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?