Category Archives: writing

It’s Your Life, Don’t You Forget

I’ve been thinking lately, which frankly, tends to get me in trouble. From more than one area of my life, I keep hearing from and about people who are having to push against family or societal pressure to succeed or define their life success in the very narrow way of school, career, marriage, house, kids. There may be stuff to achieve after this, I’m not sure. Or maybe once you get all that stuff, society leaves you alone to your mid-life crisis. The whole thing leaves me scratching my head. Although does it? That’s where the thinking comes in.

If you are an English major or other humanities major or an artist/creative of any kind, your career path will most likely be rather interesting, not terribly lucrative, and it will follow the beat of its own drummer. Mine certainly has, and it’s only been in the last 5 years that I have landed in a comfortable spot, where I actually get paid decent money to write things that matter most of the time and have a personal life too. I fell into the trap of sitting back and thinking, how do all these people get caught up in that narrow definition of success?

And then the bad movie special effects kick in, the calendar pages flip back, and the ominous narrator intones, “It was the 1980s — the height of the Ronald Reagan years and Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street declared that ‘greed is good’ … ”

My honor student status in high school made it seem like I was just as good at math and science as I was at English. But that says more about the quality of the school than my academic achievement. I do remember an emphasis on the practical, which translated to studying science in college. And that’s when I was exposed as a science and math fraud. My ass got consistently and sequentially kicked in Bio 101, 102, Chem 101, 102, and Calc 101, 102. This honor student was suddenly looking at C’s and Ds and a GPA that hovered around 2.5.

Sure, I got an A in my writing class, but that had been fun and easy. Somewhere along the way, I had picked up the idea that fun and easy was wrong. I thought life should involve suffering and be a hardscrabble scramble in order to “count.” This may be a stab in the dark, but I wonder if being raised Catholic and seeing Jesus hanging on the cross every week, which I was made to understand I was responsible for, had anything thing to do with that?


The idea that something being easy is not always the right way to go only makes sense if you’re trying to train for a marathon by running one fast mile and stopping. That’s too easy, and you ain’t gonna cross that finish line before dark.

So there I was at the end of freshman year, with a GPA on life support, but still invested in the idea of life being practical and hard. So I did what any dumb, sensible person would do and took up accounting. This turned out to be just as bad as the science classes and I was suffering, so I knew I must be on the right track. I did enjoy the guy I sat next to who loved accounting and was making methodical plans to work for what was then the Big 8 — although I think they are down to 4 now. I could have listened to his confident plans all day long, but I should have been paying more attention to the connection of his accounting joy and his success in the subject. Instead, I wrote poetry in class while the professor droned on about first in, last out, or last in, last out. I got another D.

As a super ironic aside, a number of years later I was the sole administrative person for a tiny nonprofit and got put in charge of the books with monthly help from an accountant. It took me a year of her visits to truly understand what happened to the numbers when I put them in the accounting software columns and they popped out on the balance sheet. I always came out of those day-long sessions with a huge headache. Once when I was really discouraged, she told me I understood the process better than most of the college accounting graduates they hired. That is a rather frightening thought, but I’m guessing these were not my joyful Big 8 guy, but people who were trying to be practical and pursue the narrow definition of success.  I wish them the best and no headaches.

At the end of sophomore year, with my GPA still in the toilet, I had no practical place left to go. I threw up my hands and gave in and became an English major. I suppose if I had gone to a small school with advisors who gave a flip, I would have clued in sooner, but what fun would that be? There’s something to be said for failing rather spectacularly to teach you something. And once I switched, for the first time school wasn’t a grim struggle, it was actually pleasant and even fun sometimes. Who knew?

And then I also learned the more valuable lesson not to care what people thought, because I knew I had tried and was confident that this was the only thing I was good at. Oh to be sure, I endured a fair amount of sneering. “English major! What are you going to do with that? Teach?” Which is actually also snubbing teachers, BTW. Journalism was also not my thing, so I concentrated on my own writing and fell into nonprofit administration as a source of income. Then I had to endure the “Oh, you’re a writer? What have you published?”

