Poetic inspiration – Heavenly Blue morning glories

Heavenly Blue morning glory catalogMy Heavenly Blue morning glories are finally blooming for the first time this year – it’s about freakin’ time! They’ve inspired me to write a poem, which will give me something new to read at the “Poets Speak Loud!” open mic at the Lark Tavern tonight. But thanks to my work on the Poisoned Pen Web Con, I’m badly behind on my blogging. What to do? I know – I’ll write a blog post about my poetic process.

As usual, I walked out to retrieve the Times Union at about seven, before breakfast. As soon as I saw the few purplish blue blooms opening tentatively on the trellis near the mailbox, I realized I had the makings of a poem. Ideas began swirling around in my head, and once back in the house, I immediately jotted down this journal entry:

My heavenly blue morning glories are finally blooming – it’s about time! That’ll be today’s blog – parallel with me as late bloomer – how much time before the killing frost? Also a new poem for Poets Speak Loud tonight.

That’s all she wrote, folks – at least so far. Ideally, I would have headed right up to my computer and started writing, but there were several obstacles to barrel through. First, my cats Beep and Lunesta. My office doubles as their bedroom, so I had to let them out and feed them, then change the litter (Arm & Hammer Multi-Cat Extra Strength Clumping Litter with Ammonia Block – my favorite and theirs). Then came my own breakfast, and a quick scan of the paper. Ditto for my e-mail. A quick Facebook update about my inspiration, and then I began writing this post.

As a mystery writer, poet and blogger, I’m a blank-computer-screen type. Some writers do extensive journaling or outlining first, but the journal entry above is about as involved as I ever get in longhand. In high school, I taught myself touch-typing by closing my eyes and turning out stream-of-consciousness meanderings about Miles Davis and my other jazz crushes on my mother’s little black Smith Corona. Later, after earning a couple of Ivy League degrees, I supported myself as an artist by means of various menial secretarial jobs. So I’m a speedy typist, and my ideas flow much more freely when my fingers are on the keyboard.

If I were writing my morning glory poem instead of this blog post, I would open a fresh word document and begin typing, very much the way I did when I was a teenager with braces, musing about Miles. But thanks to the magic of Microsoft Word, I now edit as I go. If things are flowing well, it takes me about an hour to come up with a reasonably articulate first draft, something adequate for an open mic reading. Later, I may tinker a bit and make a few revisions, but basically the first draft is also pretty much the last. I’ve never formally studied poetry, I don’t kid myself about my poetic abilities, and I don’t have any professional aspirations as a poet, but it’s great therapy, and it’s fun, especially when I have the instant gratification of an open mic the same night.

Here are some of the thoughts I’ll be tossing around later today, more or less Heavenly blue morning glory closeupas they occurred to me:

Morning glories – are those actually the Heavenly Blue ones? I thought they’d never bloom. Yesterday’s rain must have finally done the trick. It’s been much too dry around here the last couple of weeks . . . climate change? It was much too gray and rainy for most of the summer . . . we practically had no summer at all and now it’s already fall . . . wonder how long these flowers will have before the first killing frost? Maybe a week or two at most . . . I keep thinking about Susan Wittig Albert and her posts about the Texas drought . . . the morning glories are a lot like me, flowering in the autumn of my life. How long will I have? We never know . . . what about that friend with pancreatic cancer, and he’s only in his fifties . . . “And now the days grow short, I’m in the autumn of my years” . . . beautiful song, Frank Sinatra, “It was a very good year. . . vintage wine from fine old kegs, from the brim to the dregs.” Wonderful lyrics, wonder who wrote them . . . Johnny Mandel was really great at that concert Saturday night, he did arrangements for Frank Sinatra . . .

 I could go on, but you get the idea. Many of these thoughts will never make it into the actual poem, but we’ll see what happens. However it turns out, I know I’ll get lots of applause at the Lark Tavern tonight. In my next post, I’ll publish the poem and let you know how the open mic went.

 Chances are my readers in the Albany area already know about Mary Panza’s “Poets Speak Loud” open mics on the last Monday of every month at the Lark Tavern. For those who don’t, you should check it out! The tavern is at the corner of Madison and Lark, and the readings start around 7:30. Tonight’s featured poet is Alifair Skebe. She’s an excellent poet, but I happen to know she isn’t particularly loud. Mary, maybe it’s time you feature me one of these months as well.

