In a Sinister Fashion

Insidious Chic

On Wednesdays, I usually have dinner and a movie night with one of my sisters. Recently the movie we watched involved a scene in which a character’s attempt to trounce some villains was thwarted by the pocket of his pants catching on a doorknob, causing him to take a pratfall instead of leap on the bad guy.

We both found this funny, not because we’re particular fans of slapstick, but because we’ve both been hurt, or at least seriously let down, by our clothing on multiple occasions. And I’m not talking about the outfit that is just a bad idea from the get-go—the one that causes your waitress to inquire if you’re a member of a religious organization, or random strangers to ask you what aisle the pet food is in. I’m talking about actively malevolent clothing that puts you in some very bad situations.

After we finished the movie, my sister and I played a treacherous fashion game of “Can You Top This?” and I believe I emerged the winner.

I opened the bidding with my tale of the time I was at work, seated at my desk and wearing a dress with a long, full skirt. I scooted on my chair to the filing cabinet near my desk to retrieve a file. But on my return scoot, the chair came to an abrupt halt. My skirt was caught in the casters. Not only could I not propel myself forward, I couldn’t even stand up. My dress, with its billowy swath of material, had become so entangled it forced me into a half-crouch, from which I tried to lift the chair to free the hem, which the wheels held in a death grip.

It was even more awkward and harder than it sounds. I managed to extricate enough fabric to allow me to sit down beside the chair to work the rest of it out. I didn’t manage a dignified response when a colleague spotted me through my half-open office door and asked what I was doing. Just before she started laughing uncontrollably.

My sister countered with an insidious garment story of her own. One day, alone at work and wearing a very slim pencil skirt, she pushed back from her desk—which was located in an open office configuration, separated from visitors only by a counter. Her chair flipped backward, leaving her staring at the ceiling with her lower limbs straight up in the air, imprisoned by the taut grip of her skirt. Urgently trying to right herself before anyone came in, she discovered that her straight skirt gave her no mobility. She couldn’t lower her legs. Only by bracing her arms, heaving her hips and flinging her body to the side was she able to get out of the dead bug position. From there she emerged upright but shaken. And no one was the wiser. Until now.

But I had the winning entry with my tale of a city commission candidate, a pair of slippery shoes and again, a desk. (Perhaps it’s not the clothing, but the combination of office fashions and office furniture that lies at the heart of our tales of woe.)

As a managing editor, I had invited all the candidates for the local city commission to interviews in my office at the newspaper. I was newly in the position and eager to project professionalism, confidence and tough-minded journalism. I chose a business-like outfit with practical pumps, no frivolous shoes for me. When the first candidate arrived, I ushered him into my office, seated him and stepped behind my desk to start the interview. It was then that my cruel shoes let me down. Abruptly and literally.

The soles of the shoes were unexpectedly slippery on the hard plastic mat beneath my chair. In a nanosecond, I was lying on my back, gazing at the underside of my desk. I don’t know who was more astonished at my sudden disappearance from view, me, or the would-be commissioner. I scrambled out from under as quickly as I could, but I’d lost both my dignity and my ability to conduct a serious interview. Plus my toe really hurt. He was kind enough never to speak of it again.

There are, sadly, more such stories involving car doors slamming on trench coat belts, scarves caught in drawers and swing coats causing unfortunate accidents on stairs. I will not go into them here. I will, however, say that I am seriously considering titling my next book Dangerous Clothing. Not compelling at first glance perhaps, but it would be a darker tale than one might think.

This blog first appeared in 2016.

Eight Million Stories

Life is a story…

My husband Gary is a man of many stories. He’s served in the U.S. Army, taught high school business classes, coached a winning football team, worked as a school administrator, a firefighter, business manager at a university, traveled extensively and he’s never met a person he didn’t enjoy talking to.

Gary often doesn’t recall the exact details, but it never stops him from telling the tale. Not so long ago, we watched a movie from the 1940s, called The Farmer’s Daughter. He suddenly said, “I sat next to that woman on a plane once.”

