Monday, December 31, 2012

My Personal Best and Worst – Entertainment 2012

The end of the year is when many entertainment and news magazines and papers publish their “Best of” entertainment lists. The difference between them and me is the writers who come up with those lists are professional reviewers who are paid to watch TV and movies, read books, listen to music, and write about their opinions. I’m just going to let that sink in for a second… there are people who get paid to do what for the rest of us is an escape. Maybe they do Excel spreadsheets in their spare time to relax; I don’t know.

Since no one’s paying me to watch TV – to be honest, no one’s really paying me to do anything right now, but that’s OK – my own list of personal bests and worsts is hardly all-inclusive. I know I’m missing out on a lot of quality TV by refusing to subscribe to more than one pay channel. I know this because I follow a lot of professional TV people on Twitter and I am not watching what they are watching on Sunday nights. Furthermore, my husband doesn’t like the movies, so I’ve only been to three in 2012 – and one of them was a 3-D remake of a film I’d seen several times, and the other two were both in December. Yes, one of my 2013 goals is to go to more movies.

So here it is; my own personal list of the best of 2012, the biggest disappointments of 2012, and things I hear are really good but I didn’t have time to watch in 2012, in the world of entertainment. I can’t promise a specific number because I don’t know how many I’ll come up with.

Best in Entertainment

The revitalization of General Hospital

Fans have complained for years about the mob-centric show, and as the ratings declined and its sister soaps All My Children and One Life to Live were canceled, rumors were that GH was next on the chopping block. Instead, with a new producer/writer team at the helm, GH returned to its roots of character-driven story and brought back stars that shined in the heyday of the 1980s. While the show still suffers from some weak storylines, overall it’s an hour of soapy goodness once again.

The Redskins, the Nationals and the Orioles all make the playoffs

The DC area has long suffered with some of the worst teams in the nation. Only the Capitals, now on strike again, have provided area sports fans for a reason to look forward to the post-season. But in 2012, these three teams all made the playoffs. (Yes, I know the Ravens regularly compete in the post-season, but DC fans don’t root for them. Yes, we do root for the Orioles, but that’s only because we went for so long without a baseball team.) While the Redskins and the Nationals were both revitalized due to new, young, ubertalented players (RG3 for president, anyone?), the Orioles turnaround was that much more miraculous as they did it with pretty much the same staff they had in 2011. No one expected new VP Dan Duquette to have that big of an impact that soon, but you can’t argue with a winning season.

Grey’s Anatomy continues to shine

This show is older than my dog, and should be jumping sharks and disappointing fans all over the place. Instead, by allowing characters to grow professionally, adding new young doctors, and keeping the Meredith/Christina friendship at its core, Grey’s remained an entertaining hour full of characters you love without ever getting stupid or repeating itself.

These terrific shows kept me entertained: The Walking Dead, Mad Men, Girls, Portlandia, 30 Rock, Nashville.

Best books of 2012? Gillian Flynn’s“Gone Girl” wins, hands down. It’s the kind of book you can’t predict, you can’t put down, and you can’t stop kicking yourself for even thinking you can write because who can compete with a book like this? Other books I really enjoyed this year include “Blackberry Winter” by Sarah Jio, “Totlandia,” by Josie Brown, “Home Front,” by Kristin Hannah, and “Unbroken,” by Laura Hillenbrand.

Music? Two songs by Fun – “We are Young” and “Some Nights.” Pink and Nicki Minaj make the treadmill that much easier to handle. Phillip Phillips’ “Home” is great for the cool down, while Train’s “50 Ways to Say Goodbye” is great for a laugh.

Biggest Disappointments of 2012

I read a lot of reviews, so I generally stay away from bad stuff and don’t need to come up with a “worst” list. But I did find myself disappointed a lot, mostly by these:

Revenge turned into a mess this season, with too many new characters and “the Initiative” – aka, “It’s not really Conrad and Victoria’s fault, because we want to keep them around.”

True Blood

Whose idea was it that Bill and Eric needed to leave Louisiana and spend the entire season and storyline away from Sookie? Because as ideas go, this was a very bad one.

The Good Wife

Most people are citing Kalinda’s creepy ex-husband as the reason why this season was disappointing. I found him serious fast-forward material, but more than that, the evaporation of the Will/Alicia relationship was puzzling. Without the tension between these two, the urgency to tune in every week disappeared, too.

ABC cancels 666 Park Avenue

This was a good show that got better (and better DVR ratings) every week. Its cancelation made no sense, and ABC’s decision to put sitcoms in its time slot rather than giving fans its last episodes was an additional kick in the butt.
The Hobbit

Without a ring to fight over and possibly turn heroes into Gollums, the journey lacked urgency. And what does a dragon want with gold, anyway?

I Heard These Were Really Good, But I Didn’t Have Time


Magic Mike

Hunger Games

Defending Jacob

Breaking Bad

Oh, and one last disappointment – Netflix streaming service, which guarantees I’ll need a disc in the mail in order to watch the stuff I missed!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

What RG3 has in common with Ron Carlivati and Frank Valentini

There were two things that I loved in high school that are making a comeback today: The Washington Redskins, and General Hospital. In the 80s, the Redskins went to two Superbowls in a row under ubercoach Joe Gibbs, and went to the playoffs in other years. And General Hospital reached his heyday with the Luke and Laura wedding; even after actress Genie Francis left the show and took a million viewers with her, it was still the top-rated soap for the rest of the decade.

Sports and soaps both produce insanely committed fans. And just like winning teams build on their fan bases and gain even more popularity, soaps that produce stories that fans want to watch gain in ratings and word-of-mouth. At the same time, losing teams shed fans – empty seats at Fedex were common, even though the team insisted the waiting list for season tickets was still long – and soaps that showcase stories and characters people don’t want to watch will lose fans, too.

It’s been a hard decade for both Skins fans and General Hospital viewers. The Redskins haven’t won the division since 1999, and reached the playoffs only a few times. And General Hospital allowed the show to be dominated by a misogynistic, bi-polar mob boss and his brain-damaged hit man. As mob stories took over and the tone of the show changed completely, long-time fans deserted en masse. The ratings fell precipitously, and several other soaps were canceled.

The Redskins are in no danger of being canceled (I guess the NFL equivalent would be being sold or moved), but owner Dan Snyder did go through more head coaches than General Hospital went through head writers. Even so, Redskins fans blamed Snyder for the team’s woes, citing his micro-managing, free-agent shopping and mercenary ways. And General Hospital fans blamed “The Idiots In Charge” – namely, ABC Daytime head Brian Frons, executive producer Jill Farren Phelps, and head writer Bob Guza. While Snyder was mostly silent , ABC fought back, blaming the fans for going to work, for watching the OJ Simpson trial, and for being unhappy no matter what stories played on screen.

Then, two miracles happened.

Robert Griffin the 3rd was drafted by the Redskins. And Ron Carlivati and Frank Valentini took over at General Hospital, as head writer and producer, respectively.

Football is not a game in which the fortunes of a team can usually be turned around due to just one player, and indeed the Redskins still have weaknesses, specifically defensively. But RG3 is one of the most gifted players ever under center, with amazing passing accuracy, lightning fast speed, executive-level decision-making capabilities, and incredible leadership skills. If he is able to stay healthy, he will have a Hall of Fame career.

I don’t know if Ron and Frank ever played football, but they are running General Hospital under a two-minute drill. They were hired after One Life to Live was canceled, even though that soap actually had higher ratings than General Hospital did at the time. Long-time fans themselves, they quickly set about making changes fans had cried for for years: bringing back show vets, de-emphasizing the mob, adding some lighter stories.

The ratings are up by 12% since last year. Instead of whispers of GH’s cancelation, eager plans are being made for the show’s 50th anniversary in April.

The show isn’t perfect; some storylines are downright annoying. But it feels right. Port Charles has become a cohesive town again, where everyone knows everyone. It’s an hour spent with cherished friends, rather than with bad guys trying to kill worse guys.

Best of all, in my opinion, is that they proved The Idiots In Charge wrong. For years, executives who hated soaps blamed the fans on the low ratings and refused to listen to complaints about story. They said nothing could stop the decline and inevitable cancelation of the shows because nothing they could do would bring the fans back. Unfortunately these idiots were allowed to destroy two long-cherished soaps, All My Children and One Life to Live. But Ron and Frank have proved that by being fans (many soap exes aren’t), listening to fans and delivering what fans want (on a macro level rather than specific storyline), fans will tune back in.

