Category Archives: Writing

wednesday musings

image of a late winter sky with heavy and light cloud streaks over pittsburgh, february 2017

Still with me? I know, I know … it has been a few weeks since I wrote an actual blog post here–besides posting links to several published book reviews, that is. Actually, those are a big part of the reason for my absenteeism in this space. Most of you know I do some freelance workwriting, editing and the like. This in addition to my full-time, pays-most-of-the-bills-and-provides-health-insurance (for now) job, which also involves quite a bit of wordsmithing.

Anyway, to my delight, the freelancing assignments have picked up speed in recent weeks. Definitely a nice problem to have. One consequence (if you can call it that) is I’ve needed to spend more time reading–and since most of those books are for reviews post-publication, I feel I can’t say much about them beforehand.

Which, you know, doesn’t lend itself to having much material for one’s book blog.

Good thing there’s nothing else going on in the world to discuss.

(We won’t talk politics tonight because the whole state of the world has me feeling overwhelmed, angry, sad, hopeless and downright frightened. Often all at the same time.)

Tonight offers a slight reprieve from reading and writing (plus The Girl, who has been using my laptop for homework is finished early) so I thought I’d give you a few updates.


Two weeks ago I made an impromptu, whirlwind trip back to my hometown of Northeast Philadelphia for what was a sad visit. My best friend’s mother died and as I said in my eulogy at the funeral, she was like a second mom to me. I expected it to be an emotional trip–and it was. I’m working on a post or an essay about this because it was a jarring experience to return to my hometown after many years away. I’m really, really glad I went even if it took me a good week to feel back to what passes for my regular self.


On my trip, I listened to the audio of Wishful Drinking by the late Carrie Fisher. Albeit bittersweet, it was the perfect choice for what is a boring five hour plus drive across the red state of T**mpsylvania. (The audiobook is shorter than the drive.) It’s incredibly conversational, as if Carrie herself was riding in the passenger seat. An excellent audiobook. I loved it.


Mrs. Douglas, our cat, had a bout of pancreatitis last week. She’s on the mend now, thank God.


Kids are fine. I’m in summer activity mode. I think The Girl is going to be doing some volunteer work along with at least one or two week-long camps (writing and music).  The Boy is going to camp for four weeks. Thanks to the freelancing, there will likely be a family vacation after not being able to take one last year.


Speaking of The Girl, she has been working really hard to improve in math. At Christmastime, she mentioned she really wanted to see Bon Jovi in concert when they came to Pittsburgh so we struck a deal: if her math grades improved and she sought extra help after school through the tutoring service if necessary (something she has vehemently resisted), I would think about getting tickets. She hasn’t stopped talking about this. She’s been consistently hovering above or close to a B for a few months now so we’ll be seeing Jon in a few weeks.


Can I say how much I love that my girl is a huge fan of Bon Jovi and how grateful I am that she inherited my taste in music? (Because, yeah, twist my arm to take her to see Bon Jovi and pretend I’m back in 1986.)


I haven’t been running. Like, at all. Even though this has been a mild winter by Pittsburgh standards, I’m not a cold weather girl.  I haven’t managed to get myself to a yoga class or anything else I’d intended on doing. Hell, I’ve stopped taking the stairs at work. When the weather gets warmer–maybe as soon as this weekend!–I’m going to start over with Couch to 5K. That means I won’t be ready to do the Pittsburgh Marathon 5K this year, but maybe I’ll aim for the Great Race this fall instead or another 5K.


If you need a good book to read, here are two of my recent Shelf Awareness reviews.

The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff  (she’s a Philly writer, whooo!)

The Dark and Other Love Stories by Deborah Willis

 

Review: Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made the Mary Tyler Moore Show A Classic (Encore Post)

In honor of the groundbreaking work of Mary Tyler Moore, who died today at age 80, here’s my book review of Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All The Brilliant Minds Who Made the Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic. Originally written and posted on 3/4/2014.  

As a kid, I wasn’t allowed to watch “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

There’s a good reason for that.  When this groundbreaking sitcom premiered in 1970, I was not quite 2 years old – not exactly the target audience. But I was a stubborn enough toddler (or so I’ve heard) that, had I understood what “MTM” was all about, I bet I could have made a pretty convincing case to my parents to let me watch it.

Instead, I saw it during its resurgence on Nick at Nite in 1992, when I – as someone with my first job out of college – could appreciate it much better. (Never mind that I usually watched Mary and Rhoda while my fiance watched sports with his best friend in the other room, but that’s besides the point. I was happy, he was happy, and we’ve been married ever since. We must be doing something right.)

