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MY GRANDMOTHER’S DICTIONARY

My grandmother’s dictionary

Recently, one of my book clubs read The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams, a New York Times Bestseller and award-winning novel published by Random House. Everyone seemed to enjoy it… an informative and well-written book that easily held my interest.

I took my Grandmother’s dictionary to the meeting for show and tell, Webster’s Giant Illustrated Dictionary. It was compiled and edited under the supervision of Joseph Devlin and published by The World Publishing Company, copyright 1941. I grew up using this popular dictionary; indeed, I occasionally still use it. My grandmother was a stay-at-home mother of four. She read true crime novels, The Bible, the local weekly newspaper and The Houston Chronicle.

I’m a reader, so I look up words and phrases in dictionaries all the time. I occasionally look up new and different meanings that words and phrases have taken on in the recent past in current internet urban slang dictionaries, sometimes with shocking results. My grandmother’s dictionary includes a section of American Slang as it was used in 1941, and I thought you might find a few of the entries amusing if not surprising:

“Bible belt… a district in which religious hypocrisy flourishes.”

“boiled owl… a radio enthusiast who sits up all night.”

“boner… a mistake; a slip of the tongue; a faux pas.”

“bushwah… unwarranted statements; false assertions.”

“cackleberry… an egg.”

“geek… a snake charmer…”

“sky pilot… a minister or clergyman…”

The dictionary is a link to my childhood… a reminder of my grandmother, and I enjoy having it sit on my desk. Best of all my mother wrote my grandmother’s name on the flyleaf using her gorgeous handwriting.

 

 


 

STORYTELLING

My vintage UIL medals

I recently attended one of my neighborhood book clubs. Toward the end of the session, when conversation was ready to turn to politics and gossip, the hostess said something about the selected book being a great story. Her words triggered a memory. Being very perceptive, her eyes zeroed in on me. “What?”

I told her it was a childhood memory about storytelling… specifically about University Interscholastic League competition in storytelling. The other ladies had all grown up out of state. None of them had ever heard of a storytelling competition which surprised me. I explained that it was a contest for public schools sponsored by the University of Texas. The student was given a short story to read silently and then stood up in front of judges and an audience and told the story. Medals were awarded for the top three contenders. Winners advanced to Statewide competition. The activity was intended to promote good listening, thinking and speaking skills.

When I returned home, I wondered if Texas was the only state to sponsor such a competition, so I googled UIL STORYTELLING COMPETITION. Such competitions are still held in Texas along with others in academics, athletics and music. Numerous other state universities sponsor such in other states. The competitions encourage youngsters to enrich their educations and expand their horizons. Students compete based on school size and grade in school.

The image above shows UIL medals I won in band and twirling when I was a student. I can’t tell you how proud I was to receive them, but I sure wish I had one for storytelling.

IT’S A MYSTERY TO ME – HAT TRICK

Early in my consulting career, I did a few days work in East Texas each month. Every time I worked there, I seemed to come across something wonderful or something awful… nothing dangerous or horrible, just something uplifting or pitifully awful.

One afternoon after work, I agreed to have a drink with my liaison and her husband. We drove to a local dance hall, one of those huge old galvanized tin open-air halls dating from the early 20th century that are still active all over Texas. There were only a few other patrons, mostly at the bar on the far side of the vast dance floor. Country western music blared from the loudspeakers, but no one was dancing. It was a fine day, and the giant tin window flaps had been propped open to catch the breeze.

We ordered drinks and settled in to catch up. An older cowboy approached our table and asked me to dance. He was wiry and muscular, dressed up as if he was going on a date. He wore a big western straw hat, a pristine white snap shirt, ironed jeans and polished boots. I was intimidated by his handsome apparel, his boots in particular. I was still in my bedraggled suit that I had donned before dawn in Houston. I’m not a good dancer, and even if the song had been a ballad, I would have had to kick off my heels and dance in my stocking feet. I feared I would bungle the dance and cause him to step on my tender toes, and everyone would stare at us when I messed up, so I politely thanked him and turned him down.

