Category Archives: Life

Highland Park, paupers, and bodies in unmarked graves


My scheduled creative cemetery prompt today was a photo of the monument at Mt.Hope Cemetery, marking the place where several hundred graves of paupers, convicts, and the insane were re-interred after their bodies had been found in Highland Park in 1984, when bulldozers uncovered them while landscaping.

I scheduled the creative prompt photos days ago, and set them to post daily so that I don’t have to think about them. That means that my writing plan today was different than the photo – I was all set to write about a local madam. But this morning I decided I wanted to add something more to today’s photo caption, so I set out to find a quick fact – and ended up writing a draft about the institutions where these people lived.

It was a fascinating rabbit trail – and I’ll work on “Tilly’s” story tomorrow. But I thought you might like to see a bit of what I’ve uncovered today. Continue reading

Confessions of an office (and school) supply addict

photo courtesy of pixabay

photo courtesy of pixabay

(Note: This post is cross posted at

I spent a half hour today sharpening pencils. I enjoy the act of standing at an old-fashioned sharpener and turning the crank, hearing the blade grind the wood and graphite to a fine point and watching the shavings build into a pile at my feet. It helps me clear my head when I’m stressed, on a column deadline, or stumped by the Sunday crossword.

I picked up the yellow No. 2 pencils while I was out running errands. I limited myself to just one box because the truth is that if I didn’t, I would have skipped the milk and bread and spent the grocery money on school supplies.

Never mind that I don’t have kids in school anymore or that I’m not in school myself. It’s “Back to School” time, which means supplies are on sale, and that’s a dangerous time of the year for me.

Because I’m an office supply addict.

I have an abnormal addiction to pens, paper, pencils, notepads, journals—you name it. I rarely walk out of a store without purchasing some sort of stationery item—paper clips, file folders or a snazzy new pen.

I have a notebook in every room in my house, one in my car and one in my purse, so when I have an idea I can write it down quickly, before I forget it. I keep a supply of pocket folders in a range of colors to suit my every mood. I have a panic attack if I can’t find my stapler.

I think my addiction is rooted in my childhood. As a kid, I loved getting ready for the new school year, the smell of autumn and new possibilities in the air, my book bag filled with folders, freshly sharpened pencils and clean, white notebook paper just begging to be filled with stories, notes and essays.

Every fall, I would vow that this would be the year I would stay organized. This year, I would put the science notes in the science folder and the English notes in the English folder. This year, I would save all of the quizzes so I could study for the cumulative final. This year, I would record every homework assignment in my pocket calendar and never again be scrambling at the last minute to complete a project.

But it always ended the same. In less than a month, I had geometry theorems mixed in with grammar notes. I would show up to science class with my Spanish textbook (“Wait,” I’d ask. “Que hora es?”) and had taken to writing homework assignments on my hands (I had the first Palm Pilot). My locker always looked like a tornado had blown through a paper factory.

It’s more than 30 years later and I’m still not organized. I’m continually digging through a towering pile of folders on my kitchen table to hunt for research notes, paper clips and pens. I have three calendars within arm’s reach, but I never know what day it is.

I know what you’re thinking: there’s an app for that. Calendars on your phone, e-books, virtual folders and documents. But I’m not interested.

It’s not just the fact that I can’t keep up with the latest technology on a writer’s budget. The truth is that I like doing things the old-fashioned way. I like putting a real pencil to actual paper and scribbling away, crossing out words, rewriting sentences, and doodling in the margins when I’m mentally blocked. I think better that way.

And science backs me up on this. Study after study has found that students who take notes longhand actually comprehend and retain information better and longer than students who take notes on a laptop. Researchers think it has to do with the cognitive process necessary to listen to someone speaking, digest the meaning in their words, and then succinctly condense the information into notes. Our brains process that differently then when we’re typing the words verbatim on a laptop.

In other words, a valid rationalization for me to buy more office supplies. Thank you, science! Pencils and notebooks are still on sale! Who needs groceries, anyway?

(A slightly different version of this appears in my book “What The Dog Said,” a collection of humor columns penned over the years. It also appeared in the October 2015 issue of Refreshed Magazine.)

Banners, business, and God Bless America

Five Mile Cafe in Penfield, NY

Five Mile Cafe in Penfield, NY

NOTE: This post can be read in its entirety at my blog at; at the end of this excerpt you can click to continue reading there. For the record, I don’t care one way or the other if the banner hangs or not. What I care about is that the truth of this story is told.

