Friday, January 31, 2014

A Bit of Toast

from Jacqueline

Well, California’s done it again and led the world down the road to a new – if you can call it new - fad.  If LA gave us the celebrity cupcake, it seems that San Francisco is now pressing us into a new appreciation of …. toast.

 Which at one of San Francisco’s new toast eateries might be transformed into something “artisanal” for (wait for it, sit down now ….) upwards of about $4.50 a slice.  A SLICE!

The thing is, I love toast. I’ve always loved toast. I have a history with toast that goes back a long way.

 When I was a child my favorite part of toast was the crust.  I liked my toast cold, with the butter and marmalade sort of mingled.  My dad knew this, so he always toasted at least one more slice than he needed each morning, then spread on butter (well, Blue Band margarine actually – butter was expensive!) and marmalade.  Then he’d cut off the crusts and only eat the middle.  The crusts were left on his plate, which remained on the table after he’d left the house. That was my breakfast. 

I loved his leftover crusts, with the salty taste of cold melted margarine and the sweetness of Chivers Dundee Marmalade, all washed down with a cup of tea, naturally.  British children are weaned on tea.

 By the time I’d hit the age of six, I was pretty much addicted to toast. It was an easy snack when I came home from school, and it tasted pretty good with anything.  Cut into soldiers and dipped into boiled egg?  Yum! 

 Spread thinly with Marmite – oh, my mouth waters! (and please, do spread thinly – my husband thinks Marmite is an evil British invention, but no wonder, the way he slathered it on his toast the first time. No, don’t do it – with Marmite, a little goes a long way.

 But then there’s bread toasted on an open fire, outdoors – the mere thought has me sliding back a few decades.  When I was a child my mother worked on the local farms. In a rural area, if a woman wanted a job that accommodated young children or children at home during school breaks, then farm work was pretty much the only choice.  For us kids, each day on the farm presented numerous possibilities for new adventures.  Only the smallest would remain close to their mothers while the women picked fruit or spread dung across the hop gardens, or cut back the old hop bines (yes, they're called bines with a "b") ready for burning – the rest of us would vanish until someone’s mum shouted that it was time to come back for lunch, or tea.  On cold days the women usually built a fire to keep us all warm and to heat up food.  My mother would snap off a couple of thin Y-shaped hazel branches and give one each to my brother and me – it was a makeshift toasting fork onto which she’d spike a cheese sandwich – those were the best.  Then we’d stick our forks as close as we could get to the flames and voila!  Toasted cheese sandwich with smoke undertones.  My mouth waters just thinking about it.

And no photograph of a toasted cheese sandwich can replicate that particular experience.

I loved winter evenings when we had toast and cocoa before bed – though at home we used a more traditional toasting fork.  I will be forever bathed by the comfort and coziness of the memory.

 By the time I was about 16, I was working in a restaurant at weekends and bringing leftover baguettes to school on Monday mornings, where in the girls’ common room, I’d toast up a batch of crusty bread for us to enjoy.  It was a boy’s school, you see, so there were only about ten or so of us girls in that first year of co-education.  The common room was in a 16th century timber-framed building that was probably a fire risk, especially as “toasting” meant holding the bread up against the red-hot wire elements of an electric heater that had probably been brought into service around 1936.  But dear me, how gorgeous it was, especially spread thick with butter and smooth Kentish honey.

 I went on to college and life in the dorm, where each day several loaves of sliced white Wonder Bread were left in the kitchen for student use, along with a brick of margarine.  And there was a toaster in the kitchen, naturally.  I remember eating that strange almost plastic tasting toast late at night, sitting around with the other girls talking about everything from, well, guys, to books, to films and who was going where – and we were all jealous of Jan.  Her dad worked for British Airways, so she was always going off somewhere really, really interesting that no one else could afford. I met up with her in London a few years ago, and one of the first things she said to me was, “You know, I’ve still got a bit of a thing about toasted Wonder Bread and margarine.”

