A Dog’s Life

As long as she gets to chase the ball, our 70 pound Labradoodle Chloe is happy.  Reward her with a little treat and she’ll  drop it at our feet so we’ll throw it out for her to fetch again.  “Retrievers love balls,” our vet explained during a visit, “it’s a trait of the breed.”  The need to pursue a traveling object, pounce on it, chew it and feel proud. The simplicity of her delight fascinates me.  

It doesn’t matter if we throw that ball at the beach or across a meadow, she is after it. Some days I watch Chloe, now nine years old, first roll on her back and then sniff the ground and feel reassured that it’s the basics that matter. We don’t need a lot, just a walk out in the world and a few rounds of chasing the ball.  

So many odors and smells. She stops at each corner to check out a new scent at the base of a boxwood bush or clutch of daffodils. It is spring and everything is blooming. Neighbors impress me with their plantings of yellow and purple pansies. The cherry blossoms are at their peak. The robins have returned and they are singing to their mates. I don’t know the names of all the shrubs, but I see red, pink and orange petals mixed in with the green hedges and patches of lavender creeping phlox in gardens. Does Chloe see the colors, or is smell such a predominant sense for her that the colors are insignificant?

Chloe retrieving at Old Woman’s Cove in Annapolis, Maryland USA.

I did a little online research and learned that dogs see colors differently from humans. They have what is called dichromatic vision and see only blue and yellow.  Dogs, however, have more cells in their eyes than humans specifically  designed for distinguishing low light and identifying moving objects.  Moving objects. I think of that rolling ball. Like a color blind human who doesn’t see all the colors, to Chloe a blue ball and a purple ball look the same. Her strong sense of smell enables her to verify which ball is hers and helps her follow it into a thick patch of vines.

What ball am I chasing? The enigmatic perfect story? The right combination of words that flow together into a satisfying sentence? Often it is those times when walking, breathing deeply, listening and observing small changes around me that I get the best ideas.

I’ve gotten my two shots of the Moderna  Covid-19 vaccine and enough time has passed that it is safe for me to socialize with other vaccinated  family and friends. Socialize. Sit at a table together inside. What a small thing to be grateful for and grateful I am. We’re not completely done with the global pandemic—yet.  The New York Times reported on April 10th that coronavirus cases in the USA had gone up by  12 percent. 81,769 cases of Covid- 19 adds up to a lot of sick people. Deaths have gone down by 25 percent in the last two weeks, but 926 people dying is still too many.  It’s tempting to pick up life as I remember it before March 2020— but instead I think I’ll take a walk.  We’ll grab the leash, bring Chloe, and maybe throw that ball.

Labradoodle with ball.
Relaxing with her ball.

Easter 2021 Helps Redefine Normal

A blue sky and green shoots popping out of the ground gives me hope that soon, thanks to the work of many hard working scientists and healthcare workers, we who have been vaccinated can start to meet in person. Zoom and Facebook are fine up to a point, but nothing can quite substitute for seeing someone’s smiling face (without the mask).

We’ll still have to be reticent with our embraces and we’ll never be quite so carefree about giving kisses as greetings, but maybe because we’ve become more mindful out of habit—those physical contacts will become that much more meaningful.

This year, the neighborhood Easter hunt had to be held in shifts. Too many children at one time would prevent appropriate social distancing. The good news is that the Easter Hunt took place. But for many of us with memories of the frantic competition between all the little hands searching, probing, and reaching for those hidden eggs, a socially distanced Easter Egg hunt seems a shadowy imitation of the real thing.

One of my favorite spring shrubs– Azaleas.

I attended a Zoom memorial service last week and one thing I missed tremendously was the singing. How can attendees, without advance preparation, sing a hymn together remotely. It can’t be done. You also can’t look directly into the eyes of the bereaved and express your condolences in the same way as if you were meeting in person. The eulogies themselves were eloquent and the video camera provided an unencumbered view of the orator. Plus there was no background noise: no crying babies, whispering, or sobbing. The photographs shared with the audience were presented well, accompanied by musical recordings, part of the life work of the deceased, a professional soprano. But a sense of a group sharing space as they mourned was absent. This must be why so many people, despite seeing movies streamed at home, are anxious to once again see films in a movie theater.

We’re just on the cusp of returning to the world we left in Spring 2019, only it’s not going to be quite the same world. Many businesses have closed permanently. Some of those people who are currently working remotely will continue to do so as offices scale back in size. Too many people lost their jobs and struggled to pay for food and shelter, exposing the deep inequities in our society. Many are still unemployed. Some are being retrained and pursing new careers. Still others, seeing so much death around them, have decided to retire.

The world is about to be rebooted, reborn. This is the cycle of life and the symbolism of Easter. We do the best we can. We are all imperfect. I hope the experience of living through a Global Pandemic will make us a little more grateful for what we have and a little more humble.

To Blog or Not to Blog? What You Can Learn From Blogging

My first blog post is dated February 3, 2008.  It has no photographs. One long paragraph, it is visually unappealing.  More akin to a journal entry, describing my early morning walk downtown for coffee, it captures what was on my mind.  I called it “I Love My Dog.”   

Walking Grace, coffee in hand, on a winter morning in Annapolis.

My boss, the publisher of the magazine where I was working told me to start blogging. I originally named it “Write On Annapolis.” According to research at that time, the more blog posts the better. She was trying to increase traffic to the publication website and I was told to keep my blogs short and provide plenty of links to both our magazine content and other websites. 

The website editor suggested that my blog address be an exterior one and set me up on WordPress. My blogging goal was to attract readers from the world wide web who were not necessarily magazine subscribers. It turns out, he did me a huge favor.

The magazine’s website was rebuilt several times and my old articles have vanished, but the content of my original blog remains. Last time I checked, I’ve published 367 posts. Some are trivial and brief and other reveal the thoughts preeminent in my mind. As we are often cautioned, whatever we post online is part of our permanent record. I therefore also keep a sporadic private journal.

The word blog is defined as both a website with personal reflections as well as a feature column or article series in an online publication. If you want to share something with the world longer than a sentence on Facebook, Twitter or another social media site, you write a blog. A blog comes in all shapes an sizes and can be composed of photos, poems, incomplete sentences or scholarly articles. A blog can be used as a media platform to share art.  Or it can solely be a communication tool to sell products and ideas.

