Not One Woman

Many and many a blog ago, in Woman Yes, Girl No, I wrote about some people’s inability to use the word woman. Recently I was reminded of this by a book I read. In it, the author either refused to or could not get himself to use the word woman.

My response was to write a “skinny” poem, also called a “short lines” poem.


Let There Be Light

The man
a book
by men,
and girls,
but not one

In four
not one

I want
to rate
this book
one star
but can’t:
even one
the dark.



Barbara Gregorich has published one book of poetry: Crossing the Skyway.

Putting Sisters in Crime on the Map

IMG_2884In 1986 Sara Paretskey helped found a new mystery writers organization, Sisters in Crime. Its purpose was to help women who write mysteries win equal treatment with men who write mysteries, particularly regarding book reviews and award nominations. (For a good article on the founding of SinC, click here.)

Sisters in Crime fought against the belittlement of women mystery writers and at the same time worked to make its organization grow. In 1990 mystery writer Susan Dunlap was elected President of SinC. One of the things Sue worked toward was “to put Sisters in Crime on the literary map” — to help bookstores, libraries, newspapers, and readers everywhere become aware of female mystery writers.

Sue asked several Chicago mystery writers to help with this project. Specifically, she asked Barbara D’Amato, Jacqueline Fiedler, and me to help. My husband, Phil Passen, who was working for Madden Communications at the time, offered to donate the paper and printing for the project, and this went a long way toward making the project possible.

RedHairedFor at least six months Barb, Jacquie, and I met a couple of times a week. We came up with the idea of a map of the US, with small graphics depicting mystery novels, and a line locating the setting of each novel on the map. Jacquie, who did the design work, thought of the black background and red outline of the United States.

I don’t remember how we found the almost-50 authors and novels that populate the map. We might have put an announcement in the SinC newsletter asking authors who wanted to be represented to contact us. It was definitely an opt-in proposition.

Once we had the authors and one novel of choice from each, we searched for an illustrator.

Our first choice didn’t work out: we felt the illustrations were missing a sense of energy and fun. What to do? It’s not easy to come up with an illustrator . . . especially since we were now behind schedule because the first one didn’t work out.

DragovikThat was when I thought of Robin Koontz, whom I had met through projects in educational publishing. I knew that Robin could bring both energy and fun to the map. And so I asked, and Robin said yes, she would attept this tight-deadline, 46-individual-drawings idea.

As Robin awaited instructions on what to illustrate, I got in touch with each author via telephone. It was up to Barb D’Amato and me to summarize each novel in 12 words or less (!), to the satisfaction of the author. And it was my job to describe the proposed art work for each title to both the author and to Robin. (Barb and I ended up reading a lot of mystery novels in a very short time, all the while thinking of illustration possibilities.)

Some authors were calm, some worried — but when the posters were finally published, I think everyone was happy beyond expectations. Solving Mysteries from Coast to Coast went out to libraries, bookstores, newspapers, and magazines. (It appeared in Publishers Weekly, and that alone alerted every bookstore in the country to its existence.) Authors autographing at various venues had their photos taken under the poster. There were several years during the 1990s when I couldn’t walk into any bookstore or library without seeing that exciting poster on the wall.

RattlesnakeAs Susan Dunlap anticipated, the poster did indeed help put Sisters in Crime on the literary map.

Having done its job, the poster is now retired. Sisters in Crime has more members than ever, with a web site and a continued presence at book events of all kinds.

The poster you see with this blog hung on the wall of Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore in Forest Park, Illinois, for many, many years. Visiting authors happily autographed their spots on the map. I recently attended a talk and autographing at Centuries & Sleuths — for Julia Buckley’s new series, launched with The Big Chili — and when I asked proprietor Augie Aleksy if I could see the poster (which he now has in storage), he brought it out, I photographed it, and we reminisced about the project and its impact.

Not all publicity campaigns turn out this successful — I’m delighted that this most-deserving one did.

Barbara Gregorich’s Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies, consists of 25 chapters containing explanations, examples, charts, and graphs but, alas, no enticing oval drawings.

Throw Like a Woman: Book Review

If one were to write a novel about a warrior who somehow entered a walled and fortified city, and sought to function within that city, the first question the writer would have to answer is: How did the hero manage to enter the fortress? A fortress which for nearly two centuries was closed to the hero’s tribe. A fortress whose defenders perhaps catapulted boulders down upon the hero’s tribe if it drew too near. If not boulders, then vats of boiling oil.