“You sat next to Loretta Young?!” He hesitated for just a fraction of a second before saying yes. But it was long enough for me to flash on other confidently told Gary stories that have a fact-based core, but often dubious supporting details.

Upon repeated questioning, he gradually acknowledged that it might not have been Loretta Young, it may not have been on a flight to Michigan, but he stuck to his assertion that it was definitely someone famous. That I believe. But whether it was Loretta Young, Loretta Lynn or Coretta Scott King, is lost to the ages.

What got me started on this train of thought was a visit with my dad’s favorite cousin. Lois is lovely and kind and at 90-plus, she has many stories to tell. Her husband was in the Air Force and during that time she and her children traveled with him to many parts of the world.

“I fell madly in love with John when I was in high school, and I was lucky enough to have him for more than 50 years. I don’t watch much television, but when I see a travel show sometimes I think, ‘Oh, we walked on that street,’ or ‘Oh, I’ve been to that spot before.’ We danced on the beach at Ipanema once. We had so much fun that night.”

Everybody has a story; I learned that when I was a young reporter. When Lois told me hers, I had a glimpse of the giddy young girl she once was. She’s still a favorite relative from another generation, but now she’ll also always be the girl who fell madly in love and the happy wife who spent a romantic evening dancing on the beach.

Our stories embody and enrich our lives, and when we share them they can enrich the lives of others as well. The Naked City was a long ago television show that I was deemed too young to watch. But I can remember hearing its iconic closing lines wafting up to my bedroom through the registers from the living room below.

There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.

This week I hope to learn some new stories. I hope you do, too.




Not In Cursf, Please

I’ve read several articles lately on the debate over teaching cursive writing in schools or tossing it out. Those in favor of ditching it argue that with texting, tablets and computer keyboards, there’s no need for cluttering up the curriculum with a skill whose time has passed.

On the other hand, advocates of teaching “longhand” point to studies that show students retain more when they take notes in cursive, because cursive writing engages more areas of the brain. In addition, people who don’t learn to write cursive have a hard time reading it. That means personal family journals and letters, as well as historical documents, could be indecipherable to future generations without assistance.

The last argument resonates with me because of something that happened years ago, when my children were young. I was frantically trying to finish a writing project with a firm deadline. As the due date approached and true panic set in, I figuratively barricaded myself in my office – as much to keep me in, as to keep others out. I gave instructions to my daughters, then 7 and 11, along the following lines.

“Do NOT come into the office. Do not knock on the door. Do not shout through the door. Do not even approach the door unless someone is bleeding, or the house is on fire.”

“But what if—?”

“No what ifs. I have to get this done. Today. If you hear me open the door, you can talk to me then. Otherwise, I don’t exist. I mean it.”

Being resourceful, independent, and insightful enough to detect when their mother was on the edge of a nervous break down, they took my words to heart and left me to my work. Occasionally, a thud, door slam, cry of outrage or shout of laughter penetrated my fortress of solitude, but I heard nothing that sounded like an in-person intervention was warranted.

After about four hours I had made real progress. As I leaned back in my chair for a good stretch, I heard the sound of hushed debate coming from the hallway. I was about to investigate, when a sheet of lined paper fluttered in under the door and across my office floor.

I stooped to pick it up, and this is the message I read, written by my seven-year-old.

Sorry to buther you. Alex [our dog] has a sore spot on his back. It is bleding. We think it is bad. Sara says, should we call the vet? Please answer.

P.S. Not in cursf

It made me laugh and feel guilty at the same time — both responses my children remain skilled at invoking. I felt bad that I had been so forceful in my demand for peace that they only dared breach it with a note. Though in my defense, I did specify ‘bleding’ as a reason to knock on the door. And I laughed because my daughter feared that even if her negligent mother responded, she might do so in the indecipherable code of cursive writing.

I understand that technology may make cursive writing seem obsolete, but I’ll always favor it, because the thrill of mastering the secret language of ‘cursf’ seems like a rite of passage to me. And yes, pun intended.

