Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Guest Post from Slim Randles

Here is another guest post from my friend and fellow writer, Slim Randles.  I do appreciate the fact that he is so generous to share his column "Home Country"  with my readers here.

Dewey Decker silently shoveled cow manure into the back of his pickup, but for the first time, his heart wasn’t in it.

He knew he had it to do, so he did it. Scoop, toss. Scoop toss. Then, when the bed was full, he somberly drove to town and unloaded it onto the many compost piles behind his house.

Then he drew compost from the bottom and put that in the truck. Scoop, toss. Scoop toss.

Then off he went in the pickup with the sign reading Environmental Enrichment Services and delivered the magnificent new garden amendments to one of his customers. Again … scoop, toss and spread. Scoop, toss, spread.

Normally, this would have filled his day with a sense of accomplishment, secure in the knowledge that he was making the world a little richer by his labors. But today it only warranted a sigh.

He quit work at noon, took a shower and went to the Mule Barn truck stop for lunch.

Even that didn’t help.

“Pull up a chair, Dewey,” said Dud, jovially. “We were just talking about the shellacking Ol’ Marve gave the county people.”

Partially through town support, and largely through the efforts of Dewey himself, Marvin Pincus had been allowed to continue counseling the lovelorn and tying appropriate flies for their therapy. It was the talk of the valley.

“Yes,” Dewey nodded. “That was good.”

“You feeling okay, Doo?” asked Doc.

“Sure. I’m fine.”

But he wasn’t. While his outer shell delighted in fertilizing life in the valley, his heart lay fallow. How could they understand what Emily meant to him. Oh yes, he thought of her now as Emily and not as Ms. Stickles, the county love advice coordinator.   

In his mind, she walked with a graceful air, smiling that soft smile that melted his heart and changed his outlook forever.

He picked at his burger and fries and then paid his bill and left. Mindlessly he drove the fertilizer pick-up around town, eventually noticing that he kept passing Marvin Pincus’s house.

Of course. This was a problem for the Fly Tying Love Center.

He pulled up and stopped.

Home Country is a syndicated column that appears in  several hundred newspapers across the country. This installment is brought to you by Slim’s new book “A Cowboy’s Guide to Growing Up Right.” Learn more at

Monday, August 29, 2011

Monday Morning Musings

As many students are starting college classes this week, I thought it would be good to share an interesting article that was written by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, authors of the book, Higher Education? The article was in a recent edition of The Dallas Morning News and focused on the importance of reclaiming liberal arts in colleges.

In doing the research for the book the authors discovered that liberal arts courses have been downsized in most universitites and colleges or they have been altered, "both in format and in function." While the course titles may be the same as they have been for years, what the course entails "Is no longer attuned to undergraduates looking for a broader and deeper understanding of the world."

Hacker and Dreifus cited the course description from the Yale catalog for a class that deals with how disabilities are depicted in fiction: "We will examine how characters serve as figures of otherness, transcendence, physicality or abjection. Late may come examination questions on regulative discourse, performativity and frameworks of intelligibility."


The authors believe that classes like that "suggest that professors are using the curriculum as their personal playground." Some professors are structuring classes around topics of their current research, and that approach seems to benefit the professor more than the students.

When I studied psychology, sociology and history, which are all classes in liberal arts, we focused on broader aspects of human behavior such as good and evil, morality, ethics, and social justice. Those are the areas that we needed an understanding of as we prepared to step out of the classrooms and into the big bad world as adults. How could we act ethically if we didn't know what ethics entails? How could we work toward social justice and equality if we didn't have a clue what the problems are? And, gosh, we did have a sense of good and evil and right and wrong, and tried to stay on the right side of both.

What do you think? Is it time that colleges brought back a stronger liberal arts program?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Book Review - "Sorrow Wood" by Raymond Atkins

Sorrow Wood
Raymond L. Atkins
Medallion Press, Inc
ISBN: 9781934755631
Hardcover $25.95

This book was first published in 2009 in hardcover and is now available as an e-book as well. I thought I would share a review I did for another site back when the book first came out. This is a book that I have kept to read again, it is that good.

Reva Blackmon is the probate judge in the small town of Sand Valley, Alabama. Her husband, Wendell is a policeman in the same town where his duties largely consist of breaking up dog fights, investigating alien abductions, extinguishing truck fires, and spending endless hours riding the roads of Sand Valley. The book opens with Wendell contemplating a dead dog and trying to decide if he really wants to arrest Deadhand Riley and Otter Price again. Since Reva and Wendell live above the jail, which is located in a rock castle with turrets and a moat thanks to Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, Wendell is not too fond of the idea of having Deadhand for a houseguest, so to speak.

