Letters From Jo


Merry Christmas 2016


Author's Note: When I wrote my annual holiday letter, I very purposely chose an Edwardian font with its curlicues and sweeping script that reminded me of a more gentile and civil era. Unfortunately that font does not travel well. In order for the letter to be read on most computers via the net, it had to be changed to something less ornate but more serviceable. I still hold to the sentiments expressed. It was a bit of a tough year.

I decided I needed an elegant font to describe a most inelegant year. I will own that some of the inelegance is my own doing. I am less tolerant these days. Oh, I'm not talking about building a wall or supporting exclusionary policies that target a religion - keep in mind that I am the daughter of an immigrant. No, my intolerance is for the lack of open registers at Walmart so that the lines extend back to the pharmacy, jewelry, and women's wear, the drivers who never use their turn signal and expect me to guess their intent, the customer service rep who asks me if West Virginia is part of Virginia like West Texas is part of Texas, the computerization of my medical records and the fact that none of it seems to be available to the RN who is doing the intake assessment, and anything related to the KKK - the Kim Kardashian Klan. If I want to test my tolerance and my ability to manage my anxiety, I will listen to Rush Limbaugh. My personal best is four minutes, twenty seconds before my head explodes.

I want to be a kinder, gentler person. Certainly it's a worthy goal. As Michelle Obama pointed out, 'when they go low, we...' Yeah, well, mostly when they go low, I want to step on their necks. See my problem?

Not to make excuses…wait, that's exactly what I'm going to do. Twenty sixteen hit me crossways from several fronts. On the work front at Family Connections, it was the year of the attorneys. Our agency joined with six others in taking on the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Services regarding proposed changes to residential treatment facilities that we strongly believed were not in the best interest of children and families. That all-consuming battle began in earnest on February 17th when we received the contracts and continues as we await a decision from the WV Supreme Court of Appeals after oral arguments on October 25th. It was (is)mentally and emotionally exhausting. Just sayin'.

On the writing front, I was assigned yet another editor after the previous editor left before I had even turned in a new manuscript. As stressful as this was at the time, it morphed into something good. A Touch of Frost will have a June 2017 release, a terrific cover, and the important contribution of a helpful editor. So there's that.

On the health front, I was finishing up the new manuscript at the end of February (and don't forget about that nasty contract a week earlier) when I became aware of a pain in my calf, especially when I curled my leg under me as I sat. I was scheduled to see the doctor anyway, so I told him about the pain. Ended up getting an ultrasound that showed I had a deep vein thrombosis. Plan A was a few days in the hospital on rat poison to monitor my blood clotting factors. "I'm working on a book," I told the doc. "What's Plan B?" Turns out Plan B wasto take the meds and visit the blood draw lab daily until all was copacetic. Still taking the meds with blood draw once a month. The swelling in my leg hasn't gone down yet, which is a fashion nightmare as the left leg of my capris gets stuck below my knee while the right leg falls to the correct length. The left knee was the next thing to go and I won't bore you with the excruciating pain or the fact I had to cancel a theater date to see Matilda because I couldn't walk. After the knee, which is better but not okay, it was a ligament in the left foot. All of this put a period to bike riding and walking which left me with my standby coping tool: eating. Can you say vicious circle?

On the political front, nah, I'm not going there. Enuf is enuf.

For summer fun, I visited the Wilds with the sister on a very rainy day. She snapped pictures while the animals huddled and looked around anxiously for the ark. I also scratched the Big Muskie Bucket off my bucket list. Don't ask.



Best wishes for a healthy and happy New Year!






Christmas 2015



I got nuthin'. Here's the state of my brain: Several weeks ago I was making my Costco list and I knew I wanted to pick up a box of Petite Quiches. I had no trouble remembering 'petite', primarily because it's a size I've never been able to wear, and there's a certain amount of residual trauma in that. But 'quiche?' Even after having had 2 years of French in junior high, 4 years of French in high school and 4 semesters of French in college, I couldn't pull 'quiche' out of my derriere. So what did I write on my list? Omelet cups. That's right. Omelet cups. It's that sad inside my head these days.

So Christmas approaches and changes are happening at warp speed in my day job as executive director of Family Connections, Inc., coupled with lightning strikes in publishing that affect Jo Goodman, and a brain that could once run a category in Jeopardy! feels lucky to have a functioning autonomic nervous system to manage breathing, heart rate, and gland secretions (especially sweat). What that brain cannot manage this year is an anecdotal Christmas letter. There is no je ne sais quois, no joie de vivre. There is, however, a box of 72 omelet cups in the freezer.

Joyeux Noel et Bonne Année






Christmas 2014



The Iceman Cometh. I hear lots of complaints about the onset of colder weather. I get it from friends, colleagues, and people whose opinion does not matter a whit to me. Let's call them whitless. Me? I enjoy the briskness of autumn and the transition into winter. Winter is all about snuggling. What's not to like? Perhaps you are wondering why I am giving attention to the weather in my annual epistle. It's because it now occupies a full third of the local news. Even if it's mild and sunny, the meteorologists (are they really?) manage to fill it with drama. And if it's a polar vortex, you can expect some talking head from the Weather Channel will appear on your screen with icicles hanging from his nostrils like walrus tusks just to help you appreciate the environmental conditions. And for all their talk about weather, these folks never weigh in on climate change.

I've been thinking about what I want to share in this letter and I've decided to go with Things-That-Could-Have-Made-It-To-Video, But-By-The-Grace-Of-God-And-Want-Of-A-Handy-Smart-Phone-Did-Not. My working title was Jackass, Jo Style. Some of these situations were posted on my Facebook page at jogoodmanromance, because sharing my sorry self with others is how I do penance for being witless.


As a kid I often read from a set of 4 books that told stories of the Old Testament. There were illustrations, but they were not in color or comforting, and now that I think back on it, they probably would no longer be considered suitable for children. These pictures were reproductions of paintings (but in black and white) from the Middle Ages, maybe the Renaissance, and they were dark and a little scary and captured the idea of fire and brimstone nicely. One of the illustrations that fascinated me was Absalom, a son of King David, hanging in a tree by his hair. You don't need to know the story to figure out that it was not a good end for Absalom. The picture, more than story, remains burned in my mind's eye, and comes into especially sharp focus when I am riding the lawn tractor. I am a graduate of the Kamikaze School of Mowing. There is no obstacle that I cannot roll over, cut down, chop up, scrape by, or hang myself from. My one concession to safety, thanks to Absalom, is that I wear a ball cap.

