Thank you, Anthony Bourdain

I’ll repeat. Thank you, Anthony Bourdain. I’m rather a neutral fan of this TV host, but I occasionally catch snippets of his show on CNN called Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. The show explores other cuisines, cultures, and politics of a particular area. While channel surfing one evening, I caught and watched his show on Africa; his journey into the country of South Africa and then into the Republic of the Congo. In light of today’s current political climate, stirrings of overt racism, and unsavory remarks from national leadership, I followed him willingly on this journey.

Most of all I was struck by a remark made by a local man Bourdain visited with as they ate in a small South African eatery.

Put something in your mouth to get your ears open.


Gardening by Lazarus Ramontseng

Bourdain’s purpose is to explore a culture and its politics through conversations held over a meal of local food. In this particular exchange, the talk was about the South African nation, its history, and ongoing recovery from apartheid. The eatery was one of several small house cafes with five or six tables he visited in the township of Soweto, south of Johannesburg. Soweto is where Africans once were forced to live. He also ate in the cafes of Johannesburg. One thing the eateries seemed to have in common? They bustled with multicultural people, with blends of language and attire. They also had one other thing in common. The people, while eating, were all engaged in civil discourse – people with different backgrounds and experiences and ethnic heritages. They enjoyed good food, made with pride, and each other.

Put something in your mouth to get your ears open.


Bus Leaving Town by Peter Kwangware

From there Bourdain journeyed into the Congo. Viewers were shown a complex map of the areas occupied by various warring groups. We learned of the ineptness of its President and government. Bourdain continued to eat in cafes and homes, talking and listening. Then he and his guide rented a boat and explored the Congo River, at once becoming a curiosity to locals who gathered along the riverbank. We were shown the remains of the railroad system, the research facilities, and cities hurriedly abandoned by the Belgians in the 1960’s. The railroad and research facilities are still manned by skeletal crews of African workers waiting for the government to make things operational again.

Put something in your mouth to get your ears open.


Collage by South African artist Benon Lutaaya

During his narration, Bourdain made several references to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The title has several meanings. One refers to a journey into the heart of the  then dark continent of Africa. The other refers to the base nature man can keep in his heart. As in the rape of Africa. As in racism.

Let’s see … civil discourse and listening to each other … done enjoyably over delicious food of the area … an opportunity to appreciate, understand, and learn about each other. I’m in.

Currently, in our national discussions, we are talking about immigration, other ethnicities, cultures, and religions. We are uniting behind the repugnance of racism which has raised its ugly head. While such a complex issue cannot be solved by this one simple and civilized act, the positive subtext is obvious. It’s time to diffuse tension, and enlighten and expand the national consciousness. And listen. I’m looking for an equitable legal immigration policy, national policies that embrace diversity, and moral leadership, based on civil discourse and respect.

Put something in your mouth to get your ears open.

I’ll leave you with a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King which has resonated with me for many years:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” From Dr. King’s Strength of Love, 1963.

Progress is slow. But, as I recall, the tortoise eventually won. It didn’t quit.

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Curious about your DNA story?

I finally did it. I succumbed to the lure of and the siren call of its TV advertising. Unable to resist its special holiday pricing, I sent for my kit.

The compact box arrived with instructions on how to deposit saliva into a small tube, secure its integrity with a preservative, seal it, and return the contents, which I did. Several weeks later I received the results. Drum roll, please.

The results summary turned out like this:

Western Europe                                                                           42%
Great Britain (Northern England and the Midlands)           33%
Scandinavia                                                                                    6%
Eastern Europe                                                                              6%
Ireland/Scotland/Wales                                                               5%

How surprised was I? Not very, to be honest. Family lore had always taught that our ancestors were from Germany and France on my father’s side, and England and Scotland on my mother’s side.

Scandinavia at 6% was the only bit of surprise until I remembered the escapades of the Vikings as they explored in England and Europe with a brief jog over to the New World. For the Eastern Europe segment – migration within Europe was not a surprise.


Explorations of The Vikings courtesy of BBC – Primary History

But wait a minute. The above stats only accounted for 92% of my ancestry. Where was the rest of it? Then I spotted a subheading called Low Confidence Regions. I read further to find out what that meant.

Per In a DNA estimate, low confidence regions are areas for which there’s a small amount of DNA evidence found in a sample. All ethnicities with predicted percentages of less than 4.5% appear as low confidence regions.

I clicked on the subheading and up popped the rest of my DNA answer. I found two very intriguing.

