Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Wanderlust Wednesday

"An agreeable companion on a journey is as good as a carriage." -- Publius Syrus

An ode to the summer traveler. What was it Twain snarked so long ago about traveling?

Oh, yes. Here it is. "I have found out there ain't no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them."

Are you on the cusp of real-world travel? Perhaps you're a writer like Twain, even preparing to travel aloft the magic carpet of your own imagination.

Whatever the case, I wish you every success. Remember to take deep breaths if you're traveling with children or a spouse--that goes for my spouse in dealing with my temper flares, too!--and to always be prepared.

Yes, it does help to have a Boy Scout outlook to travel with children. Or with pets. Or with both, which I so happened to have done, through a heavily flooded zone, as it so happened. The dog was calmer than the kid, believe it or not!

If you're instead stuck in the work vehicle or office, at home or otherwise, my condolences. I know we're going stir-crazy with the heat keeping us lidded inside our little breadbox.

For those quicksanded in the office or with an interest in work-life balancing, I ran across a series of short excellent videos from author Juliet Schor, who wrote Plentitude: The New Economics Of True Wealth, which I'm now itching to pick up after viewing the videos.

The Globe and Mail of Canada provides several Schor videos, but I'll only mention one here. Get past the annoying commercial, and it's called "Why cutting back on working hours works." Unfortunately, it's not available for embedding, but you can find it and other videos by Schor (and other thought leaders like primatologist Jane Goodall, in fact) here. The start of Schor's videos currently occurs four videos down, with "Shorter hours pay for themselves."

She makes a great case for "time affluence," as seen in countries like the Netherlands and Germany. When work hours decline, guess who benefits? The planet and its people. (The average worker, anyway. CEOs and high-paid staff get enough perks already without reduced hours.) She notes a correlation between fewer work hours and "reduc[tions] in greenhouse gas emissions, lower unemployment, and higher quality of life."

In Germany and the Netherlands, the average person works more than 300 hours fewer than we do in North America.

And, so, please let overwork be a sort of inspiration for you this Wednesday. If you can bear to part the curtain of your particular kind of chaos, please go out and enjoy your lives and families.

Note & Caption: My posts will be irregular for the next two or so weeks, owing to my own family commitments and downtime. Meanwhile, enjoy our daughter's quizzical expression from a past excursion at Nauticus (a museum of naval history and seafaring), in Norfolk, Virginia.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Do Good Fences Make for Good Writing?

"Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down."
-- American Poet Robert Frost

I suspect that if Robert Frost stopped by my words on a snowy evening--or a summer morn--he would squash them under his heel like they were the proverbial fat, white spider.

That said, I find that I work better in my writing life by having the "good fence" provided for me.

What do I mean by the good fence? I'll show you.

Writing Rules and Figuring out How You Work Best

Wherever you look, you'll find writing advice. In my writing about not giving writing advice, alas, I am dispensing nuggets of worth (at least I hope so), too.

But you really, truly need to find what works for you.

Some say you have to carve out an hour a day or at least set up a time slot that you always fill with the coin of your particular realm at the same time daily. Others enjoin the following: have an actual desk in an actual office even at home, hang a "do not disturb" sign on the door, dress up as if it were a workplace, or don't multitask.

All have their validity. Some may work for you. Some may not.

I find that I benefit by having rules established for me, as with writing contests and competitions or submission guidelines. The open page is so much more daunting than, say, that white space which has to be framed by the rules of a particular publication or contest.

If they say a thousand words tops, it behooves me to put my horse within those borders rather than letting her run amok, to crash through the fence at 1,001. Even if she knows the editor or has a cracking-good story, she is likely to be put back out to pasture if she can't follow the rules.

The Woods May be Lovely, But Keep Your Eyes on the ...

. . . Prize that is the hard-won task of writing and its bosom buddy, editing. Are you missing the forest and the trees if you scatter your talents around, desperate to latch onto some writing gig or inspiration? Any project will do, you might think. And there are definitely some writers who can write about anything and make the words work wonders for them.

I want to provide a for-instance here. But I will instead digress. I am going so far as to suggest that you diversify your writing to improve your main genre, niche, or focus.

If you don't normally write poetry, sit down and reel off a haiku before you get your writing started one day.

If you're a poet or playwright, instead pen an opinion piece or work on crafting a fiction story told from the perspective of a person lacking one or more of the five senses.

But remember to occasionally let yourself get outside the comfort zone of that fence, too.

