You Look Like a Million Bucks

In November my sister said to me, “Let’s go to South Coast Plaza to see the Christmas decorations.”

“Sure,” I said. “I’m a sucker for twinkle lights.”

Because of my sister’s rheumatoid arthritis, the walk from the car was painfully slow. Yet her step quickened when we entered the mall, and I soon discovered that she had something other than Christmas decorations in mind.

“I want to go a jewelry store,” she announced.

“Okay,” I said. “But you know the jewelry stores here are pretty high end.”

“Oh, I don’t want to buy anything,” she said. “I just like to look.”

That’s how we ended up at the renowned jeweler, Harry Winston. Entering the store, a hulking, stone-faced guard in a black uniform, locked eyes on us. I felt intimidated, like my every move was being watched, which of course, it was, but this didn’t bother my sister. She walked in confidently, went right up to a saleswoman, and said, “I’d like to see the most-expensive piece of jewelry in the store.”

I did not see that coming. That cringe-worthy line made my face turn a brilliant shade of embarrassment pink.

Without blinking, the stylish saleswoman, whose badge said she was a Sales Executive—replied, “Certainly. That would be our yellow diamond ring.”

She led us to a locked display case and brought out the ring. Every facet of the stone glistened under the bright store lights. “This stone is a cushion cut yellow fancy intense diamond.”

What language was she speaking?

“It weighs 10.28 carats, is surrounded by white diamonds, and is priced at nine-hundred and ninety thousand dollars.”

At least I think that’s what she said. The size of the stone dazzled me and my brain went a little mushy.

I felt surreal, like I’d been dropped into a Fellini film. We were all adults, and yet we all knew we were playing make-believe. My sister pretending she had the net worth to afford a million-dollar diamond and the sales executive, pretending my sister was her most important client.

“May I try it on?” my sister asked.

In a velvety voice the sales exec said, “Of course,” and directed us to sit.

From the moment my sister slipped on that diamond, a satisfied smile spread across her face.

“This ring was made for your hand,” the sales exec said. “I do not have the style to carry off such a stone, but you do.”

Tilting her hand from side to side, throwing sparks of light in all directions, my sister said, “If I win the lottery, this will be the first thing I buy.”

The woman handed my sister her gold-embossed card. “In case you do win, keep me in mind.”

As we left Harry Winston, maybe I imagined it, but my sister appeared taller and she seemed to walk a little easier. Her disease had retreated into the background and she floated on an endorphin cloud of make-believe happiness. I loved seeing her like that, until she said, “That was fun. Should we go to Tiffany’s next?”

The Gift That Keeps On Giving

I was good all year. I recycled, fed stray cats, gave money to homeless people, even the scary guy with the sign that says, “Victim of Reality.” So, why, why did Santa give me a fruitcake?

Ah, fruitcake. The world’s most unwanted Christmas gift, even worse than the Chia Pet, but a close runner up to the Salad Shooter.

Anyway, back to the “F” word. Fruitcake. What do I do with it? Maybe I could try the disposal option on my Christmas card. It shows an ice fisherman, but instead a dropping his line down the hole in the ice, he’s dropping fruitcakes. The whole town is lined up, waiting their turn to offload.

And I guess I could always re-gif it—by the way, that term that was invented for the sole purpose of making fruitcakes disappear. Have you heard the theory that there has only been one fruitcake in all of history and it just continues to be re-gifted? It’s true; it was baked in 1620. Continue reading “The Gift That Keeps On Giving”

Eat Your Pie and Listen

It’s Christmas and most people have some time off work, except we writers, who are always on the job—even more so at the holidays. But this is not as hard as it sounds if you follow my easy method. At your holiday gatherings with family and friends, load your plate with a few thousand calories, settle back in a comfy chair—and listen to Uncle Fred’s stories. It’s that simple.

Every family has an Uncle Fred, the gregarious guy with the Spanx-tight memory who loves to go on and on about the old days. Well, let him. And give yourself permission to shamelessly mine his stories for new material, let him dredge up the long-buried family embarrassments that will make your writing come to life.

The holidays make people nostalgic, and with enough rum-spiked eggnog you’ll finally get the truth behind the rumor that Aunt Ruth is really Uncle Charlie’s second wife and why we never ever mention wife number one. Continue reading “Eat Your Pie and Listen”

Calling All Monsters

As I walked a back alley of Ghost Town, Knott’s Berry Farm during Halloween Haunt, an ominous purple fog hung in the air, and with each step it swirled like a brew in a witch’s cauldron. Eerie green lamplights flickered devilishly, casting a sick pallor on my skin. From the corner of my eye, I saw something lurking, something in tattered clothes with a hideous half-missing face, like the victim of a flesh-eating bacteria.

