Friday, March 30, 2012

Why Are We Doing This?

Not many people ask themselves this question. Have you ever noticed? The world is awash in frantic activity, and nobody ever says, why are we doing this? This particular activity. This task. What outcome are we hoping for?

Not Lambertville, but you get the idea
Case in point. I spent three and a half hours at a local zoning board meeting tonight. The man who needed a variance had already disturbed the land around his house beyond what was allowed by the city steep slope ordinance by a factor of something like ten. Storm water was already a problem. If you live on a hill, you know what I'm talking about, gullies washing, soil eroding. But the thing was done. He needed a variance to say it was okay, so that he could get a certificate of occupancy to live in the house where he was already living, where he had been living, in fact, for two years.

I knew why I was there. I'm on the board. It's my job, among other things, to try and keep the hill from sliding down onto Route 29. The man knew why he was there; he had to show up to get his variance. His lawyer, from what I could tell, was there to talk at the board for two hours, because, of course, if you appear before the board they'll grant you a variance, right? Especially if you wave some visuals at them. And their engineer was there because the board likes you to have an engineer.

But nobody was taking care of business. The man who wanted the variance wanted to make excuses for whatever he had done to the property. The lawyer, for all his talking, said very little of substance. The engineer hadn't done much engineering on the project that we could see, at least nothing that addressed our city engineer's concerns about storm water. Yes, we understood why they had to move the sewer pipe. But what about the storm water? No plan. No drawings. So no variance for another two months, at which time we'll have to go through the whole dreary charade all over again.

This is why bureaucracy is such a drag. The bureaucrats never ask themselves why they are doing things. They just do them because it's the rule. This is why making yourself write a thousand words a day is such a drag. You need a plan. You need diagrams. Otherwise the whole muddy mess will go sliding down the hill.

Kate Gallison

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Great Falls at Paterson

Formed in the Ice Age in an area later inhabited by Lenape Indians and early Dutch settlers, the Great Falls on the Passaic River in northeastern New Jersey is a wonder to behold. When Alexander Hamilton visited it in 1778, he saw not a marvel of nature and a thing a beauty but a source of manufacturing power to spur the economy of budding nation.

Hamilton helped found Paterson—named for Governor William Paterson—and he commissioned no less than Pierre Charles L’Enfant, designer of Washington, DC, to lay out a system of canals to harness the falling water’s energy. There soon grew up a mill town that made cotton cloth, paper, locomotives, and even the Colt revolver and the first submarine.

Throughout the 19thCentury, immigrants streamed into the city to work in manufacturing and founded businesses in the burgeoning city. The Falls and the city that grew up around it inspired great writers. Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg called Paterson home.

William Carlos Williams wrote a sprawling epic poem called “Paterson,” which won the first National Book Award for Poetry. It describes a leap over the falls by Sam Patch, who also survived going over Niagara. In a less benign and less lofty (pun intended) cultural event, the mobsters in an episode of the “Sopranos” threw a drug dealer to his death off the bridge that spans the Falls.

After many years of neglect the Paterson Great Falls National Historic Park became a part of the National Park System two years ago this coming Friday. Now the 77 foot Falls has national protection and park rangers to help visitors enjoy the sights.

Even if you can’t make it there to see The Great Falls in flood stage, here’s a film to give you a taste of its power and wonder.

Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, March 26, 2012

NoirCon 2012

It’s a chilly, rainy day here in Philadelphia, a fitting day to contemplate the Noir genre. Noir is not everyone’s cup of tea. But then, cups of tea are for the cozy readers. Noir is for the straight Scotch at one gulp readers. I have tried to write Noir novels, to no avail. The last time I tried, a reviewer wrote, “Hathaway’s latest novel can be safely read by your teenage niece or the country vicar.” Since then, I’ve given up on writing Noir, but that doesn’t prevent me from reading it and enjoying it, or — from attending Noir conventions, such as NoirCon 2012 in Philadelphia, November 8th to 11th.

Deen Kogan and Lou Boxer are a great team that always put on a wonderful show. I’ve been to two of their productions, and there was never a dull moment. This year, Lawrence Block is the winner of the “David Goodis Award.” Goodis is one of our best Noir writers, from the 1940s and 50s. Library of America has just published a collection of his works.

At the last NoirCon, many of us tried to define, “Noir.” We said things like, “Well, er, it’s about losers with, er, no futures, stumbling into criminal activities, uh, making poor life choices, er, leading to self-destruction, uh….” Others claimed it was the setting that distinguishes noir novels. They are more atmospheric than other crime novels, set in gloomy night clubs featuring used-up torch singers surrounded by swirling smoke, or abandoned warehouses, or third-rate motels. After many attempts, we settled for the French translation of Noir, which is simply — black.

Ironically, despite all the gloom and doom, I’ve never been to a conference where there was more laughter than NoirCon. So, if you’re looking for a really good time, in a dark and depressing atmosphere, sign up for NoirCon 2012.

I’ll be there — laughing.

Robin Hathaway

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Persuasion

Dr. Herbert Lipscomb, my college Latin professor, was a rara avis, a real charmer!

