Saturday, April 23, 2016

"Christmas," from HOME IS WHERE...

         Now, Christmas was special. Dad would bring the boxes of lights and ornaments. They would get a real tree, and we would proceed to untangle the lights. When we finished, we said the same thing every year, "This is the best tree ever!"

         How every year this tree never went up in flames is a miracle because we had big, hot lights on all day. It is a wonder.

         I'm sad that I never took any of the Christmas ornaments and decorations from our home before Mom sold it. There were so many old decorations that Mom had put out year after year. I remember Dad bringing down from the closet the same big box that held all the decorations. The tree lights were always a tangled mess, because each year after Christmas we would be in a hurry to get done. We would just throw them in the box. The tinsel effect on the tree was similar. We would start putting on the tinsel one strand at a time, then get bored, and just start throwing it at the tree.

         My mom said her favorite Christmas song was "Silver Bells." Her favorite singer, Bing Crosby, whom everyone said our uncle Eddie resembled. Mom had one dressy dress she wore to every Christmas show at the school. It was black, long-sleeved, and had pearls on the front. She did not dress up too often, and neither did Dad, but when he did, he was very handsome.

         Another memory of Christmas is of Mom’s doing Christmas cards. She would devote the whole afternoon to this, doing 200 cards. Nobody does this now. We almost always got what we asked for: toys, games, and later, as we got older, clothes, jewelry, perfume, and records. One time we got diaries, but I didn't keep mine up.

         Christmas morning we would race to see what was under the tree, always lots, and Mom made sure we all got the same number of presents. One Christmas we asked for long-haired dolls. We got them. Mine had red hair. Nancy’s had blonde hair. Before anyone got up, we cut the hair. This is what we wanted them for, the hair, and boy did we get it. No, we were never hit, but we knew we had done wrong.

         Once shortly before Christmas, after Grandma had lain down to nap, the three of us got the closet key and went upstairs, got all the presents out, went into Doreen's room, unwrapped them, looked at them all, then rewrapped them, and put them back. It was the worst Christmas ever! We knew everything we were going to get and what we would not.

         There were always presents piled high---everything we asked for and sometimes things we didn’t. One Christmas, because I was afraid of the big pond, Santa brought me my own skating rink, only to have the neighborhood dogs run through it and ruin it before I could use it. We were so disappointed! I had to use my new skates on the “big pond,” but when I outgrew them, they had barely been used.

         We got new sleds, but preferred the long piece of tin with a curl in the front of it, from the old roof; it went like wildfire down the hill toward the railroad.

         It comes to mind when it was that I found out there was no Santa Claus. Aunt Jo and Uncle Connie were up for the holidays, and Mommy, Daddy, and the two of them were sitting around the kitchen table. We had gone to bed already. I got up to go to the bathroom; our room was across the hall from the kitchen. They didn't hear me open the door, and when I went out into the hall, Mommy was showing them the doll she had gotten me.

         I was confused, and I told Doreen.

         She said, "There is no Santa. It's Mommy and Daddy who will give us all of the presents."

         I remember I cried, but I didn't tell Nancy. It was great to still see the excitement in her eyes.


          We are serializing the memoir by Kathleen Blake Shields, Home is Where the Story Begins: Memoir of a Happy Childhood, published in 2015 by Outskirts Press, available from OP and online booksellers like and
         I am proud to have coached Kathy and to have edited her book. My writing-coaching-editing site is



Twenty-six years ago, the late Stephen R. Covey rocked the personal-growth and keys-to-success world with his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, a bestseller that made him famous.
Before detailing the 7 habits, Covey (1989, 2010) distinguished his approach from that of so many of his predecessors in the human-development field, men like Dale Carnegie, whose How to Win Friends and Influence People was itself highly popular and certainly influenced me in my youth.
Carnegie (1937, 2010) and many others emphasized a “Personality Ethic,” showing how to interact with others so as to make them like you and agree with you, techniques that can lead to promotion and popularity.
Covey’s review of the “success literature” of the prior two centuries convinced him “much of the success literature of the prior 50 years [post-W.W. I] was superficial….filled with social image consciousness, techniques and quick fixes…[but] left the underlying chronic problems untouched to fester and resurface time and again.”
This Personality Ethic had two branches: the skillful, sometimes deceitful, management of our public and private relationships and the maintenance of a positive mental attitude.
Covey stressed something very different, a “Character Ethic,” following the lead of such thinkers as nineteenth-century New England essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson who stated, “What you are shouts so loudly in my ears that I cannot hear what you say.” Covey urged “things like integrity, humility, fidelity, temperance, courage, justice, patience, industry, simplicity, modesty, and the Golden Rule.”
The Character Ethic taught that these virtues were necessary for meaningful, satisfying success. The inner determines the outer. “You can’t change the fruit without changing the root.” The Personality Ethic emphasized techniques designed to put on a successful show. People catch on to phoniness, usually, eventually. At the least, we ourselves know when we have not been authentic.
Covey chose to call his essential principles of successful living “habits,” following Aristotle, whom he quoted, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” He also quoted educator Horace Mann to the effect that habits are like a rope that is formed by the addition of multiple threads, our regular actions, making it strong.
Covey noted that habits combine the knowledge of what to do and why, with the skill and desire to do them. He then described the seven habits of highly effective people.