Some readers may notice this post has appeared before – in September 2014, to be specific. But a recent conversation brought it to mind again, and as I’m truly, madly, deeply involved in trying to make the publication deadline for my fourth Leah Nash book, Dangerous Secrets, I turned to the archives for today’s blog.  

The lightning or the lightning bug

Grandma Jenny
Grandma Jenny

I’m at the 2/3 mark in writing my 4th as yet unnamed Leah Nash Mystery. To keep the momentum going, instead of pausing to write a new post today, I’m offering a reader favorite from 2015. The focus is on my husband Gary’s unique approach to using his words. 

 I like words, some just for the way they sound, rolling off your tongue. I like others for the nuances and delicate layers of meaning they convey. And I love to hunt for just the right word to convey what I mean in writing and in speaking. 

So, it’s one of those little jokes of the universe that I fell in love with a man who not only doesn’t search for the right word, he blithely makes up his own in order to get his sentences out as quickly as he can. At least that is the only reason I can find for the unintentionally hilarious way he pulls words out of thin air.

Sometimes the word he chooses is a close approximation of the actual one he needs. For example, we attended a Kirtan practice — which is a kind of Hindu devotional singing with chant and response. It wasn’t exactly in Gary’s wheelhouse, but he went because our daughter invited us. The next day he said, “I don’t really think croutons are my thing.” Some might have thought he was saying he didn’t like toasted bread cubes. I knew immediately he meant Kirtan.

Just recently when I was struggling with the ending of the book I’m working on, he offered these encouraging words. “Don’t worry. I know a Tiffany will come, and it will all work out.” I waited all day, and Tiffany did not show up to help me. Neither did an epiphany.

Occasionally, the word he chooses is vaguely related to the one a regular person would choose, but it takes some puzzle solving skills to get it.  Awhile ago we were watching a horse race on television, and I asked him who owned the winner. He said he wasn’t sure, it might be a combine. I told him I was pretty sure a combine was a large piece of farm equipment and then proceeded to try to unravel his meaning. It took a few minutes, but I finally realized he meant syndicate — which is a group of individuals or organizations who combine for some purpose. Hence combine, and then it made sense — in a Gary kind of way.

One of my favorite Garyisms fell from his lips years ago, when a friend said he was going to Las Vegas and wanted to see some shows. “Oh, you should see Sigmund & Freud, they’re really good.” Yes, that’s right. He meant Siegfried and Roy.

He presented a tougher word challenge when he told me about a TV show featuring high-end automobiles, and how expensive and amazing they were. He was most impressed by the Grandma Jenny. I said, “Gary, stop it. There can’t be a sports car called a Grandma Jenny.” He insisted it was that, or something very close, and then it hit me. A Lamborghini. When I offered that as a possibility, he readily agreed and didn’t really see how what he’d said was that far off.

One of my editors from my newspaper days frequently shared this Mark Twain quote, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

But honestly, if he were always on top of the right word, it wouldn’t be nearly as fun to talk to him. And a conversation with Gary is always entertaining.

Seeing Eye to I

Much as I love a good mystery—print, ebook, or audio—and although in my hand the TV remote control is a crime-seeking missile programmed to land on any available true or fictional detective show, if I were involved in a crime in real-life, I would be of absolutely no use.

I have very limited powers of observation. As a witness, if called upon to describe what the bank robber looked like, or what kind of car the hit and run driver used, I would come up with nothing. I tend to move through life—or at least travel to my destinations—focused only on the road ahead. I’ve been taken to task many times by family and friends, who insist they waved at me with the vigor of someone waiting for rescue by a search plane, to no avail. Which is one indication that I’m an adequate looker, but not a very good see-er.

If it’s not straight ahead of me, there’s a good chance I won’t detect it. Sorry, officer I didn’t notice the arsonist setting fire to the building on the corner while I waited at the light. No, detective, I didn’t see a man in a yellow banana suit coming out of the bank with a bag full of money.