With the good fence, all bets are off. You can stretch and roil and toss tempests around a bit, but keep it all corralled within the rules.

A Writing Prompt to Help You Negotiate the Fence

Instead of feeling like the captive in a pit-and-pendulum-type narrative, view the fence as a friend or, as Frost suggested, a good neighbor.

It will keep you honest. Keep you working, plugging, focused, and trained.

And, finally, I thought it might be good to suggest a fence-building outfit. You might have heard of The First Line. They sponsor quarterly writing contests wherein you take a supplied writing prompt--the first line of a story--and spin a world from within it.

Their latest fence, for Fall in this case, has been rolled out here, and your stories are due 1 August 2011. Please let me know if the fence framework frees you up, as it did for Frost, evidenced by his mastery of rhyme and meter, or feels more like a literary tether.

And, meanwhile, it's well worth your time to read or listen to the Frost poems I've only tidbitted here, in order of mention:

"Mending Wall"

"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" (audio)


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

To Beet or Not to Beet, That is the Legal Question

Think a moment of the American Dream, evolving though it may be in these turbulent times. What did you envision? It probably had something to do with home-ownership, yes?

So, let's say you're living out that dream. Oh, let's just pick a location. How about Oak Park, Michigan? That's about as "Americana" as it gets, don't you think?

Now, enter mom Julie Bass, who perpetrated a travesty by committing a horrific and heinous crime planting a vegetable garden, along with a little haven or herbs and a fringe of flowers, in her own front yard.

Say what?

A "Garden Renegade" is Born

I first became acquainted with Julie's story by reading the Raw Story short here.

Treehugger also provides a summation video of this issue from Michigan's WXYZ television station, and I've got that video here.

Self-dubbed a "garden renegade," Bass originally decided to plant a vegetable garden in May after a sewer project had obliterated her front yard. Rather than re-growing grass or adding shrubs or sod--the latter of which she has noted in interviews is quite expensive--she opted for peppers, tomatoes, and the like.

This rampant vegetablism on Bass' part has gotten her into hot water with the certain unnamed neighbors, who complained to the city, and thus with the city of Oak Park, Mich.

According to an ABC News interview, the city has charged her with growing a "vegetable garden in front yard space." If Bass is convicted of this "crime," she could spend up to 93 days in jail under these draconian and vaguely worded codes.

The ABC News interview, and others quoting Bass, point out that she said she sought and received approval from both neighbors and city officials in her Detroit suburb before she went ahead with the plantings of five decorative planter boxes in her family's front yard.

Nonetheless, head honcho in charge of beating back people wanting to grow modern-day victory gardens, a.k.a., Oak Park's Planning and Technology director Kevin Rulkowski, told WXYZ in the video you see above, "I told her don't do it, and she went ahead and did it anyway."

The nut of the argument, if you will, comes down to the wording of the city's code. Per ABC News, the Oak Park city screening and landscaping ordinance states, "All unpaved portions of the [screening and landscaping] site shall be planted with grass ground cover, shrubbery, or other suitable live plant material."

What's with the Vegetable Vendetta, Mr. Rulkowski?
If peppers, zucchini, and other edible plantings are not suitable, what is? Would Mr. Rulkowski have Bass grow pot plants instead? Or is it instead okay to persecute a family, with children I might add, for growing edible foods? Yes, let's strong-arm them into growing grass, nothing, or only ornamentals.

Bah, humbug. Humbug, I say! (And someone should stuff said humbug in Rulkowski's ear!)

Bass rightly has called for a jury trial, and her pretrial hearing is slated for July 26. Mark your calendars! Naturally, Julie's attorney Solomon Radner does not believe that a jury will convict his client of a crime. He aptly alludes to First Lady Michelle Obama's drive to get the nation's families to grow more fruits and vegetables, doing so herself on the White House's grounds, and to partake of them as steps toward better health.

As a mom who involves the kids whenever possible in her vegetable gardening--with not much luck growing tomatoes or peppers this year, darnit!--I am adding my voice, for what it's worth, to Julie's campaign. Her blog, Oak Park Hates Veggies, will carry continuing updates and is interesting to read besides.

I see this move on the part of the city of Oak Park, Mich., and Mr. Rulkowski, as a means to squash families and the folks of low to moderate means (though I'm not presuming to know the Bass family's financial details) like so many weeds under a corporatist or business-coddling boot. Down with the people; up with the well-to-do!