It helps to have some knowledge of and appreciation of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” when reading Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, but this isn’t your usual television/celebrity retrospective. Sure, there’s a decent amount about the actors, which was interesting. But this is mostly about the women who wrote for the show and why having a team of female comedy writers was so groundbreaking in 1970.

In today’s anything-goes television environment, it’s almost quaint to remember just how revolutionary “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was. The idea of Mary being divorced and having a career was – to put it mildly – a hard sell to network executives. The CBS execs replied with, “American audiences won’t tolerate divorce in a series lead any more than they will tolerate Jews, people with mustaches, and people who live in New York.

Yeah. Those were the good old days, right?

Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted explains how the writers and producers got around that (some reviews suggest that the book should be called “Jim and Treva and Allan and Susan,” for the writing and producing team that made the show happen). It also explains how having a female writing team significantly shaped the issues portrayed on the show – as well as the edgy ones on future shows produced by MTM Enterprises.

Ironically, my childhood dream was to grow up and be a screenwriter for “St. Elsewhere” – the critically-acclaimed medical drama that, like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” also saw its share of firsts and also was produced by Grant Tinker’s company MTM Enterprises, named for his then-wife, Mary Tyler Moore.

(In high school, I entertained the crazy idea of sending Mr. Tinker an unsolicited script. I talked about this a lot. Now, after reading the story about how superfan Joe Rainone would write detailed, weekly letters to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” cast analyzing each week’s show and how Marilyn Miller from Monroeville, PA (just outside of Pittsburgh) wrote a spec script for MTM and became a writer for “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” I kind of want to kick my own ass.)

Regardless of my lost dreams, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted was entertaining – and the audiobook proved to be a good choice as I lived vicariously through the characters on my way to and from my real life, slightly-less-exciting-than-a-scriptwriter-but-hey!-still-a-writer! job as I listened to this on my commute to work.  I enjoyed this for the inside stories and especially the focus and perspective on the writers. I was glad that they included what they – the writers and the actors – have done since “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” went off the air.

It was also so goddamn nostalgic, almost sad to a point. So many magnificent shows of television’s Golden Age of Comedy are referenced in this book as well as how the show that almost wasn’t going to be on the air wound up inspiring so many others.  The end of the book gives a nod to Mary Richards’ “cultural daughters” like Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon of “30 Rock” and “power ensembles” as found in “Friends,” “Seinfeld” and “The Office.” Truly, Mary Richards’ influence and that of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” is more far-reaching than anyone probably ever imagined.

Still, although we have indeed come a long way (baby) from the days when a writer couldn’t pen an episode about a New Yorker who was divorcing someone who was Jewish with a mustache, it makes one wonder if all the hard fought gains are truly appreciated by the talent we have today. Probably by some, yes. But I think the further we get away from television’s Golden Age, and the less communal our viewing experience becomes, the fuzzier those golden days will seem.

Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic
by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong 
Simon and Schuster
2013 
298 pages
Narrated by Amy Landon 
11 hours, 22 minutes 

Sunday Salon/Currently … October Surprises

Sunday Salon banner

So much to tell you this week.  First and foremost, though, my thoughts are with all who are being affected by Hurricane Matthew and his aftermath. I know several of our friends and family had some stressful days this week and others are still dealing with the storms. And Haiti–my God, what a heartbreaking situation.

Speaking of storms, I can’t even with the political storm surrounding Donald Trump’s 2005 commentary about being able to grope any woman he pleases because he’s “a star.” Why anyone is shocked by this is beyond me, because all one needs to do is reference any of his rants on women (or anyone else, frankly) to know this is the Republican nominee’s true colors. I’d considered writing a post about such, but you probably have a pretty good idea of my thoughts on the matter. If not, they’re summed up pretty succinctly by the “You’re So Vain” video by the Patriotic Artists and Creatives PAC, which marks the first time ever that the incomparable Carly Simon allowed “You’re So Vain” to be used for political purposes. It’s perfect.

And in the poetry realm, Pittsburgh poet Jeff Oaks (who I was honored to read with at Acquired Taste) pens “The God Abandons Donald Trump: a dream”.  (“Now the smoke of sharpening scythes clings to your ties; the voices of the women you thought you’d smothered in gold are rematerializing.“) A great poem.

fierce-reads-fall-2016-tour-october-2016

YA author panel of Caleb Roehrig, Emma Mills, Anna Banks and Marissa Meyer being interviewed by Julie Hakim Azzam. October 4, 2016, Pittsburgh, PA. Photo taken by me.

