Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

One Day, While Trying to Earn an Honest Living…

Monday, July 15th, 2013

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I can see the headline now: Struggling freelance writer catapulted into a deadly game of fraud and foreign assassins. Mercy! Remember the good old days, when the worst thing that could happen in a business-client relationship was that the goods or services would go unpaid? I’ve had this occur in my own business, although rarely, because I take certain precautions and am generally a good judge of character regarding prospective clients. But apparently, I’m still naive to the wiles of cyber-criminals, a group growing in number these days due to ever-expanding communication technology. I’ve fallen into a well-disguised techno-trap and unfortunately, I’m still squirming in its grip.

It all started with Craigslist, the internet’s trading hub for anything that anyone might be looking for: houses, roommates, cars, sex partners, and of course, employment. With the effects of a down economy continuing to be felt, many of us are out there pounding the cyber pavement searching for work. As a freelance writer, I am certainly no exception. This was how I came to answer an ad I found there for a “Story Guide Writer.”

I had to request an application, which they sent. But who were “they”? The company – I’ll call them Predator International for now, since I don’t know what horrible things might happen if I identify them – is supposedly an international dating site where people from all over the world can hook up with an intercontinental pen pal, boy/girlfriend, or even a potential marriage partner. My job would be to “edit” emails from users who were poor at English, but sending messages to English-speakers with whom they wanted to connect. Strangely, I could not find any information about the company or their dating site when I tried to research them, but a link they provided in one of their initial emails opened what appeared to be a typical dating website.

I completed their very simple, generic-looking application and returned it to them with my resume. Surprise, surprise, I passed their review of my qualifications and was sent a contract. I noticed that the emails to me from Predator International itself were written in very poor English, but I figured this why they needed my services! The contract, which read like it was composed by foreigners, gave an address in Berlin, Germany as their office location. The contract stated I would be paid per kilobyte of edited text, after a period of 21 days from the first assignment.

The work was easy and basically consisted of rewriting intimate email messages sent from people using the service – all appeared to be women from Germany – to men in the U.S. Some of the messages were so confusing due to misused words and lack of sentence structure, that I had to basically guess what the individual was trying to say and then put this into intelligible language. I felt like I was playing cupid sometimes, because the way I interpreted the mixed-up language could be quite different from what the writer intended. Nonetheless, it was paid work (I hoped), and Predator International praised my work often in their subsequent emails.

I noticed after a while that their messages to me were never signed by a particular person, just the name of the company. I also finally noticed that in their emails, the sender was listed as “Predator International” followed by a period, as in Predator International “.” In my experience with spam and obvious on-line scams, a period after a sender’s name is some sort of code for “This is a fake. Don’t even open it.” I wish I had noticed that period sooner, but I suppose that’s what criminals count on…the victim not noticing.

Anyway, before long I was due to be paid. I had had some uneasiness about the whole gig from the start, but had decided that if they didn’t pay me, I could live with losing about $300. On the other hand, if they were legitimate and paid me, then I would have a great new regular client!

The Predator International “Team” told me that they would wire my salary into my bank account, so they needed the account number and routing number. With even more trepidation, I supplied this information. But after all, I reasoned, hadn’t I had one client before from out of the country? And I wasn’t supplying them any passwords or security codes.

The wire appeared several days later than initially promised, and during this time I was positive I was not going to be paid. However, the company kept in contact with me, assuring me the delay was due to issues at the bank. Finally, slightly over a month after I had begun working for them, I was sent not one money wire, but two! Each wire was an amount about four times what they owed me for my work, for a total of slightly over $3,000. At the same time, I received another email from them, stating that they had overpaid me accidentally, and would I please forward the overpayment to an individual in Odessa, Ukraine. They alleged that this person was another employee, and they had sent me her wages by mistake.

At this point, “FRAUD” screamed in my head, but I didn’t know what to do! Being human, my first thought was to cut off all communication with them and keep the money. After all, why should I be forced to deal with crooks and scammers? I talked to a representative of my bank’s fraud reporting department, who told me this sounded like a money laundering scheme. He didn’t comment on what I should do with the money – whether to keep it or return it – but at the end of our conversation he told me not once, but twice, to “have a nice weekend.”

After a few more days of living under the delusion that I had luckily netted over $2,500, I was reminded by a couple close friends of possible consequences. Predators International was, after all, crooks and scammers…hmmm. Perhaps keeping the money was not such a good idea, I began to think. What if they had eastern European operatives in this country who would threaten me at gunpoint? Or beat and rape me outside my bank? Or hurt my family? Anxiety set in. And besides not wanting to piss off crazy people, was I not being a thief as well if I kept money that was not mine, no matter where it came from?

But I didn’t want to send the money to the address in the Ukraine, as doing so would accomplish exactly what they wanted if this was a money laundering operation. I thought about sending it to the address in Berlin that was on the original contract. In the meantime, Predators had begun sending poorly-worded emails that still relayed a clear message: return our money to us, or “big trouble await you.” This was only one or two days after they had notified me of the overpayment, and I hadn’t responded. Anxiously I sent them a response to the effect, “Hey guys, my computer has been broken for a week, and I just got your emails! Wow, I’ll get your money back to you and sorry you’ve been so worried.” At least I could buy some time this way, too.