For goodness' sake, it's not like we've been hearing about or experiencing the skyrocketing costs of food worldwide, with food riots and the like--not just here in the States. Oh, wait. Yes, we have. Here and here and here and here for starters.

What's the big deal about vegetables? It's not a hazard to herself or her neighbors. It's not a blight on the neighborhood or an eyesore that brings down property values. Take a look at the photos and videos. It's one or two bad seeds--if that could ever be proven--who complained to the city and who, for whatever reason, are holding the reins attached to Mr. Rulkowski's muzzle.

VoN will actively follow this story and hereby issues a resounding boo, hiss to Oak Park, Michigan, and Kevin Rulkowski, for their adherence to draconian and poorly worded city codes. If we can find out further steps to take in support of Bass other than this column--even interviewing her if she has the time--we will cover it here.

What say you, readers? Are you in support of Bass' decision to grow a vegetable garden to supplement her family's food supplies? Please offer your thoughts below.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

If Social Security's on the Table, What's under it?

I was listening to NPR a week or two ago and Tavis Smiley was on promoting an American history exhibit at a local museum. Not surprisingly, he said something compelling that has stayed with me. I'll paraphrase from memory:

"First, we must respect him, which we do. Then we must protect him. But, finally, we must correct him."

Neither Tavis nor colleague Cornel West shies from the latter part, to be sure.

But who is Tavis addressing?

As you might have guessed, it's U.S. President Barack Obama.

On this tumultuous Thursday, as so many thoughts and tirades and trends tug at our attention, I'd like to ask that you bear that statement in mind.

Whether Medicare and Social Security are "on the table" in the D & D talks--and, no, I don't mean Dungeons & Dragons, fellow 1970s/1980s geeks--or not, the day is coming, I fear, when America will even more sharply divide into the have-it-alls and the have-it-nots.

What are your thoughts, dear reader? I know politics is not supposed to be discussed in polite company, but those are old mores, to my mind. We can be rational and thoughtful and still face issues that affect us all without devolving into fistfights or baseless ad-hominems.

And now, some pertinent reading for today and tomorrow as we await further economic and world news here at Views on News:

"In debt talks, Obama offers Social Security cuts." Come on! Be the Commander in Chief, not the Caver in Chief!

Fox News' Rupert "Howling Mad" Murdoch [yes, I bestowed this nickname] is on the hot seat for hacking scandal involving potential cover-up of murdered woman's messages, breaking into dead soldiers' relatives communiques, and more heinous stuff. What did you expect from somebody who runs a so-called media company calling a rape accuser a "prostitute"? See "Grieving relatives of British soldiers may also have been hacked." Another view is available via Reuters.

"Six months of The Fact-Checker -- An accounting." Let's just say that Obama beat Romney in terms of having fewer Pinocchios, with 1.8 and 2.0 averages, respectively, and the wackiest of the wackjob Republican 2012 contenders will need nose jobs in the near future--and perhaps, someday, one might hope, "real" jobs like the rest of us [note: independently wealthy, old money or new doesn't necessarily qualify you as being employed].

"Ex-national security advisor warns [income] inequality could lead to unrest." A sad but familiar refrain.

Will it or won't it? What's the latest on the last historic mission of the United States' Space Shuttle program (aka let's get ready to hitch a ride with Russia, comrades). Da and perestroika! For Twitter updates, MSNBC science writer Alan Boyle is attending the NASA tweetup for Atlantis' launch and provides great science coverage overall. Follow him at @b0yle. As of 11 am CST, 7 July, Boyle was MT'ing via @SpaceflightNow, "Lightning warning at #shuttle pad. No firm estimate on when wether wil allow gantry roll," with a link to Stay tuned, for you might even seen kiddie celebs at and around the time of the tweetup and final launch, such as Sesame Street's Elmo. Tee-hee-hee, ha-ha-ha! Hashtag is #NASATweetup

And, finally, there's still time to sign Sen. Bernie Sanders' petition to President Obama, noting that we won't balance the budget on the backs of children, the sick, the elderly, and middle- and low-income families. Almost 123,000 signatures on it as of this writing. We can do better than that, c'mon Americans!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Women's World Cup Wednesday in Wolfsburg

Woo-hoo, it's whooping time. In the form of the Women's World Cup and, more specifically, for Team USA, which faces Sweden in Wolfsburg, Germany, today.

Currently ranked Number 1 in the world, Team USA looks to notch a win against familiar foe Sweden. But don't worry. We've got it in the bag.

