Category Archives: Writing

Dance of the Jingling Multitasker

This is NOT what I looked like belly dancing. (Image courtesy of Pixabay.)

I’m trying to make a pie crust, which isn’t easy to do when you’re also trying to write a column. It’s not that I’m a terrible baker or a terrible writer. I’m pretty good at both tasks (although my presentation of words is much prettier than my presentation of pie).

No, my problem is that I’m a terrible multitasker.

When I was a kid, the running joke was that I couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time. I probably couldn’t run and tell a joke at the same time either, but we’ll never know. When I was in kindergarten, I got run over by a classmate doing laps in the gym. That pretty much put me off running for the rest of my life.

I used to feel inadequate because of my lack of multitasking abilities, until I learned that multitasking isn’t the ability to do two things at the same time. It’s the ability to quickly switch back and forth between two tasks. That’s a little better, but not much help when the tasks you’re doing need to appear as if they’re simultaneous.

Like when you’re belly dancing. Continue reading

Musings on newspapers, news, and neighbors

From the Rochester Union and Advertiser, 12 June 1860

One of the things that I love about doing research is that old newspapers offer not only unique stories and old advertisements, but a look into how publications viewed their job as purveyors of the news.

This clipping, from the Rochester Union and Advertiser, 12 June 1860, caught my eye. I’d posted it on my Facebook page last year, but came across it again today and have been musing on it all morning.

It appears that a rival newspaper had printed a story about two young people planning to elope, who in the end gave up their plan and returned home without incident. The Rochester Union and Advertiser noted that while they had the story several days earlier (before the Democrat *), the Rochester Union and Advertiser chose not to run it, in order to avoid embarrassment to the parties involved – who appear to be young. Their reason? Continue reading

Why all of the posts all of the sudden?

Just a quick note: if you got numerous notifications today that I’ve posted to the blog, my apologies. As much as I’d like to say that I’ve been writing my little heart out all day, I’m actually just moving some posts over from other blogs and posting drafts, and I forgot that even if I’m backdating the posts subscribers will get a notification.

Again, apologies for the nuisance! You can either ignore the notifications…or take some time to enjoy some very old posts…

Highland Park, paupers, and bodies in unmarked graves

marked-mt-hope-tour-prosperous-and-penniless-tour-2015-guide-sally-millick-051-2

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

National Novel Writing Month and creative prompts from the cemetery

marked-2016-11-01-mt-hope-fall-196-2

National Novel Writing Month started today, and while I don’t write fiction I am using the month to focus on getting a huge chunk of writing done on my book about cemeteries.

And I’m inviting you to play along at home!

Throughout the month, I’m going to post some creative prompts on my Facebook page, inspired by Mt. Hope Cemetery. As I’m writing about my experiences in the cemetery and the residents who have captured my attention, I’ll share some of my favorite photos of epitaphs, tombstones, scenery, and interment records. Use them to inspire your own creative efforts – and if they do, feel free to share links in the comment section!

Save

Confessions of an office (and school) supply addict

photo courtesy of pixabay

photo courtesy of pixabay

(Note: This post is cross posted at Patheos.com)

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.)

Groundhogs, coffin parts, and other cemetery surprises

One of the handles I found while walking in the cemetery. Nearby, I also found part of a human skull.

One of the coffin handles I found while walking in the cemetery. It had been hauled to the surface by a burrowing groundhog.

I was out recently with my Border collie Bandit when he came upon a groundhog hole. That’s not unusual; the cemetery where I often walk is a certified habitat with the National Wildlife Federation, and is crawling with squirrels, chipmunks, groundhogs, deer, birds, and foxes. It’s not the first time I’ve had a close encounter with critters while meandering among the dead.

What was unusual this time? Around the entrance to the hole were items the groundhog had hauled to the surface while tunneling. Items like casket handles and knobs, and pieces of rotted coffin wood, and a bone.

You heard me. A bone.