So...I am turning down the hill in my backyard, trying to miss a varmint hole, trying to keep my butt in the seat, trying to keep my speed steady, and BAM! I smash my forehead into a maple tree limb that is every bit of 5 inches in diameter. Doing some limbo-like contortions, I manage to stay on the tractor, but tears are blurring my vision and I am sure I have stunned myself into a concussion. I seriously wonder if I am going to pass out. I get to the bottom of the hill, stop the tractor, and when I can see clearly again, I immediately assess the situation, which means I am looking around to see if there are witnesses. That's when I realize that part of my vision problem is because my eyeglasses are smashed against my face and the nose clips have gouged the bridge of my proboscis. I was able to finish mowing while I contemplated the size of the bruise I was going to have on my forehead as well as how I would explain this to the clients who come to me for therapy and perhaps have higher expectations from their counselor than that she is an idiot. The bruise never happened, though, and that surprised me until I realized that the brim of the ball cap provided a slim cushion between my forehead and the branch. Even better, I didn't lose any hair. Absalom. Who knew?

In preparation of the wintry season, I am hanging pine garland along the shelf above the French doors. Okay, so it is only a week after Halloween, and I am rushing the season, but I am in the mood to do this at 7:30 on a Sunday evening, and I am learning I must surrender to the mood or things might not get done. Several years ago my brother John bought me a very nice stepstool when he read in one of my Christmas letters that I was standing on a chair to change smoke detector batteries. Worried that I might fall, he bought me the safety-first gift. Of course he cannot be there to supervise me using it. Perhaps he would have pointed out that I should clear the area where I am working, then again, perhaps not. He might have taken a wait-and-see attitude. Brothers are like that. So...I am backing down the last step, and I put my foot squarely in a decorative autumn basket filled with crafty cloth pumpkins and dried gourds. I don't know that is what I put my foot in until I see it overturned and its contents scattered, and I don't see that carnage until I go ass over teakettle across the carpet and plow my face into the couch. My glasses are once more pressed hard to my face and I'm thinking, Man, I should get contacts. Again, I assess the situation, which means even alone in my home, I look around to see if there are witnesses. For once the raccoons are not peering in from the deck.

Then there is the time I am in a fog. A literal fog. (I perpetually live in the metaphorical kind.) The back roads to my destination are so obscured by gray matter that I have only the verge of the road to guide me. Because there are no white lines and I am following the edge, when I come to a Y that I cannot see, I automatically veer to the right. When the fog begins to lift and I realize I have no idea where I am, I have already driven miles out of my way. This time when I stop to assess the situation, it is to make sure no other lost driver is going to hit me. So...I turn around in a lane whose sign I can finally see and come face to face with Shades of Death Road. That's right. Shades of Death. But because I have spent some of my formative years reading those Old Testament stories, I know what to do: I beat it the hell out of there.


So there you have it. I am leaving out the poison ivy story because it is a sorrowful tale in which I look exactly like Quasimodo (not the Disney version either). It is made all the more pitiful because it appears as if I am the one whose bell has been rung. When people ask me what happened, I tell them I already threw the bum out. It lends me an air of mystery that the truth of pulling weeds cannot.

Hope your new year is without incident or at the very least that no one is watching!









Nine Naughty Questions


1. Headless washboard abs, a torrid embrace, the sprawling homestead, an elegantly dressed décolletage, or the vaguely kinky object against a dark background - what's your favourite type of romance cover and why?


As a fan of picture books from birth on, I like a romance cover that sets a scene. I prefer that the hero and heroine are together but not in a clinch where her leg is dangling over the crook of his elbow or his hand is halfway to the Promised Land (whether it's coming from the North or the South). I want the cover to suggest romance in the broad sense of the term: adventure, relationships, love.



2. What is the secret life of a romance writer? What goes on between you and your keyboard (or quill) behind closed doors?


There's a romance writer out there with a secret life? I want to meet her (him). I went into Facebook kicking and screaming and now people know I have a raccoon problem and keep stuff in my refrigerator way past the expiration date. My so-called secret life is the work I do as a counsellor where confidentiality keeps my lips sealed. My writing life? Well, that's an open book.



3. At the heart of a romantic story is the way in which the main characters reveal their true natures to each other. How much of yourself do you put into your characters, and have their stories been affected by your personal experiences?


I am not consciously aware of putting myself into my characters, and yet there is no doubt that it happens. The best example I have of a personal experience affecting characters is the Thorne brothers trilogy (My Steadfast Heart, My Reckless Heart, and With All My Heart) in which the oldest brother sets out to reunite family. It was a reader's letter that tapped into my experience when she told me how the books tapped into her own. In some way the books mirrored the efforts of my half-brother to seek out his (my) father and connect with siblings he had never known. My characters cannot help but be influenced by my counselling work. I think about their facial expressions, how their tone affects what they say and how they are understood, how their physical movements communicate anxiety or peace, and how they internalize or express feelings. It's a workout.



4. I'm interested in how you differentiate between romance fiction, erotica and porn. Are romance readers getting naughtier?


Relationships loom large in romance fiction. Erotica is the sexual connection. Porn is boring.



5. Please tell us about your latest novel! Did you have a secret alternative title while you were writing it?


In Want of a Wife is a mail order bride story. I realized that I had written stories that touched on that theme but never one as straightforward as this. It takes place in Bitter Spring, Wyoming, the same fictional town that was the location for The Last Renegade and True to the Law. It gave me a chance to revisit some characters I came to enjoy (the rapscallions Finn and Rabbit most particularly). I really like the title of this book, but it was my editor who came up with it. My working title was Becoming Mrs. Longstreet. I still like that title, but when viewed in the context of putting a lone cowboy on the front cover, it puts a decidedly different slant on Becoming Mrs. Longstreet. I don't think the romance community is ready for that.



6. What's the most memorable reaction you've received after a friend or family member read one of your books?


I guess that would be when friends or family are surprised by a familiar name in the book and think to themselves, "Wow! I know someone by that name." Then they remember that I wrote the book. It catches them off guard. I like the idea that they lose themselves enough in the book that they forget I wrote it.



7. Romance writers are sometimes denigrated and asked when they'll write 'real' books - what do you tell the haters?


If I have a conversation with them - and I usually don't - I might say something like $*@(&%@)$(*. No, not really. I don't have time for that conversation. I have thoughts, just not time.



8. Romance readers love discovering new authors. Please tell us about five books you recently read and loved to bits.


I listen to many more books than I read these days and with few exceptions (SEP, Mary Balogh, Nora Roberts/JD Robb, Diana Gabaldon), I read thrillers/mysteries. I depend on others to turn me on to someone new. Some of my favourites are Lee Child, Harlan Coben, Jeffrey Deaver, Robert Crais, Lisa Gardner, Michael Connelly. You know, the usual suspects. I listen to books as I walk or ride my bike, and I find that the need to know what happens next motivates me to get moving. The book I just finished, Suspect by Robert Crais, was pretty darn terrific. I don't know that a police story ever moved me the way this one did. The police dog was a powerful character.



