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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

School's Open, the Teachers Are Out

A winter weather announcement about our school start-time delays. It was posted by the local news media so that the public (parents and teachers) could be well informed. Looks like the superintendent finally gave in to teachers complaining, "Why do we always have to be the first ones to the school in the mornings?"

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Front Porch Mafia Put on Notice

Every Thursday afternoon, the Front Porch Mafia meets at a house next door to mine. They may have other meeting places in addition to the neighbor's house and other meeting times, but they are as dependable as the sunrise when it comes to their Thursday afternoon gatherings next door.

The Front Porch Mafia is a small group of - I won't call them elderly because that might offend them - retired, gray men who get together to talk about the weather, politics and what the world must be coming to. This is their social outlet. I, for one, am glad to see the old guys going hard and blowing hot air. 

But they best beware. Big Brother is watching and listening. Addled musings about turning this country around are not taken lightly by the government. There may even be an undercover informant on the front porch.

These four men to the left are not members of the Front Porch Mafia. They had their own geriatric conclave in Gainesville, GA to discuss the hand-basket going to hell and ideas for saving it from the flames. The grumpy senior citizens, one of whom strongly resembles Santa Claus, held their gripe sessions at a Waffle House.

A fifth man invited to join their alleged cane-toting, walker-wielding militia was an FBI informant who reported that these geezers plotted domestic terrorism. The aged Georgia boys only spoke of ricin (a poison), prunes, caster beans, hunting, guns and explosives. To me, there's nothing suspicious about that, but maybe that was their cover. Very clever, I think.

I've been watching the arthritic Front Porch Mafia a little closer now on Thursday afternoons. I'm trying to figure out which one is the confederate (and I don't mean confederate in War-of-Northern-Aggression terms, but rather in terms of the one who is in collusion with Big Brother). Personally, despite all their grumbling and sky-is-falling rants, I like them. I'd hate for someone ruin the atmosphere of living next door to conspiracy.

I hope all the old codgers clubs across the south understand that they are on notice. Someone doesn't like what they're saying.

But what a compliment for their groans about gout and the government to be taken so seriously in the declining years!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Movie with a Message - Gimme Shelter

Gimme Shelter is another must-see film with a powerful message. Screenings for media members are tonight in major cities around the U.S. I am disappointed that I had to decline my invitation to the one in Atlanta.

Based on a true story, GIMME SHELTER is about a teenage girl named Apple (Vanessa Hudgens) who, after running away from an abusive home environment, moves in with her wealthy, wall-street father (Brendan Frasier). Soon after moving in, Apple discovers that she is pregnant. Her father gives her a grim ultimatum. She runs away and into the care of a kind priest (James Earl Jones) who gives her a chance at the life - and the family - she never knew could be hers.

Take a look at the trailer:

Monday, January 20, 2014

It Is of My Unfortunate Fortune

When given the first choice, do you ever panic? Do you worry you might pick the wrong fortune cookie? And that this errant choice resulting in the wrong fortune will somehow change the course of your life?

So you close your eyes and you choose. But your stomach turns, because you're not sure that chance, which you believed for a split second to be far superior to your instinct, has placed the right fortune in your palm.

You pull out the slip of paper and then you ask yourself, "What kind of fortune is this?" A fortune is supposed to tell the future, not give directives for the present. 

Meanwhile, everyone has left the room to search the pantry for more soy sauce because Chinese restaurants never send enough soy sauce with carry-out. The remaining cookies nag at you. You get an idea to open them all and see what your fortune would have been if you had gone with your gut. But you hesitate, because what if you did get the fortune meant for you and you mess it up by reading someone else's intended fortune. And by reading someone else's intended fortune, you alter the course of that person's life?

Am I the only person with this unfortunate fortune cookie quandary? Am I over-thinking this?

Friday, January 17, 2014

Thunder! Lightning! Southerners Are Frightening

My husband hires a fellow named Lightning to do odd jobs. Thunder, Lightning's son, helps when Lightning is not enough. I've never seen Thunder. I've only heard him talking in the background.

I came face to face with Lightning last week. He needed a ride to the P.O. before it closed for the day. The apparent afternoon emergency struck out of the clear blue sky. What kind of business at the post office could be so urgent? My husband couldn't stop what he was doing to drive him, so I was tapped for the errand.

