Saturday, 30 April 2011

The Case of the Stolen Idea

I taught creative writing for a while, until the lousy pay and certain students (not all of them – most were normal) made me want to tear my hair out by the roots. Can I say normal? Is that politically correct? Is somebody out there going to challenge me on what the definition of ‘normal’ is? Here’s my definition of a ‘normal’ student: somebody who listens to the instructor, asks intelligent questions and doesn’t make said instructor want to run out of the classroom screaming.

Anyways, normal or not, I hope that I helped my students along in their writing journey. I met some very talented people who I’m sure will do very well as writers. I met some very untalented people who probably won’t do very well and better not quit their day jobs. There were a lot of creative minds in the class, but some students couldn’t write. Seriously. They didn’t know how to punctuate a sentence, and their eyes glazed over when I tactfully suggested they take a grammar course. Their solution was that an editor should be the one to worry about the grammatical details. It was hard to keep a straight face.

The most common question I was asked? Not: ‘how do I create compelling characters?’ or ‘how can I write snappy dialogue?’ or ‘how can I make an emotional connection with the reader?’ The number one question was: “What do I do if I submit my manuscript to an (agent, editor, publisher) and somebody steals my idea?” The only thing on their minds was how to hire a literary legal expert.

I would patiently explain that ideas can’t be copyrighted. That no matter how unique you think your idea is, somebody’s already come up with it. That there are no new plots under the sun. It’s all been done by somebody somewhere at some point. That they shouldn’t worry about stolen ideas. I would encourage them to write the best novel they could write, and put their own spin on the idea, which would make it unique. I reiterated that stealing ideas rarely happens in the publishing industry. Plagiarism has occurred, but that’s a different beast.  

I’m not sure if they believed me. I would survey the class and see scepticism on a lot of faces. They really figured that agents and editors spent all their ‘free’ time (even though I’m sure they don’t have any) reading through unsolicited manuscripts and wading through slush piles looking for good ideas to steal so they could become famous novelists.

So whenever this question came up, it was all I could not to gnash my teeth and wail.

It’s a wonder I have any hair left at all.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

My Fair Nancy

I was a ‘dork’ before ‘dork’ was a word – rather awkward and shy, a book worm and not very athletic. I also loved Star Trek before it went mainstream.  I guess you could say I was a pioneer of sorts. 

Clothes weren’t a big part of my life. I had no fashion sense whatsoever. All that changed after my two daughters were born. I began to notice clothes because baby girls are real live dolls, and it’s fun to dress them up. Fast forward to the teen years, and my daughters began to dress me. For some reason, both were born with an innate style of their own that they certainly didn’t get from me. 

Mom, get rid of that hummingbird sweatshirt  - it’s so nineties! 

They tactfully suggested I watch What Not To Wear, and I became hooked. Clothes really can make you feel better about yourself, and make you look better, too. Not to mention the accessories that go with the clothes. 

Nancy Drew knew this, of course, like she knew most things. I may not have known much about clothes, but I did notice Nancy’s wardrobe. I would read about her sleuthing adventures with great anticipation, but even more exciting was the suspense surrounding what she would pull out of her closet next.

Nancy’s fashion style has changed with the times, along with her book covers.  My favourite era is the one I read as a girl, known as the ‘Yellow’ series hardcovers (1962): the books shed their previous dust jackets, in favour of yellow picture covers. Later on these turned smoother and higher glossed than earlier versions. 

The authors of Nancy Drew never spent a lot of time discussing Nancy’s wardrobe. They spent far more time describing what she ate, along with her friends Bess and George. This only added to the mystique.  Thank goodness the reader was given the occasional photo to go along with the story, and it was here I spent long, happy moments examining Nancy’s outfits. 

The early Nancy Drew resembled a classically dressed ingĂ©nue from the 1930’s, and usually featured  a cloche hat, a simple shirtwaist dress and sensible heels.  Later versions were updated to reflect the fashion of the time, but one thing stayed the same – Nancy seemingly effortless, classic style.  This was an outward reflection of her quiet, graceful confidence. 