 

I know some of the local poets read this blog – why not leave some comments about your own poetic process?

 

Paying it forward with the Poisoned Pen Web Con

Alex Katz the-cocktail-partyI’ve spent the past two days setting up panel discussions for the Poisoned Pen Web Con, billed as “The World’s First Virtual Mystery Convention.” I registered for this online October 24th event as soon as I learned about it last month, and when the e-mail arrived asking for authors interested in moderating panels, I jumped at the opportunity. The organizers chose me to host two panels: “Social Issues: Do They Elevate or Detract?” and “First Person? Third Person? The Rewards and Pitfalls of Points of View.” 

Pulling together both panels before the September 30th deadline, I’m now experiencing the first-person rewards and pitfalls of this daunting assignment. I’ve moderated local authors’ panels, but never before a national one. The organizers sent me an enormous spread sheet indicating which authors were interested in which topics, and leaving it up to me to contact and choose my panelists. This part was fairly easy, and I had four confirmed panelists for each topic within a day.

Next I created an e-mail group for each panel and sent them instructions and a list of possible questions for discussion. This is a “text panel,” meaning that all the discussions will happen in writing. Answers are now starting to arrive, and I have the fun of compiling them all into a document the organizers will post on the site for viewing the day of the Web Con. I’m communicating with mystery writers from all over the United States, only one of whom I’ve met personally, and all of whom are more established  writers than me. I’m having a ball, but I feel a bit as if I’ve been drafted into a three-ring circus without the requisite training. I can’t decide if I’m a juggler, a high wire artist, or a lowly clown – maybe some of each.

At least I had the good sense not to volunteer for any of the high-tech panels. There are opportunities for blog talk radio, recorded audio, and recorded video, but judging by the spread sheet, the majority of the authors steered clear of these options. Some of the Blog Book Tours folks are registered, including Dani Greer, Helen Ginger and Jean Henry Mead, and I’ve seen scary online chats about the problems they’re having with Skype and other esoteric modes of electronic communication.

So why am I doing all this? At $25 for registration, it’s a bargain. I’ll save over $1,000 by choosing this over Bouchercon for my fall conference, and that’s not even counting the new clothes I’d want to buy in order to feel successful. Then of course there’s the exposure and the networking opportunities. Each author will have an individual web page with a biography and book descriptions, and all the material will be available online for a year. And there’s the opportunity to sample and learn about all sorts of cutting-edge technology. It’s an excuse to buy the new Mac laptop I’ve been craving so that I can join in live feeds and other options. (Dang – there goes that $1,000, and then some. But I think it’s a better long-term investment than a three-day conference.)

For me, the real puzzlement is why so many authors I know aren’t signing up. Is it technophobia? Sheer laziness? Whatever the reason, there’s still time to register right up until the conference, a month from today. The window of opportunity has passed for getting onto a panel, but authors have until September 30 to submit individual text, audio or video contributions. First you have to register, though – you have to pay to play.

This conference takes place under the auspices of Poisoned Pen Press, but the organizers aren’t PPP employees. Rather, they’re authors who’ve published with this excellent independent press. I’ve never submitted to PPP, in part because they want an exclusive look at manuscripts and in part because I’ve felt my work is probably too edgy. But soon after taking on this volunteer assignment, I looked up their submission guidelines just for the heck of it. Right away, I learned I was wrong for them on two counts: my books have already been published elsewhere, and Eldercide features a serial killer who’s a point-of-view character – a big no-no for them. He’s an artistic, compassionate serial killer, but even so, I guess that lets me out.

But I believe in paying it forward, encouraging other authors to sign up for this opportunity even if nothing comes out of it for me personally. On the other hand, one never knows – who’d have guessed that reading my poetry at open mics would have helped me earn a “Local Book and Author of the Year” award. As they say, a rising tide floats all boats – as long as it’s not a tsunami.