When Lightning returned to the car after speaking with the post mistress, he asked if I could run him over to Knox Shopping Center. He had a money order in hand and needed to see someone about something at the probation and paroles office, which is tucked between sweet shops with names like Anna Lou, Laura Lanes and Rubies. No one knows if the location is intended to adorn dark matters with a boutique facade, test criminals' resistance to upscale temptation, or express dry, political humor. In a small southern town like this, all kinds rub elbows.

Without asking questions, I took Lightning on this second errand. That's how we southerners are sometimes. We smile and keep from making folks feel uncomfortable or putting them on the spot. Our mamas taught us that if we have nothing nice to say then we should have the courtesy to be vague. We've all got our skeletons.

Still, I didn't know what kind of crime Lightning had committed. I surely didn't want to find out, either, so I offered him a bottle of water I found in the back of my car while he was in the probation office. He accepted it. Since then, we've had an amiable understanding between us. It's an unspoken agreement that I'll give him small gifts and he won't hold a knife to my throat.

My husband, who was unaware of Lightning's background, hasn't called on me again to transport the weatherman. I've been told to take cover, whatever that means. 

When Thunder and Lightning needed a ride home the other day, my husband put down what he was doing and took them  himself. They live in a humble trailer park outside of town. I picture a woman named Rain inside the trailer washing dishes and a dark cloud hovering over the tin domicile. My beloved reported that there was no Rain and no dark cloud, but that he did find more proof (as if we needed more) of southern ingenuity within the confines of that trailer park.

On one trailer's small, rectangular porch with no rails, a chihuahua barked, growled, snapped and yipped. It was determined to chew off a trespasser's ankle first chance it got. The owner of the snarling sprite, to his credit, recognized the danger the canine posed to the neighbors. Maybe he'd even seen Thunder and Lightning rolling in the distance.

The chihuahua was secured to an anchor of sorts. The remnants of an old vacuum cleaner lay scattered about the porch, possibly taken apart to be repaired and reassembled, possibly placed there to be re-purposed. A string around the dog's neck was knotted to the handle of the scrap vacuum, preventing the ferocious beast from going very far very fast.

All I could say when told about the scene was "Did you get a picture? Can you send it to me?"

"What on earth is wrong with you?" my husband said. "Of course not. I didn't want to offend Thunder and Lightening."

Like I said, we southerners know we've all got our situations. No need calling attention to what a person can't change.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Quiz - Are You Cut Out for the Writing Life?

Monday's post listed tips for aspiring freelance writers. Staying in that theme - and thanks to my ophthalmologist who put me on notice that I need to be more prepared when people ask me about my profession - today's post is a quiz for aspiring writers. Are you cut out for the job?

I developed it a couple of years ago for talks on writing careers that I was invited to present to middle and high school students. We had a lot of fun with this quiz, though I've modified it for use here. The students found some of the prompts quite humorous.

Unfortunately, you won't get to hear my added explanation for each question and the writer's characteristic it pinpoints. But, if you query me in a comment about a specific question number, I will supply a brief summary of the "why" and the "what" behind it. The quiz is pretty see-through, so you're on your honor to give accurate answers for yourself.

AND, please read the last slide of the quiz. It is a very important slide.

(To take the quiz, expand the presentation to full screen by clicking on the icon with four small arrows pointing outward to form a square. It is second from the right. When it opens to full screen, click the "allow" button. Then use the right-pointing arrow - NOT the play arrow - button to move through the slides and select your responses. When you finish the quiz, press the Esc key on your keyboard to return to this page.)

Enjoy! And share your score in the comment section.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Eight Tips for Aspiring Freelance Writers

I went to see the ophthalmologist last week. I have a hard time seeing him. He is seeing to it that my sight improves, which brings me closer to the point of this post.

In our conversation regarding my pending surgery and how much time I should allot for recovery, I explained that I'm a freelance writer and work on assignments with deadlines. He answered my question with a very palatable "3 to 5 days." Then, unexpectedly, he became the one asking questions about my line of work: What do I write? How did I get started? Does one need an agent? Can a person make a living off of freelance writing? And so forth.

His inquisitiveness caught me off guard. He keeps a journal and enjoys technical writing and creative writing. He wants to write in his area of expertise and he wants to write about his life experiences. The good doctor plans to cut back on clinical hours when he reaches his 50s and would like to fill his extra time with a second career in journalistic pursuits. He has visions of himself reclining at a Hawaiian beach resort penning manuscripts to the sound of rushing waves. I want to do that, too, I agreed.

I had sucked his eye-expertise dry, asking everything I could think, and now the man wanted my expert advice. Wow. Me. I was flattered.