During the day Nancy usually wore simple day dresses (or ‘frocks’ as they were called) blouses with Peter Pan collars and knee length skirts. Occasionally she wore pants, even jeans, if the occasion suited it. A sweater if it was cool, or perhaps a navy blue coat with matching shoes.  She always kept a hooded rain coat nearby if the weather turned foul.  Invariably, after a busy day of sleuthing, she would go home to shower and change into evening wear – perhaps a striking white dress that made Ned’s eyes pop out, or a powder blue evening gown for really special occasions. 

And for bedtime? I found very few references to her nightime attire in my book collection, other than a red bathrobe and red polka dotted flannel pajamas (The Hidden Window Mystery, 1956). 

Her jewellery? Simple pearls and gold bracelets, of course, unless someone gifted her with something special – like the cameo ring, an heirloom from Mrs. Putney, to thank Nancy for finding her jewellery and revealing her swindlers – (The Ghost of Blackwood Hall, 1948) or the aquamarine ring from new friend Laura Pendleton,  whom she met during The Bungalow Mystery (1960). She also received a pin set with tiny diamonds in the shape of a lilac spray from Emily Crandal for saving their business and solving the Mystery at Lilac Inn (1961). She received several mink pelts from grateful clients in the Mystery of the Ski Jump (1969). If that story were written today, the mink pelts would have to be ditched in favour of faux furs.  

I can remember an outfit she wore in Password to Larkspur Lane – a pretty lime green dress with a matching sweater, chosen to compliment her titian hair. I daydreamed about owning an outfit like that. I recall a dark blue and green striped sports dress that set off the shade of her hair to perfection.  She also had a turquoise bathing suit. In fact, most of her clothes were chosen with her hair color or smooth suntanned skin in mind. 

Of course, she kept old clothes at the back of her closet in case she needed a disguise – one of her favourite get ups was dressing as an old lady. 

Nancy knew who she was, and was comfortable in her own skin – probably the thing I admired most about her. She didn’t dress to trends, she dressed for practicality. She wore conservative clothes with ease and grace, and in doing so encouraged her fans to do the same. It took me a while to catch on, but better late than never.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Viva Las Vegas

Just finished a week in Sin City. Lots of fun, except I was fighting a cold. I refused to stay in bed even though I probably should have, and walking around was exhausting. It was worth losing at the slot machines just to sit in a chair. Plus they give you free drinks. I thought about buying one of those huge 100 ounce Margeritas that people wear around their necks, but I'm not a big tequila fan.

We really enjoyed Fremont Street, the old Las Vegas. The casinos are less intimidating ($3 tables) and the atmosphere is like a carnival. We saw Menopause: The Musical, and I highly recommend it. The shopping here is amazing too, and of course I brought home a ton of stuff, including another handbag to add to my collection.

Speaking of addictions, I'm not much of a gambler, and I usually stick to the slots, but our last night here I played at the blackjack table and won $50. I never win anything. What a rush.

I'll miss the free valet parking. Sure would be handy to be drive up to a store, or work, or anywhere, and not bother having to park. 

Adios, amigos. 

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Arden Called.

Yes, Arden called.

But first, my dog started barking.

It wasn’t his usual bark, like: listen up, squirrel, come down outta that tree so I can chase you around the yard and possibly kill you. It was a bark that said: Mommy, mommy – there’s a strange man in orange overalls standing by the back fence.

I checked out the front window. The phone company van was back, and so was Phone Guy #3.

I was very impressed. Only half an hour had passed since I’d hung up with Arden. I guess when Arden talked, people listened.

Phone Guy #3 continued to skulk around the house. I waved him over and asked for a status report. He told me he was fixing my phone cable. I asked if he had come the night before. He said no, wasn’t me. Apparently these people never work back to back shifts. I asked if they’re supposed to identify themselves before they start working on my property. He shrugged his shoulders. Technically, yeah, he said.

