Archive | May 2009

Hip hip hooray! I’ve made it through the B.A.D. Challenge!

It’s May 31st, and I’ve made it through the Blog-A-Day Challenge on Blog Book Tours. I’ve earned bragging rights: I only missed one day, because I was down in Woodstock taking care of my granddaughters and didn’t get back till midnight. But since there are 31 days in May, I figure I’ve still blogged for an entire month – after all, most months have only 30 days.

This daily blogging has done wonders for my writing chops. It’s been like what jazz musicians used to refer to as “woodshedding” – just holing up alone and honing your craft. It’s also paid unexpected dividends in terms of things I’ve done less of.


  • Eating – I even skipped lunch yesterday, and that’s unheard of!
  • Drinking – my wine consumption has decreased considerably (not that it was a problem, but wine has lots of calories).
  • Television watching – my favorite shows are on summer reruns, and I’d rather spend evenings blogging.
  • Computer solitaire – Spider no longer has such addictive allure.
  • Shopping – fewer trips to the malls and less spending. Here at my computer, I don’t need fancy clothes.

Thanks to Dani for being such a demanding taskmistress, and congratulations to my cronies in the Blog-A-Day Challenge who’ve also made it through. We all deserve to celebrate today, especially since it’s Sunday, a day of rest. I’ll probably spend the afternoon in the garden – after I check Facebook and Twitter. 

 Yesterday I worked on my static pages: I added “A Message from Julie” and the first chapters of both my novels. Check them out – I’d love your feedback.

Blog-A-Day folks, what has this challenge done for you?


Memories of Etan Patz

I vividly remember the day Etan Patz disappeared. At our rented raised ranch in Poughkeepsie, we still got the local TV news from New York City, and my husband and I were watching when a picture of the smiling six-year-old flashed on the screen. The announcer said he’d disappeared that day: Friday, May 25, 1979. The news blindsided both of us – we’d been neighbors and friends of the Patz family, and our daughter had been in Julie Patz’s daycare program.

After years in our Prince Street loft in SoHo, two doors west of the Patz family, we’d tried a tentative move upstate. I was a newly credentialed art therapist, with an M.A. from NYU and a job at Hudson River Psychiatric Center in Poughkeepsie. When we’d considered leaving the city, I bought a fresh New York State map and a compass, and drew a circle with an 80-mile radius centered on SoHo. Poughkeepsie fell within the acceptable radius, and so I took the job, beginning February 1, 1979.

I’d lived in SoHo since 1967, before the Lower Manhattan loft district even had a name, and it had grown increasingly commercialized and frenetic through the years. We thought it might be time to move out, to find a more peaceful place to put down roots and raise our daughter, but we weren’t sure. That newscast on May 25 was the tipping point; we put our loft up for sale the next week.

Seeing last night’s feature about Etan Patz on ABC’s 20/20 brought back  memories, both painful and nostalgic. There were lots of shots of our Prince Street coop loft building and its environs, and they looked remarkably grubby. The many photos of Etan taken by his father, Stan Patz, and the interviews with Stan were heart-wrenching. His mother Julie refuses to talk to the press. 

I’ve walked past our Prince Street loft many times on visits to the city, and I’ve seen the name Patz on the door at 113, but I’ve never rung the bell. What could I possible say? This story is every parent’s worst nightmare. Now, on the thirtieth anniversary of Etan’s disappearance, the nightmare has been resurrected. New York ran a story in their May 11th issue, based on a new book by Lisa R. Cohen titled After Etan: The Missing Child Case That Held America Captive. And then of course there’s last night’s 20/20 story.

The journalists profit from these stories, but what’s the payoff for the bereaved family? It must be excruciatingly painful to be dragged into the limelight after all these years. But apparently there’s hope that the case will yet be tried before a grand jury. There’s overwhelming evidence against a pedophile named Jose Antonio Ramos, now in prison in Pennsylvania on a separate case. Ramos is up for release in 2012, but Stan Patz wants to see him safely behind bars for the rest of his life, so that he won’t have the opportunity to harm another young boy. That’s his mission, and the reason he’s subjecting himself to all the public scrutiny yet one more time.