We missed most of the Vice Presidential debates this week (Good God, was that just this week?) because we were at the Fall 2016 Fierce Reads Tour featuring YA authors Marissa Meyer, Anna Banks, Caleb Roehrig, and Emma Mills.  The Girl loves Marissa Meyer’s books, so she was the main attraction for us, but all of the authors were incredibly funny and entertaining. We especially enjoyed Caleb Roehrig, who we talked with after the event. His first novel Last Seen Leaving was published that same day and I started reading it while in line to get our books signed. I can already tell it is one I’m likely to enjoy.

the-literary-others-an-lgbt-reading-event-oct-2016There’s an LGBTQ storyline in Last Seen Leaving, which makes it a fitting edition to The Literary Others.  I’m participating in this LGBT Reading Event which is being hosted by Adam of Roof Beam Reader in honor of LGBT History Month. This week I read I’ll Give You Something to Cry About, a novella by Jennifer Finney Boylan about a family on a road trip trying to find their place in each other’s lives and the world. I loved this story, just as I loved her memoir I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted about living in a haunted house (on Philadelphia’s Main Line!) and her journey as a transgendered person.

I’m currently reading Just Kids by Patti Smith (we’re doing an event at work with Patti tomorrow night, and I’m really hoping to finish this in time) and in the car, I’m listening to The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle by Lillian Faderman.

ill-give-you-something-to-cry-aboutjust-kidsthe-gay-revolution

Writing … 
So grateful to my friend Elizabeth Pagel-Hogan, also a Pittsburgh blogger, who mentions my very short Halloween story “Extractions” in her post “Writers in Pittsburgh Are Going to Be Busy.”  This came as quite the surprise, especially since the Google Alert I have on every version of my name didn’t pick it up. Thank you, Elizabeth!

judy-blume-paperback-of-in-the-unlikely-eventblurb-in-the-unlikely-event

Another surprise was discovering that my review of Judy Blume’s In the Likely Event was blurbed (with my name!) in the paperback edition!  I can’t believe it. This was a review I’d published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in June 2015, and I had no idea about this until The Girl showed me last night. Crazy!

 

OK, time for a little reading before making the popcorn for tonight’s presidential debate and whatever surprises await us then.

 

sunday salon/currently… 9/18/2016

Sunday Salon bannerHaving a lazy Sunday today.  I had all good intentions of going the park for a walk/run this morning before the humidity became too oppressive but I woke up feeling blah. Nothing major, just a slight headache and minor stomach woes. It the sort of day where the weather can’t make up its mind: in the course of my writing this paragraph, it has been cloudy, then raining, and now it is brilliant sunshine.  (And 20 miles away at the Steelers game, it was a monsoon.)

Reading/Listening … 
My commute has been rather maddening recently, thanks to a ridiculous amount of construction going on in this town and the hell that is the (now indefinite) closure of the Liberty Bridge. Being that this is the City of Bridges with more than 400 of ’em, you would think one being shut down wouldn’t be a big deal, right? Not quite. This is a major bridge, traveled by 55,000 people each day. I’m not one of them, but if you need to go anywhere in the vicinity of the Liberty Bridge, you’re feeling the pain of some miserable drives. Such times are when and podcasts and audiobooks become your best friend.

being-mortal

This week I started and finished listening to Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. I thought this was an excellent narrative about the many ways our society approaches the end of life. As a physician, Gawande knows firsthand how medicine offers unprecedented possibilities for extending one’s life, no matter what the cost. But that cost can be physically, mentally, and financially significant, and our society still doesn’t have a strong enough support system and options that allow people to age in place.  As a result, the burden on people is tremendous. Gawande illustrates this by sharing the experiences of his patients and family members, and the result is a thoughtful reflection of how we treat the sick and the dying.

Cooking
The Girl and I were out all day yesterday, so I made Salsa Chicken (from Make It Fast, Cook it Slow by Stephanie O’Dea) in the crockpot for dinner. (Because nobody in this house can eat the same thing, The Husband had leftover burritos and rice, and I had a quinoa bowl with tomatoes, corn, black beans and feta.)