Author of the Year! Unexpected but not quite out of the blue

Eldercide (2008)Tuesday night I got a totally unexpected phone call informing me I’ve been chosen by the Friends of the Albany Public Library to be honored for “Local Book and Author of the Year.” They want to showcase me and my mystery Eldercide at a luncheon on November 14th. What’s more, they love the title and don’t want me to change the name, at least not before the luncheon.

For most of this year, I’ve been planning to retitle the book Evening Falls Early and to tone down the cover illustration in hopes of attracting more readers. I’ve done quite a few panels and signings, primarily with the Mavens of Mayhem, our local chapter of Sisters in Crime, and I’ve found that while some folks love the title and subject, many more pass it by or react negatively. The blurb on the back begins as follows:

When quality of life declines with age and illness, who decides if you’re better off dead? Nursing supervisor Claire Lindstrom suspects a killer is making the final judgment call for the clients of Compassionate Care.

Some readers have told me the book’s theme hits too close to home because of their own experiences, while others – especially those over 60 – say they hate the word “elder.” One bookstore owner has refused to carry it because she finds it “ghastly,” but has said she’d carry it once I changed the title. I guess she’ll be out of luck, because I’m sticking with the original version after all. Committee chair Joe Krausman told me that one of the factors that gave me the winning votes was the book’s relevance to important social issues confronting the nation today, especially regarding health care reform and the treatment of the elderly.

The subtitle of my blog is “Mystery novels with a social conscience,” and that description is right on target. It’s a huge relief to give up the charade of masquerading as a writer of cozies. Besides, although I like the title Evening Falls Early, it sounds a bit too much like a vampire novel. As Rick Nelson sang, “You can’t please everybody, so you’ve got to please yourself.”

Although this honor took me completely by surprise, it didn’t come totally out of the blue. I’ve been laying the groundwork for several years, and I’d like to share a bit of the process in hopes it may prove useful to other aspiring writers.

I’ve been writing poetry since 2002. The initial impetus came from the chance to publish in my Unitarian Universalist congregation’s literary magazine, Oriel. Poet Therese Broderick was editor at the time, and I loved seeing my work in print. Before long I was reading my work at open mics throughout the Capital District, and especially in Albany.

Gradually I became a recognized figure on the local scene, and once I’d self-published my novels, I began bringing them to all my poetry readings. I didn’t sell many – people don’t tend to spend much at open mics – but some of the right people bought them. Four of those poets just happened to be on the Friends of the Albany Public Library committee, a group of a dozen or so people who chose from among ten or more possible contenders. Maybe  not so coincidentally, the same four – Dan Wilcox, Gene Damm, Joe Krausman and Sylvia Barnard – are friends of mine on Facebook, where I post frequent links to my blogs, so perhaps that’s helped keep me at the forefront of their minds.

Last year Gene became president of the library group, which has a weekly book discussion. Dan has an annual New Year’s Day open house, and at this year’s party I lent Gene copies of both my books, asking if they’d consider me for one of their weekly sessions. Months went by, and I heard nothing. With my usual lackadaisical approach to marketing, I didn’t follow up, although I did consider asking for the books back. Then came last night’s phone call from Joe.

The moral of the story? Persistent networking can pay off – especially if you’re enjoying the process of becoming part of an artistic community and not looking for immediate payback. I’m hoping the same will prove true in the online writing community. Meanwhile, “the future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades.”*

*Congratulations to Jane Kennedy Sutton, author of The Ride, for identifying the group that sang this as Timbuk 3. That’s such an obscure answer, it’s gotta be right, so I’m not even bothering to Google it.

Zoning out, taking wrong turns – a poem

Highway signs - glareHave you ever zoned out at the wheel and ended up driving in some totally unforeseen direction that has nothing to do with your intended destination? I have, more than once. Here’s a poem about one such experience.

 

 Roads Not Taken

 

Hurtling high above the Hudson, pushing sixty,

I execute a daring merge,

then squint against the sun and scan the signs,

glare white on emerald. A second’s split decision,

and I choose the right hand lane toward Loudonville.

Another second, and I know I’m wrong –

the road not taken was the one I wanted.

Or did I really? I should have known the route,

I’ve traveled Northern Boulevard before.

 

A Freudian slip, perhaps?

I’m dubious about the destination, the appointment

I made with trepidation, for a job that may not pay.