My thoughts and prayers are with the Patz family on this thirtieth anniversary of Etan’s disappearance. May they find peace and justice.

A morning service: death and disclosure

My next-door neighbor Mary died Tuesday night at the age of 89, and this morning I attended her service at the Catholic church where she was a longtime member. Officially, the service was called a “Liturgy of Christian Death and Burial,” and I haven’t attended one like it before. Many words of comfort were spoken, and it made me wish I were a true believer. (I’m a Unitarian Universalist, and our beliefs, such as they are, aren’t nearly so reassuring.)

I’ve watched Mary slide downhill over the past couple of years. Her daughter Wendy has been her live-in caregiver, and she’s kept me and my husband up to date on the many changes in Mary’s health – the operations and procedures, whether and how they worked, the trips to the hospital, the transfer to a nursing home, then home again. Ultimately, she died in a hospital – they’d been going to move her to a Hospice, but she was too weak to withstand the transfer.

Looking out our windows, seeing the ambulance in Mary’s driveway yet one more time, I’ve often wondered whether I would want to hang on under the same compromised circumstances, but who’s to say? I won’t know till I get there, and I hope that’s at least a couple of decades away. These are the kinds of questions I address in my mystery novel Eldercide, which revolves around a home health care agency, its staff and clients. But it feels highly inappropriate to discuss my book now, in the wake of Mary’s death. I’ll save that for another day.

Today’s experiences raised some thorny questions for me as a writer. Sitting alone during the service, I took voluminous notes, and eventually they may find their way into my fiction, but it’s still far too early. And how much to share online? I considered posting Mary’s full name and part of her obituary, but I didn’t feel I had the right, not without her family’s consent, although they probably would have been pleased. Mary lived a full and fruitful life, with five children and eight grandchildren.  Shortly before Mary died, Wendy told her how lucky she was to have had Mary as a mother, and Mary said, “No, I’m the lucky one, to have had you.”

Etan Patz wasn’t so lucky. Thirty years ago, the six-year-old boy disappeared from his SoHo loft, and the tragic case will be revisited tonight at 10:00 p.m. on ABC’s 20/20. I have a special interest in the program: we lived in the same coop loft complex as the Patz family, and our daughter was in the daycare program run by Etan’s mother Julie. I suspect I’ll be posting more about Etan tomorrow.

The computer ate my blogroll

Last night my computer flashed me a message saying “Virtual memory is running low.” It claimed that Windows was working on the problem, but that in the meantime, some programs might be affected. And sure enough, it was running maddeningly slowly, so I decided to shut down for the night and give it a good eight hours’ sleep. Before I logged out, I decided to check my blog one more time.

To my dismay, my blogroll had disappeared, with its links to all my Blog Book Tours cronies! Trying not to panic, I logged off and shut down. Then, fearing I wouldn’t be able to sleep without fixing it, I booted the computer up again and checked my blog. Still no blogroll! I shut down again and tried again this morning. Nothing had changed; all my links were still missing. With admirable sangfroid, I clicked on Links. To my vast relief, all the links were still there; they just weren’t showing on my blog’s sidebar. I searched in vain for my WordPress for Dummies book. But there was no time for problem-solving anyway; I had to leave for Woodstock for a day of grandmothering.

Now here I am 12 hours later, back home and determined not to miss my Blog A Day. Alas, still no Blogroll. I’ve been extolling the virtues of WordPress, but it seems to have turned against me. Or is my computer the culprit? Maybe I should have paid more heed to those “Virtual memory” warnings. They’ve occurred a few times since I’ve been blogging, jumping heedlessly from one web page to another checking on my fellow BAD bloggers. Maybe the poor machine is just freaked out from information overload – too many images, too many diverse points of view, and I’ve been insensitive to its plight.