* * * * * *

Banners, business, and God Bless America
by Joanne Brokaw

I was a little surprised yesterday when I noticed that a story about a local cafe owner and her kerfuffle over a banner that reads “God Bless America” was trending on Facebook.

Jennifer Aquino is at odds with the Town of Penfield over a banner she hung on her Five Mile Cafe back in June. And if you believe everything you read on social media, the town was unpatriotic in its insistence that she remove the banner just as we readied to celebrate Independence Day. In fact, a Fox News story reported that Aquino asked for permission to hang the banner and was denied, so she hung it anyway.

Not true. She had permission to hang the banner. She just overstepped the parameters.

On purpose.

But let’s go back a bit and take a closer look. Why? Because I used to own a small business in a town that had seriously tight rules about signs and banners, and I suspected when I saw this story a couple of weeks ago that the back and forth between business and board was all about permits and regulations, and not about squashing patriotism.

And if there’s one thing I hate it’s when people cry about their rights being violated when, in fact, they’re just mad that they didn’t get their way.


A gorilla, a boy, and life in the balance

Screenshot from the video of Harambe and the child who fell into the gorilla enclosure.

Screenshot from the video of Harambe and the child who fell into the gorilla enclosure.

By now you’ve probably heard the story about Harambe, the 17 year old west lowland gorilla who was shot by zoo keepers at the Cincinnati Zoo after a small child fell into the gorilla enclosure. I caught bits and pieces of the story over the holiday weekend, but it wasn’t until this morning that I was able to devote some attention to the matter.

I finally saw the video.

Originally, I didn’t want to touch this story with a 10 foot pole, mostly because I didn’t think that I could add anything to the conversation, which was getting more emotionally charged by the minute. I get enough hate mail when I take people to task for not obeying the leash law.

Another reason is because it’s not a simple issue. Each thread you pull unravels another thread and another and another, and before you know it you’re pondering everything from what constitutes parental neglect to the ethics of zoos in general to the disappearing gorilla habitat. I didn’t feel like I could blast off a quick post and do the story justice.

Then I was asked to write about it and so here I am, pondering all of those issues, but mostly wondering what transpires between man and beast when they come face to face and only one can survive the encounter.

The two minute video I watched was disturbing, but I was also surprised that it wasn’t the violent, bloody footage I’d expected to see after hearing the news bites all weekend. It seemed the boy faced far more danger from drowning than being thrown about by a gorilla.

I kept going back, not to the screams of the crowd; not to the horror that poor mother surely suffered watching her child being dragged through the water; not to the split second decisions required by zoo staff about whether to tranquilize or kill the animal in what they deemed was a life threatening situation.

What I kept coming back to were the moments when Harambe and the boy were sitting quietly, the gorilla blocking the boy from view of the screaming spectators, the boy’s stunned gaze fixed firmly on the majestic beast, the two barely moving as they summed up the situation, small child who wanted to swim with the gorillas, gorilla unsure what to do with this small child who had dropped into his front yard.

Toddler-sized awe focused on 400-plus pounds of raw power. Wild animal gently touching tiny human.

Yes, there is horror and anger and uproar at what ensued, and a little boy is in the hospital and an endangered animal is dead. But there is also mystery and, if I can be so bold, a beauty at what did not happen.

A beast did not kill a child.

The majestic creature, who never asked to be put on display, encountered a wee toddler, who could not resist the temptation to breach the barrier.

I let myself imagine that, in the chaos and confusion of the humans above, perhaps for a moment or two in the gorilla enclosure below the world stopped for Harambe and the child, and nothing existed but boy and animal, life and death, an ending for one and a new beginning for the other, and for a few seconds neither knowing which would experience which.

As we know, in a “wild animal vs humans” showdown like this, when two lives are at stake and no one can predict the animal’s next move, a choice must be made and be made quickly. And the human survives.

The humans had caged an animal and deemed him dangerous, and then prepared for the scenario just like this, when he would come face to face with a defenseless human.

What choice did zoo keepers have? When the child breeched the barrier, zoo officials immediately called the gorillas out of the enclosure. The two females complied. Harambe chose to stay with the boy. Even if Harambe was acting without malice, which appears to be the case, his sheer size could have accidentally killed the child. Action must be swift and sure; no time to negotiate a hostage exchange.

The alternative would have been to leave the toddler in there and see whether the gorilla snuggled him or tore him from limb to limb. If there is a person out there who thinks that was an option, please direct your hate mail in his direction.