I decided to take the matter to my local police department. With print-outs of Predator International’s sketchy contract and latest threatening email in hand, I explained the situation to an officer there. The female deputy was clearly unimpressed by my story, wearing a bored, we-get-this-all-the-time expression on her face. She asked me if I had lost any money, and I told her “no.” At this point, the company’s only “crime” was intimidation, I suppose. And since, as the officer reminded me, U.S. law enforcement has no jurisdiction outside the country, there was nothing they could do. She then asked me why I would give my bank account and routing number to people who couldn’t even write in proper English. I didn’t answer her. Clearly, I was not only a victim of intimidation, but a stupid one at that.

The deputy told me she could almost guarantee that the funds in my account were no good, or would somehow be contested by another victim in the near future. Instead of a money laundering scheme, her opinion was that Predators International was attempting to steal my good money using their counterfeit money. When I explained that I did not want to hold onto the money of criminals, she told me if I was worried about “stealing” (she used both index and middle fingers to make quotation marks in the air) their money, I could advise them that I would return the overpayment after 30 days, if it was still undisputed or not alleged fraudulent by anyone. This seemed like a reasonable idea. I would worry about how to send the money later.

That night, I sent them another email laying out my 30-day plan. I received their response a day later. Apparently, they didn’t like either of my emails, and their “experts” had determined that I was a thief trying to hold onto their money longer. They then demanded my social security number, and copies of my driver’s license and passport so that I could be somehow prosecuted. As I mentioned above, I am a stupid victim, but not quite this stupid…

This is where I’m at now, waiting 30 days and hoping I’m not assassinated in the meantime. I reported the incident on a government website for reporting international crimes of this nature called www.ic3.gov. On this site I learned about all the various types of internet scams out there, as well as how one can avoid being involved. It was far from comforting when I read the highlighted warning on the report site: “If you think your life is in danger, contact your state or local police immediately!” The site indicated they get thousands of reports every month, and basically do what they can to investigate and track down the perpetrators. It is nice to feel that I’m not alone, but I’m still wondering about the danger part.

At the suggestion of a very smart person, after 30 days – and hopefully I will still be alive at that point – I plan to wire the overpayment back to the account from which it was wired, then close out my account. But for now, I continue to receive creepy emails from Predators International. They even phoned me twice, but I missed the calls, thank goodness. In addition to being uneasy, I’m angered to have been roped into this stressful situation while just trying to do what I do, write and copyedit. As if having to find work and trust clients to pay is not bad enough…

On the bright side, this whole drama has motivated me to write the story you have just read. And isn’t that what every writer wants – inspiration and a good story? I just hope this blog doesn’t become my last.

Postscript:

Well, readers, I am fortunately still alive to write an ending (hopefully) to this story. A few days ago, I wired the amount of the overpayment, less my “wages,” my bank’s international wiring fee of $45, and an extra $100 for all my time and anxiety, to an account Predator International provided in Kharkiv, Ukraine. Once my account balance was at “zero,” I immediately closed it in an attempt to remove myself and my money from the international fraud radar. I did learn that in the case of wire transactions, money wired between accounts managed by two financial institutions is always “real” money. Criminals can forge checks or money orders, and even counterfeit currency, but wires between financial institutions cannot be falsified.

Obviously, I’ve learned to exercise much greater caution in answering job ads and providing information to clients or prospective clients. I choose to regard this whole ordeal as a valuable lesson. And the best part, other than the fact that I haven’t been murdered, is the dramatic satisfaction I get when friends ask me how this worked out and I tell them, “No problem. I’ve paid off the Russians…”

 

Art For Barks…for Artists, Writers, and Animal Lovers

Saturday, June 22nd, 2013

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Call for Submissions! Are you a writer…and an animal-lover too? Here is a unique opportunity to share your talent and creativity by contributing to Art for Barks on-line journal. Still in its inception, our journal is an opportunity for you to educate, inform, inspire, and entertain with your work. And all while writing about something you love…dogs! We also feature cats, horses, and wildlife. Contributors will build their on-line platform, showcase their work, and obtain publishing credits. To contribute, check out our website, http://ArtForBarks.org. Click on Writer’s Inquiry for more information.

Back to the Blog!

Saturday, May 4th, 2013

Firstly, I must apologize to the faithful readers of my blog for not writing over the last three months. I want both of you to know, however, that I have really good excuses for neglecting my blog…it’s the truth! I’ve been busy with several projects, not the least of which has been home-schooling my daughter through eighth grade. We have twenty-four days to go before she’s done with the school year. But who’s counting, right? To parents who wish they could take a more active role in their child’s education, let me just say, seriously rethink this silly notion! It’s a minefield of control issues, power struggles, tantrums, and tears. And I’m not even talking about my daughter here…

Alongside this, I’ve been working on a couple major copyediting projects. Honestly, out of all the writing services I provide in my business, editing is my favorite. Correcting other peoples’ mistakes is right up my alley, especially when the authors are not related to me! The blessing and the curse of these kinds of projects, though, is that they have deadlines for completion, and when you’re basically looking at every word of two 90,000-word manuscripts at the same time, it’s best to focus. Hence, no blog entries…but I do miss you, my old friend and outlet for expression and creativity, sometimes even a few laughs.

One of the books I worked on, now in the process of being published, is called From Iran to America – Mahnaz and Shirin, A Love Story. It is basically a memoir, but parts of it are embellished, so it can’t be described as strictly non-fiction. The book recounts stories from an Iranian man’s childhood in his homeland, and later his permanent move to the United States. The narrative, however,  is built around the author’s relationship with two Iranian women, one beautiful, wicked, and deceitful, the other beautiful, honest, and sweet. Why is it that we always choose the bad ones first? Now there’s a question that transcends time, place, and nationality!