I’ll solve the problem tomorrow, I hope. But now, before my cats kick me out of my office (it’s also their bedroom), I need to get to my homework and critique another blog. I’m pleased with myself, though – I haven’t suffered my usual technophobic anxiety attack. I can cope, I tell myself. Yes I can . . .

Confused by mystery plotting? Try One Life to Live

. . . Marty tells John she remembers everything about their relationship, including the time they made paper airplanes, since she got over her amnesia. They kiss. . . . Todd talks with Tea, who’s regained consciousness in the ICU following her injuries from the explosion. . . . Schuyler tells Gigi that Stacey didn’t actually donate the stem cells that saved Shane’s life. . . . Rex confronts Stacey, accuses her of lying about Stan. . . .Dorian tells Langston and Marco that Lola confessed to murdering her own mother and letting her father do the prison time. . . . Gigi realizes that if Stacey was lying about the stem cells that saved her son, then Gigi’s promise to God to “do anything” if Shane lives was invalid, and she didn’t need to break up with Rex after all. . . . Kyle argues with Roxi about the stem cell hoax. Roxi wonders if the mystery man who contributed the stem cells is really dead as the nurse told her. . . . John and Marty fall onto the bed in a torrid embrace. . . . Blair and Tea discuss the talk they had when they were trapped in the basement with a gas leak and thought they were going to die. Both confessed that Todd was the love of their lives. They agree that “What happened in the boiler room stays in the boiler room” . . . .

So it goes on a typical afternoon in Llanview, PA on the soap opera One Life to Live. And today’s episode didn’t even touch on Starr and Cole’s stolen baby, whom Jessica kidnapped while under the control of her “gatekeeper” alter ego Bess, Natalie’s sudden marriage to Jared, or numerous other plotlines.

I’ve been hooked on OLTL since the actor Michael Easton, who plays John McBain,  moved there after the defunct soap opera Port Charles was cancelled. (There he played a devastatingly attractive vampire, long before vampires were as hot as they are today. More about him later.) I used to watch from 2:00 to 3:00 p.m. on ABC, but that cut into my prime work time, so now I usually watch on the Soap Channel at 8:00 a.m. That way I can multitask – watch the soap, read the newspaper (what little remains of it), eat breakfast, cuddle with the cats, then be at my computer by 9:00.

I’ve tried to justify this guilty addiction by tracking and analysing the plot lines as I watch. Twice I made sociometric diagrams linking the various characters and their relationships; both times I counted about 44 active roles. In the year that passed between these two efforts, some characters died or disappeared, and new ones took their place, but the number of characters remained remarkably consistent. More recently, using Word, I generated a table with 31 lines for days of the month and seven columns for major plot lines. (Actually there are many more plots going on, but seven was all I could fit on the page.)

I’m a painter as well as a writer, and I’ve been tempted to enlarge these complicated diagrams and turn them into works of art. They’d look great in a gallery – something like Jackson Pollock – but I doubt anyone would buy them, and I can’t afford the time. A show like OLTL has many writers, and I’m sure they must have a room with wall charts and diagrams somewhere in the ABC studios in NYC near the Hudson where they shoot the show.  I’d love to sneak a peek – who knows, I might even see Michael Easton.

It’s instructive to compare this kind of multileveled plotting with the way we structure our own novels, and mysteries in particular. We’re often cautioned not to introduce too many characters, for fear of confusing readers, but if soap fans can fathom the intricacies of a show like OLTL, maybe our readers can comprehend more than we give them credit for.



While checking my Yahoo Groups today, I realized that I’m still a member of a Michael Easton online fan group. I’m going to post over there and invite them to visit today’s blog. It’ll be an interesting way to expand beyond my usual internet circle of friends. I’d like to thank Enid Wilson from Blog Book Tours for asking about the character Gabriel in my novel Eldercide. I told her he was inspired by the actor Michael Easton, and that got me thinking . . .