Habit 1: Be proactive. To succeed, you need to have vision and then to take action based on it. Who are you and what do you want to become? Visualizing your goals will help you reach them, as a compass tells us directions and a beacon draws us to it. The North Star served this purpose for ancient sailors. Knowing True North helps you find the route you need.
Who are you? Having a proper vision of ourselves is difficult. Are you what your genes dictated or what your parents inculcated or what your significant others have demanded? Covey cites author, psychiatrist, Holocaust-survivor Victor Frankl (2006), who wrote he realized in the Nazi concentration camp that he could choose how he viewed himself and his situation and thus how he would allow it to affect him. Four centuries ago, Shakespeare wrote, “for there is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” We can, we do, and we must, choose.
To succeed, we must anticipate, respond, and examine the results of our response to determine its suitability. How does this apply to writing and publishing your book? If you don’t know where you are going, you won’t get there.

Habit 2: Begin with the end in mind. Covey asked his readers to imagine attending their own funeral and ask themselves what they would like to be said about them in the eulogy. What would we want to be remembered for? How would we view our life in retrospect? In the shorter-run, we have projects we undertake that would prosper more fully if we started out with a clear idea of where we wanted them to end. Granted, some undertakings cannot have their outcomes clearly envisaged, but the end results become clearer as the efforts progress.
Without a clear picture of our goals, they are unlikely to be fulfilled. As Diana Ross sang,

 Do you know where you’re goin’ to?
 Do you like the things that life is showin’ you?
 Do you know?

 …Now looking back at all we’ve planned
 We let so many dreams just slip through our hands….
You want to write a book, a worthwhile book, one that helps others and helps you. That’s where you are going.

Habit 3: Put first things first. Set priorities and keep to your plan to meet them. Covey quoted the great Goethe, German writer and statesman and philosopher, “Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.” 
Covey asked us to identify one thing we could do regularly now, that we aren’t doing, that would make a great difference in our lives. He wrote that leadership is identifying what the “first things” are, and management is seeing that they get done. 
Self-management requires self-discipline, a result of exerting your will. Covey urged that we “organize and execute around priorities.” To help us, he focused on the urgent, that needing to be done soon, and the important, that contributing to our mission. Concentrate on those things that are important. Try to eliminate, or streamline, your efforts on the unimportant.
You have decided to write your book. Set aside the time and place to do it. Eliminate or at least minimize distractions. Do something to further the project every day.

Habit 4: Think win/win. Make your interactions with others such that both you and they come out ahead, the Golden Rule applied. Set incentives for your team such that cooperation is rewarded, interdependence promoted. In negotiations, aim for “win/win or no deal,” and avoid “win/lose,” where you benefit and the other does not. In a civil dispute, try to get something for both sides, and resist the temptation to “sue the bums.”
Giving in can be inappropriate if you find you have a pattern of “lose/win,” yielding when instead you should be sticking up for yourself. A lot of that will leave you resentful and an enabler of bad behavior by others.
Two egotistical types will often let a dispute devolve into “lose/lose,” the scorched-earth divorce behavior depicted in the 1989 film classic The War of the Roses, in which Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner wreck what each other values.
Personally, I tend toward “tit-for-tat,” or “what goes around comes around,” starting by being friendly rather than hostile. Christ taught us to “turn the other cheek,” accept injury, but even He drove the money-changers from the temple. Some offenses cannot be ignored.
Covey promoted “win/win or no deal,” putting the burden on both sides to take into account the legitimate interests of the other.
You will need the help of others in preparation, publishing, and promoting your book. Make sure their interests are served, too.