I often think about what I’d like to write about while sitting with my labradoodle Chloe.

From a marketing standpoint bloggers are advised to keep their sentences short. Simple prose is best. Choose words that will attract search engines and drive traffic to your website. Google keywords can help you with that. Break up your content with bolded headings. Add photographs. The most popular photographs will include people and pets. The optimal blog length is longer than 350 words and shorter than 700 words.  I frequently break these rules.

Puppy photos are always a hit! These are two of Grace’s puppies.

 Blogging has evolved into a money making enterprise for some writers. The more readers they can entice to view their blog, the more revenue they will collect. But I’m not blogging for the money. Iff I gear my format and content towards making false promises of fortune, fame, instant health or happiness where is the artistic fulfilment? I’m blogging to communicate what’s on my mind. If it makes someone smile or provide new insight, I’m satisfied.

One year ago, when the Covid-19 Pandemic  caused the world shut down, I committed myself to writing a post each week.  Thirteen years of blogging is a long time, and over the years my blogging has escalated and waned. But certainly in this time of self-imposed isolation, the blogging provides a tangible outreach to the world. When the next generation asks me what I was doing during the Pandemic, I’ll have something they can read.

Taking your dog to the park or the beach is something you can do in a Pandemic.

Hill Street Blues Still Relevant in 2021

 “Do you remember Hill Street Blues?” A few weeks ago, my husband Peter and I  were reminiscing about old TV shows.  Both of us agreed, Hill Street Blues was one of our favorites. Our conversation jumped to the characters: the unruffled police captain Frank Furillo, level headed detective Neal Washington, and the articulate sergeant Esterhaus who concludes each morning roll call with the adage, “You be careful out there.” 

We each had a particular scene that stuck in our mind. Who could forget detective Mick Belker who relished raw onions and growled when in pursuit of malevolent suspects?  Or what about Lieutenant Howard Hunter, inherently suspicious of anyone with a foreign name,  who always wanted to shoot first and talk later? Googling online to find one episode to watch, just for old time’s sake, I learned the entire seven season series is available on Hulu.  My intention, to watch the show as a research project, to ascertain in which city the series was supposed to take place and whether the story lines were as good as we remembered. They were. And we were hooked.  As soon as Lieutenant Hunter spoke his first lines, it was evident that he could easily swap out his navy baseball style cap for a red cap with the initials MAGA, and he’d fit right in to present day. 

Unfortunately for all of us, the many problems confronting police as well as advocates of social justice remain. The series Hill Street Blues handled many of these issues in the early 80’s with remarkable sensitivity. Most of the members of the TV Land  Hill Street Police Department have compassion for the less fortunate members of their community. They put their lives on the line to combat crime. Overworked and underfunded, they try to work within the system.  Too bad we haven’t managed to make much progress in real life.

For readers who have never watched Hill Street Blues, it was a one of the first multi-story line television dramas that featured an ensemble cast and used hand held cameras to capture the gritty texture of life in an imperfect world. The setting, an unnamed city, represented all cities that were struggling with many of the issues we still struggle with forty years later. Urban decay, gang warfare, immigration, an overworked welfare system, neglected children, displaced seniors, racism, greed, and corruption: are just a sampling of the topics the Hill Street Blues tackled in 146 episodes.  In their very first year, the series received eight Emmy Awards including Outstanding Drama Series. Over seven seasons they continued to wrack up numerous nominations each year resulting in a total of 26 Emmy wins.  

Outside scenes for the pilot were filmed in Chicago. Subsequent filming took place in  CBS Studio Center and on location on the streets of Los Angeles. The intent, was to make viewers believe the Hill Street Police Station might be located in one of several cities— Pittsburgh, Buffalo, New York or Chicago.  Inside the police station, the diversity of the force  and the suspects they arrest is eye-popping. Particularly when looking at the many faces as each episode begins: old, young, fat, thin, tall short, Black, White, Hispanic, Asian and a somewhat equal number of women to male officers, the producers seem to have made a point of hiring a wide variety of extras to populate the Hill Street Station. Unlike most Hollywood productions, these are not “pretty people.”

Random extras from an episode of Hill Street Blues

This got me to contemplating who or what was missing if the same series were to be re-introduced in 2021. While there are women on the Hill Street force, there are no women in leadership roles, particularly women of color, although officer Lucy Bates ( the only performer on the series to be nominated for an award each and every year as best supporting actress and 1985 winner ) does eventually get promoted to the rank of Sergeant. Public Defender Joyce Davenport is admired by her colleagues for her intelligence, but is also ogled for her “good legs”.

LGBT characters are not present and  although Asian Americans are on the force, none have a lead role. No men of color serve in high profile leadership roles within the police department and governing administration. Several lead characters are Jewish, but there are no Moslems. 

Immigration status issues chiefly pertain to Mexico and South American countries, thus missing are immigrants that might be arriving from war torn regions of Africa or the Middle East.  Lieutenant Ray Calletano is second in command, but maybe if the show was ever reprised he should be Captain. That would enable Frank Furillo, affectionately known as Pizza Man by his lover Ms. Davenport, an opportunity to sail off into the sunset  and get that much needed break he deserves. Or maybe he could take over as Police Commissioner and run things the right way, without all the political maneuvering. 

What captivated me most about the Hill Street Blues officers was their empathy for their colleagues and the community. They wanted to do a good job. In real life, 2021, many of our cities are served by underfunded overworked police departments.  We still have a long road ahead of us to get things right. It takes courage to see the humanity in attempting to remedy injustice with compassion. 

The British Royals, Race, and Bridgerton

I watched several episodes of “Bridgerton” last week and with all the bruhaha about the British Royal family, the timing couldn’t have been better.  For those who may not be familiar, “Bridgerton” is an opulent romance series released by Netflix on Christmas 2020 and set in Regency era Britain. The plotline, as with all romances, is all about arranged marriages and finding true love. But unlike the original Bridgerton novel series, this world of kings and queens, dukes and duchesses dressed in resplendent finery is interracial. The handsome young men and women who attend the various grand balls, all in pursuit of the perfect match to enhance their standing in society, have skin tones that range from dark brown to pale beige. And it is a beautiful sight to behold on the screen, as the string orchestra begins to play and the various characters dance a cotillion, their eyes longingly fixed on one another, until it’s time for a partner change.