He glared at me, sailed his big hat to the floor and danced around it. His thinning hair was turning white, but his steps were vigorous. I felt worse and worse as the song seemed to go on forever. I felt like he was sending me a message, perhaps that he was an excellent dancer and I should have trusted him not to mangle my toes. Or then again, maybe he had a bet with one of the fellows at the bar that he could get the uptight stranger from the city to let down her hair and have some fun and was pissed that he was losing the bet. Maybe he was so angry that he was calling down a curse on me from the dance hall gods.

The three of us clapped politely as he finished. He retrieved his hat, dusted it off with an angry swipe and returned to the bar. I half expected him to take a snarky bow, but he didn’t.

After much consideration, I classified the incident as something wonderful… I think?

SNAKE CHARMED

A few years ago, Chocoholic and I took a trip to Spain, Portugal and Morocco. It was a wonderful trip, and we came away from it with the added bonus of delightful new friends.

I hadn’t planned on enjoying Morocco, but I did… so much so that I declared that if I ever got rich, I would buy a ranch there… pie in the sky of course, but fun to consider.

Visiting Morocco was, in many ways, like stepping back in time, especially in the old town medinas and vast marketplaces. They were some of the most fascinating markets I’ve ever visited, and I’ve done so all over the world. Many goods were produced on site using methods dating from medieval times, including leather, metal and pottery goods in particular.

Morocco is located in the desert on the northwest coast of Africa. We visited a sprawling market in Marrakesh. Tall skinny water sellers plied their trade dressed in elaborate costumes and lampshade hats accented with bright multicolored tassels. They carried water vessels and a variety of metal cups, charging a small coin for a drink of refreshing water.

Toward the end of our visit, we headed to the tour bus. Chocoholic noted a group of snake charmers sitting on a blanket. He wanted to get a picture of the snakes. I said I’d go on to the bus. I gossiped with one of the other tourists as we examined each other’s newly-purchased treasures and waited for the others to board.

Chocoholic showed up about ten minutes later, a big grin plastered on his face. Two other tourist guys boarded the bus behind him and stopped at our seats, waiting expectantly. Chocoholic announced that without getting his permission, one of the snake charmers had wrapped a cobra around his neck, shocking the other lady and me speechless. The other two tourist guys confirmed the encounter, laughing loudly at our expressions. “Ha! Ha! What a sight! You should have seen it.”

Holy Crap!

FOUR AND TWENTY BLACKBIRDS… PLUS A FEW MORE

Of course the image needs at least a million more birds, but it is does make a pretty picture

A few years ago, I drove to the lake on a beautiful fall afternoon to prepare for weekend houseguests. While I was unloading the car, a flock of blackbirds began flying over. I was in a hurry to settle before dark and at first didn’t pay them much attention. However, I soon realized there were a great many birds extending from horizon to horizon, flying north to south ahead of a cold front, so many that the sky turned dark. I stopped what I was doing and began estimating the numbers at ten thousand birds per minute. The flock finally petered out after twenty minutes… two hundred thousand birds… a staggering number.

In my heart, I knew there had been many more birds, but I wanted to describe the flock to my expected guests and feared they wouldn’t believe even a conservative estimate.

Chocoholic and our guests arrived shortly after dark on Friday. Late Saturday afternoon, during a game of cards on the porch, I described the birds. As expected, my estimate of the vast numbers was met with frank skepticism and good-natured ribbing. But the bird gods smiled on me, and shortly before sunset, the flock returned, again flying north to south. We stepped out onto the lawn and watched in awe. The flock once again took around twenty minutes to fly over, darkening the sky. Our guests estimated at least a million birds. I was so pleased that Chocoholic and the others got to see them. Rachel Carson would have been proud of her life’s work.

I was reminded of old-time tales of the passenger pigeons whose vast numbers so impressed early settlers when our country was new. Those birds were eventually hunted into extinction.

ANY PROGRESS ON GETTING NOVELS PUBLISHED?

In a word, no.

But I’m still plugging away at it.

UNDERSTATEMENT: I never expected it would take so long to prepare the manuscripts for publication. For two small examples, I have undone superscripts and turned off curly quotes. If you’re not a writer, don’t worry about them.

Even had I known what lay ahead, I still would have written the books… but fewer of them. The number of novels vastly compounded the volume of tasks. (Why so many? I have always adored big juicy novels and series that allow the reader to really get to know the characters.)