Something of much more import quickly takes his attention as Wendell is dispatched to a real crime scene. A burned body has been discovered at a local farm named Sorrow Wood, and it is believed to be that of a self-proclaimed witch who has a reputation for promiscuity. As the investigation progresses a long list of suspects includes Wendell’s deputy, the entire family of the richest man in town, and nearly everyone else who belonged to the coven or otherwise knew the departed.

While the mystery does propel some of the story, this is not a straight mystery and mystery fans should not come to this book with that expectation. This is a story primarily about relationships and some of the difficult things that people face in their lives. The relationship between Reva and Wendell, which she believes transcends time, is paramount. While she believes in God, reincarnation, and Christianity, Wendell believes in Reva. He has no idea if they have loved in past lives, but he knows how much they have loved in this life.

Reva and Wendell are wonderfully drawn characters, as are the others who people this book, so real they could walk off the pages and join the reader for a cup of coffee. The narrative is rich with exquisite detail as illustrated in this passage, “Jacob was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease… and slowly but steadily, fragments of his memory were flaking off and drifting away with the breeze. He was fading into oblivion one recollection at a time, losing the good along with the indifferent and the bad. It was a sluggish, merciless way to go, as bad as Eunice’s Parkinson’s in its own way, and no less final. Eventually he would forget how to eat, how to breathe and how to live.”

As a counterpoint to the very serious parts of the story, Atkins offers up plenty of humor. Reva is a master of the “understatement” and her quips make the reader smile as much as Wendell does. And Wendell has a good twist of mind as well.

Raymond L. Atkins first novel, The Front Porch Prophet, was published by Medallion Press in 2008. His stories have been published in Christmas Stories from Georgia, The Lavender Mountain Anthology, The Blood And Fire Review, and The Old Red Kimono. His columns appear regularly in the Rome News/Tribune and Memphis Downtowner Magazine.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Friday's Odds and Ends

In Texas the speed limit is going to be raised to 75mph on interstate highways. That means that all the drivers who currently go 80 to 90 in the 70mph zone will now feel free to bump that up by another ten. And this is good for us, how?

Here are some facts from a Highway Research Center  to consider:  A 2002 study by researchers at the Land Transport Safety Authority of New Zealand evaluated the effects of increasing rural interstate speed limits from 65 mph to either 70 or 75 mph. Based on deaths in states that did not change their speed limits, states that increased speed limits to 75 mph experienced 38 percent more deaths per million vehicle miles traveled than expected — an estimated 780 more deaths. States that increased speed limits to 70 mph experienced a 35 percent increase, resulting in approximately 1,100 more deaths.

As the tenth anniversary of 9/11 nears, there is much talk about what is wrong with planned memorial events. It appears that first responders will not be invited to ceremonies at Ground Zero that day because there is not enough room for them. According to the NY governor and NYC mayor this is about the families of those lives lost that day and the focus should be on them. I'm curious. Are the families of the fallen firefighters and other first responders invited?

This is a very short-sighted decision, as was the one that pledged billions of federal dollars to build a memorial at the site of Ground Zero that includes 1World Trade Center at a price tag of $3.3 billion.

As NY Times columnist, Joe Nocera pointed out in a recent column, yes, the dead need to be remembered, but at what cost to the rest of a nation that was also traumatized by the horrific events of that September day 10 years ago? This new skyscraper at Ground Zero is the most expensive building ever erected and "will have 2.6 million square feet of office space in a city that doesn't need it at a cost that is so high that it will be a cash drain for many years."

And if that isn't enough to make one stop and ask who is in charge of this nonsense, the new building will affect commuters who use the George Washington Bridge and the Lincoln Tunnel. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the agency overseeing the building of the skyscraper, will raise tolls on the bridges and tunnels it controls, and by 2015 it could easily cost a commuter over $60 dollars a week to drive back and forth to work.

According to Nocera's column, the publishing giant, Conda Nast, is going to be the anchor tenant in the new building and will benefit from substantial government subsidies. "And who will be paying for that subsidy? The mail room attendants who use the Lincoln Tunnel to get to work."

On a slightly lighter note, there is talk of closing the tunnels in downtown Dallas.  Apparently this is someone's idea of a way to revitalize downtown by making people visit stores above ground. Has that person walked a downtown street on a summer afternoon or a blustery day in January when the wind could blow you to the next corner? If people want to revitalize downtown, why not revitalize the tunnels so people can stroll and shop in comfort?

