Saturday, January 25, 2020

HORRORTREE.COM - How I Use a Five-Star Rating System

            In January 2020, I began reviewing books for HorrorTree.COM.  I didn’t take this opportunity lightly, and it wasn’t a selfless act on my part.  I thought I could help others, as well as myself, to become increasingly better writers through the process.

Who do I think I am?  How am I qualified to review books?  My resume includes an Associates Degree in Communications and the Arts.  I have been a contributing writer to the Press and Journal publication, Dauphin County Woman for nine years.  My editor takes the liberty of editing my work as she sees fit.  Sometimes my reaction has been, “Oh yeah – it needed that.”  Other edits have brought on physical illness and sniffles.  However, I’ve never had a reader tell me they didn’t understand what I was saying and I’ve often had them tell me what a riot my column was, or how it made them cry.

What I’m saying is that I understand the editing process and I get it when my incredible and witty prose doesn’t sound so wonderful to discerning eyes.  I know that feeling of someone not getting me and thankfully, I have been surrounded by tough love and constructive criticism throughout my writing career.  Both have served me well.

I am not that reviewer who puts down or attacks an author personally.  A few mistakes here and there won’t make or break achieving one rating over another.  It is my job to give an honest and unbiased opinion.  Here is how I use the five-star rating system.

One Star – A book is problematic on every level.  I have yet to assign this rating and I don’t expect to.  I can’t know how excellent an author thinks their book is when it’s turned in to me, but I am mindful that their forthcoming reviews may be highly and eagerly anticipated.  It remains my job to give a fair opinion.  To get the one-star rating, a book would have to leave me feeling like the author didn’t care about their work.  It would have to lack correct usage of basic grammar and adherence to fundamental writing skills.  I would question an author’s intent to remain an author for work deserving of this rating.

Two Stars – A book doesn’t have an interesting enough story line, but I can tell the author is on to something.  It probably has enough grammar and punctuation errors that it got on my nerves every time it interrupted the flow, and there was likely too much telling and not enough showing.  Although the piece may read like an author’s first attempt, it has potential.

Three Stars – Ah, the illustrious middle of the road.  Is it a bad rating?  A good one?  To me, three stars are a good rating with “needs work” attached.  The book was rewarding to read.  Plot, setting, dialogue, characters all ring true but there were things that took away from the overall enjoyment.  Too many grammar and punctuation errors, too much passive voice, too much telling without showing would all keep an otherwise four-star book anchored in three.

Four Stars – The book was an enjoyable read and I would recommend it to others.  It didn’t have quite the impact it could have to warrant five stars.  I may have wanted to give it five stars, but there were minor problems involving character, plot, etc. or enough grammar and punctuation mistakes that it interrupted the good time I was having reading the book.

Five Stars – The book had memorable moments and held my attention.  It had an impact and something about it stuck with me.  There weren’t issues with point of view or pacing, dialogue rang true.  Proficiency in grammar and tools of the writing craft allowed the story to flow well.  I would recommend the book and would reread it myself.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Not So Fast, Leukemia!

It's a good-news post.  Hubby has five of six chemo treatments finished and it's doing what it's supposed to do.  His numbers are all good.

We loaded up on prescription nausea meds before his first treatment because by all accounts, nausea would be an issue.  NOT!  He drinks a ton of water and is pretty sure that's the main reason there are almost no side effects.  He didn't lose any hair, and his new beard growth is coming in snow white and straighter than before.

There are still very few people who know he's sick and he likes it that way.  He goes about his life, full-time job and all, like it's a matter of fact.  He's a rock star.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

My Christmas Wish (unedited), published Nov/Dec 2019 Dauphin County Woman

It’s July.  Families embark on summer vacations at crowded beaches up and down the coast before the kids go back to school.  Picnics precede fireworks displays in celebration of Independence Day.  I’m delegated the cake server at a deployment party for National Guard troops leaving in September.  Bright eyes, witty smiles and camaraderie among military friends and families characterize the day.  Everyone throws down on barbecue sandwiches and corn on the cob.