9. Please tell us your favourite scene from your latest book, and why it's particularly delicious!


For me, a favourite scene is one I enjoyed writing (that's another way of saying there was no blood on the page when I finished). I suppose that scene in In Want of a Wife is the one where Morgan Longstreet confronts his wife Jane about why she never asks for anything from him. The exchange that takes place reveals more about their character, their way of thinking, and how they mean to go on with their marriage. It also leads up to the first time they share a bed. Love scenes are never my favourite. Stabbing myself in the eye with a fork would be less painful than writing a love scene. Still, when they're done, I think I've managed to move the story ahead.






Christmas 2013



So another year is coming to a close, and here I am thinking about what I want to share with you this time around. The December issue of Real Simple magazine informed me that in this age of social media the annual family letter is passé as everyone knows everything anyway, and as a consequence, I could save two hours in holiday preparation time and simplify my life by just chucking this thing. Actually, I could probably save more than two hours because I am not a speedy writer, but that only adds to the pressure I feel to spend the saved time wisely, or at least usefully, or at the very least doing nothing at all and calling it a vegetative, er, meditative state. Anyway, it's been a long time since I wrote what I would call a traditional family letter (and, to be clear, I enjoy every one I receive), so I thought I would just keep on keeping on.


In pondering the inanities (some would say insanities) of 2013, a number of things come to mind: the government shutdown, assault weapons, twerking, anything the Kardashians do, the 1%, electronic cigarettes, people who can't do a line, Wal-Mart, people who can't do a line in Wal-Mart, and the robo call I get every three days that tells me, "Remember, this is your last reminder to secure your credit blah, blah, blah."


I've been an Apple person from the beginning, and I do mean the beginning, when the Apple logo had colored stripes and the i stood for internet instead of corporate ego, and while they still make a pretty good product, their customer service leaves so much to be desired that they ended up at the top of my "Why i Don't Own a Gun" list.


The conversation goes something like this:


Apple Store answers: "Hi, I'm a voice recognition system (and in a startling bit of innovation, the voice is male) capable of understanding complete sentences. (I resist making a 'man' joke here.) To help you better, tell me how I can direct your call."


Me: "I am interested in adding more memory to my Mac so I can download the latest operating system."


VRS: I'm sorry, would you like to make an appointment to meet with someone at the Genius Bar?"


Me: "No. I want to talk to someone about my Mac's memory."


VRS: "I'm sorry, tell me how I can direct your call. Do you want to make a purchase?"


Me: "$%$*& Agent. #$&)^ Representative. @#(*^* Agent."


VRS: "I didn't understand that."


Me: "Of course not. That's because I was speaking in sentence fragments."


VRS: "I will get someone to help you."


Me: "About (bleeping) time, you Siri wannabe."


Apple Genius (female): "Hello. May I have your name and serial number of your product?"


Me: "Whoa. First I want to say how lousy the voice recognition system is and I'm already frustrated. (Just to let her know she needs to proceed gently with me.) My name is Jo and I don't have my Mac's serial number because I'm on vacation away from computer, but what I want is to make an appointment to have memory added to my Mac so I can download the latest OS - Mavericks. I have 1 GB and I need at least 2."


Apple Genius: "The only way you can get more memory is to delete files off your computer."


Me: "That's not the kind of memory I'm talking about. I want more memory to run the new OS."


Apple Genius: "You can't get more memory. You can only delete files."


Me: "That's just not true." (I know this, not because I am a genius, but because I was told this by technicians at a store that serviced Apple products for me for years. I just waited too long to get around to doing something about it. They went out of business exactly one week before, giving me no choice but to turn to Apple for help. I blame myself.)


I have several more unhappy exchanges with Ms. Apple Genius. She maintains that aggravating neutral, professional tone while thwarting me at every turn and coming within a hairsbreadth of calling me a liar. I, on the other hand, am about to lose my mind. I'll give her this: she sensed it was time to let me go.


Apple Genius (pleasantly): "Let me give you to technical support. Perhaps someone there can help you."


And before I can say, "i want another bite of that apple" I am transferred to:


India (female): "Hello. May I have your name and serial number of your product?"


Me (heavy sigh): "Jo and I don't have that number. I'm away on vacation. So far, not so much fun." And then I explain what I want.


India: "That can't be done. Apple ships the computer with the memory you want at purchase and it can't be changed."


Me: "That's just not accurate. It can be done. I'm running Snow Leopard now, and I want to download Mavericks (Apple, get a clue, just number these things.)"

India: "Snow Leopard? Oh, then I know you can't add more memory."


This goes on way too long, but I'm a dog with a bone and I can't let it go. Neither can she. Finally…


Me: "You're wrong!" And then I hang up. Hard. (I can't even pretend to take the high road here. I'm just not that mature.)


While I am on the phone, my brother Richard (IBM) is listening in an adjoining room and busily tapping away at his keyboard. When I join him, my blood pressure about 10 points shy of a stroke, he points to his monitor and shows me a diagram of how to add memory cards to the Mac. He was at apple.com/support. Twenty minutes later, we figured out which Mac I owned (without needing a serial number) and found the exact memory card required. The following day I purchased two 2 GB memory cards, and when I got home from vacation I began the installation process (with said brother on facetime for visual technical help because I get nervous holding a screwdriver).


The first thing I had to do was place the Mac screen side down. As soon as I did this, I could see the underside of the L-shaped stand that supports the Mac. This underside is what rests against the desk, so there is no reason that I should have ever seen it, but—and I'm not making this up—I am now staring at a DIAGRAM OF HOW TO INSERT MEMORY CARDS INTO THE COMPUTER.


Let me close by saying there is a visit to the Apple Store in the near future in which I will casually sidle up to the Genius Bar and ask for thirty minutes of my life back. I figure I can apply that time to the two hours I spent writing my yearly epistle. Now, if I can find another 90 minutes, my life's gonna be real simple.


Hoping you enjoy a peaceful holiday and if the most maddening thing you confront in 2014 is lousy customer service, it's probably a very good year.









Christmas 2012


Happy Holidays, ALL!


After years of fussing with rural route addressing in my neck of the Wild and Wonderful, the county finally issued us off-the-beaten-path folks new numbers sans RR#. Thus began the process of informing people who cared (you know, gas, electric, cable, and the bank) about the change. In some cases, this is not a big deal. You can talk to a person who will make the update a breeze (e.g. the credit card company). In other cases, however, these folks will suck 30 minutes of your life that you cannot recover simply waiting to speak to someone who will take your information. Adding insult to injury, a number of hard-to-reach utilities and healthcare entities don't even play awful music any longer; what they do is take the opportunity to begin the process of brainwashing. I know this because after listening to a loop of facts about the electric company a dozen times, my brain was so thoroughly cleansed I had to dig deep to remember why I was making the call in the first place.


