Good times at Little Lake

I was at the opening night of the 66th season of Little Lake Theatre in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, last night. The rain had cleared out  temporarily, the dusk sky was brilliant, and the air was crisp. It was May 1, and May is a happy month.

I hadn’t planned to go. But I am on the theater’s email list, and in the middle of the afternoon I got email saying that the play that kicks off the season is based on a 1910 German farce about a young bride whose life is changed when she experiences a wardrobe malfunction during a parade for the king.

It was written by Steve Martin (yeah, that guy).

What kind of fool would turn that down? Not me.

As I waited for the play to start, in a seat  about four feet from the stage, I thought that  theater must be one of the driving passions of humanity. Food, shelter, sex, theater.Screen shot 2014-05-02 at 9.00.11 AM

I can imagine our cave-dwelling ancestors gathering together to watch a show or hear a story. They  might have been tired, or sick, or cold.  But at the end of the day, they want someone to connect the dots and touch the heart. So do we.

At the end of the day, the people who put on plays could be doing something else. They have jobs, they have lives. They could watch cable or play computer games, or do dozens of other things that do not involve putting themselves out on the line. Their audience could be elsewhere, too.

From the playbill:

The playwrights now how to capture our attention and, for two+ hours,  transport us to places that connect the dots, engage our hearts, nourish the spirit and prompt us to laugh out loud when we least expect it.

“We are hard wired for story,” writes Jonathan Gottschall, a Washington and Jefferson professor and author of a terrific book:  The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Storytelling, he says, is one of our survival skills.

Little Lake’s 2014 season includes eleven plays.



Shopping at Ruthfred: an update


Well, the bank is gone. It just packed up and left a couple months ago.

I am sorry about this because Ruthfred Acres Shopping Center ought to have a bank.  This place—dating from the 1940s—is western Pennsylvania’s first strip mall. In 2009 I wrote a blog called Shopping at Ruthfred (where?). It was one of the most popular things I ever posted. I figured it was time for an update.

Without seeing Ruthfred, it is hard to visualize how tiny it  is. You could walk from one end of it to the other in about a minute. Yet in that minute you would pass a grocery store, a three-story hardware store (it had to expand vertically), a deli, a dry cleaner, a pharmacy, and the offices of a lawyer and a primary care doctor.

The pharmacy  is new. The old place, O’Briens, had always the look of a business waiting to be sold. Last year the business was taken over by a local chain called Spartan Pharmacy. The place is light, warm, and inviting—not an easy look for a drugstore to pull off.

At the front are an overstuffed couch and comfortable chairs. More candles for sale in proportion to its size than I have ever seen in any drugstore. One line of candles is made by a company called A Cheerful Giver. Burt’s Bees are there. So is Sarris candy.

The primary care doctor next door to Spartan happens to be mine, which is how I found Ruthfred in the first place. (An insurance change necessitated a change in doctors.)  Although she practices thoroughly modern medicine, her office is plain. Friendly and welcoming, but plain. Her office has imbued character from its surroundings.

The last time I was there, my doctor mentioned that when the deli next door makes macaroni and cheese, everyone can smell it cooking through the wall. This is Ruthfred. “You  can talk to me” this office says. “This is life.”

I hope my doctor is never forced to move to an isolated healthcare citadel—a place a sane person would flee from. No one in all of Ruthfred’s history has ever wanted to flee from it. I would bet money on this.

In 2o12, Ruthfred Market won a Tribune  Reader’s Choice Gold Award for “favorite grocery store.”

Contemplation time

It is snowing at Writer’s Rest, and the first snow of the season has started to fall for real in southwestern Pennsylvania, which is being sideswiped by the big storm in the Midwest that is heading to Canada. This often happens to us. We are far enough west to catch the storms that brew out there while being far enough east to avoid direct hits at least most of the time.

Yesterday the rain was positively biblical. Torrents, buckets, wind whipping. If I were the kind of fool who believed the end of the world was imminent, I would have taken that fury for a sign.  I was grateful to be under a roof that did not leak because it was easy to imagine how it was to be out in that wild world last night.

(The internet connection did not go out, though it was reasonable to think it might. People who fantasize about a bodiless existence in cyberspace forget that the internet exists in the same world we do, with the weather and all.)

It’s time to be grateful for heat, shelter, and comfort, rather than assume these things are our rights. I have some beeswax candles in the freezer. It’s  time to light one.

This time of year I feel the exact opposite of the way I am supposed to feel. I don’t mean melancholy (though melancholy is a part of it — one reason A Charlie Brown Christmas is popular year after year). I mean wanting to be quiet. It is a dark month in a dark season. For many thousands of years before Christianity, people fought against it by celebrating the return of the light.