Now I’m confused. This happens more of late.

Is it ambivalence, or early Alzheimer’s? The nearest exit

will take me west for miles and make me late.

I’ll have to detour through a dodgy ghetto

where drug dealers ply their trade along North Pearl.

 

I must be self-destructive, or just stupid.

Or maybe absent-minded, but that term is obsolete,

and I ain’t no professor anyway. In any case,

it’s clearly mental. Last month, I headed off to see

my shrink in Niskayuna, and somehow ended up

at Crossgates Mall. But I was good – I didn’t stop to shop,

I just missed half my session. She said not to worry –

We all have minor lapses now and then.

 

When Frost considered those diverging roads,

he had all day to ponder just two choices.

No cloverleaves and skeins of tangled asphalt

engorged with power-maddened, speeding SUVs

intent on running down my tiny Focus.

 

But like the shrink said, not to worry –

I’ll drive another decade, two at most,

before the oil and gas run out. By then,

my focus soft and fuzzy, I’ll be marooned at home,

cocooned in silken strands of sweet dementia

and slowly pondering pathways in my garden.

 

©Julie Lomoe

I wrote this poem about three years ago. Fortunately, my driving hasn’t gotten appreciably worse since then. I still take wrong turns on occasion, but I don’t believe it’s early Alzheimer’s – just simple distraction, or lack of mindfulness. The most vivid example happened more than 20 years ago, when I was still working as an art therapist at Hudson River Psychiatric Center in Poughkeepsie. Gassing up during lunch hour one day, I was fulminating about an argument I’d had with a secretary that morning – something about which of us had first dibs on the copying machine.

Death on Ridge Road by Grant Wood

Death on Ridge Road by Grant Wood

Finished fueling, I drove out of the gas station and straight into the rear end of a car that had the indisputable right of way, instantly totaling my beloved red Honda hatchback. Fortunately I wasn’t injured. Nor was the other driver, a longhaired young man who climbed out and began screaming. “Lady, what the fuck were you doing?” he yelled, but by then I was sobbing hysterically, so he relented. It was then that I noticed the sticker on the mangled rear bumper of his rusty old convertible. “Shit happens,” it said (the saying was new in those days).

Insurance paid for another red Civic hatchback, and no lasting harm was done, but had I driven out of that gas station a second or two earlier, either or both of us could have died. I’d been neither drunk nor stoned – just slightly sleep-deprived and obsessing angrily over something totally inconsequential. The experience left me with a lasting awareness of how instantly things can go catastrophically wrong – and the importance of defensive and mindful driving.

In my last post, I said I’d write one more piece about funeral planning and the Memorial Society, but I wasn’t up for something so serious tonight. The above is my pathetic attempt at something a little more light-hearted. Not to worry – I’ll get back to the death theme one of these days, maybe even as it relates to mystery writing.

What about you? Any driving misadventures you’d like to share?

*By the way, I just used Microsoft’s word count tool – the above post is exactly 666 words. Now what the devil does that mean? Probably just that I’ve written more than enough.

Affordable Funerals Part II: Down by the riverside

Caspar David Friedrich

Caspar David Friedrich

Funeral arrangements and memorial services can be meaningful, healing experiences even when costs are kept low. Membership in an affiliate of the Funeral Consumers Alliance can help families cope with their loss while keeping both stress and expense at a minimum. I wrote this article a year ago for the fall newsletter of the Memorial Society of the Hudson-Mohawk Region:

 Down by the Riverside: A Personal Account of Loss and Healing

In late August, my son-in-law died unexpectedly at the age of 42, leaving behind my daughter and two young granddaughters. Although I’ve been Administrator for the Memorial Society of the Hudson-Mohawk Region for several years, I’ve never before had so vivid and personal a reminder of the value of the Memorial Society and of its parent organization, the Funeral Consumers Alliance.

Another Affiliate Helps Out

My son-in-law had done no advance funeral planning. The family lived in Woodstock, just over an hour from our home but outside the range of the providers the Memorial Society contracts with. We brought our daughter and the girls up to stay with us immediately, and got to work making arrangements the next morning. I found my copy of the FCA list of chapters and called the number for the Mid-Hudson Memorial Society in Poughkeepsie.