Did I always feel confident? Of course not, when you get that 5th, 10th, or 80th publication rejection, you kind of think, what the hell am I doing? But now I’m starting to understand that I had a couple of key advantages, which seemed like disadvantages at the time. One, early on in life, I learned I did not have strong enough skills in any area that would have put me on the society-endorsed path. Also I’m allergic to gray corporate cubes. So I had no other option than to figure out how to succeed with the writing skills I had. Two, I come from a working class background, which I tried to run from in college and after. It came with high expectations in the moment — do your chores, do well in school (or don’t bother me with teacher notes that you’re screwing up). And it also came with low expectations for a future life. And that turned out to be an extraordinary gift, that I am only now fully appreciating.

Benign neglect combined with being kid number 4 (which one are you?) allowed me to find my own path and define success in my own way. I do recall my father pressing some rather random career choices on my siblings, so here is a formal thank you to them for wearing him out first. By the time he got to me, benign neglect has set in.

Life isn’t easy, no matter what path you choose — even those who pick the society- and family-sanctioned path will struggle at some point, so you might as well put your effort towards the skills that are fun, easy, and worth your while.

To paraphrase a Catholic call at the end of the Mass, go in peace to love and serve the skills you have. It’s much better than a headache.

Photo credit: Still from the Talk Talk video, “It’s My Life.”

You, Sir, Are a Failover

Remember when corporate gobbletygook was just about “creating synergy,” “shifting a paradigm,” and “leveraging a best practice”? I miss those days now like I pine for the good ole days of a Bush senior presidency.  I’m in communications, so for the most part I get sales emails about making better videos, increasing my company’s social media presence, or how to organize company photos.  I use an iPhone, I primarily do internal, non-social media communications, and I work with doctors, so charts and graphs, yes! Photos of people, no. But at least these sales emails are in the ball park. I recently got this email from Jeff — never heard of the company and have no idea what it or he does:

“I just wanted to check in to make sure you received my previous emails.

I am hoping we can connect this week to discuss your infrastructure and ways our managed DNS can provide you a great web-based UI for record management, quick propagation time (think seconds not hours or days) and of course advanced features like active failover to keep your sites up and running without you having to even think about them.

Are you available Wednesday at 1pm? If so, I can send along a calendar invite this afternoon.

Best, Jeff”

Ooooooh, Jeffy, Jeffy, Jeffy. Where does one begin?

I just wanted to make sure you have enough blood flow going to your brain. I have no idea what DNS is, and if I have to look it up, your email is already taking up too much of my time. Perhaps it’s related to DNR — do not resuscitate? Maybe DNS means “do not suscitate,” which sounds more efficient. After all “re-suscitate” indicates you’re doing it again. So suscitate must mean don’t even bother. Let the poor bastard go. Jeffy, just let it go.

“A great web-based UI.” OK, I’m familiar with UX, user experience, so I’m not a complete luddite. However, I have no idea what UI is, unless you mean “urinary incontinence,” which seems a little personal, even for someone who works in a hospital. Also, my understanding of the condition is that it’s not really that great, either in person or web-based.

“Quick propagation time (think seconds not hours or days).” Is that what the kids are calling it these days? Oh, those crazy young ones, who can keep up? I mean, sure, sometimes I like it quick, but hours can also be kind of fun on a lazy, rainy Sunday afternoon. Seconds just seems wrong, and frankly physically difficult, if not impossible. Days feels a tad too long, unless maybe it’s a group kind of situation at a resort with a nice pool and a hot tub. Oh, and a pool bar and good snacks. Are the Chippendales invited? Not that I’ve actually thought about it. Wait, what are we talking about again?

“Active failover.” Oh my. First of all, Mr. Failover, if that is your real name, you have not spent the requisite time in the slow march of English language users to move from two words, to hyphenation, to one word. Sorry slick, thems the rules. I’m sure your cousin “crossover” took years to go from cross over, to cross-over, to crossover. Word people don’t like step-skipping show-offs. Of course people would actually have to use you in real sentences and conversation outside of annoying business emails in order for you to evolve; frankly, you seem doomed to be forever trapped in email. Crossover is laughing at you from the dictionary.