Now there are Christmas trees and festivals of light, and decorations. These are new forms for a very old celebration.

Images of Christmas and Yule feature snow, which quiets the landscape and makes travel difficult or impossible. That is a hard bad thing for people traveling but a rich thing for the rest of us and for the travelers, too, when they get where they are going. The warmth inside and cold outside inspire contemplation and rest. And both those things are right.

I have a primitive relationship to the Yule season.


What quiet times define the season for you?

Interview with a good writer: Pamela H. Harrison

My cousin Pamela Harrison recently published her first book, a young adult suspense novel titled Eyes of the Game. Part detective story and part psychological drama, it centers around a college girl, Megan Powell, who is kidnapped by her ex-boyfriend. Among other things, it is about obsessive love, game playing, and the perils of being too nice.

Eyes of the Game is a quarter finalist in the 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest.

My cousin’s journey to publication is all the more impressive considering that she made it with two children under age three.

She found time—I don’t know how she found it—to do an interview for Writer’s Rest. Enjoy.

The author at home

How did you get Eyes of the Game ready for publication while also taking care of a one-year-old and a two-year-old?

I have a wonderful, very computer literate husband, who helped me through the whole technical process (including punctuation; semicolons are not my friends).

Who are your readers?

My book is for older young adults, but I think it has crossover appeal for adults, too. I list it as Mature YA on Amazon, and that is because it deals (sometimes graphically) with the dangers of stalking and obsessive love.

How did you come to write this novel?

Writing has always been cathartic for me. When I started Eyes, I had lost my dad, broken up with my fiancée, and had been fired from a very bad writing job (where they kindly told me “I wouldn’t trust you to write a letter”). So I didn’t write a letter; I wrote a book.

Everyone has had a bad breakup. Love, or whatever is masquerading as love, makes people do insane things.  I was hurt. I was angry. I think I wanted a place where I could control what happened. It didn’t work that way. I felt like an observer as I wrote Eyes. I saw what happened and didn’t always like what I saw, but I wrote it down and got lost in it.

Why did Megan’s ex-boyfriend resort to kidnapping her? What went wrong?

Erik has backstory, which I edited out. His mother died in the hospital when he was very young, after promising him she would come back to him. His father had no interest in raising a son. From an early age, Erik felt abandoned and betrayed. He fights those feelings by trying to always be in control. When Megan tells him thereis hope that she will come back to him, he doesn’t really believe it, but he thinks this time he can get what he wants by forcing it.  It doesn’t justify what Erik did, but it does help explain it.

The setting is rural Pennsylvania. What role does setting play in the novel?

Forests are amazing—the astounding beauty, the quiet, the feeling of being very much alone while at the same time being so surrounded.You can go twenty feet from a lighted house into a forest at night and the darkness will swallow you up. I wanted my setting to convey the isolation of the forest along with its primal fears, to pull my audience into the terror Megan feels as she runs, not just from Erik but from everything around her.

Was any part of Eyes especially fun to write?

The scene below. I love its If only…moment. You can feel the desperation in Erik as he begs Megan to tell him the truth.

“I love you, Megan,” he’d told her, and he meant it. Every string, every fiber, every cell in his body told him how much he loved her. But she’d just seemed sad. She didn’t say the words back. “But you don’t love me?” he’d asked, needing to know the truth more than he’d ever needed it before.

Lashes damp with tears, she didn’t, couldn’t look at him, but her answer gave him what he needed, what he craved, a whisper of hope. “I don’t know,” she’d said. Three words that sealed her fate.

What were your most cherished books when you were growing up?

Yum! so many… I read Little Women so often in the bathtub that I need to have it rebound, Chronicles of Narnia, Half-Magic, Gone with the Wind, Encyclopedia Brown, anything by Lois Duncan. The late Robert Cormier was a YA master. I still happily re-read The Great Brain and All of a Kind Family. I am a huge fan of Thomas Perry. Right now, I am devouring the Game of Thrones series. I am never sated when it comes to books!

Links to Eyes of the Game:

Kindle edition

Print edition






fall trail

A post originally from October 19, 2010:

I’m not wealthy, but when I walk out my front door I feel rich. The main reason is Arrowhead Trail. It is part of a rails-to-trails project that one day will lead all the way to Washington, DC. Georgetown, I think, is where it will end.

Go down the trail head, and you are in another space entirely: forested, quiet, restful. The trail swings by a magnificent Arabian horse farm. You can look up the hill and see the backs of houses, but the trail is trees, brush, wildflowers, forest scents, big sky, one foot in front of the other—just walking. Once a red fox ran in front of farm

I’ve seen people with iPods and cell phones on the trail, which seems daft. These things turn attention inward, away from physical reality. Why would anyone want to shut out Arrowhead Trail, especially while walking on it?