Currently the Redskins lead the NFC East, with only the Cowboys standing in their way. Even if the Redskins lose on the 30th, they will still make the play-offs this year. Considering they were 3-6 at one point, it’s a miracle. But even if the Redskins lose the first playoff game, with RG3 under central, the future is bright.

It feels like the 1980s again. Only without the big hair and bright blue eyeshadow.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Our Deepest Fear

There’s a very famous quote attributed to new-age guru Marianne Williamson (although I’ve heard she was actually quoting someone else) that goes something like this: Our deepest fear is not that we’re inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

Maybe Ms. Williamson (or whomever first originally said this) hangs out with a completely different crowd than I do, but I find this hard to believe. Most people, I don’t think, aren’t carrying around a deep-seated fear that they are, in fact, Obi-Wan Kenobi. Most people, I believe, deep down inside are scared that they suck and no one’s ever going to tell them that.

Maybe this is just a writer thing, or an artist thing. After all, if you’re a scientist or in some other math-based profession, it becomes obvious pretty quickly whether or not you suck. If your patients keep dying or your equations never add up or you’re always losing all your clients’ money, there’s really no question that you’re not any good.

Not so for the creator-based community. Writing – any art – is reviewed separately and subjectively by each person, so that while as a society there’s an agreement about certain blockbuster works of art – Harry Potter, the Mona Lisa – there’s plenty of disagreement around others. Was 2001 A Space Odyssey a masterpiece or a joke? Is J.K. Rowling’s “A Casual Vacancy” a thought-provoking, sweeping saga or just a mess? And is my novel any good?

There’s a saying in Hollywood that you can die from encouragement, which basically means that no one you talk to will ever say that your writing sucks or you’re the worst actress ever or you can’t put two images together without boring the entire country. Because, God forbid, what if your judgmental judgment is wrong and this person actually makes it big and then refuses to work with you because of your criticism? This ignores the question of why you’d want to work with someone that you know sucks even if the rest of the world thinks he’s the greatest talent since Da Vinci, or at least the Da Vinci Code. So you spend your entire life, or at least the most productive part of it, slaving away at your art because so many people say encouraging things, and then you spend the end of your life wondering why it never happened for you.

How do you know if you’re one of the ones who really has “it,” or if people are just patting you on the head to be kind? After all, it isn’t just Hollywood execs who are trained to be encouraging. From an early age, we’re all taught that “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” So if you give your book to your best friend, is she really going to tell you if she thinks it sucks? Of course not.

At the same time, we writers are supposed to be able to handle rejection. We’re told to develop tough skins, not to take it personally. After all, the first thing that happens when you find a professional who really loves your writing is that he’ll tell you a million things wrong with it.

I have gotten pretty good handling rejection on one level. I’m OK when someone declines to read my book. After all, there are a million books out there, good ones, that I’ve decided not to read myself. I have very specific tastes and interests and I imagine that agents and editors do, too. So when I present my idea and I’m told, “Thanks, but it’s not for me,” I’m disappointed but I really don’t take it personally.

What I do take personally is a rejection after the material has been read. Because in that case, the agent/editor/producer has already shown interest in the idea. It’s my take and writing of said idea that they’re rejecting.

And no, no one ever tells you that they’re passing because as a writer, you’d make a great waiter. It’s a few sentences of form letter; after reviewing the material, they don’t wish to see anything more. Occasionally there’ll be a note at the bottom saying feel free to send anything else you’re working on, and that’s heartening, but only slightly.

I’ve been writing stories since I was very young – I can remember working on a “Little House on the Prairie” fan fiction I called “Light Up the Sky with Firecrackers” (Did they even have firecrackers in the 1800s?) – and in school I was a good enough writer that I could often bullshit my way through papers relying on skill rather than content. This is why I went into PR.

I don’t think you can bullshit your way through a novel or a screenplay.

Self-publishing has really taken off in the past few years. It’s become so legitimate that a few very well-known, well-compensated authors are choosing to leave their publishing houses and go out on their own. After all, that means the money goes directly to them and they don’t have to wait a year for their book to come out.

Self-publishing means there’s no one to stop you. No one to say this idea isn’t right for us, no one to say there’s no market for it, no one to wrinkle their nose and say that no one wants to read about a character like your protagonist.

There’s also no one to say that your writing sucks. (Of course, as I wrote just a few paragraphs ago, no one’s going to say that anyway.)

I’ve read many self-published books this year, and while one or two of them were strong enough that they could have easily come from a major house, most of them had problems. There were issues with plotting, character, and dialogue. And one or two of them flat-out sucked.

I wonder if those writers got any editing help at all. Did they ignore suggestions? Did they really think readers would be interested in a three-page conversation about what the characters had for breakfast? Or maybe it’s me… maybe I’m too picky.

My manuscript is going out to some editors after the holiday. I’ve had three people read it --- two baseball parents and the owner of a book blog. They didn’t think it sucked, so that’s a good thing.

I’m also looking in to self-publishing. If these editors pass, I want everything in place so I can start that process as soon as possible.

And hopefully I don’t suck.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Next Best Thing

Thanks to Stephen A. North for tagging me in this writer-blog meme, The Next Best Thing. I’m going to New York this week to participate in the New York Pitch Conference, so who knows, maybe the next best thing is me!

What is the working title of your book?

Keeping Score

Where did the idea come from for the book?

My son played travel baseball from the ages of 8-14, so I got a lot of material from that!

What genre does your book fall under?

The chick lit subgenre of momlit.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

This would be a wonderful break into showbiz for a 9-year-old boy! For the adults, Amy Adams as my protagonist, and Mark Ruffalo as her love interest.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

When her 9-year-old son wanted to play summer travel baseball, Shannon Stevens had no idea the most brutal competition was off the field….

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I am still working that out, but I imagine I’ll be self-publishing. I’d like to have it out by Opening Day 2013

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Once I got really serious about it – making myself write every weekday – probably about 5 months.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I think it’s similar to Jane Porter’s “Odd Mom Out,” which is also about how parents in upscale communities compete through their kids. Her story centers around a mother and daughter, though, so the nature of the competition is very different.

Who or What inspired you to write this book?

My son!

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest

If your child competes in any arena, or if you’ve ever wondered how parents get to the point where they’re beating up umpires in parking lots, this book is for you!

Monday, December 3, 2012

Liebster Award

Thanks to Samantha Stroh Bailey for nominating me for the Liebster award. The best part about tags like this is it gives an easy blog topic for the week!

Nominees need to do the following:

When one receives the award, one posts 11 random facts about oneself and answers the 11 questions asked by the person who nominated you.

Pass the award onto 11 other blogs (while making sure one notifies the blogger that one nominated them!) (This is going to be particularly difficult as I only know 3 writers with blogs who haven’t been nominated…)

One writes up 11 NEW questions directed towards YOUR nominees.

One is not allowed to nominate the blog who nominated one’s own blog!

One pastes the award picture into ones blog. (You can Google the image, there are plenty of them!)

11 Random facts about me:

My very first fan fiction was “Little House on the Prairie.” I was in the 3rd grade, so no “50 Shades of Grey” stuff going on there!

I can’t write with any music on, people talking, in public, etc. I need quiet so the voices in my head will talk to me!

I broke my toe in Paris a few years ago, stumbling around in a dark hotel room. My husband enjoys tormenting me with “Ow, my toe!” whenever I get up in the middle of the night.

The L’ouvre is not set up well for visitors in wheelchairs.

My first real job was at McDonald’s. I think today’s cashiers have it way easy, without having to bother with getting people their drinks.

The longest book I ever read was “Gone with the Wind.” It is about 1,066 pages. I know this because I took the book on a car trip and my brother insisted on counting each page out loud. I was in the 6th grade, and he was in the 1st.

I love the “Lord of the Rings” movies but have never read any of the books.

I have found fault with a Shakespeare play.

I wrote my own soap opera in high school. I think I got up to about 30 episodes, then I wrote it in novel form. At some point, I threw all the writing away.

Writers should never throw away anything they’ve ever written.

I am a huge fan of old-time General Hospital (pre-Luke and Laura)

And now for Samantha Stroh Bailey’s questions (Samantha actually had 12 questions; two number fives; I’m electing to only answer the first one):

1. What is the best costume you’ve ever worn? When my son Alex was about 5, he was obsessed with Peter Pan, so that year we went to a Halloween party as Captain Hook (my husband Tom), Tinkerbell (me), and Peter (Alex).