The author’s true accounts from growing up in Iran are not only entertaining, funny, and interesting, but they give a rare perspective on day-to-day life in that country under the Shah. As someone who knew nothing about the country of Iran, its people, or its history, I found the stories absolutely fascinating. And not only that, they made me realize once again that no matter how various ethnicities are labeled or criticized, all of us have the same needs and feelings as human beings. In other words, it made me reconsider some of my prior beliefs about Middle Easterners, all of which stemmed, of course, from how they’re depicted in the media

Adding to this is how From Iran to America weaves in the crazy roller-coaster of falling in love, providing poignant testimony that this emotion can drive us to make the most irrational and ill-advised choices of our lives. I predict that once you start reading this book, you’ll have to finish it to find out how this whole love triangle is finally resolved for the narrator, whom by then we’re rooting for just as we would a good friend.

The other manuscript I was privileged to copyedit is a science fiction/fantasy novel for young adults, the second in a planned trilogy. But get this…the author wrote the first book in the series when he was seventeen years old, and the second was completed less than a year later! How many teenagers do you know who even finish cleaning their room, much less write two entire novels?!

The book is called Water Tower, and it will be published in the next couple months. The main character, Sam, is a fifteen-year-old superhero of sorts. It’s an excellent concept…a superhero who’s also an immature, awkward, totally-likeable teenager. Sam battles evil forces threatening world domination in an earth whose population is divided among three “nations” consisting of the Surface, the Sky Nation, and the Water Nation. You can guess where Water Tower takes place, and readers should get ready for a wild ride alongside Sam as he gets beat up, nearly burnt up, and almost drowned. All this, of course, while trying to figure out what to do now that he has his first girlfriend, Rose. Is it any wonder teenagers are moody?

Since I was paid to edit Water Tower, I feel a little guilty telling you how much fun I had doing this! I foresee the author in a few years – maybe even sooner – selling movie rights and knocking out more adventure fantasy thrillers. With an imagination like his, the possibilities reach beyond the boundaries of the Sky Nation.

I plan to provide more information regarding ordering these books once they’re available in print. The freedom writers have nowadays to self-publish – as opposed to trying to find a literary agent or large publisher willing to take a chance on a new author, a rare occurrence indeed – has had a phenomenal effect on what we read nowadays. My only issue with self-published works is that many are launched without being scrutinized by a good editor. As the English language maniac that I am, it appalls me to think that the quality of writing in self-published books is frequently substandard. In my mind, this can’t be good for the overall literacy of our youth and our nation. Anyhoo… pardon my grandstanding on that a bit. The point is, have me read over your material before you publish it. And there is my ego rearing its head now, too.

It’s probably a good time to wrap up this little blogging warm-up. It just seems like forever since I’ve written from my own brain, with my own thoughts. Ah, the joy of blogging again. So until next time…and please, let me know your thoughts, too! After all, friends don’t let friends blog alone.

Confessions of a Frozen Yogurt Addict

Saturday, November 17th, 2012

I remember my first taste of frozen yogurt – vanilla, by the way – like it was yesterday. I was about 20 years old and strolling along the Venice Beach, California boardwalk, when I was lured to try a cup. It was love at first bite, for sure and for real. I knew the moment I tasted it that fro-yo and I would be having a very special, life-long relationship. This was about 30 years ago, and let’s just say that if frozen yogurt were a man, we would be married with eight children.

Being a “cake-and-ice-cream” kind of girl – after all, who doesn’t love a birthday party – frozen yogurt is a healthy version of ice cream, and the way I can satisfy that little child inside me who has a huge sweet-tooth, while not blowing out my daily calorie count. In my eyes, it’s a miracle, because prior to finding it, I had this idea that one must renounce everything pleasurable in order to be healthy.

Not so! Dammit, I love food and I love my sweet treats. Fortunately, I love jogging and eating salads, too. Can’t there be a happy medium with this whole food thing? I hope so, because as much as I value health, I think little pleasures are necessary for the health of my emotions. I know a lot of people who rarely to never indulge in sweets, and stick to mature and responsible choices of lean protein, fruits and vegetables, and whole grains. I wish I were so virtuous, but I’m not. Given this fact, therefore, I’m all over the ways I can somehow have my cake and eat it, too.

So please don’t judge me, but I have a big ol’ large-size cup (usually about 18 to 20 ounces) of frozen yogurt every day. Yes, you heard me, every day! Most days, it is my lunch. Although I justify it by eating it as a meal, in terms of cost – and as one frozen yogurt purveyor expressed it – it’s like eating porterhouse steak every day. Oh well. It’s probably still cheaper than smoking cigarettes, and definitely cheaper than drugs.

Did you know that non-fat frozen yogurt contains active bacterial cultures known to aid in digestion and nutrient absorption? And that it supports cardiovascular health by helping to convert fiber to healthy fats that promote good cholesterol levels? Frozen yogurt is rich in essential water-soluble vitamins, including B-2, B-12 and B-1. And when made from enriched milk, it also contains the fat-soluble vitamins A and D. Not only that, yogurt provides essential minerals like calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, selenium and zinc, which are important for the healthy formation of cells, bones, teeth, and for the function of the nervous and immune systems.[1]

There I go. More justification, but why not? I might as well look at the positive aspects of a vice I’m going to indulge in anyway. As far as sugar content, hmmm. I’ll get back to you on that one.