What are your thoughts on these topics, or any other news item that raised your blood pressure this week?

If you liked this post, you might want to let others know by clicking the +1 button below. I am still not sure what this does, but the blog gurus say that it is a good button to push.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Change is Hard - In Life and in Writing

This morning after my shower I dried off with a towel that is the last of a stack of about 30 towels my uncle gave my husband and I for a wedding present. To put this in context, we just celebrated our46th wedding anniversary. These towels were a mis-matched assortment, some with flowers, some with geometric designs, and a number of them were plain. But they were all different colors.

For years my more decorative-minded kids laughed at the combination of towels in the bathroom that might include one blue washcloth, a yellow hand-towel, and a row of bath towels hanging over the shower bar of wildly clashing colors and designs. Mind you, there were seven of us taking showers.

Back to this morning. I got dressed and realized I was wearing a pair of white shorts that I have had for probably 20 years. Then I walked into the living room and stopped for a moment. The couch and loveseat are at least 30 years old, and since we have lived in this house - 10 years - they have not moved except for cleaning underneath and behind. After the cleaning, they go right back in the same place.

So then I went to throw a load of laundry in the washer and stopped again for a moment.  This washing machine is almost 40 years old. Of course, of all the old things in this house, including my husband and me, this one will stay if I act on any wild urge to update everything.

By now, I'm sure you've caught on to the fact that I am reluctant to change. So is my husband. We have our things, and our routines, and we like them very much, so it is hard for us to start stirring  it all up.Just leave us in our comfort zone.

In thinking about all this as a possible blog topic, I realized that this reluctance to change affects my writing, too. I remember early in my career when a trusted critique partner suggested I change an entire book from first person to third, I almost went into full panic mode. Granted, it was a children's book, so it was only about 200 pages, but still. Change the whole thing?

While my living room might still look the same as it did ten years ago, and I wear clothes I have had forever, I have gotten better about changing what needs to be changed in my writing. I still don't like it. I'd rather start something new than go through that rewriting and editing process, but it is a necessary process.

Writers, what about you? How easy is it for you to tear into a manuscript and nip and tuck to make it better?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Guest Post from John Desjarlais

Please help me welcome John Desjarlais as she shares his experience with getting to know and understand a female character who is Latina. Sometimes it's hard enough for a man to understand any woman, but what a challenge it must have been to understand a woman of another culture.

When I first began to gather material for Viper, I knew that Selena De La Cruz, the strong-willed Latina insurance agent who was a minor character in Bleeder would be the protagonist. Not only was she a forceful character on her own, but her Mexican-American identity was important to the story, based on a premise regarding the All Souls Day ‘Book of the Dead’ that Catholic churches have and its proximity to the Mexican holiday, ‘The Day of the Dead.’

Lacking experience as a Latina (being an Anglo man) I immersed myself in the experiences of Latin women vicariously in many ways. There are many new books in circulation by Latinas about managing Old-World expectations placed upon women while trying to fit into New-World American society. I subscribed to Latina magazine for fashion, beauty, relationship and lifestyle issues. I browsed Latinas’ blogs and web sites to see what everyone talked about, especially with regard to living with a bi-cultural identity. Just like the Dad says in the movie Selena, “We've gotta be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans both at the same time. It's exhausting!" 

This tension is felt early in a Latina’s life, as in this vignette from Selena’s childhood in Chicago:

When Selena wheeled the Charger onto 18th Street in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, the throaty rumble of the big engine turned the heads of young men in tilted White Sox caps. In the air, Norteño bands playing plaintive corridos on button accordions competed with the thump-thump of quebradita, a blend of North Mexican banda and Aztec punk rockers singing in Spanglish. Like Julia Alvarez once said in a poem, Selena felt her Spanish blood beating.

She crossed herself and kissed her thumb and forefinger held together when she passed Saint Adalbert’s Elementary in the shadow of the church’s skyline-dominating steeple. In the sixth grade, Sister Mary Beatrice -- who every kid called Sister Mary BattleAxe -- caught Selena speaking Spanish in the back row. She was asking Gloria García for an eraser. Sister pulled Selena by the ear into the corner.

“You’re in America now,” the Polish nun had reprimanded, her milky finger in Selena’s mocha face. “We speak English here. If you want to be an American, speak American. If you want to speak Spanish, then go back to Mexico.”

Selena asked if there was a difference between speaking English and speaking American.

Sister Beatrice kept her after school for talking back.