I kind of inherited him in high school. My Latin teacher, Mary Lee Tillette, had been one of his star pupils at Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, Virginia. She often sang his praises, on the same level with Cicero, Ovid and Virgil. I revered the guy before I ever met him.

So, when I entered that college it was destined that I would major in Latin and become one of the Great One's girls. I soon learned that only the really favored ones were called by their first name in his class. You had to be "Miss Straw" until that magical moment when he would say, "Miss Thelma, will you please translate for us."

Finally, that moment did arrive. I could scarcely speak. Every eye in the class was on me, some with envy, others now including me in their sacred club.

It was a school tradition that when you arrived your friends took you out to dinner at the local inn, The Columns. (Steak was about $1.50!)

Dr. Lipscomb was a fastidious bachelor who loved the adulation of his pupils. When we invited him to dine with us, he always brought a bunch of flowers from his own garden. He wore a signet ring on his pinkie that rumor said was given to him by his lover Edna St. Vincent Millay.

The summer after my sophomore year I got a job up north - as a counselor at the Henry St. Settlement House Camp. It was such an enlightening experience, I decided to go into social work and change my major to Sociology. After all, Latin was a dead language.

Quaking in my saddle shoes, I entered the Great Man's office to break the news. You'd have thought I was confessing to murder or grand larceny.

He listened, his noble face a doleful study.

Finally, the majestic, sonorous voice began. "Miss Thelma," (my courage began to unravel)... "If you want to help a mother who has just lost her child, you need to understand her. To have a deep feeling for her life, her loss, her misfortune.

"Only if you have read the noble words in Seneca's Trojan Women can you feel the pain of Hecuba, who lost her husband, most of her beloved children. Or mothers today, and the children who are victims, the deaths, murders, betrayals, the ageless themes - the callowness of those in power. Only after you have lived through the pages of these noble souls will you have the strength and compassion to feel what people today are suffering.

"This century's unspeakable evils, the Holocaust, the Gulags, the bombs of Hiroshima. If you have lived - line by line - with these ancient women, only then will you have the armor and the understanding you will need."

The next day I renewed my place in the Dean's office as a Latin major.

Sometimes I've wondered how life would have been if I'd not been persuaded by that magic voice...

T. J. Straw

Friday, March 23, 2012

What a Long, Strange Trip It's Been

Not long ago I passed one of those milestone birthdays where people say, gosh, I didn't know she was that old, and one's hairdresser says, gallantly, you certainly don't look it. They may be serious, I don't know; when I was younger than I am now I used to look younger than I was then. "You don't look that old" isn't always a compliment. Sometimes it means, geez, your face doesn't reflect any knowledge whatever of real life.

And yet here I am, having passed this milestone. I ought to know about real life now. My life has been as real as the next guy's, I guess. Where is my wisdom? When am I going to achieve the wisdom of age?

There are several ways for geezers to deal with life successfully as it moves on around them.

One can become Andy Rooney, and complain about everything all the time, in as charming a way as one can manage. I could do that. My feelings for the twenty-first century and its folkways are well known.

One can assume that one now knows everything worth knowing, and heap one's knowledge and advice on the heads of one's cringing children, grandchildren, and friends (if any), in the manner of the Dowager Duchess of Whatever. It's probably too late for me to fully develop that as a personal style.

One can turn off one's hearing aid, go a little batty and spend one's days in a sweet pink cloud. My hearing is too keen for that, and I have no real tolerance for sweetness. The batty thing I can do with very little trouble.

One can threaten to write one's memoirs.

I could totally write my memoirs. Because my life, while not in the least influential, in the grand scheme of things, or in any way inspirational, has been weird. Now and then I'll tell some story to my friends and acquaintances and one of them will say, "Kate, you should write your memoirs." Some of those stories are too good to let die. The time I mustered out to be a guard at Trenton State Prison. That's one of my best stories. And there are others.

We'll see how it goes. Someday I may become too batty to suffer embarrassment, and I might just let 'er rip. If I knew you in the old days, tremble. You know who you are. Meanwhile I'm writing a YA novel in the hope of connecting to a new generation. Nobody I ever knew is in it.

Kate Gallison

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Fabulous, Fascinating Fabiola

I was introduced to Saint Fabiola by my life-long friend Francoise, French educator and contemporary art lover and expert, who presented me with a gift last fall of badge of Santa Fabiola. Here I am wearing it to a party, where it had the desired effect

of helping me start conversations with complete strangerssomething I dread!

Fabiola was a fourth century Roman noblewoman and early Christian whose first husband was such a brute that she divorced him. This was allowed in Roman law, but already against the precepts of her religion. Nevertheless, she took another husband and lived with him until he died, whereupon she put on sackcloth and ashes and repented her sin. She gave up her life of luxury and devoted herself to the needs of the poorerecting a hospital where she nursed the sick herself and donating her fortune to religious communities. In 395, she traveled to the holy land, visited St. Jerome in Bethlehem, and continued her charitable work in Jerusalem. She eventually returned to Rome, where she died in the year 399 on December 27th, which is now her feast day. No less than St. Jerome wrote a eulogy of her.