The alternate realty of a multi-racial world of upper class Brits in 1813 is inspiring. I’d love it if they’d thought to also include Eastern Asians, Native Americans, as well as Ashkenazi and Sephardic peoples, but perhaps I am stretching too far. The inspiration for the interracial casting was Queen Charlotte of Meklenburg- Strelitz, wife of  King George III, mother of fifteen children including George IV, who became Regent in 1811 due to his father’s mental illness ( thus the term Regency era). Queen Charlotte, who hailed from a small north German Duchy, is thought by some historians to be bi-racial based on a genealogical connection to Margarita de Castro y Sousa black member of the Portuguese royal family. Whether this is true or false, it provides a launching point for the alternate reality of the Netflix Bridgerton and an interracial society propelled by love. As Lady Danbury explains to Simon, Duke of Hastings, “ Look at our queen. Look at our king. Look at their marriage. Look at everything it is doing for us, allowing us to become…We were two separate societies, divided by color, until a king fell in love with one of us. Love, your Grace… conquers all.”

“Love conquers all,” , counsels Lady Danbury.

George’s love for Charlotte in the created Netflix Bridgerton has broken color boundaries. The result in this alternate universe is that people of black ancestry have become accepted into the ranks of the nobility. It’s a beautiful world. Pure escapism, complete with grand country houses and castles. This is, however, an imperfect world with petty jealousy, selfishness, greed, slums and workhouses. Regardless of the interracial nobility, it is still a traditional class society.  Perhaps if they come back for a second season they can take on social inequity, but in Season I the focus is on appearance.

Meanwhile in a Twenty-first century world wracked by a pandemic, the grandson of the British Monarch  Queen Elizabeth II, former Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle were interviewed by Oprah Winfrey on March 7, 2021.  The program, filmed in Southern California where the couple and their young son are living, had a record 17 million viewers.  Meghan Markle is bi-racial. At the time of their marriage in 2018, the entire globe was hailing the union as a symbolic sign of the ultimate crumbling of race barriers. The former British empire is composed of many black and brown citizens. Colonialist practices thrived on the concept of White Caucasian superiority. Many pundits saw the marriage as an opportunity for the British Royal family to redefine their image in a meaningful way by more closely resembling the population of the Commonwealth.

One topic of discussion explored in the interview  was how Meghan and Harry felt about the British Royal family’s attitude towards race. And how they felt, in brief,  based on what they heard and observed, were that some members of the British Royal  family are racists. 

Immediately the British Family got defensive. They didn’t feel this was true.  The official response included the sentences:  “The issues raised, particularly that of race, are concerning. While some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately.” 

The official response also includes the sentence,  “Harry, Meghan and Archie will always be much loved family members.” Much loved. That takes me back to the Bridgerton quote “Love Your Grace conquers all.” If only whoever  made the callous remark about what color they might expect baby Archie’s skin to be could have watched, “Bridgerton.” But Archie was born in May 2019 before the series was released. Well another baby is on the way. Another opportunity to make amends? Only time will tell.

As it is, Harry and Meghan have purchased a house in the USA and will be creatively working on developing feature films, programming and documentaries for none other than Netflix.  A fairytale ending? Maybe. The formal Royal titles and duties may have been dropped and re-assigned, but in many people’s eyes they are still Prince and Princess.

Books. Placing Words on the Page. March Reading Suggestions.

I haven’t been visiting the library lately.  The pandemic has limited my visits  to curbside pick-ups and quick dashes in and out to get something specific. So I missed out on browsing the February display of books for Black History Month and the March display of books promoting Women’s History. 

These topics, however, shouldn’t be a one-month-a-year exercise.  Black History, Women’s History, Asian History, Native American History— they belong in our consciousness twelve months a year as part of the standard history curriculum.  The arrival of spring however, prompted me to use  this space to recommend a book. 

My recommendation: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo.

Girl, Woman, Other a novel by Bernadine Evaristo won the 2019 Booker Prize along with The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. I read both books, or I should clarify that I listened to both books; and important detail when discussing Girl, Woman, Other. As a Margaret Atwood fan and a fan of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” series , listening to The Testaments was a guilty pleasure.  Girl, Woman, and Other was an interactive journey.

 Girl, Woman, Other was my first exposure to Evaristo’s work. I found it to be entertaining, but more importantly—as a writer studying the craft it opened up new ways to approach narrative structure on the page by eliminating traditional sentences.  No capitalization and no periods mean the positioning of the words on the page tell the reader when to pause and when to link phrases together. This approach has been compared to poetry. Certainly, this work cries out to be read aloud, which is why listening to it was so pleasurable. However, read it silently to yourself, and you’ll notice the spacing and positioning of the words forces you to hear each word. You cannot read this book quickly. It must be savored.

Told in five chapters that initially seem to be unconnected stories, gradually the relationships between the twelve characters in the novel are revealed. These are stories about women of color, people of various sexual orientations and ages– mothers, daughters, grandmothers, friends, lovers, spouses.  The story arc traverses several generations. If you are looking for a book to  begin exploring  the role of women in  multiple cultures, this book is a great choice.

Other books I’ve read and enjoyed by women writers recently include, Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmere , Barkskins by Annie Proux , Landslide by Susan Conley, Trust Exercise by Susan Choi, The Murmur of Bees by Sofia Segovia, and Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T. Kira Madden. Happy reading.

If you have a book you’d like to suggest, please share. 

Now That We’ve Got the Vaccine —When Will Normal Return?

We’ve almost achieved a Covid-19 vaccination rate of 15% in the United States. Each day I see more and more postings on Facebook, friends sharing their elation at receiving their first dose of either the Moderna or Pzfizer vaccine. Many people in the approved groups are still waiting their turn and growing frustrated, while I read  and hear news stories reporting wasted vaccines and inequitable distribution.  The distribution system has many flaws, both on the national, state, and county level. The recently approved one dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine should make getting everyone who wants to be vaccinated easier, but it’s a massive endeavor.

Meanwhile the lucky ones, those who have already received their first or even second shot are making plans for long postponed trips, family parties, and  visits to their favorite indoor restaurant. But wait, not so fast, the health experts tell us.  Be careful. Wear your mask. Social distance. Wash your hands. We’re all still vulnerable and a fourth wave of the virus might be right around the corner.  Vaccinated individuals may still be capable of spreading the disease.

