Saturday, August 30, 2008

It's only a misplaced modifier

Here’s something I see a lot in other people’s writing, and I know I sometimes make this mistake myself.

Where you place the word “only” in a sentence can transform the sentence’s meaning. For example, consider the meaning of each of the following sentences:

#1: I only drink beer on Friday nights.
#2: I drink only beer on Friday nights.
#3: I drink beer only on Friday nights.

The first sentence (I only drink beer on Friday nights) means that on Friday nights, I do nothing but drink beer. No shooting pool at a biker bar, no catching up on the Guiding Light episodes I’ve taped during the week. Nope, the only thing I do on Friday nights is drink beer.

The second sentence (I drink only beer on Friday nights) means that on Friday nights, the only thing I drink is beer. The “two-buck Chuck” remains in the fridge because on Friday nights, I swear off the wine; the only thing I drink is beer.

The third sentence (I drink beer only on Friday nights) means the only time I drink beer is on Friday nights. If my intention is to express that I have exercise enough self-control to limit my beer consumption to one blessed night per week, this is the sentence that reflects my intention accurately. (And for once in my life, I’d be writing fiction.)

You get it, right?

Just remember: the best rule in regard to the word “only” is to place it immediately before the word or phrase it modifies or limits.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Seize the moment to surprise and delight!

I absolutely adore my friend John from my writers’ group. I don’t know him all that well — I can’t spell (or even pronounce) his last name — but I do know I love him. John’s an interesting character who admits to spending his early years in a Vegas fast lane that wasn’t always heading in the most, um… wholesome direction, and I find his sweet, no-bullshit demeanor nothing short of endearing.

We don’t cross paths as often as we used to, and so every once in a while I like to bug him with a quick email or comment on his MySpace page, keeping myself in his face, as is my habit with people I like. Last night I ran into John at an event for writers at the library; of course, I was thrilled to see him.

In the hour we spent together, John must have said at least three or four times, “Thanks for thinking of me” and “I can’t tell you how much your little notes mean to me.” I could see that the tiny effort it took me to reach out now and then was appreciated exponentially.

How easy it is to make someone’s day, if only we remember to make the effort. What can you do right now to surprise and delight someone? Take a minute—literally—and just do it. Right now!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Trust your gut and take a chance!

My final words in Saturday’s blog were, “I really should clean.” I’ll start today’s blog by saying, “I really should come clean.”

What do I need to come clean about? The fact that not only was I meeting my virtual MySpace friend Bill for the first time, I had also offered my spare room to him. That’s right, I told a complete stranger—whom I’d met on the Internet, of all places—that he could stay overnight in my spare bedroom on his way to Burning Man.

“You make my blood run cold,” my Aging Nymph cohort told me last week when I confided my plans.

I waved off her concerns. “I’ve been reading this guy’s blogs for over a year. He’s sweet, I can tell.”

Deb was unconvinced. I could see the visions of a bloodthirsty mass ax murderer/rapist dancing in her head. Surely Bill’s sensitive, heartfelt words of the past year were merely part of his grand scheme to gain my confidence and then clear out my valuables—which in my case would be my collection of candles and rocks—and leave me in a comatose heap of blood after he’d had his way with me.

As it turned out, Bill was EXACTLY the person I imagined: sweet.

He arrived at my place around 4 p.m. on Saturday and we talked and laughed and hung out together until 2:30 in the morning. I woke up on Sunday to a thank-you note, my candles and rocks intact.

Bill will be coming through town again on September 3 on his way back to Phoenix. Two thoughts: 1) I can’t wait to hear about his Burning Man experience, and 2) I’m glad I trusted my instincts. If I hadn’t I would have missed out on a new, really cool friend.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Should 50-year-olds have a MySpace page? Yes!

I’ve been on MySpace for over a year now and I love it! When one of the young girls at work suggested I put up a MySpace page, I replied with, “MySpace? I’ll be the oldest person on there!”

Au contraire. While MySpace started as a social networking site primarily targeted to the youth demographic, there are millions and millions of folks on there around my age (50) and even much older. But in the MySpace world, as in real life, age doesn’t matter. The most important thing is to have fun, and I’ve been having a lot of fun with it.