Pets are welcome and one dog in particular, a loyal Pitbull named Onyx, paces nervously each time his military mom is out of sight.  I already feel sorry for him for when his mom deploys in two months.

It’s August.  Students endure first-day-of-school pictures taken by weepy mothers who swear their kids are growing up too fast.  Soccer fans have a pretty good idea what teams will be playing in the championship games.  Locals are eager to see how their school football teams will do.  Parents who will soon leave to serve their country in another part of the world won’t be in the bleachers at the end of soccer season and wouldn’t miss their child’s pre-season football scrimmage for anything.

The Nomads of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard 104th Aviation Regiment wind down the deployment training they’ve been participating in for the last year.  As civilians counted down the last seconds of December in 2018 and rang in the new year, members of the 104th kept their own countdown.

                It’s September.  The contrast of the good-timing friends at the deployment party in July and their faces now displaying telltale signs of sleepless nights and wearisome farewells remind me of a picture I once saw of Abraham Lincoln comparing his age progression before and after the Civil War.  Their eyes are puffy, noses red.  Throat muscles struggle to maintain composure.  Civilians savor every last second with their departing dads, moms, grandparents, sons, daughters, best friends.  The 104th leave Fort Indiantown Gap for another homeland location fifteen hundred miles away to complete preparations for deployment in a faraway land.  We won’t see them for another year.

Army leadership and government dignitaries praise the soldiers at the deployment ceremony.  “They’re always ready any time of day or night.”  They recognize the selfless service and dedication to the mission that lies ahead.  They couldn’t be prouder that these men and women wear the Army uniform.  The chaplain offers the closing benediction prayer and our soldiers are given two more hours to spend with their loved ones gathered to see them off.

Streams of tears are shed by parents, spouses and friends on September 5th at 1400 hours when the struggle of those remaining behind becomes heartachingly tangible.  Parents hold their sons and daughters in bearhugs as their soldier child stifles the urge to cry.  One soldier leans forward and grabs his knees, recovering from the impact of reality.

                It’s November.  Despite incessant political trash talk, voters engage their constitutional rights and cast ballots for their candidates without suicide bombers or other deadly attacks disrupting the election.  Late in the month, we celebrate Thanksgiving which our very first president, George Washington proclaimed “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God.”  We’re free to exercise our faiths and celebrate the holiday without fear of violence or retaliation.

                The troops of the 104th are mobilized overseas, hopefully getting more in their bellies than precooked, no-refrigeration-required MRE’s (meals-ready-to-eat).

It’s December.  Red and green decorations twinkle in store windows.  Children make their wish lists for Santa Claus.  I’m mindful of the sacrifice of both soldiers abroad and families left behind.  As the Grinch steals Christmas, an angel gets his wings, and Santa’s reindeer fly, I can still hear the heavy thump of the rotor blades unique to the Chinook helicopters that gave us one last flyover before carrying our soldiers and their unmatched bravery away on September 5th.

                I’ll be watching marathon episodes of Hallmark Christmas shows this season from my comfy couch with my comfy pillow and warm blanket while night-time temperatures drop to freezing over there.  I know that the freedom to have this kind of leisure is mine because of our men and women willing to serve halfway around the world, keeping us safe at home.  What I want for Christmas is their safety during their year-long journey.  I want them to be confident that they make a difference and not doubt for one second the importance of their service.  I want them to know they are appreciated and most of all, I wish for their safe return next summer.

Link to on-line version:,2685

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Diary of a Great Dane

In October of 2014, I had my first dog- and cat-sitting experience while friends were away.  I grew especially attached to a dog named Gunner.  This column was almost titled “Adventures of a Dog Sitter,” but Gunner and I became such good friends that I contemplated what life was like from his point of view.  Then the title became. . .

Diary of a Great Dane

            My name is Gunner, and I’m four years old.  I’m part Great Dane and part shiny Black Labrador Retriever, totally black, not flawed with any cutesy white spots on my chest or tail.

            I have a sister named Cynamin who is part German Shepherd and part Akita.  She’s pretty even though her face looks like a bat.  The cat lives with us too.  He’s a smart aleck, and he won’t eat his food unless it’s served to His Royal Highness in a freshly cleaned bowl every time.  His name is Lucky.