I think what he meant was, listen lady, this isn’t a perfect world, so get off my case and let me do my job, okay?

I gave him a closer look. He was young and cute. I wondered if he was single. No, I’m not a cougar. I’m simply on the lookout for a good match for my single daughter, and you never know.

A while later, the van disappeared. I checked my phone, and it was working. I did a happy dance.

Then my cell phone rang. It was Arden.

He was 15 minutes late calling, but he had actually called. He loved me, he really loved me… but I digress.

He told me he’d contacted the dispatcher, and all the technicians were busy. Nobody could come fix my phone until tomorrow.

But it’s already fixed, I said, perplexed. I checked my phone again. It was dead.

This isn’t happening, I thought. I’m in the twilight zone. I’m in technological purgatory. I’m hallucinating. I’m having conversations with Phone Guys who don’t exist. I had only imagined that my phone was fixed. It was actually still dead.  

Arden didn’t have an explanation. He reiterated that nobody could come until tomorrow. Then who was that man in the orange jumpsuit? I demanded. The one who actually fixed my phone for a few minutes. The one who drove a phone company van.

Arden assured me that he must be an actual Phone Guy, and perhaps he was already working in the area.

I looked out the window, and the van was back. Phone Guy had returned from wherever he’d disappeared to, and was skulking in my backyard again.

There he is, I told Arden. He’s back.

It dawned on me then that the office pencil pushers and the Phone Guys work in alternate universes. The phone company Pencil Pushers live in Fantasy Land, and the Phone Guys work in Real Life. And you can’t cross over, or there’ll be a nuclear explosion. They don’t even speak the same language.

I thanked Arden, slightly disappointed to learn that he actually had no idea what was going on with the Phone Guys. The Phone Guys did their own thing, and didn’t much care what the Pencil Pushers, or the customers for that matter, said.

Phone Guy rang the doorbell and informed me my phone should be working now. I checked, and it was. I thanked him, and he left.

I never did catch his name. I wished I’d offered him a cup of coffee, since it was a freaking cold day out that day -25 Celsius. But I didn’t.

According to Phone Guy, somebody else is coming in the spring to bury the phone cable. I can’t wait. I’ve marked my calendar.

Yesterday's Work

Still no dial tone the next morning. Rose, the phone lady I spoke to the previous night who told me the problem would be fixed by the morning, the lady who said she would call me if there were any changes, didn’t call. I’m shocked. It’s a good thing I didn’t hold my breath, waiting for her to call. I guess she’s just not that into doing her job.

So, being a reasonable person, and having a big imagination, I decided to give the phone company time to have their coffee and breakfast. We are a civilized society, after all. I went about my business, until around 11 am. Still no phone company van outside my house, no Phone Guy in a uniform doing his Phone Guy thing with the cables.

So I called the phone company from my cell phone. Patrick answered and asked if he could help me. I told him my sad story. I told him Rose never called. He asked for my phone number and punched in a few keys on his keyboard. Then he said that the problem had been fixed. Needless to say, I was surprised, since my phone was still dead.

I started putting the screws to Patrick. Not in a mean way, and I didn't yell. I simply told him I was frustrated, and this was not acceptable. I told him I wanted the problem fixed that day. Patrick informed me that all the technicians were already booked for the day.

But I’m yesterday’s work, I told him. That gave my problem priority, didn't it? By the way Patrick sputtered, I could tell he was now over his head. I asked to speak to his supervisor. I waited five minutes. The phone company put on an upbeat, jazzy number for me to listen to while I waited. So considerate, these phone people.

Arden came on the line. He was the supervisor, but he sounded a lot like Patrick. Or maybe I was just getting paranoid. I was dreaming up conspiracy theories while I waited on the phone. I’m a writer, after all. Maybe this would be a great novel. A frustrated, depressed ex-nurse writer with anxiety issues becomes the victim of an elaborate hoax by the phone company, and decides to seek her revenge.