Through MySpace, I’ve enjoyed quite a few virtual friendships. I correspond regularly with an artist in North Carolina I found on musician David Byrne’s page; we discuss our philosophies of life and share personal concerns that somehow are easier to express through the comfort of relative anonymity.

One of my MySpace BFFs is my ex-husband’s former student, whom I connected with through my ex’s MySpace page. Lucia lives in Washington, DC, and is a sweet soul (see her runner’s blog in my links at right). I know we will meet someday; I picture us going through two bottles of wine while chatting all night on my couch.

I have met up with a few MySpace friends here in Las Vegas—local musician Rockin’ Billy is a super-cool guy—and one of my virtual friends from Phoenix is coming to town today on his way to the Burning Man festival up near Reno. Bill is a prolific blogger, and we have been reading and commenting on each other’s writing forever, it seems. I really can’t wait to see him in the flesh.

Through MySpace I keep in touch with friends I used to work with, friends from my writers’ group, and one of my best girlfriends from college who now lives in Colorado. I can also check up on the goings-on of my daughter (lots of parents are on MySpace just for that reason!) For single people, MySpace is a great way to screen dates—everything you’d ever want to know about Linda Lou is right there on my MySpace page.

I could go on and on, but Bill will be here soon. I really should clean.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

On the job: my recipe for success

Last week the president of the company I work for called me into his office. “I may be out of town next Thursday,” he began, with a dangerous twinkle in his eye.

So what does that have to do with me? I thought. You’re always out of town.

“And I’m supposed to give a speech at Caesar’s Palace. I might not get back in time, so I’d like you to stand in for me.”

“Wait a minute,” I said, my head filling with a million questions and concerns. “You might not get back in time? When will you know for sure?”

He smiled, enjoying the torture. “Just come in Thursday ready to go. No pressure, but this is an important presentation. There’ll be about 200 people there.”

I sighed heavily. “Well… I guess I won’t be putting Bailey’s in my coffee that morning.”

Yes, I really said that. Out loud. I always say career-sabotaging things, and right to the big guy. I’ve told him a hundred times, “You know, I work only because I’m between husbands.” He laughs as if I’m kidding. Once I substituted his photo with a picture of George Clooney on his bio page on a PowerPoint slide. He loved it.

I break every “dress for success” rule; I wear totally age-inappropriate miniskirts, I know just how much cleavage I can get away with and I sashay around the cube farm like an aging cocktail waitress. I can’t seem to make it to my desk on time in the morning, but I dart out of the office at 4:00:01 like my ass is on fire.

And I’m the one the president asks to stand in for him.

I’m no Nancy Kerrigan, but “WHY MEEEEEE???”

You want to know why? Because despite my pathetic work ethic, the fact is, I’m good. I’m a damn good writer and an engaging speaker, and that’s essentially what I’m being paid to do. That’s why I’m the one the president of the company turned to.

Nonetheless, in the workplace you’re still expected to play the game, and most of the time that involves editing out a good portion of who you really are. For me, that would take an incredible amount of effort—I’d have no energy left to get anything done!

However, I firmly believe that the higher the quality of your work and the more talent you have to contribute to the bottom line, the more you’re allowed to break the rules and the more you’re allowed to be your full frontal self. And that’s important—our jobs consume a huge portion of our waking time. Who wants to have to assume a professional persona and act the part all freakin’ day if it’s not really you to begin with?

So maybe you’re like me, with essentially no career aspirations and you work only to make money so you can have fun in real life. That’s okay—but make sure you always excel at what you do. Make the most of your natural talents. Make yourself so valuable to the company that people can’t help but put up with you. I can’t stress this enough. And, be a nice person to be around—that always helps, too.

As it turned out, I got a call from the office manager last night at 8 p.m. saying the big guy made his flight okay and he’s on his way back to town so I’m off the hook. I guess the Bailey’s goes in the coffee this morning after all. (Kidding.)

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The sound of my own advice

I’ve been concerned about one of my dear friends. He could be depressed. Maybe not; how would I know, really? Is there anything more annoying than an armchair psychologist? But I hear so many long sighs—deep exhales of resignation, “life sucks and then you die” sounds of exasperation that I had to speak up.