Habit 5: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Covey called communication “the most important skill in life.” That dovetails with his belief in the need for interdependence rather than independence. Reading, writing, talking, listening are the four major aspects of communication, and we are trained in all but listening. Often we advise before we understand.
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply….either speaking or preparing to speak….filtering everything through their own paradigms….” In truth, often “where you stand depends on where you sit,” what your situation is. Too often we project our view of the world onto what is really rather different. We see the world through the filter of our preconceptions, as the Bible says, “through a glass, darkly. “
Covey chided the father who told him, “I can’t understand my kid. He just won’t listen to me at all.” If you cannot understand your child, it is likely that it is you who has not been listening.  We need to listen with the intent to understand before insisting on being understood.
It has been said that communication is the heart of love.
Your book will reflect your ability to understand as well as your ability to communicate. “Seek first to understand….”

Habit 6: Synergize. Synergy is when “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Beneficial interactions take place. Creativity increases, as in group brainstorming to solve problems. Cooperation introduces new ways of accomplishing goals. Here, diversity pays off, through specialization, diversification, division of labor and cooperation.
As you plan and prepare your book, feel free to discuss it with others, either just the subject matter or the entire book project.

Habit 7: Sharpen the saw. To cut wood, sometimes it is more effective to take time out to sharpen the saw, rather than continue to labor with a dull blade. Similarly, in our lives in general, a certain amount of “balanced renewal,” Covey’s term, is needed: physical, social/emotional, spiritual, and mental. We “sharpen the saw” in these four areas when we exercise and eat more carefully, interact with others empathetically, study and meditate, read and write and plan. 
We invest and later spend. Because “the inner determines the outer,” self-improvement is of great value.

Some habits are worth acquiring. You will find these seven worth applying to your writing.


Excerpted from my WRITE YOUR BOOK WITH ME, published by Outskirts Press, available from OP and from online booksellers like and Ebook free on request from my site

Saturday, April 16, 2016

"Birthday Parties" from HOME IS WHERE THE STORY BEGINS


         When Nancy and I were about nine and eleven, this truck pulled up from Pop’s Cycle Shop with a brand-new bike for each of us, green for her, red for me. We were so excited. These were our best birthday presents ever.

         We had a big party for all three of us sisters one year, at three, five, and seven years old. All the cousins and friends attended. That was our only joint party. We got corsages for our 14th birthdays, corsages would dog biscuits on them. For our “sweet sixteen“ birthdays , we got corsages with 16 sugar cubes. I don't understand the dog biscuits.
         I don't remember who it was---perhaps Uncle Wes---who gave us finger paints for our birthday, but we didn't have them long. I guess we made a mess.
         Birthdays were always special. Nancy and I would take whatever little money we had uptown to the local five-and-dime store to pick out that special something for our dad, mom, grandma, or sister, whoever was a special person of the day. Many a figurine or some horrible-smelling toilet water was bought there. For Christmas, this was the store to go to for presents.

         On my 16th birthday we had a big dinner. Aunt Toddy and Uncle Bill were at the big table in the hall. I had just met Tom the night before, but I couldn't wait to tell Aunt Toddy about him and how he was so cute. Grandma called him my “beau.” 


It was said half-jokingly by the late sportswriter Red Smith, “Writing is easy: you just open a vein and bleed.” Hopefully, you’ll have an easier time.

My authors-to-be have given me their work in various forms: handwritten, typed, in computer files, and even over the phone as I interviewed them, later to be dictated by me into a computer file using Dragon Naturally Speaking speech-to-text transcription.

“How to write it?” means, in part, how come up with the ideas needed and how keep going when initial enthusiasm wanes?

Chandler Bolt in his Book Launch advises the writer to:

·      Fail first, then learn. Take action. Tweak your rough draft.
·      Be accountable to someone. Make and keep a commitment.
·      Take consistent action. Develop a “system” for your efforts.
·      Write a contract with yourself.
·      Remind yourself why you are writing a book: reputation, money and leads for business, growing your network, pushing your passion project…even saving the world or the community.

Bolt swears by the following simple system for generating the content and writing your book:

·      Mind-map. Put your subject at the center and then dream up topics that connect to it, like a spider web.

·      From the mind-map entries, develop an outline.

·      From the outline, write a first draft, without correcting it significantly until you have reached the end, and give yourself a due date for reaching that end.

·      For each chapter, put yourself on the clock. For example, mini-mind-map for 12 minutes, outline for 12 minutes, write for 90 minutes.

·      Eliminate distractions. Turn them all off.

·      Write in the morning, first thing.

·      Establish a writing pattern: time and place, consistently.

·      Remember that “done is better than perfect,” or as the French say [in French, naturally], “the best is the enemy of the good.” Your book will never be perfect, and your readers do not expect perfection.