Those vehemently opposed to wearing masks, because it infringes on personal freedom, are using  these cautionary messages as fuel to add fire to their opposition to being vaccinated. Justifiably, the speed with which vaccines have been produced makes many suspicious. While previously a vaccine required ten to fifteen years to develop, the shortest record being four years for the Mumps vaccine, scientists claim to have developed multiple successful vaccines in less than 12 months.  How is this possible? This is a battle between life and death.  Scientists around the globe started working on this project nonstop as soon as they had the DNA sequencing. While no one in my immediate family has died from Covid-19, I’ve heard enough stories from work colleagues and friends who have suffered the ravages of Covid-19 and lost loved ones, to know the threat is real.  I may not always believe everything my government tells me, but I’ve been following the research and development of the various vaccines since the Covid-19 pandemic began. I trust the scientists. I trust them more than the politicians. Probably these “vaccines” will need to be updated and refined. Most likely, each year a booster shot will be warranted. But at least they are a start.

Normal. When are we going to return to normal? This is the question everyone is asking. Fortunately in the United States the warmer season of Spring is almost here, and mild temperatures will enable us to spend a little more time interacting with each other from a safe social distance. Vaccinated or not vaccinated, masks will continue to be recommended. 

Two masks? If a mask does not completely cover both nose and mouth and fit close enough to prevent air entering through open gaps,  it can’t filter out airborne particles of the coronavirus.  Alone or with my husband walking the dog through open stretches of our neighborhood, I confess I’m not wearing a mask.  But I’m careful to keep my social distance if others approach. Downtown or inside of a building, I’m tightly masked. 

Fifteen percent is just a start. In order for herd immunity to be achieved,  based on other diseases that have been subdued with vaccination programs, we’ll need to have approximately 70 percent to 95 percent of the population either  vaccinated or possessing anti-bodies. Current predictions are that enough vaccine will become available for all Americans who want it by the end of summer. But with so many others around the world still vulnerable, with no vaccine supplies, the Pandemic could continue for another year into 2022. 

Hold on to those masks and the liquid hand soap. We will continue to need them. 

How Does a 21st Century Artist Measure Success?

On opening night at an art exhibit of my Dad’s I’d stare at the placement of the paintings in the gallery, mesmerized by how different the work looked on bare white walls with studio lights. Then I’d look for the red dots as if I was going on a treasure hunt. A red dot meant the painting had been sold. I didn’t know the details of gallery commissions and bill paying, but even a child can observe their parents’ relief when times are good. 

During childhood I’d enter a house that only had a few photographic portraits or one lone poster and feel a sense of despair. Didn’t these people want to look at something wonderful? Didn’t they want to hang a picture on their wall  that they could look at any time of the day or night that would start them thinking in ways that would soothe their mind? That’s what art can do. As a child, I couldn’t quite verbalize it, but instinctively I knew what felt good.

All artists: writers, musicians, actors, visual artists have material necessities. But most artists cannot financially support themselves by the monies earned through their art. My Dad Herman Maril was a teacher, Professor of Art at the University of Maryland. His teaching salary provided the family with a stable source of support and my mother also worked. More important to my parents than sales, were the placement of my father’s work into major museum collections because that meant the general public would see his work in the decades to come.  Art sales are unpredictable.  

I used to sell antiques. Today’s artists are engineers, construction workers, salespeople, restaurant workers and just about any profession one can imagine.   It is a balancing act to figure out how to earn money and have time to produce art.

At some point in time, whether you are writing poetry or acting in plays; you ask yourself how much energy do I want to put into self-promotion and how much energy do I want to put in creating my art?

I would much rather write, then spend time researching which publications might publish my stories, but I have to send the stories out into the world if I want them read. I also want to keep on working to become a better writer, which means taking the time to read other people’s work as well as discussing my works in progress with other writers.

Whether someone likes your art can be subjective. A few years ago in grad school, when I was getting my MFA at Stonecoast (University of Southern Maine) one of our faculty members, novelist David Anthony Durham, chose one evening to read some negative reviews about his work that had been posted on Good Reads rather than do a traditional reading. We all laughed at some of the snarky comments, but it also struck me as a very humble thing to do and reminded all of us that no matter how successful you become—and with seven novels ( a number optioned for movies) David is quite successful—your work is not going to be universally loved. Some people won’t like it. They’ll like something else instead. 

This gets me to the heart of my question which is measuring success. Monetary success is a fleeting thing. One year your book may be on the best seller list and you make some money, but how long will the money last? Ten years later no one remembers your name or reads your book and hopefully you’ve saved some of the big money you’ve earned  The important thing a writer strives for by being published is the hope that people will read your book and it touched them in some way. If reading the book made them think differently about something important or just provided a needed break from reality; the writer in my humble opinion is successful. 

Now this doesn’t mean, we all shouldn’t reach for the stars. But many artists, such as those people I’ve admired who perform in community theater productions, are happy to have a chance to perform—even if their performance isn’t on a Big Screen or Broadway Stage. If the Pandemic has taught us anything, it has shown us how many people can create marvelous podcasts and video productions in their homes to share with the world.

Whatever art gives you pleasure–books, documentaries, paintings, photography, music, theater or something else– it is valuable to you. The number of artists in the world keeps growing, and that’s a wonderful thing. 

This is the Year We Should Be Exchanging Valentines

I remember being five years old and sitting at the kitchen table with pieces of red construction paper. I was cutting out hearts for Valentine’s Day cards. First I folded the paper in half and then I started snipping. Why was it that some hearts came out so skinny and other’s squat and fat? Some hearts looked more like leaves and flower petals, but they were pretty. 

I didn’t follow a template. I just experimented until I got some hearts that I liked and then the fun began. Assembled before me were stacks of pretty pictures. We’d buy a box of “school card kits” at the supermarket, enough valentines for everyone in an entire class, including the teacher. I’d make them bigger and better. The little white envelopes for classroom cards were  too small to send in the mail. In grade school we’d compete for the role of postman, the person to deliver cards to school desks. 

