Month: May 2015

Writers Need Not Apply

Diane Owens Prettyman. "What I learned in the Kafka Museum in Prague."

Diane Owens Prettyman. “What I learned in the Kafka Museum in Prague.”

In the beginning . . .

The machine age began one Tuesday afternoon, when a Neanderthal in need of anger management therapy chopped off the corners of a granite square, then watched it roll downhill.

Human progress began.

Progress is a cross-dresser. It saunters onto the stage in a three-piece, $150 per yard serge suit – an animatronic that looks like everyone’s favorite actor. Or, politician. Or uncle. Sorry, Shakespeare. Tomorrow is on steroids. That petty pace no longer “struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more.” What we greet with applause, we watch in horror as it morphs everything in its path into redundancy.

The Immunity Theory

“We’re immune from industrialization,” writers have proclaimed through the ages. Yes, we’ve embraced new technologies. Quills, pencils, and typewriters gather dust in antique shops and while laptops hum, casting muted, flattering light on our faces. Machines are servants. Not masters.

No machine could replace us or experience what French philosopher and deconstructionist Jacques Derrida described as “the anguish that we can only say or write one word at a time, and to choose that word is to neglect thousands of words which might do as well or better.”

Safe from artificial intelligence. Until now.

On a recent edition of NPR’s Morning Edition, Stacy Vaneck Smith, a reporter for Planet Money, told what happened when an NPR reporter raced a machine to write the news of Denny’s earnings.

NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley finished in seven minutes. WordSmith took two.

Judge for yourself. Since you started reading this post, some diabolical engineer deep in the bowels of Automated Insights might be closer to perfecting the angst algorithm.

One more thought. Is that engineer human or computer?

Hairy, Harry, Diary, Dairy

click_clack_mooDyslexia is the functional word for the condition describing what happens when neurons take themselves too seriously.

I had dyslexia long before the lexiconists conjured a word with too many hidden vowels.

I’m undaunted by my condition. I love words. ’Fly’ is my favorite example of what happens when a verb impregnates a noun. The offspring don’t need a three-minute dissertation describing their function.

My mistakes have made memorable headlines. A morphed word or two can produce comedy or tragedy. When I see ‘police’ on a patrol car, I see ‘poultice’ — which might or might not be synonymous with a pleasant experience, depending on the ZIP code. Or the condition of your skin.

Writing Advice

Writers are urged to keep a dairy. My house isn’t zoned for one cow, let alone a herd.

Oh, you mean diary?

I see no difference. Dairy or diary – success involves three steps:

1. Arise at 4 am

2. Engage brain

3. Milk it

If I wanted a workaround for this little warp in my hard disk, I would keep a urinal.

The Body Part I Never Worried About Before


The back of my head.

I’ve only scrutinized this region in a salon – hair type, not literary. Specifically Salon Zinnia, where, just before she removes the bib as wide as Batman’s cape from my shoulder, Colleen, my stylist, hands me a mirror. Then, swings my chair around. If my hand’s not shaking from drinking too much free espresso, I can see layered scallops cascading south to the nape of my neck. Most important, my bald spot has disappeared, camouflaged.

“It’s not a bald spot.” Colleen will not let me disparage myself. “It’s a cowlick.”

Trust me, it’s a bald spot, a diabolical deforestation of my already-sparse woodlands.

I cannot replicate the camouflage. Each time I shampoo, I try to backcomb just as Colleen does, her hands whirring faster than hummingbird wings, almost the speed of light. Backcombing is not my strong suit. Most of my life I’ve been able to brush narcissistic ideas off – like the poor misguided hairs that commit suicide and land on my shoulders. I could care less about what the person behind me sees.

Now, said person behind me is a passenger. An Uber passenger.

With a nod to Seinfeld, as with Elaine’s conundrum with the sponge. I will not drive until I am Uber-worthy. Which means the bald spot must be invisible. Gone. Kaput.

I relish driving fun people around town. However, I’ve come face-to-face with a double standard I thought would never apply to me. Judgment from behind. I have joined the plight of lady lawyers. They must wear one pair of shoes while driving and another in the courtroom. Scruffy heels, seen from the jury box, have been known to affect the outcome of the case.

Bald spot and scruffy, stringy hair cannot be concealed. Unless you’re a man. With a baseball cap.

I have purchased a larger mirror I can get a better view of the back of my head, without wrenching my neck. This was working, until I accidentally held up the magnified side. Mirrors with magnified views should be illegal.

I’m spending too much time in the bathroom. I might just try the baseball cap, even if I risk losing 48 IQ points.

