Overheard This Week

 You don’t realize how hard you bite until you bite your own tongue.

I overheard this comment in the produce section of my grocery store recently. Two women were talking in front of the daily free sample: glistening red strawberries proffered in little white cups. Given that they were laughing, I assumed the comment was reflective rather than indicative of recently inflicted pain.

Biting my tongue made me think of biting back words, and that led me to contemplate the power we yield with our words, both those spoken and those written. I’m familiar with that power as a writer and as a reader too. It’s clear when the words in a particular passage lift me up or bring me down. The simple prose of a story or a poem can, and has, moved me to tears.

But we rarely contemplate the power of our spoken words. Since I overheard this comment right when Anthony Bourdain died of suicide, I was struck anew by that potential power and how blind we can be to it. We all know the pain of being on the receiving end of someone’s anger, but even a thoughtless brush off or a snarky put-down could, quite literally, mean the end of the world to someone. Conversely, a loving comment or a few words of praise might be enough to raise someone up from a very dark place.

It just so happened that a few days after I overheard those words, I was finishing up a rather arduous clean up and pruning job on the front garden. I wasn’t in a particularly dark place, unless you counted the dirt on my hands and knees. As I stood surveying the results of my work, the neighbor wandered over. She stood there for a few minutes chatting and then she said, “You know, this looks just amazing. You did an absolutely fabulous job.” I smiled and thanked her. As I went inside to wash my hands and pour a glass of water I realized I was glowing. Sweat from the hours of labor? A hot flash? Relief at having tackled that particular chore? No. The glow came from the power of what she said to me.

You don’t realize the sweetness of a few simple words until you’re the unexpected recipient of them.

Words . . . they have far more power than we give them credit for.

Overheard This Week

You’ve lost weight.

Thank you.

Word for word and overheard last weekend. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out who was speaking and in what context. I was in a dressing room desperately shopping for The Dress That Will Live Forever when a couple of women crowded into the changing cubicle next to me. Within seconds they were discussing their respective appearances; in particular, their weight.

If you think about it, you’ve lost weight is a statement, not a compliment. Yet if you’re like many women living on this blue planet, you’d probably take it as a compliment. A compliment, however, is an act of praise or admiration. In that context, the unsaid part of that exchange is that the woman being spoken to, the one who has apparently lost some weight, is being complimented because she’s more attractive now that she’s thinner (there’s a wealth of politics in that assumption but that’s another blog so I won’t go there).

Given the volume at which the two women were speaking, I can guarantee I wasn’t the only one who heard their exchange. And I’ll bet I wasn’t the only one relieved to have her naked jiggling flesh firmly behind closed cubicle doors where no well-intentioned friend might feel the need to comment on it.

You can never be too rich or too thin. It was the Duchess of Windsor who coined that famous phrase, and it’s an attitude that’s been, for many of us, absorbed into our psyches. Certainly if I wrote a scene with two women in a dressing room and I used those same words, even without context, most readers would jump to the same conclusion and take them as a compliment. They wouldn’t think anything of it.

But if I used the words you’ve lost weight in a scene set in a doctor’s office, or during a visit from a hospice nurse, and if I made my characters come alive in a way that demonstrated they weren’t obsessing about their appearance, hopefully the reader would draw a far different conclusion. A twenty pound weight loss to someone with a heart condition or diabetes could mean health instead of illness. A ten pound weight loss to a pregnant woman could portend trouble ahead. A mere five or even a three pound weight loss to someone who is terminal could mean their life is winding down. The response in a scene like that would probably go from a shallow thank you to a deeper what does that mean? Or even what do we do now?

My mother-in-law died in late March. Having been there while she slowly faded over a period of months, steadily losing weight and unable to swallow at the very end, the words you’ve lost weight came to have a significance beyond appearance to me. Bones need flesh to cover them; without it, we suffer tremendously. Trust me on that. Of course I’m still happier keeping my naked jiggling flesh behind closed cubicle doors. Except now when I catch sight of those jiggling bits in the mirror I’m not so quick to judge. I look at all that padding . . . padding that protects my bones and makes my life comfortable . . . padding that’s a testament to the fact that I carried two brilliant children for nine months (and enjoyed a few too many pieces of carrot cake in the process) and I say a silent thank you. You’ve lost weight means something quite different to me now . . . and that’s not such a bad thing.