Second, this reminds me of a phrase my ex used. He’s a hospice nurse, and when a patient is in the final stages of being on this earth, they call it “actively dying.” As a word person, I always found this phrasing odd, especially because the person at that point is in a coma. My response was, “does that mean the rest of us are passively living?” That’s perhaps a topic for another blog or a philosophers convention. So, Jeffy, I say unto you, what about the advanced feature “passive fail under”? Since I have no idea what failover is, I can’t begin to guess at passive fail under, but in these socially turbulent times, it seems like it’s our duty to be more inclusive and open. We should try to examine all versions of a thing, for example, don’t stop at white experience, but also look at black, brown, blue, yellow, and red to get the full picture. Your language implies active failovers are better, but I can’t really know that until I know what a passive fail under is, can I, Jeffy? Or a passive failover or an active success over. See where I’m going with this, Jeffy? Like the lady in “Stairway to Heaven,” there’s a sign on the wall, but I want to be sure, ’cause you know sometimes words have 2 meanings. Or in your case, no meanings.

So, to answer your question, Jeffy, I am not available at 1 pm on Wednesday, or ever, really. But thank you so much for giving me some blog material. I do think you have brightfuture in some other business, unless of course you’ve got a passive failover. Those are the worst.

Best, Sandy








Top 6 Posts of 2017

Well, kids, looks like we made it through year 1 of the Cheeto flea, and that alone is worth celebrating. But even better would be to forget about him altogether. As you run the highlight reel of the past year in your mind, acknowledge the not-so-great stuff, but give priority to the good things — the people, places, and events that gave you a lift. I’m reminding myself as much as you on this one. I think of myself as a positive person, but I’ve been noticing that I can get focused on the one bad thing sitting amongst all the good stuff. So I’m going to try to keep an eye on that in 2018. I’m also feeling like my tank is empty, and, yes, I had a big year (as the posts below will attest), but most of the big things are past, so I also wonder if it’s real or a habit? I will keep an eye on that, too.

But for now, it’s time to look back a bit, take a deep breath, and head out to 2018.

6. The big news of the year was getting the kid launched, and it was official with this post. In the process, there were highs, lows, lots of wine, and a few moments of full-blown panic. But the deed got done with Mission Accomplished.

5. I reread this one, and thought, damn, that’s good! I’ve been feeling less than inspired lately to write. In keeping with my positive theme, I’m going to recall the words of a painter friend many years ago, when I was hit with my first case of writer’s block. I had just finished a bunch of essays and thought, now I’m ready for the next thing. But I wasn’t. The faucet had nary a trickle. He told me not to worry — I was merely filling up again. So, I’m going with that. Don’t know how long the filling will take, so be prepared for reruns if you’re a long time reader and for cool old stuff if you’re new. In any event, this piece reminded me that, yeah, I still have some writing mojo. Happy Anniversary.

4. That this one is in the top 6 makes me laugh. I thought it was just me, but apparently this was something a lot of people could relate to. For the love, Leave the Curtain Rods.

3. Because I have memory issues, er, I mean, I live in the moment like Eckhart Tolle. I’m a super advanced human, I swear. Anywho, I thought this one was about Cheeto flea, but it was more subtle than that. Either way, it never hurts to remember It’s a Marathon not a Sprint.

2. I just reread this one, and it reminded me I have a blog to finish about bystander intervention. Also, it reminded me that Life moved with me to my new apartment and is still sitting in my chair, giving me the look, and motioning me to get her another drink. Happy new year, bee-atch! Dammit!

1. Oh, Celine. I hope where ever you are, you have all the happiness you deserved when you walked among us. Goodbye My Friend.

So there it is, friends. I wish you all you healthy, hopeful new year. We can totally do this. We always do.

Writing Excavation

Before I get into my blog proper, I need to detour one second for this brilliant tweet from @DrAndrewThaler: “Folks, I think we need to start coming to terms with the idea that the rapture happened and only David Bowie and Prince made the cut.”