Perhaps you are thinking, oh, Jo, get with it, you should have just done the change on line. Well, I tried that. The problem was that the software many places use don't recognize the RR# address, so when I would put in my old RR# address it would appear as unacceptable and not allow me to continue. Sometimes my new address would come up as 'does not exist.' It is a fairly frustrating process to be told over and over that you are invalid. It could have been a real blow to my self-esteem if I hadn't had a number of snappy comebacks at the ready. You know, phrases like #$&*% and #$*&(.


Here is a transcript of my call to the electric company. A person, let's call him Jim (his real name), answered after 28 minutes.


Jim: "Hello, my name is Jim, may I have your address?"


Me: "Well, Jim, I've been waiting so long that I've forgotten my address."


Long pause, then finally,


Jim: "Oh, well can I have your account number?"


Okay, so Jim doesn't get my humor. Good to know.


Me: "I'm calling about a change of address, Jim. In fact, I called 28 minutes ago. I was wondering, are there, like, only two of you working today?"


Jim: "Actually, ma'am, (calling me ma'am is what passes for Jim's humor) there are about 276 of us working. You called on the second busiest day of the year."


Me: "Really? The day after Labor Day is the second busiest day of the year? I had no idea. What's the first busiest day?"


Jim: "The day after any holiday is really busy." (Not quite an answer to my question, but I let it pass.)


Me: "I'll keep that in mind, Jim. Now, about my address…."



But here's the thing, I thought the electric company was going to be a quick call. That's why I saved what I knew was going to be the worst call for last: DirecTV. They use a voice recognition system to try to get you to the right department (their thought process), while keeping you from talking to an actual, real, live person for as long as they can (my thought process). That's why when I told Ms. Voice Recognition (who, by the way, is at least one full standard deviation below Siri in terms of IQ) that I was calling about an address change, she politely told me what my address was and then…nothing. That's when I started alternating the words 'agent' and 'representative'. Okay, sometimes I said, &*#^ agent and #&$^ representative, but I figured Ms. VR would not take offense. I was right. She comes back with, "I know you would like to speak to an agent, but so I can direct you, please tell me the nature of the problem." What she doesn't understand is that the nature of my problem is shifting from a simple address change to wanting to destroy every satellite orbiting the planet currently in the service of DirecTV.


It is unclear to me why I think that raising my voice at Ms. VR will accomplish what I have not been able to do in a reasonable tone, a respectful volume, and an even cadence, but I find myself screaming into the receiver that I want to speak to a person. That's when a young woman finally answered, and I learned that speaking to Ms. VR was in many ways more satisfying that speaking to an actual, real, live (but barely sentient) person. She put me on hold for 4 minutes while she made the address change. She got it wrong the first time. She put me on hold for 2 more minutes while she made the address change again. She got it wrong the second time. I made her stay on the line with me this time as I carefully and painfully walked her through the correct order of 4 numbers and spelling…E as in Easy does it…L as in Like to open a vein right now…D as in DirectTV…and so on. Finally, success.

Or so I thought until I received my statement. She managed to get the billing address correct. My service address is still my old rural route number. Sigh. Wisdom and experience dictates that I should wait until they try to find me before I fix that.


But here's what I'm really thinking as I reflect on 2012. I have an address. I have a home attached to it. I'm imagining that you, like me, were witness to Sandy bearing down on the East coast and saw the wreckage in her aftermath. I'm imagining that you, like me, are a nightly witness to an Afghan family living in rubble and our soldiers being half a world away from their families. I'm imagining that you, like me, have lots of blessings to count. That's the list I'm making. Blessings. And just to be safe, I'm checking it twice. There's always something to add.


Wishing you all the best in 2013!







Christmas 2011


This is the holiday update that I've been dreading, but as I considered what I wanted to say, and how I wanted to say it, I found myself agreeing with my sister that in the midst of sadness there is inevitably something worth smiling about. My mum fell and broke her hip in January and never was able to get mobile on her own after the surgery. Unable to return home, she went from the hospital to a nursing home. She died on March 18th. For those of you who have experienced this before me, I know you understand what a deep loss it is. A few days prior to her death I wrote a letter to her appreciating her life, thanking her for her gifts, and assuring her that the kids are all right. I was able read the letter to her hours before she passed away. I have to believe she heard me. My sister read the letter at the funeral service, and again I believe mum understood what I was trying to tell her. The kids, her kids, are all right.


Later, however, I had reason to question if that were strictly true. Because of the distance between the church and the cemetery, we elected not to follow the hearse and instead stayed behind to share a repast and visit with family and friends who came to celebrate Mum's life. Afterwards, one of my brothers, my sister, and I drove to the gravesite. As we traveled, dark clouds began moving across the horizon. Thunder rolled and rumbled. In the distance, we could see multiple lightning strikes in all their jagged glory. We were heading into the storm.


Here's the thing: this particular cemetery has no tombstones. Graves have flat brass markers that are set flush to the ground. If you drive by and don't know you're passing a cemetery, you might think you've gone past a golf course. It is into this gently rolling, pastoral landscape that we drove, the clouds increasingly dark, the thunder increasingly loud, and the lightning increasingly close. We parked and had no trouble finding the gravesite. We always look for the gnarly, massive, and ancient oak that marks the spot of our parents' and grandparents' graves.


Except now that oak tree looks more like a lightning rod.


Glancing warily at the sky and feeling the earth tremble under our feet, we hurry across the green to the grave. The wind whips hard around us. Lightning makes us protectively (and idiotically) duck our heads. "We're gonna die," says I. "That tree is either going to land on us or lightning is going to smite us." My sister calmly takes pictures of the flower spray, using the lightning as a substitute for flash. My brother stands at her side holding an umbrella over her as this will protect the photo shoot and focus the lightning strike. Because I'm the big sister, I feel it is my responsibility to repeat my prophecy of doom: "I'm telling you guys, it'll be a headline. I see it now: THREE CHILDREN OF RECENTLY DECEASED WOMAN ELECTROCUTED AT GRAVESIDE." Even that really doesn't get them to move. Maybe they realize no paper will print a headline that long, and besides, they are still paying their last respects.


I am paying mine as well, apologizing to Mum that while she has done her best by us, it is now painfully obvious that the kids are not all right. Not by a long shot.


We survived, so it's my opinion that she was already brokering a heavenly deal on our behalf. The evidence for this was in the headline in the next day's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


TORNADO TOUCHES DOWN.



Someone's always looking out for us.


Best wishes for a terrific 2012.