Overheard This Week

“I hope you guys are in school because this really isn’t the kind of career type job I like to see people in.”

So said a customer at the local bottle depot where my son, now known as the Graduate (AKA Teen Freud or The Basement Dweller), has worked part-time sorting and stacking bottles since he was in high school. Amazingly (and I use that word deliberately because he’s not known at home for his diplomacy) the Graduate  smiled, nodded politely and waited for the woman to take her bejewelled self back to her Mercedes before letting loose with a rant to his co-workers about judgement and expectations and class systems.

With his undergrad degree freshly in hand, the Graduate will likely make a job switch at some point over the coming months. But so what if he doesn’t? What if he decides he wants to stay where he is or open a bottle depot of his own? What if he was like a former co-worker who chose the job because he was a photographer (his passion) during off hours but the bottle depot provided a steady salary? Or his single mother co-workers who find the work, though dirty and often unpleasant, reliable and well-paying, especially for a job that doesn’t require post-secondary education.

Why do the jobs we do, the Graduate asked, inspire so much judgement? Why indeed.

That got me thinking about some of the jobs I assign my fictional characters. The mother character in In Plain Sight is an artist and predictably absentminded when she’s lost in her painting. The father is a terrorist and in jail so I went out of the box there. But in The Art of Getting Stared At, the main character’s parents are a doctor, an airline pilot, and a model respectively. In Girls Who Dish, my latest Laura Tobias title, the main characters are a restaurant owner and a lawyer, though I do throw in an accountant with a Shirley Temple obsession.

Sometimes characters and plot reveal the best choice of career or job to further our stories. You need a detective in a whodunit, for example. But Agatha Christie’s  Miss Marple was an elderly spinster and a most unlikely detective, something Christie used to her advantage.

So the next time I’m considering character careers, I’m going to forget the doctor or the teacher or the artist or the politician (especially the politician). I’m going to look for something fresh. How about a timeshare seller or a spider researcher or a cello maker or an otter technician for the Department of Conservation? Or  a chimney sweep . . . letter carrier  . . . judo instructor . . . dialysis tech . . . FAA tower controller . . . exterminator . . . glass blower . . . Christmas Around the World salesperson . . . preschool dance teacher?

So many jobs . . . I’d better get writing.

But first I’m heading out to get a t-shirt printed for the Graduate and his co-workers. I want it to read: Recycling Equipment Engineer . . . and proud of it.

Overheard This Week

140474989I attended a book launch one night last week. Instead of being a participant, I was a supporter and observer. It was a fun change! I had a chance to mingle and talk with other writers, editors, and a few marketing types. The refreshments were great, the surroundings (Munro’s Books) were delightful, and the crowd was supportive. Best of all were the readings from half a dozen new books.

Except. There was a moment.

I was tucked up around a stack of books chatting with an editor. It was moderately quiet, or as quiet as it can be when the room is full of chatting people. But we were apart from the crowd. After a few minutes, though, a couple of women stopped to chat on the other side of the book stack. They couldn’t see us and we couldn’t see them, but their words were clearly audible. And as you’d expect at an event that celebrates books, they were talking about literature.

“You’d think kid lit would be so over it by now,” said one woman to the other. “Honestly, I can’t stand it.”

Given that I write kid lit and the editor I was chatting with edits books for a variety of age groups, we stopped talking to listen.

“I know,” the second woman replied. “It’s so damned depressing. If I read one more sick lit book I’m going to gag myself with a stethoscope. I’d rather read about happy childhoods instead of miserable ones.”

I’m sure I blushed. I felt like I did. And I’m pretty sure some pink hit the editor’s cheeks too.

Sick lit – books that deal with children and teens facing an illness of some kind – have proliferated for three or four years at least. And I’ve written more than one.

It would be lovely if childhood was rainbows and white puppies. If the only misery kids faced was a sprained ankle, a bad mark on a test, or not enough money for a trendy pair of jeans. But that’s not always the case. And until ‘sick lit’ came along, kids and teens who were ill weren’t well-represented in literature.