With all the years of daily experience I’ve had dabbling, literally, in this creamy treat, I feel like some sort of aficionado on the stuff. Vanilla and chocolate malt are my favorite flavors, as I tend to be a purist. Lately I tried one called “Salted Caramel,” which actually has subtle undertones of salty flavor. Remarkable and delicious. I rarely get toppings because, again, I’m a purist. The cool, richly-sweet smoothness of the frozen yogurt is enough.

I am fully aware there are haters who will shake their heads at this…well, addiction…to fro-yo. I’ve learned, however, that there are healthy and unhealthy addictions, as well as everything in-between. I might as well take ownership of mine, because the truth shall set me free. And my truth goes something like this: thank heaven for frozen yogurt! I love you so much I could just eat you up! And I do.


[1] Kassam, N. (2010, October). The Health Benefits of Frozen Yogurt. Retrieved from http://www.livestrong.com/

 

Bichon Rescue: Him or Me?

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

See how his belly band is coordinated with my carpet color?

Puppies. Those tiny, fuzzy, wide-eyed tail-waggers will steal your heart before you know what hit you. They chase around your ankles playfully, then spring into your lap, trying to lick your face with their little pink tongues. How can anyone resist adopting a puppy at least once in their life? I was no exception, of course, when deciding to make Oscar – a frisky, curly-white-haired Bichon Frise pup – part of our family. Besides, with three children already, I felt the deep need for one more breathing creature upon which to shower my maternal instincts. What the hell was I thinking?

Picking out a breed was geared around my allergy to dog dander, limiting the choices to non-shedders. My sister, lifelong purveyor of sound advice and my model for crafting “perfect family dynamics,” was raving on and on about the Bichon Frise they had recently gotten. “Daisy” was hypoallergenic and just the sweetest dog on the planet, my sister gushed. The entire family was in love with her! “She’s changed my life,” were her final words, uttered with just the slightest choke of emotion. I bought in immediately. Why bother with further research? I say again, what the hell was I thinking?

We ended up driving a few hundred miles to Arizona to purchase a pure-bred Bichon from a breeder there. Generally priced at about two thousand dollars in the pet stores, this breeder only wanted a few hundred dollars for a Bichon puppy. Oddly, though, the male Bichons were a couple hundred dollars cheaper than the females. I wondered about this, but figured I was getting a bargain with a boy.

Let me just say, if Oscar was a bargain, the Hope Diamond is next on my list of penny-wise purchases…

The kids loved Oscar, as did I and as we all still do. Chubby and friendly, I’ve never seen him snarl at anybody. He loves to sleep on our beds – especially mine – which in hindsight, I shouldn’t have permitted. Truly, I have learned so much about dog training and care, but nearly all of it too late. Oscar did attend “Puppy Kindergarten” and “Basic Training,” although it was during these classes that I began to heavily suspect he might be a bit resistant to learning. Many of the basic training commands, like “heel,” “come,” “stay,” and “drop it,” seemed to stay in his fluffy little head for only minutes at a time. I’m almost certain that as Oscar and I walked up to a podium to receive his official basic training certificate, some of those trainers were rolling their eyes.

I believe it is more difficult to train a dog when you have young children, as consistency is key with teaching behaviors to an animal. Perhaps this is another reason Oscar never was or is what I would term “obedient.” On the contrary, he seems to do pretty much what he pleases regardless of the tone, volume, or desperation of my commands. Unless, of course, food is involved.

Food. Now there is an issue of utmost gravity and significance in the life and mentality of Oscar. Is it just his breed, or are all dogs willing to fly between kitchen countertops if there’s a tasty morsel up there? For that matter, who would have known it was even possible for an animal no taller than about a foot-and-a-half to pull off such acrobatics? But yes, Oscar has shown his abilities in this area if food is the goal. To save our family’s food from this Stage Four foodaholic, we must always be mindful of putting things really high up, inside the refrigerator, or behind securely-closed doors.

We first learned about Oscar’s marauder tendencies when he was just a few months old and got the remainder of my daughter’s cup of chocolate milk. I had heard, of course, that chocolate can harm or even kill dogs, so I was in a panic! I rushed him to the vet, where he was kept for several hours of observation. Fifty dollars later, he came back home, certainly none the worse for wear. But this cup of chocolate milk was only the beginning of his saga of food thievery. Somehow, we can never be careful enough. His prizes have included an entire bag of cashews concealed in holiday wrap under the Christmas tree, twenty-five days of chocolate from not one, but two Advent calendars, two consecutive packages of blueberry scones (the second was to replace the first, but apparently still within leap), a whole rotisserie chicken, and a solid milk chocolate Easter bunny. Oscar has been “fine” after each binge, although I wish I could say the same for our carpets. The bunny escapade resulted in my losing a full day of work plus a $300 rug-cleaning bill.

Another small problem with Oscar concerns his skin. Did you know that Bichons tend to have allergies and hot spot issues, aggravated by their drive to lick the spots until they’re enlarged and raw? I didn’t. After all, angelic cousin Daisy had no such troubles! Unfortunately, Oscar has spent a good half his life wearing a buster collar, which people love to laugh at because of its resemblance to a lampshade on his head. And due to his “motivated” personality, I have been forced to get collars with greater and greater diameters, because he manages to contort his fat little body to get at a spot.

After unsuccessfully trying socks, bandages, chili-powder-infused patches, and sports tape to keep him away from his hot spots, I finally relented and took him to a canine dermatology specialist (whose office is, by the way, a drive of over 40 miles). This resulted in his getting regular daily medication with Cyclosporine and prednisone, not to mention antibiotics to treat the red, splotchy sores. Mind you, I don’t want to seem as though I’m complaining, but the Cyclosporine costs around $200 per bottle. And without fail, every single time I pick it up from the pharmacy, the cashier looks at me and says, “Do you know how much this costs?” Yes, and it kills me! I scream inside my head. Fortunately, I manage to keep a cool exterior and nod politely.