Holidays 2010

It's the annual epistle, and I've hit a wall. Not a Facebook wall - that would require me to have a Facebook account - and I'm still not convinced of its redeeming qualities. I mean, I went to see The Social Network so I'm not completely out of touch, but really, do I want to spend one more minute at the computer than I already do? Thus far, the answer's been no…make that NO! I've owned a computer since 1984, that benchmark Orwellian year that Apple Computer somehow made more famous with its iconic Super Bowl for the Mac. It's not as if I'm new to the planet.


Facebook unnerves me, though. What would I post? What would be interesting enough? What is too private? Where are the boundaries? Oh, the pressure. I'm having trouble coming up with something to write about in my holiday letter - and that's supposed to be an entire year's worth of happenings - what sound bytes could I possibly add on a daily, or even weekly, basis?


Then there are the pictures. I don't own a camera. Or at least I often forget that I do. It wasn't so long ago that young boy I was seeing for counseling - whose IQ happens to be on the low side of borderline intellectual functioning - made an expressive art project for me in a session. His sculpture turned out so well I told him I wished I could take a picture of it. "Why can't you?" he asked. "I don't have a camera," I explained. "You gotta an iPhone." he said, pointing to it on the corner of my desk. (And I have to confess it took me a long moment to realize what he was telling me.) "Oh, right," I said, then added somewhat defensively, "I'm still a little loopy from the surgery I had last week." Not missing a beat, he replied, "Yeah, but they didn't do surgery on your head, did they?" More proof, I believe, that IQ is vastly overrated.


Let's suppose I remember I have a camera, what would I take pictures of? Sure, I'm in Walmart from time to time, but there's already a site dedicated to photos of shoppers with unfortunate fashion sense. Adding to it would just be mean. And haven't most of us had bad flannel moments? (Or, as I witnessed at a wedding this summer, really bad spandex moments. The conundrum for that female guest was whether to hike up or yank down. Let me say, one cannot be indecisive when spandex, like America, is on a roll toward the middle ground, in this case, just north of the navel base.)


Then there are the privacy concerns. I know, I know. You can make your page private. Uh-huh. As private, say, as your privates are to the hapless TSA screener. Now, there's a picture we'd all like to see.


I was without internet service in my home for more than two years because I just didn't have the patience for dialup any longer, and that's all that was available. I had access at work, and also through my phone, so it wasn't as if I was living in a cave, but I have to tell you it was kind of nice being a little less accessible. Is there an asocial network? A page for wannabe curmudgeons, perhaps? It raises the question: would Ebenezer Scrooge be on Facebook? Before his transformation, I think not. Too many humbugs.



Oh, maybe I'm making too much of it. I'm willing to be persuaded that a Facebook page could be fun, not one more thing I have to do. Persuade me. What's going on in your life that you want to share?


As for me, after a long association with Kensington Books and their Zebra imprint, I've signed on with Berkley. In some ways it's like going home because the editor who bought my first book will be my editor again. I also have a new agent representing me. It all feels like a good fit, and I was ready for a change. I didn't know that until change happened; it's truer I was open to change, and there was encouragement and some gentle nudging from people whose opinion mattered to me.


I just hosted a girls weekend for three fabtastic (fabulous and fantastic) friends. Shop. Wine. Laugh. Politics. Pets. Pictures. A movie that made our hearts stop. More wine. No drama. Dinners out. How great is it to get together with women who can drink pots of coffee and still relax?


Work remains interesting and satisfying but not without its special stressors. I'm fortunate that my responsibilities still include counseling. The administrative duties would not be nearly so tenable if it weren't for the direct contact I have with the girls at our group home and the children and adults at our outpatient clinic Family Connections I'm traveling to Charleston a couple of days each month for meetings. In between there are telephone conferences. I keep hoping someone will suggest Skype so I can stay put. The best thing about the drive when I'm alone is the chance to catch up on my reading via audio books. The best thing about the drive when I'm not alone is having company!


Perhaps I'm not such an asocial person after all. I have friends. I have a network. Heck, I have a website, two actually. Hmm. Could Facebook be in my future? I'm sure one of the Christmas ghosts will let me know.



Many blessings to all of you in 2011!










Christmas 2009



I'm not good about taking vacation. My idea of time off is time away. From everything, everyone. I don't want hassle. I don't want to be disturbed. I don't want to travel to unfamiliar places or do unfamiliar things. No bumps in the road, thank you very much. I work really hard to get as much off my plate at work as I can before I leave. This makes me a little nuts as I gear up for being gone, and unfortunately, there's leakage. My coworkers are clearly glad to see me go. Sometimes I use vacation to work on a book, and that's okay because it's part of the plan. But once a year, the plan is pretty much to turn off the switch in my head and breathe deeply and slowly.


Obviously I'm setting the bar way too high. (Or it could be that I need to invest in room with no sensory stimuli. Wait, isn't that a padded cell?)


My vacation plan is simple. I make arrangements with one of my brothers and his family in the DC area to visit them following a 3 day conference in Charleston. I have training responsibilities at the conference and some duties as a member of the committee that organizes the conference, but knowing that I will be going to visit the Gaithersburg gang and that they will just take care of me is the carrot that keeps me moving.


I don't know what makes me check my phone before I leave the conference center parking lot, but I do. Voicemail. Work has called. I think, hmmm. Vacation isn't quite here yet. It's not 5. So I return the call. It doesn't matter what the call is about. It's just taking the call that makes my head go to a place that is difficult to leave. It isn't an auspicious way to begin my vacation, and as I head north I am not certain if I will be able to go east when I reach Morgantown, or if I am going to have to head northwest and back to work. Two more calls (and 80 miles) and I have assurances that I can go east.


I don't know what makes me check my email soon after reaching my brother's, but I do. There is a note from my editor that he's reviewed a manuscript I sent him and is attaching his suggestions. The manuscript is something I wrote quite a while back, so I don't have any expectations that the suggestions will arrive now. There is no pressure from him to return it in a hurry. In fact, he tells me to take my time. The problem is that it's not in my nature, and the manuscript isn't in my plan, and now I'm away from my Mac and the manuscript, and I want it all behind me, not in front of me.


I don't know what makes me answer my cell three days later, but I do. It is work, and I know this is a call I'm getting because someone thinks it's really important. It is, but it's not easy to shift gears when I'm getting ready to play Wii bowling with my niece, and it's even harder to shift back.


I don't know what made me decide to leave for home that day, but I did. I don't have to return to work. I just needed to be home. I arrive at dusk and pull into the driveway, hit the button for the garage door, and wait for it to go up. And wait. I hit the button for the other garage door. And wait. I see the lamp on in the house so I know I have electricity. I take a moment to think what to do. I finally remember I have a key somewhere. I enter through a side door.


As I prepare to step from the garage into the house, I hear a high-pitched beep. I recognize it as the smoke detector's low battery warning. Jeeze, I think. Do I have to deal with that too? (Yes, the whine in my head is as annoyingly pitched as that beep.)