Arden listened while I told him my sad story. Classic supervisor skill #101. Let the customer rant to let off steam. Make sympathetic noises and tell her you understand her frustration. Arden did all these things. I asked Arden to tell me the problem would be fixed today. Arden hesitated. He couldn't make any promises. At least he was more honest than Rose. He said he had to talk to the dispatchers, and find out what was happening. He agreed I should be a priority case. He said it would take him about 45 minutes to do all this. Then he’d call me back.

I gripped the cell phone tighter. I had heard this line before. I told him I didn't believe him. He assured me he would call me as soon as he knew more. I was filled with doubt. Desperate, I reached for the only weapon I had to hold him to his promise.

The phone bill.

Listen, Arden, I said. I pay 50 bucks a month for my phone services. For every day I’m without it, I’m going to deduct $1.82 off my bill (February only had 28 days). What do you think about that?

Arden was a slick one. He had already anticipated this. He said, yes, that I was allowed a rebate on my phone bill if I had no phone service.

I don’t believe you, I said again. You don’t work in billing. You can say anything you want. It won’t be your problem. Billing won’t know what I went through with you people. They’ll think I’m just a delinquent customer.

Arden steered our conversation back to the matter at hand. He said we needed to sort out the repair problem first. He was right, of course.

So I watched the clock, and kept my cell phone close. Would Arden call? Or would he be like every other phone company employee I’d come across in the last few weeks?

Stay tuned …

Bad Karma

I think we must have pissed off the Technology Gods at one point, or maybe our house was built on top of a computer graveyard. All I know is, we’ve got some very bad karma going on when it comes to IT matters.

We had a ton of trouble with our internet last year. For 6 weeks we went back and forth with phone calls to our Internet Service Provider (I only recently learned what that means) trying to diagnose the problem. Every time we called, we'd get a different person, and would have to start all over again explaining the issue. All along, my husband kept saying, I think it’s the modem. We need a new modem.

They fiddled and diddled, and for a few weeks it actually worked. Then we started back on the old routine of turning the modem on and off to kickstart things. We have better things to do with our time than spend hours on the phone with some internet technician, running up and down stairs plugging in this and unplugging that, tracing wires and cables all over the house. Not to mention the fact that they speak a ‘techy’ language that I don’t—DSL and megabytes and routers, OH MY!

For some reason, they were reluctant to send us a new modem, even though we offered to pay for it. My husband even resorted to putting the modem in the freezer to cool it down, since it was overheating. That actually worked, for a while. Finally we made a complaint to customer service, and they relented, agreeing to courier us a new modem, but we had to talk them into it. Hallelujah, Praise the Lord. While we waited, they sent over a phone cable guy to check the outside line, because our internet is connected to our phone (somehow – don’t ask me how).

The Phone Guy came. He drove a van with the phone company’s name on it, and wore a uniform. He told us that on top of our modem problems, we had a problem with the outside phone line. This wasn’t news to us. Our phone connection has always been bad. You could hear a loud ‘humming’ noise every time you made a call. This was probably also interfering with our internet.

So he said someone would come to fix the outside cable asap. We waited and waited and waited some more. Nobody came. I called the phone company, who sounded surprised to hear we were having phone trouble. Nobody sent in a report. Then who was the guy who drove one of your vans, I asked, perplexed? Why would he say he was sending a report, and not send it? They didn't know.

Phone Guy #2 arrived. He drove a van with the phone company’s name on it, and wore a uniform. He told me the same thing that Phone Guy #1 told me. We needed the outside phone cable repaired. I told him to go ahead. Go nuts. I figured I may as well have company. He said, NO. He wasn't the guy that repaired those things. He would send a report, and have Phone Guy #3 do it. Needless to say, I was gnashing my teeth at this point. I also didn't believe a word he said.

It was dark outside by the time Phone Guy #3 arrived. He drove the same kind of van, wore the same uniform. He didn't ring my doorbell to tell me he was there to fix my phone. The only reason I knew he was there was because my dog barked at him through the window. I heard him skulking outside my house, doing things only Phone Guys do. It’s a good thing I had a dog, or I’d have figured he was a Peeping Tom or something.