            I knew the Humans were going to leave us as I watched them take bundles and boxes to their car.  They do that a couple times a year.  It hurts my feelings a little, but they always have a sitter take care of us.  This time it was a new one.  I saw her through the window, and rambled to the door with my fiercest bark.  She wasn’t afraid and didn’t get excited.  Since the Humans hug other humans when they visit, I was sure this sitter would like it if I gave her a hug.  I jumped up to lick her face and she petted my head before she said, “Down.”  She obviously appreciated that I’m part lap dog.

            Me and Cynamin followed her to the kitchen.  I tried to sniff all the things she was putting in the refrigerator and cupboards because it’s what I do.  She didn’t give me any of it though, and it hurt my feelings a little.  I’m sure I heard the sound of treats in one of the boxes.

            She put the gate up at the top of the stairs.  The Humans must have already trained her, doggone it.  That means I can’t get to Lucky’s food bowl, can’t eat any chewy snacks out of his litter box, and can’t drink the blue water out of the big white bowl.

            I thought she would be all rules and no play, but she likes to go outside with us.  Sometimes when the Humans ask, “Wanna go outside?” it doesn’t mean they want to come out with us.  I clenched my rope toy between my teeth, showing off my one-inch cuspids, and she really thought I was going to give it to her!  She chased me around the yard for a while, but my swiftness was too much for her.  My toy.  Not sharing.

            I wrestled with Cynamin when she tried to steal the sitter’s attention.  She used her big nose to slide her head under the sitter’s arm and before I knew it, she was on the floor getting a belly rub!  It wasn’t fair, so I tackled her.  Twice.

            Cynamin is afraid of loud noises, and there was a thunderstorm today.  I know I’m not supposed to make fun of my sister, but her reaction to a thunder boomer is pawsitively hysterical!  She dashes into the living room, running too fast toward the steps, and when she turns before crashing into the wall with all the pictures hanging on it, that curly tail catches Grandma’s picture frame and BOOYAH!  Down comes the picture and Grandma is eating the Pergo flooring again!  It never gets old!

            No matter what humans say, when we fight like cats and dogs, it’s all Lucky’s fault.  He’s an agitator.  Like yesterday, I tried to enjoy a nap, ignoring how he was stalking me from his favorite perch on the arm of the couch.  Did he leave me alone?  No, he pounced on my collar and used my face for speed bag punches.  Then I chased him behind the couch, and Cynamin blocked the other end and we kept him trapped.  Stupid cat.

            We weren’t the only ones who trapped him.  The sitter found my brown blankie that I like to suck.  The slobber on it was at slurpylicious perfection.  She made a face and stuck out her tongue when she touched it, and I thought she was going to suck on it too.  But instead, she put it in a laundry basket.  When she went downstairs to the basement, she didn’t see Lucky follow her.  After she came up, she shut the door on him!  Priceless!  We heard him meowing, and we sat in the corner trying not to let the sitter hear us snickering.  He stayed there like a dork on the opposite side of the door until the sitter went back downstairs.

            I like cat food.  I know I’m not supposed to eat Lucky’s, but the can on the counter top this morning was too tempting.  It wasn’t opened yet, but that never matters, so I snuck it when the sitter wasn’t looking.  She heard me chewing on it later, and discovered my secret treasure.  When she approached me, I knew she wanted to take it away so I growled at her.  She backed off, but kept yelling words I didn’t understand:   metal, cut, mouth.   She was scheming to get me to give up my loot, but I refused.

            She tried to trick me and took Cynamin outside without me.  I couldn’t go because that would have meant leaving my ill gotten gains behind.  She fed Cynamin milk bones and pig ears right in front of me!  It hurt my feelings a little, but she wasn’t getting my cat food.  She tried to entice me with an already opened can of roasted chicken flavored cat food, but that was silly.  The fun is in chewing the can!  Chewing’s my favorite.