Then it spotted me. Though handicapped by a dragging, lifeless foot, it moved fast, and quickly gained ground. In one huge lunge it split the curtain of fog, the only thing separating me from this abomination. I froze.

It dragged itself even closer and grabbed my arm. Then it spoke. “Pam, my mask is coming unglued.”

“Again?” I said, and reached into my Monster Repair Kit. With spirit gum I reattached the latex prosthetic and sent the foot-dragger back into the fog. When I heard a blood-curdling female scream, I knew my monster was hard at work.

As head of wardrobe for Halloween Haunt, monster repair was just part of my job; I was also in charge of the daily cleaning of 500 costumes. At 2 am, when the talent returned after an 8-hour shift, their clothes were wringing wet and reeking with sweat and bad cologne.

While prepping the first load of laundry, I reached into a monster’s pocket looking for the usual forgotten Chap Stick or Tic-Tacs, and pulled out something I’d never before found—a small folded piece of paper.

I opened it, and read, “Hi, I’m Julie. Call me,” followed by a phone number. I burst out laughing, not because I find young love amusing, but because this particular monster wore a putrid pea-green mask with skin the texture of large-curd cottage cheese. One of its eyes had escaped its socket and oozed down the cheek, where it collided with a torn and bloody lip. This girl clearly had no idea what the person beneath the mask looked like. And because he also wore a pair of fake fangs, I doubted the two had had much of a chance to talk. The monster could only show his interest with his eyes, or in this case—eye.

This had to be an anomaly, I thought, until I moved on to the extremely stinky costume of a monster that sported a gray rotting-corpse mask, complete with pupating fly larvae. I found a phone number in his pocket too. Sandi, a resourceful girl who’d dotted her “i” with a heart, had given her cell and work numbers.

Now, I’ve heard that love is blind, but apparently, it also has no sense of smell.

After cleaning the costumes I debated whether to toss the numbers, but in the end—love triumphed. Yet, even though Julie was attracted to the putrid cottage cheese face and Sandi was more your rotting-corpse type, because it was Halloween, I confess, I played a trick and reversed the mash notes. I doubt the girls ever noticed.

It’s Alive

Every Halloween, after I’ve handed out the last of the candy—okay, I save a few Kit-Kats for myself—I turn out the lights, curl up on my sofa and watch Young Frankenstein starring the sorely-missed Gene Wilder. The script, co-written by Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks, is brilliant. I’ve seen it so many times I can recite the dialogue. I even know when to whinny like a frightened horse when someone says, “Frau Blücher.” I love the scene where Dr. Frankenstein reanimates the creature, who has mistakenly been given the brain of someone named Abbey Normal. While a huge storm rages, the white-coated doctor, with his mad scientist eyes and his wind-ravaged hair, looks up to the dark, menacing sky and shouts, “It’s alive!”

Now you’re probably wondering what this has to do with writing, but stay with me. I really do have a point. Continue reading “It’s Alive”

The Key Graveyard

In a fall cleaning frenzy, I tackled my kitchen junk drawer. I chucked expired coupons, dozens of plastic bread ties that I’d saved in case of a severe bread-tie shortage, and handfuls of dried out rubber bands that broke when stretched. Then I ran across a box of old keys.

Hmmm? I lined them up on the kitchen counter. There were nine car keys, which was odd, because in my life, I’d only owned four cars.

I found the spare key to my 1968 Ford Falcon. Three on the tree, pull-out choke on the dash. I bought it used for $200, drove it for three years, and sold it for $250. I couldn’t find the spare key for the new owner, so I’d had a copy made. It cost 35 cents. Today a new key is $200—the same price as this entire car.

I found the key to my first new car. A 1976 Toyota Corolla, which ironically, got keyed the first day I parked it at work. It was Rah! Rah! Bicentennial! Buy American year!

Here was the key to my old boyfriend’s house. We broke up two decades ago when I ‘d found another woman’s underwear tangled in the bed sheets. “Oh, those belong to my fiancée,” he’d said, having never mentioned a fiancée before. It made me wonder if saving this key qualified me as a masochist. Continue reading “The Key Graveyard”

The Art of Procrastination

Judy Tenuta once said, “My parents told me I’d never amount to anything because I procrastinated too much. I told them, ‘Just you wait.’”