Yet, I'm afraid I was caught so off guard that I didn't help him much. So I'm posting a better answer here.

These are my best 8 tips for aspiring freelance writers:

1. Figure out your niche or niches. What is your educational background? What do you have experience with? What kinds of things do you like to do? What do you enjoy reading? What topics do you know well? What types of stories do you enjoy writing? Knowing the answers to these questions will direct you to the kinds of magazines for which you're suited to write.

But you're not locked in. I started out writing a slice-of-life newspaper column (which I still write weekly). Then moved to composing parenting pieces for a magazine. Via a recommendation from one editor to another, I started receiving assignments to write home decor articles and advertising/marketing pieces. Now, I do all that, plus pen a monthly health column, book reviews, personal essays, profiles of people and historical accounts of places. And I do some travel writing, as well.

The beautiful thing is that the more I write, the more doors that open.

2. That brings me to my second tip. If you want to be a writer, you have to write. Lots of folks have a romantic vision of the writer's life, but when it comes down to the living of it they aren't willing to put in the work.Write every day. Keep an idea journal (it helps when writer's block strikes, and it will strike). Use a blog to demonstrate your skill, display your expertise, build an audience, enable potential customers to find you. Practice, practice, practice.

3. If you want to be a writer, you have to read. Read a wide variety of genres and writing styles. Most importantly, read lots of different examples of the type of article you want to write for magazines. If you're a gardening guru looking to spread the seeds of knowledge about plant cultivation, read gardening pieces. If you're into writing about adventure and travel, read articles on that topic. Never stop reading, even after you begin writing professionally.

You are not reading to broaden your knowledge of the topic. You will do that through experience, interviews and research. You are studying how other people do the writing you want to do. What words do they use? Are they technical or poetic? What do they do well? What are their shortcomings? What would you do the same or differently? How can you set your writing apart? And so on. Study how the ideas are conveyed, not the ideas themselves.

4. Keep a file (digital, print or both) of writing samples. Tear sheets of published articles are ideal, even if from dull academic journals, but copies of your best unpublished work are useful, too. When you query an editor or other potential customer, he/she will want to see 3-5 writing samples. Maintain a fresh and current collection of samples, because you will be asked for them throughout your career.

5. Ahh, but how do you get that first assignment, right? One way is to use your connections. Maybe you have a friend or acquaintance who knows the editor/publisher you need to talk with. Ask for introductions to the person who makes decisions about assignments. Find common ground with the person who makes assignments (maybe your kids go to school together or you did your undergrad at the same university or you lived next door to their cousin).

Another way is to make an appointment to meet with the editor/publisher face-to-face. Take your writing samples, a firm handshake and your winning smile with you. Know the types of stories the magazine typically publishes and know what you'd like to write for the magazine. At the same time, if the editor says she has writers for that but mentions that she needs, say, a health columnist, assure her you can do that, too. In fact, insist you can do it and close the deal that day.

A third way that writers break into the freelance market is to develop their own ideas and query an editor via email or letter. This requires doing research and preliminary work ahead of time. Some magazines will even want to know what experts you plan to interview. Writers who query with completed pieces sometimes get lucky and their work is bought for an upcoming issue.

6. Don't let fear shackle your fingers. Editors/publishers/customers will ask you if you can write in a style or about a topic with which you have no experience. Say yes! Then ask specific questions about the assignment: What is the word-count goal? How does the person envision the final layout? Does he/she want subtitles, text boxes, sidebars, etc? Next, do the research to educate yourself on the topic or writing style. You'll grow as a writer and you'll get future assignments.

7. Meet those deadlines. Once you receive an assignment, get it done and do it well (this means editing and revision before anyone else sees it). I pick up last minute, I-need-this-in-two-days assignments all the time because the original writer failed to make the deadline or made the deadline but submitted a mess. Be reliable and consistent and you will become editors' go-to guy.

8. Be a continuous contributor. There's no better feeling than being listed in the contributors section of a magazine, except maybe seeing your by-line or, better than both of those, getting positive feedback from someone who actually read your piece. But, being a successful freelance writer requires more than writing well, meeting deadlines and collecting accolades. It means incubating and sharing ideas.

Some editors ask for ideas, most don't, but they all appreciate them. I keep my ear to the ground about trends in parenting and health. I make note of up-and-comers or inspirational has-beens.  I think about what I'd like to have more knowledge of. And I pass on my thoughts and ideas to editors, proposing how I would approach the subject or suggesting how readers might respond. Occasionally, I send links to related on-line sites.