For my original Valentines, I’d glue the pictures on a larger card, and add pieces of white lacey doilies for edging. Perhaps I’d do an original drawing or add a poem. I still make a few Valentines every year. Some years when I neglected to get out my Christmas or New Year’s cards on time, I’d send Valentine’s Cards instead.

This year, with the majority of schools operating virtually; the Valentine exchange has probably been forgotten. But it shouldn’t be, because this is the year we should be sending each other Valentines.

So where did the tradition of Valentine’s Day come from? The name comes from Saint Valentine, and there are three men who are recognized as Saints by the Catholic Church, but the most popular Valentine story is the one about the priest who performed secret marriages in opposition to Emperor Claudius II who ordered that all his soldiers remain single. Who the actual St. Valentine was is open to debate. 

The February 14th date is a welcome relief from winter doldrums, and in normal times a boon to the Restaurant industry.  Lovers and friends celebrate the holiday with opulent dinners, wine, flowers, and chocolates. This year with the icy weather and reduced seating due to the Pandemic; the majority of Valentine’s Day brunches and dinners will be enjoyed at home. It’s not too late to make the preparation of a gourmet meal– your gift to your special someone or to be delivered to a shut-in neighbor.  And it doesn’t have to be on February 14th, as the actual date is arbitrary.

Maybe February 14th is the approximate date of one of the martyred  St. Valentines’ funerals, but it is remarkably close to the Roman fertility festival Lupercalia, once celebrated on the Ides of February ( February 15th).  In some Roman villages it is said that young men and women were matched up as lovers for a year in an effort to produce more children. A day that honored love and passion, in England and France February 14thwas the start of the birds’ mating season. 

The tradition of exchanging cards and love tokens is thought to begin in the middle of the 18th century. By the 19th century, the mass production of printed cards made Valentines’ cards even more popular. Gloves and handkerchiefs were two personal items lovers often gave to one another during the Victorian era. Flowers—pressed or fresh, as well as lines of verse given to our Valentine follow the romantic tradition of conveying ardor for those we adore. 

A holiday that during childhood I always looked forward to, whether making Valentines or receiving them, the day and the entire month is a good excuse for continuing to reach out to friends we may have lost contact with during the Pandemic shut-down. Phone calls and text messages work as well as cards and gifts. If you need a last minute gift, considering purchasing a copy of Burning Love and Bleeding Hearts, an anthology of speculative fiction Love stories published on behalf of a worth cause. (My short story “Geometric Dilemma” is in the collection). Whichever St. Valentine it was who was trying to promote the human connection, today we commemorate their efforts. Let’s try and keep it going.

A Vintage Moment from the past celebrating Valentines’s Day and Love.

What Does the Weather Have to Do with Conspiracy Theories?

Ever notice that if there is the chance of a hurricane, blizzard, or tornado, everyone keeps checking their smartphone? Just a few decades ago, it was Weather Channel on T.V. that was the best deal in advertising. If you could run a ticker tape advertisement during a weather event, thousands of extra viewers would be reading about your business. Fear of disaster increases viewership. So much so that news commentators tend to exaggerate the possibilities. 

A winter storm watch quickly evolves into a bulletin of a potential for inches of snow, ice, and driving winds—although the likelihood is slim. In the midst of a storm, camera footage is frequently aired to emphasize dire weather. One year I watched a weatherman struggling to keep his balance in the wind  reporting on  blizzard conditions, while in the background a homeowner was taking out his trash. The homeowner wasn’t even wearing a jacket. 

Today in Maryland we have big wet snowflakes falling. Yesterday the temperatures got up to fifty degrees Fahrenheit  so the snow is unlikely to stick, but we are under a winter weather advisory. In normal circumstances the weather situation would impact peoples’ plans for tomorrow.

Children and parents want to know if school will be canceled in the morning.  Workers want to know if they have an excuse for taking a day off work. Folks on a vacation want to know if they need to check out early before all the flights are cancelled.  Now with the Pandemic, with so many people working from home, many of those all important issues are insignificant. But people still want to know about the weather.

The weather, regardless of political affiliation, is something that we can all agree on once it happens. If there is ice on the roads the tangible proof is that it will cause vehicles to slip and slide. If flooding traps people in the upper floors of their homes in our community, preventing them from accessing food and shelter; we can easily see their plight. When things happen from a distance, we have to believe the reports when we don’t see the weather firsthand.

I don’t know of any conspiracy theories that claim certain hurricanes never happened and are absolute fabrications. But there are conspiracy theorists that claim school shootings never took place.  While there is no debate as to the two feet of snow on the ground in New York, there are still those who believe the reports of grave illness and death of the coronavirus is greatly exaggerated. Whatever people believe, it is reinforced by hearing the same thing over and over again.  

Repeat a lie, for example during  the 911 attack a plane never flew into the Pentagon —a conspiracy theory repeated over and over again by a certain  first term U.S. Congresswoman—and people start to believe the lie. They hear these things repeated on the various media sources they subscribe to, that further compounds the problem. The realities of what is true and false grow further and further apart. We can exaggerate the weather before it happens, but the actual weather event is clearly defined.

What if we all turned everything off? Completely. And only subscribed to local news and the local weather? Try to talk to neighbors, family, and friends on subjects on which we could agree. Find some common ground to build a consensus. 

Religion and politics were always known as two subjects to avoid at a party. Is it possible that the United States can become less divided? I think it’s worth a try. Drive carefully today. The roads in Maryland are slick. I hear up in New England there’s more snow on the way. Hey, how about that weather?

We Can Predict Snowfall, but Can We Predict Where the Virus will Travel Next?

With less than an inch of snow on the ground, my neighbors— Brian and Lindsay with their two  young children—  gathered enough of the white granular crystals to make a snowman. He only stands a few feet tall, but his shape is unmistakably a cone shaped cylinder with twigs for arms. 

neighborhood snowman

Looking out my window, I see broad swirls of snowflakes spinning in the breeze and falling to the ground. According to my smart speaker Alexa, the Annapolis area will receive 3.91 inches of snow today. How can her statistics be so exact? If I ask for the weather report in another hour, will the snowfall prediction change?

It’s another day in the midst of the Global Pandemic. Just when we all thought the end was in sight with the aid of mass vaccinations, the virus started to mutate.  The more the virus is able to spread, explains the experts at CDC, the more opportunity there is for various strains to evolve.  Current vaccines are not as effective on the newer strains. How can we stop this menace?