A volunteer answered the phone on the third ring and gave me the name of their participating provider in Kingston. I called, got his answering service, and he called me back within 10 minutes. He was extremely helpful and informative. We had everything arranged in under an hour, an enormous relief for my daughter and the children, as well as for his aging parents, who were too shattered to deal with the situation long-distance.

Two weeks later we had a simple but beautiful memorial service by the Hudson at a public park. We were able to reserve the pavilion free of charge, and since the family had chosen cremation, there was no need for a funeral director to be involved by this point.

A Warm Gray Day by the Hudson

The day was perfect — gray and drizzly but warm, and over 100 people came. My husband presided, and my daughter and the nine-year-old granddaughter scattered some of the ashes in the Hudson while my husband spoke about how the ashes would make their way downstream past Nyack, where our son-in-law grew up, and New York City, where they had lived. Just then a great blue heron flew downriver.

The entire experience has convinced me more than ever what an important service the FCA and its chapters provide, and how meaningful and healing a memorial service can be when planned entirely by family and friends.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

It’s hard to believe it’s been a year, almost to the day, since that memorial service. My daughter and granddaughters have proven amazingly strong and resilient, and they’ve moved on with their lives. Last month Stacey became a first-time home buyer, and they’ve moved into a beautiful little brick house in West Hurley, right near Woodstock. The girls can continue in the same school system, with the same friends and the marvelously creative teachers and vibrant musical program you’d expect of a school in Woodstock. And there’s ample room for this grandma to stay over, both to pitch in with childcare and to partake of the local art and music scene down there. Maybe one of these Saturday nights I’ll even treat myself to a ticket to Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble. The former drummer for The Band holds these weekly shindigs at his home studio, and all sorts of musical luminaries are apt to stop by.

But I digress – a perfect example of how easy it is to drift off-topic rather than discuss death and dying. In Monday’s post, I’ll conclude this series with a discussion of some specifics about exactly how people can save money on after-death services by becoming involved with the Memorial Society or another affiliate of the Funeral Consumers Alliance. In the meantime, I’d welcome your comments and questions – maybe I can address them in my next post. For now, I’m off to the Hudson on another warm gray September day, to enjoy Albany’s free jazz festival – down by the riverside.

Planning affordable funerals – difficult topic, worthwhile cause

Caspar David Friedrich

Caspar David Friedrich

Today I’m donning a different hat and adopting a different persona – that of Administrator for the Memorial Society of the Hudson-Mohawk Region, Inc. We’re an affiliate of the national Funeral Consumers Alliance, the leading advocacy organization for consumers of funeral services – and sooner or later, this means everybody. Death and funeral arrangements aren’t at the top of people’s to-do lists. Accordingly, many of us fail to plan adequately, and when death strikes unexpectedly, the sudden stress leads us to spend far more than necessary.

This summer, America’s reluctance to confront the difficult topics of death and dying has been front and center in the vehement attacks on proposed health care reform. The notion of funding consultations between physicians and their patients about end-of-life issues has triggered mass hysteria with talk of death panels and pulling the plug on grandma. Discussion of funerals and after-death services is apt to provoke even greater avoidance and denial.

Also this summer, our society has wallowed in the media overload surrounding two high profile deaths, memorial services and funerals – those of Michael Jackson and Ted Kennedy. Like millions of others, I was riveted by the television coverage, first of Jackson’s moving memorial service with its magnificent musical performances and orations, and then by the somber and dignified services for Kenndy in a rain-swept Boston church and then at Arlington National Cemetery. Both events were lavish affairs, and we were treated to endless views of the splendid coffins – gold, in Jackson’s case – the floral tributes, and the black limos in the funeral corteges.

Few Americans have that kind of fortune to spend. Many want simple but dignified funerals, but they’re often too embarrassed or ill-informed to ask for them. I’ve spoken at many senior centers and residences, including some for people on Medicaid with very limited incomes, and most people there expect to pay a minimum of five or six thousand dollars for an average funeral. Often that’s been the going rate for their friends and relatives, so they assume that’s what they’ll have to spend, when in fact a dignified funeral and burial can cost thousands less.