2. What’s the best gift you’ve ever given? Alex got an iPhone in the 6th grade. This was when the first generation had just come out. A little extravagant for an 11-year-old!

3. If you could be invisible for one day, where would you go and what would you do? I’d go to my son’s school and spy on him.

4. Who’s your Hollywood crush? I don’t really crush on actors, but I did have a strong reaction to Brad Pitt in the movie “Troy.”

5. What movie always makes you cry? Terms of Endearment.

6. If you could live in the home of any television series, which would it be? As long as the occupants don’t come with it, the Greyson manor on Revenge.

7. What is something you’ve always wanted to try? Right now it’s paddleboarding.

8. What’s your favorite food? Ice cream.

9. If you won the lottery, what would be the first thing you’d buy? The biggest 3-D TV there is.

10. What’s your favorite song? I change favorites with days of the week. Right now it’s “Some Nights” by Fun.

11. Describe yourself with one adjective. Persistent.

My nominees are Patricia Pooks Burroughs, J.P. Smith, and Stephen A. North. Here are your questions:

1. What is your all-time favorite sports team?

2. Which supernatural creature would you feel most comfortable fighting?

3. What are you too scared to do?

4. What invention do you wish was around when you were a kid?

5. What book written by another author do you wish you had written?

6. What is your favorite city to visit?

7. What is the longest-ever stretch of time you’ve spent writing without a break?

8. If you weren’t a writer, what do you wish you could be?

9. If you had the chance to repeat a year of your life, which one would it be?

10. Did you buy a ticket for the latest big Powerball jackpot?

11. Has blogging, tweeting, etc., helped your book sales?

Monday, November 26, 2012

NaNoWriMo Fail

I am a NaNoWriMo failure.

Okay, maybe failure is too strong a word. But today is November 26th, and instead of closing in on 50,000 words, my Work In Progress (WIP) is a lousy 20,000 words. To be honest, it’s not even that many words. Today I hit “save” at 19,126.

To put that in perspective, some writers were planning on doing 20,000 words this weekend alone.

What did I do this weekend? Well, I didn’t write a single word. Friday night my husband and I took our son to International Plaza, an upscale mall near Tampa airport. Saturday I picked up my car, went to the gym, went out to dinner with family, then watched a movie with my son. Sunday I read the newspapers, edited my son’s paper, dropped him off at the airport, then watched Sunday night TV. Sunday night TV is the best, by the way.

I wonder about those people who did 20K words this, the weekend after Thanksgiving. Did they not have family they wanted to hang out with? Are they more disciplined than I am? Or are they just more in love with their WIP than I am?

I started NaNoWriMo with such high hopes. Not necessarily about getting to 50K in one month, but about my idea itself. Before NaNoWriMo began, I had a general idea about what I wanted to write about, but then right before the month started, it got very specific. I was excited and had no problem reaching my goal word count every day for the first week or so of the month.

So it wasn’t just that I took a trip to Disney World, and it wasn’t just that my son was home for college for nearly an entire week, and I wanted to spend every waking moment with him, not my computer. But somewhere along page 50 or so (I’m not sure where that is in word count), my idea, that had seemed so specific in the beginning, got vaguer and vaguer as I got further into the story.

And rather than thinking in terms of major plot points, I’m only able to think a scene or two ahead. And the things that happen in these scenes aren’t necessarily tied in to what I wanted this book to be about.

The point of NaNoWriMo – the point of writing any first draft – is supposed to be just about getting the words down. You’re not supposed to edit yourself at all. Just keep on typing, even though the conversation you’re writing is the most boring, banal exchange between two fictional people ever known to man.

And yet…

“Measure twice, cut once” is one of my favorite sayings… maybe because my mom really likes to sew. And this kind of writing is the opposite of that advice.

Would you get in the car and just drive if you didn’t know yet where you were going, knowing that you could end up doubling back and driving twice as long?

The conventional wisdom behind the “just write” advice is that editing written words is easier than filling a blank page. But you know something? I don’t think it is.

Maybe because I spent ten years editing articles by people who could not even write a lead, or maybe because I spent an hour wanting to pull my hair out while editing my son’s paper this weekend, but editing – good editing, substantial editing – is harder than writing. Yes, a blank page is scary. But what’s scarier is points that repeat themselves, abrupt changes in tone, opinions without supporting evidence, and paragraphs that have nothing to do with the main point. I’d much rather cut open a vein and bleed a few well-written paragraphs than have to cut, rearrange, and dissemble pages like they were so many dancers on a chorus line.

It is a terrible feeling to be typing out a scene, thinking how much you hate it, thinking about how it’s just going to end up highlighted and deleted in your first round of editing. It’s an even worse feeling to reread that scene and decide it’s not so bad, because that means you’re letting yourself off the hook, patting yourself on the back just for having written something, no matter if it were good or not.

I’m glad I took time off this week, because it gave me a chance to think about what I want to do with my main characters, who they are in terms of the actions they will take rather than the labels and descriptions I’ll put on them.

And if it takes me months to write this book, that’s fine. As long as it doesn’t take me months to edit it.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Watch These Doctor Shows Before They're Canceled

I’ve been addicted to TV since the days when there were only three channels; when you had to turn a knob to change them. (OK, technically there were four if you counted PBS, but that channel usually just brought in snow.) The first show I remember obsessing over was The Addams Family. I believe this was in 1975 and the show was on in syndication in the mornings. I thought it was just the sexiest thing ever the way Gomez would kiss Morticia’s arm when she spoke a word of French. I was seven years old, so my ideas about romance weren’t very sophisticated.

As I got a little older, my obsessions tended to fixate around medical shows. I loved M*A*S*H and General Hospital, which only had in common scenes in operating rooms and blonde women with sharp tongues. Thanks to Hawkeye Pierce, I actually know what an end-to-end anastomosis is, if not how to perform one. If I’d had any talent whatsoever in math and science, I might have gone into medicine rather than trying to make a living peddling words.

My love for TV and medical shows hasn’t changed. And even General Hospital has gone back to its roots. These days I love Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, and I tried out two new doctor shows – The Mob Doctor and Emily Owens, MD. Unfortunately, both of these new shows are on the verge of cancelation. I can see what the problems are, and I hope the producers step in to provide some new direction before the shows get pulled.

The Mob Doctor. The title says it all. She’s in the mob, and she’s a doctor. Hijinks ensue! Well, maybe not hijinks but certainly enough plot to keep anyone happy. Grace is a resident in Chicago hospital; her boyfriend is a resident there too. She grew up on the wrong side of the city, and she still has its dirt in her hair. When her brother racked up a debt to a mobster he couldn’t pay, Grace stepped in and offered to work off the debt in his place.

This is a concept that should work. From “Hannah Montana” to “Superman” to “Once Upon a Time,” viewers are drawn to stories about characters who live double lives. It gives twice as many settings for plot, and the tension over the possibility of getting caught. Besides, doesn’t everyone secretly wish there were some sort of real life parallel universe, where we could be the superhero or the rock star or the fairy princess?

Or the mobster. Grace’s problem is that her two lives are too close together. The show itself has a grimy, dirty feel; so different than the brightly-lit, fast pace of other medical series. Grace’s dead father was a low-life mobster alcoholic; her brother works for the mob, and so does her high school boyfriend, toward whom she still has feelings. She still lives with her mother in the city rowhouse near the drug dealers and bartenders she went to school with. If she has a secret life, it’s her one at the hospital, not the one on her street.

“The Mob Doctor” should be Grace’s show, told entirely from her point-of-view, but it often slips into mob war scenes, or her brother doing dirty work, or her mob boss trying to romance Grace’s mom. None of these characters are sympathetic or appealing in any way.

Still, this is a show with potential. Grace herself is a compelling character, and her efforts to pacify her boss foreshadow a Grace who takes her own power and perhaps becomes a factor in the mob herself.

But the rest of the show needs to be cleaned up. The women who watch medical dramas about women aren’t going to stick around for mob wars. “The Mob Doctor” needs to remember that “Mob” is the adjective and “Doctor” the noun, not the other way around.

Emily Owens, M.D., has no such problem with gray lighting and grimy streets. The show is as bright and sunny as its blonde star, Mamie Gummer, Meryl Streep’s daughter. Emily’s an intern, and she ends up at the same hospital as her high school rival and her medical school crush. The series premise is that working at a hospital is just like being in high school.