If any of Michael’s fans check in here, welcome, and please leave a comment. You can visit my website,, to read the first chapter of Eldercide. There you’ll meet the villainous Gabriel. Although he does kill people, he has a compassionate side, and he’s strangely charismatic. As you read his scene, envision Michael – that’s who I pictured when I was writing about Gabriel.

The shadow side, Carl Jung and Sue Grafton

Yesterday, writing about the shadow side in nature, I promised to blog about Carl Jung and Sue Grafton. But today, determined to fulfill my promise, I found myself under attack by one of my own shadow selves – the harsh academic critic that drove me mercilessly throughout my higher education.

At last month’s MWA Edgar Symposium in New York City, Sue Grafton spoke about a time several years back when she found herself creatively blocked. (Who wouldn’t be, committing to write 26 novels about the same protagonist!) She entered therapy, in the course of which she explored her “shadow side,” the unconscious, more instinctual and irrational side of the psyche we find it hard to acknowledge. The process helped her regain momentum, and she recommended that other authors mine the depths of their own shadows.

I took voluminous notes, as I always do at these events – a holdover from my years in academia. True, I rarely read them again, but at least I know I have them. Today, though, I couldn’t find them, and panic set in. Should I write about Grafton anyway? What if I misquoted her? Ultimately I decided to forge ahead with my memories alone, but the choice wasn’t an easy one.

Then I decided to check out what Carl Jung had to say about “the shadow.” Wikipedia was the easiest choice, but when I read the endless entry on Jung, there were dozens of references and links but absolutely nothing about the shadow. Again, more panic – I started hyperventilating, and my heart rate went up. Had I been wrong? Maybe he hadn’t written about the shadow after all. Fortunately, I did an advanced search, adding “shadow” after his name, and there it was, a long entry under “Shadow (psychology)”. Here are some tidbits:

In Jungian psychology, the shadow or “shadow aspect” is a part of the unconscious mind consisting of repressed weaknesses, shortcomings, and instincts . . .”Everyone carries a shadow,” Jung wrote, “and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is” . . . The shadow may appear in dreams and visions in various forms, often as a feared or despised person or being, and may act either as an adversary or a servant.

Hmmm, sounds like the villains in our mystery novels, doesn’t it? I’m reminded of Gabriel, the sensitive, tormented shadow figure in my book Eldercide, who murders elderly folks he believes have outlived their allotted life spans. I relished writing from his point of view far more than I liked writing about the good guys. Guess I’m in touch with my shadow!

Thanks to my inner critic, I achieved the academic goals I set myself. For example, I graduated from Barnard Magna cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa. But that turned out not to do me much good in the real world. Some of my classmates did a bit better – they included Erica Jong, Twyla Tharp and Martha Stewart. Oh well, I’ve still got time, right?

How about the other writers out there – are you in touch with your dark side? And how does it fuel your writing?

The shadow side of nature

Today’s Memorial Day, a natural time for musings on mortality and the shadow side of our lives and the world around us.

Late yesterday afternoon I dragged my garden hose to the back yard for yet another session of watering. (It’s been abnormally dry here in upstate New York.) When I got to the viburnum I planted seven years ago, I was shocked to find practically all its leaves had turned to sheer, lacy skeletons. A mild breeze was blowing some of them off the branches. Looking up at the few relatively intact leaves and pitiful white flowers that remained, I noticed shadowy black forms. Something dropped onto my bare arm. I examined the squirming culprit – a tiny caterpillar-like creature, about a third of an inch long.

Three days ago, the viburnum, now over eight feet tall, was in flower and flourishing – or so I believed. But all the while, this creature and its thousands of brethren were coming alive, unseen beneath the leaves. Perhaps they’d wintered over. They’re not tent caterpillars – those are larger and much more obvious. I’ll do the mandatory Google research and get the facts: What is this nasty creature, and what can I do about it? I’ve never seen it before; could this have something to do with climate change? Can this beautiful shrub be saved, or is it already too late? Would radical pruning help?