When weather forces me indoors to the track at the local community center, 30-40 minutes is all I can stand unless I have company. The boredom gets unbearable. But as well as I know the trail, I am never bored and can walk easily for an hour.

On a pretty weekend day, the trail is crowded. Once I saw three generations of a family on a triple-tandem bike, also a woman exercising her miniature palomino horse. (It trotted along very nicely on a lead.) On the trail there is no winning or losing. It’s a mercy.

There’s a Walgreens going up near the local shopping center, at an intersection already traffic-saturated, across the street from a CVS. No one would care if Walgreens changed its mind. But if Arrowhead Trail stopped being Arrowhead Trail, we’d edge a bit closer to the other kind of poverty—the kind not measurable in money. Walking on Arrowhead Trail is good for body and soul.

Last week around six a neighbor knocked on my door. “My husband’s home from work and he’s watching the kids,” she said. “Let’s walk.”

Art / Life / Brownsville

It is not likely that you know that on August 8, 2011, in Brownsville, Pennsylvania, the following event was held:

The Market Street Academy & Performing Arts Center, 33 Market St., is forming a resident theater company, the Market Street Players. Auditions will be held today from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. for actors, stage managers and technicians. The theater manager and director is Ernest Watson, a veteran of dinner theater productions in the region. Applicants should bring a resume of theater-related experience. There will be cold readings from scripts under consideration for production, but it’s also suggested that actors also bring a prepared audition piece.

The e-newsletter put out by the Greater Brownsville Chamber of Commerce (“the town with a past and a future”) also had this note about the Tiger Maple String Band:

The final free concert in the Mon Valley Music on the Mon series is Aug. 21 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on the lawn of Nemacolin Castle, 136 Front St. Headlining the last show is the Tiger Maple String Band from northwestern Pennsylvania, which is dedicated to preserving traditional and old time music. Focused on Appalachian heritage, the music list features fiddle tunes, mountain ballads, murder ballads, coal mining songs and originals . For a sound bite:

What the Market Street Players do is work. The Tiger Maple String Band did not just happen. It would be easier—so much easier—to stay home and watch TV, surf the internet, and play Angry Birds. Why make the effort?

Why write a story? Play a musical instrument? Sing? Act? Draw, paint, sculpt? Do anything but earn a paycheck and then spend it? A community without people doing the work of art would be a community deeply impoverished and not quite human. Why is that?

Anyone with answers, please comment. :-)

Time for an ereader

It is a bit of a joke that although I wrote a novel that is available as an ebook, I do not yet have an ereader. At first I did not want one, and still don’t for most of the reading I do, but there is too much good stuff out there in ebook format, cheap and widely available.

Also, I am taking a vacation this summer and want to take books with me.

So I decided on . . .

The Barnes & Noble NOOK Color. I am going out to get it today. Yes, in person and for real, at the last non-used bookstore standing in my part of the world: a large and handsome Barnes & Noble. There are no bookstores in my township. In fact, I do not believe there are any bookstores in my county.

There used to be a Borders not far from Barnes & Noble, but you know what happened to Borders.

When liquidators took over the store and sold off the inventory, I would not go in there. I did not want to remember that likable store that way.

But back to the Nook

I choose the NOOK Color after the usual research plus a conversation in email with my brother the programmer.  I told him I had looked at the iPad. He remarked pointedly:

Something to keep in mind with technology purchases in general is that whatever you buy will be obsolete in a couple years (or less), and if you suspect that you’ll want to be upgrading down the road to whatever is coming, it doesn’t pay to overpay now for something you’ll be throwing out at some foreseeable point.

The NOOK Color provides full email functionality plus web browsing for about half the price of an iPad. Unlike a Kindle, it enables me to borrow ebooks from a library. It does what I want it to do.

It is stating the obvious to say that Kindle books are locked out of the Nook. No Amazon app is available and none ever will be (unless hacked). The way you read a Kindle book on the Nook is download it to your computer, run it through a conversion program such as Calibre, and transfer it to the Nook via USB.

However, this is more a theoretical than an actual drawback, and I dismissed it.

The BN staffer who demonstrated the Nook to me did a cool thing: downloaded a copy of my novel to the demo device. Now, everyone who walks into that BN store and asks to see the NOOK Color will see a thumbnail of Cel & Anna at the bottom of the start screen. (Hint to salespeople: if you want to be successful, talk to the buyer like a person. I am driving back out to that store today to buy locally.)

My brother liked it that the Nook is built with Android technology because he thought it signaled a bright future for the Nook apps.

He also said, “If you decide to root your Nook you’ll be raising your hacker cred. :-)  Just don’t brick it.”

What did he mean by this? Answer is here.