Monday, March 30, 2015

What does Rome smell like?

The first time I went to New York City, the smell of the city nearly knocked me over. Acrid yet warm, a little like something had gotten burnt. I didn't know what caused it, but every time I visited, that scent filled the air, stronger than the exhaust from buses, taxis and limos. It permeated my clothes and I'd bring the scent home with me like a memory of my visit.

But then I came to the city in the summer. Got out of the car and noticed right away that the aroma I associated with New York wasn't there. Why not? What had changed? When I figured it out it was one of those doh! moments we all shake our heads over.

All my visits before had been in winter, when the chestnut vendors hawk their wares from nearly every street corner in the tourist areas. The bitter tang was roasting chestnuts, some of which, inevitably, got burned. No one roasts chestnuts in the summer, so no scent.

That experience, however, has stayed with me and now, when I visit the Big Apple in winter, I look forward to the warm memories that scent invokes.

But that begs the question: what about Rome? And Palermo? And Barcelona and Dublin? Do they have unique scents? Is there an aroma that is theirs and theirs alone? Their sights I've seen in pictures, their sounds I've heard in videos -- but the scents? They are a mystery waiting to be experienced.

And I, for one, can't wait for those experiences.

Play safe!

PS. Yes, I will post my olfactory perceptions once I've visited. This is a good lesson for writers not to forget this sense!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Look out, Europe ‘cause here we come!

Shortly I will leave the continent on which I was born and travel to a new one. There are only seven of them, but I find myself in my 50’s having only stepped on North America. Furthermore, while I’ve traveled quite a bit in my life, I have only visited one other country other than my own, which isn’t saying much, since I lived only two hours away from Niagara Falls as a child and we went to see the Falls every year.

This whole thing came about rather suddenly. After years of saying, “One of these days...” my father recently took me to task for it. “If you keep saying ‘One of these days...’ you’ll never go,” he told me. “Set a date and go. You won’t regret it.”

That was on my birthday in January, just as the Viking River Cruises were starting their big advertising campaigns, as did the collective we call The Caribbean. The latter held no interest for me—I’m not much into lying around on beaches or swimming in water that I have to share with sea life. But Europe? Cruising down the Danube or Rhine? Yeah, I could get into that. Even though I really wanted to visit Ireland and I knew my husband always talked about Italy and France.

So we looked into it and winced. Holy cow, they’re expensive. Six nights for nearly $8000 – and that was the buy one/get one price that didn’t include airfare. Surely we could get more for our money than that?

The idea was in our heads, our calendars on the table before us and we had a block of time (four weeks) with which to play. We have money set aside from my husband’s mom who passed away nearly a year ago. She was a world traveler herself and would be thrilled to know we spent some of what she left us on a trip in her honor.

We’re AAA members, so it made sense to start there. We walked in, sat down with one of their travel agents (waving hello to Linda at the Pittsford, NY branch!) and told her our dream. She got to work, asking questions and determining our comfort level (yes, we’d drive in Ireland but not Italy. Getting lost would probably be our lot and I wasn’t comfortable doing that in a country where language would be a barrier), and helping us find the “must-sees” of our dream trip. By the time we were done nearly two hours later, we were going to Europe for twenty days. Not six, but twenty days!!!!

Neither my husband nor I like group tours where we have to be certain places at certain times. That was the attractiveness of the Viking cruises. You had a guided tour in the morning at each port, then were on your own for the entire afternoon where you could go where you wanted and see, in depth, whatever you pleased. How to balance those elements when were planned on our own would be our challenge.

We solved it by opting for a Mediterranean cruise that has seven ports of call. Structured in that our transportation was taken care of, unstructured in that we determine what we do in each port. Starting from Rome, we dock at Palermo, Tunis, Livorno, Genoa, Toulon, and end in Barcelona. Because of last week’s events, I’m not sure we’ll get to visit Tunis, but I hope we do. Being able to step onto a third continent, if only for a day and if only for a short distance, was one of the reasons we chose this cruise. But we certainly understand the world will not hold still for our little excursion and so we will wait and see what develops there. (UPDATE: We’re not going to Tunis at all. No third continent for us.)

We also chose this particular route because of the stop in Palermo, Sicily. My husband’s mom’s side of the family came from Palermo and Calabria. We don’t expect to find relatives on this short visit, but it will be fun to walk the streets his ancestors did and see what they saw.