If required to work with a police sketch artist to come up with a composite picture of the villain who snatched my purse, I’d be stumped to try and recall, let alone describe, physical characteristics clearly. The end result would no doubt be a cross between an Etch-A-Sketch drawing and Mr. Potato Head. His hair? Umm, blondish. Eyes? Smallish. Nose? Big. Face shape? Not exactly round, but sort of. He had a mustache. No, wait, a beard. Well, you get the picture.

While my literal lack of attention to the world around me is lamentable, even more troubling is the realization that in a figurative sense, I often don’t see what is in front of me. Typically, if I encounter a receptionist, or a clerk, or a random person at the market who is brusque or impatient with me, I look at them as bad-tempered and rude. I rarely take the time to see what might lie underneath the offending  behavior. If a friend is expressing her opinion, I may say that I “see” her point of view, but I’m really focusing on my own, and looking for an opening to push it forward.

The verb “to see” has many synonyms: detect, examine, contemplate, recognize, discern, take notice, observe, perceive, regard, view, eye, see, spot, witness, behold, and more. It’s an indication, I think, of how complex and layered the act of seeing is. Perhaps I’ve been thinking about that idea  more lately, because I’ve been wending my way through a series of appointments and treatments to resolve my physical eye problems. But as my literal eyesight continues to improve, I hope to work on my metaphorical vision as well. Henry David Thoreau said it much better than I have:

 ♦It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see. ♦  





Welcome to my world …

Downtown Himmel, Wisconsin
drawn by Melanie Lewis

After some time away from it, I’m now immersed in writing the fourth novel in the Leah Nash Mysteries series. In fact, I’m so involved with my characters and the felonious happenings in their fictional world that when one of my sisters called me last week and asked what I was doing, I answered without thinking: “I’m arranging my murders.”

She was taken aback for a second, having expected “I’m arranging” to be followed by “my closet” or “my spice shelf”—not “my murders.”

It’s easy for me to get lost in the world of my characters, but it’s really fun when I hear that a reader has engaged enough with the people and settings of my stories to follow up after the last page of the book is read.

Recently someone wanted to know how I came up with the name of the town where the characters in my Leah Nash Mysteries live: Himmel, Wisconsin. The inspiration actually came from my immigrant grandmother, Susannah Andrews. She spoke English to my six siblings and me most of the time. But when we had driven her to distraction with our antics, she would shout “Mein Gott im Himmel!” [My God in Heaven]. It was the signal that we’d pushed just a little too far and repercussions were about to happen. So, the name of my fictional town, in one way, is a bit of an homage to my grandmother. But the choice of name was also intended to be a little more layered.

Himmel, with its shrinking population, abandoned stores and declining economic base, seems pretty far from heaven to Leah Nash, the main character in the series when she returns home. But the more she learns about herself and what matters most to her, the closer the name becomes to describing how she feels about her imperfect, struggling hometown and its inhabitants.

Another frequent question is whether or not Himmel is meant to be my own small town. It isn’t. For one thing, it’s considerably larger, and there’s a lot more homicide going on. For another, it’s in Wisconsin—although to be honest, having spent quite a bit of time in both places, I think of Wisconsin as Michigan with cheese. Lots of cheese. I will admit though that I sometimes transplant landmarks or variations on them from my hometown to Leah’s.

Readers often wonder if the characters in my books are drawn from people in my life. The answer is no, in the strictest sense of the disclaimer you sometimes see in the front pages of works of fiction: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

But that’s not to say that I don’t draw inspiration from people I’ve met, or observed—or avoided. I try not to use the name of anyone that I know, to prevent having people in my own town try to match fictional characters with real life counterparts—an exercise I feel has the potential to end badly.

However, it’s inevitable that I’ll sometimes unintentionally create characters whose names belong to actual people. Not long ago, I received a very nice email from a reader to that effect. She wrote that she had really enjoyed one of my books, but jokingly said that she felt kind of bad that she and the murderer shared a somewhat uncommon first name.

To make it up to her, I’m including a minor character in my next book whose first and last names are a match for the reader’s. And like her real-life namesake, the character is a very nice person, who I’m sure would never kill anyone. 😉