Only, of course, it’s not. The premise is the problem. In high school, it might have seemed like life-or-death if the guy you liked asked out the girl you hated, but it wasn’t. Here, it is. If you put the central line in wrong because you’re too busy making eyes at the nurse, your patient dies. People are sick and dying here, folks! They’ve been in accidents! They have cancer! You look petty and self-absorbed next to them!

The show has been compared to Grey’s Anatomy, but it’s not. Sure, Grey’s started with that awkward thing that happens when your one-night-stand turns out to be your boss, but Meredith was also mired in an original, compelling situation with her mother, famed surgeon Ellis Grey, who was battling Alzheimer’s and had forced her daughter to promise to tell no one. This plot put the life-and-death stakes up close and personal in the protagonist’s life. In addition, all the interns – save Christina, of course – were so clueless and so open about it, you just knew they were going to kill people.

The show Emily Owens resembles more is that 1990s sensation, Ally McBeal. Ally was a clever but ditzy lawyer who ended up in the same law firm as her high school sweetheart Billy and his wife, Georgia. Ally still loved Billy and was worried that she’d never get married and have kids. For some reason, this show caused a pop culture sensation, even ending up on the cover of Time magazine, as if Ally had something major to say about the current state of feminism. Really, though, Ally was nothing more than the opening bookend for the “I want it all but I don’t know how” female dilemma. Had the show gone on – and not jumped the shark with Billy’s death via brain tumor and Ally’s daughter via egg donation – I have no doubt Ally would have ended up married to a lawyer, a stay-at-home mom with two kids in the suburbs, wondering how on earth she got here.

And sadly, I see a similar fate for Emily and her show if she doesn’t take her job as seriously as her social life. Currently she seems like a talented doctor who makes the right calls. Maybe she’ll fall in it and become sympathetic for reasons other than an unfortunate high school nickname.

Emily Owens, M.D. is a bright, fun show. But any show that takes place in the medical field needs some gravitas. Even sitcoms like Scrubs made it clear that the show was playing for keeps.

Until then, The Mob Doctor is on Fox Monday nights, and Emily Owens is on the CW on Tuesdays. Check them out while you still can.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Voting for Gridlock

Tomorrow is election day. It’ll be the first election day – including primaries – in about 20 years that I haven’t gone to the polls and pushed the buttons for my candidates. When Bill Clinton was first elected, I was in Las Vegas on a business trip and had voted absentee. Because of all the talk in Florida about how the polls were going to be a mess, I did the same thing this year. I’m going to miss being there – the excitement, running into neighbors, and of course the “I Voted” sticker .

As of this writing, the national polls are tied, but all the polls in the battleground states show Obama with leads in all of them. So it’s possible he could lose the popular vote and win the electoral college, which would have the Republicans all up in arms. It’s also possible he could lose Ohio, Virginia and Florida due to shenanigans with absentee balloting, voting machines, people being refused the right to vote… which would piss off Democrats but, if 2000 is a guide, not nearly as much as it would piss off Republicans. Hey, Republicans have been calling Obama’s election illegitimate and he won with 53% of the popular vote.

These are not happy people.

I voted for Obama. I want him to win. But the polls also show the Republicans maintaining control of the House and the Senate staying Democratic by the slimmest of margins. Romney has lied about a lot of things, but maybe he’s right about this one: The next four years with Obama in the White House might not look a lot different from his first four.

Don’t get me wrong; the economic news is on the positive side and slowly getting better. The ACA will help control medical costs while making sure more people get the care they need. And there’s no question that the country as a whole, and women in particular, is better off when the children brought into this world are wanted. I’m certainly not agreeing that Obama’s first term was bad; just that some things could have been accomplished at a faster pace (and for that I blame Republicans).

But how much can Obama do with a Republican Congress eager to thwart him at every end? While the president made great strides over his last two years, realizing a lot could be done through executive order, how much work can he possibly do on global warming and other huge issues that Republicans refuse to engage in? How can he possibly begin to chip away at our debt when Republicans refuse to even think about raising taxes on the wealthy?

Obama believes that if he wins this election, the fight will be out of the Republicans and they will be willing to work with him. He is more of an optimist than I am. All I see is an angry bunch of old white men who’d vote against a proclamation honoring their own mothers if it came from a Democrat. They will spend the next two years trying to out-conservative each other in order to position themselves for the first primary in January 2016.

Nothing will get done, except by executive order.

But I guess that’s better than having Romney as president, teaming up with House Republicans to cut taxes, gut environmental regulations, overturn the Affordable Care Act and turn FEMA over to Bain Capital.

Sometimes it really is better to do nothing.

Monday, October 29, 2012

My NaNoWriMo Pep Talk

Thursday is the first day of November, which, for most people, means the beginning of cold weather, preparations for Thanksgiving and Christmas, the kids’ first report cards of the year, etc. But for novel writers, November is something completely different – National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo. Writers all over the country who are up to the challenge are spending this November trying to complete a 50,000 word novel (approximately 175 pages).

According to its web site, NaNoWriMo has been around since 1999, although back then apparently it was just 20 or so writers hanging out in San Francisco in July. There was more information on the site about how the concept has grown since then, but I don’t really care enough to read that much into it. The web site offers a ton of fun: message boards, regions and other ways to meet other writers, programs, etc. If you join the web site, you can pick your region and see who lives near you. Often there are kick-off parties and other get-togethers where you can meet other writers. If there’s no one nearby, the message boards have people chatting about every topic you can imagine.

To me, this all says one thing: Writers are some of the best procrastinators I know.

It’s ironic that the program urges writers to write 50,000 words in a month, all the while giving them a plethora of activities they can do instead of writing. For that matter, why chose November at all? It’s only got 30 days, and several of them are devoted to that food orgy we can Thanksgiving, and then it’s all getting ready for Christmas. Why not January? There are 31 days devoted to nothing, and even writers would rather write than follow up on their “going to the gym” New Year’s resolutions.

Last year I took a class through the Bethesda (MD) Writer’s Center called the Extreme Novelist. The instructor made us sign a contract saying we would write for 90 minutes, six times a day. And at the start of each class, we had “accountability” – going around the room and saying whether or not we had done our writing, and why or why not.

By the end of that eight-week class, I had finished the first draft of my novel. But most others weren’t so lucky. Very few people were able to manage writing every day they promised – in fact, most of them hadn’t written at all. There was work (an understandable excuse), or TV was good that night, or they were tired, or they were travelling, or the kids were sick, or the wife was mad… whatever.

Honestly, it’s easier for me to get my writing in than the average person. I don’t have a “real” job, and my son is off at college. But then there’s that second trap that writers fall into … the “I just didn’t feel like writing” trap. This is close to having “writer’s block,” but it’s not the same. It’s when you have a general idea for a short story or a screenplay, but rather than writing, you’ve got this incredible urge to go for a run (and since that never happens, you have to go for that!) or clean out the bottom of the refrigerator. If you don’t feel it, this trap tells you, the writing isn’t going to be as good.

Here comes the part in the essay where you would expect to be told to write anyway. If you have a job, write at lunch, or on the train home, or during a conference call that you’re not really participating in anyway. Or if you’ve been bitten by the “I don’t want to’s,” tell yourself to write for just 10 minutes every day, just to see what happens.

But no, those words aren’t coming from me.

If you don’t have time to write, don’t write! Hey, you’ve got kids that someone should pay attention to. If you don’t feel like writing, don’t do it! You spend enough time in your life doing things you don’t want to do. Why should you spend your rare, sacred, precious free time doing something you don’t really want to do?

Because really, what’s going to happen if you make that time, get those words down, avoid the siren’s call of the message boards and the parties and the check-in phone calls? You might actually finish your book. And if you finish your book, you might be competing with me in the golden ticket hunt for an agent. Do you have any idea how many queries a day agents get? I think it’s in the hundreds. When you multiply that with the number of agents who are out there, even subtracting the queries from the same writer to every agent in the Guide, what you have are a whole bunch of people who were able to get their 50,000 words done.

So kick off your shoes, put your feet up and watch a little TV. Leave the writing to me. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Heather Webber: Why Crazy is no Subtitute for Character Motivation

Once again, General Hospital fans are saying goodbye to Heather Webber. But it’s not her swan dive off the roof of General Hospital that’s felled Heather, or even her mental illness. Like many characters before her, Heather is the victim of that bane of storytellers everywhere – lazy writing. In her case – and in many others who’ve had “crazy” substituted for “character motivation” – it’s easier to make a character “nuts” than flesh out a three-dimensional villain. And this shortcut shortchanges both story and viewers.