While that was cooking, I had a second crockpot going. I keep a bag in the freezer of vegetable odds and ends — tops of bell peppers and onions, gnawed corn cobs, broccoli stalks, ends of string beans, and veggies nearing the end of their prime. When the bag gets full, I dump everything into the crockpot, cover with water, toss in some garlic and spices (basil, oregano, salt, pepper) and simmer for the entire day.  It makes a vegetable broth with much less sodium than commercial brands. I typically freeze this into ice cubes and use the broth for sauteing. Tonight I made minestrone soup and was glad I had the required four cups of broth ready to go.

Writing
I applied for a writing fellowship this week. Might be a bit of a long shot, but one never knows. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?

Running
On Thursday I started Week 2 of Couch to 5K. So far, so good!  I keep promising a longer post about this, I know. Maybe later this week.

Thoughts on The Art of Description: World into Word, by Mark Doty (66/99)

The Art of Description

Taking a writing class with Mark Doty is high up on my list of literary wishes. I’m a fangirl of his work — poetry, memoir, anything that the guy writes. Even his Facebook posts are poetry. (Because of course I follow him on Facebook).

Who knows if I’ll ever be lucky enough to be in his company, but until then, there’s The Art of Description: World into Word.

Simply put, this small book is a must for any writer.

“It sounds like a simple thing, to say what you see. But try to find words for the shades of a mottled sassafras leaf, or the reflectivity of a bay on an August morning, or the very beginnings of desire stirring in the gaze of someone looking right into your eyes and it immediately becomes clear that all we see is slippery, nuanced, elusive.”

Sigh …

This is the type of book where I could have highlighted every sentence on every page, and I can tell you I’ll be consulting this one often, as description is not always my strongest writing tool.

A wonderful addition to every writer’s library.

99 Days of Summer BloggingThis is post #66 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project.

 

 

for alison, for her beautiful life

I’ve always been fascinated with the interconnectivity of our lives. You know, if _____ didn’t happen, we wouldn’t have ever met.  Or the way we’re all just six degrees of separation (or less) from everyone else.

Alison Piepmeier is that kind of person for me.  She’s a “blog-friend,” as she once said to me. (And I probably should say right now that I’m not the person to talk to if you believe people you know “on the Internet” and have never met aren’t the equivalent of real-life friends. Because after blogging for almost eight years now, I know firsthand how someone you’ve never met can make a difference on your life. I’ve seen it. Up close and personal, time and time again.)

Girl Zines - Making Media, Doing FeminismBack in 2010, I read a post on Girl w/ Pen about an intriguing book by Alison Piepmeier called Girl Zines: Making Media, Doing Feminism. I knew about zines, but I didn’t know their history and significance to feminism. Awhile later, I spotted Girl Zines on the shelves of the Newark Free Library in Delaware, read it, and wrote this review.  Sometime afterwards Alison discovered it, and we became connected through our blogs.

We almost met once. Back in April 2011, Alison visited Pittsburgh for a celebration of feminism and zines, at an event that was hosted at my current place of employment.  We weren’t living in Pittsburgh yet, but had just been there a week earlier to get acquainted with the area.

Connections and missed connections.


I continued to follow Alison’s blog and her writing, still remaining her “blog friend.”

Then, in 2013, a yearly checkup at the pediatrician for my boy prompted a simple question from the doctor.

“Do you ride your bike in the neighborhood, maybe with a friend?”

As I wrote in that post, published here almost exactly three years ago on July 23, 2013, my boy’s eyes went to the floor.

There was no mistaking the look, the loaded weight of that inquiry.

His silence was just a moment, fleeting – accompanied by a quick look to me in the corner where I’d fortunately looked up from my phone to catch his glance.

His blue eyes said it all.

I don’t know how to ride a bike. 

My bike is kinda small. I got it when I was 7. It has training wheels. That’s embarrassing. 

What do you mean, a friend?

“I don’t really do that,” he said to the pediatrician. 

I remembered this post from my friend Alison Piepmeier about her experience with what is now iCan Shine, Inc. (formerly Lose the Training Wheels). I remember thinking how much my boy would benefit from a program like that.

I remembered reading Alison’s post when we were on the cusp of moving to Pittsburgh, and checking to see if our new city had the same program. I remember the feeling of this is going to be okay when I realized that they did. I remembered being at The Children’s Institute (the program host of the iCan Shine Amazing Kids Bike Camp here in Pittsburgh) and mentioning the camp during a job interview I didn’t get.

I remembered my boy’s face in the pediatrician’s office.

I looked to see when the Pittsburgh camp would be taking place, knowing full well we may have missed it. Again.

And there it was. Registration ended six weeks [prior]. 

I emailed the camp director anyway.  Long shot … just thought I’d ask … know it’s last minute …

There was one spot left.


