to read the story.

Or use a sex-neutral term: “Professor won science prize.” “Kettering resident locks intruder in basement.” “Intended victim saved from serial killer.” And think about it. You never see a headline that says “Father of three runs for city council.”  Deep down, the writers know that reproductive status is irrelevant to the story – as long as it’s a man who’s done something worth mentioning.

I also despise what is known as “inspiration porn” – those stories that tell how some brave boy invites a disabled girl to the prom. There’s always a photo so we can see that she uses a wheelchair, or has Down’s Syndrome, or something. We all applaud the boy for being so courageous and understanding.

These stories, while they may be meant to demonstrate that a person with a disability can still “live a normal life,” actually stress that it is rare enough an event for it to be news. The boy is the hero of the story, with the girl merely a prop for his altruistic nature. He’s seen as doing good by asking an “otherwise-undateable” partner to the dance. Frankly, I’d be embarrassed to be singled out in the news as either one of the couple.

Then there was Chopped, which I watched the other night. One of the guest judges had a prosthetic hand, a hook sort of arrangement. I was so pleased to see that no one even mentioned it, as it was not relevant to whether the man had a discerning palate.

Eventually, it was mentioned – by the man himself – during a discussion of harvesting stinging nettles. (He said that when foraging for them, he “used the hook.”) At that point, one of the other judges asked about it, respectfully, “if you don’t mind sharing,” and the guest judge told how he lost his lower arm to electrocution and should have died. I give all the Chopped team credit for carrying on as usual. Until and unless the man brought up the subject himself, I doubted that anyone would have said a word.

True, judge Chris Santos might have refrained from asking about the disability even then, but at least he had a legitimate opening. And once asked, the gentleman couldn’t easily back out of acknowledging his difference and answering the question on TV. But it was handled with a modicum of sense and sensibility.

It’s also worth mentioning that Guy Fieri often introduces contestants on his Food Network game show as a “father of twin girls” or “dad to five children” as often as he refers to mothers and their kids. American Ninja Warriors also announces the reproductive status of its participants, usually in heartwarming featurettes about Dad training with his kids.

I know “grandmother” stories are thought to be more interesting. I know that prom stories make people feel warm and fuzzy. I know that. But they also reduce people to stereotypes – a mom, a person with a disability. Maybe someday these aspects will not be deemed newsworthy, but until then such stories (or at least headlines) will continue to be written.

 

 

Hyphens and Help

So, I was an editor, but I was not the editor. There were editors over me – way too many of them. The company I worked for published several magazines and each one had an editor. I worked on all the publications and for all the editors. Sometimes I felt like I was a bone, with a pack of dogs fighting over me.

Then there was the executive editor, nominally in charge of all the other editors and a really great boss. He was a pleasure to work for.

There were other employees that I had to please as well – art directors, production managers, the Big Boss, and any number of others. It was a balancing act, or more likely, a juggling act. But I thought I had mastered it.

One day, one of the publication editors decided to take a completely new approach to the hyphenation of adjectives. She was a little old lady, well known for sending in manuscripts hand-written on cash register receipts and soap wrappers. Still, she was the founding editor of that particular magazine and she knew the content, the authors, and the industry better than anyone alive.

But there was the hyphenation. It was idiosyncratic and defied all rules of grammar and punctuation that I knew. Nor was it the first time that this editor had gone off on a stylistic tangent. I had memories of the times she had insisted that her odd notions of punctuation and grammar be adhered to.

The first person I saw after the hyphenation edict came down was the production manager. I ranted. I explained exactly how weird her system of hyphenation was. I told him what was wrong with it and why the way we had been doing it was perfectly fine.

“Well, you’ve got to consider that she’s 100 years old,” he said. (She wasn’t quite, but close.) “She’s set in her ways. She’s used to being in charge.” With every word, he expressed how unreasonable it was for me to be upset and how I ought to give in to her notions of proper punctuation. “Let her have her way,” he advised.

I left his desk deeply unsatisfied. Then I went to the executive editor. I went through the same spiel – the magazine editor, the “novel” method of hyphenation, what a hassle it would be, and how ridiculous it would look.

“Tch, tch,” he said.  “Isn’t that awful?” He said it without a trace of irony or condescension. I truly felt that he had heard me and sympathized.

And that was all I really wanted. I didn’t need explanations of why the batty editor had come up with this idea. I didn’t need ways to cope with her insane notions. I didn’t need to learn how to acquiesce gracefully to her punctuation regime.

What I needed was someone to understand.

It’s like that sometimes. There are times when you need advice and there are times when you just need to vent. It is the wise boss – or friend or spouse – who can recognize which time is which.

J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote, “Advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise,” and that’s the truth. Sometimes advice is unwanted; sometimes it’s unneeded; sometimes it’s intrusive.

I’ve noticed that men often have an immediate response that when something is complained about, it needs to be fixed, so they offer advice. (This is not always true. The executive boss who listened to my rant was male and he never proffered a single suggestion. But my husband, who has a “fix-it” complex, took time to learn this lesson.)

So did I, when it comes right down to it. I have friends who have lots of problems (and who doesn’t). Many times I tried to give advice to one of them or offer solutions to her problems, but they always met with stubborn explanations of why they couldn’t possibly work. Now I simply offer sympathy and a willing ear and I think we are both more content. She has a sounding board and I don’t sound like a know-it-all.

It’s a tough lesson to learn, especially for those of us raised on Ann Landers and Dear Abby. Sometimes advice is not what’s needed. Sometimes it’s just a little understanding.