We don’t get much time in Barcelona, our last port of call. Pretty much we get off the ship and head straight for the airport to catch a flight, not to home but to Dublin!

Yep, the second part of our trip is a Go As You Please tour. This part was surprisingly affordable. We pick up a car in Dublin and have vouchers for nearly 900 Bed and Breakfasts throughout Ireland. We make our own way and do our own thing for the next six days (eight days total; we’ve bookended the tour with nights in Dublin). We almost immediately decided to find two B&B’s and use them as a home base while we go out for day trips from there. Less time spent packing and moving and more time spent enjoying Ireland.

Depth rather than breadth. That’s the way we like to travel. We don’t see as much, perhaps, but we get to know a smaller area deeper. More relaxed, that way. The only thing that worries me a little in this part of the trip is the driving. Left side of the road is a perspective change (expect me to wax philosophical about that later), and we’ve asked for a manual shift. I can drive standard easily enough – had a standard for thirty years – but shifting with my left hand? I’m dyslexic, remember. I think my husband will be doing most of the driving. Ireland will thank me for that later.

So my husband and I are going to Europe! We’re leaving the house (and the cat!) to my daughter. She’s just as excited about that as we are about leaving. I remember when I had to work and couldn’t vacation with my parents anymore – how I loved having the house to myself! She told us not to let the door hit us on the way out, even if she wishes she could go with us. :)

I’m looking for all the travel tips you might have. We’re planning to take only carry-on luggage, so we’re packing light. What do you suggest are necessary accoutrements? What about traveling in Italy and Ireland? Suggestions on what to see, do, experience? How to behave? We’re going to be pegged as tourists, we know that, but don’t want to be the Ugly American. To that end, we’ve already begun learning a few phrases in both Gaelic and Italian.

And so, instead of my usual sign off, let me say dia duit and ciao!


Friday, March 13, 2015

Two books, two days

Book clubs are great in several ways, one of which is "making" you read something you might otherwise not have. This month, the group I belong to is reading Orphan Train: A Novel by Christina Baker Kline. I had some doubts about it. I mean, why the need to label it as a novel in the title? Isn't that a little disingenuous?

I started it yesterday morning and finished it by early evening. The story pulled me in, perhaps because I've taught a fair number of young women like Molly, the present-day protagonist. I've had many Goth girls in my classes over the years and, while each one had her own individual spark, there was a common thread that put them all on the same death-head necklace: none were content with the well-worn path through life. Molly isn't either, nor, we discover, is Vivian, a woman in her nineties who joins with Molly as a fellow protagonist.

SPOILER ALERT: (skip this paragraph if you haven't read the book. You have been warned!!!)
I didn't like the end of the book. It just stopped. I wanted Molly's story to have more of a closing and I wanted to see the reunion between Vivian and...well, someone important. Neither is shown and that ticked me off. Not a good way to end a book.

Back in November, my aunt sent me a book she thought I'd like, but at the time I was writing THE REVOLUTION OF CLARA SIMPSON and couldn't take my mind away from that. Then it was the holidays and things go moved and...suffice it to say the book resurfaced when I cleaned on Wednesday and I put it on top of my TBR pile.

What book? Still Alice by Lisa Genova. Yes, I know Juliette Moore was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for her work in playing Alice, but I hadn't seen the movie. Now that I've read the book - in a day, mind you - I would like to see how they handled it in the movie. The book is written from Alice's point of view and it seems that it would be difficult to translate her thoughts and actions to film.

But it, too, captivated me. So much so that, after a brief interruption to go see my nephews in their spring musical, I came back and finished the last 50 pages because I had to know how it ended. No spoilers here - I will recommend this book to my book club for next year, though!

It is, however, a quick read. I scrapbooked all morning and into the early hours of the afternoon in order to finish (finally!!) putting the journal and all the pictures together from our Alaska trip -- back in 2009. So I didn't start reading until mid-afternoon, took a several-hour break in the evening, and finished it before 11:15 pm. Yes, I'm a fast reader, but that was quick even for me.

Okay, off to add these two to my spreadsheet of Books I Read for 2015.