And now back to our regularly scheduled shenanigans: While packing and decluttering before I moved, I went through my filing box of writing. Oh what a treasure trove of the good, the bad, and the incomprehensible, masquerading as mastery. Here are some of the more interesting (humor me) highlights:

This one I like — I’m not a natural-born poet, brevity being rather foreign to me. However, I do have my moments. I used to take a bus to the train to get to a 7 am meeting in Boston. One thing writers are good at is turning an unpleasant obligation into art, or at least something more palatable.

Early spring bus ride, 6:20 am
The light is so nice
It’s the planet and the sun
We’re doing the tilt.

I found a lot of random notes about possible essays from when Lucas was little. Which either shows my unbridled optimism or delusional tendencies — I had no time or energy to write an essay, but as they say in yoga, intention counts. This one made me smile:

When Lucas was about 8, he played soccer. His coach Giuseppe was from Italy and had a pretty heavy accent. We used to laugh that his son who was also on the team and a great player was the ringer — the kid probably had been kicking a ball around before he could walk. The rest of Lucas’s team was pretty much what you’d expect from a group of rag-tag, half-hearted 8-year-olds. The better teams always thought they had the game in the bag until Giuseppe’s son started weaving his way around them as if they were standing still. I also loved the way Guiseppe told the kids that “practeeks” would help them win. Short of having a wine flask to help take the edge off sitting through 8 am practices in 35-degree fall weather, the Italian imported ringer and the practeeks got me through.

In an unmarked manila folder I found a thin, plastic see-through record, a 45 size, but a 33 rpm. If you are younger than 35, this sentence may make no sense to you. Kind of like this one makes no sense to me (randomly found on a celebrity gossip site): Javi and Briana rub their romance in Kailyn’s face. Who are these people?

Back to my see-through record. It does play on my record player. (Yes, I have one, read all about it here: Put the Needle on the Record). The record is called “Star Track: Stephen Saban’s Greatest Hits,” and has excerpts from interviews by the “hottest” 80s stars, with a slant toward comedians: Judy Tenuta, Julio Iglesias, Bruce Willis, Debbie Harry, Steven Wright, Emo Phillips, Lily Tomlin. I listened to it, and it’s pretty incomprehensible — there is no theme or organization, just famous people saying random things. It says “Details” at the top, which I think means it was from the hip, happening 80s magazine of the same name, which I did not subscribe to. So the mystery remains: why was this (presumably) in a magazine, who the hell is Stephen Saban, how did I get this weird thing, and for the love, why did I keep it? Was it one of those, “Oh, this will be worth a lot on eBay in the future!” moments? We may never know as I threw it away, but was fun to find.

There were many painful attempts at fiction and interview notes from when I spent a few months as a stringer for a weekly local newspaper. Neither genre is my forte, so that’s part of the pain. But it’s not a bad thing to be reminded that being a young writer is what it is — bombastic, obvious, overly earnest, and just plain bad. But I had to write all that stuff to get where I am now: bombastic, obvious, underly earnest, and less bad.

And I’ll leave you with a deliciously bad piece of writing. Here is the winner of the 2017 Best Unoriginal Sentence: Hers was a beauty that was best seen through drunken eyes.

Thank you very much.

First and Lasts

So it’s Tuesday, the day after I usually post, and I will tell you that this is the first time I forgot to post. I thought of it over the weekend, perused my usual half-baked ideas, and then it all fell out of my head as Monday came and went. But I will cut myself some slack; I’ve been experiencing a lot of “lasts,” what with the kid heading out to college in 9 days. I’m determined not to get all hand-wringing and empty-nest mopey on you — that’s not my style, but I have been surprised by the little things that have hit me. Grocery shopping and realizing I don’t have to buy those specific apple/grape juice 6 packs anymore. Or at least not for a few months. Which is great, because half the time the store is out of them anyway. 

All that is cluttering up my noggin, which, let’s face it, has never been a bastion of reliable memory preservation. Add in North Korea and Cheeto flea having a toddler screaming match, where the toddlers have access to nuclear weapons, and hate groups assembling under the guise of free speech, and I’m pretty much toast over here. I actually had the thought last week that this might be it, but North Korea is standing down for now, so I live to forget another day. 