            Then she played dirty and broke out the Pup-Peroni’s!   Oh-my-gaaaawwwwddd!   I swallow them whole!  I don’t even chew them!  They are so yummy - I can’t stop to chew!  I surrendered and smothered her in pooch smooches even though she seized what was left of the cat food can.

            At night, I slept next to the sitter.  I liked the feel of her back against mine, but she woke up and nudged me, trying to make me move.  I didn’t want to, so I pretended I was still sleeping.  She pushed harder, but I wouldn’t let her pull the covers out from under me.   Her meager strength was no match for the fortitude of my 150-pound frame, but instead of giving up and going back to sleep against me, she moved to the other side of the bed.   It hurt my feelings a little, but once she fell asleep, I resumed my back-to-back sleep snuggle.  I hope she stays here for a long time.  I woof her.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Enter Leukemia

Early this year I attended a series of Memoir workshops at Write From the Heart in Lancaster.  A few classmates had already or were currently being treated for cancer at the Barshinger Cancer Center.  Little did I know how much time I would soon be spending there.

And little did I know how strong I'm not.  For purposes of this blog, I'll call my boyfriend "Hubby."  Since we've been together for 29 years, give or take a couple early on, the title fits.  And if he knew I was working on this blog, he'd kill me.  He's the one with leukemia and he hates the attention even if the intention comes from a loving, caring place.  To respect his wishes (sort of) I'm going to blog about MY side of the situation.

When you're with someone all the time, you can tell when they don't feel good or when something's wrong.  Such was the case for about a year with Hubby.  He was tired quite a bit and that was unusual for someone who goes - goes - goes.  He didn't look right.  His posture wasn't as strong, his movements seemed tired and took some effort.  Once upon a time in the last year, he was made aware of a "restriction" on a lung.  He kept that to himself.  Until he started getting out of breath doing work he'd done daily for longer than we'd been together.  And he tired out more and more easily.

About two months ago, he went to the family doctor which was HUGE.  He doesn't go to the doctor unless something is broken.  You could say it was.  He was anemic.  Now that made no sense because he eats more red meat and dark leafy greens than anyone I know.

The very next morning at about six o'clock, the doctor called him back.  "He's pretty sick," he told me.  He needed to go for blood work.  Hubby said, "I hope I don't have leukemia" after he talked to the doctor himself.

We went to see another specialist doctor.  Hubby did some research and found that she was listed as a hemoglobin doctor in one place on the internet, and a cancer doctor on another.  In her Slavic accent, she told us, "zere's zomezing cooking," but she didn't know what.  An infinity of blood draws and one bone marrow biopsy later, we found out.

I had two weeks to steel myself for the appointment and prepare for the worst possible news.  I did pretty good sitting there like a trooper, standing by my man to reassure him we would get through whatever it was.  And then the specialist came in followed by a nurse with a clipboard.  It reminded me of when the HR person at work walks in with a manager and they close the door.  It's never good news.  This wasn't either.

I hung tough as the specialist explained in great detail, with some show-and-tell on a laptop, about how the red blood cells weren't making it through his bloodstream like they should and how the white blood cell count was high.  I listened with academic focus to the terms and jargon until I crashed into a wall at "malignancy."  At that point I just fought back tears until I couldn't.  Chronic Lymphoma Leukemia.  I kept hearing him say, "I hope I don't have leukemia."  He was military calm taking in everything being explained to him.  Then he looked at me and my tears caused his tears.

"You're young.  You're healthy otherwise."  Chemotherapy once a month for six months should put you into remission for many years.  That's what I heard.

Chemo Day 1
One of the three medicines they would put into his body was stronger, more vicious is what they should have said, than the others.  They would  baby-step that drug and slow-drip it into him throughout a full day to see how he tolerated it, bumping the dosage up in intervals.

I'm sure I lost years of my life that day.  One of the reactions to the Rituxin was chills.  But not just goose bump give-me-a-blanket chills.  Involuntary body shake chills.  Like watching a horror movie of someone being electrocuted.  The nurses played it so cool.  They called over other nurses.  They paged the specialist.  They watched the computer monitor.  Hubby looked helplessly at his body that seemed to be a separate entity.  What the hell is my body doing?!  No control over it.