The next time I looked outside, the van was gone. Great, I thought to myself. I figured he had fixed the phone. I picked up the phone. No dial tone. It was dead as a doornail. Now I didn't even have phone service. Or internet. (I think I mentioned, my internet and my phone are connected somehow – a very unhappy marriage). Did I also mention our house alarm is connected to our phone line? In the event any skulking intruders tried to rape me or something, all I had to do was press a button and I'd be dialed in to the police station—but only if my phone worked.

So there I sat, listening to my security alarm beeping because it had been disconnected. My phone was dead, and so was my internet. I was isolated and alone in the vast universe, without any heads up from the phone company.

Like I said, must be bad karma. Or bad Feng Shui.

Or maybe just rotten luck. Stay tuned, there's more.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Guilty Pleasure

Worked hard today, so I went for a pedicure and had my gel nails redone. Absolute heaven. It's not cheap, but worth every penny to stick your tired, aching feet in warm water and have someone massage them. I practically fall asleep every time. It's a good thing I had the pedicure, because once I got home I discovered we have no hot water. The tank, which is only two years old, decided to pack it in. That means no hot shower tomorrow morning. I'm bummed.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

My Recipe Collection Will Outlive Me

Or put another way, I'll die before I ever make all of the recipes I've collected over the years. That's a frightening thought, but the more recipes I collect and the longer I live, the more it's true. I seem to like the collection process, but not so much the actual making process. For one thing, I don't have time to cook much anymore. It's easier to pick up a frozen meal and heat it up. The pies you buy at the grocery store taste better than any pie I'll ever make. And when are the members of my family (those that aren't married off or away at college) home at the same time, to actually sit around a table to eat a meal?

Then there are the various diet recipes I've collected. I have all the books, gathering dust on my kitchen bookshelf. The latest one, The 17-day Diet, really worked. It lasted exactly 17 days, until my husband and I decided we couldn't live without bread anymore.

I have stained, tattered, handwritten recipes that belonged to my grandmother for dishes like Blueberry Grunt (don't ask) and Money Cake. Most of her recipes are for dessert -- squares, puddings, cake, pie, cookies -- since that's mostly what they eat in Cape Breton, the island where she's from. I don't pull out her recipes to make stuff. It's not that I don't love dessert, I just want to look at her handwriting again, and look at the stains, and wonder what she was thinking about when she last made the dish. Those bits of paper are all I have left of her.

My grandmother like to share her recipes, but they aren't easy to follow. Women in those days knew how to bake, so they assumed anyone reading the recipe knew too. They didn't tell you that you need to add water to dates to cook them or they turn into cement. They didn't think they needed to mention the order to add ingredients to a cake. Sometimes they even left out 'tsp' or 'cup', assuming a person would know that you don't put a cup of baking soda in anything unless you're making a homemade bomb. 

Also, some of her recipes are hopelessly outdated. If I don't think I could get away with making a cake filled with hidden quarters. Today's mom's would be outraged at the potential choking hazard. Plus stuff was made with tons of salt and butter. There was no such thing as lean hamburger. 

I miss the old days ...

Friday, 1 April 2011

April Fool

I'm an April fool and I always will be. Every year somebody gets me. I'm very gullible. My husband doesn't even have to change it up. Every April 1st it's the same thing. 'Wow, look at the giant bunny in the back yard!' I run to the window. 'REALLY? Where?' He laughs and points. I'm an easy target.

This April Fools Day something weird is happening. The internet is down on one of the laptops. Not both, just one. And my PC is really slow, I can't do any online banking. Not so bad, since it gives me time to blog before I go to work. On top of that it's Friday. Friday's can be freaky in my house. I think there might even be a full moon behind those clouds. So far this morning I've tripped over things, stubbed my toe, and the toilet overflowed. I wonder what's in store this afternoon?