“Maybe you should talk to someone, a therapist maybe,” I said, in the kindest, gentlest, most loving voice I own.

He shrugged. And at that moment I remembered, you can’t tell anyone anything.

No, you can’t tell anyone anything, and you certainly can’t tell anyone what to do—you can’t tell them to become a Democrat, stop drinking, eat their vegetables or love Jesus, regardless of the benefits they’d enjoy if only they’d follow your sage advice. I do believe that, however well intentioned, about 90 percent of what comes out of our mouths is for our own benefit. It makes us feel good to say it.

Sometimes kids will throw something out there to see how we’re going to chew on it. They’re not looking for our advice; they’re going to do what they want no matter what. They’re just looking for a gauge so they know how far their actions are going to take them from the path we’d like them to follow, which is in direct correlation to how close they’ll be to displeasing us. If they’re heading way off the path we envision for them, they won’t bring up the subject again.

I’m always telling people what to do; I often joke that I’m the kind of person who would tell the pope how to say Mass. In my brilliant mind, I can easily identify what’s going on with them and sometimes the solution to the problem is so clear to me — how can they not see it? Of course, people can look at my life, shake their heads and roll their eyes and wonder, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph — what the hell is she thinking?”

I don’t believe my friend will ever go to a therapist. Maybe the next time I see him, which could be several months from now, he’ll try to suppress his sighing in my presence, lest I start in on the whole therapy blah, blah, blah. Or maybe he’ll truly be past whatever it is he’s going through right now and secretly resent me for suggesting he could benefit from some mental health counseling.

So the question is, knowing full well that we speak primarily to hear the sound of our own voices, should we ever offer advice at all?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

My Top 10 list of "Doable" celebrities: Oh, the shame!

Every Wednesday night my BFF Deb and I do a blog talk radio show (see links at right). I've often admitted that our weekly broadcast is pure, unabashed girltalk--the kind that makes guys shake their heads and thank God for their penises. Yet inexplicably, men seem to comprise the majority of our listeners.

Last week Deb and I each revealed our lists of Top 10 Doable Celebrities. "Doable" is Deb's word--there are a few on my list whom I would not only "do" but I'm convinced I could settle into a stick-a fork-in-me-I'm-done-dating type of long-term monogamous relationship. As if they would actually have me.

I'm ashamed to admit that as Deb rattled off her list, I balked at quite a few of her choices. Larry David? I love him, but wouldn't particularly want to "do" him. Keanu Reeves? No way! Matt Damon? Are you out of your mind? So self-righteous, I was.

Well, I owe Deb a big apology. Take a look at these guys below. Yep, if I could have ANY celebrity for myself, these are the fellas I would choose. Tell me if, with one exception, I don't possibly have the most bizarre taste in men on earth.

My list of He-Men:
Row 1: A grown-up Billy "Will Robinson" Mumy of Lost in Space, Peter Horton of the sappy 80s drama, Thirtysomething, Billy Bob Thornton, former Guiding Light star Kevin Bacon
Row 2: Prince Harry (sorry), Denis Leary, Justin "Buzz Cooper" Deas of Guiding Light, Russell Crowe
Row 3: George Clooney, and my #1 choice for a lifetime of monogamy: Philip Seymour Hoffman

I need some serious help, don't I?

On next week's show we're going to disclose our celebrity girl-crushes. Now that gives you something to live for, huh?

Enter at your own risk!

In Tuesday’s post I talked about how a director’s harsh rejection made Sidney Poitier even more determined to become an actor. His experience prompted me to dig up a bit of correspondence I’ve saved from November 30, 2005 from a pretty accomplished writer I’d met at some kind of writing event here in Las Vegas.

After hearing not much more than the 30-second “elevator speech” for my then half-written manuscript, Bastard Husband: A Love Story, the writer followed up with an email saying I should “drop this project like the bad habit it is” because “your future male dating relationships, well, you'll never how many DON'T CALL YOU BACK because you once wrote this book - and that's for the rest of your life.”

My project would doom all future relationships. For the rest of my life. Yikes.