“Ay, you don’t talk back,” her mother chided her when she got home. Mamí’s high Zapotec cheekbones colored like the red hot lava of Mount Popocatépetl and the obsidian-black bun on top of her head, Selena could have sworn, was spinning.

“Muchachitas bien criadas, girls brought up well, don’t mouth off,” her mother said, wringing the dishtowel. “Do you want to called habladora? A big mouth that talks too much? Is that what you want?”

“Mamí, all I did was ask a question.”

“En boca cerrada no entran moscas,” her mother said, tapping her lips with a finger. Flies cannot enter a closed mouth. “You must be quiet, and keep your eyes low in respeto, like La Virgen de Guadalupe.”

Living in two cultures at once poses many everyday challenges, as in this brief example where the teen-aged Selena brings home an Anglo date to meet the familia:

In high school she brought home an Anglo boy, Jerry, to meet the family. She feared Papá would interrogate him like a cop drilling a suspect and the family, one by one, would corner him with stories of Mexico even if they couldn’t speak English and Mamí would serve tripe soup with chiles colorados to test his mettle – but she brought home the Anglo boy anyway. A crowd of Mamí, Papá, her three brothers, all her cousins, uncles and aunts, including Comadre María with all the curious, chattering neighbors greeted him. Jerry shook hands with Papá and her three brothers and smiled at everyone else – not knowing he was expected to meet everyone personally with a handshake and a warm verbal greeting. She should have told him. Later, Mamí called him muy frío, very cold, mal educado, ill mannered. Is this how we raised you – to find a gringo for a boyfriend who is so bent on dishonoring us, who has no respeto for our familia?

"He doesn’t know our ways," Selena cried. "He is Americano."

"And what are you?" Mamí asked.

And Selena realized fully for the first time she was in two worlds at once.

A Latina translator who helped me with the Spanish and reviewed the work-in-progress said at one point, “I am SO into Selena!” The character’s experiences were matching her own.

I thank John for contributing today. If you want to know more about him or about some of his other books, visit his website   His other books are :  Relics and The  Throne ofTara

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Guest Blogger Tomorrow

There will be no book review today, but I will say I am reading Double Cross by James Patterson and enjoying it. I recently started reading his books again after reading I, Alex a year or so ago, and I admire his ability to keep a reader engaged. It's true that Alex Cross is a bit over the top sometimes, but so is James Bond. They are fictional super-heroes so they have to be bigger than life.

Whoops, this is almost a review isn't it.

What I intended to do this morning was introduce you to John Desjarlais, a fellow mystery author. Granted he is not as well-known as James Patterson, but he weaves a good tale. John is the author of Bleeder and Viper, both books of mystery that blend  Aztec myth and Mexican Catholicism. He will share a bit about how he studied to get the characterization of the Latina protagonist in Viper just right.
A former producer with Wisconsin Public Radio, Desjarlais teaches journalism and English at Kishwaukee College in Malta, Ill. A member of Mystery Writers of America, Desjarlais is listed in Who’s Who in Entertainment and Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers.

About the Book:

            On All Souls Day, Selena De La Cruz’s name is entered in her parish church's “Book of the Deceased.” The problem is, she's not dead. And someone thinks she should be.

            John Desjarlais’ latest mystery, Viper, the sequel to 2009’s Bleeder, brings back fiery Latina insurance agent Selena De La Cruz. Working against time, prejudice, and her own Latino community’s suspicions, she reluctantly re-joins her old DEA colleagues to hunt a deadly drug dealer who is out of jail and systematically killing everyone who ever crossed him. Can they stop him before he reaches her name on the gruesome hit list?

            As in  the first book, Desjarlais sets the tale in the colorful small-town settings of “Sinnissippi County” of northern Illinois, this time expanding to Chicago to explore issues of immigration and bi-cultural identity against a rich backdrop of Aztec mythology and Mexican Catholicism.

            His historical novels and mysteries are available at

                   For more information, visit

Friday, August 19, 2011

Friday's Odds and Ends

My fellow Americans... no, wait that is the beginning of a presidential address, and this is not a presidential address, although it is about some of the presidential candidates.  We are still over a year away from the election, and already the news and sound-bites are getting tiresome. Rick Perry has called President Obama a traitor. Perry has also said that global warming  is not a problem, and even joked that the leading source of "supposedly deadly carbon dioxide" is the mouth of Al Gore.