 Helping people become informed funeral consumers and educating them about their options are major goals of the Memorial Society. We also contract with funeral homes throughout the Capital District to offer affordable rates to our members. Although we’ve been in existence since 1964 and have a membership of over 1,000, we’re still a well kept secret. I’m planning to help change that by spreading the word online. Within a month, I plan to have a Memorial Society blog up and running. I think I’ll use the same WordPress theme I’m using here – the bridge over the autumnal stream is as apropos for a funeral consumers organization as it is for my mystery novels.

I became Administrator for this non-profit, non-denominational organization several years ago at the invitation of then-President Therese Broderick, a fine poet who comments here occasionally. At the time I was looking for a little part-time job to help pad my retirement income a bit, but I found much more than that. How much more, I’ll describe in my next post, when I write about how the Memorial Society helped us cope with an unexpected death in our own family.

To learn more about the Memorial Society, go to www.funerals.org/affiliates/albany.htm or e-mail me at memsoc1@nycap.rr.com.  

The Funeral Consumers Alliance website, www.funerals.org, is a wonderful resource for information on funeral issues. For those not in the Albany area, it also includes a directory of affiliates nationwide and in Canada.

Addicted to computer solitaire? Read my poem “Skinner’s Last Laugh”

Spider - black hairyAre you now or have you ever been addicted to computer solitaire? I certainly have been, especially when in the throes of clinical depression. I wrote this poem about my favorite game, Spider, and B.F. Skinner’s “Human Behavior” course at Harvard several years ago, before my books were published, when I was temporarily off Zoloft. I still have occasional relapses, but they’re few and far between. Blogging seems to be an excellent antidote to this solitary addiction.

B.F. Skinner

B.F. Skinner

 Skinner’s Last Laugh

 

I’m trapped again before this green computer screen.

The silken strands of Spider smother me,

engulf me in a mindless mush cocoon.

 

One win, I told myself – no more.

I’ll log on while my husband’s out – he’ll never know.

Now, half a dozen losses later, I’m still here,

forefinger on the mouse, stomach clenched.

The acid of self-loathing eats away my core,

erodes the creativity I used to prize.

 

My mind trips back in time.

I see a basement laboratory, low-ceilinged,

beneath the Harvard Yard well over forty years ago

when I, a sophomore Cliffie, braces barely off my teeth,

hunkered down at B.F. Skinner’s teaching machine.

A quaint, enormous turntable, a huge bronzed disc,

that called to mind the earliest Victrola.

A skinny rectangle of a window that doled out praise in tiny type

when I punched in the one correct answer. Guess wrong,

you had to try again ad infinitum. Conform, or fail the course.

 

Nat Sci 114, the catalog called it. Human Behavior.

Run the maze correctly, get an A. Positive reinforcement,

the Skinner gospel. We, the young lab rats,

laughed furtively behind the mad professor’s back.

So primitive, we thought, this pathetic stab at thought control.

Machines will never tame the human spirit.

Free thought rules.

 

I see him grinning down today, that mad professor.

His wiry grey hair, his horn-rimmed glasses, his skeletal smile.

The literate world’s a virtual Skinner box.

I’m one of countless millions clicking on that mouse,

running the maze that turns my mind to mush.

The machine’s more elegant, the graphics splendid.

The cards click crisply. When the final suit cascades into place, 

electric trumpets blare, and fireworks explode.

“You’ve won!” the screen proclaims in garish orange

that segues to magenta.

 

Somewhere Professor Skinner laughs in glee.

His thought-control experiment’s gone global, run amuck,

beyond his wildest dreams. And we, who used to dream,

crawl mindless through the maze.

 © Julie Lomoe

 

I did some online research awhile back, and learned that addiction to computer games has become a recognized clinical phenomenon. Fortunately I never got into interactive online gaming – like heroin, it’s something I’d never dare try, for fear of becoming fatally addicted. Social networking has some of the same alluring properties. Logging onto Facebook for the first time in a few days, I felt a definite rush. I like to think I’ve got it under control, but maybe I’m just in denial.

What about you? Have you ever been dangerously addicted to computer games? When did you hit bottom, and how did you recover?

Previous Older Entries