A half hour, maybe twenty minutes later, Benadryl, Demoral and steroids melded into the Perfect Storm and the shaking stopped.  This was Day 1 and this was the stuff that was supposed to fix him.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Change Bomb

As I watched the victims of the Catholic priest abuse react to the Grand Jury testimony, I felt a part of their pain that they've carried well over 20 years, some twice that long.  What they've been through has changed who they are, and as they wipe their tears and relive their pain, I am somewhat comforted that someone is finally on their side.
In fiction writing, they call it the "change bomb."  It's when the story is ignited and the character is thrown into peril.  It makes for great reading.

My own change bomb happened late at night, early in the morning if you prefer, in 1987.  I don't remember it and I hope I never do, but I know what happened.  The police report described it in detail.

A drunk driver running a stop sign was the change bomb that altered how I would view the world for the rest of my life.  The rest of my life was a gift not everyone involved in that wreck was given.

I woke up wondering what in the world I was doing in a hospital, and my parents asking me if I remembered what happened.  Truth be told, I didn't know what they were talking about, but I remembered I had been out with my best friend.  We must have been in some kind of fender bender, I reasoned through the fog in my scrambled brain.

Not exactly.  On our way home from the usual weekend night of dancing -- clubbing is the term later given to it -- a drunk driver ran a stop sign, slammed our car into tomorrow, and bashed my brain in the process.

I wasn't even in my local hospital.  Immediate access to a neurosurgeon was tantamount and I was shipped to a different county where the surgeon did the unthinkable by today's standards and began the decompressive craniotomy with a verbal okay over the telephone after he explained the seriousness of the situation to my parents.

I lied in a coma for 36 hours absorbing my change bomb and I woke up not remembering any of it.  I had souvenirs though that would never let me forget it happened:  Staples holding the horseshoe-shaped flap of scalp in place, a cast from my hand to my elbow, my favorite gray jeans stained with blood, and a lock of my hair in a plastic baggie.
Change bomb.  As if a change bomb weren't enough to endure in and of itself, there would be judgments and prejudice to follow.  I can only imagine what it was like after the victims of the priest predators wound up being under a gag order.  Bearing their souls to the parish they trusted and being told, "Shhhhh."

There were probably some who didn't shhhh.  There always is.  So those victims spent the rest of their lives attached to shame.  Each time they went back to church, assuming they did, walking down the aisle between pews of hundreds of watchful eyes, their hands folded like nothing was wrong, waiting their turn to receive Holy Communion from -- the enemy?  As God was their witness above them, hanging crucified on a wooden cross, the holy wafer melting in their mouths on the long walk back to their seats.

Did they constantly wonder who knew?  Could they tell by the side looks and secret whispers?  How intensely did their shame amplify with the current public revelations?
I've taken that walk of shame.  It was right into a Carvel ice cream store.

I had been wearing a fuchsia colored beret to cover my war wounds since the wreck, but that morning, I was sick of it.  I was going to get back in the driver seat and take my scarred and bruised noggin wherever I damn well pleased.

It wasn't so bad behind the armor of my vehicle when only an observant person who happened to be stopped next to me at the same red light would notice my Frankensteinness.  Trepidation and anxiety creeped their way inside my tragic head, past the gawking, coasting with me into the parking space just outside the store.  I shifted it into park, slid the key out of the ignition, and opened the door.

If at the end of my life I am shown the greatest moments of my life, the moment I exited my car will be one of them.  I wasn't at home with nurturing family or friends and I couldn't hide behind my fuchsia beret.  I was on my own and felt it.

There were two elderly ladies sitting on a bench outside the store.  Thank God because if they had been teenagers, I would surely have had to endure ridicule.  I held my head higher with each step like I was sporting a trophy on top of my shoulders, and I was prepared to make conversation with the women if they liked.  They didn't.

"Oh, look at that!" Granny #1 said in disgust to her cohort.

"That looks awful!" Granny #2 concurred, scowling at the wreckage on my head, which must have been an intentional tattoo in her eyes.

