Of Opiates, TV, and Books


2015-08 PicI used to read a lot as a child and teenager. The amount of reading required of elementary, middle and high school never overloaded me enough to take away my pleasure. College, on the other hand, nearly beat the love of reading out of me. After studying the number of textbooks required of a full-time college schedule, the last thing I wanted to do was read – even if for pleasure.

When I started working after college, I found a way to fan the sparks of the dying fire that used to be my passion for reading. Since I took the bus to and from work, I used that time to start reading for pleasure again. I even mastered the art of reading while standing up, hanging on for dear life, while the bus went through endless cycles of stopping and starting.

As my fortunes rose in the form of added responsibility at work, my schedule became more unpredictable and wouldn’t accommodate taking the bus anymore. The increase in duties went hand in hand with an increase in the amount of reading required for work. Reading on the job started taking over just like textbooks had in college and my enthusiasm for reading waned again.

Vacations have helped to keep the fire burning. I always start a new book while on vacation and if I don’t finish reading it before I come home, the fun of the vacation continues until I get to the end of the book.

I don’t watch a lot of television. Even so, I use it like many others do – to chill out at the end of a busy day. At the beginning of the year, I found myself utterly bored with everything on TV – and I mean everything. Usually, I can find something to watch to relax with before I go to bed, but nothing fits the bill anymore. New shows don’t interest me and reruns of old favorites feel done to death. The void left is palpable. That makes me sound like a crack addict without a fix and the truth is that is how I feel.

One of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes cartoons is where Calvin is reading from a book and he says, “It says here that ‘religion is the opiate of the masses.’ …What do you suppose that means?” In the next frame there’s a picture of a TV ‘thinking’ this response, “It means Karl Marx hadn’t seen anything yet.” Had I been victim to the intoxicating allure of television all these years and kidding myself that I could take it or leave it? Like an alcoholic who has a moment of clarity during a dry spell, I saw that I had to put the ‘cup of television’ down and take a new path to sobriety and I vowed the path would be paved with books. The path hasn’t been easy.

To reinforce my decision, I set a goal to read twelve books this year thinking one book per month is the minimum required to maintain a healthy reading life. According to my tally on Goodreads, I’ve read four books and am three books behind in reaching my goal by the end of this year. The challenge is in trying to get excited about picking up a book after reading for the majority of an eight hour workday. The good news is that it’s getting easier. Once I get over the hurdle of opening a book outside of work, it’s not difficult to enjoy what I’m reading. But man! Getting over that hurdle is sometimes like trying to jump over the Empire State Building.

Since I don’t have the leaping ability of Superman, I have some devices I employ to give me a lift. One is to keep my current book as visible as possible so it doesn’t become out-of-sight-and-out-of-mind. Another is to take it to a room to read away from where I usually watch TV. That way, I don’t feel drawn to my old habit. Third, I bargain with myself to say I’ll only read for ten minutes and even set a timer. With this one I find that I often get engaged with the book and read beyond the time limit I set. I’ll gladly take suggestions for other ways to keep at it.

As I progress, I wonder if I’ll become as addicted to books as I have been to television. Since I’ve never heard anyone told they read too many books, I think I can live with that.

Tales from the Garden – Part 1

I love gardening. I took it up many years ago when I had a high stress job and was looking for a way to relax. Several of my friends suggested Yoga. I took a class but never seemed to be able to really get into it. Fortunately I had summers off. One summer, I decided to volunteer at the Chicago Botanic Garden. That’s when I realized I’d found something wonderful.

CBG Rose Garden 1


From the Chicago Botanic Garden

I looked forward to driving out there one day a week and either working in the garden or showing people around.

The first year I worked as part of a team in the rose garden. I learned a lot about roses that summer. The Heirloom or Old Garden Roses were all introduced before 1867 and have a wonderful fragrance. But, usually they only bloom once a season. The Modern Roses, which came after, usually bloom continually from summer to the first frost, but they have no fragrance.

When the flowers die, you don’t just cut the dead ones off. You have to cut in just the right place so the plant will grow more buds and continue to have flowers.

It’s important to clean up the dead flowers that have fallen to the ground and other debris. Roses can get infected with various diseases. It’s important to keep them healthy.

It’s also necessary to choose the correct rose for the climate you’re living in. In Illinois and Michigan, we need roses that are winter hardy. That means they can survive the cold and ice and snow and return in the spring ready to bloom again.

Roses need sun and lots of it. So it’s essential to find a place that gets six hours of direct sun a day. It’s even better if it’s morning sun.