Play safe!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Empty Arms

Empty Arms

By Diana Hunter
inspired by Steve Duprey’s painting of the same name

The hard edges scraped against the tin roof, squealing like fingernails on a chalkboard. Not the newer boards found in today’s classrooms. What a progression there. You could trace it backwards. SmartBoards replaced whiteboards replaced green boards of luan. You had to go back a long way to get to real slate. Heavy, but good for drawing on. And for truly driving your teacher crazy if you skipped cutting your fingernails one week.
Emma’s shoulders hunched as the scrape came again. “That damn tree,” she muttered. “Should’ve cut it down years ago.”
Rain, fat drops of it, splattered against the window and she swore again. She’d closed all the windows at the first sign of darkness on the horizon, but got up to check them again. Each was tightly shut and latched. ‘Course that didn’t mean the curtains didn’t make little dances in the breeze that squeezed its way through the cracks.
A flash of light startled her, but her mind counted automatically. “One alligator, two alligator…” She made it to seven before the roll of thunder reached her. There was time.
She wasn’t alone. Barnaby was around somewhere. Probably hiding under the big bed upstairs. Scaredy-cat. Literally.
But George wasn’t home and she paced, worried he might’ve left the store early, trying to get home before the bad weather struck. Her hand hovered over the phone, tempted to call and tell him to stay put.
But that would let him know she was worried. Scared to stay in the house during a thunderstorm and she didn’t want to hear his gentle teasing. She was an adult. No need to be worried over things that she couldn’t control.
Another flash, another screech across the tin roof, another jump of her nerves.
Definitely time to take that tree down.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Stone Mountains

The Stone Mountains have existed in my imagination for decades. They are a central location of The Companion, an as-yet-unpublished fantasy story and, the moment I first saw this painting of Steven’s, it was as if he’d gone inside my head and pulled the picture from my imagination.

 The story’s two protagonists, Martin and Kiera, both have heard fables about the dangers of going up into the mountains. These two excerpts from the novel describe their concerns about this mysterious mountain range.

From Kiera’s story:

A small fence separated the garden from the rest of the farmyard, the gate currently open and inviting. Kiera couldn’t resist stepping onto the garden’s teeming earth, feeling the tendrils of power curl around her bare feet. She lifted the hem of her robe and dug her toes in deep.
“How do you keep your feet warm when you go into the snows?”
Kiera turned to see Ham the younger hanging over the top of the fence, the pail of water he’d been sent to get sitting beside him, only half full. The path to the well showed where the rest of the water had gone to…a trail of wet splotches led right to Ham’s feet.
“Earth Mothers don’t go up into the mountains, Ham. ‘An Earth Mother who crosses the Mountain’s Foot is lost forever,’” Kiera quoted. How she’d hated those lessons with Mother Abbess. Until being accepted by the One and sent to study at Earthhome, Kiera really hadn’t given geography much thought. All right, so she sometimes had wondered what lay beyond her own town’s flat fields and small woods, but really, curiosity had never been her curse.
But at school, learning more about the land they called Splithome gave her a desire to see the places drilled into them as forbidden. Repeating the lesson now as much as for Ham as for herself, she told him, “The Stone Mountains support no life, sapping the power of the Earth Mother until even our Companions cannot save us.”
“I won’t let the mountains hurt you, Earth Mother. I’m gonna go there when I’m bigger. I’m gonna climb the tallest one and stand up on top of it and look at the whoooole world!”
His mother had other plans for him. “Yes, well, you can do that after you’ve delivered the water to the Companion. He’ll need it to rinse. Get going.”

 From Martin’s story:   

 Martin had heard the legends about the Stone Mountains, of course. Every first year Candidate knew the warnings by heart, though Martin discounted the stories of ghosts and haunting screams, knowing those were just tales to frighten children. He was more concerned with the tales that spoke of Sky Fathers who had made the attempt to cross and who had gone mad. Upon their return, they gibbered of a “great emptiness” and “wasteland like no other.” Their insanity, however, made it difficult to understand. The few who came back died not long after their return.
Martin, however, was fully Renewed and determined to discover what lay on the other side. The tales had been full of stories on that account, too, filled with wild savages and unholy beasts who roamed the far side of the mountains.
Taking his horse by the reins, Martin turned toward the road leading upwards. Path, really. The old Stone Road that started at the western shore and wound its way through Renthom theoretically continued up and over the Stone Mountains and down into the land on the other side. Years of neglect, however, had narrowed it considerably after it left Anre’s farm. What lay before him now would permit two men walking side-by-side in comfort, three at a squeeze. Too steep to ride a horse, however.
Squaring his shoulders for what might lay ahead, he stepped up the path -- and stopped dead.
His powers were gone.