Shit.  This was going to suck.  I was too astonished, too hurt, to retaliate, but I couldn't possibly stop this bold partaking on their account.  I had to keep moving, had to get in that store, get my damn ice cream cone, and get back to the security of my car as fast as possible.

Just as the old ladies had surprised me with their assumptive conversation, the young employee who would scoop out my ice cream beat that.

"Car accident?" he asked.  I was suddenly Allison Reynolds in "The Breakfast Club" right before she bore her soul to Andrew the jock.  "Yeeeaaaahhhhh... "

"My buddy looked like that after his accident, so I figured that's what happened to you."  His cheery disposition carried me through my purchase and I left the store licking my 2 scoops, my back to the mean old ladies, empowered to be another normal person on the planet again.
Be kind to people because you never know what they're going through.  It can't be said enough.

These are my thoughts as I shut down my computer, the testimony over.  The wounds of the victims have been reopened and they are in the healing process.

I happen to believe the theory that we came to Earth deliberately, knowing how hard it would be.  And it is freaking hard sometimes.  But we're here to let our light shine, if not for ourselves, then for those who need to see it.  We keep on living change bomb after change bomb, one scoop at a time.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Sense and Sense-Ability

Touch. Smell. Taste. Hear. See.

There's a corn plant to my left and as I touch one of the long, pointy leaves, my description is "plasticky."  Someone else might call it "soft."  We're allowed to have differences in opinions and those two are different enough that one would think the two observers couldn't possibly be touching the same thing.

Smell.  I remember smelling "sausage" outside somewhere and whoever I was with said they smelled "garbage."  Was there a garbage can nearby or did my olfactory senses pick up that I was hungry?

Our sense of taste likewise displays our differences in perceptions.  One of my favorite smells is that of laundry detergent, especially when I'm outside passing by a random house and the smell of the scented detergent is wafting around the perimeter of the home.  It conjures nostalgia of my mom and Gram hanging freshly washed laundry outside to dry.  A friend I was once walking with couldn't even perceive the smell that pleased my nasal sensors as soon as it hit me.  Couldn't even smell it!  How could they block out something so pleasant.

No two carnivorous appetites of my fellow humans are the same.  Occasionally, I'll dip fries into ketchup or eat something barbecued, but those are the extents of my taste for condiments.  I'm one of those picky eaters.  Don't even sneak that tablespoon of mustard into a recipe and if my BLT comes with mayonnaise, bring me a barf bag.  I know people who drool over a lobster tail or AYCE crab legs.  I like fried or breaded shrimp and grocery store fish sticks.  That's the sum total of seafood I enjoy.  No, I will not try your shrimp dip that is different from everyone else's.  It all tastes like gross seafood to me.  I'm a tea fiend who doesn't like the smell of coffee let alone the taste.  I will not like your specially flavored kind that "hardly tastes like coffee."  Yes it does.

Hearing is the sense I pay the least attention to and I know this because when I'm checking out at a store, I automatically say, "thank you."  The cashier may have thanked me first, but I say it without thinking and I thank them also.  Another automatic reply I give is, "you too."  That kind of habit proves me a fool when I pay for my groceries after chatting about my upcoming weekend plans with the clerk, and their parting words are something like, "Have fun at your party."  Yep.  It's automatic.  "You too."  I wonder if the clerk, who obviously heard me, felt like I wasn't really the pleasant person I pretended to be.  Clearly, I was not sincere with my amiability or I would have listened to what they said.

Regarding sight, why can't anyone else see the same image I see in the clouds?  Why can I only see an aura as a translucent blur when someone else can not only tell me what color my aura is at that moment, but how far away from my body it extends.  I appreciate that there is a difference between fuchsia, magenta and burgundy where all three might be insignificant purple to someone else.

Some fabulous things about perception have come before me, such as: “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” ― W.B. Yeats“What you see and what you hear depend a great deal on where you are standing.  It also depends on what sort of person you are.” 
― C.S. Lewis“There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.” ― Aldous Huxley

I could go on and on with other thought and sense-provoking examples, but the point has been made.  Our perceptions are OUR perceptions, and that's okay.