Fabiola is the patron saint of divorced people, victims of abuse, unfaithfulness, and unhappy marriages.

Modern age interest in her starts with Jean- Jacques Henner (18291905), a French painter who painted an Idealized portrait of Saint Fabiola in classical Roman dress in 1885. His painting was lost in 1912, but artists all over the world, following prints of the original, copied the image in many media and played with the characterization of the saint.

In 2009 Francis Alÿs, a Swiss artist who lives in Mexico City, put together a traveling exhibition of his collection of over 300 renderings of Henners Saint Fabiola.

My friend Françoise bought my badge at a showing in Switzerland. She gave me a choice of a few versions, and I chose the one that made the saint look like a woman of the Seventies, the era when I was divorced and she became, unbeknownst to me, my patron saint, too.

Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, March 19, 2012

10 Pet Peeves

After those wonderful St. Pat Day blogs from Kate and Bob (I would have loved to see Kate dancing up Broad Street and Bob prancing down 5th Avenue!) I know I should wax eloquently about something springy and uplifting like daffodils, robins (small r), and cherry blossoms. But, curmudgeon that I am, I’m opting for the opposite. Here they are.

People who…

  1. don’t leave their name on your answering machine, then blame you for not calling back.
  2. put empty (or almost empty) ice trays back in the refrigerator.
  3. leave their dogs locked up in the house all day — barking.
  4. put their trash out several days ahead of trash day and it blows all over the street.
  5. don’t replace the toilet paper or paper towel roll after using the last sheet.


  1. Bottles and jars whose caps require a blowtorch to remove.
  2. Price tags that leave a sticky smudge behind on the gift you’ve bought.
  3. Paperback books made of paper so cheap it cracks and turns yellow within a few months.
  4. Restaurants that are so dark you can’t read the menu.
  5. Restaurants that are so noisy you can’t talk to or hear your companions.

Maybe what I need is a little green beer! :>)

Robin Hathaway

Saturday, March 17, 2012

St. Patrick’s Days Past

On The Day, I’d wake early at home in Brooklyn, having had a grand sleep, because I’d made myself stay in the night before with a book or the TV. To my mind, I was in training like fighters. Then, a light breakfast: there’d be Bloody Marys (Virgins for the Pledge-Takers) at the jumping-off location, the Blarney Stone on East 44th Street. Run a rag over the black shoes, pin the Shield to the Summer Blouse (don’t remember it ever being so cold that I had to wear the Winter Choker), pull on the white gloves, adjust the tilt of the eight-pointed uniform hat and out the door. One of us would take his car, leave it in designated parking for ‘Police Vehicles Only’ around the 108th Precinct in Long Island City, grab the Flushing #7 train two stops to Grand Central Station. No one in his right mind, especially a cop in uniform, drives into the City on St. Patrick’s Day.

East 44th Street belonged to the NYPD: we formed up in ranks along the street from Fifth Avenue to Sixth (New Yorkers call it “Sixth”, not “Avenue of the Americas”), filling it with hundreds of Irish cops in uniform, grouped by Borough of Command. The next street over belonged to the FD (New York City Fire Department), but it was the cops who stepped off first onto Fifth Avenue at noon, behind the thumps and wails of the Emerald Society Pipes and Drums Band – the pipers in kilts and tall black bear hats with a sprig of green – Himself, Det. Finbar Devine, Drum Major, all 6-feet-five of him, in the lead and counting cadence with his baton. We headed up Fifth Avenue to the wail of the pipes and assault of the drums thundering ‘The Garryowen’, ‘The Minstrel Boy,’ ‘The Wearing of the Green’. We were The Seventh Cavalry, high-flying with no need of a horse.

We marched up Fifth Avenue ten-abreast, feet and swinging arms keeping faith to Finbar’s time. We passed the Cathedral, its steps crowded with the faithful and The Cardinal. Ice skaters abandoned the Rockefeller Center Rink to get a gander at us. People crowded the balconies of East Side residences, hung out the windows of office buildings, ignored the horse-drawn hansom cabs outside the Plaza Hotel at 59th Street and Central Park. Our route was straight as a die for 42 City blocks, past the Metropolitan Museum of Art at 81st Street. Its steep stone stairway rising to the front door, hundreds of watchers filling its steps, when I looked left and up, I saw the Pyramid of the Sun in the dead Mexican City of Teotihuacan. A sharp right turn onto 86th Street and down to the end of the Parade Route at Third Avenue and 86th. No one was tired; the City lay before us; Irish cops were the Chosen.

Then an unhurried descent down Third with forays to Second Avenue along the way. Like the Pony Express riders in the Old West, we’d stop at way-stations to refresh the horses. Every Irish bar from 86th to 22nd Street received us. McFadden’s, The Mean Fiddler, Ulysses’, Ryan’s Daughter, Hibernia, Finnegan’s Wake, Nancy Whiskey Pub, the Failte Irish Whiskey Bar – to mention a few – and finally Molly Malone’s at 22nd Street, the unofficial end-of-tour, appropriately around the corner from the Police Academy on East 20th Street. We drank for free – “on the arm” is the term of art – at all these places. It was accepted as demeaning to ask a cop in uniform to pay for his drinks on St. Patrick’s Day. But we tipped the barmaids handsomely, sang the old songs gustily, and behaved decorously.