Everyone’s fear of infection, reminds me of some of those movie scenes when the heroine is barricading the door to prevent the zombies from breaking into her house. We all now have stories about the time we thought we’d been exposed to the virus, and our travails to await test results.  Our world feels illogical.Often the zombies in the movies look pathetic. I feel sorry for the decaying corpses with blackened eyes, strangely reinvigorated by their second life. In the scene where the heroine huddles within her house and screams “Don’t touch me,” we cheer when someone else shoots down the zombie and breath a sigh of relief.  She has escaped to fight another day.

 Whether it is the “zombie virus” or my fears that too many people are not following sensible precautions and thus enabling the coronavirus to spread, the challenge continues. Unfortunately the political divisiveness in the United States has caused many people to stop reading, listening, or watching news programs.  Because the news is disturbing they shut everything off. If we stop paying attention we will not succeed in putting our world back together.

In the next two days, according to the National Weather forecast, we will have the snow event of the season. Maybe as much as eight inches of snow and I can take photographs to use for next year’s Christmas card.  It will be a time to cuddle up in front of the fireplace and sip hot cocoa with plenty of excuses not to work, because it is a “snow day.”  But by mid-week when  rain arrives it will all look different. I prepare myself for another day trying to make it my best day yet as I focus in the present.

Leprechauns, QAnon, Elvis Presley, Flat Earth, Trump and the 2020 Election

We all see things differently and it fascinates me. I look out the window and I see two squirrels playing in the uppermost branches of a tree. My husband looks out the same window and admires the expanse of green grass. He is looking down. I am looking up. Both of what we are looking at is part of a larger world.  Neither of us is looking at something that isn’t there. We are just choosing to focus on different things. 

Then I think about the QAnon people.  These are people who see the United States government as  an association of wicked devil worshippers who take delight in molesting children and killing babies. They see things that are not in plain sight.  They tell nonbelievers they are privy to special information and we should be frightened. I’m frightened they think former President Trump is their savior. They were convinced he’d seize power, take over the government with his loyalists and become U.S. President for a second term.

We label them conspiracy theorists.  We call them a bunch of loonies, but several have been elected to serve in the U.S. Congress.

I once remember being fascinated by a classmate in high school who almost convinced me that the 1969 Moon landing and Moon Walk was all filmed in a movie studio. “We never actually went to the moon,” he said, “It cost too much money. It was all a hoax.”  He told me in great detail how everything was carried out and he seemed so sincere I almost believed him for at least an hour, until I thought of other stories like the one that people told about JFK not actually dying. “He was whisked away to a private hospital.” Or the people that said for years that Elvis Presley was still alive. 

Alternate versions exist of every event, including the recent November presidential election.  Currently polls show that 80 percent of registered Republican voters think that Trump won.  They may not be pure QAnon followers,  but they are adamant that the circumstances of our recent Presidential election were irregular, and that dead people and aliens were allowed to vote. They claim if properly vetted, the votes counted would show that Donald Trump was duly elected. Even though the votes in several states have been counted two and three times. Even though they have no hard evidence. What they have are some altered video tapes and mislabeled photographs posted on social media.  Sixty courts have thrown out their cases. 

If you repeat a lie over and over again, does it begin to sound true? 

Once upon a time many people believed the earth was flat. They also believed that the earth was the center of the solar system. Some people still do believe the earth is flat.  Based on what they see, feel and observe they are not convinced of the world’s spherical shape. There is actually a Flat Earth Society.

This could be why some people don’t believe there is a coronavirus. If they don’t get sick and they don’t know anyone who is sick with the coronavirus, they can choose to believe it is something scientists made up to scare us.

This all goes back to what do you want to see when you look out the window. I see neighbors walking their dogs and wearing masks to prevent transmission of a contagious virus. I see people waving hello to each other and I hear them talking about sports events and kids’ plans for school. We’re all trying to get along.  

I think of ways to distinguish one day from the next, to make each action and moment count. It’s a challenge.  All around me a global pandemic is raging and before it is over at least  500,000 people in the United States will die.

If I want to chase after something fantastic I can conjure up images of leprechauns hiding a pot of gold each time I spy a rainbow, and as Valentine’s Day approaches I can imagine Cupid filling his quiver with magic love arrows. Perhaps tiny people live in the corners of my house or our universe is just a piece of dust on someone else’s leaf. We’ll never know for certain whether some fantasies have a basis, but in my reality the United States conducted a fair election. The votes were certified and Joseph R. Biden Jr. is our president for the next four years. Welcome to the Democratic Country of America.

Slide over the arrow and you’ll see a different view….

How to Get Published

 The Global Pandemic is a Blessing and a Curse for Creative Writers

The coronavirus pandemic has changed our lives in many ways. More people are reading. Yes, in addition to binge watching their favorite flicks and listening to online concerts, they are reading books and magazines and listening to podcasts and poetry. They have the time, while confined home or cautiously trying to navigate social distancing, to read.

Writers have reacted to the “new normal” by either taking advantage of the solitude to become more prolific or suffering from writer’s block. I’ve found myself in the first category and have committed myself to the practice of writing each day. Sometimes I write for twenty minutes and sometimes for three hours. My day is not complete unless I’ve put part of a story into words. 

The economic instability created by the pandemic, in addition to family responsibilities, provides challenges and reasons for why many writers are being forced to put their writing lives on hold. But even if you give yourself ten minutes a day to write one beautiful sentence, it is possible to take your mind over to that “other world.” Write a few more sentences and you might craft a fine piece of flash fiction. 

So if you’d like to get some of your short stories, poems or essays published in literary magazines—what is the next step? I have a publishing history; but newspapers, magazines and information websites give me a different set of credentials. To succeed in the literary world I had to see myself as a novice and act accordingly.

Every week new magazines are founded and others stop publishing.Take the time to do the research,  and you will discover magazines that are starting out, eager for contributors. Most likely there will be less competition when you submit. 

Duotrope is a subscription service that helps writers locate publishing markets. Others sites to check out include The Review Review and New Pages. And there are many bloggers who make it their mission to list available publication opportunities every month. Search social media and find groups to join and follow them on Facebook and Linked-in to learn of opportunities. 