Because I feel awful putting so many chemicals into my dog, I have recently tried a food supplement which is supposed to improve his skin’s natural immunity. In addition, he gets fish oil, recommended to lessen his itchiness, poured over the top of his fortified meal every day. I’m still waiting and hoping for results. For the time being, though, when he is wearing his huge buster collar and breathes in your direction, the effect is what I call a “cornucopia of stink” owing to the fishiness. The family has learned to redirect the cone or evacuate the area.

On the positive side, Oscar’s temperament is commendable. He is affable to humans and other dogs alike, although after being attacked by large dogs three or four times, he no longer approaches them with his usual eager sociability. Reasonably smart (albeit stubborn), he has even fine-tuned his communication skills. When he wants me to get out of bed, feed him, throw his favorite stuffed animal, give him a belly rub, or walk him, he doesn’t bark obnoxiously. Instead, he either makes a sort of low grunting sound in his throat, or a high-pitched whistling sound in his nose…it’s one or the other, but it doesn’t end until I respond. Ignoring his “requests” leads to nose-shoving or paws/claws scratching my legs.

Oscar’s social tendencies sometimes get a bit excessive. I love his companionship, but does he really have to follow me from room to room, staring at me in anticipation of my next move to make him happy? The constant look of expectation gives me something of a guilt complex when I’m doing frivolous things like working, paying bills, or eating (of course). Maybe part of my reaction is intimidation, because Oscar has been known to express his displeasure with the status quo by knocking over waste baskets or poop on the rug. This is particularly true if we leave to go somewhere without him, or stay away a bit too long. We are almost sure to come back to some type of mess he’s engineered. In his simple canine way, he’s saying, “I missed you.” Thanks, Oscar.

Lastly, there have been some potty-training issues with our boy. Go figure. It became most critical when we moved to my condominium, new turf for him. Adding insult to injury, we also adopted a kitten around the same time, thinking this fur-bearing friend would keep him company when we were away. Oscar was not delighted, however, peeing and pooping his annoyance onto the floors of our new abode. To alleviate this problem at least in part, I bought a “belly band” which attaches around his mid-section to cover over the offending wee-maker. It is even more effective if an overnight maxi-pad is placed in the critical part of the band.

Many times, I have wondered how my desire for a furry, loyal compadre resulted in this four-legged creature with a lampshade on its head, lumpy band around its middle, and socks on two feet. It’s a question I’ll never be able to fully answer, I suppose. In the meantime, we make the best of each day and search for peace amidst the challenges. And in those lovely, quiet moments just before I close my eyes at night, I realize… How lucky I am that Oscar and my cat have allowed me a spot on the bed.

 

Nazi Preoccupation from “Conversations With Claudio”

Thursday, October 4th, 2012

Moving up through PratoOne of the most joyful things about being a kid is the ability to take people and things that happen at simple face value. Having little or no frame of reference for possible long-lasting consequences of any one incident or motives that might underlie others’ behavior, children tend to face life head-on and fully in the moment. When circumstances are extreme, this quality can be a terrific blessing because it spares them a lot of the fear and foreboding experienced by their more apprehensive elders. I have no doubt that it worked to my advantage when I was 13 years old, and the Nazis descended upon my hometown of Fiume, Italy.

It was then that my once-innocent eyes began to take in a more realistic – and forbidding – view of people and the world. I watched as my peaceful, safe, and beautiful Fiume became a city ruled by fear, destruction, and brutality. It was terror of these foreigners, who marched in with that ominous and unmistakable stomp made by the metal in their boot heels striking the pavement. These foreigners forcefully helped themselves to our food, our property, and our lives. All citizens were ordered to surrender anything they owned which would aid the Nazi war effort – pots, pans, utensils, sewing machines, wedding rings, even snow skies. Subject to seizure was anything of monetary value or any items that could be melted down for the iron used to make their tanks, planes, missiles, and other weaponry. Refusal to comply resulted in immediate execution.

Things I had taken for granted up until the start of the war, like always having enough to eat, became poignant memories of a past gone forever. During the occupation, I forgot what bananas and apples tasted like. Most fresh fruits and vegetables were no longer available. White bread disappeared, replaced by the Germans’ coarse, dark loaves. It seemed that I was constantly hungry. There was never enough food, and along with the rest of my family, I became quite skinny.

Was it my childish illusion of immortality, or just plain stupidity that drew me toward the Nazi encampments in our town? Perhaps it was simply starvation. Yes, they had food and we did not. Piles and piles of canned meat, bread, cheese, and rice lay stacked and stored inside a building that had been a small school before the occupation. I knew about it because I was constantly watching the Germans, hating them for their crimes against my relatives, friends, and neighbors, and yet endlessly curious about their activities.

Next to our town’s cemetery, there was a larger building that had also been taken over by the Nazis. It, too, had originally been a school. Rooms once teeming with children learning the fundamentals of reading, writing, mathematics, science, and history, were now dormitories and storage lockers for the implements of Hitler’s war machine. Attached to the building was a large courtyard, which the Germans used for holding the property they had seized from our town’s citizens. Always eager to know what the soldiers were doing, I passed by the encampment frequently. Because of my small stature and thin frame, I had the survival advantage of looking much younger than I actually was. And as a skilled hoop roller, I could deftly send my hoop wheeling onto the grounds “accidentally.” With the excuse of retrieving my hoop, I would run after it into the courtyard. To the Germans, I was all but invisible – nothing more than a small child boy playing with a toy. But my brief time inside the hornet’s nest allowed me full view of the confiscated items and exactly where they were stored.