Perhaps I’m mistaken in some of that. After all, it was a very long time ago.

Robert Knightly

Friday, March 16, 2012

Irony: Folks Don't Always Get It

Robin's post on Monday about the uses of puppets made me aware of the Cleveland Action News 19 dramatization of the Jimmy Dimora corruption trial, which, being an easterner, I had never heard of before. I quickly looked up this phenomenon on YouTube, where many episodes of the puppet-reenacted trial can be seen. Here's another one:

I was struck by some of the comments from people who wrote in expressing disapproval of News 19's facetious approach to reporting the trial. They are horrified and outraged that this guy is so corrupt, and they can't understand why you're laughing.

Well, shoot, you might as well laugh. Yes, the guy is evidently totally corrupt, the lowest worm that crawls, like some people in my town, like some people in yours. It's an intolerable outrage. That's what art is for, one of the things anyway, to transform unbearable experiences into things trivial enough to digest without going crazy. That's what irony is for. That's what black humor is for. If we couldn't laugh we would have to succumb to despair.

I suspect it's a very Czech way to deal with things. The Czechs with their puppet shows and their impertinent attitude are the master ironists of Europe, I like to think. I should go there someday and see their puppets for myself. Cleveland, maybe not so much.

Kate Gallison

Thursday, March 15, 2012


I was ten years old when I first fell in love. The memory of the moment is as vivid as this morning.

I was walking down Broadway. My father and mother had taken me and my brother Andy to see the Easter show matinee at Radio City Music Hall, and then on our way back to Port Authority to catch the bus back to Paterson, New Jersey, we stopped at the old Lindy’s for a cheesecake before leaving town.

We had a waiter named Scotty who spoke with a thick burr. When he overheard our conversation about the difference between New York cheesecake and Italian cheesecake, he told us his last name: Di Felice! He was born in Edinburgh of Italian immigrant parents, and migrated to New York just after World War II. I still have the little green cream pitcher he gave me as a souvenir.

I remember what I was wearing — a blue and white hound’s tooth check coat over a dress my mother had made, black patent leather marjanes with white socks that turned down at the tops and were trimmed with lace, and a little straw hat decorated with navy blue velvet ribbon and silk flowers. After we left the restaurant and continued down Broadway toward 42nd Street and the bus terminal, evening had fallen on the Great White Way. Holding my mother’s hand (we were both wearing white gloves), I looked up at her and said, “Mommy, when I grow up, I am going to live here.”

“Yes, dear,” she said, but I could tell she didn’t believe me.

But I had no doubts whatsoever. I was already in love. With New York.

I still am.

I understand patriotism as a concept. The United States is a great country. Its Constitution is a sacred text. But my heart does not swell when I hear “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It does when I hear “New York, New York.”

Here is the beginning of Woody Allen’s movie “Manhattan.” It describes exactly what it means to be head over heels for this place.

Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, March 12, 2012

Puppets and Dolls: Not Always Playthings

In the Czech Republic there is a custom among many families to keep a set of handmade puppets from generation to generation. This custom began as far back as the Middle Ages when stone cutters who worked on the cathedrals would come home and, for recreation, carve puppets from wood that resembled the figures they created in stone. Many of the puppets had extra large noses and bulging eyes, because such exaggeration of features was necessary for them to be seen perched in the soaring ceilings of the churches. Through the years puppet shows became a staple entertainment in Czechoslovakia.

But during the German occupation these shows took on a new role. The Germans ruthlessly censored all forms of theater, but they overlooked the puppet show, thinking it too insignificant for their attention. How wrong they were. The Czechs used these shows to boost morale, nationalism, and patriotism among their people. The shows were even used as vehicles for transmitting important messages to members of the resistance which was very active during the German occupation.

Another example of dolls being put to a serious purpose, took place in New Hampshire in the 1940’s. A woman, Frances Glessner Lee, from a wealthy and prominent family, had time on her hands and she became an accomplished miniaturist. But she was not an ordinary miniaturist. Fascinated by crime, she reproduced crime scenes from homicides reported in the newspapers. The corpse was always a doll rendered in realistic detail. Somehow the New Hampshire State Police heard of her work and decided to hire her. They used her reproductions of crime scenes to train rookie policemen in the art of observation — a skill of great importance to policemen and detectives. She was made an honorary Captain of Police for her contribution.

Finally, just recently I read about a new use for puppets in this country. There was a court case that was closed to the press and all media coverage was forbidden. The usual custom in these cases is to hire a court artist to record the events for the public. In this case the news media tried something different. They had puppets made of all the major characters involved — defendant, lawyers, judge, jury, etc. — and performed scenes from the trial on television. The program was an instant hit, drawing a large audience. Maybe this will set a precedent for future trials.