 And of course, there are bittersweet memories brought back by the thought of toast. About eighteen months ago, when my dad was in the hospice during the last three weeks of his life, all he wanted to eat in the evenings and for breakfast, was toast and marmalade, with (of course) a cup of tea or two.  For about four days in his final week, my mother had a throat infection, and was not allowed to visit, so it was just me and dad.  I took in some of my gluten-free bread so that we could have our tea together – me with my special toast and him with his more flavorful “real” toasted bread.  But it was a lovely time, really.  We never talked about the big things in life that you might imagine would enter the conversation, but instead we just watched TV, or discussed the news or the book on the Dam Busters he’d just read – and we would sip our tea and eat our toast, and just, I suppose, hold the love between us in a very personal, blessed way.  After he died it was all I could do to look at toast for a long time.  I’d cry over the bread and then just have a cup of tea.

The great thing about toast was always that it was a cheap snack, and it could become a meal in itself.  I have toast for lunch most days, with perhaps a slice of smoked salmon on top, and maybe another slice with my home-made berry jam for desert.  I have to eat gluten-free bread because a few years ago my gluten intolerance was finally diagnosed – I always wondered why I’d had those stomach cramps for most of my life.  Given my bread addiction, is it surprising?

But would I pay $4.50 for a slice of artisanal toast at some chic place in San Francisco?  No, I don’t think so.  You see, to me, toast is the people’s food.  It’s not meant to be upscale and gourmet.  I don’t think it’s meant to be gussied up too much (apart from that thin slice of smoked salmon).  It’s something you make at home, or outdoors over an open fire.  Yet the urban trendsetters are flocking to buy their posh toast.  Well – let them eat cupcake.

 And before I leave you to your tea and toast – for surely you will just have to cut a slice of bread and slip it into the toaster now – here’s a link to what is arguably one of the silliest music video’s of the 1970’s (I haven't yet figured out how to embed a video into the body of a post) – but Paul Young was always easy on the eyes in those days.  Go on, click on the link.  You'll enjoy it ...

Have a very good weekend.  

Thursday, January 30, 2014

How to Write a Novel, Part 2: Structure

It can be daunting to think of writing a 100,000 word novel. I have learned more about writing a novel since Walking Money was published in 2004, than I did in the fifteen years of hard work I put in before its publication. At writing conferences, I consistently listen to the panels on the craft of writing and pick up ways to explain concepts many had not considered before. Please keep in mind that the suggestions below are what work for me. Results may vary.


The first thing to consider is your idea. Your simple, basic concept. If you can't say it in one sentence then you don't have the heart of your story. It can be a long sentence. But it can't be vague and confusing. That leads to vague and confusing novels, which sometimes push me to rage and anger. I want to be entertained, captured by the story, interested in the characters, understand what's going on, and keep turning the pages. If you don't know your story, neither will the readers. You can expand slightly on your story with two or three sentences, almost like a TV Guide listing. This is my favorite of all TV Guide listings in the history of the universe:

But you need to think about simple ideas like, "A detective's wife is kidnapped and he suddenly discovers he’s never been happier." We can write the book around that. What happens next? Does the wife escape and return to wreak vengeance on her husband? Does he come to his senses and try and rescue her? That's the wondrous joy of the novel. You have to write it or read it to find out.


Now it's time to think of the three acts. Everyone's heard of the three act play. It's simple, the beginning, middle and end. Every story has to have the beginning. Most stories should have an ending. Everything in between is the middle. Another way to think of it is that everything you do in your novel has a beginning middle and end. Each of the three acts has a beginning to the act, the middle of the act and the end of the act. Now you're looking at nine sections of the novel instead of one giant work of fiction.

Let's take it a step further. Let's say each act is made up of nine chapters, so using simple numbers let's say the first three chapters make up the beginning, the next three the middle and the final three chapters make up the end of the act. But within each chapter there could be three scenes and each scene also has a beginning middle and end. And this continues all the way down to the sentences that make up the paragraphs that make up the scenes that fill out the chapters. Each must have a beginning middle and end.