Other than the fact that she is associated with the Tea Party, which has become just another self-serving entitiy, Michelle Bachmann seems to be holding in the name-calling and focusing on issues. It is not her fault that the media decided to publish that awful picture of her eating a corn dog at the Iowa State Fair and then lead the public down that suggestive path. Shame on the media for that one.

Instead of relying on the nightly news on television or the latest from CNN or Fox News online, the savvy voter would do well to research for themselves what the candidates stand for. To get in-depth information on all the candidates without media bias, here is a Website that has all 2012 candidates listed along with their policies, plans, and qualifications.

Okay, enough about politics. When I wrote Monday's post about young people making a difference, I missed the opportunity to mention a very special 9 year-old girl who lived near Seattle. New York Times Columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote about her recently, and I saved that column. Rachel  Beckwith learned about Locks of Love when she was 5 and grew her hair out so she could then cut it and donate it to be made into a wig for a child going through chemotherapy.  Then when she was 8 she learned about an organization called Charity:water. Instead of having a 9th birthday party, she asked her friends to donate $9 each to Charity:water for water projects in Africa. This was on June 12, 201,1 and she set up a birthday page on the Charity:water website with a goal of raising $300.

On July 20, Rachel was critically injured in a car accident while traveling with her family. Family and friends started donating to her birthday fund and the amount raised passed the goal, and kept on going. Sadly, Rachel did not recover from her injuries, but she continued to give. Her parents donated her hair one last time to Locks of Love and her organs were donated to other children in need.

Donations continued to pour into the Charity:water site, and when Kristof wrote about this on August 12, the total had topped $800,000. Kristof ended his column by writing, "Youth activism has a long history, but this ethos of publis service is on the ascendant today - and today's kids don't just protest against injustices, as my contemporaries did, but many are remarkable problem-solvers.

"Rachel Beckwith, RIP, and may our generation learn from yours."

I chose these two topics today because the contrast is so telling. I used to tell those in the public sector to stop acting like children, but perhaps they ought to consider it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Helping A Friend

Here is another offering from my friend, Slim Randles. Enjoy.... 

When the world dilemma think tank gathered this morning at the philosophy counter, the main topic of conversation was Marvin Pincus’s problem with the county.

The county wanted him to stop counseling people on love and tying flies to go along with it. Well, they didn’t mind the fly tying so much, but the counseling was to stop unless he had a college degree and a business license. There was general outrage and frustration there in the truck stop.

There were solutions to Marvin’s problem suggested, of course. They varied from 1. finding something else Marvin could do to enjoy his retirement (from Doc), to 5. declaring war on the county up to and including seceding  (from Jasper Blankenship).

Numbers two, three and four weren’t really workable and referred generally to impossible anatomical feats to be performed by certain county employees.

“Marvin’s hearing is next week,” Doc said. “I plan to show up and give them an earful. Ol’ Marve isn’t hurting a soul.”

Dewey hadn’t said much, nursing his coffee and sweet roll. It’s like that sometimes with deep thinkers. It takes time for an idea to ripen, to blossom. Finally, the king of the valley’s one-man fertilizer distribution system smiled.  “Got an idea,” he said. “I’m willing to sacrifice some labor and profits here … for the cause.”

“What’s the idea,” Dud asked.

“What would you think if I donated an entire pickup load of product to the front door of the county building?”

When the laughing died down, Doc said, “I believe I’d bring a shovel and help out.”

“I don’t know,” Jasper said. “I’m not sure they’d think it was out of place there. If I was younger …”

“If you were younger … what?”

“Well, I believe I’d go down and rearrange some county physiognomies.”

He sighed. “But the truth is … I never was as young as I used to be.”

Brought to you by Slim’s new book “A Cowboy’s Guide to Growing Up Right.” Learn more at

Monday, August 15, 2011

Monday Morning Musings

Who says young people today are shiftless and self-absorbed and nothing but trouble? That's what some folks think of teens, but the majority of young people do not fall into that classification. The teens that I know, and have worked with, are bright, helpful, respectful, and eager to make a difference in the world.That is one reason I was so pleased to see an article in Parade Magazine this weekend that celebrates young people who are participating in service activities.

The article starts by featuring Miranda Cosgrove, the star of Nickelodeon’s iCarly, for her work with  St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis where she visits patients and assists in fund-raising. “They tell you to give back because it helps other people, but you also get a lot out of it.”

Fifteen teens from across the country were picked for Parade's All-American Service Team, and they were selected because they have done something significant in their communities, or even across the world. Rujul Zaparde from New Jersey was cited because he started a non-profit that helps build wells in India, and Charlotte Bilski from New York was cited for organizing an effort to gather donated medical supplies and send them to Haiti following the devastating earthquake there.