In my carefully-suppressed angry indignation at the injustice of the Nazis, I joined with my buddies to hatch a plan for stealing back some of our fellow citizens’ rightful belongings. It was a daring and dangerous escapade, which made it all the more exciting in our young, adventurous minds.

Under the cover of night, I and a few others crept through the cemetery and jumped over the wall it shared with the school grounds. Of course, a couple boys were assigned to alert us of any German soldiers that might be patrolling, using a special whistle that sounded like a somewhat convincing owl. We had some success, hoisting a few things, including a shiny pair of snow skis, back over the wall and hiding them amidst clumps of trees and tombstones in the cemetery. But with the thrill of the caper – the exhilaration of dodging the attention of the Nazis and quite possibly their bullets – behind us, we quickly lost interest in our plan to restore the stolen property to needy townspeople. We left those items, which we had literally risked our lives to get, in their hiding places in the cemetery! Sometimes I wonder if they are still there today.

Even more harrowing was my lone effort to steal from the Germans the thing that preoccupied my mind almost constantly – food – from the smaller school building where they had it stored. The biggest problem, besides possibly being shot dead by a Nazi soldier, was that the provisions were kept in a room on the second floor. I was not to be deterred, however. The exterior surface of this brick school building had crevices just deep enough that they could be used as footholds for climbing up the outside wall. Choosing a time when it appeared few soldiers were around, I crept to the back part of the building and climbed two stories up until I reached the window of the storage room. Having made sure beforehand that the window was open, I easily pushed back the pane and flung myself inside.

My plan went awry, however, when my feet landed on something lumpy and rather soft underneath the window. It turned out to be the chest of a Nazi soldier! Dead to the world napping on a cot set there, he was startled awake the moment my feet touched him. He sprang up in shock as I stood watching in paralyzed horror, unable to move or think.

Fortunately for me, the soldier was as scared as I was, because although the Germans were the brutal dominators in our city, they had also suffered several casualties at the hands of oppressed people intent on retribution. Without bothering to even glance my way, the soldier immediately ran out of the room. I wasted no time. Heart pounding, I lept out the window and dropped two stories to the ground below. I’m sure that adrenalin alone powered my getaway after falling so far to the hard-packed earth. Later, though, I regretted not having grabbed any food before my jump.

Had I been an adult, I’m fairly certain I would not have attempted such a feat, even if I were starving to death. I do believe, however, that the more one can retain the child-like qualities of accepting things at face value and living in the moment, the more satisfying and exciting life can be at any age.

Memory of Terror from “Conversations With Claudio”

Friday, September 7th, 2012

I often ran errands for my mother when I was 15 years old, walking the familiar route from our house to the business district of our small town. That morning in 1943, as I passed the cemetery, my eyes were drawn to an unusually large, dark shape atop a wall near the front gates. The typical early-day mist had still not cleared, so I could not quite make out what it was. I went closer. Very soon I would regret my curiosity.

As I drew near the cemetery, the form of a huge man came into focus. Dressed in his Nazi military uniform, he lay face down on the stone wall, dead. I instinctively averted my eyes from this disturbing spectacle, but in doing so caught sight of something else off to the right. Something bizarre and far more horrible. Strangely lined in a row on another low wall were the bodies of several infants, some so tiny they looked as though they had been torn from their mothers before birth. All had still-attached umbilical cords, which dangled between the lifeless babies like snakes amidst prey.

Repulsed, I turned and ran. But as fast as I ran, or have ever run since, memories from that time in my youth are inescapable. After awhile, I learned to put them into safe corners of my mind, where they could exist harmlessly while I faced the day ahead. Some of my experiences lie so deep they are inaccessible. The mind will protect us for the sake of our survival.

And survive I did, through instinct, perseverance, and luck.

The place where I was born and raised – Fiume, Italy – is no longer. Along with countless resources, lives, and dreams, it was lost to the ravages of World War II. Originally a port town in the northeastern part of the “boot” of Italy on the Istrian Peninsula, it was occupied in the early 1940’s by the Nazis, then handed over by the victorious Allied forces to Yugoslavia in 1945. During the upheaval, Fiume and its name vanished. The peaceful and prosperous city where I had grown up was overtaken, disappearing along with my youthful illusions about people and the world.

During my early childhood years, I thrived within the well-defined (or rigid, to be more accurate) structures imposed by my parents, the Roman Catholic Church, and Mussolini’s Fascist regime. My family was considered well-off, as my father was a successful furniture manufacturer and importer. I was never in want of food, clothes, or a warm bed. Our lifestyle, however, was black and white. Personal freedom and individuality were not tolerated if they clashed with obedience to authority. If one is born into a society ordered in this way, rebelliousness is rarely an issue. But despite being quite regulated, mine was a happy boyhood. Certainly I was secure in the knowledge of what was expected of me.

All of this changed around 1939, when the cloud of Hitler’s quest for European domination intruded upon my tightly-controlled world. While still a youth, I witnessed the collapse of Fascism and subsequent occupation by a force even more dogged and brutal: the Nazis. Watching one-time allies become unscrupulous enemies, neighbors being forced to work in German labor camps, and my own brother being unwillingly conscripted into the Nazi army, I became intimately acquainted with “the evil that men do.”