Paintings by Steven Duprey (

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Painting-Inspired Writing - or is that Writing Inspired Painting?

The Franklin Street Gallery, located in Watkins Glen, NY (yes, they have more than NASCAR racing there!) is an art gallery that promotes local artists. My husband has shown pieces there several times. For their spring show, however, they're doing something a little different: each painting needs to be accompanied by a story or poem inspired by the painting.

What a cool idea! My painter husband, of course, turned to his writer wife and and said, "So, have any of my paintings inspired you?"

Please understand, he primarily paints landscapes, I write mostly character-driven stories. The two subject matters are very different. So I had to answer no, with a caveat.

Early on in his painting career, he painted a small picture (12x12 Acrylic on Canvas) of small mountain range in winter. I took one look at it and told him he couldn't sell it. It was going in my study. Why?

For several decades now I've been working on a fantasy. Without going into too much detail, there is a mountain range that extends the width of the border between two countries. Nothing grows there and no one who ventures along the Stone Road into the mountains ever returns. From either side. As a result, these mountains serve as a very definitive divider to keep the two peoples apart.

My husband had painted the Stone Mountains.

Of course, he didn't know that he had. He was just painting what was in his imagination. Scary that it was in mine, too. Or a sign that we've been married for a long time (34 years coming up in June!). :)

I brought down the painting to show him and he sighed. It was an early painting and he's a better painter than that now. I don't see anything wrong with the painting as it is, but then again, I'm no art critic. I just know what I like. And I like this painting.

Another problem arose as we talked about it. All paintings shown in the gallery have to be available for sale, and I want to keep this one.

Solution? He'd paint another painting of the same set of mountains and put that one in the show so I could keep the one that spoke to me. Is it any wonder I love him?

He can submit three paintings and their accompanying written piece to this show. "Stone Mountains" will be one of them. The second one is a painting my daughter wrote to. The third? I chose a painting of his and used it to inspire a short scene of a brand-new piece. His painting is entitled "Empty Arms."

Almost two years ago I wrote a writing workshop on using paintings as inspiration, and here I am, putting my workshop into practice. Whether we're talking photos (See the stories inspired by James McAvoy and Chris Pratt), or paintings, other media can inspire some fun writing.

I'll post the paintings and their companion writings in a separate post. Watch for them coming soon. And, if you're in Watkins Glen, stop in at the Franklin Street Gallery on the main drag. The opening reception is this Friday night and the show runs for a few weeks.

Play safe,

Thursday, February 12, 2015

On Being Dyslexic

Preface: I teach Freshman Composition at Finger Lakes Community College. The first term paper the students do is a reflection on an issue. In the course of our discussion on Tuesday, I mentioned my dyslexia and the resulting coping strategies I've developed over the years. One of my students asked if I had ever written about my experiences and I realized, I never had. Not sure why I haven't, but she got me to thinking and I decided to do the assignment right along with them. 

I wrote the below as a blog post, since that's the form most of my essays take these days. I then did a "Save As" and made a formal term paper out of it to show the differences in formatting. It was a fun exercise. :)

So here is my essay, On Being Dyslexic. Enjoy!

I’ve always had trouble with phone numbers. People would tell me their number, I’d write it down, and invariably, get it wrong. Repeating the number back to them until I’d memorized it seemed a safer venture, but mostly, all I got out of this was a fear of dialing numbers.

Seriously. I hate making phone calls. Even in this age of digital everything, if I have to key in a number, I have tremendous anxiety issues. Will I get the person I actually meant to dial? Have I keyed the number correctly? What if it’s a wrong number? I have to psych myself up just to dial the phone.

Today we’d call it a “learning disability” but back then (the 60’s and 70’s), you were just quirky. And no one caught on. Why? Because spelling was easy – I had no trouble with letters except for words that contained both a “b” and a “p”. If I had to write the words “but put” in the same sentence, invariably I got them wrong the first time and had to erase or cross out and rewrite them. Which I did, so no one noticed a problem. In math, it was only 9’s and 6’s that gave my any trouble and again, I could usually spot the mistake quickly and fix it before it got to being graded by the teacher.