Team USA's coach, Pia Sundhage, is Swedish. We enter the match, according to, having played Sweden 29 times over the years that women's professional-level football has flourished, including three World Cup matches. In all 3 WC matches, we bested the skillful Swedes, winning 3-2 in 1991, 3-1 in 2003, and 2-0 in 2007.

Team USA also enters the game having more or less trounced its previous WC 2011 opponents, with a workman-like 2-0 win over Korea DPR and a roasting of Colombia, 3-0.

Clash of the Football Titans in a Battle for the Top of Group C
Although we're still only in group stage, the USA women hope to edge out Sweden and roundly win Group C to get better positioning for the quarterfinal stage of the WC.

Powerhouse Sweden likely won't be a romp, but USA needs only a draw to secure "a quarterfinal match-up against what, theoretically, will be an easier opponent." (

Perhaps, continuing with the W theme today, we will even see a wallop by Wambach. Striker Abby Wambach is overdue for a cracking goal or header, as was painfully evident from the Colombia game.

As a (transplanted) Midwesterner who was a season-ticket-holder for WPS team the St. Louis Athletica, sadly now defunct, I am counting on keeper and Athletic alumna Hope Solo to kick some grass as usual.

And here's a Hope Solo-signed ball [she's the "No. 1" signature in front, in case you can't tell] we won to give Team USA some extra oomph from afar. Trust me, if we could, we'd be in Germany right now cheering them on!

Besides, the little ones love to scream and cheer, whether it's soccer or not!

Tune into ESPN and Galavision at 2:30 p.m. ET today to watch the match live.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Writing it Real and More Criticism of Online Writers

They come at you from every conceivable angle. From well-meaning "oh, I wish I could sit at home and do freelance writing" to "write what you know" or even "make it new," volleys of advice track every freelance writer.

Naturally, it hurts more when a fellow writer stages a smackdown or lobs that most dreaded of bĂȘtes noires: hack. I won’t belabor this point here except to point you to last week’s version of The Hack Strikes Back, in which this writer takes on a NYT columnist.

Nobody Rides for Free, So Should Anybody Write for Free?
And yet, some criticisms of online writing are valid. Let’s look a moment at a column today by C. Hope Clark. Clark is founder of and is a clips-to-the-hilt writer with credits in Writer’s Digest, The Writer, and many other publications.

In “Why Working for No Fee is SOOOO Tempting,” which I strongly implore you to read in its original state here, Ms. Clark rightly takes writing for free to task.

“Writing for free builds clips. Listen. If someone can't afford to pay you, how is that a reputable clip?”

I respect Ms. Clark. I’ve followed her blog; dined on, digested, and dissected her words and articles; and subscribed to her e-newsletters for years. She is a flesh-and-words testimonial to “write what you know,” having worked in grants and parlaying that knowledge into schooling authors on grant-writing or having put her botany grow-how via Clemson University into writing for niche gardening and landscaping markets like TURF Magazine.

You're sensing a “but” coming on about now, aren’t you? If you did, you’re spot-on. I think Ms. Clark partly misses the mark here.

I’ll explain how with a few brief excerpts from Clark’s article, which should at the least be on the edge of your writing radar.

“When someone pitches to me and says they have 47 articles on Associated Content, Suite101, et al, I consider them uneducated in their profession. . . . I want someone who either has a phenomenal idea that's pitched very well, or someone who has been vetted in publications that actually reject people.”

Again, I’ll use a real-world example. I’ve written for much-maligned content providers. Specifically, I’ve written for Demand Media, including such streams as eHow and LIVESTRONG.

I’m guessing that Demand would be included in the Ms. Clark’s pillorization. However, it, like a few other so-called content farms, stands apart from the criteria she mentions. For instance, Demand does the following, to which I can directly attest:

1. It has a stable of writers and copyeditors. A writer is given 7 days to perfect his article(s), fleshing it out with a number of valid sources and writing to the specs provided by the company.
2. Demand even has a style manual of prescriptives to follow, largely based on the journalism world’s tried-and-true Associated Press Manual of Style.
3. Articles are tweaked by editors, and, yes, articles are rejected by Demand copyeditors. So, that litmus test box can be checked for this content farm that—again, this is some presumption on my part, because Demand is not so named in her article—has raised Ms. Clark’s ire.

Freebie Writers Might Hurt Everyone, But What About Low-Paying Gigs?
Clark continues. If people continue to write for free for online sites, she affirms that this makes the world that much more difficult for other writers.