I open the door. The low battery warning fades to nothing as the sound of roaring water fills my ears. For a moment, I can't move. Dropping everything, I run to the kitchen where the sound is the loudest. I can't see any problem. I run downstairs for the main shut off, but the sound is less intense in the basement. I realize it has to be coming from the bathroom connected to the master bedroom. I run up two flights (and I don't do running well) and discover the problem is in the bathtub. The shampoo/conditioner caddy (suction cup variety) has fallen off the wall. On its way down it hit the cold water handle, turned it on full, and the faucet is the source of the cascade. I turn it off, stare disbelieving at the shower caddy lying on the tub floor, thank God the drain was open, and then wonder how long the water has been running. Because of the conference, I have been gone 7 days already. I pause to contemplate the possibilities.


Beep. Silence. Beep. That blasted smoke detector. I take a breath, calm myself, and go to check my house phone for messages - where I discover the receiver is dislodged from the base, completely draining the battery. Just shaking my head at this one-more-thing, I set it properly in the base and figure it will be good in a couple of hours.


I go next door to get my neighbor to help me with my garage doors. He finds a breaker that I don't know I have, flips it, and the doors rise. Really, it's like the parting of the Red Sea, only not.


Beep. Silence. Beeeep. Okay. I'm getting to it already. What I don't like about replacing that battery is this: the smoke detector is mounted on the ceiling at the top of the stairs, and I have to stand on a chair to reach it. It is many steps to the bottom. I am afraid of heights. Even more afraid of falling. Girding my loins, I soldier on. Blessed silence is my reward.


I unpack the car. Unpack the suitcase. I realize I am still in a fragile place. I breathe deeply, slowly. I sit in the recliner and pick up the remote. I turn on the television. There is a message for me on the screen, courtesy of DirecTV:

THE BATTERY IN YOUR REMOTE IS LOW.


It is too much for me. I shout plaintively at the TV while poking myself in the chest: "What about me? What about my &*$% batteries?"



Dare I hope that 2010 finds you all well and with your batteries fully charged?!

PS - For those inquiring minds…I usually use between 1 and 2 thousand gallons of water/month. My November total was 10,000 gallons. The $$$ damage? $42.60. That's right. I have septic. ;-)










Christmas 2008




It occurred to me that I should keep a little journal of the odd moments throughout the year so I could consult it as I sit down to write my annual epistle. Imagine my mortification when I realized there were no odd moments. I didn't go anywhere out of the ordinary, didn't do anything of particular note, and didn't have anything done to me (not necessarily a bad thing).


Oh, I had my gall bladder out in June, but I slept through that.


It's not that important things didn't happen in 2008, but they're more in the way of general observation and self-awareness:

I relearned the lesson of relativity. How long I'm willing to stand in line depends on whether I'm waiting to vote or waiting for a price check at Wal*Mart.


I learned that calculating retirement age is a complicated mathematical process based on one's current age, adding the value of the dollar against the Euro, yen, and the price of tea in China, subtracting what social security is promising now versus the best guesstimate of what will really be there, factoring in deflation, dividing by inflation, and finally multiplying that total by general confidence in the global stock markets. Me? I'm working forever. My golden parachute doesn't have a ripcord. Thank goodness I love what I do.

When baking Christmas cookies with your sister, it's imperative not to mention that you don't particularly care for a certain cookie known as the Chocolate Crinkle because when that's the only cookie that spreads across the cookie sheet like a cow patty at high noon, your sister automatically suspects sabotage. (I think it was the classic baking soda/baking powder error, but identifying the problem didn't win me any points.)

I drive myself crazy, but I'm considering hiring a chauffeur.

I practiced environmental consciousness this year by buying a set of those Debbie Meyer Green Bags so I can store my fresh fruit and vegetables twice - or even three - times as long before I throw them all out.

Walking outside on a bitterly cold day is still better than walking indoors on a treadmill. Biking outside on a hot and humid day is still better than…well, better than being dead, I guess.

When I thought I was going to have to send my iPod back to Apple for servicing, I sent an email apology ahead of time for my egregious taste in music and asked them not to hold it against me.

If you scream curse words at the voice-recognition answering system DirecTV uses for its valued customers sometimes the machine will disconnect you. This also happens to valued customers of Verizon.

Saying hello to strangers gives them a moment's pause, but it makes you a person to them.

It used to be that people walking around talking to no one in particular were diagnosed schizophrenic. Blue-tooth technology for cell phones has changed that: now they're diagnosed self-important.

I hope you and your family enjoyed a year with as few bumps in the road as I did, and that if you have to have your gall bladder out, you're prescribed the really good drugs and have loved ones around to make sure you get them.

Jo






Christmas 2007

Road trip! After years of using vacation time to write or hibernate in uncomplicated bliss, I decided to go for a drive instead. I studiously ignored the fact that gas was $2.79 per gallon (oh, the good ol' days of August) and decided that Scottsboro, Alabama - where I have kin - would be a perfect destination. Because the gittin' there needed to be at least as much fun as the arrivin', I packed the car with staples like cashews, chocolate, and cold turkey roll ups from Costco. For comic relief I threw in my sister, and just to make things interesting we decided to rely on the GPS and use the AAA triptiks only when the GPS turned us in the direction of, say, Montana. Not that we wouldn't have liked to see Big Sky country, but I didn't have enough time off scheduled to travel to Scottsboro by way of Butte.


GPS navigation is a curious thing, and I sure hope the government has a more sophisticated set up than my Toyota, though maybe they don't and it explains why we have outposts where nobody really wants us. Anyway, the first miscue happened while we were searching for our overnight accommodations in Johnson City, TN. We were on the exit ramp when I spied a sign that showed the Comfort Inn logo and an arrow pointing left with .2 miles noted as the distance to our beds and a shower. Simultaneous to this, the calmly compelling voice of the GPS (and why is it female? shouldn't there be a choice?) was directing us to turn right. My sister, uncertain that she really wanted to trust me or the GPS at this juncture, chose that exact moment to examine the map in her lap, thus missing the sign and closing off her ears to the directive.


So what's a girl to do when the fingerpost points in one direction and the voice in her head says turn in the other? What would you do? It wasn't exactly a burning bush moment, but I have to tell you, what the voice lacks in inflection, it makes up for in insistence. I turned right.


Curious now, we allowed the voice to take us where it would. Two miles later we were in a residential neighborhood, surrounded by same ol', same ol', with more cul-de-sacs than through streets. That's when the GPS notified us that "Streets for this area are not marked and step-by-step guidance is no longer available." It was real polite about it, too. Heh. Heh. That's the thing about the voice, it never changes tone, volume, or cadence, but you just know it's laughing at you.