I prefer to imagine that Harambe took stock of the situation and understood the inevitable outcome. Perhaps, I imagine, he sheltered the boy so that he could speak to him, living spirit to living spirit, assuring the child that he would be all right, that help would come, but needing the time to impart some raw animal wisdom of the ages that the child could carry with him through life.

Because this small child would live to tell the story of how he had been touched by a gorilla.

Read the official statement from the Cincinnati Zoo.

My birthday, Memorial Day, and Mars approaching

memorial day flag pixaby

photo courtesy of

Today is my birthday – yay! – and it’s also Memorial Day, the one day a year we collectively honor and mourn the men and women who gave their lives in service to our country. In fact, in nearby Waterloo, NY, it’s the 150th anniversary of the first public Memorial Day celebration.

Growing up, my mother always joked that the town threw a parade for my birthday, but we always knew what the day was about. She never passed by a veteran selling paper poppies without making a donation – spare change, a few dollars, whatever she had handy. She taught me to honor the dead, and to be grateful.

Nowadays, we Americans use the weekend to have picnics and parties, to revel in a day off from work, and to hit the mall in the name of retail therapy. We’ve forgotten to love and support each other in favor of fireworks and half-off sales.

But today is my birthday, and I get to be greedy, so here is my birthday wish.

Over the next 52 weeks, I’m asking you to do one act of kindness a week for someone you don’t know, or at least someone who doesn’t expect you to be nice to them. If possible, challenge yourself to be nicer and nicer as time goes on, going more and more outside of your comfort zone every week. Holding open a door could lead to carrying groceries or mowing a law or painting a house. By this time next year, maybe you’re traveling to another country or volunteering time for a local non-profit. Or maybe you spend the year baking cookies which leads to cupcakes which lead to holding a bake sale for charity. Wherever your kindness leads, my wish is that you follow it.

That’s 52 nice things by this time next year. Come on, you can do it. I promise you won’t be the same person 365 days from now. And the world won’t be the same, either.

And the Memorial Day challenge? Make one of those nice things you do for a serviceman or woman. Maybe you offer to help out a family whose husband or wife is serving overseas. Babysit, do yard work, or just bring the trash cans up the driveway every week. Consider sending a letter or care package to an active serviceman or woman who doesn’t get mail from home. ( is an excellent way to send mail to any soldier in need of a morale boost; I wrote about this last Christmas, if you want to learn more.) How about adopting the grave of a veteran and placing a flag or wreath on holidays? (Here’s a great story of a man who had made that his life’s mission.)

Today Mars comes the closest to Earth that it has in a decade. On my birthday!! Coincidence? I think not. I believe that’s the universe’s way of coming close to remind me – and hopefully you – that in the vastness of space and time we are but tiny specks of dust – and yet, important enough that planets travel across the galaxies to say hello. We are powerful; we are living and breathing and colliding with each other in ways that leave us all just a little bit changed forever. That’s a big responsibility for tiny dust specks.

So on my birthday? Make a wish. Be a change. And remember that life is an adventure. Don’t forget to live it.

A belief in a God bigger than any book or religion

god in my head grisetti

Josh Grisetti has a lot to say about God in his new book, “God In My Head.” Or, to be more clear, what God said to him.

The two met while Grisetti was at the dentist and doped up on nitrous oxide and a dangerous combination of drugs he had lying around the house and took before the appointment in an attempt to ward off pain. The trip, or hallucination as he sometimes refers to it, spanned two hundred years and during it God answered Grisetti’s spiritual questions and showed him the mysteries of the Universe.

In reality, Grisetti was out for about forty five minutes, and didn’t actually leave the room. But did he meet God?

Sure. He met God. As much as any of us can meet God and live to tell about it.

I’ll confess that I skimmed parts of Grisetti’s book more than I actually read them, at least the parts about what God said to him. That’s partly because I was reading before bed and tired, but also because those sections interested me far less than his accounts of going to the dentist. Grisetti’s best writing was telling his memoirs; God was a less compelling storyteller. I found what God said to him sometimes really interesting, sometimes boring, sometimes as I’d expected God to speak, and occasionally so far out in left field that I didn’t have the brain power to sort it out.

Like the notion that God created humans and then came to earth so he could understand humans. I don’t get why an omnipotent God wouldn’t intimately know that which he created. At the same time, the death of human God exploding into God particles that exist in us all? Yeah, that actually makes a lot of sense.