Robin Hathaway

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Unmagnificent Obsession

Obsess: To dominate or excessively preoccupy the thoughts, feelings, or desires of; haunt.

I have this secret obsession, a mad morning dash to grab the Times, not to check the latest Newt-gaffe or Mitt's mixup, or whether Dame Callista's hair has shifted a demi-millimeter, but . . .

To check Page 2 to see what Chanel is selling its latest "handbag" for.

Lots of folks have a private neurosis – sneaking juicy fiction by flashlite under the covers, hoarding Oreos in the freezer, collecting more shoes than that Filipino lady. . . Me, well, read on. . .

I've never called the thing I tote my worldly goods in a handbag. Or a purse. Mine is a pocketbook. (Neither a pocket nor a book.)

Mind you, I'm not about to hail a yellow cab down to the 57th Street Chanel store. Much less take a car service over the GW to the mall at Short Hills! Not for what the VPs at Chez Chanel think is a real bargain at $2,400!

A quilted handbag in calfskin with contrast leather - what the hell is contrast leather?

And what's this quilted cow stuff? You can't make a quilt from the skin of a calf!

These Chanel folks don't play fair - the next week they upped the same quilted calfskin with contrast leather to $3,600!

The gal pals I hang out with don't pay those big bucks for a container to shlep the ton of daily indispensables - like cell phones , smart pads, kindle, comb, brush, gym shoes, mirror, makeup, cough drops, headache pills, a Poland Spring water bottle, not to mention wallet, ID case, change purse and credit card holder.

Nor do I cavort with folks who carry wads of filthy lucre.

If I did carry one of these Chanel bags on Manhattan streets I'd have to keep a beady eye every second on the bag. I'd miss the walk light, run into old ladies with their rollators, or nannies with their strollers, trip over the sidewalk cracks, spend all my energy keeping the Chanel safe from robbers, pickpockets and pan handlers!

And you can bet your britches these little Chanels that cost only 1- or 2 thou are their bargain-basement items.

Up the ante and you can get the "Evening Camelia" for a mere $4,400. Or shoot your wad for the "Boy Chanel" calfskin for $5,100.

If you're into snakes, own the "Natural Beauty Hobo" bag in python. I'd be scared its cousin from the Bronx Zoo would slither up my fire escape and swallow me AND my python-skin bag as I slept!

Who buys this stuff? And where do they carry them?

Any fair-minded Gristedes checkout lady would deny you today's sale on their premier pork chops. And P.C. Richard himself would say you weren't eligible for his TV sale.

I suspect the Chanel CEO assumes we all have weekend digs in Dubai! Or villas on the Black Sea.

Now, my dears, if you don't like the Chanels, Tiffany will let you buy a "sofia minaudiere in satin" for a real bargain – $1,295. ( What the xcq# is a minaudiere?)

Webster says it's a small case for a woman's cosmetics or other personal objects. Hey, Mr. T, you want I should pay almost 1,300 bucks to stash my two-dollar lipstick from Duane-Reade?

WHO are their customers?

Are the young ladies at Spence, Chapin or Brearley required to write their senior term papers on "How to Properly Carry Your Chanel Handbag"?

Would you dare to put your Chanel handbag on the crumbly table at Starbucks? Or nestle it between your feet at a Barking Dog?

Maybe Joe Biden gives a Chanel to Dr. Jill for her birthday. Or the Trump wives donate their castoffs to the Brick Church Fair. Or the ladies-who-lunch-at-private clubs auction them off for charity!

Rumor has it that Q E 2 sneaks a Chanel inside that roomy pocketbook she carries on the Royal Arm. That should satisfy the folks who make book on what Her Majesty really lugs around the United Kingdom. And pretty Kate no doubt carries hers to Mustique.

Have you glimpsed Mrs. Romney with a Chanel? No doubt Newt showers them on Missus 3.

But I sure don't see HC swinging a Chanel chain on her Sec/State travels. Or Diane Feinstein holding one at a Senate hearing!

I bet if you go behind the Liz Arden Red Door you'll see a whole line of them hanging up in the Ladies' Lounge. Alongside the Perrier bottles.

Once I ran into Katie Couric in the Lexington Avenue Gristedes - I coulda sworn I spotted a Chanel bag on top of her Lean Cuisines.

Heard tell Don Imus ordered a bunch for Mrs. I. But she donated them to the Hackensack Women's Shelter!

I reckon if you're a ladywholunches, like at Swifty's or The Four Seasons, it's de rigeur to carry a different Chanel every day.

Gotta run, darlings, I yell, as I fumble in my J.C. Penney faux leather red pocketbook for my subway token. . .

By the way, I must confess I do love my Chanel No. 5 cologne!!!

T. J. Straw

P.S. Thanks for listening. Be sure you leave your comment. . .

Friday, March 9, 2012

Where Babies Come From

Assemblyman Gilbert Wilson introduced a bill in the New Jersey legislature a couple of weeks ago mandating DNA testing for all newborns. The mothers or their insurers (oh, joy! Another medical bill) would be required to pay for the test. Some public good would result from this, right? I mean, this is our legislature. They have our interests at heart. At very least, wealth would flow into the coffers of the DNA labs. Jobs would be created.