There was one trait, however, that often frustrated me: I’d say “spring” when I meant “fall” or “winter” when I meant “summer.” For some odd reason, I’d say “purple” when it was clearly “orange”. “Hot/cold”, “up/down” and “right/left” were other mix-ups that made no sense to me. I clearly could see that fruit was orange, so why would the word “purple” come out of my mouth? My parents would always just look at me funny and correct me. It seemed to be a problem to no one but me, so I just accepted it as part of my nature and moved on.

Until I saw a TV program about a boy who told the cops he was 81, when he was 18. He often got opposites mixed up and couldn’t read or write well. The actor who played the role was Kurt Russell and I was madly in love with him (still am!), which is probably why we were watching the show in the first place. The Storefront Lawyers ran only a single season and played opposite The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, which we watched all the time.

(NOTE: It took me a LOT of web-searching to find that information out. All I could remember was Kurt Russell playing the part of a dyslexic teenager. Two hours later, I found the obscure show listings that match my memory. You can find the TV listing for Wednesday, November 18, 1970 here, and a longer description of the series here.)

Anyway, in that episode, Russell plays Jerry, a kid the cops think is being disrespectful. The lawyers realize he’s dyslexic. I’d never heard the word before. But the character of Jerry and the resultant description of dyslexia fit me perfectly. I wasn’t quirky – I was dyslexic!

And I wasn’t alone.

It wasn’t just me, this switching of words and having troubles with certain letters.

Not that it changed much. Special Education at that time didn’t exist in the way it does now. No one diagnosed me and life continued much as it had. The only difference was my own attitude about myself. I wasn’t alone. There were others like me. There was no “cure” but I could adapt. That last part I figured out on my own.

By the time I got to college in the late 70’s, a great deal of work had been done on learning disabilities, dyslexia among them. Since my degree included certification in English (Theatre Major, Education minor), several of these disabilities were discussed in class – from the viewpoint of a teacher trying to teach material to students who have them. Listening and learning, I applied the coping strategies we were given to teach our students to my own situation.

Later, as a teacher, I recognized my own dyslexia was mild. I mix up a few words and hate phone numbers. When typing, I have a few words that will always come out wrong (“studnets” instead of “students” is my particular burden to bear), but I have had kids in my classroom who cannot read at all because the letters dance about on the page for them. They look once and the letters are in one order, they look again, the letters are now arranged differently in the word.

Those are the kids I feel the most for and it puts my own quirkiness into perspective. I never felt I had a disability, only a difficulty. While I was thrilled beyond measure to discover I wasn’t alone, I obviously didn’t need resource time or any test modifications. I used my coping strategies (a term I picked up in my first years of teaching, by the way) and got on with life.

And it was that attitude I tried to impart to my students. Just accept it and move on. Having a learning problem doesn’t mean you’re a failure, it just means you have to find the way around or through it. For me, that meant going public. I mixed up letters on the board on occasion and rather than get flustered by it, I confessed my slight dyslexia to my students (all of whom knew what that meant by the 80’s). I told them they were my coping strategy. I counted on them to point out a mistake like that so I could correct it. I also tried to impart to them that a learning disability shouldn’t hold them back.

I have dyslexia. I’m also a writer. I’m an English teacher, a blogger and a writer of essays. I like words. My vocabulary is extensive because I read as much as I can as often as I can. I drive my husband and kids crazy because I still grab the opposite word from the one I want but it’s okay. They’ve learned to just translate in their heads. My future daughters-in-law are learning the same thing.

Several years ago, a counselor confronted me and told me to stop telling my students I was dyslexic when I clearly wasn’t. I was a teacher, for crying out loud. Teachers didn’t have learning disabilities. She asked me who made my diagnosis. I couldn’t very well say, “A TV series”, so I brushed off her question. I wish I could remember the rest of the conversation so I could tell you I took her to task for her biased statements, but I probably didn’t. I was still a young teacher then and a little afraid of those in power. The incident, however, made me realize all the more how important it was for kids to see a person who had become successful despite having a learning disability. In her attempt to get me to stop, that counselor did all my students a favor – I became even more of a champion of their successes.

So don’t ask me to make phone calls, and if you hear me grab the opposite word from the one that makes sense, don’t panic. Correct me in your head or correct me out loud, it doesn’t matter. I know my dyslexia and I’m fine with it.