In spite of appearances, I did not dash off seven novels before editing. I edited as I wrote. I read and reread every novel, beginning to end, at least twenty-five times. Seriously. I read each novel aloud at least once, wanting to get the cadence of the words and phrases right. I made literally thousands of changes and dozens of corrections with each reading.

Once I “finished” the writing, I launched into a complex series of technical edits such as spacing, capitalizing, centering, justifying and so forth. While I’m not a sloppy writer, I constantly corrected minor inconsistencies.

I referred to The Chicago Manual of Style for stylistic changes. However, I elected not to apply a few of them because some of the points seemed outdated and a poor fit for digital publications. Keeping it simple sometimes trumped stylistic perfection.

I double-checked numbers, numerical items and temperatures. That sounds simple. It’s not.

And so forth and so on… ad nauseum. You get the idea. I applied more than 150 such edits.

And then I did it all again… six more times.

Assuming my novels ever get published, I will probably have to make further changes to meet the publisher’s unique stylistic standards as well as a professional editor’s recommendations.

A highly-experienced novelist probably determines a higher degree of stylistic and technical standards before she ever sits down to write. Such might have saved me years of editing, but many edits  and stylistic questions did not reveal themselves until I was well into the writing.

I spent a lot of time on website design… thinking, reading, perusing other websites, writing and communicating with the website designer.

By spring 2022, I finally felt the novels were ready for copyright, another involved process requiring research and technical reading.

When copyright was done, I finally began querying agents, asking them to represent me. Literary agencies specify submission requirements on their websites… if they even take submissions. So far, it seems that each agency requires different contents for queries. For example, one requests the first five chapters along with a summary of the book while another wants only the first chapter. Most want query letters but specify different items to be included. I haven’t found any so far that seem prepared to consider a series of books… rather one book only, so I made sure that each novel could stand alone.

Some literary agencies utilize interactive questionnaires on their websites. Partial manuscripts have to be uploaded. Other agencies ask that queries be submitted via e-mail. A few agencies still want hard copy sent via U.S. Mail. Electronic query sometimes unexpectedly results in altered formatting. So far, perfection in appearance seems to be elusive at best.

I read recently where one author queried more than 30 agents in one day. I’m not sure how he did it and still met what was probably a wide variety of submission requirements.

I also read that it’s not uncommon for a new author to query 200 or more agents before getting a nibble. A well-known author claims to have submitted 700 queries before getting an agent. No, that’s not a typo… 700!

On top of everything else, I reluctantly replaced my laptop. The POWER button became unreliable, and the only fix seemed to involve prying the outer button off and depressing the inner button with a screwdriver to start the computer. I couldn’t risk ruining my computer or electrocution, so I shelved querying and bought a new laptop with WINDOWS 11… more changes to get used to. I encountered and overcame a series of glitches. For example, when I tried to create a PDF file yesterday, a Chrome HTML file was instead created. I then realized that all my previously created PDF files were now HTML files. Internet research provided what appeared to my non-technical mind to be contradictory solutions. I unexpectedly resolved the problem by simply downloading a PDF App. Who knew?

As you may have guessed, I have made numerous missteps over the past months. I have done a lot of backtracking. Way too many times, I have excitedly crossed an item off my TO DO LIST only to add it back on when some other action I took messed up the original fix. You know the drill… two steps forward, one step back… on a good day.

I formed a limited liability company to manage the book series in an effort to preserve assets. (See… unbounded optimism that I will be published. Even my attorney tried to dissuade me, figuring that the expense and effort would be wasted!) My novels interweave fiction with actual historical events much like Forrest Gump, and while I always took special care to ensure no actual person or entity was defamed or unfairly or inaccurately presented, I carefully annotated descriptions and detailed disclaimers in an abundance of caution.

Right now I’m feeling confident that I’m almost ready to resume querying. But I’ve been here before… and I’ve been wrong before.

And then there’s marketing. I spend a lot of time learning how other writers handle it. None of the widely used methods seems to generate the sales volume that most published writers would like to have. Too often writing seems to be a thankless profession. Few writers get rich. Few quit their day jobs. Almost none get published unless they do it themselves. A less determined writer could easily give up and blow it off, particularly one who wants to enjoy a meaningful life outside writing.

And of course, new computer, office supplies, travel expenses, legal counsel, tax and accounting advice, state license fees, big fat reference books, professional organization dues and copyright fees are expensive. It’s likely I will never recover these expenses.