Let’s back up to 1977, when the Heather character was first introduced. Heather Grant came onboard as a babysitter for Peter and Diana Taylor. She was from an underprivileged background, and wanted nothing more than a rich husband to take care of her. She set her sights on Dr. Jeff Webber. Although he was only an intern, Heather recognized his potential and his shaky marriage to Monica. Offering a shoulder, she got much more in return. Deliberately becoming pregnant, Heather was furious when Jeff refused to divorce Monica to marry her. After many twists and turns (Monica, at the time, was about as devious as Heather, and from a similar background), Heather finally took baby Stephen Lars to New York City in pursuit of her dreams of fame and fortune.

Heather was unfortunate enough to fall into the clutches of shady Mrs. Hadley, who promised her all the money she’d need to move to California if only Heather would give her the baby to sell. Heather agreed, even offering up Diana Taylor as particularly needy and desperate enough to buy a baby. After the sale, though, Heather was left with only $200 – not enough to move to LA. As luck would have it, Jeff Webber tracked her down, professing his love. But Heather knew she couldn’t tell him the truth about the baby, and backed up Mrs. Hadley when she claimed the child had died when Heather had been hospitalized with pneumonia. Jeff, grieving, took Heather back to Port Charles with him and married her.

Heather resumed her job as Peter and Diana’s babysitter, looking after the baby they renamed Peter, Jr. (PJ). This closeness to her child reminded Heather of what she had lost, and she began to think of a plan to get him back, all the while trying to give Jeff a replacement child. Her machinations seemed to work – Heather became pregnant, and, due to the couples’ closeness, Peter and Diana named Jeff and Heather PJ’s guardians.

When Heather lost the pregnancy and was subsequently unable to have another child, she shifted her plan to get PJ into high gear. Deciding that Peter would never be able to raise a child on his own, and knowing that Diana had already had one nervous breakdown, Heather decided to push her into another one. She stalked Diana and pretended that a mysterious man was following her and PJ. Heather feared kidnapping. Diana was honestly at the end of her rope, and Heather planned an awful climax – she would slip Diana LSD to bring about the full symptoms of a nervous breakdown. Unfortunately, Heather herself ended up drinking it, and the breakdown she had pushed her into a mental institution for two years.

Jeff didn’t learn the truth about his son for nearly two more years, after Peter and Diana had both separately died. He took the boy to Arizona to avoid being around Heather, who’d been released from the mental institution and cleared from involvement in Diana’s murder.

Heather spent the next few years stirring up trouble in Port Charles. She was involved with P.I. Joe Kelly, until he discovered her cheating on him with Scotty Baldwin. Her relationship with Scotty was on-and-off, as Scotty was also wooing her cousin Susan, on account of Susan’s big financial settlement she earned from having Alan Quartermaine’s son, Jason. Heather and Scotty were two scheming peas in a pod, but that didn’t stop Alan from appointing Heather Jason’s guardian when Susan was murdered. Heather left town abruptly in 1984 after a call from Jeff saying that Stephen Lars was sick, he was busy with his new kids, and he needed her help. When the character left town, she was definitely not crazy.

Unfortunately, when Heather returned this year and previously in 2007, the writers decided she was completely mad in order for her to do crazy things like plot to kill Edward, kidnap Laura, and the current storyline with Sam and Jason’s baby. Crazy might be a convenient way to have a character behave in convoluted ways in order to produce certain plot points, but it’s not emotionally satisfying.

The Heather Webber from the 1970s and 80s was a fully realized character. She had a back story and motivation that prompted her every action. Even though her actions were destructive, her motivation was not. She wanted her son back, without her husband finding out what she had done. She loved her son and her husband. Who couldn’t understand that?

Watching Heather gaslight Diana and try to get away with it, while Joe and Anne were hot on her trail, gave viewers a strange discombobulating feeling. Because Heather’s point of view had been so well-established, you couldn’t help but want her to get away with it. Even though what she was doing was so, so wrong.

Was Heather crazy back then? Yes, she was probably a sociopath. But a fully formed, well-drawn one who did have rooting value. The depth of her character made her actions understandable. True, you couldn’t plug her into any plot hole; she didn’t kidnap Jeff and keep him tied up in a shack to make him love her. But that incarnation was much more satisfying. She was a villain whose actions the viewers could understand.

Today’s writers find it easier to have a villain be “crazy” like Heather or completely unrealistic, like Helena. This may result in faster storytelling, but without characters that viewers can understand, it’s also fodder for the fast-forward button.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Fairy Tales and Haunted Houses

With the CW network adding an Alice in Wonderland reboot to its schedule, the fairy tale trend in entertainment is not going away. Even though films like “Red Riding Hood” and “Mirror, Mirror” didn’t do as well as hoped for at the box office, TV seems to be a different story. ABC’s Sunday night offering, “Once Upon a Time,” is an audience favorite, with strong buzz and good ratings. I also watch NBC’s Grimm and ABC’s 666 Park Avenue. Although the latter isn’t based on the fairy tale world, it’s a world ruled by magic, and a lead character whose type often appears in supernatural fiction. Of the three, the new 666 Park Avenue is my favorite. Sadly, it hasn’t found an audience, and I’m afraid it might be canceled soon. If you have a Nielsen box in your house, I urge you to watch this show!

I find myself starting to lose patience with “Once Upon a Time,” and the ratings, while still strong, are softening. I wonder if other fans are frustrated with the same things that I find annoying. This show debuted last year with a strong premise – that residents of Storybrooke, Maine, were in fact fairy tale characters who were cursed to live out ordinary lives and not remember who they were. This is the type of premise that gets people in two ways – one, since fairy tales are a part of everyone’s childhood, the audience was instantly familiar with the characters – and two, the parallel lives concept is a popular one, and seeing both the fairy tale and the ordinary lives in the same episode is entertaining.

The first season centered around young Henry, the adopted son of Storybrooke’s mayor Regina. Due to a book of fairy tales he’s been given, Henry is the only one who realizes that the town is populated by magical characters – and his own adoptive mother is the evil Queen who tried to kill Snow White. When Emma Stone, Henry’s birth mother, comes to town, Henry informs her of her true identity, and that she is actually the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming. As the season progressed, we met other fairy tale characters and learned their fairy tale back stories (Red Riding Hood’s is particularly different than the more familiar tale). Eventually, Emma and the other characters began to believe Henry, and the season ended with the curse being lifted and the populace of Storybrooke remembering who they really are – only to be felled by another curse.

It’s a compelling premise, but many of the episodes are starting to feel gimmicky to me. I have no trouble believing that Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty were all princesses in the same magical kingdom that also housed Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, Rumplestiltskin, and Red Riding Hood. But the show seems to add a new magical character every week, and then try to shoe-horn him or her into the plot. Captain Hook is slated to show up next week. To me, he doesn’t belong in this universe. Neither does Lancelot, Mulan or Pinocchio. The original fairy tale characters were all collected by the Brothers Grimm, and their stories were edited down to be appropriate for children. They share the same antecedents, and their familiar origins make them seem like family to each other. The newer characters just don’t fit in the same way, even if Disney does own the rights to all of them now. I shudder to think that Winnie the Pooh might be making an appearance.

Conversely, characters who don’t play a role in the real fairy tale universe have important roles in the show. Snow White and Prince Charming never had a daughter, and she certainly didn’t grow up to give up a child in adoption. Snow White’s evil stepmother didn’t have her own evil mother. I’ve heard rumors that Henry’s father will turn out to be important, but who could he possibly be? Aren’t all the other important characters taken?

It’s obvious why the evil queen Regina had to be given her own evil mother – it allows the writers to soften her character. Similarly, Rumplestiltskin, is in love with Belle from Beauty and the Beast and sometimes teams up with Emma. I assume he’ll be clashing with an even bigger bad as the writers seem to root for his character. In fairy tales, the good learn lessons and the bad are vanquished. There is no character growth. Snow White’s stepmother ordered the huntsman to cut out her heart. The actress who plays Regina may be pretty and her lips tremble on cue, but that’s no reason to mess with the foundations of story.