“Ditch dialogue qualifiers,” said the baboon, rapidly falling backward.

manga-heroQualifiers are like potholes in the road. They bump your readers off the hook.

Here’s a little story designed to inject humor into the lesson.

“Is that your Uber driver?”

Taken out of context, the question is straightforward. Banal.

Could be more exciting if the Uber driver in question were dressed in a zebra costume. Or, steering a Sherman tank.

I wish this had been the case.

It was not.

Repeat writing advice here:

“Never use dialogue qualifiers. They distract from the story.”

Now, continue the story.

Ok smarty, how do you flesh out “is that your Uber driver?”

Let’s try “Is that your Uber driver?” he asked, as the SUV sped past, flipped a U in the middle of the block and came back.

All right, action. Show me. Add depth to the characters.

“Is that your Uber driver?” The California Highway Patrolman asked Ivan, the hog farmer who was my 3:30 Uber fare. He told me about my brush with the law then we got into more important things.

Yes. Ivan raises Mangalitsa hogs. Just this morning, a sow gave birth to a dozen piglets, who will grow up to provide healthy, hearty organic meat. Ivan is moving to Napa to start an organic farm. He has friends in the highway patrol. The pigs will stay in Escondido.

I will never make a U-turn in the middle of the block again.

And never forget the pigs.


Mr. Internet, in 2014.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

Blame it on Tim.

Tim Berners-Lee invented the Internet. The Russians created the frenzy that spurred it to breed faster than a couple of guinea pigs. Remember Sputnik? Like a dozing curmudgeon, the US government opened a crusty eyelid, looked into space and conjured up a series of acronyms until settling on DARPA. Couldn’t let the Russians get the jump on us.

In the beginning IT was good, if you were an engineer, computer expert, scientist or librarian. My exposure to it occurred early one morning at the ad agency where I shared a cubicle swastika with the resident librarian, Jan Keiser.

Jan peered over the cube wall when she heard me arrive.

“Ask me anything.”

“Who was the youngest guy to sign the Declaration of Independence?”

I expected to have time to get my coffee before she answered. Instead, I heard a few seconds of tidy clicking on a keyboard.

“Edwin Rutledge.”

“How did you do that? I want to try.”

“You can’t. Too complicated.”

This got fixed. Fast. Nerds greased the on ramps to the Super Highway [yes, we called it that in the olden days, dear children] and spit out BOTs.

“How do we monetize this thing?” Inquiring venture-turned-vulture capitalists wanted to know. The Quicken Holiday Poll in 1998 that found 10 percent of Americans were planning to use the Internet to search for holiday gifts and look for sales and bargains.

Cut to 2015. Today’s marketeers profit from knowing almost everything about us. I won’t mention big bro. The living, breathing jet stream circling the Information Age makes billionaires in the morning and rips the hypocrisy veil off a two-faced politician before nightfall. It knows where we want to go, if we want to find old lovers, and what we do when we are bored. Once, just once for a joke, I googled ‘penis implant’.  It was as if my browser swallowed Viagra.

Popups took on a new meaning.

I find it ironic that with all the big data heating up Cloud farms, DoubleClick science hasn’t figured out that I am female.

Until now.

Margolds vs. Rows vs. Raid

BBUgI have no quarrel with insects. Fleas, ticks and those things that lurk in New York City hotel beds are the only creatures I would exclude from a guest list. The only stings I’ve experienced have been from discovering cheating lovers, not from any interaction with the back end of a bee.

Insects have risen to the top of the agenda, now that I have embraced the full spectrum of the organic garden. Is there an insect group that respects my efforts to raise tomatoes that won’t turn carcinogenic because their DNA was transmogrified with that of a zebra resistant to poison oak?

Oh God, in your most creative moment, why didn’t you come up with an Insectus Cannabis non-GMOtis configuration? Instead, you came up with Monsanto and Bayer, or was it the Other Guy, in which case, you made a big mistake. [I won’t get into your other missteps – war, bubonic plague and Texas.]

The cucumber beetle is another matter. A diabolical creature, ladybug malingerer, with an insatiable appetite for nascent cucumber plants; or, squash when the opportunity arises.

My local garden center, Lowe’s and Home Depot, offer rows and rows of chemicals genetically designed to kill whatever would interfere with my pre-pickles. Of course, I know the stuff works. After all, Monsanto helped de-forest Vietnam with Agent Orange. Why wouldn’t I entrust my garden to them?