I have always been of the writing school that less is more. Part of that is my early years working with Elmore Leonard, who was famous for saying, "I cut out the stuff people tend to skip." I, personally, like direct, tight prose. That's not everyone's choice. But everyone's not writing this fucking blog. I am.  So we’re going to go with less is more. Enter the scene as late as you possibly can. Think about what can be cut out. Dutch Leonard always used to say never start a book with the description of the weather. I agree. Unless, it's pertinent to the story. Dig right in and shock the reader with something that is already happening in the book. They're smart. They’re readers. By definition readers are smart. My guess is that the entire Kardashian clan has not read eight books in their collective lives. Except the father who was an attorney. But I'll throw in Bruce Jenner and his biological children — who apparently missed out on his phenomenal DNA — with this group.

Once you're in the scene and you have established whatever action is occurring, get out early. Let the reader use their imagination. It's fun to think someone else is doing part of your work. The more you make the reader think, the fewer words you have to write. That's a business model I can get behind.


So now you have an idea of what's required just to start typing the first page of the novel. Tremendous preparation, be a reader, have an idea, refine the idea, tell your ideas to friends and see what they think, then consider how the story could be told over three acts. Each time you sit down to write any element of the story, whether it is a chapter or just a sentence, keep in mind that it has a beginning, middle and end. Start that concept as late as you possibly can. Your hero doesn't need to travel down the street to walk into the store to say hello to the young girl behind the counter then be confronted by an armed robber. He can start out being confronted by the armed robber as he talks to the pretty girl. It'll save you time writing and the reader time they would use to curse you for bloating your prose.

Here are George Orwell's five major rules of writing (Courtesy of
  1. Never use a metaphorsimile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Isn't this fun? In the next blog we’ll look at other ideas to get your story rolling, including motivation and state of mind. (See that’s something novelists call foreshadowing. All those elements with literary names don't mean squat if you don't have a story and can express yourself.)

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Compassion for a Bankrupt Lawyer?

From the messy desk of Paul Levine...

Law firm partners, associates, and even law students are buzzing about a New York Times piece entitled “A Lawyer And Partner; And Also Bankrupt.”  The article  was written by James B. Stewart, author of the number one bestseller, “Den of Thieves,” a harrowing account of insider trading scandals on Wall Street.  

The subject of the Times piece, Attorney Gregory M. Owens, is not seeking compassion, sympathy and least of all, publicity.  Owens works full time as a “partner” at the mammoth, deep-carpet, filthy rich firm of White & Case in New York.  (More about those quotation marks later).

On New Years Eve, Owens, 55, quietly filed a petition for bankruptcy, seeking to eliminate his debts, most of which stem from the disastrous collapse of another member of Big Law, Dewey & LaBouef. (D&L was to law firms what the Titanic was to cruise ships).

Owens doesn’t seem to be a spendthrift but recently had gone through a costly divorce.  On his bankruptcy petition, he lists his assets as a few hundred bucks in cash, used clothing worth $900, and a broken watch.  And, oh yes, about $1 million in retirement funds that are exempt from creditors under federal law.

Currently, he makes about $375,000 per year as a “services partner” at White & Case.  (He'd made about $500,000 a year at D&L).  In reality, a "services partner" is simply a high-paid employee.  In contrast, an “equity partner” really owns a piece of the joint.  Owens, for example, could be fired if business slacks off or he has a falling out with an equity partner for any reason at all, including perhaps bad publicity in The New York Times.  His specialty is the financing of mergers and acquisitions.  Or, in the words of the White & Case website Owens has extensive:

corporate finance/banking transactional experience representing investment and commercial banks, as arrangers, agents and lenders, and borrowers, with respect to among others secured and unsecured debt financing, senior and subordinated debt financing, borrowing base finance and letters of credit. 
Yes, you may YAWN, now.