The show uses flashbacks to the fairy tale world to spell out questions such as why does Snow White’s stepmother hate her so much – questions that don’t necessarily need to be answered, as we are all familiar with the woman’s vanity and her magic talking mirror. In the beginning, these flashbacks were illuminating, but now I find them annoying. Why? They aren’t in order. We already know how these stories end – Regina curses the kingdom; Snow and Charming send their baby in a portal to another world. All these flashbacks to what happened before merely illustrate what we already know, and as George Lucas found out the hard way, sometimes it’s better to let viewers imagine the back story themselves than to disappoint them by spelling out a past that isn’t as good as they imagined it. While I don’t think I’d have this issue if the flashbacks were chronologically consistent, that’s a moot point. No one is going to worry about how Snow is going to overcome the curse that she can’t have children when we already know she had Emma. Filling in the details is a waste of time.

The trajectory of this show reminds me of “Lost,” another show that relied on mythology and flashbacks (although those flashbacks were in chronological order… for the most part.) “Lost” lost its footing somewhere around the 3rd season, but found it when the producers told ABC that they would only be producing a few more years left of shows. This schedule allowed them to plan out the rest of the series and come up with an ending. By giving themselves a deadline, the producers gave a focus and an energy to the rest of the series. Unfortunately, it ended with a whimper rather than the bang that fans were expecting. I do think the producers of “Once Upon a Time” could learn from this lesson. Tell ABC you’ll give them the five more years and then you’ll be wrapping things up. Give the viewers a happily ever after, and make sure it’s a journey they’ll enjoy.

NBC’s “Grimm” seems to play in a similar playground as “Once Upon a Time.” The premise is that police detective Nick is actually a Grimm, a man who can see beyond the human facades of the “big bad wolf” creatures that live among us and like to commit horrible crimes. Each episode starts with a quote that sounds like it could come from a fairy tale. Then there’s a murder; Nick goes to investigate, finds out it’s a supernatural bad guy, and eventually solves the case. In the first season, “Grimm” borrowed from a few fairy tale standards – Rapunzel, Goldilocks and the Three Bears – but most of the “Grimm” creatures seem to spring fully formed from the minds of the series writers. Nick has a serious girlfriend who was cursed into not remembering him, a partner who’s recently been enlightened about the whole deal, a “big bad wolf” good guy helper who explains all the various types of bad guys out there, and a boss who, unbeknownst to him, is actually such a big bad guy that even Nick can’t see him for what he truly is.

Even though “Grimm” is supposed to be another look at fairy tale characters in real life, it does not resemble “Once Upon a Time” as much as it resembles “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Like Buffy, Nick is a “chosen one,” chosen to fight magical creatures but without any magic of his own. There are legends, a book to look up the bad guys in, and even a magic shop. But while Buffy effortlessly wove in messages about identity, responsibility and desire so well that it seemed to be two shows at once, “Grimm” is only surface deep. Perhaps the writers have handicapped the storytelling by giving Nick a serious girlfriend and making his best friend the big bad wolf. Of Buffy’s three loves on the show, two of them were vampires. There would be a lot more storytelling juice if Nick’s girlfriend were secretly a witch. Who knows, maybe the writers will go there eventually. Right now, all the payoff seems to be in Nick finding out his boss is evil… and I’m not sure that’s a payoff that really gives viewers a reason to stick around.

“666 Park Avenue” is giving its viewers a reason to stick around, but unfortunately, they are not. The series is a combination of a less gory “American Horror Story” and a darker “Fantasy Island.” Jane and Henry (who are not married… yet) have become co-managers of an imposing pre-war building off of Central Park. Scary things happen – bleeding walls, dying lights, creepy children who are probably dead – and Jane, like many horror movie heroines before her, likes to investigate these things in her underwear. The building’s owners are Gavin and Olivia, who seem a lot more interested in Henry and Jane than owners probably should be. The series is three episodes old, and in them we have seen Gavin smoothly manipulate residents by giving them what they wish for and then having these wishes explode in their faces. He’s a living, breathing, bald Monkey’s Paw. (As the series progresses, we may find out that he’s neither living nor breathing, but he is most definitely bald.) By the end of season one, I just know that we’re going to be screaming at Henry and Jane not to open that door!

And this is why I think “666 Park Avenue” deserves a full run. This is a show with a strong throughline and an obvious direction. The horrors in the building are on a collision course with Gavin’s devil-making deals, and Jane and Henry are caught in the middle. It promises to be a fun ride, and I want the full roller coaster.

Monday, October 8, 2012

"There's no place like home" ... but where's home?

“Where are you from?” was not designed to be a difficult question. But it’s a question I heard a lot this weekend. My husband and I attended our son’s baseball parents’ weekend at Mississippi State University. Most of the folks, naturally, were from Mississippi. And we’re from…. ?

On the roster, it says my son is from Potomac, Maryland. That makes sense, as he was only with us here on Treasure Island for two weeks. But he doesn’t have an address or a place to call home in Maryland, anymore.

I still tell people I’m from Maryland. When I meet people in Florida, it’s the first topic of conversation, and many of them are from other places, too. In Mississippi, I explained that we live in Florida now but we are from Maryland. After all, I lived there almost my entire life. I’ve only had a Florida driver’s license for a little more than two months.

How does one transition from being from one place to another? I still read my hometown newspaper every day (granted, it’s a little different on my iPad.) I follow the D.C. news station on Twitter. I keep up with local gossip from all my Facebook friends back home.

I lived in that house in Potomac for 12 years – the longest I’d ever lived in any single home. In the summer, the top floor was way too hot. It had a tendency to lose power during snowstorms and thunderstorms, and it took forever for the power to come back on. One winter we were trapped there for three days without power with two feet of snow on the ground, and the temperature in the house got down to 35 degrees. I hated the house during that time. But it was mine.

This house in Florida isn’t mine. Of course it’s not because we’re renting it. But we also got rid of all our furniture and rented the home fully furnished. I had loved the furniture we had bought over the years – the tiled kitchen table, the sectional sofa with the marble coffee table. There’s nothing in this house I would have ever bought myself. (OK, the furniture in the movie theatre is pretty cool.)

Plus, since I don’t know how long we’ll be staying (for various reasons, one out of our control, we may not be here the full year), I’ve only unpacked a few family photos and none of our artwork. We still have a room filled with boxes. It’s hard to feel at home when you’re not completely unpacked, and when the landlord’s giant painting of angry lions stares at you from across the hall.

And of course, how could this place feel like home when my son isn’t here? In an odd way, I think that helps with not missing him so badly. I don’t have 12 years of memories of eating dinner together at that table, watching TV together on that sofa. He was only here with us for two weeks and spent most of that time at the gym. He has a room here, of course, but since it’s not his furniture or his posters, it doesn’t feel like his. I’m sure if we were still in Potomac, I’d be going into his room every day and missing him terribly.

Strangely enough, the dog has made herself at home quite easily. She has a favorite perch. She enjoys guarding the front door. And she very much prefers the back yard, with the pool, the dock and the fence that allows her to run around unleashed. It is her home and she isn’t going to let anyone forget it. I guess wherever Tom and I are, that’s home to her.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Sports, politics, cave men and TV

Yesterday my husband took me to the Redskins/Buccaneers game. The Redskins won at literally the last second, so it was a successful game. But there were long stretches – experts might call them the third and fourth quarters – where the outcome was in doubt, and it gave me plenty of time to muse on the sports scene, and fandom in particular.

I’ve been a Redskins fan since high school. My father was a fan, and in those days – the 1980s – it was easy to be a fan, with the whole going-to-3-Superbowls and making the playoffs every year thing going on. Interestingly enough, those were also the years in which I became an obsessive General Hospital fan. That could say something meaningful about how we form our permanent identities in high school, but considering I was also a Republican back then, maybe not. (Of course Reagan was president, so who wasn’t a Republican??)

The game was terrific, and I’m sorry that local fans couldn’t watch on TV – it was blacked out. The stadium was so crowded, though, it was hard to believe. Most vendors ran out of food at halftime. And frankly, I think it’s unfair to black out games because the stadium isn’t 85 percent sold out three days before the game. I dare NFL commissioners to sit for four hours in the hot Tampa sun and try to follow the action on the field without going blind and dying of heat stroke. The Rays play under a roof. Hey, maybe that should have told you something! Then again, no one goes to the Rays games either.

We sat on the visitor’s side, which faces west. The Bucs and their fans were already in the shade. It’s a good thing the game started at 4:30; we all would have melted otherwise. We were surrounded by other Redskins fans, which made the Skins’ successful plays that much more wonderful and their failures that much more heartbreaking. When the Skins pulled it out in the end, we fell in with a crowd chanting “RG3” on the way back to the parking lot.