Southern Europe                                       3%
Iberian Peninsula                                      2%
Caucasus                                                      2%
Finland/NW Russia                                    1%

A little side research revealed the Iberian Peninsula is occupied by Portugal and Spain plus an additional area called Andorra and Gibraltar. The Caucasus is the region situated between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea at the border of Europe and Asia and is a little more complicated than the Iberian Peninsula in its make-up. The most recent map I could find was 2008.


Courtesy of Wikipedia

As a writer, all sorts of story paths popped up. First, I realized how using a person’s DNA could inspire a fictional historical saga, played out over several books a la authors Ken Follett or Philippa Gregory. Or how you could create a character based on your history, a location and events of the time, and build a solo novel around him or her.

I’m especially intrigued by my results about the Iberian peninsula and the Caucasus. Many short story/novella/novel possibilities exist, whether anchored in history or playing out in the present geo-political world. Going to a mysterious or less familiar locale for a story always adds interest.

Other genres could be inspired like memoir, personal essay, and poetry.

All of this would involve research which is exciting and bound to reveal more.

I haven’t delved into my personal history yet. There are other avenues to pursue on The results so far reach as far as eighth cousins. Perhaps I have greatness in my past … or not. Perhaps I have relatives close by of which I am unaware.


Separation by Shelby McQuilkin

I enjoy the genealogy documentary TV show Who Do You Think You Are. A recent segment revealed that Larry David, co-creator of Seinfeld, and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont are distant cousins. They didn’t know.

Whatever I will find and perhaps choose to write about, so be it. I found this journey satisfying as far as I’ve gone. It made me remember, “We stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us. On their struggles and achievements.” I’ll take this opportunity to say, “Thank you.” And fire up the computer.



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Rewriting and Revising a Story …

My mother was a fabulous seamstress. She made all of her own clothes, all my sister’s clothes, and all of mine. Dresses, blouses, skirts, coats, jackets, hats – nothing was out of her reach. In fact, I didn’t have a store-bought dress until I was 21. She didn’t design or make up her own patterns from scratch but she did have a predilection for high style. The result? She used only Vogue patterns. They were more stylish and more difficult to make.


Vogue Pattern Book for April-May 1969

She also had a predilection for fine fabrics. To buy these goods, we would make a trip into downtown Buffalo to go to a store I only knew as “the rabbi’s.” The store was in an older section of Buffalo in a red brick building, the brick discolored by soot from Buffalo’s heavy industry. The interior of the store, one of several in the building, had a high ceiling, was rather narrow, and extended deep into the structure. Fabric was wrapped around stiff cardboard cylinders much like small rolls of carpeting which were stacked along the side and rear walls plus on tables extending down the length of the store .

The rabbi knew his goods. If my mother wanted fine woolens, he led her to one table. If she wanted Egyptian cotton, he led her to another. Sometimes he had to go up on a ladder or use a hook to get the fabric roll down from where it was stored along the wall. The rabbi was from Poland, spoke Yiddish to his wife and daughter who often assisted him, and wore the traditional clothes of his belief. I never knew any more about him. But he always made sure my mother was happy with her fabric and that it had been measured carefully.

One of my mother’s proud moments was to make all the dresses for my wedding including my gown. Of course we went to the rabbi’s. We found raw silk for my mother’s dress, cotton sateen for the bridesmaids. He helped us decide on an eggshell colored satin for my gown and fine Belgian lace for its trim. The gown turned out to be beautiful and just what I wanted.


Young Mother Sewing by Mary Cassatt

Sometimes one of us needed a seam let out or taken in, or wanted to adjust the style, or raise or lower a hem.  In other words, the dress needed to be altered. She would take her seam ripper, remove the old stitches, and resew the garment. Often the garment needed to be tried on several times during the process. But when the person tried on the altered garment, and that person’s face lit up because the dress looked and felt better, my mother’s face would light up, too.

She always said she would rather make a garment from scratch than alter an existing one. It was more work after you thought your creation was finished.

What does all of the above have to do with rewriting and revising a story? It’s the way I feel about the current story I’m working on right now. It was compelling to get the story written down. A flurry of excitement, a rush. But now I have to start revising, as in ripping out the seams, loosening here, tightening, cutting.

In keeping with this sewing analogy, my current story needs some alterations. Here’s what I have to do …

  1. Remove and relocate or cut too much exposition front-loaded at the story’s beginning.
  2. Expand two paragraphs to increase tension
  3. Make sure the point of view is clear. I did not stay close enough to my protagonist to assure I was revealing only what she saw and thought.
  4. Incorporate the senses in two scenes.
  5. Cut some detail that does not push the story forward.
  6. Look at a section where I can do more showing and less telling.