This is a means of staying in communication with and on the minds of those responsible for giving you assignments. It makes you valuable to them, as well. Furthermore, your attitude of helpfulness builds goodwill, which goes a long way in this competitive world of freelance writing.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Tuberculosis and Hot Yoga - This Is My Real Job

I bet you think I sit around everyday, all day, thinking up things I can post to my blog. You're right! I do. But I also try to get my other assignments done, too. A couple of morsels from my "real" job:

My January Health Column for Augusta Magazine covers the ins and outs of tuberculosis, an infectious disease that is almost invisible in modern American society, but still remains a threat. Several high school students in my area tested positive for it in the last 12 months, so I decided to look into it. TB is highly contagious, yet completely treatable. Unfortunately, many of its victims fail to follow-through with the treatment protocol. Did you know that they are subject to prosecution and, jail time and forced compliance with treatment?

What You Need To Know About TB - Augusta Magazine - January 2014 - Augusta, GA

 Brrrr. January. Put on those yoga pants. Now, if you're cold to your bones and you think you might never thaw, then you'll want to check out Hot Yoga. It's for everyone who loves an August afternoon in a crowd at Six Flags over Georgia. And there are people who relish the thought, but be careful. Hot Yoga isn't for everyone.

And if you need a good laugh, watch and learn about the power of yoga pants, hot or not:

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Be My Guest - Rose Chandler Johnson

Welcome my guest, author Rose Chandler Johnson. Her debut devotional, God, Me and Sweet Iced Tea, is climbing the book charts. Written with sincerity, wit and a southern voice, Rose's book provides wonderful inspiration for the start of a fresh year. Tuesday through Thursday (January 7-January 9) the Kindle version of God, Me and Sweet Iced Tea is a FREE download.

Rose Chandler Johnson’s devotional journal, God, Me, and Sweet Iced Tea: Experiencing God in the Midst of Everyday Moments was released in July 2013.  Her devotions, poems, and articles have appeared in numerous Christian publications. She enjoys writing for her popular blog, Write Moments with God, and engaging with her readers.  Rose is from a small Georgia town and has lived in Martinez, GA for the last twenty-eight years.  She has been a French and English teacher for the last twenty years.  Rose enjoys baking, gardening, and spending time with her six children and their families.

 I'm pleased to host Rose today, as she is a personal acquaintance with whom I have much in common. We keep in touch regularly and give each other much encouragement. I wish each of you could meet her in person. That isn't possible, of of course, but after reading Rose's interview, you'll feel like you have a new friend. 

1. Is there a story behind your book God, Me, and Sweet Iced Tea?
I was reading some of my old journals recently and I came across an entry from 1979.  It was a prayer in which I said to the Lord I wanted to write a book that was relevant and encouraging and that would point others to the heart of God. I believe that the Lord gave me that desire and that God, Me, and Sweet Iced Tea is a realization of that desire, even though I wasn’t thinking of that consciously when I wrote it.

2. Why did you write a devotional? I decided to make Jesus the Lord of my life, in 1977, I starting reading a devotional every morning.  It was just what I needed to help me focus and structure my time. I’ve incorporated devotional reading in my quiet times with God for decades. I think most people could benefit from that format.  The fact that I wrote a devotional comes back to my desire to be relevant and encouraging.

3. What is the significance of “sweet iced tea”?
I love sweet iced tea. I can’t do without it. Nothing is more refreshing than a glass of sweet iced tea, except those God moments to treasure. I can’t do without the Lord who is with me through every moment of my day.  The presence of God in my life restores my soul.  And those moments where He shows Himself are the most refreshing.  The “sweet iced tea” says it’s personal.

4. What started you on your writing journey?
I always wanted to be a writer.  I received my first undergraduate degree in 1977 with a BA in English.  In the late 70s and 80s I wrote and had some things published in periodicals, but motherhood, work, and life in general got in the way of that dream.  I began writing again in 2008 when the desire to “write it all down” became too hard to resist.

5. Why do you write now?
I am a journal keeper.  Writing is a passion that fulfills a need for me.  Devotion writing is a way to communicate what I know about God, as a living reality. It’s more or less an overflow of what I experience as a Christian. I want to share that with others.  I also like to write fiction and essays, and I’m working on a novel, but that doesn’t seem as vital to me as my devotional writing.

