Christmas is when you get stuff! Right?

I think I’d rather poke myself in the eye than get up early to stand in the cold and the dark outside Target in order to get a great deal on a laptop computer, a Magic Bullet, or [insert name of this year’s must-have item here]. I understand some people leave their Thanksgiving table early to attend an amazing sale at Kohl’s or Best Buy or wherever.

No thanks. A Kitchen-Aid mixer is not worth dying for, and the “crass materialism”[1] of the whole thing is rather offensive.

But sometimes I wonder: what if I’m missing some unbelievable price on something I actually need or a gift on someone’s list? Wouldn’t it be worth giving Black Friday a try?

Seth Godin put my groundless fears to rest in this brief essay the artificiality and hype of Black Friday sales:

Black Friday was a deliberate invention of the National Association of Retailers. It was not only the perfect way to promote stores during a super slow news day, but had the side benefit of creating a new cultural norm.

Any media outlet that talks about Black Friday as an actually important phenomenon is either ignorant or working hard to please their advertisers. Retailers offer very little in the way of actual discounts, they expose human panic and greed, and it’s all sort of ridiculous if not soul-robbing.

Sixteen years ago, my friend Jerry Shereshewsky helped invent ‘cyber Monday’ as a further expansion of the media/shopping complex mania. It was amazingly easy to find people eager to embrace and talk about the idea of developing yet another holiday devoted to buying stuff.

Here are some of the steps involved in creating a marketing phenomena like this:

  1. Find something that people are already interested in doing (in this case, shopping)
  2. Add scarcity, mob dynamics, a bit of fear
  3. Repeat the meme in the media. Press releases, B roll, clever statistics regardless of veracity
  4. Do it on a slow news day, and mix in famous names, famous brands and even some hand-wringing about the plight of workers

Apple does this with its product launches. The IRS does the opposite of #1 around tax day. Nike sold a billion dollars worth of sneakers this way.

People like doing what other people are doing. People don’t like being left out. The media likes both.

Remember Veggie Tales? Their Christmas special lampooned holiday consumerism with a talking toy that intoned,

“Christmas is when you get stuff.”


Most of us enjoy going out and getting some “stuff” for ourselves and our loved ones at this time of year, but how necessary is it, or wise, to risk death-by-trampling in a Walmart?

[1] “All of us experience firsthand the sad effects of…blind submission to pure consumerism: in the first place, a crass materialism, and at the same time, a radical dissatisfaction, because one quickly learns…that the more one possesses the more one wants, while deeper aspirations remain unsatisfied and perhaps even stifled.” Pope John Paul II, On Social Concern (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis), December 30, 1987, no. 28

Michael Palmer and the Medical Thriller


The world of popular fiction lost one of its best craftsman this week: on Wednesday, October 30th, 2013, Michael Palmer passed away. He was one of the innovators of the thriller genre: he wrote medical thrillers — intense, fast-paced mysteries featuring a medical doctor as the Everyman hero who gets caught up in a perilous adventure.

I read many of his novels as I was preparing and writing my own variation on the genre — a veterinary medical thriller, in which the medical Everyman is a small-town animal doctor who finds herself mixed up in a corporate whistle-blowing scheme against a big, bad pharmaceutical company.

Palmer was known for being an extraordinarily generous writer, so naturally helpful and encouraging that he included his own agent’s contact info on his website and invited aspiring authors to send in their work to the agency. His website also features excellent “how-to” tips for beginning and experienced writers alike, not just in the medical thriller genre but in all types of storytelling.


Books of his that I read and enjoyed include:


The Patient

Critical Judgment

Extreme Measures

…with thanks to Chicago-area author Joelle Charbonneau for introducing me to Palmer’s novels.


Michael Palmer’s author website.

a tribute to Michael Palmer on The Big Thrill (the website of the International Thriller Writers association.

I will write a new novel this month…


My first novel is out being cleaned,* so I’m starting to work on the new one. For the first time, I will participate in NaNoWriMo: National Novel Writing Month. I discovered this “movement” several years ago when I saw the “novel-writing kit” in a bookstore.**


I didn’t participate officially by signing up on the website, but I took the advice to heart:

to complete a long writing project, make “yardage” every day.

The goal is a 50,000 word novel (about 175 pages) in 30 days. To do this you must write 1600 words per day. That’s about 6 typewritten pages.

This is not easy. Stephen King writes 2000 words per day. (from his creative memoir/how-to book On Writing)

But it can be done. I didn’t write 1600 words per day, but in 2008 I finished a 200-page draft of my first novel (the one that’s away being cleaned).