·      Get help with editing: content editing to make sure the subject is covered well, copy editing to make sure there are few if any spelling or grammatical errors, etc.

     I started writing my memoir by listing on the left-hand side of the page each year from my birth year, 1942, to the then-current year, 2011. I made notes about things that happened to me, and sometimes in the world at large, by each year. Faint memories became sharper, as one thing suggested another. Leave more room than you expect to need. Scrapbooks helped, too. Overnight, I kept a pad and pen by my bedside and would jot notes down as memories surfaced. Googling places and historic events brought them back more forcefully. These tactics worked.

     As the Nike sportswear ads urge, “just do it.” Put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, or even dictate it…as I am doing for much of this book.

“If you build it, they will come;” ideas, that is…readers will need some cajoling. 

If you sit down and either do nothing or write something, you’ll write.


Excerpted from my recently published Write Your Book with Me. 

Free ebook version available through my site

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Artie: A Mystery, in HOME IS WHERE...

         One summer, Artie, an Army buddy of Dad's, came for a visit with his wife. They lived in Long Island. They stayed a few days, and when they left, they asked if Doreen and I wanted to go for a week. We did.

         There was a giant rock in our yard, one of many. Dad and Artie dug it up and somehow got it into the trunk of the car, but down went the back of the car! Almost to the ground. The car scraped the road all the way to Long Island.

         Let me tell you, this was one miserable week. She was mean, and their son didn't want anything to do with us. Every day he would walk us to the day program in the park and leave us on our own. We had no lunch or drinks. I remember it was so very hot, and when we would come back, his mom was drunk. We hadn’t known she was an alcoholic, nor did Mom or Dad. For us, it was eat a sandwich and off to bed. We couldn’t wait for the next Saturday to come. When we got home, they told Mom and Dad about all the fun we had. I guess they mistakenly thought we wouldn’t say anything.

         We didn't see Artie again until about 1968. He came alone. I believe his wife had died. He loved Grandma Blake, and while he was with us, there was music playing, so he got Grandma to dance, which she loved. As he spun her around and around, she had a smile all over her face, until she fell and broke her hip. This was the start of Grandma's decline, and a little more than a year later she passed away.

         As for Artie, we didn’t see or hear from him again until about a year after Grandma died. He visited with his new wife and then never again.

         We even called Artie when Dad got sick, thinking he would come, but he never came, nor even called. I don't know what happened to him. That was Dad's only close friend, a buddy from World War II. It was sad. He never got back to us. I don’t know the reason for this. Perhaps he felt guilty about Grandma’s injury.

         Something Nancy told me recently, that I didn't know, was in regard to Daddy's war buddy, Artie. I thought he had never let us know that he knew of Daddy's death, but Nancy said he came afterwards and stopped by Aunt Emily's house to find out where Dad was buried. I don't know why he went to Aunt Emily's; maybe Daddy and he stopped by there one time when Artie was up, but this makes it even more of a mystery as to why he never came while Daddy was sick or came to the funeral or the wake. Some people cannot handle such situations.


We are serializing Kathleen Blake Shields's delightful book, Home is Where the Story Begins: Memoir of a Happy Childhood, published last year by Outskirts Press and available from OP and from online booksellers like and  I am proud to have coached Kathy and edited her book. Please visit my site,

Sunday, April 3, 2016

"Texas Trips...Summers," in HOME IS WHERE THE STORY BEGINS

         As I write, I remember more and more, and one thing I was thinking about was the plane trip we took to Texas to Aunt Lorraine and Uncle Eddie's house. We didn't know them at all, only by letter, and we were seven and nine years old, going by ourselves.

         When I saw the big plane and the engines started, I cried, but I got on. The stewardess came around to us, and seeing how scared I was, she asked if I wanted to help pass out napkins. Back then the airline passengers got a full meal. I, of course said yes. After the meal, a woman traveling alone said, "sit with me." I only found out afterward that this was the actress Nanette Fabray. I still remember her white sundress with big red strawberries on it.

         We stopped and changed planes in Chicago, met by a friend of Uncle Eddie's. He stayed with us until we boarded. This trip lasted eight hours, a long day.

         We would go all day, non-stop, only breaking once in a while for lunch with Dad and Grandma, to hear some railroad stories of the day and listen on the radio to the “Sage of the Shongums,” as he was known locally. Then we were off again to find some fun, which was easy.

         There were many things to explore, including the so-called “Haunted House” next door, where we would go for our daily scare and try once again to open the safe that had been left behind in what used to be an office. Then we would go off to the barn behind the house to see the skeleton of a dead dog. This was finally enough, so both of us would go home.