But I still believe that my books are worthwhile and entertaining reads… in my mind, a much-needed commodity in this day and age of super stressors and plagues of uncertainty. So I’m still plugging away.

My primary goal has always been and still is to give back… to entertain others when they need to get out of their own heads… just as other authors and their books have done for me.

 

WORKING FOR THE MOB

I once worked for the mob.

It was all very innocent. My graduate school advisor, a man I deeply respected then and still do, referred me to a local start-up that wanted help setting up a health information system to be sold as a turnkey system to private business. They had offices in a midrise building located next to a busy freeway some ten miles from downtown. Personnel were earnest and pleasant and perhaps a little subdued. They seemed to be just settling into new offices. While not awful, interior decoration could have used a few more dollars and a professional touch. Furniture and fittings looked to me like a hasty assemblage of items from a used furniture store… not really the way things were done in Houston start-ups.

Middle managers laid out project goals. I had real difficulty understanding how the product they were designing would be marketable. I couldn’t see any need for such a system. By that time in my career, I had occasionally run into other new companies that thought they could get in on the healthcare boom without having any actual experience in the field… but that was why I was there… the so-called “expert.” At the end of the day, the client asked me to schedule another consulting visit. I did so but felt uneasy about it, fearing that I was wasting their time and money.

Back home, I described how company personnel had all but insisted that there was a virtually unlimited budget. I shouldn’t worry about money… unheard of in healthcare. Healthcare was expensive. Funds were always tight, even in the for profit setting. In the not for profit setting, health care was a low-margin business, generally 2-3 percent with profits plowed back into the organization. I commented that their claims of unlimited budget seemed inconsistent when considered with their interior decoration choices. Chocoholic said it sounded like I was working for the mob. A light bulb went off in my head, and I grudgingly agreed.

The next morning, I went to see my advisor. He was just getting ready to call me. News media had reported that the SEC was investigating the client. I shared Chocoholic’s concerns about possible mob involvement. My advisor agreed such was highly probable. He did not say this lightly. His field is Biometry. He deals daily in probabilities. He apologized for referring me to the company.

I overnighted a letter of resignation to the client, giving no reason for terminating our agreement. Needless to say, I did not bill the client for my time.

News stories subsequently confirmed our fears.

Yikes!

REMEMBERING 9/11 PATRIOT DAY

Transco/Williams Tower in the Galleria with Greenway Plaza in the background.

We’re approaching the 21st anniversary of 9/11, that horrible day that no American will ever forget.

We suffered one terrible blow after another in quick succession. Massive airliners loaded with jet fuel and overwhelmed flyers deliberately crashed into gigantic buildings occupied by thousands more unsuspecting victims. Huge, seemingly indestructible buildings collapsed one by one until we all lost count. Giant explosions and hellish fires engulfed unsuspecting victims.

Brave first responders rushed headlong into danger to help others and were gone in an instant, transformed into colossal clouds of dust. More brave innocents deliberately sacrificed themselves to save their fellow Americans.

Thousands of loved ones suddenly found themselves widows, widowers, orphans and childless parents with little or no chance to say goodbye to precious loved ones. Even more thousands survived unspeakable events. It was unimaginable… an unbelievably traumatic day for so many.

One of the worst things I remember about that day and the days that followed was fear of the unknown… the uncertainty… what might be coming next. Dozens of rumors flew over the internet and TV. We didn’t know if or when the terror might visit the rest of us. Like many others, I recognized it could get much worse for me and mine very quickly.

I was home that week. I got up early and walked the Green Belt on a beautiful autumn morning, enjoying the cool, crisp air, planning to spend all day in my office working on client reports. When I headed home, my new neighbor across the street waved me over. I had not yet met her as I had been travelling full time. She rushed the introductions and told me that a jet airliner had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York and that many deaths were expected. The news was sobering. She had seen the video and was shaken. In my eagerness to see the video, I cut short conversation and hurried inside. I still feel badly about abandoning her like that.

I watched that godawful video of the first plane a couple of times and called my husband, Chocoholic. He was at work on one of the upper floors of the Transco Tower. I told him what little I knew and urged him to come home. I had flown over the Tower a number of times on approach to Houston Hobby. It was an easy target if terrorists had plans for Houston, 64 stories high, a lonely high-rise in the Galleria, one of the most visible buildings in Houston outside of the downtown business district. It even sported a searchlight beacon visible for forty miles after dark!