Again, it’s hard to feel pity for someone with his salary.  On the other hand, I feel sorry for anyone grinding their lives away on such document-intensive boring-as-dirt labor. 

At its core, the story is not really about Gregory Owens.  It's more a symbol of the changing times in law firms, especially Big Law.  If you’re not a rainmaker – a guy or gal who brings in well-paying corporations – your career hangs by a thread. 

Many years ago, I was a young partner in the Big Law firm of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius.  We didn’t have equity versus non-equity partners.  After working hard-as-hell to become a partner in the Litigation Section, I left -- flat out quit -- to pursue a writing career.  I didn't think I could maintain the schedule required of a Big Law trial lawyer and also write a successful, i.e., publishable novel. Also, to be frank, I thought my professional life -- representing one giant corporation against another -- added little positive to society.  My friends, mostly lawyers, thought I'd gone stark, raving mad. 

While practicing part-time on my own in 1988, I sold my first novel, “To Speak for the Dead,” to Bantam in a six-figure, two book hard-soft deal. (Two novels, both hardcover and paperback.  Ah, those were the days).  Though long out of print, thanks to the wonders of Amazon, the novel is still selling these days on Kindle.

Where would I be today, had I stayed with Big Law?  Making millions or bankrupt?  Who knows?  (The American Lawyer says the average profits-per-partner of the top 50 members of Big Law was $1.6 million in 2012.  Ahem.  That's a lot of kindle books at $3.99).

But I know this.  I’m HAPPIER doing what I'm doing now and have done for the past 25 years.  And that’s worth a lot more than being an “equity partner.”

Paul Levine

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Guest Poster : Emily Born

As a proud father, I am posting my daughter's latest article.  Not only is it well written, she listened as a child.  It is never too late to plan ahead.  DNA does matter as does taste in movies.  All anyone needs to know to live a happy life.

This appeared originally in The University of Florida paper, The Odyssey.


January 23, 2014
Emily Born/ Florida/Zeta Tau Alpha


It is a Friday night and you just made eye contact with an obvious fraternity guy across the bar. Your drink is running low so it is a good time to strike up a conversation. Plus, you have a date function coming up, or are maybe even on the prowl for something more serious.
It can be tempting at this point to ask about his letters, but, let’s face it—“what fraternity are you in?” is a useless question. All it really tells you are year-old stereotypes to go off of and that maybe he knows that one kid who lived on your floor freshman year. If you really want to get to know a guy, or at least determine if he is a viable formal option, try these instead:
1.       “Do you have a girlfriend?”-  Because really, if his answer to this is “yes,” then none of the other questions matter, and we all know that simply assuming the answer to this one does not end well.
2.       “Have you ever been to prison?”- Again, practical yet vital, and this question is a win-win. Either he says “no”, which is good news, or he says “yes” and you get to hear an interesting, albeit potentially horrifying, story.
3.       “Team Jennifer of Team Angelina?”- I would like to think that they are not people in this world that would answer “Angelina,” but the world is a messed up place so this a good preliminary question. If he answers incorrectly, resist the urge to throw your drink on him and simply walk away.
4.       “How tall are your parents?”-  You can never plan too far in advance. How disappointing would it be to meet this guy, realize he is great, and then find out there is no hope for a future because of simple genetics? It just would not be fair to your future children.
5.       “Which Harry Potter is your favorite?”- This one reveals more than you might think. For instance, perhaps he prefers the humor of Chamber of Secrets to the drama of Prisoner of Azkaban. Regardless, having no answer to this one tells you all you really need to know.
6.       “Who do you identify most with on the Jersey Shore?”- Any answer to this is the wrong answer.  
7.       “Do you have any pets?”- Honestly, it is not that relevant, but then again, neither is his Greek affiliation. 