Whispers of cancer is one reason, even though the issue is sidestepped by Monsanto Toxicologist, Michael I. Greenberg, M.D., MPH. He suggests that dosage be considered. I prefer not to take the risk. If there is the teeniest, weediest chance that stuff [that smells like decomposing ironweed laced with 2000-year-old vinegar] would give me cancer, I opt not to use it.

Weeds, I’ll handle – ‘handle’ as in pull them up with my left and then destroy with my right. If marigolds attract soldier Beetles that, in turn, are deadly to cucumber beetles, a carpet of marigolds will grace my garden.

So, if there must be war, let it commence with hand-to-weed, bug-to-bug combat in my garden.

Next step, dish soap, yellow Frisbees and surveillance cameras.

Politics and Pickles?

Cukes CullIt’s all about the cull.

“Once you have three leaves, cull the mound to only three.”

I’ve been a helicopter gardener, hovering over the little shoots, watching them shove the soil aside. Now, I am to decide who stays and who goes? Am I God?

Must I invite Mother Nature’s minions to march up and down my meager rows, brandishing thumbnail-sized placards, singing “Let It Grow” in their squeaky helium voices.

If I want pickles, I’ve got to bend down for the cull. I pulled the palest shoot up, and up and up and up. The little cuke’s root was well on its way to China. I couldn’t toss it aside so I stuck the little sucker into the corner of the pot. It’s still there.

Forget Machu Picchu . . .

“If I put one of our own into my mouth and don’t get a buzz, put me in the ground. No, don’t. I might sully the earth in my full form. Immolate me before the sun goes down.”

My grandmother’s declaration was uttered every 4th of July, just before the fireworks from the Rose Bowl lit up the Pasadena sky. They didn’t stop as she approached 70.

“Tomorrow, we pickle.”

These summer tomorrows were embedded in my youth. They were always the hottest days of the year. Every bit worth it, as not one dill pickle since has matched the experience I had after sneaking one from the Mason jar hidden in the rear of the fridge. [If you can’t see them, you might forget them.]

Some climb Everest. Some get PADI scuba certification. Some go to Machu Picchu. I yearn for that buzz on my tongue, that fizz just behind where my wisdom teeth used to be.

I seek the fizz.

I will pickle. I will raise the cukes myself. From scratch. There are issues with this. I’ve never grown anything. I don’t have a farm. The recipe is lost.

Someone gave me a pink T-shirt a few years ago, “Reality is no obstacle” spread across my décolletage. Undaunted, I don my garden gloves and press on.

Day One

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Sowed a few seeds. Didn’t know they had to be in planted in mounds. Guess they don’t want to get their feet wet. The seeds look like . . . seeds that appear like stars when a cucumber is sliced. Don’t know why I was surprised by this. What did I expect?

No room for ‘mounds’ or ‘hills’ so I did the best I could. In the spirit of optimism, I photocopied the seed package and printed out a little signpost. Just in case something happened.

Day Two

Monday, April 27, 2015

Don’t ask. Why would I go out at 9:00 pm and shine a flashlight on the little patch of soil. What did I expect? Removed the signpost. I know what’s in there. I can hear them.

Three little peeping pckes.

Three little peeping pickles

Day Seven

Saturday, May 2, 2015

I have pickle! Birth. One green leaf is poking up through the soil like an almost-born baby. I am in awe.

Day Eight

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Going to have to keep a diary . . . by the hour! I need another trip to the nursery for more pots. Just noticed these are climbers. Need a trellis.

I don't need red arrows!

I don’t need red arrows!

Stay tuned. This will take a while.

They’re B.A.C.K.


Last night, one jumped out of my granddaughter’s backpack. A second had to be freed from the zipper.

When I recognized what they were, it was like running into a best friend from second grade.

“Great. Cootie Catchers!”

“What’s a cootie?

Etymology rears its morphing head. This is personal. It stings, like the upper-two-digit birthday.

I explain the Zen of cootie.

“We don’t have them anymore. This is a Hippy Game. Just like you, Gammy.”

I will not take the bait. I will welcome to another Japanese invasion. First came anime, and then Kendamas popped up, now an origami revolution. It’s welcome because I haven’t seen a child bent over an iPhone or iPad lately. At least not while they’re on the playground.

“Want to play?”

“Of course.” I try to follow the rules of Improv. Always say ‘yes.’

“Pick a color.”


“R-E-D. Now, pick a number.”


Fingers flying. A swift count to eight.

“Choose another number, please.”

I chose three.

She gently pulled back the number-three flap. “Do you really want to know?”


“Next Tuesday you will take me on a cruise to Hawaii. If you don’t, your novel will be rejected.”

I suppose you could say it was a win-win scenario.