CBG Rose Garden 2


From the Chicago Botanic Garden

I learned many other things about roses that summer. But, most important, every time I started driving out to the Chicago Botanic Garden, I felt myself start to relax. I felt all my tension and stress start to dissolve and float away and realized I was smiling.

Next time I’ll tell you what happened the second summer I volunteered.

I’ve Been Told to Watch What I Write

I’ve been asked on more than one occasion why I don’t go to the movies anymore, or watch drama television. My short answer is, ‘It puts me to sleep.’ Which is true enough, but when I analyze it, I realize it’s not the visuals that put me off, but the audio tracks. Every time someone of 007’s elk gets into a jam – which is about every other minute in most dramas – the producer decides to trump the scene with sound effects. It’s almost as if they’re trying to block your inner ear. And they succeed, overwhelmingly so. That’s the main reason I don’t watch what I write. Listening to pianos and violins while watching our hero and villain duke it out on the edge of a cliff is a stretch too far. Where’s the orchestra? To catch this on the page, the novelist would have to write something like…  “With each punch I landed, violins screeched in my ear; with each punch he landed, a piano struck a low chord.” That’s about as ridiculous as it sounds!


Films and television drama today are all eye candy, but the worst of the worst are sitcoms with laugh tracks. I think Seinfeld is great, but I can’t watch it for more than a few minutes. I’m old enough to judge what’s funny and would love to be able to see it without someone else’s interpretation. I love standup comedy, though.


Novelists have to appeal to more than just the eyes if they want to capture readers. The only way you can do that on the page is to get inside the head of your reader; open up their inner senses. Only on the page can you taste what’s cooking, feel the warmth of a touch, and smell the earthy dew at dawn. None of which comes across on the screen. Today’s film producers put so much weight on visual effects they’ve forgotten that silence speaks volumes.


Alfred Hitchcock was the master of silence. Hitchcock – whose logo was his bulbous silhouette – could keep an audience holding its collective breath staring at a pitch-black stairwell with only creaking footsteps getting louder. No soundtrack could be more frightening.


I enjoy watching most live sporting events. They usually do a good job with color commentary that adds to the coverage. But a few sportscasters just tell you what the cameras are showing, and that’s about as entertaining as having someone sitting next to you constantly saying watch this! Live auto racing is notorious for watch this commentary. Watching auto racing on mute is more dramatic, too.


I also enjoy watching programs that deal with nature, animals, science and history. Some of these programs are starting to introduce soundtracks, and I think they’re making a mistake. I guess they’re afraid they’ll lose the audience if they don’t put out something dramatic to hear while the lion slowly stalks the antelope on a starry night. I’d rather hear the crickets go quiet as the lion closes in. I’d rather see the antelope perk its ears at the sudden dead quiet. That would be much more dramatic, whether you’re rooting for the lion or the antelope. Instead, they cue the orchestra and rob viewers of nature’s voice. Where’s the remote?


My wife subscribes to Netflix and will watch hour after hour of the same series. She calls it binge TV.  I call it nap time.

Using Social Media to Overcome Writer’s Block?

Writing takes practice.

Sure, we all know that, but too often, we are frozen by the blank screen or paper we call Writers Block. At least, that’s the excuse we tell ourselves.

The only way to break down that wall is to write.

And that brings us back to the beginning. How do we begin writing? Where do we find ideas?

Blog Writing Challenges

 Whether you have written or write for a blog, you need some social media presence to maximize this option. People are sharing their creative arsenal to battle the widespread war of writer’s block across the webisphere. These challenges are sites all across the Internet. Your journey is to find them.

I’m a fan of the social media site Twitter. Unlike Facebook, it’s an open media without memberships or restrictions. Connecting with writers and readers and celebrities is a Follow click away. Unlike LinkedIn, it’s not business-focused. Unlike Google+, this is not a new, unknown experiment. Twitter is established, creative and short to swallow with its 140-character limit in each Tweet. It’s easy to find similar topics and groups with a simple #hashtag search.

On the day I wrote this, I found an array of challenges with directed yet general hashtag searches. Some of these lead directly to the moderator’s website, while others simply group posts together under that specific hashtag.

Searching the Twitter hashtag #challenge showed writing and non-writing Tweets.  Scrolling through feed, the most relevant ones came from users like @convince to post a photo with every Tweet for one week, @RonovanWrites with his weekly haiku prompt  and @lettrs posing a #WordOfTheDay challenge.

One of my favorite hashtags is #6WordStory, a challenge posed by @Kelsye. Other searches relevant and directed to writers include: #WritingChallenge; #poetrychallenge; #FiveSentenceFiction; #haikuchallenge; and #fictionchallenge.