Friday, January 24, 2014

Various Musings ....

from Jacqueline

Well, it’s done!  I have submitted my Application for Naturalization (Form N-400) to the USCIS.  That’s the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service.  It arrived at the offices in Phoenix (to which applications from California must be sent) at 10:30 am on Wednesday morning. I tracked that package all the way (wondering, I might add, why a package that goes from CA to AZ had to travel via TN).  Now the countdown begins.  According to various websites, the time from receipt of application to “The Oath” is about 5 months.  I sincerely hope it is, because what with book tours, a few events in the first half of the year, Left Coast Crime and a couple of trips to see my mother in England before the summer, I just hope I can schedule it all, because one does not call the immigration people to say, “Could we move that appointment back a bit?”  In any case, now I am doing my homework at every opportunity, so that during my naturalization interview and the nervous heat of the moment, I can automatically answer the ten questions thrown at me.  I’m pretty OK with it, but all the same, I’ve ordered a few books to help me along.

And I learned an awful lot during my addiction to this show ....

Moving right along!  I can add one more thing to my list of living things on earth that make no sense. Along with skunks and ticks, I think Justin Bieber or whatever he calls himself is right up there on the strange and nonsensical species list.  And as an aside, I do believe I have Mr. and Mrs. Skunk and a family of little blighters living under my house. I have decided that discretion is the better part of valor and will not look. 

My walking buddy and I encountered a lovely dog (with owner) on our morning trek a few weeks ago.  What a gorgeous pup it was too – four months old with black curly hair.  It was a medium-sized Labradoodle.  We asked the name of the breeder to check out the website later.  Well, all I can say is … $2500 for a mutt?????  Has the dog-loving world lost its marbles?  I mean, they’re lovely dogs, fun and perfect for people who want a dog that doesn’t shed, but twenty-five hundred bucks for what would have once been considered an accident???  A sheepadoodle will set you back about the same (that’s a poodle crossed with an Old English Sheepdog).  And now apparently the oodles are starting to come up with problems due to inbreeding – there’s been too much doodling around, apparently.

Now, having said all that – about spending money on animals – when I bought my beloved Friesian horse, Oliver, the vet who came to do the pre-purchase examination said to me, “You know, you could buy a high-end mountain bike and save yourself a whole lot of money.”   

I reflect upon that conversation at times, and usually when the vet bill arrives in my mailbox.  But it comes down to the fact that if you have the money and you want something, it’s no one’s business but yours.  I’d saved up to buy a young horse, and the minute Oliver and I locked eyes, I knew he was The One I had waited for my entire life.  My very own black beauty.  

And even if I had known then that Friesians have a delicate digestive system, I would still have bought him.  Oh, that would be the same delicate digestive system that took us to the equine hospital late at night just over a year ago – he was in the throes of a serious colic, so I’d walked him up and down for four hours waiting for the emergency vet to arrive at ten o’clock on a dark and stormy night (probably the last stormy night we had in CA!).  He immediately referred Ollie to the equine hospital ($$$$), so off we went trundling the trailer along flooded freeways to be greeted by three veterinarians and a surgeon on standby - fortunately, the three angels stabilized Oliver so the surgeon wasn't needed.  Maybe I should have bought a medium black labraoodle after all.

But instead, we have Maya.  A Mutt from the LA County Shelter.  Ahhhhh ….

Who, as I write this is scratching her ear while giving me the "I've got a tick!" look.  Now I have to look for a deer tick on a black dog - oh joy!

Well, that's it from me for this week, folks.

Have a lovely weekend.  If you're here in California, let's pray for rain.  If you're on the east coast, we'll pray for a bit of sunshine for you, and if you're in the UK - jeez, I hope that rain stops soon.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

How To Write a Novel

That's a catchy title, isn't it?  I had to get your attention somehow. I was going to title the blog, "I am a victim of bullying."  If you heard the things that Paul Levine and Patty Smiley say to me about blogging on a more regular basis, you’d agree that it's over the line. But with all the attention bullying has been getting recently, I didn't want someone inadvertently reading one of my flippant posts thinking they might find relief.