Even now, the sound of planes overhead never goes unnoticed by my mind, which instantly attempts to calculate the aircraft’s size and type. Am I somehow still awaiting the terrifying thunder of a dropped bomb, still wondering how close it will be to where I am standing? In Fiume, we civilians tried to go about our lives as though things were “normal.” But what is normal about random bombings, panicked flights to the crowded shelters, and the constant fear of being mistaken as a Jew? I saw what happened to them in the shadow of the mountain where our shelters were built. Executed point-blank. The location was conveniently close to the cemetery, where piles of bodies were deposited for disposal. Like the shelters, the cemetery was overcrowded.

When the town was handed to Yugoslavia under Tito’s Communist regime, the new party promptly seized the money and property of its citizens, and set about to rid the area of all “enemies of the state.” I was still just 17 and now in a new type of danger. My older brother had already been jailed by the Communists for his former alliance with the Italian military, which had invaded Yugoslavia a few years earlier. I knew that if I stayed there, I would be under rigorous scrutiny and likely also be arrested. One summer day in 1945, I ran to the jail and signaled to my brother with our secret whistle. When I knew I had his ear, I shouted one word: “cut.” I was cutting out of Fiume, by now renamed Redeka, to take my chances as a refugee.

At 5:00 am the next day, I darted covertly through the city, then scaled walls to gain access to the railway. Jumping aboard a freight car headed for Trieste, in the free part of Italy, I possessed nothing but the clothes I was wearing. My adventure in survival as a homeless immigrant had begun.

A Sample Query Letter – Non-Fiction Book

Saturday, September 24th, 2011

There is so much discussion – conflicting opinions, advice, and warnings – about query letters for books. Too much, in my opinion. It makes the task of composing a query letter seem so onerous, one might delay or procrastinate doing so just because of the hype. Calm down, people. Let’s just do this thing, and if it’s not “perfect,” oh well. A lesson learned, experience gained.

I think the best thing I’ve read about query letters is this: focus not so much on writing the flawless query letter as authoring a great book. Your book or book idea – if it’s creative, compelling, and something people will actually want to read – will be the gem that you tout in your query letter. A smart agent or publisher knows how to recognize even a “diamond in the rough.”

Personally, I learn the best by example. So here’s a sample query letter I did for a non-fiction book idea brought to me by a new author. We’re waiting for the results on this, but I think the letter is pretty good. I want some feedback, so don’t be shy about making comments!

Dear Mr. or Ms. Agent:

Step aside, Botox, Restylane, and Juvederm. Young, ripped, sexy men wanting to please me give me a better “injection” of youth than anything available from an aesthetician! As an over-40 female and three-time divorcé, I have finally discovered the power of cougarhood. And my 60,000-word, completed, non-fiction manuscript, Cougar Season Now Open: My Path from Victimhood to Cougarhood, tells how when I changed my attitude, I changed my dating pool.

Popularized by celebrities like Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher; Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins; Ivana Trump and …well, her array of young ex’s, cougar dating is a hot, current relationship trend, one that’s really just beginning. In Cougar Season Now Open, I share my collection of crazy, edgy, funny – and yes, at times, heartbreaking – episodes dating younger men. But there’s even more for the reader than that.

Unlike other cougar dating books currently available, Cougar Season Now Open combines light, fun-and-risque stories with simply-stated wisdom and advice for healing from the past and finding out who we really are. The result is a book of rollicking escapades, by which the reader will mostly be entertained, but also “just might learn something.” In addition to inspiring women to get back out in the playing field again – even if they’ve had too much relationship drama in the past – I reveal my post-divorce secrets for maintaining my sanity and youthful appearance. Especially relevant to women 40 years and older, my discoveries include everything from cardio-boxing and Internet dating to Tantra spirituality.

My personal experiences with men, marriage, relationships, and dating are far from being my sole inspiration for writing this book. As the owner/manager of a San Diego women’s fitness club for several years, I spend most of my waking hours talking with other women – clients, friends, and employees – of all ages and from a vast variety of lifestyles. As a result, I’ve got a head full of know-how and perspective about females. Cougar Season Now Open is the “climax” of all I’ve learned, giving anyone who reads it (besides a ton of guilty pleasure) a surprising look at how women think about and behave with men.

I truly appreciate your time and consideration of this query, and I look forward to sending you my full proposal at your request.

Sincerely,
Future Best-Selling Author

 

Writing For Me

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

For me, writing is not merely an instrument of communication. It goes far deeper than that. Writing is the bridge between my internal life and the outside world, both the means to an end as well as the end itself. Sometimes I wish I could make up amazing stories, but honestly, I find reality much more compelling. Thus the plot is ordinary, but my thoughts and attitudes about what exists around me can be complex, deep-seated, and ever-changing.  And hopefully evocative to some readers to see the mundane in the light of their own inner uniqueness. All becomes so much more precious and beautiful that way.

Words are my paint, paper my canvas. Sometimes I see something so striking and appealing, or ugly and disturbing, that I simply must talk about it pen-in-hand. This I try to do in my way, using language to basically describe and clarify first, then to embellish. It’s not much different from the painter who builds a picture, using white and pastels to highlight and draw the eye’s attention, darker colors to subdue or convey a mood. It is all art, which seeks to affect in some way the people that can appreciate its message.

Yes, I write for a living, so my skill with words and language also has many practical applications. Creativity is one trait I claim, but I also crave organization, so my business report and marketing writing allows me the opportunity to exercise that. Or exorcise, as I’m often like one possessed when it comes to correct grammar, spelling, and word usage. I don’t know many people who proofread their text messages before hitting “send,” but I admit I am one of them.