He went on to say that he certainly wouldn't call me back, “even though you're smart, pretty, energetic, sexy and all the great things one hopes to find in a single woman” lest things don’t turn out perfectly and he ends up in my next book, “warts and all.” In the P.S. he asked me to send him my phone number.

I’m telling you only a fraction of his email—written in red, formatted primarily in solid caps—but the truth is, his words drove me to work even harder toward my goal of finishing my book. Again, angels come in all disguises.

As it turns out, I seem to be doing okay with the men, especially those who have read my stuff, but that guy had a point: People do take an awfully big risk when they cross the path of a writer like me who’s drawn to human nature stories like a moth to a backyard floodlight. Fortunately for him, he brushed my life with a single stroke, so he’s getting away with a mere blog entry.

But yeah, I totally see the risk.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Life lesson from Sidney Poitier

Last Sunday morning I had the pool to myself, as I often do when I get out there early enough. I floated around, engulfed in my serenity… enjoying the sunshine, blue sky and palm trees… reading my OK! celebrity rag… vowing that if John Mayer breaks Jennifer Aniston’s heart, I am personally going to kick his tattooed ass.

I also flipped through the September/October AARP magazine (yeah, I know…), which has a nice article on page 42 about Sidney Poitier. To this day, the thought of Sidney Poitier sparks a memory from childhood of watching Lilies of the Field on an old black and white TV and my mother going absolutely nuts over him.

“Look at the way he carries himself!” she sighed. Even at age eight I could kind of see her point, although I also couldn’t help but wonder if maybe my father’s Pillsbury Doughboy physique wasn’t exactly cutting it for her.

Anyway, in the article Mr. Epitome of Grace and Eloquence talks about how a shy boy from a tiny island in the Bahamas eventually made it to Harlem, where he worked as a dishwasher, and responded to a call in a newspaper for actors at the American Negro Theatre.

“When I auditioned, I read so poorly, I was thrown out,” he recounts, and then tells how the director grabbed him by the seat of his pants and said, “Just get out of here and go get yourself a job as a dishwasher or something!” Poitier had not told the man he was a dishwasher; “He was passing judgment on my worth,” he concluded.

The experience drove Poitier to improve his reading skills, which he reveals were at about a fourth-grade level. To improve his speech, Poitier bought a radio and listened carefully to a particular newscaster and would eavesdrop on people whose articulation he found impressive.

“I’d made a promise to myself that I’d become an actor just to show the man at the American Negro Theatre,” he said.

Hmmm… writers, think about those agents who respond to a query or manuscript with a simple, “Thanks, but not for me.” Suppose the agent instead replied with, “What the hell were you thinking, sending me that piece of shit? You call yourself a writer? Go out and get yourself a job as a dishwasher!”

In the long run, wouldn’t that be a kinder response?

What if that seemingly cruel director simply said to Poitier, “No thanks, not for me”?

Angels come in all disguises, don’t they?

Saturday, August 9, 2008

John Edwards: Oh, no he didn't!

Sorry about the cliché, but my heart sank when I saw the headline on AOL announcing that John Edwards had admitted to having an affair. How could he? To think of how he helps all those people connect with their dead relatives; he seems like such a nice guy.

Then I realized the adulterer was not John Edward, the popular medium and host of the Crossing Over show I used to be addicted to, but John Edwards—plural—the politician. Whew!

Another thing to be relieved about: I found the blueberry I dropped a couple of nights ago while sitting on the couch having a glass of wine and watching a Family Guy rerun. How I actually missed my mouth, I don’t know; at that point I was still on my first glass of Two Buck Chuck so there was really no excuse. Chalk it up to a poor sense of direction.

Believe me, once I realized I’d dropped it, I looked everywhere, to no avail. (Again, pardon the cliché.) At any rate, every once in a while during the past two days—usually while daydreaming at work—I caught myself not only wondering where the hell that blueberry could have gone, but hoping it wouldn’t surface during an amorous moment on the sofa with an admirer. Which is exactly what happened with that Dorito I lost a few months ago.