But I refuse to give in to despair. For one thing, my grandparents and dad had a pretty frightening, shitty time of it in Holland during WWII, and my other grandfather, when he had food at all in his childhood, ate primarily salt pork and beans and lived well into his 80s; it’s in my genes to keep going. For another, there’s plenty of positive things going on. People are working to make things better and there are countless acts of kindness going on all around us all the time. Yesterday, I was canoeing on a quiet river, and the beavers and birds I saw going about their bird and beaver business reminded me there is a balance. That, and life on a quiet sleepy, river might be a good plan B. 

So, once the kid is launched, I will take a deep breath and continue to contribute the best I can. In the meantime, I’ll keep forgetting things, but I promise to do it with peace and hope. 

Active Bystander Intervention Workshop in Boston Area

I want to spread the word about a great active bystander intervention workshop that I took a few months ago. I’ve been trying to make a clever blog out of what was a very insightful and useful experience. But with the kid graduating, and end of the year school activities, and teens hanging about the house more, I’m more scattered than usual, which is actually a little frightening. I’ve been sitting with my computer on my lap for 2 and a half hours, and this is what I’ve accomplished so far:

  • I was compelled to obey an urge to listen to The Motels — the entire “All Four One” album — on my record player.
  • I moved two big boxes out of the way to search for the vinyl, but didn’t find it.
  • Instead, I found Loverboy’s first album, David Bowie’s “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust,” and the Cult’s “Love” album, and plucked them from the bin to listen to.
  • I spent 5 minutes looking for the power cord to the record player, cursing freely until I found it right next to the player.
  • I put the Cult record on turntable, only to walk away and download “All Four One,” on my iPhone.
  • I listened to every song and sang every single word.
  • I listened to “Only the Lonely” twice.
  • I then finally put the needle down on Cult’s “Love.”

Okay, so I’ve actually accomplished quite a bit. But this still isn’t a clever blog, so I’ll just be practical and helpful instead. The bystander class reversed a life-long feeling I’ve had that as an introverted person (when I’m with strangers — if I know you, I’m a big loudmouth), I could never be useful in this kind of situation. Rona Fischman is a terrific facilitator and taught me how to work with my natural reserved inclinations and that everyone has something to contribute to help keep our world respectful. That’s pretty damn amazing.

Active Bystander Intervention

This is a two-part class, given on two consecutive Monday nights, June 19 and June 26, from 7 pm to 9 pm. Learn active bystander intervention techniques to reduce the impact of aggressive social behavior. If you see someone being bullied, how can you help? How can you do it safely? How can you help without the risk of making things worse? The program also includes techniques for interrupting everyday social aggression with people you know, as well as preparation for acting with strangers. The cost is now $60, but you can get a 20% discount to friends of past participants (that’s me) with the promotional code “B_friend”. Click here to register.

I have to go listen to Loverboy now.



Thank You, Mrs. Gerzanick

This week is national teacher appreciation week, and by a sad coincidence, my very favorite teacher passed away last week at the age of 90. She was one of those teachers who changed the lives of many kids, including mine, and I was lucky to have her for English my sophomore and senior years in high school. I sent her random thank yous well into my adulthood; the last one in 2007 included a copy of my just-published book, and I was so proud to send it to her and thank her again.

I had no idea how old she was when I was in her class, but when you are 16 you have no idea how old anyone is nover the age of 20. Her hair was fairly gray by then, so I placed her age-wise somewhere between my mother and my grandmother, leaning more towards my grandmother. When I did the math today, though, I realized, it must have been all that teaching that had made her gray; she was only a few years older than I am now when I had her.

Remembering her in that lens makes her even more remarkable. She had this boundless, restless, passionate energy in the classroom that I can’t even come close to on my happiest, most well-rested, excited day. It kept her in constant motion during class, from one side to the other, front to back, to the blackboard and back around. She challenged, cajoled, gently chided, and encouraged us to be better, stretch further, think clearly. She inspired me to make her proud. The day she said, “What does this word mean? Who had the intellectual curiosity to look it up?” was the day I vowed to have the intellectual curiosity, and it’s remained with me to this day. Even now when I’m reading a book and curled up on the warm couch, maybe getting sleepy, I am occasionally tempted to steamroll past that word I don’t know. But I hear her voice, and I damn well look it up. Actually remembering it a few pages later is the greater challenge, but that’s not Mrs. Gerzanick’s fault.