Making a clear picture from ideas, paragraphs, sentences, and words fulfills me the way it does when I clean out a drawer. I throw out the things that are worthless and unnecessary, and try to put the valuable items in their proper place. Writing for business is a form requiring directness, with less need for description and creative embellishment. In this respect, it can be easier to compose. On the other hand, some business writing, such as marketing or resumes, necessitates specific and at times subtle use of language to glorify the subject and persuade the reader that they need to procure it no matter the cost.

But by far the most personal and necessary use of writing in my life has been to express my mental, emotional, and spiritual condition. Perhaps it is because I’ve been doing this for so long – I’ve kept a journal since I was in my teens – that writing has become almost inseparable from who I am. There have been times, and still are, when my notebook is my always-available confidante, one that doesn’t judge what I reveal nor how I say it. Generally, the only descriptive verbiage I use in this writing is four-letter words. And lots of exclamation points.

Honestly, writing in my journal is a spiritual experience for me, because when I’m spilling my guts on paper, I’m aware that God is reading it. (Duh! Who do I think put the feelings and expressive words there in the first place?) Although I don’t understand how this happens, I get greater acceptance of all those feelings, both difficult and joyful, after I write about them. And if God and I can stomach all that crowds my head, it becomes more likely to me that other people will not be put off by it either.

Considering all the above, writing helps me to survive on many levels: financially, artistically, emotionally, and spiritually. A means not only to survive, but to thrive and grow. Although it has its challenges and frustrations, writing gives back to me according to the effort I put into it. Like so many things in life, practice is the key. Thankfully, I love to practice!

Proven over and over to me, however, is that my life is better the more I write. Or perhaps the better my life is, the more I am writing. At this point, it doesn’t matter because it is all good. And I want to write all about it.

Writing From the Heart

Saturday, February 26th, 2011

A few days ago, I had the pleasure of attending a short presentation by Joan Brady, an authoress of international renown whose first book, God on a Harley, was a New York Times bestseller. Ms. Brady immediately caught my eye: an attractive woman in her late 50’s with strawberry-blond hair, wearing a top that was yellow/green bordering on neon.

Never having read anything by Ms. Brady, I sat back to listen. I had heard that God on a Harley had a spiritual theme, which intrigued me because I love to ponder this same topic in my own writing.

From the very beginning, Ms. Brady’s story was unique and captivating. But what impressed me the most was this author’s humility and authenticity. She had been a nurse for 22 years prior to embarking on her writing career, and the stories of her hospital and patient experiences were harrowing. Clearly she was no stranger to the full range of human emotions that tend to surface when people’s loved ones are sick or dying in a hospital bed. Pain, fear, anger, grief, joy, love, compassion, relief, dread – to name just a few – plus everything in between.

Experiencing life-and-death human drama nearly every day for over two decades had resulted in Ms. Brady feeling burnt-out, helpless, confused and angry at God, whose existence she questioned in light of witnessing so much suffering. Agonized by her own feelings of sadness and emptiness, she took pen to hand and began to release the pain through writing about it. Her notebook became her confidante and comfort, and in it she purged herself of all the questions she had for God about everything. And this was before she even fully believed there was a God.

Fortunately for Ms. Brady and for millions of people who have read her books, somewhere along this journey she did begin to believe in a loving and protecting God. And frequently, when faith and hope emerge from ashes, life-changing choices and miracles start to occur. Turning her back on her long-term, financially-stable nursing position, Ms. Brady packed up all her belongings and drove to the west coast to pursue a writing career. With limited money and no clear plan for her new life, Ms. Brady traveled across the country and wound up renting a small apartment in San Diego. At this point, she had penned the manuscript of God on a Harley several years earlier. However, after submitting it to numerous publishers over a period of six years, she had received only rejection letters.

Ms. Brady was nearly destitute and doomed to be evicted from her apartment when God on a Harley was finally accepted by an agent, resulting ultimately in a $250,000 advance from a large publishing house. This was the start of Joan’s successful career as an author. In addition to having several books published in the United States, she has a huge readership internationally, particularly in Spain.

In spite of her obvious prestige as a best-selling author, however, Joan Brady is a self-professed “Jersey girl,” and I could tell that she says what she means and means what she says. Direct, honest, and self-effacing, Ms. Brady impressed me by relating to all the aspiring authors in the room, including me, letting us know that she has and still does experience the ups and downs of the publishing business. What a relief to know that even a highly-regarded author still struggles at times with writing, just like me.

It is not surprising that God on a Harley, which I am now halfway through reading, conveys the simple and timeless truths that we all forget in this world of money, power, and prestige. Namely, the beauty and significance of each person as a gifted and capable individual, worthy of self-respect and respect from others. Granted, I am not done reading the book, but I suspect the main character will learn how to see herself in a loving light, the same light in which God sees us.

Ms. Brady’s talk revealed something of her personality and attitudes, and I found them fully consistent with someone evolved enough to compose a book dealing with the spiritual. Put another way, she seems like a genuinely loving person. Ms. Brady shared with us that she writes from her heart, and I will remember that piece of wisdom forever, I hope. To me, that is when we are doing our very best writing, when the words come from our heart and soul. This is expressing something of God to others, I believe, and what could be better than writing for such a purpose?

I thank Joan Brady for being harmonious in her beliefs, attitudes, actions, and words. It is rare to meet someone with the love, maturity – and in Ms. Brady’s case, imagination and talent – to pull this off.