The seriousness with which a writer attempts to answer this question is a good sign of the seriousness of the book. In Throw Like a Woman, Susan Petrone answers the question seriously. It is clear that she knows what has happened in both the remote and recent past when female baseball players have pushed the barriers and tried to enter professional baseball, and she uses that knowledge to create a realistic story.

ThrowLikeAWoman copyBrenda Haversham is a 40-year-old recently divorced woman with a low center of gravity. As the mother of two sons, ages nine and thirteen, she struggles to provide them with a few of the perks they were used to when their father’s income supported them. Nothing extravagant: a new baseball glove, an mp3 player as a birthday present, a summer camp that they bike to each morning, and, come September, a few new clothes and supplies for school.

When their father, Ed, fails to show up as promised one Saturday morning to take the boys out, Brenda takes them to the park and pitches to them. When she was a child, her father taught her to pitch, and the kinesthetic memory remains with her. She throws heat to her 13-year-old. And when she takes her sons to Progressive Field to see an Indians-Tigers game, they take turns at a Test Your Speed pitching cage. The 13-year-old is clocked at 48mph, the 9-year-old at 33mph. Brenda then takes a turn and her three pitches are clocked at 79, 77, and 82 mph. She is throwing heat because she is imagining throwing at her ex-husband.

An unknown somebody videotapes this, and the next thing Brenda knows, she’s on YouTube. From there the story escalates. She agrees to pitch for a local team. A sports agent pursues her and signs her. She is signed by the Cleveland Indians and sent to their Class A Lake County Captains as a reliever, and from there to the AAA Clippers team in Columbus. And then: she’s called up.

Not necessarily for her pitching, but because her presence will help sell tickets. Of course, her presence will sell tickets only if she pitches, and pitches well.

Petrone is a good writer, one who understands the art and craft of the novel. Her characters are empathetic. The story moves forward easily, with the reader wondering what will happen next. The baseball conflicts are totally real: Brenda faces what every woman in a formerly-all-male profession faces. For starters, that means disdain, disgust, graphic sexual harassment, juvenile fixation on items such as tampons and jock straps, threats of violence, and the ever-present “invisibleness,” as if she’s not there.

Realistically, not every man behaves in this fashion, and Petrone brings to life not only the women haters, but also just regular men who judge other human beings by their performance, not their sex or the color of their skin. There are plenty of these men in baseball, and it feels good to see them in Petrone’s novel — they are signs of hope.

Throwing Like a Woman is about more than baseball, though. Face it: life is about more than baseball. In Petrone’s story we can see the distance between pampered 20-year-olds and wiser-by-life 40-year-olds. Maturity, or lack of, is one of the themes running through the book. I especially liked the character development in Andy, Brenda’s 13-year-old son, as he begins to take steps into adulthood.

Petrone, along with Stephanie Liscio, writes an Indians-fan blog itspronouncedlajaway, and although there’s no blog in the novel, Petrone is clearly familiar with the media world. In her novel she creates an ESPN show, “Today in Sports,” with host Charlie Bannister. The “transcripts” appear throughout Throw Like a Woman and are great fun.

Brenda Haversham’s name calls to mind Miss Havisham of Dickens’ Great Expectations. Jilted in love, Miss Havisham turns into a bitter character who grips others too tightly, molding them to her wishes and warping their lives. At the beginning of Throw Like a Woman, Brenda Haversham stands on the cusp of her new life. She, too, has been jilted. How will that play out? She is clearly unhappy. Will she become bitter? Will she mold her children into people who cannot experience love?

Or will she understand that life is like the four-seamer — a failure if you grip it too hard. But if you grip it “loosely, gently, to minimize friction between the hand and the ball,” the pitch will fly like a bird.

The Webbing in the Glove

I, and I suspect many other writers, feel great annoyance when somebody asks us, “Where do your ideas come from?” That’s because ideas come from everywhere. They come from within. From without. From above, below, and sideways. From the ground we walk and the air we breathe. Sometimes they come solo, sometimes attached to other ideas, which in turn become their own stories. “Where do you get your ideas?” is one of those questions that usually can’t be answered because the answer is amorphous.

A progression of ideas-into-books, however, or the relationship between these books, is more easily traced. Take as an example a book I’m sort of working on, now and then. I may or may not finish it.

But how did I come up with it in the first place? Well, if I hadn’t written She’s on First (my first novel, 1986), I would never have wondered, What’s the true story of women who played baseball? And if I hadn’t asked myself that question and then gone to investigate, I would never have written Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball (1993).

sc004dc527Had I not written Women at Play, I would not have written approximately 30 magazine or newspaper articles about women who play or played baseball. Definitely not: I would have skipped all the articles and gone directly to writing my next book.