In previous waterings, I’d been ignoring the viburnum and concentrating on the smaller perennials and the new plantings, but now I set the hose on soak and draped it low in the branches to give the shrub a good long drink. Then I helped my husband move a 300-pound slab of snowy white Vermont marble to the edge of the front yard near the road, where the garden ends. (He used to be into stone sculpture, and we still have a few beautiful slabs around. They’re a little reminiscent of gravestones, and that’s probably what much of the marble was quarried for.)

Our neighbor Wendy came along to help maneuver the stone into place. Just back from visiting her 89-year-old mother in the hospital, she told us they’d stopped all aggressive measures and started a morphine drip. Wendy’s strong, and she loves physical yard work. Maybe wrestling with that slab of marble was just what she needed at that moment.

Oh, and there are small black birds nesting in the corner of our eaves outside the bedroom. We can hear them chirping all day, beginning at dawn. But it’s not too bad – my husband and I both have severe tinnitus, and the chirping blends right in. The birds drive our cats crazy, but that’s another story . . .

A beautiful shrub under lethal attack, funereal white marble, black birds in the eaves, an old woman near death – you might think I’d be depressed. But threading all the images together, dark and shadowy as they may be, fills me with elation. Guess that’s why I write mysteries!

Tomorrow, tune in for more on the shadow side of life, with nods to Carl Jung and Sue Grafton.

Dreamwork, Dogs and Greeks

This morning I was service leader at my church, the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany. The theme was “War and the Soul,” and the speaker, Dr. Ed Tick, specializes in treatment of post traumatic stress disorder among soldiers returning from war. His remembrance ritual and sermon were somber reminders of the significance of Memorial Day.

I’d volunteered for today because I knew Ed slightly – several years ago, he and his wife Kate had provided dog sitting for our aging black mutt, Shasta, while we were on vacation. Shasta and their equally geriatric dog Cupid enjoyed each others’ company. Both dogs have long since passed on, and before the service, we talked about the key roles dogs had played in our families. 

I had no idea Ed had written a book on dreamwork, though. At his signing after the service, The Practice of Dream Healing caught my eye. We swapped books; he loved the title of Eldercide and asked if I’d invented the word (I didn’t, but in Google it shows up only in a few scholarly articles.) To my surprise, the foreword to his book was by Dr. Stephen Larsen, author of The Mythic Imagination and a former therapist of mine. More importantly, though, another beloved dog of mine, Rishi,* was born on Steve’s farm in the Hudson Valley.

Dogs are one of the animal totems of Asklepios, the Greek god of healing and the focus of Ed’s book. Asklepian sanctuaries flourished throughout the Mediterranean world for almost a thousand years until 600 CE. People in search of physical, psychological or spiritual healing would journey to these sanctuaries to incubate their dreams. They would undergo a prolonged period of purification, then enter the abaton, or sleeping chamber. “Upon entering the abaton, the seeker was put into a narrow, womblike chamber. There the seeker waited, for hours or days, for a healing dream or vision in which Asklepios in any of his guises – god, bearded man, boy, snake, or dog – appeared.” (Tick, p. 5)

So you think you have it bad, sitting and waiting for inspiration to surge through your fingers to the keyboard and computer screen? Picture yourself laid out in an abaton! Oh yes, fasting and snakes were part of the ritual process too. This is fascinating stuff, but I think I’ll stick to the comparatively quick and easy Faraday dreamwork process I described in my recent blog.

My best wishes for a memorable Memorial Day tomorrow – and may you incubate some marvellous dreams tonight!

*Steve actually suggested Rishi’s name. He was a magnificent but scary beast, the progeny of a German shepherd mother with champion bloodlines and an unknown tall, dark and handsome stranger she encountered when she escaped one night. He lives on as a major character in my first novel, Mood Swing: The Bipolar Murders.

Bookstore panel: Audience outnumbers authors – by one!