My new one is also going to be a veterinary medical thriller. I’ve roughed out a plot this time: a painful lesson learned on the first novel. Flying by the seat of your pants is fun and sometimes results in some remarkable “Eureka!” moments, but I ended up doing a page one rewrite because I wrote myself into a corner. Writing to discover the ending is probably better on shorter pieces, “literary” novels, or in the hands of seasoned writers. It didn’t work too well for me as a first-time novelist, especially since I was writing a genre story (a thriller in this case). Structure and conventions are so important – – you’ve got to hit the key moments at the best point in the story, and I’m just not experienced enough to “feel” my way along. I was very pleased with my first effort, but it needed a lot of work (it was all beginning and ending with no middle) and still needs work (which is why it’s away being cleaned.*)


The novel writing kit comes with 30 motivational cards. Here’s Day One:


I’ll spare you all a daily post (“Wrote only 800 today. Hopelessly behind…I suck!!”), but perhaps once a week.

* Being cleaned: edited. One of the literary agents who looked at the latest draft found some of the heroine’s reactions too subdued to be believable, and she thought the storytelling could be tightened. (That’s almost always the case.) But I am so close to the story, so much inside the characters’ heads, that I lack the necessary objectivity to cut what needs to be cut. So I’m having it edited for story. Story tuned.

** Yes, an actual bookstore. We used to have those.

Begin anywhere!

Blackout Poetry

The house two doors down from my mom’s has a Neighborhood Book Share box: a wooden box on a post, like a birdhouse, but it’s a miniature bookshelf, weatherproofed with a little roof and a latched glass cover. Random books are in it, and anyone walking by can come and take a book, leave a book, or swap.

Photo from My Modern Metropolis (

Photo from My Modern Metropolis (

I went down to drop off a handful of books that didn’t sell at my mom’s garage sale, and I found this:


The author does this thing called “blackout poetry,” where you take a page of printed text, find words you want to keep, and use marker to black out the rest:


This one (below) illustrates nicely the principles of “pruning,” “freely chosen constraints” and “empty space.”


Naturally, I did one. I didn’t have a newspaper handy, but I have a pile of paperback books that people keep giving me, so I grabbed one, tore out a page, and voila:


The text doesn’t show up terribly well, but it says,

It’s a poem.

I scoop it and send it sailing with a backhanded toss.

You can’t.

You can.

It isn’t real.

It is.

Lonely? Curious? Willing to listen???

Try it! Have fun! If you do one, take a picture of it, or scan it, and post it in the comments. (Hopefully your attempt to do this will be free of techie glitches. If it is not, don’t ask me, because I’m not tech savvy at all…)

Newspaper Blackout

author Austin Kleon’s site

Truly epic autocorrect error

This has got to be one of the best autocorrect errors I have ever seen. (Read the explanation at the bottom to see what he was trying to type).

Screen shot 2013-09-20 at 10.02.44 PM

Link to DamnYouAutoCorrect  (Caution: sometimes the autocorrect comes up with something very rude, inadvertently I’m sure, so screen these before sharing them with “younger or more sensitive viewers.”)

What does this have to do with simplicity? Or literature? Or writing? Or faith? Or anything? I dunno. Gandalf the Grey was a character in one of the greatest works of literature of all time, which also had elves and hobbits in it, and they lived very simple lives, and Tolkien was Catholic, so that has to do with faith, plus he wrote poetry…


See? This post wasn’t as stupidly off-topic as it first appeared. Besides, it’s my website. I can put whatever I want here. Nyah.


Best. Book Review. Ever: a review of Dan Brown’s Inferno at

I found this review on and it is AWESOME:
61 of 75 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars The DaVinci Code 4,  June 5, 2013
Inferno: A Novel (Robert Langdon) (Kindle Edition)

Instead of reading any more Dan Brown books, I’m just going to complete the following “Mad Lib” with my sister. Feel free to play along.