Charles Orgbon III from Georgia, is CEO of Greening Forward, a nonprofit that has helped 6,000 students recycle 10 tons of waste and pick up enough litter to fill 25 homes. Charles is only 15 year old. Imagine what he will do at 25.

Conner Danzler of Maryland founded Health Through Humor, an organization that has distributed 11,000 joke books to hospitals in 19 states. Laughter really is the best medicine, and he is doing a wonderful service.

Right here in my community I know a number of teens, and younger children, who take part in the annual Winnsboro Service Day, cleaning up property and painting homes for senior citizens and the disabled. Teens from my church do the same type of service projects,  and many of them collect food for the food pantry.

What about you? Do you know some young people who are deserving of some special recognition for what they are doing to serve their communities?

Friday, August 12, 2011

Friday's Odds and Ends

Political commentators are all projecting which Republican candidate has the best chance of winning the party nomination for president based on the amount of money he or she can raise. Very little is said about the qualifications that candidate would bring to the office. So sad.

Maybe we should all vote for the candidate who is willing to donate his or her campaign war chest to all the folks who have been without jobs for the last year - or longer - so they don't have to lose their homes.

House Speaker John Boehner and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi say they will end the congressional page program, an initiative that brings high school students to Capitol Hill to work alongside elected officials. According to a report at Beliefnet. com this  decision was made without consulting most members of Congress.  Instead, it was made based on a recommendation by two private consulting firms that counseled Boehner and Pelosi that the program was no longer needed, in part due to “advances in technology” that have made having pages in the U.S. House less essential.

Perhaps pages are not as essential for transferring papers and information as they once were, but the opportunity for young people to experience government at work is.... Wait a minute. Do we really want our young people to learn that government is all about taking care of your party and your friends in high places? Maybe it would be better to keep the young folks home on the farm where they won't be corrupted.

On a lighter note, I read a column recently by Ishita Sharma, a volunteer columnist for The Dallas Morning News, that focused on "balancing your tortoise and your hare." Sharma suggests that we all rethink the formula that seems to drive so many people today: "More + bigger + newer + faster = better." We need to find a balance between all the busyness that drives us and periods of calm and relaxation. Sharma mentioned having seen a sign on the door of a fitness center "Fast Yoga" and realized it was an oxymoron. But she also said that was a sad reflection on the kind of life most of us lead.

So let's give ourselves permission to take fifteen minutes of our morning, and another in the afternoon, to just be, and not do anything. Close our eyes, take a few deep breaths, relax and....  Oops, almost fell asleep there.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Separation of Church and State?

I'm a bit confused. Aren't we supposed to have a distinct separation between church and state? So why are evangelical Christians allowed to cross that line at will?

Mind you, I am a Christian, and I espouse all that the religion stands for. I just don't espouse politicians using religion to launch their political campaign. Yes, I do mean you, Rick Perry. And I don't espouse those politicians who flaunt their religion as if that somehow makes them a better president, or senator, or congressman, or political candidate.

If one is truly living a religion, whether it be Christian or one of the other fine religions, there is no need to manufacture sound bites to tell the public how connected he or she is to a God. And a public measuring stick of a candidate's worthiness should not include questions about religion. Those are not allowed in any job interview, so why are they allowed in determining a candidate's qualifications for office?

In a recent column, Ruth Marcus proposes a take-home exam that candidates should respond to before the 2012 elections. It has a single question that deals with the new congressional super-committee overseeing the national budget, asking where candidates would find the savings that are proposed in the recent debt-ceiling deal. The column is worth reading because Marcus tells candidates they cannot put a spin on their answers. They have to come up with specific and concrete plans, not just hyperbole.

It is also most interesting, because no where does it suggest that God is in any way involved in this mess, despite the fact that Rep. Tim Scott, R-SC, said "divine inspiration" was the force behind his opposition to Speaker John Boehner's initial proposal for a debt-ceiling deal.

Too often those in office, and those seeking office, throw out these references to God because it does seem to appeal to some segment of our society, but to me it makes them come across as phonies. Are they just pretending to be holy to gain support? Then I can't help but wonder what else they might be pretending about.

If you have thoughts on this topic, I welcome responses in the comments.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Monday Morning Musings

I came into my office earlier to write a blog entry and had to fight with my cat, John, for my desk. He has decided this is his favorite spot and does not like me disturbing him so I can use my keyboard. He is so big that he is draped with his feet hanging over the edge of the desk, blocking access to the keyboard.