Maybe the main reason that this book didn’t change my life is that I didn’t need it to. Grisetti and I have had the same sort of spiritual awakening, only mine didn’t include laughing gas and marijuana.

Some years ago, a writer, who identified himself as a former evangelical, was interviewing me for a book he was writing about his former faith. He asked me this question: “Do you believe that everything in the Bible is true?” I initially answered that yes, of course I did. Then I hesitated, and said I’d need to think about it some more.

To be honest, no one had ever asked me that question before, or I’d at least never pondered it for myself. I’ve been taught most of my life that the Bible is true. To question it was to flip a figurative bird to the Almighty, a sin from which you don’t return.

But now I needed to answer the question. Do I believe the Bible is true? And if I don’t, does it change my faith?

So I pondered that question for years and came to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter. If my faith is in God, then the book can be holy or it can be just a bunch of nice stories. God would still be God. But if my faith rested on whether or not I thought the Bible was all true, then my faith was in the book, not God.

And if my faith was rooted only in the God portrayed in the Bible, then I put God in a box that didn’t allow for him to be anything except what’s written on those pages, even if he existed in other faiths or spiritual paths. And if that was the case, God was not as big as eternity. He was only as big as the book that told his story.

That is not thinking that jibes with church. Or religion. But I think it lines up pretty well with God, the Creator.

And it lines up with science, too, because let’s face it. With all of our scholars and scientists and space travel, we only know a fraction of a fraction of what’s out there in the Universe. The human brain is a mystery; how can we be so arrogant as to assume we know what’s beyond the reach of our telescopes? Or through a black hole? Or what exists in other dimensions in space and time?

Contrary to what you might think, my pondering led me away from organized religion but towards a deeper faith in God, a more solid belief in the supernatural nature of the Creator of the Universe, a greater peace, and a more loving attitude towards man and beast. It awakened awe and wonder and the realization that I am but a small piece of a grand, grand puzzle stretching out in every direction for eternity, a puzzle filled with pieces of different shape and sizes and whose very existence I can’t even begin to comprehend.

At one point Grisetti recounts a story of going on a work study trip to Rome and bringing home a gift for his grandparents: a decorative rosary carved from stone. As a non-Catholic, he didn’t know what the rosary actually was for, other than being something you held when you prayed. And he still doesn’t know, despite the fact that a simple Google search would tell him. Instead, he says, “[T]here’s something about the mystique of it that I like. Not knowing somehow makes it more sacred, more magical.”

I think that’s how I like my faith, too. If I knew everything there was to know about God, if he could be packaged between the pages of a book or in a song or a workbook study, then he wouldn’t be God. But not knowing, having questions, pondering mysteries? To me, God is bigger and more complex and more wondrous than any book can describe. And I think that’s the same thing Grisetti came away from his encounter with, too. Whether he actually met God or not, he walked away from the experience with a bigger faith in a bigger God than even he, who saw him face to face, can imagine.

Click here to read what other Patheos bloggers are saying about “God In My Head,” by Joshua Steven Grisetti, as well as read a Q&A with the author and an excerpt from the book.

One Bad Mother

Me and my fabulous mom.

Me and my fabulous mom.

My mother loves to tell the story about how, when I was a newborn, she left the house and went shopping, and when she got to the store realized she’d forgotten to take me with her.

It was no big deal, she’s always assured me. As soon as she remembered, she went home and got me. I was fine. No harm done. She was sure I hadn’t even realized she’d been gone. I was an infant, so she’s probably right. But I always wondered how a mother could do that. I mean, doesn’t a mother’s world revolve around her children? How could she forget me?

Then I had a kid.

For what it’s worth, I’ve never gone shopping and forgotten my daughter at home. Well, not that I remember anyway. There was that one time when I was at the mall, and I was looking at some shoes that were on sale, and when I turned around realized my daughter had disappeared. In a panic, I started calling her name and searching among the racks. Finally, I ran out into the mall and spotted her a few stores away, calming walking along with a young couple, chatting nonstop and regaling them with tales of her imaginary friends.

She was three years old.

My failures as a mother weren’t limited to losing my child while bargain hunting. One time, I was dressing her while getting myself ready for work. We were late, and I was trying to do ten things at the same time. I didn’t realize that her little jacket had gotten caught on her shirt, and that the zipper was now lying against her bare skin. As I rushed around trying to get myself dressed and get her dressed and then get us both out the door, I quickly zipped the jacket, taking a strip of her soft belly flesh with it.

She cried. I cried harder. She had a scab for weeks. I’m still scarred. Continue reading