The best books of the subgenre, if I can call it a subgenre, illustrate how young people grapple with some pretty bleak situations. They show characters digging deep, learning to cope, struggling to hold onto the essence of who they are in spite of their illnesses. Readers who’ve been through something similar in their own lives may feel empowered, not so alone. Readers who haven’t may gain some understanding into how illness is often one of life’s big game changers. Some of the books end in heartbreak, that’s true, but others end on a hopeful note. Kind of like life itself: sometimes things work out and sometimes they don’t and to pretend otherwise is to act like we live on a planet where the sun always shines, the temperature is a perfect 25 degrees and no one sweats. It’s not real. Life is sometimes crappy and it’s not always fair, and it’s okay for some of our books to reflect that.

Don’t get me wrong: there’s a place for light, escapist fiction and for positive, upbeat stories (I’m releasing a frothy, fun read later this month under my Laura Tobias name). But there’s also a place – a need – for books that deal with heavier subjects too.

Karen Rivers https://twitter.com/karenrivers has one coming out in March of 2017 and I can’t wait to read it. It’s called LOVE,ISH. Here’s what Kirkus Reviews said about it: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/karen-rivers/love-ish-rivers/

Sick lit exists because sick kids exist. They’re not going away any time soon. And it’s okay if they show up in our books once in a while.

Overheard This Week


140474989It would be a great place to work if it wasn’t for all the raids.

Was I in a Texas border town eating a spicy plate of enchiladas nortenas and eavesdropping on a couple of construction workers complaining about being disturbed by U.S. Border Services agents looking for illegal aliens?

Or was I nursing a cool cocktail in Key West while a couple of well-dressed twenty-somethings worried about the questionable practices of the nightclub where they were currently employed?

Maybe I was chowing down on an egg white scramble in Southern California listening to hotel workers complaining about the raids on pregnant foreign visitors presumably there to give their newborns U.S. citizenship status.

Any one of those three scenarios would have been lovely.

But no. I was in my kitchen scrubbing teriyaki salmon skin out of a cast iron frying pan while Teen Freud and a few of his buddies discussed their current employment options.   Teen Freud already has a part time job – at a bottle recycling depot.  He’s had it for the last three or four years. It’s a great fit while he’s in university. It pays well, the hours are flexible and he’s getting another kind of education: learning to interact with the public and being exposed to a wide range of clientele.

But entering the world of the working class has been a shock to Teen Freud’s delicate system. He finds the eight hour shifts too long. The smell on his clothes at the end of the day off-putting. The work physically grueling. “It’s making me old before my time,” he told his buddies that night. “Half the people who work there have arthritis and they’re not even thirty yet. What kind of future is that for me?”

Clearly not the kind of future he has in mind. So Teen Freud is looking for greener pastures.  That’s a good thing.  Unfortunately, however, his preferred greener pasture is one of the medicinal pot dispensaries popping up in our part of the world like dandelions in spring.  It would, he thinks, be a great place to work.  Other than that little issue of all the raids.

There’s also the issue of the odor on his clothes. I haven’t mentioned that yet. And I won’t. But if he does decide to apply for a job, I plan to point out that he’ll have to find a way to change outside before coming into the house at the end of the day. I find malodorous clothes off-putting too.

I suspect Teen Freud will find another greener pasture after that reality sinks in. Or maybe risk another few years of possibly arthritis-inducing physical work.  If not, pity our poor neighbors because it’s entirely possible our back yard shed will take on a decidedly hemp-like scent over the next few months.   6174881770_1745778aac




Overheard This Week

                                    That’s the hard part over with.

140474989The next time I do a writing workshop, I might use this sentence as a story prompt.  The possibilities are endless. It could be said by an exhausted cyclist cresting the top of a particularly gruelling hill. Or a gardener who has finally dug out the ground for a new pond. Or perhaps a set of parents serving birthday cake at a child’s birthday party after the games and gifts are over with.

Of course, if it’s fiction and it’s the story kick off, the expected cake walk won’t happen.  The cyclist will meet a swarm of bees on her downhill glide. The gardener will learn ponds were recently banned by his townhouse strata council.  The parents will face a dilemma when one child isn’t picked up after the party ends.