When I try to move him, he decides that must be an invitation to play, so he starts batting at my hands. That can be quite dangerous as he has huge paws, all his claws, and has not learned that to play with a human's hand he must retract his claws.

My plan for the blog, however, was not to write about John.

Tonight I am going to audition for the play, Arsenic and Old Lace. I'm hoping to get to play one of the central characters and work with a director that I really respect. He gave me my first major role a few years ago, and I learned a lot working with him.

One of the things I learned was the importance of blocking a show, which basically means planning out the movement of players on stage. I knew about blocking from a director's standpoint, but not so much from a player's standpoint. You have to know when and where to move, and that is especially important when you have more than one or two people on stage. If there isn't some planning, it can be a bit of a mess with players trying to avoid upstaging each other.

On the other hand, the blocking can't be so rigid that it doesn't leave room for the actor to make it all appear natural, and it is crucial that what happens on stage looks natural. 

In thinking about all that, I realized that the same principles apply to writing. We have to have some basic plan for how our story is going to move, even though sometimes one of the characters will take it in a new direction. We can let that happen to see if that is going to work for the story, and if it doesn't, we can rein that character in.

It is also very important to block, or choreograph, scenes with a lot of people in them. The big climax scene in Open Season was very complicated with action taking place inside a house, just outside the house, and on the street in front of the house. I actually drew a diagram of the scene, like I do of a stage when I am blocking a show, and I put all my people in their various places. Then I planned out the POV switches and how they would flow one to the other and then to another.

Writers, how do you handle complicated scenes?

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Book Review - "A Cowboy's Guide to Growing up Right" by Slim Randles

Today I am a guest at Buried Under Books  with a fun piece about a cat. I have shared several stories at that blog about my cats, and this one is about  my son's cat, who swears she was held captive here. Hop over to the blog if you get a chance and see what Stache had to say about the experience of living here for a while.

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming....

There's something about a cowboy. Fans of some romance novels find a guy in tight jeans and a Stetson the sexiest thing alive, and I will admit a nice tush is... well, a nice tush. What I like most about a cowboy, though, is character. The kind of character that Slim Randles describes in his book, encouraging people to adopt some of the cowboy ways, like honesty, integrity, hard work, and an appreciation for the land and the animals.

He opens his book with this, "Every cowboy knows there is a great deal more to being a grown up than getting tall and inheriting the ability to reproduce." Then he goes on to offer advice on how to grow up with character in this little book from Rio Grande Books.

In just sixty-three pages, Randles offers such sage advice as "Do the right thing, even when no one's looking" He also encourages readers to be passionate about their work. Don't just work for money, or fame, or power. Find something in your life that gives you a reason to get out of bed everyday with a sense of excitement. If it isn't your job, then find a new one, or find a hobby that brings joy and satisfaction to your life.

He also extolls the benefits of finding a mentor, whether that be someone in your workplace, or someone who is an expert at something you do for fun, like playing guitar. "It's easier walking through deep snow when you follow someone else's trail."

That quote ends the chapter on mentors, and each chapter ends with a little quote to cement the lesson. The chapters open with a quote, as well, and those quotes are well worth reading, even if you don't read the whole book word for word. Although I do recommend that you do.

A Cowboy's Guide to Growing up Right is a quick read, but it is also something that you might want to go back to often for the encouragement and sage advice. On top of that, it is classic Randles writing that is often funny, poignant, and cuts to the heart of the matter. No wasted words with this cowboy.

FTC Disclaimer:  The author sent me this book in the hopes that I would review it. But he knows me well enough to understand that I only review work I think is well-written. This one is. I did not benefit monetarily from this arrangement, although I do hope that he does by selling a few copies of his book. And since the one he sent me is signed, it will go on my shelf of autographed books, so I won't even make a dime by reselling it.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Friday's Odds and Ends

Wasn't it just last year when Texas Governor Rick Perry was running for re-election that he repeatedly said he was not going to run for president? Maybe he meant just not in the near future which translated into, "not until after I'm elected governor."

I, for one, will not vote for someone who is not a man of his word. Oops, that leaves out most political candidates.Is there someone out there who will say what he means, and then do what he says?

As this awful heat wave blankets Texas, parts of the Midwest, and all of the deep south, heat advisories are the lead on the evening news. Followed by the number of people who have died because of heat-related issues. A recent broadcast news story was about pre-season football practice for high school. college and pro athletes, and how many have died because of excessive heat. The newscaster said that coaches are not sure how to deal with the problem because there are no written guidelines.