Had I not written Women at Play, I would not have had bookshelves and file cabinets full of research notes. Had I not decided to reprint She’s on First on my own, thus experimenting with self-publishing, I would not have had the thought: I wonder if people might benefit from reading my research notes? Which means I wouldn’t have compiled and published Research Notes for Women at Play, Volumes I (2010) and II (2013).

Which means I would never have had the thought: Hey, what about those 30 or so articles? Which means I would never have started the work I mentioned at the beginning of this blog.

Yes, I started to put 25 of these articles into book format. And books need titles, and I’m a writer who loves to think about titles. And so, because most of the 25 articles aren’t just about women who played baseball, but also about the men who helped them do so, I came up with the working title, The Webbing in the Glove.

Now, had I not at the same time been working on my first collection of poems, Crossing the Skyway (2013), I might never have thought of leaping from the title of a work in progress to a poem.

But I was.

And I did.

        The Webbing in the Glove

        The strap secures
        the glove to the hand,
        then steps aside
        from contention.

        The stiff male thumb
        defines the outside edge,
        is certain it owns the glove,
        sometimes mistakes itself
        for the entire glove.

        Four female fingers,
        flexible but in accord,
        extend the range
        and reach for
        the future.

        The palm fashions
        the pocket which
        cradles the ball,
        above all,

Samantha Ostrom, International Earth Stars, 2012 Phoenix Cup, Hong Kong.  Photo courtesy of Carol Sheldon.

Samantha Ostrom, International Earth Stars, 2012 Phoenix Cup, Hong Kong. Photo courtesy of Carol Sheldon.

        But the webbing
        ahh, the webbing —

        the webbing laces opposed
        fingers and thumb
        into a beautiful whole,
        a completeness that
        stops grounders cold,
        swallows popups,
        bags line drives,
        and hauls back
        would-be homers.

        Without the webbing
        the glove is weak.

        Prospects bleak.

Writing and ideas are a lot like baseball. Some ideas hum toward the plate, jump off the bat, and clear the fence. Others are solid singles, and the writer waits on base until something or somebody helps bring the idea home.

Woman Yes, Girl No

Equal Rights 1970 March (Public Domain)Although we were young, in our teens and twenties, we were not girls. We were women — young women who felt and understood the gross inequality between the sexes, with women required to perform the mind-numbing drudgery of cooking, cleaning, shopping, laundry, and care-giving, practically from cradle to grave. And even when we were able to land jobs outside the home, we were paid half the wages men were and treated with condescension.

WLM-picture-of-logoDuring this, Women’s History Month, with International Women’s Day approaching, it’s good to remember our struggle. We never asked for “girls’ liberation,” nor “ladies’ liberation,” either. Girls were adolescent females and their liberation would come when ours did, as a result of our struggles. Ladies were a fiction, some unreal ruling class standard of behavior that reduced women to their social manners. Ladies’ liberation would never arrive, because in a world where people have equality, nobody would choose to restrict his or her behavior to that of a helpless “lady.”

For a while, women’s liberation was in the news and in people’s consciousness. But without a fundamental change in society, backsliding is inevitable. Those with privileges wangle things so they can retain their privileges. And public consciousness, fueled by movies, television, and advertising, couldn’t let go of the notion that “girl” was the appropriate word for an adult female.

B465_DontCallMeGirlSome avoid “woman” because it’s too powerful a word. Others think that only “girl” connotes fun, adventure, youth, and sexiness. Some think they want to be called “lady” because that term implies respect. Others think that “lady” is something better than a woman.

Well, there’s nothing better than a woman. During this, Women’s History Month, it’s wise for every woman to think about what she is, especially in relationship to children, adolescents, and adults of the other sex. When I was teaching college, the question of sexual equality was a hot topic of the day. Looking back on those days, I recently wrote a poem about how my students responded to the issue.

        Equivalency Tests

        Writing boy on the blackboard
        I ask my students, thirty
        college freshmen, the female
        equivalent. Girl, they all
        reply, wondering where this
        might be going. Next I write
        gentleman and ask the same
        question. Slower responses,
        and fewer, but they call it
        right: lady. I write man and
        look at them.

        Total silence.

        Finally, a hesitant,
        questioning response — woman?

        Confused, unsure, they have come
        to immaturity in
        a world which has never taught
        there’s a female parallel
        of man.

        They are too staggered
        to even think the thought, too
        stunned to use the even word

(For more poems such as this one, see Crossing the Skyway.)