Twitter is not case-sensitive, so upper- and lower-case usage is personal preference. The words get you to the same location. I like to capitalize some of the longer hashtags to make them easier to read.

The beauty of Twitter is the prompts are provided, and the ideas out there are bountiful. Once you find an inspirational idea, attack that challenge with all your creative energy. Many people link to their personal blogposts, but you don’t need a blog to participate. Create a separate file on your computer and dedicate 15 minutes a day to play with words. Do an email exchange with a friend or family member. If you are uncomfortable sharing, choose a journal to write in for your personal enjoyment.

If you want to publicly share your accomplishments submit these, or parts of it, on your social media or link posts to your personal blog. If you want to make a visual expression of your art, use a smartphone app like InstaQuote or Notegraphy to create a graphic to share with others or save to your camera roll.

Using photos allows your social media reach to increase. The Twitter user @asilartist tied her #9WordStory challenge together by cross-posting from her @reclaimed poet Instagram account. The same hashtag exploration applies there. I found creative posts with the tags: #WritingChallenge; #PoetryChallenge; #threewordstory; #poemaday; #flashfiction; and #4WordStory.

Beware! Most users will use more than one tag, adding several related hashtags so their post can reach various audiences. As your curiosity increases, you will find yourself winding through a maze of related hashtags so that you can forget the original hashtag you started searching for. It’s glorious. It’s frustrating.

There are worse things than being lost in a new tag that connects to a newer tag that inspires you to search for a personal interest of yours. It’s the only way to drag yourself over that tall writers block wall.

Marital Advice for Grammarians

I never want to be thought of as an annoying individual who likes to point out other people’s mistakes. With that in mind, when my husband recently said “…for you and I,” I stopped myself from saying, “You mean, ‘for you and me.’”


In that brief moment between hearing the mistake and wanting to straighten it out, I decided that I wasn’t about to trade marital bliss for a lofty disposition.

Does anyone—even a supportive husband—ever really appreciate unsolicited grammar advice? It may be meant as constructive, but when it’s directed at you, the unexpected input seems like full-blown criticism. As if you failed a test that you didn’t know you were being graded on. You feel disrespected by the Grammar Police, insulted and stifled from saying whatever was on your mind.

A member in one of my online writing groups recently posed a question to the rest of the group. I immediately noticed that his question contained a common error: using “there” instead of “their.” Pretty much everyone is prone to making similar mistakes. We forget to apply certain rules or are guilty of little typos. In those instances, we simply lower our guard and something slips, unchecked and uncensored, through our fingertips. I wasn’t about to publicly point out the blogger’s mistake since it wasn’t important to the ensuing conversation.

Another writer, however, was excessively harsh. This stickler rudely asserted his opinion that “someone ought to be using a dictionary to improve THEIR spelling.” Ouch! Point made, although it wasn’t really a spelling error but more of an error in word choice. Notably, no one—myself included—seemed bothered enough by that faux pas to make an issue out of it.

Similarly, there was no good reason that the there/their matter couldn’t have been addressed in a friendlier, less offensive, and perhaps even private way. By politely ignoring the situation altogether, the rest of the group sent a subtle message to the one outspoken member that perfection isn’t always necessary, especially in informal settings.

I was glad I had sided with the discerning writers who let both the original mistake and the poor response go unaddressed. But it’s hard for me to subdue my persnickety nature. I admittedly harbor some intolerance towards common grammatical mistakes. There are standards, and writers are expected to lead by example. We’re judged not only by our ability to tell a story, but also by our mastery of punctuation, spelling, word usage, and sentence structure.

We have decisions to make over the tiniest details. For example, do we use a numeral or spell out the number itself when referring to a centennial home as being one hundred years old? (Usually it is spelled out, but there are exceptions.) Should e-mail be hyphenated? (Yes.) Can we abbreviate okay as Ok? (No. Capitalize the entire abbreviation, as in OK.) Is the title to a blog italicized or placed within quotation marks? (The name of the Web site is italicized and an article posted on the site is placed in quotation marks.) Do we trust our phone’s spell check when it inserts an apostrophe into our family’s last name…when we’re not showing possession? (No! The Bixbys don’t like that.)

A writer’s ability to convey clear and concise thoughts is dependent upon all these things, in addition to understanding the basic parts of speech. It is our job to expertly unite a myriad of facets—nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections—so that our work reflects both definitive grammar and intuitive usage.

There is a lot to remember, so let’s find support in reputable guidebooks, like The Chicago Manual of Style. Then understand that despite our best efforts, occasionally, you and I are going to mess up. We should strive for—but not expect—personal perfection, be kind when offering advice to others, and relax with the people we love.