Submittable is a platform used by many publications to track submissions. Most publications charge a nominal submission fee to cover the cost of the platform fees. Other publications charge no submission fees or have a “tip jar”. Writers can use the Submittable platform and their  Submishmash newsletter to find publishing opportunities. Still other publications accept submissions directly through their email or use another submission tracking application. Be prepared to spend hours assembling a list of potential markets for your work.

It doesn’t matter how wonderful and perfect your submitted work may be, prepare yourself to be rejected. Every magazine has a different idea of what they think is good and what they want to print.  One magazine may only be interested in nonfiction and another only pieces under 500 words. Take notice of whether they are looking for pieces that are experimental in nature and whether they favor mixed media that may combine art and photography with words or traditional writing that is set in a particular region. Always you will be asked to send your very best work, and do. Each week hundreds and thousands of writers send their pieces for publication consideration to literary magazines. The competition can be intense.

While pieces are rejected because their poorly written, many are rejected because they don’t resonate with the editors. Everyone has different tastes. Read what has been published in a magazine and ask yourself if you like the work. If you don’t like what they choose to publish, why would you think they would like your submission?

If you have the time and inclination, you can volunteer to be a reader at some of these publications. In many cases, the editors don’t initially read the submissions. It depends on the publication, but often a team of readers initially cull through the submissions and they decide what is worthy of passing up to the next level. If you become a reader for a short time, you’ll see the process close up and gain a better understanding that will help insulate you from feeling totally depressed each time a rejection email arrives.

Most of these print and online publications do not pay their contributors for first time North American serial rights. Sometimes they pay a small honorarium. Creative writing is not a money making proposition. The income, even for bestselling authors, is sporadic. Your goal is to share the art you’ve created. And in order to be read by a large audience, you’ll want to build up a list of publishing credits.

When you read other writer’s work you admire, look up where they’ve been published. Read online interviews with editors of literary publications to understand what they are looking for and how they judge the quality of submissions. A literary magazine devoted to mermaids, and there is at least one, is not going to be interested in your story about a dog in the mountains, regardless of the power of your story. A magazine focused on recovering from substance abuse, is only going to be interested in pieces that relate to their mission. 

Pay attention to the submission guidelines. For one year I was a reader for the Stonecoast Review, published through the University of Southern Maine Stonecoast Writing MFA Writing program, and we read everything blind. Writers were asked to remove all identifying information about themselves from the manuscript. Immediately rejected were pieces that contained the author’s byline, regardless of the quality of their poetry or prose. I was surprised by how many published writers ignored the directions and put their name and their credits on their submission.

If the directions tell you to single space and put your 50 word bio on your submission follow their directions, and conversely if they tell you don’t indent then do what they ask. Otherwise they probably won’t consider your work.

I’m not a big success—yet, but I’m working at it and thus I’ve accumulated half a dozen literary publishing credits. That’s a start and you have to start somewhere. The restrictions of the Pandemic can provide you with the time to write new work plus review and revise older pieces you’d like to see published.

The more times you send out your pieces and the more pieces you send out, the more likely something is going to get published. I recently read a Facebook post from a writer who shared the news that a story she’d sent out 52 times was finally getting published and she was happy she hadn’t given up. What a thrill to read, “We loved your story and we would be privileged to publish it,” in reference to a piece that had been previously rejected several times. It’s happened to me more than once.

Getting published is hard work. But so is writing. Persistent effort yields rewards.

Welcome to Banana Republic USA, Previously Known as the United States of America

I wasn’t planning on writing about politics this week. But then there was that phone call to Georgia.  A recorded conversation, the U.S. President telling Secretary of State Raffensperger to believe a fantasy—that Trump won Georgia by a landslide and thus the Republican thing to do would be to change the Georgia voting results.  

The bizarre behavior continued Wednesday  January 6th with an attempted coup. Trump told thousands of his supporters, despite the fact that every state in the union had already certified their election results after multiple recounts and judicial challenges, “The election has been stolen from me.” He repeated his lies over and over again directing the demonstrators to take back The Capital.

The results: five people dead, scores of people injured,  and a federal building ransacked and looted. Members of the mob who invaded The Capital took selfies of themselves parading around with Confederate flags and planting their feet on legislator’s desks. The majority of participants appeared to be white males. They thought their behavior was cool, normal, justified. The police response was slow and lethargic. I wondered what would be the response if the demonstrators were primarily black and brown.

The goal of the rioters: prevent U.S. Congress from the final acceptance and certification of the state electoral votes. 

Wednesday night we got a phone call from our son who lives in Jakarta, Indonesia. “Are you safe?” he said. “I’m seeing photos of armed vigilantes in the streets.” 

This is how we appeared to the world. A country in chaos.

The irony to me is chilling. One dozen years ago when my son decided to work in Indonesia, I was concerned about  Indonesia’s political instability. Now he is worrying about the instability of what was once considered the most stable and powerful country on the globe, the United States. First we do a horrific job handling the coronavirus. We have more cases and more deaths than any other country. Now we are politically fractured and the tenets of our Democracy are being challenged. And what are the challengers planning to replace democracy with but a dictatorship based on deranged fantasies.

I keep hearing the phrase, Banana Republic. We are no better than a Banana Republic I’m starting to say. This led me to research the exact meaning of the term, coined by one of my favorite writers 0’Henry.   

O’Henry is famous for his short stories but he also worked as a journalist. He created the phrase in 1901 to describe Honduras and similar countries like Honduras who were politically unstable and under the control of a plutocracy composed of business, political, and military elite who exploited a large and poor working class. Economic monopolies that steer all the profits into the pockets of the ruling class is a primary characteristic of a Banana Republic. Starting to sound familiar? Think of who has been contracting the coronavirus and their access to healthcare, food, and shelter. 

A Banana Republic is a country largely dependent on the exportation of one limited resource product, such as bananas. There the similarity with the United States ends, because we do have multiple resources and a manufacturing economy that continues to reinvent itself.  Take note, it was the President and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers representing 14,000 member companies  across industrial sectors, who immediately called upon Vice President Pence to invoke the 25th amendment and remove President Trump from office. Political stability is needed. While we continue to be a thriving nation on some levels, our situation is precarious.