I won’t quibble with the main contention that free writing has no place in freelancing. In fact, I've long thought of calling myself a "fee-lance writer," not a "freelance writer," to avoid the incorrect connotation of my work being cheap or worthless. So, there again, we have the Demand model—and this applies to other online portals that do pay their writers such as Skyword, Suite 101, Helium, and so forth, too. Demand rejects articles from its bevy of writers, but it also pays writers for the articles that do earn its editorial merits. The money is, frankly, not great, but it does provide an income to those who are unable to achieve full-time or even robust part-time writing. And it is paid promptly, pretty much without fail.

Lofty Earnings Goals, Meet Cold Economic Reality
Here is the crux of my argument and my bone of contention with Clark’s article. There are those who will tell you, fellow writers, that you shouldn’t write for free. Okay. Fair enough. We’ve all got to eat. When you see a bottom-feeder who won't pay you, just move along to something better. I'd be happy to point you to some potential markets, as would other excellent sources that I'll delineate in a later post.

But let’s say you’re a quasi part-time writer. I’m in that boat. See me? I’m the one in the blue-striped shirt who’s waving. I’ve got two young, not-yet-pottytrained-or-school-aged children there with me for whom I’m the main caregiver. My spouse works full-time and goes to school for his master’s.

So, let’s say I earn $10 or $15 when I write an article for Demand. Just a half-year or year ago, it was sometimes $20 or even $25, but, hey, the economy’s bad, so I’ve had to adapt just like you. Why begrudge me my pittance for doing something I adore? (Namely, writing.) Why pillory that full-time dad, but part-time writer who takes care of his kids all day while his wife works just so that one can do the important job of foundationing a family but still earn a few extra dollars through writing?

Even the writing world is not black-and-white, though newsprint used to be. And we all see what is happening in that realm.

Hate the Greedy Company, Love the Hard-Working Writer
I would only ask, as I’ve said and written before, that those who chide me for doing a decent to damn-good job of writing with the time that I have, would support me. Lambast the greedy company that wants to pay the writer nothing or $10 or even $25 for a researched and factual article while those who are able to pound the payment for niche markets and trade publications write their hundreds-of-dollars articles and reap the rewards. Pip, pip and more power to 'em. But don't forget the little guy or gal earnestly plugging along.

In short, write a mile in my holey shoes or in those of the moms or dads or disabled people or caretakers for aging parents who are in the home and who cannot, in some writers' eyes, be “educated” about the writing market. These people still help their families and do something they enjoy and respect and many of them do so with distinction. Their articles provide evergreen, actionable content that a reader can use in her own life to craft a widget or clean a thingamajig.

Go ahead; I dare you to try writing in these shoes. You’ll quickly see how many interviews you lose when your child is screaming in the background, though you have locked yourself in a separate room of your small house, or when you have to cancel them because Sally refuses to wear a shirt with buttons and pitches a gargantuan wobbler that you, and you alone, have to deal with. Or because your mother with end-stage renal disease needs your extra love and attention that day, so writing will just have to wait. Because that’s your job.

So, in short, I want to urge writers to be more empathetic to one another. If you think that everyone has the opportunity to write for dollars-on-the-word, please GET REAL. Get nitty-gritty, get down in the writing trenches with those who do online writing before you make unfounded assumptions.

In one of the animal shelters where I worked and volunteered, there was a particularly apt sign that I’ll paraphrase: “Be kind, for you can never tell what road someone else is traveling.”

And, finally, dear reader, for your voyage, please take this short list of four paying markets that I’ve dug up in recent days. Take them with my compliments. Three are contests, and so, it’s incredibly difficult to achieve a win there, but you never know until you try. Good luck and best wishes in all your travels. In your head and outside. Writing-related and non.

Glamour magazine; “Have an Amazing Real-Life Story to Tell?”; prize: $5,000, publication, and meeting with a “top” literary agent. Due 15 August 2011. More information here.

Family Circle magazine; 2011 Fiction Contest; prize: $750 for top prize and Media
Bistro goodies. Due 9 Sept. 2011. More information here.

Real Simple magazine; Fourth Annual Life Lessons Essay Contest; theme: "When did you first understand the meaning of love?"; prize: $3,000, publication, and a trip to NYC to meet Real Simple editors. More information here.

On the Premises magazine; Current fiction contest: Myths & Legends; cash prizes include first through third and honorable mentions. Due 30 Sept. 2011. More information here.