In fact, it is my intention to blog at least a little more often by stating now that I will write a series of blogs about writing. That is essentially what I intended to do when I joined The Naked Authors.  I hate to admit I've taken on too many projects, so by stating it clearly here, I will force myself to post something at least once a month.

In addition, it will give me some notes and guidelines to refer to when I teach classes on writing. I have been too busy to accept any invitations for the past two years,  however it’s my hope to start speaking at conferences once again. I have at least two books coming out in the next year, but that's news I'll save for another time.

I once taught a class on how to write a novel at the South Carolina Book Festival. I received tremendous response, which was followed by an invitation to be the opening speaker at the South Carolina Writers Workshop, traditionally held in Hilton Head, South Carolina. The concept was simple and had nothing to do with how to get published, find an agent, pitch your idea or get out of debt quickly by writing a novel. The class only covered the mechanics of writing a novel from my point of view.

I am approached by would-be novelists virtually every week. There are very few cops who don't have stories that could fill a book and it sometimes feels like every criminal attorney would be happier as a novelist. (As evidence we need look no further than our own Paul Levine who has excelled in both professions.)

More often than not, when I ask the would-be novelist who they read, they respond, "I don't read fiction." In my opinion, that's a mistake. I learned so much from reading across all genres, from crime fiction, fantasy, historical novels to virtually any other well-written prose. It is the foundation of a good novelist. Generally my response is to tell whoever is asking me about becoming a novelist that they should read fifty novels in the next two years. That would not only prove their persistence, a trait that is vital to working in publishing, it would provide them with a decent start to an understanding of what they like in fiction. 

In addition, I usually suggest several books on craft. I read about writing almost every day. It is something which interests me so it's not hard to accomplish.  I always have a novel I'm reading and roughly every other week I read a book that has something to do with the craft of writing or the writing life. I would recommend these books as a start to any writing career:

Hit Lit by James W Hall

In full disclosure, Professor Hall is a friend of mine and I enjoy virtually everything he writes. That being said, this book is a culmination of his life studying the theory and practice of writing a successful novel. He breaks down the most popular books of all time in a way that is enjoyable and enlightening.

How to Write the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas

This is just a simple, practical guide to elements which could help a commercial novel. I'm sure some would call the book crass and commercial, but it's important to remember that crass and commercial sometimes pays the bills and Maas’ advice is rock solid. Mr. Maas has been an agent for many years and seems to know what he's talking about. I also like how he works his own clients’ novels in the text as examples. That's a good agent.

On Writing by Stephen King.

The book starts out as a memoir, which is interesting, but when Mr. King decides to teach his lessons with examples he has provided in the first half of the book, all I can really say is, "Brilliant."

I have quite the collection of books about writing. From one of Paul Levine's suggestions, How Fiction Works to the Bible of screenwriting, Story by Robert McKee. In the past few months I have been paring down my extensive library in the event that I am forced to move quickly without leaving a forwarding address. The books which remain on my shelves, including the three above, are a testament to how much they have influenced me.

Here are Elmore Leonard rules to writing:

This should give you something to think about as you prepare to write the Great American Novel. In my next blog, I’ll get into the actual concepts that go into a novel. Until then, read the three books listed above and if you don't read fiction, start on the first of fifty novels, preferably several by writers on this blog.

Monday, January 20, 2014


Patty here

On Monday, January 17, 1994, I was awakened at around 4:30 in the morning when my bed began to shake violently. I heard glass shattering and lumber creaking. There was no doubt in my mind that it was an earthquake. I just wasn’t sure if it was “the big one” all Angelenos know will happen one day.