Relying on our own finely honed sense of direction, we made it to base camp. (Our father's father walked from Lake Bajkal north of Mongolia in Siberia back to his family in Krakow at the end of WWI - it took him 7 years - but the gene to get where you're going must come from somewhere.)


The next day we toured the Biltmore Estate. I confess that this part of the trip was a bit of a busman's holiday, since visiting the Biltmore is like doing research for a book. We finished the day with a wine tasting at the estate's winery where I had the opportunity to exercise my perfectly pedestrian tastes by swirling, sniffing, swishing, and swallowing. See, here's the thing. The kind of wine they serve at these things is wasted on me. I actually prefer Mogen David. What can I say? My taste buds were spoiled by communion wine. I finished cleansing my palate with grape juice.

Rather impulsively, we decided to do the next leg of the trip by taking the Blue Ridge Parkway out of Asheville to its end at the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The parkway has a top speed of 45 mph. I don't think I ever went that fast. For one thing, it twists and turns and tunnels while climbing and falling past breathtaking vistas - when you aren't in the clouds. For another thing, it's lacking a lot in the way of guardrails. It seemed as if each mountain had its own weather system. The GPS, though, kept us on track through hairpin turns and curves that were marked with yellow caution signs that we had never seen before. (When the sign ahead looks like Captain Hook's artificial appendage, attention must be paid.) The slim blue line on the navigation system caught Yvonne's glance one too many times, and when she observed this:


her response was, "Oh, my God, we're going to drive off the edge of the world!" The kind thing to do would have been to bitch slap her, but I was trying to negotiate that hairpin and needed both hands on the wheel. Besides, it did look as if we might drop off into a vast gray nothingness. Or it could have just been the fog.


We arrived safely in Alabama, had a splendid time visiting, and the surreal tourist-thing we did was visit the Unclaimed Baggage Center. This is a repository for all the items lost in transit by airlines and passengers and shipping companies. A sample of what's been left behind: bridal gowns (no kidding); skis; iPods; digital cameras; jewelry; watches; toys; athletic wear; neck pillows; shoes; laptops; and evening gowns. That's just off the top of my head. There's a whole separate building for books. It was bizarre, perhaps bazaar. You decide.


In other news, the flamingo wars from last summer are over. I publicly surrendered to my neighbors by dedicating my September '07 release to them. I'm still riding my bike, although I had a heart-stopping moment when it was stolen off the rack on my car while I was at work. An observant neighbor saw it was missing and called me. The police returned with the bike and the culprit about 10 minutes after the theft was reported. Without GPS. The kid was about 11 years old and full of "I'm sorry." Yeah. Yeah. Sorry that he was caught. I think I said something to him along the lines of, "!*$&#)*%#@*!" The cop just let me be a crazy woman for a couple of minutes. It felt good. Then I felt bad, but not so bad that I didn't press charges. I've been working with kids too long to let it go.


Here's hoping in 2008 that all signs point favorably, that your journey is amazing, and that when you hear a voice in your head, you make sure it's your own.



snowmen

XOXOXOXO,
Joanne






Christmas 2005

bike


"It's like riding a bike," they say. "You don't forget." What a crock, I say. I mean even riding a bike is not like that...there are some things you do forget.


Back in April I decided to make exercise a priority. I was determined to put it at the top of my to-do list, higher than writing and work and washing the dishes. Okay, so washing dishes was not exactly ever on my to-do list, but you get the idea. I made a commitment to walk on the local rails-to-trails path no matter the weather : two miles in the morning - and if I could swing it - two miles in the evening. I was out there in the rain with my umbrella, and I trudged along when morning temperatures dipped into the teens. I knew, however, that climbing temperatures might very well be my undoing. As the heat and humidity began to settle over the Ohio Valley, I had a vision of myself simply melting on the trail into a thoroughly unattractive puddle of trans-fats. I began to think wistfully, then seriously, about the advantages of being on a bicycle and enjoying the illusion of a breeze. Sure, I'd have to expend more energy, and the breeze would be akin to turning a blow dryer on high and aiming it squarely at my face, but at least the air would be moving.


The last time I was on a bike it had one gear, I back-pedaled to brake, and there was a basket on the front for my dog Toto. (I'm only lying about the dog. I put my school books in the basket and occasionally, my feet.) That bike was a gift from Santa so I know for a fact it was free. My new bike, on the other hand, has 24 gears, requires manual ambidexterity to brake, and has no basket, although I did spring for a darling little bell so people can dive to either side of the trail as I bear down on them. This bike was not free. Not even close.


There were accoutrements as well: a water bottle, a rack for the car, oil for the chain, a cable lock, a tire pump, and the aforementioned bell. Interestingly enough, the proprietor of the bike shop did not try to sell me a helmet, knee or elbow pads, goggles, or bug repellent. In retrospect, I believe this is because the last thing I signed before I left the shop was probably not my credit card receipt but a cleverly disguised life insurance policy in which said proprietor would become the beneficiary of all my worldly goods in the event of an untimely (but wholly predictable) accident.


So as not to embarrass myself too much, I took my bike to the lesser traveled end of the trail, wrestled it off the rack, and climbed on when the coast was clear. I wobbled uncertainly on the gravel path and sometimes veered into the high grass, contributing, I like to think, to the crop circle myth. I tested the braking system; I adjusted the seat. I kept a death grip on the handle bars. The thing of it is, while I didn't exactly forget how to ride a bike, the bike I was remembering how to ride still had training wheels.


bike2


Riding, though, was a different story, and not only did I become more aware of the grade, I realized too late that I'd really chosen the wrong end of the trail to start out on. I was now heading uphill to get back to my car. I felt the strain in my legs, but I told myself it was a good kind of hurt, and I remained single-minded in my desire to go the distance. I got to where my car was parked and decided I could keep going to the other end of the trail -another mile beyond my car and still slightly uphill. I pushed ahead, feeling quite like I had accomplished something right up until the moment it was time for me to turn around.


Still can't imagine what I was thinking, trying to make a tight turn on the trail itself, but I was off the path in an instant. No high grass here, just rocks and more rocks, all of them about the size of pumice stones one normally uses in the shower to remove calluses from one's heels. I immediately lost control. There was nothing for it but to get off the bike - quickly.


I slid off the seat, set my feet down, and my knees folded faster than a bad poker player.


Naturally I did what anyone does in a situation like that: I looked around for witnesses to my humiliation. I was quite alone. I count this as fortunate, not so much for myself as for the potential witnesses. I would have cheerfully beat them with my tire pump - once I was able to push the bike off me and actually stand again. Those pumice-like rocks, by the way, removed elbow, knee, and chin calluses, although bleeding was an unhappy consequence of making this discovery.


In spite of the forces of gravity, I'm still riding. I suppose I'll have to give it up when that blow dryer breeze turns into wind chill and go back to walking full time, but I've surprised myself with how much I've enjoyed being outdoors, batting away the gnats, ringing my bell, and greeting fellow travelers on the trail.