But then what? Suppose the baby's father was not who the mother said he was. This, after all, is the stated purpose of the bill, to reveal the truth before... before... what? The father comes to love the child? The family raises the child to maturity?

Saved from such a fate, the disappointed non-father gets to scold his wife or lover while she's still lying in her hospital bed nursing his non-baby. "Shirley, you slut! We're through! Never expect another penny from me!" And he spits on the baby and leaves. How is this useful?

Not to get all political on you, but it seems to me that the view of women embodied in this bill is that most of us are sly, deceitful creatures out to get everything we can from the men. These are the same straw women that the Republicans are said to be making war on. I don't know any women like that. We can make our own living now, raise our own children. Guys, if your woman offers you a child, it's a gift.

I read somewhere that in certain South Sea Island tribes a man who raised another man's child as his own considered himself the winner. He got the prize, the child. Babies are treasures. They're worth whatever they cost, whether they're your own, or adopted, or fathered by the milkman.

Kate Gallison

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Liz Zelvin: Outrageous Older Woman

Elizabeth Zelvin is a New York City psychotherapist whose third mystery about recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler, Death Will Extend Your Vacation, will be out next month. Outrageous Older Woman, an album of her original songs, has just been released. Liz’s short stories have been nominated three times for the Agatha Award for Best Short Story, and her story, “Death Will Tank Your Fish,” in Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices, is a current nominee for the Derringer Award for Best Short Story.

Crimewriters: Your friends and colleagues are excited about your debut on the new CD. Tell us a little about your evolution as a vocal performer.

Liz: Outrageous Older Woman is my first professional-quality recording, but I’ve been singing my whole life, starting with morbid traditional ballads (very appropriate for a mystery writer), the spirited music of the Left, and gloriously sentimental Girl Scout campfire songs. My mother never quite got it. She was always asking why I didn’t sing something more cheerful. She’d probably have said the same thing if she hadn’t been gone by the time my first mystery came out.

Nonetheless, I always loved singing and performing, and I always knew that harmony singers and better musicians than I could make me sound better. I learned to play guitar when I was thirteen, and it was a great asset in high school and college, where I would have remained a shy kid if I hadn’t had so many opportunities to sit on the floor (or the grass, depending) playing my guitar while everybody sang along. I never thought of doing it professionally. For one thing, the kind of folk music I sang gave way to rock in the mid-Sixties, while I was in the Peace Corps. For another, I’m severely allergic to smoke, which was endemic and the kind of coffee houses where singers performed in those days. So I let it go for a few years.

In the late Nineties, I picked up the guitar again and started to go to songwriting workshops, and being around other musicians rekindled my creativity in this area. I owe a lot to a trio of musical mentors: veteran singer/songwriter Bernice Lewis, in whose workshop I wrote my first new songs in twenty years; genre-bending musical legend Jimmie Dale Gilmore, who liked to throw strangers together and make them write a song in four days, since he believes the collaborative process is exactly like the internal creative process; and vocal visionary Amy Fradon, who sings harmony vocals on my album and is responsible for the surprising fact that I’m a better singer at 68 than I was at 28. I put the songs aside again when I got involved in mystery writing. But as we know, today’s writers tend not to have a straightforward career path, and I’m delighted that I’ve had the time to turn my body of work as a songwriter into an album I’m truly proud of.

Note that I say “album” rather than CD, because while I hope many people will buy the CD, younger listeners are far more likely to download the music — either the whole album or individual tracks — into their iPods or cell phones.

Crimewriters: The photo of you in the red hat is stunning!!! Why the red hat??? Are you a member of the Red Hat Society???

Liz: I don’t belong to the Red Hat Society, but the organization is well known enough that wearing a big red hat suggests the spirit of fun, audaciousness, and celebration of women’s experience that I wanted to express. I deliberately don’t wear a purple dress with the red hat, so it’s just me doing my own thing.

Crimewriters: Do you have any plans to get a gig at the restaurant in Irvington, NY — called Red Hat on the River? They do a lot of evening entertainment!!

Liz: No, but I’ll be performing with some of my band from the album at the People’s Voice Café on Saturday, May 19 at 8 pm. It’s at the Community Church at 40 East 35th Street in Manhattan.

Crimewriters: Most females prefer to be called "younger." Why the tag "older woman"?

I’m not sure that’s true of my generation, just pre-baby boomer. Most of us are pretty frank about our age. I think the older a woman is when she accomplishes something of note, the more inspiring she is to other women. In a song called “The House That I Called Home,” I tell the story of my parents’ romance: both immigrant children, they met in law school in 1921. My mother, who was a tremendous role model, went back to school in her sixties, before anyone was doing that, got a doctorate, and taught Constitutional law well into her seventies. She was no slouch in her eighties or nineties either. Her younger sister, my Aunt Hilda, turns 100 in April, and she’s still playing tennis and going dancing with her boyfriend. That’s the tradition I feel called to maintain, so the older the better.

Crimewriters: What do you want to convey by calling yourself "outrageous"?