Chocoholic’s employer had no announced plans to let people go. I urged my husband to get out of that freaking building. I watched more video, anguished over more terroristic acts of mass murder and conflagration and surfed TV channels and the internet, collecting information on Houston businesses already sending employees home. When I had a list of heavy hitters, I called Chocoholic, urging him to relay the list to his immediate superior. It took another hour, but he finally called to say he was on his way home. Thank God!

Things finally quieted down at our house around twilight. They stayed pretty quiet the next day, but either that or the next evening, we had a scare. Around 9 p.m. we were watching TV, finally relaxing just a little from the stress. Suddenly, two jet fighters from the Texas Air National Guard at Ellington Field came screaming overhead. We were rattled as were the house and windows. I searched the internet for what might be going on but couldn’t find anything. Having read somewhere that it could take fighter jets as long as an hour to complete pre-flight checklists and inspections, I figured that even if it wasn’t authorized, a couple of hotshot pilots had decided they needed to practice speedy take-offs on their own. I couldn’t fault them for the noise and the adrenaline rush. It was comforting to know those brave young pilots were nearby to protect us.

Much later, I learned that on the morning of 9/11, 2 F-16’s were dispatched from Ellington to the Gulf of Mexico, some 50 miles offshore Louisiana, where they assumed escort duty for Air Force One and the President on their way to refuel at Barksdale Air Force Base outside Bossier City. I never found any explanation for the startling night-time emergency takeoff.

NOTE: Garrett M. Graff’s non-fiction book The Only Plane in the Sky, An Oral History of September 11, 2001, published in 2020, presents a vivid chronology of what happened to whom that day. It is well-researched including a great many heart-stopping interviews with 9/11 survivors. It’s not for the faint of heart nor for the tender-hearted or those suffering from depression. It is raw and brutal at times, but still a wonderful book. It is a very big book, in the 1,000 page range, and every page is fascinating.

SPECIAL MESSAGE

As a new member of the Authors Guild, I have been asked to publish the following statement:

I stand against Open Library’s unauthorized copying and distribution of unauthorized works. 

If Open Library’s practices are deemed legal, any library, or even any website that calls itself a library, could scan old print books and distribute the scans as “ebooks.” Internet Archive has already offered its Open Library scans to libraries, so they won’t even need to create scans themselves. Readers will also be deterred from buying licensed ebooks if they can find free copies with a simple Google search online.

There’s no question that Open Library’s unauthorized scanning harms authors. It creates a substitute for licensed library ebooks and consumer ebooks from which authors earn royalties.

Open Library’s practices are not fair use under established law – and they’re not fair to authors because they rob authors of much-needed income.

Open Library does not “lend” ebooks. It is scanning (copying) and distributing ebooks of print books and infringing on the rights of authors. 

ANESTHESIA… PHILLY STYLE

Even road warriors occasionally need medical help. One year I spent an entire autumn working in Philadelphia. I traveled to the city on Sunday afternoons and returned home on Thursday evenings. While I enjoyed the work, travel was a real grind.

A few years earlier, I had dragged a door over one of my big toenails (another story,) and ever since have had to keep it in close trim or suffer painful consequences. With so much long-distance travel and work, I neglected it, and by one Monday morning in Philly, I could no longer deny that I needed medical help. I asked my client to recommend a physician with whom I could make an appointment, but she insisted on sending a podiatry resident to see me.

He arrived in “my office” later that day, introduced himself and pulled a huge pair of toenail clippers out of his pocket. He asked me to extend my foot into his hand. I did so, but my toe was too tender, and I couldn’t stay still. He pocketed the clippers, stood up and said he’d be back in a bit. I expected him to return with a syringe full of local anesthetic… blessed pain relief.

Instead, he brought another podiatry resident, another really cute young man. The second fellow shook my hand, grinned mischievously and said, “Hi. I’m Anesthesia.” The two of them took care of my problem in short order. I was, and still am, extremely grateful and offered to pay them or contribute to the residents’ pizza fund, but they refused compensation and went back to work… two very charming young men, no doubt wildly successful in their practices these days.