My friend Ang hates football. Whenever I post something on my timeline about the Redskins, she chides me for caring so much. And of course she’s right. Whether the Redskins win, lose, or are abducted by aliens has absolutely no impact on my life whatsoever. So why do I care so much? Why did I have a knot in my stomach when Tampa Bay kicked the leading field goal with less than two minutes to play?

Sociologists, or anthropologists, or some kind of gist, have postulated that the reason why sports teams are so popular and fans get so obsessive is because of our tribal ancestors. The theory goes that back when we were cave men, there was an evolutionary advantage to sticking together – there was always someone home to look after the cave men babies. And this is why today we paint our faces purple and black and occasionally someone gets beat up in the parking lot for supporting the visiting team.

This would also be the reason, these gists say, that one’s identity as Republican or Democrat means so much to a person. It’s why, they say, a Christian believes the estate tax should be demolished and a businessman is against abortion. Tribe members take their cues from other tribe members, and lock-and-step beliefs follow.

I’m not sure the gists have that part right. How I feel about politics is very different from how I feel about sports. And my son calls himself conservative, yet he picks and chooses from Republican and Libertarian beliefs to follow.

Rather, my feelings for sports are similar to my feelings about good TV, movies or books. It’s the story, and it’s the catharsis. It’s the chance to feel the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat without anything real at stake. Just like TV is the chance to fall madly in love with the wrong person, perform surgery or work for the mob without risking anything in real life.

Maybe we do still have the hearts of cave men, if not brains. For a cave man, every day was a struggle against the elements. Their lives were short and hard. When they felt a surge of adrenaline, it was because they were being chased by a mountain lion, not because they were watching their TV hero get chased by one on the small screen.

But sports does best TV in one important way: There is always next season. There will always be a next season. But every TV show must come to an end.

Monday, September 24, 2012

How to Make Friends and Influence People? Seriously, does anyone know?

“Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other one is gold.” That was the song we sang when I was in the Girl Scouts back in the mid 1970s. I don’t know if they sing it anymore, having ended my association with the Girl Scouts back in 1978 or so. It’s a catchy song, and being only two lines, easy to remember. One problem, though – it doesn’t explain exactly how to do it. Make the friends, that is.

Most of our lives, we’re put in situations where friendship occurs naturally. There’s school – K-12, sports teams, Girl Scouts of course, drama club, yearbook, church youth groups. College, with roommates, dorm mates, sorority/fraternity sisters and brothers. There are friends you make at the office and colleagues you socialize with outside of the office. Then you get married and suddenly you have twice as many friends. (Hopefully you’ll like them.) Then you have a child, and he has friends and sports teams, and now your best friends are the parents of his friends. Who else understands as well how horrible the new math teacher is?

When Tom and I moved to Florida, I realized this friends thing was going to be an issue. The only person we know here is his father, who’s only in Florida about four months out of the year anyway. Tom either works from home or flies to a client site; not exactly the best situation for him to make colleagues into work friends. Besides, he’s too busy working to care about making friends, anyway. “You make friends,” he told me, “and then we can hang out with them and their husbands.” If only it were that easy.

My friends-making strategy has been this: Be extra friendly to everyone I meet in the neighborhood while I’m out walking my dog. Join “Meet-Ups” of like-minded individuals. And join “Social Jane,” which is for women who want to make friends with other women.

The results have been mixed. Mixed as in, I have made one new friend (through a “Meet-Up”) So, score one for the meet-ups. The other two strategies are not having any results. Social Jane, despite being featured in the New York Times, does not have a large number and wide variety of women looking for friendships. Perhaps, no one really wants to be friends with someone who has to join an internet site in order to make friends. The neighbor thing hasn’t worked out too well either. People tend to look at you a little strangely if you’re too eager and friendly.

So that leaves the Meet-Ups. This week, I’m going to two different Meet-Up events with two different groups designed solely to help women make friends, or at least have other people to go out with. Is this the best way to make friends? I don’t know. The only thing we have in common is gender and the desire to make friends. Hopefully when I get there, I’ll meet some women who share other things in common with me – like my addiction to TV and movies, or an obsession with Democratic politics.

I’m also going to a neighborhood pot-luck tomorrow night. This is going to be a bit more challenging: Tom is out of town, so I’ll be going alone. I’ll have to introduce myself around and try to force conversation. And I’ll be bringing chicken fingers that probably no one will want to eat. Hopefully I’ll meet a few friendly people around my age. It would be even better if they have boats.

This is hard. Not as hard as running for president, but it’s hard and I am in the ring. It’s tough putting myself out there emotionally and hoping to make a connection. I have made one friend. But I’ve also issued invitations to others and been turned down. That’s painful. I don’t know if they’re just busy or uninterested. How hard should you try? I’ve decided that if an invitation declined isn’t followed up on, then it’s not going to be a friendship. Maybe I don’t try hard enough, but I don’t want to be a pest.

It would be so much easier just to stay home by myself. I have a movie theatre in my house, after all. But I would like to share it with another movie-obsessed female. (Tom doesn’t like movies.)So I guess I’ll keep putting myself out there, going to these events, and smiling broadly at every neighbor who compliments my dog. (“She is pretty. Sorry she’s barking and growling at you!”) Hopefully I’ll meet two or three likeminded gals, and then when I go to these Meet-Ups, I’ll be going to hang out with my friends.

In the meantime, I do have the new Titantic on Blu-Ray to watch.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Reading, Writing, and TV

I’ve pulled out Stephen King’s “On Writing” book again, which I think is one of the best books out there for inspiring and helping writers. It’s part autobiography, part “how to.” He aims for 10 pages a day, seven days a week. I’m currently aiming for 5 pages a day, 5 days a week.

One piece of advice from King is “…TV… really is about the last thing an aspiring writer needs. .. I’d like to suggest that turning off that endlessly quacking box is apt to improve the quality of your life as well as the quality of your writing. And how much of a sacrifice are we talking about here? How many Frazier and ER reruns does it take to make one American life complete? How many Richard Simmons infomercials? How many whiteboy/fatboy Beltway insiders on CNN? Oh man, don’t get me started. Jerry-Springer-Dr.-Dre-Judge-Judy-Jerry-Falwell-Donny-and-Marie. I rest my case.”

Granted, King published this book in 2000, missing what many critics believe is the second golden age of television, which started right about the time “Lost” hit the airwaves. (And I can’t help but notice that King, a notorious Red Sox fan, did not list televised baseball games in his list of TV time-wasters.)

Obviously, following this advice is a huge problem for me. As most people who know me know all too well, I am a huge television addict. I also love to read, watch movies and follow sports (after all, sports are stories, too.). While it’s essential for a writer to make time each day to write, does it have to preclude watching TV? Or can a writer actually learn something from following her favorite shows?

My TV addiction started early. I remember being seven years old and absolutely obsessed with The Addams Family. (I’m not that old… I fell in love with syndicated re-runs.) Morticia was my favorite character, and I just loved how Gomez would kiss her arm when she spoke French. It took me several more years before I realized what her name actually meant.

In elementary school, it was “The Bionic Woman.” And not just because we shared the same name, and she finally made my boy’s name cool for girls. She was tough. And she had that on again, off again thing with Steve Austin that was so intriguing. Plus, unlike Wonder Woman, she didn’t have to wear a silly costume. “Charlie’s Angels” was big around the same time period, but my mother never let me watch it.

My next TV obsession was M*A*S*H. I loved Hawkeye’s one-liners, his skill as a surgeon, and his passion for his beliefs. I also wanted to be Hot Lips – another tough woman who didn’t take shit from anyone.

In middle school, I graduated to soap operas. One Life to Live and General Hospital were my addictions of choice. Soaps are – or at least they used to be – a wonderful place for strong, female characters. All My Children had Erica Kane; One Life to Live was always known for Victoria Lord Riley Buchanan, although hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Karen Wolek was my favorite. Luke and Laura on General Hospital captured the nation’s attention, but mine was captured by Monica Quartermaine, the surgeon with a tongue as sharp as her scalpel.

My current addictions include “The Good Wife,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” and “Private Practice.” And I’ve set my DVR for several well-reviewed new TV shows, including “The Mob Doctor.”

What does this list tell me about who I am as a writer? Clearly, I am drawn to strong, funny female characters. And it’s a plus if they work in the medical profession. While as a reader, I always listed Stephen King as one of my favorite authors, I was never able to develop a plot scary enough that it would hold my attention as a writer.