My work is cut out for me, so to speak. I know I’m going to be happier with the revised product. In the end, it will “fit” better.

I never developed my mother’s love for sewing. I knew how. I took Home Ec in high school and made a gathered skirt. I made three dresses for my trousseau, and worked as a costumer on the musical Guys and Dolls making, among other garments, fake mink stoles. Other than that, I must say my “sewing” has been exclusively with writing.

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Giving Input to Another Writer

Being in a critique group is one way to add dimension to your writing process. As a participant, you receive or give critiques on ways to improve the story under discussion. But giving input in a positive, productive way is tricky.  Even the gentlest of critique can rub the receiver the wrong way. And the harshest kind of critique can send a writer into a rampage or a self-esteem downward spiral.


Static Cling by Thomas C.

Of course, the best thing for writers to do in a group is put on their rhinoceros skin coats and deal with the input. I call it “taking the hits” ’cause you’re not always going to like what you hear. Keeping that in mind, good critiquing isn’t personal but deals with the words on the page. The writer being critiqued is free to use or disregard the input.



I’ve just joined a group and wanted a method to assess someone else’s writing by which I didn’t rewrite their work or mess with their voice. I looked at my own thinking process. How did I want to go about the business of evaluating? It’s not like judging a contest. A judge receives a finished product. The piece works or it doesn’t. The critique group process is dealing with a piece of writing which is being born and refined and deepened. The story is growing in some places and shrinking in others.

I decided to look at a piece in three ways:

What do I like? A phrase, a description, a detail. The mood. The tension. The title. A unique character, a set-up, a turn of events.  A good story. A fresh, original approach. Use of language. Flow. Pace. Story arc. In other words, I’m looking for strengths. For good stuff. For writing that works.

This is the place I ask questions designed to have a writer dig deeper. What does the character want? What are the obstacles standing in the way? I look for ways to strengthen a scene, use details, use the senses. I try asking the “What if” question. This is the place I suggest a writer clarify or cut or add. Etc.

Nuts and Bolts
This is housekeeping. Tightening the writing. Glaring mechanical problems. Action verbs, active voice. Use of attributions. Use of tags or stage business. Use of transitions. Word repetition. Etc.


Think Again by Tom Fedro

A critiquer, whether working in spoken or written form, needs to by mindful of word choice, tone, and the way things are said. It’s easy to let the critique rip or just say “how it is” in that writer’s view. That’s one philosophy. It’s not mine. The long term goal is to improve writing. It’s an ongoing, open-ended process. A critique group is a place where we are all works in progress, helping each other grow.

My process? I read the selection for overall feel, making margin or mental notes. On a sheet with the three categories I mentioned above I enter my ideas. I find this process keeps me focused on the overall story, keeps me working toward that author’s big picture, and I don’t become a nit-picker or a rambler. I don’t speak in generalities but can give specifics. Hopefully, I’m offering something of substance, something particular, something of use.

I’m currently processing the critiques I received on my own story during the last meeting of my group. The story, among other things, has a POV (point of view) problem. So now I’m going into revision mode.

Finally, the critique group also offers a strange phenomenon. While assessing other people’s writing you discover strengths and weaknesses about your own. What’s not to like? A good two way street.

And a closing word. Whether you choose to write solo or be in a group, keep writing!



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A Writers’ Critique Group at Last

I pulled into the parking lot of the local library a little before 10 a.m., feeling a bit excited. After many years, a writers’ critique group was forming in my locale under the auspices of the Palm Springs Writers Guild and the leadership of two guild members. I’d been in another critique group sponsored by the organization (a perk of membership), but the drive from the far La Quinta outskirts where I live had been a long one. Sadly, I eventually left it. I was delighted to have a group so much closer.

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I parked my SUV, grabbed my gear, and walked toward the entrance where people waited for the library to open. During the wait I met a few members of the group. When the doors opened promptly at ten, we made our way to our meeting room. Other members arrived until we were seven.

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What followed was a round of self-introductions. We told about ourselves and our writing goals. Next we discussed how the group would function. We shared ideas. Then we each passed out our work – short stories, chapters from novels, personal essays – to be critiqued before the next group meeting in two weeks.