If there is any way to prevent Trump from running for United States President in 2024, Congress or the Judicial branch should take the appropriate steps. In the short term, I’d like to see him removed for his seditious behavior, but I also worry about the future. Impeachment should prevent him from running for President a second time. According to some scholars, it is possible for  proceedings to continue after January 20th when Joseph R. Biden, Jr. and Kamala Harris are sworn in as President and Vice-President. 

So here I began the blog not intending to write about politics, and now readers, if you agree with me I urge you to contact your elected representatives and let them know how you feel.

One American’s 2020 Recap

Happily I say good bye to 2020, picturing the year in the shape of an old wheezing man struggling to stand straight in his black tails and top hat. The last moments of his life are spent hooked up to a ventilator inside an overcrowded ICU, separated from family and friends. Waving at him through the safety glass I grieve. But I also feel a sense of relief. The year is behind me and we can all start  over again with a clean slate.

2021 is a brand new baby I cradle in my arms—representing my hopes and dreams. She focuses her eyes to the light around her, so different from the dark womb, and listens as I recite my wish list, a list that includes: quick and fair distribution of the coronavirus vaccines to at least 75% of Americans, resumption to pre-pandemic levels of business and commerce, new jobs to put folks back into the workforce, and accessible and affordable healthcare for all. 

This past year has made me painfully aware of just how old I am. Maybe not quite old enough to participate in the first round of vaccine shots, but old enough to be cautious of where I go and who I interact with, causing me to cancel travel plans and do the majority of work and social interactions virtually. I already knew I had more years behind me than in front of me, but 2020 has been a year when I’ve set out intentionally to accomplish as much as I could and that meant a dedicated commitment to my chosen art, writing.

In January 2020 I received my MFA in creative writing from the Stonecoast Program at the  University of Southern Maine. For the first time in my life I donned a cap and gown ( having skipped high school and college graduation ceremonies) and walked across the stage with my fellow graduates to receive our degrees. Little did I know then, how fortunate I was to be able to be one of the last graduating classes at any institution in 2020 to participate in an in-person graduation ceremony. To look into the faces of my classmates as I delivered a few words about my educational journey and to embrace staff and faculty could never have been replaced by images on a screen.

Completing the project of renovating a 1923 house purchased 3 years earlier, had a deadline when we scheduled our daughter Alexandra’s wedding celebration for March 28, 2020.  In order to get it ready for the planned festivities, we pushed forward to advance the sale our old house in 2019 and move into our new house in 2020.  Finally, we were able to move-in in by the second week of March; but the world started closing down. Was the symbolic glass of our lives half empty or half full? 

My husband Peter and I were both sad to call off the party. This was our only daughter—an occasion we’d been looking forward to, but we had to remind ourselves that everyone in our family was safe and healthy. We wanted to keep it that way. When so many people were sick and dying, ours was a small sacrifice.  We had so much to be thankful for including our “new to us” home. 

For over a month everything went on pause. Most of the businesses in Maryland closed, but because my husband’s business—an insurance agency—was considered essential, it could still operate behind closed doors. Safety protocol was put into place that included plexiglass barriers and mandatory masks. Staff meetings became virtual.

Waking up in a sweat, worrying about whether that slight cough or dry throat might me a sign of infection became a regular thing. My son Christopher sent me an elderberry syrup that we took faithfully until it ran out and then we switched to vitamins. Early on I remember reading that if you keep your throat always moist, the virus was less likely to take hold. All kinds of strange ideas were circulating and when we first entered a grocery store last spring we wore disposable gloves in addition to our N-95 masks.  Now I’ve given up on the gloves, but immediately wipe down my hands with sanitizer and my hands are chapped from the number of times I wash them with soap and water during the day.

Everyone has their own protocol. One friend thinks it’s okay to dine outside in a restaurant with friends, another will socialize if they stay ten feet apart and bring their own food. We’ve just been happy to talk from afar with our masks on or visiting by video conference.

On whatever side of the political divide you stand, this has been a year for the history books. A year when the entire world has been devastated by a deadly virus for which there is no definitive cure and a year when the democratic traditions of the United States were challenged and came close to being dismantled. 

My MFA graduate thesis was the first 150 pages of my novel tentatively titled “Diogo’s Garden.”  I’d finished the entire 300 page second draft but knew it needed more work. Throughout 2020 I’ve continued working on it steadily, revising it multiple times. I’ve continued to take classes, workshop and take on other writing projects to gain perspective. Determined to put a few publishing credits on my vitae, I’ve submitted short stories, creative nonfiction, and flash fiction and my tenacity has been rewarded. In 2020 my creative work has appeared in print or digitally in the following publications: Change Seven, Lunch Ticket, Raconteur, and the love story anthology Burning Love and Bleeding Hearts. I also learned I’ll be appearing in the 2021 issues of Thin Air and The Dribble Drabble Literary Review.   

My visits with Alexandra and her new husband Joshua who live in San Jose California have been totally virtual, while I’ve seen grandsons Caleb age five and Eli age two, who now live with dad Christopher and wife Laura in Gloucester Point, Virginia —from a safe distance. An unexpected surprise was the news from my eldest son Justin, that he and his wife Suci were expecting a baby to be born before the end of the year. They live in Jakarta and I was both excited for them and scared.  Will they all stay safe from contracting the virus and are the medical facilities as good as in America? 

That was my train of thought in the spring before I fully comprehended just how poorly the U.S. response to the virus was being handled. By the late fall, the United States was leading the world in cases and deaths. 

Herman Bear Mojo Patrick was born on December 22nd 2020 . He is now safely home with his family, and while I would love to hold him in a close embrace, I have to satisfy myself with pictures.  It is possible that we will be able to visit his older sister Adinda Mojo in the Netherlands where she’ll be a college freshman, before we make it all the way to Indonesia. 

I’m  trying to thinking positively about the hard work of our dedicated scientific community which has developed several effective vaccines in less than eight months. More are on their way. Until then I’ll continue to wear masks and socially distance.  I’m waiting to hear the words spoken by the airplane pilot granting permission to unsnap your seatbelts, “It’s safe to move around the cabin.” I want to hear the “all clear” it’s safe to move around the world now!

2021 I welcome your arrival. Glad the year is new. Let’s make this new year a better one.

Ride the wave of a new year
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