Who knows if I would have learned about the bike camp for people with disabilities, a national program of iCanShine, if it wasn’t for Alison’s involvement with them as a volunteer and her deciding to write a blog post about the experience?  Maybe I would have, but maybe not. Regardless, it’s an example — albeit simple and small — of how one person directly influences the life of another.

Because even though my boy doesn’t ride his bike much these days, I will never forget watching him and experiencing the sheer pride in his accomplishing something that so many parents take for granted. This was a gift, a glorious momentous milestone of celebration on what has not always been an easy road.

And it was because of Alison. My blog-friend.


I’m remembering and reflecting on all this tonight because Alison’s time here on Earth is, unfortunately, very short. She is nearing the end of a long battle with cancer, a fight she fought with the utmost grace, dignity and honesty imaginable and one that she shared in heartbreaking blog and Facebook posts with those of us who care about her. Her words, here in what may be her last column for the Charleston City Paper, are as moving and poignant as ever.

Through her books, her scholarly contributions to the field of feminism and disability studies, and her work as a professor of English and Director of the Women & Gender Studies program at the College of Charleston, Alison Piepmeier has touched many, many lives — especially those of her husband and her young daughter Maybelle.

We may have never met, but I will forever be grateful to Alison for that blog post that led to my boy being able to ride a bike and thankful that her life connected with mine, albeit for a short time.

Much love, peace, and comfort to you on this journey, my blog-friend.  You will be forever missed, until we connect again.

99 Days of Summer BloggingThis is post #52 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project.

Make a Splash with 99 Days of Summer Blogging!

99 Days of Summer Blogging

Every year, the same thing.

“Summer went by too fast!”

“How can it be back-to-school time already?”

“It seems like summer just started!”

We make bucket lists, grand plans to make the most of these lazy, hazy, crazy days.  We vow to keep summer simple, to enjoy the moments that matter.

And then September arrives and those days become a blur.

Did you know there are exactly 99 days between Memorial Day and Labor Day?  A lot can happen in that time.

A lot that’s worth remembering and sharing with your words and photos.

Inspired by my friend Emily Levenson, who recently did a #100DaysBlogging project, I have decided to try something similar.

Introducing … 99 Days of Summer Blogging!  Starting this Monday, May 30 and continuing through September 5, 2016, I plan to blog every single day.

Yes.  Every. Single. Day.

For 99 days.

Why am I doing this?

  1. Because I need the discipline of writing every day. I do.  I need to practice Ass in Chair time when it comes to writing and actually GET THINGS WRITTEN.  I need to get better at writing first and editing later, instead of writing a sentence and immediately start futzing with word choices.
  2. Because at this moment, I have 206 blog posts in Drafts.  A very, very small percentage of those are actually completed. The rest are half-baked concoctions.  Some of those may become #99DaysSummerBlogging posts. If I’m doing any new writing on them (e.g., finishing a partially-written book review) then it counts.
  3. Because I need to spend a little less time on Facebook — and by spending time here instead of there, my writing will get stronger.
  4. Because I want to start thinking more strategically about planning potential posts (I need to do an editorial calendar) while at the same time tapping into my creativity and cultivating ideas for potential writing projects. I’m always thinking, “Oh, I could definitely do a post about that!” or “This is a perfect blog post.” And then the idea or the moment vanishes, lost forever.  I’m excited about seeing what those nuggets hold.
  5. Because writing and connecting is how I work through things that I’m dealing with and how I gain greater insights about what this life is trying to teach me (even though I may be a stubborn learner). At the same time, some of the issues our family is working through aren’t ones for the blog so there’s that. But maybe a photo or a quote will be.

Do these issues resonate for you, too? If so, jump right in … the water’s fine. These posts don’t have to be Pulitzer worthy. (Trust me, mine won’t be.) Perfection isn’t what this is about.  Rather, #99DaysSummerBlogging is about cultivating our craft, capturing ideas and thoughts, and carving out some time for reflection and stillness among our words.

99 Days of Summer Blogging starts Monday, May 30 — Memorial Day here in the United States. (And if it’s not summer where you are, no worries. You can still participate.)

I’m not doing a linky thing for this. Rather, if you’d like to participate, simply do a post on your blog and link back to melissafirman.com.  Feel free to grab the button, too.  (That’s an actual photo taken by me during a beach vacation — “downnashore” as we say where I’m from — two years ago.)

99 Days of Summer Blogging

 

Will you be taking the 99 Days of Summer Blogging plunge?