In other words, things won’t go as planned.   Maybe that’s why overhearing that phrase made me smile.

It was a sunny summer afternoon.  I was walking in the park. Ahead of me were two twenty-something girls, clearly having a good time. They were accompanied by a photographer.

“That’s the hard part over with,” said the just-married bride to her bridesmaid.

“No kidding”, the bridesmaid responded. “It’s a cake walk from here.”

I managed not to laugh. I hope the rest of that bride’s day was a ganache-filled fantasy and all her wishes came true. Because happily ever after is rarely a cake walk.  In fact, it’s probably safe to say she’ll have some hard work ahead.


Overheard This Week

140474989 “I feel so grown up. I have so much debt.”

I was buying a bottle of grapefruit seed extract at the health food store this week when I overheard this comment behind me. I knew the speaker was a woman. That much was clear.  But I was fuzzy on her age.  Youngish for sure.  Twenty or so, I guessed.

I was off by five or six years. The woman was very, very young.  Probably just into her teens.

Her friend laughed.  The two of them then proceeded to talk about how much money they owed parents, siblings, and several well-known retail clothing stores. About how much they’d need to borrow to buy their first car. To go to university.

It was a great reminder of how character can be shown through one’s relationship to money: how we value it, save it, spend it. But the relationship to money is also generational.  I paid cash for my first car ($500 and, yes, it was a beater).  I didn’t have a credit card until I was well into my twenties. My mother-in-law is 89 and doesn’t have a credit card, period. She pays cash for everything. She doesn’t believe in debt.

It may be easy for her, but it’s not easy to navigate life without some debt or a credit card anymore.  Most homeowners start out with a mortgage. Many teens take out student loans to attend post-secondary institutions. If you get on a plane, in-flight services are often credit only these days. And booking that flight or ordering on line is usually impossible without a credit card or PayPal account.

I feel so grown up. I have so much debt. That comment really made me stop and think.

It’s unlikely credit cards will ever completely disappear. And no doubt debt, in one form or another, will exist until this rock we live on turns to dust.  But I can’t help wondering if I’ll ever overhear someone say, I feel so young. I have absolutely no debt.

Wouldn’t that be a novel concept?



Overheard This Week

140474989Achoo. Hack, Hack. Sniffle. Moan.

Yes, it’s cold season.  I fought the good fight for about three weeks, battling a sore throat with Echinacea spray, drinking lots of fluids, staying home and resting.  I was determined to be well for a day of author talks at Shaughnessy Elementary School in Vancouver.  And I was.  The day went well. The kids were fabulous.  The sore throat receded. I felt pretty good. But four days after I came back to Victoria, the cold hit. And it’s a doozy.  I haven’t had one this bad in years.

My normal tendency is to push through, continue writing, keep up the routine. And I tried. I really did. But this frigus et caput (Latin for head cold – way more descriptive than common cold, don’t you think?) will have none of it.  Sitting at the computer is too hard on my eyes. My body aches. My concentration is shot.

So I’ve been tucked up on the couch, a cup of rose hip tea beside me, Team Sheltie at my feet. I’ve been resting, reading, and thinking. Taking notes on One Good Deed, my work-in-progress, when I feel inclined. And here’s a funny thing – this cold seems to have shut down the logical, analytical left side of my brain.  The ‘that-wouldn’t-work-editor’ is flat lined. The only part of me that’s thinking (and not too clearly at that) is the ‘why not?’ part of me.

Yesterday I had a thought, admittedly a feverish and fuzzy one, about a possible plot twist in my current WIP.   It was the kind of twist that would force the protagonist to do something so far out of her comfort zone it would either leave her guilt-riddled forever, or force her to grow and change the way she needs to in this particular story.  It would push my boundaries too because it’s a scene I’m not sure I’d be comfortable writing.  Will I run with it? I don’t know.  I’ll have to wait until the mucus clears. In the meantime, I’m writing down all the weird and wacky thoughts that float my way. Drinking lots of tea.    And cuddling Team Sheltie.



Overheard This Week

140474989A poignant plea caught my ear as I visited Victoria’s new indoor market last week. Two women were bent over a plate of tacos and guacamole with corn chips. One of the women was marshmallow pale and her eyes were bloodshot with fatigue. She sighed, flipped a nubby brown scarf over her shoulder, leaned across the table and said:  ‘Can’t we just talk about shoes?’