Liz: The way I remember it, I was sitting in a hot tub in Berkeley California with two women friends in the 1970s and one of them asked what was our vision for ourselves—what did we aspire to be, beyond career goals (like “published novelist”). My intuitive answer at that time was: Wisewoman (which I think I’ve made a good start on, partly but not entirely by becoming a psychotherapist) and Outrageous Older Woman. The older I get, the less inhibited I am by what other people may think of me. I don’t think I took enough risks as a kid — I don’t mean hitchhiking (which I did) or skydiving (no, thank you!), but, say, taking a course in something interesting that I knew nothing about and might not get an A in; or speaking up to communicate the hard, simple stuff, like “No” and “I love you.” I didn’t invent the phrase “outrageous older woman.” First I got the T shirt. Then I wrote the song, which is about my journey through experience to a sense of empowerment. When I decided to make the album, I knew right away that that would be the title.

Crimewriters: You call your work "The Songs of a Lifetime".  Are you the composer? Did you write the lyrics? What topics do you address in this collection?

Liz: I wrote the words and music of all the songs on the album. It’s all about love, really, but there are only three love songs: one written thirty years ago for my husband and still true; one I wrote as an engagement present for my son and his fiancée and sang at their wedding (in fact, two weddings); and the story of my stepdaughter’s Internet romance, which also ended in a wedding (long after I wrote the song). Some of them are story songs. One is about a legendary and beloved New York character, the Mayor of Central Park; another was inspired by one of the many homeless alcoholics I’ve worked with in my professional life. Two are about abuse and healing. One is about what I call “creeping age,” an update on a song I wrote decades ago about middle age. Another is an embellished retelling of a classic Jewish shaggy dog story. And as a bonus track, I’ve included a live performance in Woodstock early in 2002 of a song I wrote about 9/11 in the first couple of days after it happened. Writing the song and singing it was my way of coming to terms with the tragedy.

Crimewriters: Do you plan to have a series of CDs? Do you have plans for TV, radio, film, clubs, etc? Are you for hire? How should a future employer for such contact you?

Liz: Since I’m not a professional musician, and I don’t have or expect a record deal, a series of CDs would land me in the poorhouse. This is a labor of love, not a commercial project, and this is it. Getting a self-produced CD distributed widely takes the same kind of energy that would go into a self-published novel. That said, I am open to invitations to perform, which is both fun and an opportunity to sell CDs—very much as it is for writers. The best way to sell music nowadays, as many musicians have told me in the course of doing this project, is on the Internet. My songs are available through my music website at and on, through which most independent recordings are distributed. They’re also on iTunes and Amazon and will eventually be on other music download sites as well.

Crimewriters: If you'd gone a different route in your career path, what would you be doing now?

Liz: That’s not a good question for me, since there’s nothing I haven’t done that I always wanted to do (except riding an elephant, which is still on my list), but the outcomes haven’t been anything like what I expected. If I’d gotten my first novel published at 24 instead of 64, my writing career might have been over for decades by now. If I’d been able to carry a tune in smoke-filled dives, I might have kept bad company and be long dead. If I hadn’t married my first husband, I wouldn’t have my gorgeous granddaughters. As for getting rich, which is not in the cards for me, I tried: many years ago, I sold life insurance for a couple of years, and it was a nightmare. I wrote a song about it, but it didn’t make it into this album.

Crimewriters: What is your advice to new writers... musicians...?

Liz: I say what everybody else says to new writers: read read read, and write write write. Network with other writers, join MWA and Sisters in Crime, and don’t quit your day job. It’s kind of the same with musicians: listen listen listen, practice practice practice. Hang out with other musicians, learn the realities of the industry, and don’t quit your day job.

You can learn more about Liz's mysteries at
Thank you, Liz, for sharing these priceless gems with us!
— T.J. Straw

Liz Zelvin: Outrageous Older Woman

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


You hear the word in news broadcasts weekly, if not daily, mostly in connection with the attitudes of the Republican candidates toward illegal immigrants in states where primaries are taking place. But I have been thinking about what happened a hundred years ago and more.

My recent visit to Buenos Aires and the research into my story that takes place there in 1945 reminded me that people very similar to those who poured into the United States at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries also streamed into South America. Especially into Buenos Aires, which is called the "Paris of the South," but given its diversity of people of European background (and its 24/7 life style), it's more like the New York of the South.

Many of my 1945 fictional Argentine characters and also a number of the true historical characters in the story are immigrants or the children of immigrants. Writing about them got me to thinking about what it was like for people who left their families to cross the ocean. My elegant grandfather Gennaro Pisacane left Italy at the dawn of the Twentieth Century. He was 16. He came from an important but impoverished family, where tradition demanded the eldest son inherit the property, the second become a priest, and the third go to the army. Born a second son, he had expected to grow up to be a clergyman.