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The room was comfortable, the air filled with expectancy. I realized how much I missed the exchange by writers about their work and aspirations. How much I missed writerly input. Being in a critique group isn’t a necessity for a writer. I’ve worked solo for a number of years. I grew as a writer, experimented, took classes, and continued to submit and be accepted by literary journals. I do have an out-of-area Beta reader I treasure who tells me how it is. However, there were times I wanted an exchange of thoughts and ideas, live and immediate. A place to be inspired. Or encouraged. Or aided with a writing conundrum. A place. A writer’s voice.

This new group is composed of experienced writers, male and female. I look forward to good, professional input allowing us all to grow.

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At the next meeting we begin the nuts and bolts of working with our craft and art. And the art of working with each other. Good stuff. Thank you, Danielle Cook and Hani Angelos, for bringing this group together.

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Writing, a Party, GE, and Samsung

Writer’s block is something that’s been ascribed to by writers for years. You know the definition. The ideas aren’t there, the well has gone dry, the muse has left the building, the empty page holds you in a mind-altering stare. I’ve never been much of a fan of the idea. My philosophy has always been to show up at the computer or the notebook, sit down, tie myself in the chair if necessary, go to work, some days more brilliantly than others. Usually, my self-discipline is pretty good.

However, the past two weeks I experienced a writing problem of a different variety. Not really a block. More of a barricade. Well, not really a barricade. More like life being capricious and messing with me.

A Party and Writing

First, I was planning a birthday party for my husband. It was a significant age achievement. Time to bring on the caterers, name tags, guest lists, music. I admit it. My self-discipline gave in to the fun and excitement of a party. When I did sit down to write, my eyes looked at the computer screen, I thought for a moment on the current short story called “The Simian Society,” I tapped a few keys, and then my mind happily tripped off to party land. For example, maybe I should have balloon towers in the colors of my husband’s universities. Balloony Tunes, a local balloon company, to the rescue. Then I went on to logistics. Will there be enough chairs? Will there be enough food?

You have the idea. Which was more fun? Working through a sticky story issue or thinking about a party. Final score? Party – 1. Story – 0. I would have been in real trouble had I had a story deadline.

And then the party arrived. And then it was over. Post traumatic party disorder set in. I felt like the balloons in these pictures. Towers of balloons flying high one minute, saying “Hey, look at me!” and then, slowly, poooooof. Nada.


Post party – Northern Illinois University’s Red and Black


Post Party – Oklahoma State’s Orange and Black

So I sat down to write and I did. Not only was writing a great way to bring myself out of the after-party funk, but “The Simian Society” looked fresh and welcoming, and the words were there. Write on, my friend, and I did. Then one night before dinner ….

Life’s Detritus and Writing

I had two servings of basmati rice from Trader Joe’s to reheat. Into the microwave it went. Poof! When I pushed the tabs, nothing happened. Wait a minute. The micro is only 15 months old. I grabbed the manual and went to the troubleshooting page. Words of wisdom from a microwave manual: Unplug the micro and plug it back in. I did. More words of wisdom: Check the circuit breakers. I did. Then I pushed the tabs. Dead as an old party balloon. (See pix above.)


Title: Microwave-in-Distress (or self-portrait)

In the meantime, the main TV, the big smart one, the one everybody watches as opposed to the TV sets in the bedrooms, had begun to ail but not morbidly so. Over a period of about a week the TV developed a hitch in its git-a-long. At first, it took several clicks of the remote’s on/off button, then it progressed to numerous clicks to turn the TV on.  Finally one night after infinite clicks, the smart one wouldn’t come on at all. With three visits from Spectrum, our cable company, and three changes to the the cable box, the diagnosis came in about the same time as the microwave’s decision not to work. The smart TV? DOA. What about repair? Ah, my dear, probably cheaper and more efficient to buy new.



Well, since we couldn’t watch TV on the big one, I decided to tend to house business. Into the utility room I went and clicked on the overhead fluorescent light to do the wash. A phfffft. A gasp. No lights. Burned out. Now, I must confess, I enjoy romantic lighting, but not to do the wash. Problem – no extra fluorescent tubes on hand.

You have the idea. Life’s tricks. We all experience them. Writer’s vision fogged by daily living. Story ideas and writing time become the victims of mind fog: shop for a new micro or repair it. Shop for a new TV or repair it. Go to Ace Hardware for lights. Get out the ladder and put the damn fluorescent tubes in. Well, I’ve done all I can. The verdicts will soon be known. The doctors are arriving – GE Repair in the morning for the micro and TV Men in the afternoon for the Samsung.

Whether it’s self-discipline or life’s fog, life can play games. Well, life, you can get in the way all you want, but I’ll still write, somedays, as I said before, more brilliantly than others.