At first, I thought that maybe it was just a wooden ornament from the corner of a casket or maybe part of a statue from a headstone. But it didn’t feel like marble or wood. So I took photos and when I got home shared them with friends, including more than one person in the medical profession, and the consensus was unanimous: it was a human bone. A vertebra, to be precise.

Piled up around one groundhog hole were several coffin handles as well as a human vertebra.

Piled up around one groundhog hole were several coffin handles as well as a human vertebra. (It’s just under the metal handle in the middle of the photo.)

Let me be clear that I didn’t bring the bone home or even disturb the site too much. In fact, after taking photos (because I knew this was going to make a great story and I wanted photos to go with it), I carefully left everything where I found it and went right to the cemetery office to report it.

Turns out that not only are critters a common sight in the cemetery, so are bones. And springtime brings more frequent surprises above ground as the snow melts, the soil softens, and wildlife starts burrowing and nesting and tunneling.

In fact, a few days after this little adventure, I was back at the cemetery with my sister and a friend. I’d enlisted their help looking for a grave as part of research I’m doing for my next book. We stumbled onto another groundhog hole. In his debris pile? Another casket handle and part of a skull.

Another trip to the cemetery office to file another report.

I wanted to know how the cemetery deals respectfully with the remains that critters haul to the surface. Because of the extensive network of groundhog tunnels, there’s no way to know which casket parts, or body parts, come from which plot. And even if you were sure, you can’t just open up Aunt Susan’s grave to return her femur. (When I asked, one worker told me the largest bone someone ever found in the cemetery was a leg bone. A femur is the largest leg bone I can name, but it could just as easily have been a tibia.)

So what happens to the bones?

Cemetery workers fill the groundhog hole with whatever the critter has dug up – casket parts or bones or whatever else they’ve uncovered – and then they fill the hole with dirt. The theory, I assume, is that the groundhog will find another place to live and the spirits of the dead will understand the living have done the best they can under the circumstances.

One staff member explained that it’s a delicate balance between managing wildlife and caring for the remains of others’ loved ones. The cemetery is gorgeous – woods, grassy areas, hills and vales. It’s truly a beautiful place to be buried, and offers almost 200 acres of nature in the middle of the city, a place where you find bikers and joggers and people walking dogs. The living enjoy it as much as the dead, and clearly the animals are thrilled to be there, too.

But when they get to be a problem, when they’re wreaking havoc on graves, for example, traps are set and the critters are humanely relocated to wooded areas outside of the city. But even that’s not always easy to accomplish; walkers in the cemetery often open the traps to let the groundhogs loose. Not only does it thwart the cemetery’s efforts, it puts the human who opened the trap in danger.

Newsflash: Groundhogs bite.

When I walked by the first hole a few days later, it was clear the groundhog had not gotten the memo that this hole was closed for business. He’d burrowed back in and thrown out the casket handles and knobs, settling back into his old digs. The bone wasn’t anywhere in sight, so I assume he decided to get with the program and show some respect for his underground neighbors.

I’m still curious: what does it looks like down that groundhog hole? Has he scavenged any other interesting things, like jewelry? Teeth? Articles of clothing? When he burrows through a coffin, does he set up camp inside or just burrow out the other side and move on with his business? Do the dead mind the disturbance or are they grateful for the company?

And what about those bones, permanently dislocated from their owners? When I was a child, a pastor told our congregation that when our bodies are resurrected they will come together to be made whole before we ascend to the heavens. That made organ donation a dangerous prospect. As a child, I had nightmares about being being called up from the grave in the Rapture, only to have living humans explode as my donated organs were called back to their original home.

The experience with the groundhog and his underground activities only reinforced something I’ve believed for a very long time, that we are not bodies with souls but instead souls with bodies, and that when we shed our mortal homes our spirits journey on while our earthly shells return to the ground, to the elements, to dust. We are one with the earth, and with its creatures, both above and below ground.