6. Who do you want to reach with your book?  Which audience?
God, Me, and Sweet Iced Tea is uniquely appropriate for working mothers, but it’s also for anyone who wants to put their Christianity into practice in their everyday moments and go deeper into God’s word.  Men are reading it and enjoying it as well.  As Tiffany Colter said, this devotional is simple enough for the newest believer, yet deep enough to make a life-long Christian feel challenged to go higher.  There are 52 devotions followed by questions for consideration for journaling, suggested scriptures for further reading, a prayer, a sweet tea moment (thought for the day), and a prayer focus.  Those extra helps allow the reader to use this as a personal or group study if they so desire.

Connect with Rose:

God, Me, and Sweet Iced Tea is available for sale on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and through your local independent book stores.

Monday, January 6, 2014

An Epiphany - How to Dispose of One's Christmas Tree

January 6th, Epiphany, is the official end to the Christmas Season, which, despite how retailers spin it, begins each year on December 25th, not October 15th. Purists put their Christmas trees up on Christmas Eve (or closer to Christmas Eve than Thanksgiving Day) and take them down today.

This is my 2013 tree. It is the most perfect evergreen ever to grace the halls of Porchaven. I am sad to see it leave us today. But leave us, it must.

Herein lies the issue of this post, however. And folks who hid every hint of the holidays in their garages by the close of New Year's Day think those of us who didn't are just avoiding conflict. They think our reluctance to remove ornaments and lights has nothing to do with waiting for Epiphany and everything to do with putting off the inevitable problem until it forces us to face it. It's a problem that everyone who puts up a live Christmas tree must face: What to do with the tree when it's done.

My mama, a.k.a. the Diving Granny, a.k.a. the Apple Picking Granny, proposes a solution. She says she tried it herself and that it works. No need to mar the curb with a dead yuletide soldier or pay a fee for haul-away services.

Step 1: Take off all ornaments and lights and throw them into boxes. Don't worry that you had a big fit when you took them out this year and vowed to be more organized about putting them away. You cussed the knots out of the light strands two or three weeks ago, and you won't forget how that's done between now and next Christmas. What would Christmas be, anyway, without a few well-placed expletives?

Step 2: Drag the needle-dropping carcass out the door and toss it into the truck bed. If you don't own a truck, borrow one from a friend. It's an essential element in this fool-proof plan to unload the arborvitae. Granted, it might work to place the behemoth on the top of your car, but it will require several attempts to rid yourself of the responsibility of it. And you may draw attention to yourself. You DO NOT want to draw attention to yourself.

Step 3: Wives and girlfriends, if they choose, may stay home to vacuum the carpet. There's nothing worse than a brittle evergreen fragment piercing one's sock and subsequent foot flesh on a day when the tree and Christmas are long forgotten. Husbands and boyfriends do not have the option of staying home to vacuum. Husbands and boyfriends will be taking the truck out to run errands without taking any shortcuts or avoiding back roads. In fact, back roads are best.

Step 4: After riding for awhile be sure to check the tree in your rear-view mirror. If you don't see it, don't panic. This is the best part of the disposal plan. Your errands are complete. You're free to return home.

Step 5: If you look in your rear view mirror and don't see the tree but do see blue lights, pull over. This is not part of the Apple Picking Granny's disposal plan. She nonetheless advises that whatever you do, don't lie. Littering the shoulder of the road with a spent evergreen is one thing. Lying about it is quite another. So, admit that yes you saw the tree and that it looks to you like someone cut it down. Offer to clean it up since you have a truck. After collecting it, give your best to the officer and continue on your mission basking in the glow of being a good citizen and doing a good deed. Repeat step 4 (and step 5, if necessary).

Step 6: Go home, relax and break your New Year's Resolutions by Valentine's Day. Don't feel guilty about your method of discarding the tree or disregarding the resolutions. Lent will arrive just in time to give us all an opportunity to repent and polish ourselves.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Think BIG, Think small

Happy New Year!

While we we're still rolling on the adrenalin of starting fresh (though some of us may not feel so fresh and energized this morning), it's time to make resolutions. Go take two aspirin first, then come back and give 2014 and the future some sincere thought.

Here's your resolution recipe to beat a bad hangover from 2013:
  • 4 Life Goals
  • 3 Year Goals
  • 2 Daily Activities (to meet those goals)
  • 1 Thankful Statement
Mix it all together in your Book of Lists and proceed to have a very productive 2014.

But start tomorrow, because today there's football.