It is known as the Northridge Earthquake, even though the epicenter was in Reseda in the San Fernando Valley, about twenty miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. The magnitude was 6.7, but it produced the largest ground movement of any earthquake in any urban area in North America. The earth shook for about 20 seconds. That may not seem long until you set a timer and imagine not knowing if those seconds will be your last, if your house will collapse and transform you into a flapjack.

There was no electricity, so we dodged glass from a broken jar and crept up the stairs to survey the damage and collect the flashlights. In the kitchen, cabinet doors had flung open and rows of spices had flown off the shelf and shattered on the floor. A fire extinguisher had toppled out of a cabinet and cracked a ceramic floor tile.

We ventured into the front yard to find the brick fireplace still standing. Some of our neighbors were also outside, milling around. We always keep a gas shut-off tool in a plastic bag near the valve in case of leaks. We turned the gas off to prevent explosions, and headed back inside. That’s when we realized the front door was open and our beloved Tigger-boo-the-wonder-cat was missing.

Our brave Boo

I walked up and down the street, calling his name with no response. As soon as the electricity was restored, I printed flyers and scoured the neighborhood to no avail. Approximately 36 hours after the quake, I walked out the front door and saw Tigger under the olive tree. Presented with an open door, he strolled into the house as if nothing was amiss. After that, everything seemed survivable.

The water was undrinkable for days. We used ice from the refrigerator, read by candlelight, ate food from the refrigerator until it spoiled and had to be tossed. Banks were closed, along with ATM machines. After the dust settled, I walked to the supermarket to find the windows shattered but cleanup in progress. Our area escaped major damage, but nearby Santa Monica sustained heavy losses.

Once communications were restored, we saw the extent of the damage: streets buckled, freeways collapsed, including a section of the 10 Freeway, shutting down a vital link to one of the most traveled thoroughfares in the United States. Thousands of people were injured. Fifty-seven people lost their lives, including 16 who died when a Northridge apartment building collapsed.

Early reports

Experts predict that in the next 30 years there is a 97% probability that Southern California will experience an earthquake of greater magnitude than the 1994 quake. To the extent that preparedness is possible, I keep shoes and a jacket next to my bed, enough cash to buy necessities for a week or so, and bottled water. I probably should store more canned food, but that gas shut-off tool is still ready and waiting. And I will never ever again forget to close the front door unless doing so jeopardizes the safety of my kitties Scooter and Riley.

All of us live at the mercy of Mother Nature: extreme weather, floods, hurricanes, tsunamis. Do you worry? Do you prepare? Where were you when the earth quaked?

Happy Monday!

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Writer With The Wandering Eye

from Jacqueline

I went along to the ophthalmologist yesterday for my annual “comprehensive check up.”  This is an annual appointment I dread as much as the boob-crushing mammogram.  Sorry about that visual, but it’s the truth – about the mammogram, I mean.

You see, I had eye problems as a kid – lazy eyes.  Not just one, but both, with the right eye being rather more “off” than the left.  For the first five years of my life, I thought everyone saw two of everything, and when I think back, it’s a wonder I was reading so well by the time I started school at age five.  But of course, that’s when the reading gets bumped up a bit, and I discovered that I could see the words a lot better if my right eye were not involved in the effort.  In fact, my right eye didn’t really want to be involved anyway, because it began to wander as soon as it was required to work!

I was sitting at the kitchen table one day, when my mother asked me why I was reading with my head partially turned from the book. I explained that it was easier to read.  The next thing I knew she was giving me an eye test, holding my head in her hands and pointing my face directly at various things and asking me what I could see.  On the shelf over the stove?  Two pepper pots, two clocks, two vases …  hey, we had two of everything!  The next day I was taken to see the local optician who (even though he was a bit of a money-grabber) referred me to the hospital ophthalmology department. The hospital was some twenty miles away, and we didn’t have a car.  The journey by bus involved one or two changes, and to cap it all, I suffered from motion sickness.  Yep, even on the two-mile ride to school in the morning, I was queasy.  So, this journey became a really big part of my young life, especially as it was decided that I would have surgery when I turned six, and in the interim I would have to go to the hospital twice a month to see the orthoptist (they don’t have them any more  - it’s a defunct optical therapy).  The orthoptist was a woman named Miss Trew, which, when you think of it, is an interesting name for a person who worked with kids suffering from wandering eyes. 