Ummm, has anyone not heard of using some COMMON SENSE? Yes, I am shouting. I was shouting when I heard the story on the news and my husband told me to calm down before I broke something. I think he was protecting his beloved TV from the shoe I wanted to throw at it.

Surely the game of football is not so important that it is worth risking another life. At least three heat-related deaths on practice fields have been reported in the past week, two high-school football players from Georgia and a coach in Texas. Four high school players in Arkansas were hospitalized for dehydration on Wednesday.

According to a newsstory from CNN, some experts say that parents should petition for rules to protect their children from this danger, otherwise the danger will continue.

Why wait? Surely the game of football is not so important that it is worth risking another life. If coaches and athletic directors don't have enough sense to curtail these practices without a piece of paper telling them to do so, parents should pull their kids from the program. I would chain my kid to the bedpost before I would let him or her take such a risk. I wouldn't want to be the next mother crying on national television because my son or daughter died for the sake of a game.

Speaking of the heat. In Texas consumers pay an extra dollar a month on their electric bills, and the money is to go into a fund to assist the poor and elderly pay their electric bills. We were given the impression this was a protected fund, but in reality much of it has been diverted to balance the state budget. This year $130 million has been collected for energy-bill assistance, but only $28 million has been provided to those in need. This despite the fact that the need has risen.

This is so unconscionable, I don't even know how to respond, except to say, "Shame on you, Texas legislature."

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

A Bit of Humor

When I was writing my weekly column for a newspaper when my kids were young, it was always a challenge each year to come up with something to write about the summer break from school that wasn’t just a rehash of past columns. I thought maybe people were getting tired of my “I hate Summer” columns, but a friend assured me otherwise.

“No, Maryann,” she said. “You’ve got to keep writing this. If you suddenly started loving the summer break, that would leave the rest of us looking like the worst mothers on earth. So accept the gauntlet, carry the flag, give us a game plan.”

How could I refuse?

I worked for two weeks on a plan I thought was perhaps the best summer vacation survival guide ever, but it only took two days for my kids to destroy it.

The shining glory of said game plan, which I considered definitive, succinct, and perhaps worthy of someday being etched in stone, were my edicts:

Thou shalt not wake up the household before eight o'clock in the morning.
“But you didn't say I couldn't sing."

Thou shalt not fight.
"This isn't a fight. It's a police action."

I guess I should have covered more bases. I amended that edict to read:  Thou shalt not fight or engage in any sort of skirmish, duel, war or uprising. That should be clear enough for them.

Thou shalt not bother me with trivial details when I'm working. 
"Grandma just called from Detroit. But I told her you were too busy to talk."

Thou shalt complete all chores before noon.
"Mom, your bed's not made and its twelve-o-one."

Thou shalt co-operate.
"We are co-operating. David's helping me get this Twinkie away from Michael."

Once the fun of breaking edicts was over, there was nothing left but this deep pit of boredom. We dipped so low, we were reduced to inane activities such as conducting a contest to see who had the most mosquito bites in unusual places.  (You do not want to know the details of who won.) Then we endured 14 hours of "Love Boat" reruns with a test afterward to see who could remember the most lines of dialogue.

And this was the shining example my friend thought I could be?

Excerpted from my humorous memoir, A Dead Tomato Plant and a Paycheck, which is still under consideration for publication.
For more fun, hop over to The Blood Red Pencil, where my friend, Tracy Farr is reviewing the reviewer.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Monday morning musings

I hate to keep yammering on the same topic - actually, I don't. I keep hoping that if enough of us yammer, our esteemed government will pay attention.

As we teeter on the brink of Congress making another decision that could be a colossal mistake, Ian Bremmer, author of The End of the Free Market: Who wins the War Between States and Corporations? writes that the U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio is above 84 percent. What that means is that we are closer to being unable to repay our debt than ever before.

Has this little fact escaped President Obama and others who pushed to raise the debt ceiling?

To close that gap, Bremmer says that "U.S. Consumers will have to pay higher taxes, save more money, delay retirement, and accept less generous pensions and health care benefits."

Again the onus is on the average American instead of the government we elected to protect the interests of all Americans. Does everyone remember the bail out that gave billions of dollars to banks and corporations, bypassing the poor guy who was losing his house? How well did that work out for the average citizen?

It's always business as usual in Washington: The government bowing to the pressure of lobbyists to protect big business while the American tax payer pays, and pays, and pays.

Is anyone out there willing to buck the system?