         Down at the end of the yard was the old barn cellar, which our father was using as a dump, as had his ancestors. We would find things we thought had been lost only to realize that Dad had thrown them out. We’d joyfully bring our treasures back home much to Dad’s horror.

         Nancy and I would go to Aunt Emily's with Grandma in the summer on Fridays. We had fun there. Uncle Ralph had a huge garden and pets. One was a fox named Jenny. You couldn't touch it; it was mean. I don't know where it came from or what happened to it.

         Before we had a pool, we went down to Aunt Lila's to swim in the home-made pool fed by the stream. Boy, was that cold! Of course it had snakes, frogs, and crayfish in it, but it still felt good on a hot day.

         Daddy's brother, Uncle Ed, lived across the street. He had one daughter, Dorothy, but we didn't see much of them. Aunt Mickey, Dad’s sister, had two boys, much older than we were. We would see them when they would come to see Grandma and, otherwise, once in a while. Aunt Mickey and her second husband, Uncle Denny, would take us for a ride; that was nice because we liked to go.

         Grandma's eldest daughter had one child, a girl, Althea, but we hardly ever saw that family. I don't even remember where they lived.

         At the top of the hill under the big tree it was moss-covered. We would lie there in the sun for hours. Many years later, I wrote a poem remembering these days:
When I was young and feeling free,
I'd love to go to my favorite tree,
Across the road and up the hill,
Where the sun was hot and the air was still.
There I lay for hours on,
Never caring where time had gone.
Now I'm older and reminisce,
But these are the times I dearly miss.

         They were great times! Some days we would pack a lunch, buy a soda, and have a picnic. We always found things to do, alone or with the others. The boys next door would put on puppet shows and charged two cents to attend. You got some raw green beans, too.

         We would also go on treasure hunts. We thought once we had found gold. We were excited to think that we were rich. We brought it home for Dad to see, only to be told, “That‘s fool‘s gold.” We were really sad.

         We were also looking for arrowheads, but I don't think we ever found any. Nancy and I loved to go exploring and frog catching in the stream by the Y playground. We would always let the frogs go. You could go through the Y playground, over the stream, through Mrs. Glocker's grape vineyard, and next by the body shop, and on over the hill to the house. One summer we had a job picking rocks from the grape vineyard. We got $0.50 for the day and all the grapes we could eat.

         One summer, Mommy bought us a tent. We decided we were going to stay in it all night. It was Nancy, me, and our two cousins. We bought chips, soda, candy, and made sandwiches. We got all our blankets, pillows, and went to bed after eating. We lasted until it got really dark and we heard strange sounds. I don't think we even packed up. We just ran right up to Grandma. That was the end of that idea.

         Around 1960, Mommy got us our first big pool, 4 feet deep, and we took advantage of that. We spent many hours in it, as it had a deck all around it. In 1963, Doreen was in the Miss Montgomery contest. She would practice walking around the deck of the pool in her heels and swimsuit. She came in third.

         We spent summers trying to get a tan. One summer, 1964, someone told me to put on baby oil. We didn't have any, so the closest thing I could find was Vaseline hair tonic. I got one major sunburn and a lot of pain. Two days later was the last day of school. I was beet red with blisters, a lesson learned for sure.

         One summer Nancy put a product in her blonde hair, and when she went in the pool, it turned it green; for a long time she was called “Sally the green-haired turtle." Nancy was also called "Uncle Wes." She was a poor sport at losing in games, and would either storm off or drop the board game, much the same as he would, according to Dad.

         I wrote of the trip to Texas by Doreen and me one summer when Nancy and I were nine and 11. We also went to New York City to spend a week with a friend of Mommy’s, Ronnie Ryan, a beautiful, slender woman with long, red hair, a pageboy haircut with a bang over one eye (like Veronica Lake), sunglasses, red lipstick, slacks, and white blouses always and flats. We hated the visit and cried the first night, it was so hot in her apartment; we even claimed the mashed potatoes were awful. She took us to Central Park, Rye  Playland, and shopping, We stayed for a week, coming and going by bus.

         We loved it when Ronnie came to visit. We would watch her clean her face with Pond’s face cream and get ready to go uptown to the local hangout. My mother and father said people would ask "When is Ronnie coming up again?"

          We are serializing Kathleen Blake Shields's delightful memoir, Home is Where the Story Begins; Memoir of a Happy Childhood.  Published by Outskirts Press and available from OP and from online booksellers like and, the memoir tells of growing up in tiny Maybrook, NY, in the 1950s and 1960s.
         I am proud to have coached Kathy and edited her book. You are invited to see my site,