Miss Trew would put my eyes through their paces. I had to follow her fingertip with my eyes as she held it up and moved it from left to right.  Then I had to follow the moving pencil light as she directed it back and forth to my nose.  But the most important part of the day was her machine.  I had to set my chin on a little ledge in front of the viewer, and she would put slides in either side.  With two handles, I then had to maneuver the rabbit into the hutch, the chicken into the cage, the dog into the kennel, or the circle into the bigger circle.  And all the time she was changing the coordinates, and making notes.  According to my current ophthalmologist, they did the exercises because at that age the brain is making sure the eye muscles are responding to instructions – so by giving more instructions it stimulates that part of the brain, and is also good prep for surgery.  For me it was all just a big pain – the hours in the bus, feeling sick to my stomach (especially from taking Kwells travel sickness pills) the exhaustion of putting rabbits in hutches and the migraine that began to set in the moment that light was shone in my eyes.  But it led to me holding a dream to be a writer.

I think I’ve told this story before, but it was on one of those early journeys that I saw the writer’s room.  I always traveled on the top deck of the bus, probably because looking down at the world was a big thing, and it took my mind off my stomach.  Our first stop was in a place called Pembury, and as the bus idled while people stepped aboard, I was able to see over the hedge and right into the window of a double-fronted Edwardian villa.  In the left bay window was a desk with a typewriter set upon it.  A sheaf of papers sat alongside the typewriter, and one sheet had been rolled under the platen (there’s a word you don’t hear any more).  A pile of books was to one side, with the top book open.  The room was book-lined – shelves and shelves of books, which even at five was my idea of heaven.  On the far side a fire burned in the grate. A cardigan had been left on the back of the chair, and there was a cup and saucer on the desk, suggesting that someone had just left the room. 
I began to look forward to the hospital visits, because I knew I would see that room again – in fact, I was always so tired, and with a thumping migraine, that I slept for most of the journey – but I would not let myself fall asleep until after the first stop alongside the house in Pembury.  One day I asked my mum who she thought lived in that house, and she looked down into the room and replied, “Oh, I think it must be a writer.”  My poor wandering eyes focused on the black typewriter, the pile of books, the sheaf of papers, the fire in the grate and the shelves and shelves of books and I replied, “Well, I want to be a writer when I grow up.”

I thought of that again yesterday, when the ophthalmologist suggested doing some exercises to strengthen the right eye muscles again – it’s been checking out for a while now, and my left eye is doing all the work. He said that he might suggest surgery on the muscle again in the future, and of course those eyes of mine almost popped out at that point.  I shook my head.  No – I had three surgeries between the ages of 6 and 17 (admittedly one was to remove the dissolving suture that did not dissolve and became embedded in my eye), and I’m not up for any more. 
I became a writer when I was five and started to make the bedroom I shared with my baby brother resemble the writer’s room.  I gratefully accepted an old desk offered by the shopkeeper at the end of the road, and Mrs. Croft who lived four doors along gave me a very old desk lamp with a shell-shaped shade – darn thing shorted and threw me against the wall when I plugged it into the socket.  I began to write at my desk each day, often placing my cardigan on the back of the chair, and I imagined myself seated in the bay window of the Edwardian villa in Pembury.   It took me another thirty-odd years to get anything published and another twelve to see my first novel in print.  But when I look around now at my MacBook Pro (with retina display) on my desk, and my laser printer, and then at my book-lined room, I think of something I once read and have quoted many a time: 

If you can see a thing, you can make it so.

And maybe seeing double helps ….

Have a lovely weekend – and look after your eyes!!!