Procrastination is a skill that takes decades to properly master. A childish amateur might miss a deadline and attempt the old cliché, “I tried to do it, but the dog ate my homework.” But it takes a really skilled writer to bring procrastination up to the level of a fine art form. As Roy Peter Clark says in his book, Writing Tools, “Never write today what you can put off until tomorrow.” With that mantra, I’m surprised he ever finished his book. Harold Ross of The New Yorker said, “Like many people, I started blogging out of an urgent need to procrastinate.”

The word procrastination is derived from the Latin cras—meaning “Tomorrow.” This tomorrow does not have the same hopeful, uplifting message Little Orphan Annie belts out with her show-stopping song. Many famous writers suffer from procrastination and have taken the word tomorrow to literally mean tomorrow. Mañana. The day after today. Or maybe the next.

Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker’s Guide fame says, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” On missing a deadline, Dorothy Parker remarked, “Somebody was using the pencil.” Robert Benchley said, “Anyone can do any amount of work providing it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.” The New Yorker writer Susan Orlean not only confessed to being a procrastinator, at the recent Long Beach Literary Women Conference, she gave a few tips on how to do it at home. Her first tip was to organize your bookshelves by color, then to move on to your clothes closet. Her theory being, “I’m organizing, I’m accomplishing, so how can I be a procrastinator?”

Continue reading “The Art of Procrastination”

Literary Conference Wisdom

 At this year’s Literary Orange, I learned many tidbits to help inspire writers. Did you know that only 4% of people who start to write a book ever finish it? So if you have finished a book, congratulations, you are in rarefied territory.

Here are a few memorable quotes from the conference:

  • We write to make sense of the world.
  • We don’t know how strong we are until we need to be.
  • If you don’t work on your dream, someone else will hire you to work on their dream.
  • Stubborn writers make it.
  • If you write books about yourself, you have enough for one novel and three poems.
  • Nothing in fiction actually happens, but it’s all true—emotionally.
  • In a book you only have to give instructions to a kid once.
  • Everyone experiences a family differently. You and your siblings have the same parents, and yet you don’t.
  • Torture your characters without forsaking them.
  • Failure is the key to success.

I also learned to never give up. That seemed to be a running theme of the conference. Best-selling author Jonathan Evison, who was wearing a T-shirt that said: “Careful or You’ll Wind Up in My Book,” never did. He wrote eight books before being published, and continued writing despite a major setback– his agent quit to go to clown school. Mr. Evison was so desperate that he asked his agent if he could still represent him when he wasn’t studying pratfalls.

Keynote speaker Fannie Flagg had her own never-give-up story. She started by revealing that her real name is Patricia Neal, Patsy for short. (She had to change her name because the Screen Actor’s Guild doesn’t allow two actors to have the same name, and Patricia Neal was already taken.) Ms. Flagg then told this anecdote. Someone once said of her, “She writes those feel-good books.”

She smiled, but a friend told her, “I don’t think that’s a compliment.”

Continue reading “Literary Conference Wisdom”

Do You Know the Way to Cupertino?

 I just watched the National Spelling Bee and was mesmerized, no, the correct word is shamed, by the contest’s youngest-ever entrant, six-year-old Edith. She and her bouncy, blonde curls made it all the way to round three before being eliminated.

At our grade-school spelling bee I was always eliminated in the first round. I could never remember which letters were doubled or if it was supposed to be “intro” or “intra.” And to this day I still have to recite, “I before E except after C.” That’s why I rely so heavily on my computer’s Spell Checker to correct my spelling before my words go out into the world and embarrass me. Which, ironically, is one of those words I can’t spell. When I use Spell Check—that magical I-won’t-let-you-look-like-an-idiot feature, I only have to type in a close approximation of a troublesome word and a box comes up with alternate suggestions. And strangely, looking at the choices, I can tell which one is spelled right.

Spell Check became my best friend. But it also became my worst enemy when, one day, it said, “I’m tired of fixing your stupid-ass mistakes. Let’s have some fun.”

Continue reading “Do You Know the Way to Cupertino?”

How to Pick a Cat

Dogs are easy to pick. You walk into a shelter and all the dogs bark, which is canine for, “Pick me, pick me. Me, me, me.” Then the tails wag, which means, “I’m friendly. I can be your new best friend. Say, have you lost weight? Because you look like you’ve lost weight.” Next is the licking. And ladies, here is the short-skirt warning: Any exposed skin is fair game. So cover any lady parts you don’t want licked. Dog slobber says, “You are mine. Take me home.”

The final step in choosing a dog is to close your eyes and pick any one of them; you can’t go wrong. Now cats are a different animal. While you pick a dog, a cat picks you. You may think you have control of this process, but that’s what cats want you to think. Play along with their grand scheme.

Let’s examine three cats.

Continue reading “How to Pick a Cat”