1) a number
2) month that has at least 28 days
3) adverb that denotes stress
4) pick a European city…any European city
5) title given to a respected educator or professional
6) first name
7) pretentious last name (bonus points if synonym for “Brown”)
8) prestigious museum or institute located in city chosen for #4
9) famous work of an artistic or religious nature
10) any old secret organization or cult you feel like picking on this week
11) social or political cause du jour
12) adverb that indicates someone is an idiot
13) founding member of christianity and/or a member of Aerosmith
14) a bad way for humanity to come to end
15) list 5 cities in the world you’ve ever wanted to visit
16) list 10 works of art/literature connected to or presently located in the cities from #15
17) a number less than 48
18) a fraction
19) a person with a genetic malformity
20) a number over 100
21) word that means “all” or “every” (feel free to use either or both)
22) activity that humans do just because they like to or want to
23) nonsensical word that means “pretty swell”



Late one night in _________(2), Robert Langdon finds himself _____________ (3) running through the streets of __________(4) having recently been contacted by _________________ (5) ____________ (6) ___________________ (7) of the _____________(8). ______________ (6) has contacted Langdon to decipher clues discovered in ________ (9). Before he has a chance to fully devote his attention to the task at hand, a fanatic from the __________(10) attacks Langdon and his host, revealing a conspiracy to violently end _____________________(11). Although Langdon has fallen victim to this same plot twist numerous times and by the same formulaic plot and characters, he once again _______________(12) follows a new sidekick who will ultimately betray Langdon and/or turn out to be the last descendent of ___________(13). In the process of saving everyone from __________________(14), Langdon visits____, _____, _____, ______, and ______(15) and sees ______, _____, _____, _____, _____, _______, _______, _______, _____, and ______(16). Within less than _________(17) hours, Langdon manages to solve __________ (18) riddles, be nearly killed by _____________(19), and mentions his Mickey Mouse watch at least ________(20) times. Meanwhile, the reader has seen pretty much ____________(21) plot twist or surprise thrown his/her way. And at no point does Langdon ever ___________(22). In the end, Langdon returns to Harvard knowing that symbols are truly _______________(23).

So there it is. The “formula” (which is what I hope Brown names his next Langdon book). If we’re lucky, it will also have at least 100 chapters, each one ending on a note that makes us think of SNL’s Really!?! with Seth and Amy skits.

I haven’t read The Lost Symbol, but that book must have been horrendous considering how many reviews of this one that start out by saying, “At least it was better than his last book…” (OFFICIALLY NEVER READING THE LOST SYMBOL)

Good night, and may you not wake up with amnesia in Italy tomorrow.


Thank you, “Jen” from!!

And of course, I had to play. Here’s my Dan Brown Mad Lib:


Late one night in March, Robert Langdon finds himself drunkenly running through the streets of Copenhagen having recently been contacted by Professor Antonin Balustrade of the Daan Hofbren Academie de Hoog. Balustrade has contacted Langdon to decipher clues discovered in Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans.


Before he has a chance to fully devote his attention to the task at hand, a fanatic from the United Way attacks Langdon and his host, revealing a conspiracy to violently end community mosquito abatement programs. Although Langdon has fallen victim to this same plot twist numerous times and by the same formulaic plot and characters, he once again naively follows a new sidekick who will ultimately betray Langdon and/or turn out to be the last descendent of Rube Goldberg.

In the process of saving everyone from pesticide poisoning, Langdon visits Tokyo, Buenos Aires, Sydney, Nairobi, and Decatur, IL and views and comments verbosely on approximately 67 pieces of fabulous art, including La Mozzarella (a world-famous sculpture by Paulo Boyardee), Sashimi (a well-known woodcut by Japanese Budo Warrior Artist and Haiku Master Tempura Maguro), and Bruce’s Innards (an avant garde interactive art installation by Australian chef and artist Mack Wannacaster, in which patrons walk into the mouth of a life-size Great White Shark and travel the route taken by a typical seal, finally emerging on all fours from the installation’s anus. Langdon finds and pontificates knowingly upon many arcane stomach artifacts, such as a monocle worn by 9th century Antipope Hippodrome VIII at his first antipapal mass in 936, and the brass tuning peg of a 1613 lute played by Antonio Vivaldi.


Astute readers and Dan Brown detractors will point out that monocles didn’t exist in the 9th century, that the 9th century in fact refers to the years beginning with 8, not 9, and that Antonio Vivaldi wasn’t born until 1678, but Dan Brown’s fans will not care about any of this, insisting the inaccuracies don’t matter because IT’S JUST FICTION, PEOPLE!!!

In less than 4 hours, Langdon manages to solve 72 riddles, be nearly killed by a hydrocephalic one-eyed hypochondriac Zen Buddhist horticulturist, and mentions his Mickey Mouse watch at least 89 times. Meanwhile, the reader has seen pretty much every plot twist or surprise thrown his/her way. And at no point does Langdon ever relieve himself, but readers of the book frequently find themselves on their knees in front of the toilet. In the end, Langdon returns to Harvard knowing that symbols are truly something that will make a talentless hack a lot of money.