So yeah, yesterday was a good day for me. Sucked for John Edwards, though. And I can’t imagine today will be much better.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Code red for the fashion police

Last Saturday evening I’m on my way to meet my friend Donna and her husband, Joey, at Bally’s and find myself driving down the Las Vegas Strip. Of course, no one in their right mind drives down the Strip on a Saturday night, but I missed a turn that would have led me to the back entrance of the hotel/casino’s garage and instead of allowing my blood pressure to escalate, I vowed to enjoy the sights. If you have to sit in traffic, Las Vegas Boulevard is probably one of the more interesting stretches of pavement.

So there I am, moving about an eighth of an inch every 15 minutes, when I happen to glance over to one of those crappy souvenir shops. What do they have out front on the sidewalk but a rack of T-shirts that say, “I [heart symbol] to Fart.”

A T-shirt that proclaims, “I love to fart”! Hold on, let me process this for a second…

Okay, other than Family Guy Peter Griffin, just who on earth would be caught dead wearing something like that? Exactly who would have the freakin’ nerve to go up to the cashier with that shirt in hand? Aw, wait till the chicks see me in this! Certainly nothing screams "blueblood" like a T-shirt announcing your predilection for passing gas.

Would an adoring wife or girlfriend purchase it for the man of her dreams? Look, honey! You you love to fart — this is so you! And then months later, do you think, with arms folded across her chest, she’s complaining, “You never wear that ‘I love to fart’ T-shirt I gave you.” Yeah, that’s when you know the magic’s gone.

Should those shirts rightfully come in anything but XXL? Could they possibly (gulp!) be available in women’s sizes? A flirty tank top style, perhaps?

So many questions… what do you think?

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Taking the heat out of grammar hell

Here’s something that always seems to be a little confusing. Take a look at these two sentences and notice the absence of the comma in #2:

1. I stayed out all night partying with my sister, Lori.

2. I stayed out all night partying with my sister Lori.

Which is correct? Either could be, depending on how many sisters I have. In real life, I have three sisters, so the second sentence is correct.

Why is that? The answer has to do with essential and nonessential phrases. According to the Associated Press Stylebook 2006, an essential phrase is “a word or group of words critical to the reader’s understanding of what the author had in mind.” A nonessential phrase “provides more information about something” and “although the information may be helpful to the reader’s comprehension, the reader would not be misled if the information were not there.”

That said, here are a couple of rules:

RULE #1: Set off nonessential phrases with commas.
RULE #2: Do not use commas to set off an essential phrase from the rest of the sentence.

In this example, “Lori” is an essential phrase; since I have more than one sister, her name is critical if the reader is to know which sister kept me out partying all night. That’s why her name should not be set off with a comma, as in sentence #2.

The first sentence would be correct if I had only one sister, in which case Lori’s name would be nonessential; what other sister would I possibly be talking about?

Got it?

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Good service is nice, but bad service makes a good story

For a few months in 2001 I lived part-time in Buffalo, New York. Like late October foliage in the Adirondacks, the city is clearly past peak, though in the right light I could see its charm. What wasn’t charming, as I recall, was the Night of the Living Dead attitude of the service workers. Salespeople or store clerks would perk up only if I happened to ask for something out of stock or discontinued.

Me: “Do you carry [item]?”
Them: (Sudden great big smile, wide open eyes, cheery vocal tone) “No, we sure don’t!”

A moment later, back to flatlining.

Fast forward to last week in Henderson, Nevada…

The cashier lady in Walgreen’s is 110 years old and if her husband’s still alive, I bet they have matching mustaches. In slower than slow motion, she rings up my two packs of Altoids and reaches for a plastic bag. A big plastic bag. For two little packs of Altoids.

“That’s okay,” I tell her, with the usual smile in my voice. “I’ll just put them in my pocketbook.”

She stops and blinks deliberately. “You don’t want a bag?”

“Uh, no. I’ll just put them in my pocketbook.”

She looks at me like “What the hell kind of freak are you?” and then holds up a tiny paper in her right hand. “Well, then,” she snarls, “Do you want your receipt?”

“Yes,” I reply, matching her steely gaze. “I’ll put that in my pocketbook, too.”

I could only conclude two things: 1) She has to be a transplant from Buffalo, and 2) that "unexpected friendliness" concept I've talked about was not going to apply to this one.