I hope you're finding something that makes you smile every day.




bike3




Christmas 2004



snowman2

Happy Holidays! If one examines the global picture, it's been an eventful year. Moi? It's been a couple of digital moments. I count that as a blessing. Essentially it means the family is a healthy as it can be, work continues to challenge and delight, friends stay close, and what occupies my thinking are the important questions like why do drivers brake at the entrance to a tunnel and will we ever get a good cheesesteak hoagie outside of Philadelphia.


In pondering matters of maturity, I came to the realization that I must be a grown up because I can now lick a Tootsie Roll pop all the way down to the Tootsie center without chomping. That is some serious delayed gratification. In pondering matters of age, I came to the realization that I'm getting old(er) because I'm quite content to test the wide variety of massage chairs at the mall while waiting for friends to finish shopping. But in pondering matters regarding what keeps me young-at-heart, I know I'm just fine, thank you very much, because my favorite movie of the year was Finding Neverland.


My happy homeowner's project this year was a new roof, downspouts, gutters, and soffit and fascia. My house isn't very old, so this was one of those I'm-resenting-the-heck-out-of-doing-it projects. I've had problems off and on with leaking skylights from the day I moved in (literally). The problems seemed to increase exponentially over time. The day after the contractor finished, cleaned up, moved all the hardware out, we had a tremendous storm. The fury of the storm woke me, but I stayed in bed just thinking how good it felt not to be worried about a leaky sunporch. Still, there was so much lightning and thunder that I couldn't sleep. I went downstairs to get a jump start on some work project. I hit the bottom step and that's when I heard plop. Drip. Plop. Drip-plop. It was with some trepidation that I went to the sunporch - which is where my home office is. I didn't have a single leak. I had fifteen, including a small waterfall through my new ceiling fan. Once again, the value of owning so much Tupperware was borne home to me. At 5:30 a.m. I called the contractor and explained the problem. He assured me he would be out as soon as the department of highways moved the fallen trees out of his lane. Yeah, yeah, we all have our problems. I could have cleared his lane without the assistance of heavy equipment on the strength of my adrenaline rush alone.


The leaks were taken care of, and in defense of the contractor, it was not a roof problem, but a siding problem. However, I no longer sleep so easily when I hear rain is in the forecast.


Here's hoping that good things come your way in the new year.


dove


Christmas 2003



letter1

So here it is, time to write my annual holiday epistle, and I'm thinking, what do I have to tell my friends that I haven't said before? This year was not so different from last year in terms of the highlights. Okay, I celebrated the diamond anniversary of my birth in 2003. That was sort of a millstone, er, milestone. Since I know many of you on my list enjoyed the same celebration, my question is: "Have you ever seen so much black crepe paper and over-the-hill paraphernalia in your life?" That's just wrong.


With so much (yawn) activity, is it any wonder I thought of just resubmitting last year's letter for your reconsideration? Then I remembered a particular moment from 2003 that I thought I'd like to share. No big thing, just my view from…


I love going to the movies. I think my enjoyment is due in part to some wonderful memories of going to the movies downtown (dahntahn in Pittsburghese) with my grandmother. DVDs are terrific, but for me it's not the same as having the theatre experience, and now, with stadium seating, I don't have to worry that the kid with spiked hair the color of an eggplant will block my view. The downside of the DVD/video revolution is that there always those members of the audience who forget they're not sitting in their family rooms and supply running commentary as if they are. All that chatter and me without an automatic weapon. It's not to be borne.


So…I'm at the movies with my sister, and we're enjoying being alternately scared and provoked into thinking by 28 Days Later, sort of an epic doomsday zombie picture. The scene currently on the screen is the quiet-as-death English countryside. The camera pans to some giant windmills lining the side of the road. Don't think Don Quixote windmills with canvas sails. Think modern, very tall and stately metal windmills - kind of like silver bullets with 3 elegantly long and slender blades rotating at the top.


As the camera moves past these ghostly, silent sentinels, my sister leans toward me and whispers, "Those are like the ones you can see on the dirt bike."


The dirt bike? What the h*ll is she talking about? So I lean toward her and conscious of the 30 or so other patrons in the theatre, I whisper back, "What?" Our heads practically touching at this point, so careful are we to observe good movie etiquette, she whispers back, "You can see them on the dirt bike." Okay. Now, my sister's cool, but as far as I know she's never ridden a dirt bike, and why these windmills would be visible on one is completely outside my comprehension. Still in need of clarification, I very quietly inquire again, "What?"


"The dirt bike," she says. At my blank look, and a little out of patience with me now, the sister improves her enunciation, biting off each word as she tells me, "Those-are-like-the-ones-you-can-see-on-the-turn-pike."


Turnpike! Oh! Mental head slap!


What happens next (and I'm dating all of us by offering this comparison) is the movie theatre equivalent of that classic Chuckles the Clown episode from the Mary Tyler Moore show, the one in which Mary chides all her friends for laughing at one time or another after the untimely passing of Chuckles. Mary does not laugh, of course, not until the most wildly inappropriate moment - at Chuckles' funeral service.


So here I am, in the silent-as-the-grave theatre, watching a movie filled with ever mounting tension and barely acceptable levels of cannibalism, and this dirt bike/turnpike misunderstanding hammers my humorous so hard it was like I was mainlining nitrous oxide.


Laughter at this level doesn't just engage me, it overcomes me. That's why I'm stuffing gobs of my sweatshirt into my mouth to try to keep the sound contained. My shoulders are shaking. My head's bobbing. I'm sinking down in my seat, trying not to call attention to myself, but oh no, the seat's also a rocker, so it's shuddering along with the rest of me. My eyes are scrunched tight and tears are still being squeezed out of the corners. And, just to keep things really interesting, when these paroxysms of laughter reach a certain epileptic-like frenzy, there is always the possibility that I'm going to wet myself. Every time I try to tell my sister about what I thought she said, I start the shaking, bobbing, shuddering all over again. She's laughing now, going through a modified version of the contortions I'm making, as desperate as me not to disturb others.


We might have managed the thing if it weren't for the fact that I need to get some air. Trouble is, I'm still trying to expel a breath. The autonomic nervous system goes into overload, and this air in/air out confusion sets up the dreaded uvula oscillation in which that hangey-downey thing at the back of my throat vibrates like a plucked string, except that instead of twang! I get damp, strangled, sucking noises.


One simply surrenders at this point. Fortunately, laughter this hard spreads faster than a computer virus. The movie goers behind me were chuckling, the seats to the left of me were rocking, and I caught a glimpse of some shaking shoulders to my right.


Here's hoping that 2004 gives you a little uvula action. Life's a funny, funny thing even when you have front row seats to the end of the world.



end