No surprise there I guess. Wilma and Betty were big on shoe talk back in the Flintstone era. But this week the plea hit me with the force of a Louboutin to the solar plexus. Sometimes we want to set the serious stuff aside. That woman certainly did. Right now, I do too.

I’ll admit it: I’m drawn to the dark stuff. My books inevitably end up being a mix of light and dark. Life isn’t all sunshine and I don’t think it pays to pretend it is. But these last few weeks the happenings have been grim:  hundreds of thousands of people killed or impacted by typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. The impact is being felt in my city where many residents are worried sick about loved ones overseas.  On a national scale, the mayor of our largest city has been embroiled in a Molotov cocktail of addiction, out-of-control rage and alleged ties to organized crime with widespread calls for his resignation.   On a personal level, a dear family friend died a couple of days ago and a step aunt is facing her last days too.  Needless to say, the nightly talk around our dinner table has been as heavy as braised short ribs and sweet potato mash, though not nearly as satisfying.

I guess that’s why I found myself repeating the plea from those anonymous women the other night: can’t we just talk about shoes?

Or maybe coffee beans? Okay, maybe not coffee because Teen Freud is sure to point out how child labor and exploitation is rampant in the cultivation of coffee in Colombia and Guatemala. Then how about we talk about the cute new puppy next door and how it falls on its bum every time it walks up the (basically negligible) hill between our houses?  No, Teen Freud, they did not get it from a puppy mill. Yes, Teen Freud, it is a pure bred Bichon Frise; yes, we are aware that there are many abandoned, mistreated and mixed breed dogs in the world.

As a matter of fact, I’m painfully aware of all of it. I read the papers (or those that are left).  I surf the ‘net (too much sometimes).  I talk about it and think about it and live it. We all do.  Our first two dogs were rescues from an abandoned litter.  I’ve witnessed (up close and way too personal) the devastating effects of addiction.  I’ve grieved more than one loss.

We all have. That’s why sometimes we need a few minutes to forget about it. That’s why sometimes we just want to talk about shoes. flowers-shoes-by-scherer-gonsales-spring2009-red



Weekly Eavesdropping

140474989Overheard on a sunny patio on the first day of summer:

“Gambling is bad news.”

“It’s only bad news if you lose.”

Teen Freud turned nineteen last week. For those of you who don’t live in Canada, that’s a milestone birthday. Nineteen (eighteen in some places) means you’re an adult and legally allowed to do things like buy alcohol, get married without parental permission, or enter licensed clubs like casinos.

Shortly after I heard that exchange between Teen Freud and his buddy, the two guys tromped inside and informed us they were off to the casino to see what it was all about.  When I repeated the admonition that gambling was bad news, Teen Freud laughed and shrugged it off.

I headed out to buy groceries. The boys (they may be nineteen but they’re still boys to me) headed to the casino. When I came home, Mr. Petrol Head was in the kitchen. He looked worried. “Teen Freud called,” he said. “It was the worst possible outcome for his first visit to a casino.”

My stomach sank like a dead turtle. My thoughts immediately went to a worst case place: a fight, a shooting, a fire. The boys had only taken seventy dollars between them. Losing that wasn’t what I’d call a worst possible outcome. It was a most likely outcome. “What happened?”

Mr. Petrol Head looked grave.  “He won.”

I should have known. Teen Freud wasn’t just born under a lucky star. He was born on a bed of them, with a star blanket the size of Texas covering him. The kid is lucky. Lucky with a capital L.

“How much?” I asked.

Before he could answer, Teen Freud and his bemused buddy burst through the door.  He’d won $430 on a twenty dollar investment. But, he informed us, he didn’t stick around because he was putting $400 of it in the bank. Plus, he was shaking so hard he couldn’t hit the buttons on the slots after that.

Pleased that he was showing some level of responsibility, we went back to putting away the groceries. As the boys headed to the TV room, I heard broke buddy suggest they spend the remaining money on pizza.

“No way,” said Teen Freud. “That money’s going into my vice fund. I’m going back next week.”