But then his older brother died. As he was leaving school at age 16, he found himself the head of the family, with a mother, two younger brothers, and four sisters to take care of in a land of starving people. He took nobleman’s sense of honor and his education (considerable for a poor immigrant of his era) to the land of the free and the home of the brave. Here he endured, married the beautiful Maria Sabina Alfieri, had seven children, and managed to support all of them, as well as his mother and siblings until they were old enough to take care of themselves. Eventually, he brought most of his siblings to the New World, where they thrived.

Gennarro Pisacane and little Patty, 1945
Lucky for all of us, he chose New York rather than Buenos Aires. Life here was no piece of cake, but it was calmer then the tumult and violence of political life in Buenos Aires in the twentieth century. They don’t have the Statue of Liberty in their harbor! We do.

Emma Lazarus's House

Just about every day, I pass the house where Emma Lazarus lived. There is a plaque on it with part of her moving sonnet, “The New Colossus.”

Here is the poem, in case you have not read it in a while.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Emma Lazarus, 1883

Emma Lazarus

When I pass there, I think of Gennaro. Sixteen is such a vulnerable age for a boy. He said good-bye to his mother knowing he would never see her again.

He taught me to love music. Here is song from his native land that is generally taken for a love song about a man and a woman, but when I hear it I think of Gennaro and his mother — how he must have longed to see her and the places it describes again and how, when she heard it, she must have longed for her son.

If you want to know the lyrics in Neapolitan or English, look here.

Try not to weep!

Annamaria Alfieri

Jewish Women's Archive. "Photo of immigrants on boat looking at the statue of liberty." <> (March 6, 2012).

Monday, March 5, 2012

Why a Pseudonym?

Pseudonyms have been used over the years for a variety of reasons:

Georges Sand
1. To hide one’s gender: Ex. The Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, wrote under the names of Currer, Ellis, and Acton, respectively. Mary Ann Evans wrote as George Eliot. And Baronne Dudevant was George Sand. Those were the days when there was a stigma attached to women writers and the chances of getting published were much greater if you were a man.

2. Your real name is too long, too hard to pronounce or spell: Ex. Joseph Conrad whose real name was Josef Theodora Conrad Nalco Korzeniowski; Oscar Wilde who was Fingal O’Flahertie Wills; Woody Allen, born Allen Stuart Konigsberg; Adolf Hitler, alias Adolf Schickelgruber.

Betty Joan Peske
3. Your name evokes laughter: Ex. Archie Leach alias Cary Grant; Betty Joan Peske alias Lauren Bacall; Malcolm Little alias Malcolm X.

4. You wish to make fun of or insult people in print: This was a favorite sport in the 18th Century. A common pastime was to write letters to the local newspaper ridiculing your rivals or enemies. Benjamin Franklin had a dozen different pen names that he wrote under, i.e., Poor Richard, Busy Body, Silence Dogood and Anthony Afterwit, to name just a few.

5. You are a writer and want to change genres, say from Mystery to Science Fiction: It’s confusing to the reader if you write differently under the same name. It is a good idea to adopt a new name when you launch a new genre.

You don't want people
to know you wrote this
6. A pen name can be liberating: If you think no one will recognize your name, you can really let yourself go and write truer or sexier stuff, or even porn. Your family, friends, or old Sunday school teachers will never know. (Warning: I hear that in many cases the truth will out!)

7. Your previous book sales have been poor and you want to try again: This is tricky because there is a database available to editors and publishers that records the sales of every writer. Attempting to hide your past behind a new name can be difficult, but not impossible. Recently a woman writer with an average sales record was successful in acquiring a two-book contract using the nom de plume--Kate Alcott. Alcott’s new books are doing very well.

So, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!

Robin Hathaway

Friday, March 2, 2012

Letting it All Hang Out

I read in the New York Times a few weeks ago about a study proving that modern adolescents can make their feelings of social inadequacy less stressful by writing a public blog discussing these feelings, opening the blog to comments. Comments from friends, from strangers, from enemies. I looked back – way back – on my own teenage years and said to myself, no way in hell.

Can you imagine spreading your feelings before the public, to be jeered at and trampled upon? Your feelings of inadequacy? I was so keen to keep my adolescent thoughts and feelings to myself that I wrote my diary in a cipher I invented. One time I came home from school and found my mother painstakingly deciphering it, sharing a good laugh with my little sister. This event was so traumatic that I might have told my shrink about it, if I ever had a shrink. Naturally I never did, because my feelings are my own, thank you very much. I'm not going to hire somebody to listen to me talk about them.

Yet I've been writing fiction for a number of years now, and yes, keeping a blog, two blogs actually, this one and my own blog ( Wouldn't you think that the real Kate Gallison would peep out of the verbal thicket from time to time, mad-eyed, like Mr. Rochester's wife peeping out of his attic? Wouldn't you think she might expose her feelings of social inadequacy?

Maybe yes, maybe no. We are, after all, women (and men) of mystery here. We strive to entertain you, but not necessarily by exposing ourselves. If you want to know my most secret feelings you must sneak up on me at a cocktail party and wait for me to inadvertently blurt out one of the more embarrassing parts of my personal history. But I don't commit my real feelings to paper, or to a computer screen, when I can edit them. That's what the delete key is for.

The very idea.

Kate Gallison