Thursday night I participated in a panel discussion at a beautiful independent bookstore, along with three other members of the Sisters in Crime of Upstate New York. Four authors, five people in the audience – not counting two authors’ spouses and the owner of the bookstore.

Most of us drove a considerable distance to get there – an hour and a half each way for me, even more for others. One of us sold one book, with 40% going to the bookstore, so she made about $10.00. But I don’t consider the evening a total loss: I got to visit with some author friends I hadn’t seen in awhile, the store took four of my books on consignment, and my husband and I had a pleasant al fresco pub meal afterwards (which set us back $40).

The women in the audience (and yes, they were all women over 50 – a typical demographic for these events) appeared engaged and interested in what we had to say. One complimented us by saying we all had such great personalities, it must be easy for us to write sparkling dialogue. But the interest didn’t translate into sales. Unfortunately, this scenario is by no means an isolated incident – it’s happened at other bookstores, and at libraries too.

Why do we do it? The smiles and compliments don’t pay for our gas money and the wear and tear on our cars. We say we’re building our reputations, getting our names out there, and the bookstore owners usually say, “You just never know.” And yet we do it again and again, just as we keep turning out books – like rats in a maze, squirrels in a cage, or maybe lemmings.

Maybe our next event, at the East Greenbush Library on June 6th, will be different. Or maybe people will be in more of a book buying mood in the fall, if they’re less worried about the economy. On the other hand, maybe I’d rather just stay home and blog.

Talking back to your inner critic – an exercise in creativity

Writing about dreamwork yesterday, I got to thinking about other techniques and exercises I’ve used as a creative arts therapist. Back in the 1980’s, I gave numerous workshops at colleges and growth centers in the Hudson Valley – “Empowering Yourself through Creative Art Therapy,” that sort of thing. I even taught at Omega Institute for a couple of years.

Here’s another exercise you may be able to use. As writers, probably most  of us have negative thoughts and voices running through our heads. Some of my own:

This work is a pile of crap . . . .I’m never going to get anywhere . . . .I might as well give up . . . . I just don’t have the talent . . .

I’m sure you can add many of your own, but there are ways to exorcise these messages. I used this one many times as a guided visualization, but you can do it on your own. If you like, you can record it and play it back to yourself, or have a friend read it to you and take turns. Here goes . . .

Get comfortable, relax and close your eyes. Focus on your breathing . . .(Here you can use any type of relaxation induction that works for you, for a minute or two.)

Picture yourself working in your ideal studio. This might be your regular writing space, or it might be a space you create in your imagination. Perhaps you’re writing, or perhaps you’re practicing another art form you love or that you’d like to try. Take some time to visualize yourself in this space. What are you creating? Whatever it is, you’re feeling very pleased with it. (Pause)

Suddenly there’s a knock on the door. You stop working, go and open the door. It’s your critic. Who is this person? (Pause) You invite them into your space to show them your work. Now imagine what they say, and what you say in return. Imagine a dialogue between the two of you . . .

Now give them a final message, say goodbye and usher them out the door. . . In your own time, come back to the present space and open your eyes.

In an actual workshop, at this point I would have people make drawings or paintings about the experience, then share in a group discussion. I might also encourage them to write down the dialogue they had with the critic and maybe expand on it and carry it further, or maybe get into some sociodrama and have them act out the scene with another person.

When people meet “the critic at the door,” they come up with many different characters. Most often it’s a parent; often it’s an influential teacher from their past. Occasionally it’s someone well known, an artist or writer, or an unknown figure of some kind. Note that the phrase “your critic” is neutral – neither positive nor negative. Critics can give either rave reviews or bad ones. With people I’ve worked with, though, 20% or less have encountered positive critics, people who say, “That’s great, I love it – keep up the good work.” For most of us, the critics are negative.

I hope I’ve given you some helpful hints on banishing your inner critics if they’re evil, and cheering them on if they’re good. I’d love to hear from you – who are your inner critics?