TV – especially good TV – has a lot to teach writers, no matter what medium they write for. Character development, pacing, plotting… everything but how to write an effective description. For that, you really need a book.

So, I’m going to disagree with King’s advice about staying away from TV. I agree that mindless TV – the Seinfeld rerun you’ve seen a million times – is a waste of time. But watching quality TV – your “Good Wife,” your “Mad Men” – can be as helpful as reading a good book – if you watch it mindfully and pay attention to details.

But those hours I spend watching HGTV… really, I have no excuse for that.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

"Dirty Dancing" and the 2012 Election

One of the best features of my “year on vacation” house is that I have my own private movie theatre. Unfortunately for various reasons it took six weeks to set up, but now that everything’s working, I’ll probably get even less writing done as I go through my entire DVD collection. Not to mention Netflix streaming.

I christened the new theatre by watching one of my all-time favorites, “Dirty Dancing.” For those of you who’ve been living with slugs for the past 25 years, “Dirty Dancing” is the Patrick Swayze/Jennifer Grey blockbuster about an innocent idealist who falls in love with a dancer at a Catskills resort in the summer of 1963. I’ve loved the movie since it came out when I was in college. At the time, I remember thinking that while the love story was timeless, its setting seemed quite dated – not just the Catskills resort, but the caste system that kept everyone in his and her place.

Funny, this movie doesn’t seem dated anymore.

To refresh your memory, or update the slug-dwellers, Jennifer Grey’s Baby steps in as the dance partner for Patrick Swayze’s Johnny when his regular partner, Penny, needs to get an abortion on the night of a lucrative show. Idealistic Baby, although she comes from a well-off family headed by a doctor father, envies Penny’s beauty and dancing ability and rushes to her aid when she learns of Penny’s pregnancy. To help raise the money for Penny’s abortion, she asks Penny’s ex-lover, Yale medical student/waiter Robbie, for the dough. Instead, he hands Baby a copy of Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead.” “Some people count,” he tells Baby. “And some people don’t.” (you can see the scene here:

If that doesn’t just sum up the philosophy of the Republican party, I don’t know what does. And the actor playing Robbie is a dead ringer for Paul Ryan.

There are several ways in which this movie, set in 1963, illustrates the stakes of our 2012 election. The most obvious is Penny’s disastrous pregnancy. Unmarried and barely making ends meet as a dancer, Penny has no choice but to seek out an illegal abortion. In two respects, she’s actually lucky – she gets the money from Baby, and she gets an appointment with a doctor (although that doesn’t end well either.) Without these circumstances, Penny easily could have ended up with a clothes hangar or a bottle of Lysol.

Unfortunately, the abortion doctor is a butcher, and Penny returns from her appointment shaking and in shock. Baby summons her father, who saves Penny’s life and her ability to bear children. Again, Penny was a lucky beneficiary of circumstance. Without Dr. Houseman, she easily could have died. So many women like her actually did. Almost every Republican running in this year’s election would like to turn back the clock to the time when the Pennys of the world would be forced to bear the child or risk their lives trying to terminate the pregnancy. While these politicians claim that life begins at conception and it’s all about the baby, that’s not true. Controlling a woman’s ability to plan motherhood is a way to keep her from competing economically. Abortion was legal until the industrial revolution, when men began competing with women for jobs. It’s no accident that the Republican party, the party of callous millionaires and angry white blue collar men, is against abortion and birth control. It much easier to get and keep a job if half the labor force is too busy having and raising babies to compete with you.

Access to safe, affordable, legal abortion is an economic issue. Even before Roe v. Wade, women of means – and their daughters – who found themselves in trouble did not go to back alley butchers. They flew to Mexico or some other place where abortion was legal. Or they had friends who knew doctors – real doctors, sympathetic doctors – who would provide a safe and sterile procedure. Dr. Houseman may have even been one of those doctors. After all, he knew exactly what had happened to Penny the moment he walked in and saw her shaking, and he knew exactly how to treat her.

It is the Pennys of the world – the very women that the Republican party castigates as “takers” who don’t “pay their fair share” who suffered the most pre Roe v. Wade, and will suffer the most if Republicans have their way. The Babys? If Johnny had knocked up Baby, Dr. Houseman would have taken her to one of his friends to take care of it. Baby would have gone on to Mt. Holyoke, a bit sadder and wiser, but all the more ready to study the economics of undeveloped countries as she had planned. After all, most of those undeveloped countries are that way, in part, because their women cannot control their fertility.

Ironically, Republican policies would grow the number of “takers” they keep complaining about!

As Robbie put it, there are people who count, and people who don’t, which is another way of saying there are “takers” and there are “makers.” In “Dirty Dancing,” the divide is fierce. Her first evening at Kellerman’s Resort, Baby eavesdrops on Max Kellerman lecturing the wait staff – college boys including Robbie – that they are to date and court the daughters. But when the entertainers, including Johnny, come in, Kellerman’s demeanor changes completely. Practically spitting at them, he warns the entertainers “hands off the daughters!” no matter what. When Baby tries to help Johnny pick a replacement for Penny, someone who had the time to train, Johnny shoots her down – “We all work here!”

After Baby gets her father to help Penny, he’s furious with her and forbids her to associate with “those people” anymore. Yet he encourages the relationship between his other daughter, Lisa, and Robbie – believing Robbie is “one of us” and therefore a decent person. Finally, after Baby confesses her affair with Johnny, she confronts her father in one of the most memorable scenes in the movie: “You told me everyone was alike and deserved a fair break, but you meant everyone like you.” (see the scene here:

The divide is never more clear as Robbie keeps his job while Johnny is fired for his relationship with Baby. Yet change is in the air. Max Kellerman can feel it, although he misunderstands what the change is about. And when Johnny leads his group of entertainers in for the last dance, and the group finally dances the way they want to on the main floor, the unexpected happens. Rather than the old people running out and losing their hair, everyone joins in the dancing. Even Max asks his band leader, “Do you have the sheet music for this?”

Yes, change is in the air, youth is leading the way, and the older generation seems willing to follow. Even Dr. Houseman apologizes to Johnny for thinking the worst of him.

“Dirty Dancing” ends on a hopeful note, and why not? The filmmakers knew that in the next few years, the civil rights act would be passed, the Pill would be invented, and abortion would become a constitutionally protected right. All these factors helped set the stage so that women, minorities and poor people would have more tools to compete economically.

It is ironic that the Republican party, who believes so strongly about “makers” and “takers,” want to turn the clock back to a time when the only people who could support themselves economically were white men. Yet, if they have their way, we’d be headed straight back to 1963. Although “Dirty Dancing” is filled with great music, fantastic dancing and inspirational characters, we can’t go back to that time and expect to move forward as a nation.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

My Year on Vacation

Empty Nest Syndrome affects a lot of people in different ways. My husband Tom decided the best thing for us to do when our son Alex decided to go to college in a different time zone was to move away ourselves. Not in the same state he picked – it’s one of those states that always leads the list on bad things and is at the end of the lists on good things – but in the state known for beaches, hurricanes, and best of all, no state income tax. Yes, we’d be moving from Maryland – where we’d both lived our entire lives – down to Florida, a state where we knew absolutely no one. And our only child was a mere 11 hours away by car.

Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Or perfect…

What writer doesn’t dream of having hours and hours to herself to create? Novels, poetry, journal entries. And of course reading… because you have to keep up with your reading in order to write. Yes, hours and hours without having to cook dinner, drive carpool, do tons of laundry, etc.


Our house has a pool and the intracoastal waterway is in our backyard.

Paddleboarders glide by all day long, many with their dogs riding shotgun.

And I joined a gym and signed up with a personal trainer who books our next session before I can escape, muscles screaming.

And I have new friends to make.

And I’m addicted to pop culture, and the new TV season is coming out.

And it’s an election year, and I’m a “left of Castro” (my husband’s words) Dem who is tracking every utterance on both sides.

I have a lot of goals for this next year. Publish my novel “Keeping Score,” either traditionally or via self-publishing. Finish my current novel, which I’m adapting from a screenplay I wrote. Research for a third novel I’ve planned on a subject I know little about. And start a logical follow-up (not sequel) to “Keeping Score.” Plus, I’m a reviewer at a highly popular book blog,, so I read and review about a book a week.

But with all these distractions, will I be able to get it all done? Will my year on vacation be productive, or a waste?