Here’s another conundrum. I placed second in the Palm Springs Writers Guild Personal Essay Contest. The check was intended for a personal reward. Shall I put it toward a microwave? A TV? A trip to Chico’s? I’ll have to decide, but I think it’s a no-brainer.

No doubt. Life and Writing are an odyssey.


Odyssey – Courtesy of “Art: Always Resonating Truth”


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The Personal Essay

Basically, I’m a short story writer. I’m used to the conventions and practices of that genre. I’m still growing as a fiction writer and still learning. I keep working. As far as essay format is concerned, I’m used to the academic, expository essay, to its structure and form, whether writing to define, inform, explain, or persuade. When I tried the personal essay, I was a bit flummoxed.

But as I wrote and studied the genre, I learned the following:

1.  The structure is organic. It grows naturally as you write about an incident from your life.
2. The personal essay frames the event from its beginning to end.
3. It uses fiction techniques.
4. It’s often written in scenes.
5. Reflection is woven throughout.
6. An authority may be included to verify a statement or premise, if needed.
7. The incident occurs against a larger world picture.
8. Exploring the important event in your life eventually reveals a deeper meaning you may not be aware of as you begin. Discoveries are made.
9. Your thoughts and feelings are delved into throughout.
10. A theme may emerge.

Number nine was difficult. I’ve found it much easier to reveal thoughts and feelings as someone other than myself – such as with a character in a story or on the stage.

I began a personal essay about a hike into the Grand Canyon. The canyon became analogous to events in my life. I wasn’t sure just where I was going with the writing but I kept going. It became a journey of personal discovery. As I discovered more, I reflected more about a grand decision I had to make, about a crossroads I had reached in my life in my early twenties. The essay became “Inner Canyons.”


Courtesy of Pinterest

Opening paragraph of the essay:

We make our way down into the canyon, alone on the trail, the air hushed, almost eerie. Faint sounds – a human voice, the shuffle of hooves – break the stillness. A ranch hand on a buckskin horse rides into view, urging his train of pack mules up the footpath, their bodies swaying in disjointed rhythm. To make room, Danny and I press our backs against the inside wall of the South Kaibab Trail, knowing the other side of the narrow path drops into the Grand Canyon. Sweat collects under my arms, on my forehead. I push harder into the stony dirt behind me until I resemble a modern petroglyph. I’m scared. I don’t want to be the reason someone or something falls over the edge.

I completed the essay. I’d reflected. I’d revealed feelings. Most importantly, I had discovered things about me and the decision affecting the rest of my life. I submitted the piece to a literary journal by the name of Six Hens. It was accepted. I had a contract and I would be paid.

But then the editor sent the manuscript back to me with comments. Things for me to do. And guess what those comments dealt with? Digging deeper into thoughts, into feelings, into cause and effect. Her questions made me squirm. They made me discover. But I answered them. I also remembered the advice from New York Times Best Selling author Tod Goldberg when he spoke to a class I was in, “Only put out into the ether what you are comfortable with because once it’s out, it’s out.” A writer needs to use judgement in the revealing process.

Another essay I wrote was called “The Modeling Period.” My frame was built around a childhood fear. I remembered my previous essay experiences and dug into myself. I also included an authority to give veracity to my premise. I submitted the piece to a local contest, hoping for a win, place, or show. I came away with a “Place.”


Fear by Ty Agha

Opening paragraph of “The Modeling Period”:

The story behind the brick structure sitting alone at the end of a tree-lined sidewalk wasn’t complicated. The boxy, two-story building with a covered front porch used to be a school, one of the town’s few. Every weekday morning an iron bell clanged high in its cupola. Kids ran through the neighborhood to its door, hoping to be on time. But as the community grew, the town fathers decided to build a bigger, more modern facility. Instead of a hand-rung bell, students now moved to an electric one. The old school sat empty, its bell idle.

From there the essay reveals what happened in the old school that reverberated in my life like the old bell did throughout the neighborhood.

I like the personal essay for where it takes you as a writer. As you write about an event or a feeling, as you peel away the layers, taking the time to reflect and explore, you gain insights into yourself and your writing and enhance the ability to express them. These two essays, “Inner Canyons” and “The Modeling Period,” will be woven into the short story collection I’m currently compiling.

Thanks for stopping by. And special thanks to author/journalist/essayist Maggie Downs for the journey she took me and a group of fellow writers on as we discovered the personal essay.

PS – A personal essay(s) can springboard a writer into the longer work of a memoir.

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