She did give out praise when we earned it, and if we didn’t get it a lot, it was our fault for not working hard enough. Her bar was high, but it was not impossible. B’s were pretty standard. Dialing it in got you a C (and you never did again). And on a miraculous few occasions, you worked hard enough to get the A-. One friend remembered her statement of praise, “Very guuud” when you made an insightful comment or had the intellectual curiosity to look up a word. She’d draw out the “good,” and it felt like winning a gold medal.

She drilled good grammar and style into us, and the bible was required reading — the grammar bible that is: The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White (yes, the E.B. White who wrote Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little). I still have my second edition copy from that class. I haven’t used it as a reference for a long time because it’s a part of my writing DNA — she made sure of that. Her mantra, “be succinct” became mine, and the way she chirped, “If the letter C you spy, put the E before the I!” made you remember the rule.

But she was much more than a gray-haired grammarian. While she was pushing us to be more than we thought we could be, she also captivated us. Her constant movement dispersed the smell of her particular perfume and created a constant jangling of the 3 or 4 bracelets she wore every day. But the best days were when she wore what we dubbed the green leather biker dress. By today’s standards it would be a conservatively cut dress, but the fact that it was made of leather, green leather, stopped us pretty much in our tracks. We had never seen its like, and living in working class town, we generally associated leather clothing with bikers.

There are so many things I could say about how good a teacher she was, but the story that stands out most in my mind was the paper I wrote about Joseph Conrad. I could not get my head around Heart of Darkness. I hated that book and I hated him for writing it so that I was forced to read it. This was coming from a girl who loves to read and was willing to struggle though Shakespeare and wrestle with the Canterbury Tales without complaint. I dreaded having to write the paper on the book, usually something I looked forward to. Miserable, I went to the library for research on Conrad to see how I could possibly pull this off. This was the college-level English course offered in high school, and I knew better than to dial it in. She had drilled into us you couldn’t simply say you hated a book or didn’t like it. You had to say why and it better be good. Mostly I hated how he went on for pages describing a sunset or an afternoon sky. Strunk and White would definitely not approve. But how do I write a paper on that?

And there, amongst the stacks of reference books and my despair, I hit pay dirt.

I learned that his publisher paid him by the word and English was his second language. Ah-ha! I had him. I wrote in a fever, arguing that the payment had encouraged him to write more than was necessary. With gleeful detail I provided examples of how his awkward wordiness was due to writing in his non-native language. When we handed in our papers, everyone was groaning about how hard it had been — the book hadn’t won many of us over, and I regaled them with my tale of vanquishing this unpleasant writer with his own life story. My classmates were generally impressed, but the euphoria soon gave way to anxiety. I clearly had gone out-of-bounds of the assignment. It was less a critique of his work and more a justification for why I hated Heart of Darkness. Granted, a researched justification, but still. There was a general consensus that my gamble might not pay off.

When she handed back our papers a week later, everyone was waiting to see what would happen. Would I get the C for dissing a writer and a lecture about going off the grid? Would I just get the B and call it a day? Every week when she handed back the papers, she called out one or two as examples — mostly good, but occasionally she used one as a cautionary tale. That week she called out my paper — I wonder if she knew she had us on the edge of our seats in anticipation. When she proclaimed it a good paper, very original, and worthy of the coveted A-, I was euphoric and felt like I had gotten away with something. It wasn’t until later that I realized she had accomplished her goal. I had still made a trip to the library and actually worked to learn more about him, even though it was more like a private eye trying to dig up dirt. Indeed, I probably worked harder than if I had just shoveled words to support a more basic “man vs. man” or “man vs. nature” theme. Even later I learned that Conrad was one of her favorite writers. So not only had I gone off the grid, I had uniformly dissed her favorite writer. And she gave me the A- anyway.

So here’s to you Mrs. Gerzanick and to all those like you out there, working to inspire us to be better human beings, to have the intellectual curiosity to look up the word we don’t know, and to show up and do our best. Thank you.