Sunday, December 31, 2006

Farewell to the Holidays and 2006

T'was the day after Christmas,
and inside the house,
stockings were empty,
no sign of a mouse.

The pool fountain bubbled,
The sun sparkled bright,
and yesterday's revelers
rejoiced in the light.

T'was time to put presents
and goodies away,
To throw out the wrappings
and greet a new day.

And now, five days later,
I greet a new year,
in good old Chicago,
with Texas good cheer!

Copyright 2006 by Marlys Marshall Styne
Photos by the author

Friday, December 29, 2006

Christmas: it's the Little Things That Count

As I looked through this week's Christmas photos of the tree and beautifully wrapped gifts, fireplace stockings bulging with gifts from Santa, and the gift-opening ritual, I realized that no matter how many electronic marvels anyone received (and I saw many of them), it's the small, colorful things that got my attention.

The feet above, embellished by rolled-up pajamas, new Christmas socks, and new sneakers, belong to my grand-niece, Lauren Truby, high school senior and dancer (that explains the pose) who plans to attend the University of Arizona's School of Dance next fall. This photo was taken on Christmas morning in Houston, Texas, where I spent the Christmas holiday. Send me a more glamorous shot, Lauren, and I promise to post it here too.

Lauren's parents, Cindy and Scott Truby, entertained me and my brother royally during our visit. I hadn't eaten so much great food since last year's visit! The amount of baking and cooking that went on for only five people amazed me, non-cook that I am. I'm of no use in the kitchen, as my niece has long known. I sat and watched and enjoyed the good smells, not to mention the food. My mother's old recipes for sour cream raisin pie, copper penny salad, and turkey stuffing were featured. I have to confess that I don't remember these dishes from my childhood (I've always had a love-hate relationship with food, and I don't remember Mother as an especially good cook), but my brother and his daughter (Cindy) remember it all fondly. I guess my appreciation for family tradition began very recently.

My gifts were fine and greatly appreciated (the Godiva chocolates had the shortest life span), but Christmas is for the young. Lauren was very pleased with the many things she got for college: size 0 clothing (I never knew there was such a size), tea maker, electronic gadgets, jewelry, and of course, the socks and shoes. While I was in Houston, I received an e-mail from another high school senior grand-niece, this one in Minnesota, who wrote about her plans to become a registered nurse. My third and oldest grand-niece, whom I haven't heard from as yet, wants to become a figure skater.

Christmas can be depressing for the old and lonely, but, widowed and childless as I am, I am very grateful to have a few young relatives. They are smart and attractive, and they represent the future. They may never become rich or famous (or perhaps they will), but they represent life. They will dance and skate and help other people and change society. That's why I'll remember those colorful socks and shoes.

Copyright 2006 by Marlys Marshall Styne.
Photo by John C. Marshall

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Picture of the Year: Senior Toys

This is the cover photo from my brother's 2007 calendar. Here is what he has to say about it:

"This year's cover declares that 'retirement is all about toys.' While that may be a bit of an overstatement, there is a very substantial part of that statement that is true.

"My three favorite toys, pictured from left to right are: (1) 2001 BMW Z3.0i, next to the last year of the 'classic' Z3's. The Z3 was introduced to the world as James Bond's ride in the movie Goldeneye; (2) 2001 Honda GL-1800 (Goldwing), which is probably my favorite toy. It now has 128,000 miles on it and it is still going strong; (3) 2005 Honda VTX-1800, a V-twin with awesome torque that is a blast to ride. This is not a long-distance ride, but a 'bar hopper,' if one is interested in that sort of thing."

My brother is John Marshall, of Hurricane, Utah; he will be seventy-two in January, and he retired from a long career as a chemistry professor in the 1990's. I admire him for "doing his thing" and living where he wants to live, just as I do. Perhaps it runs in the family!

Copyright 2006 by Marlys Marshall Styne
Photo by John C. Marshall

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Joys of Blogging

Well, I've finally made it! I'm Time Magazine's Person of the Year for 2006, along with millions of others. We're part of a new democracy: Internet users who express ourselves on line. Time provides an extensive analysis of how "Web 2.0" has given all of us with computers and Internet access a place to interact and to present whatever we want (with some limits on obscenity, pornography, and libel) to whoever cares to read anything by and/or about us.

I've been a computer enthusiast since about 1984, so I'm glad we're getting all of this attention. I'm a bit old for MySpace and YouTunes and the other younger people's favorite Web sites, but I do write a few book reviews for, and I explore and contribute to on-line book sale, review, and promotion sites. And my six-month-old blog, "Never too Late!" has become a favorite hobby.

My blog is not one of those that attract visitors by the thousands every day, but in the nearly three months since I've had visitor statistics, there have been about 1,400 page views. Lately, the number of first-time visitors has averaged about five per day. I have no cumulative statistics, and none at all from the blog's first three months. However, I get the impression that the number of "hits" or visits has been growing slowly but steadily.

I've been asked what I get out of blogging. It's not money. While there are some small AdSense ads included, that is just an experiment. I'm learning how all of these things work. Million-hit blogs probably have readers who click on the advertised products and services often enough to provide some income, but my readers, some of whom are reluctant to order anything on line, are not likely advertising targets here. I do have a book for sale on several sites, but it's a small book with a limited audience. This blog may have generated some interest in my book, but most of my posts are about other topics, and there's no hard sell included.

So why do I blog? Writing teachers have long encouraged journal writing, usually with pen on paper, and I still keep a journal occasionally. But somehow, I like the idea of my thoughts neatly printed out for others to read. What’s extremely personal or embarrassing usually is relegated to my off-line pen-and-paper journal, as it should be, but I take pride in seeing my words flowing across the computer screen.

I love to write, and this is my way of keeping in touch with anyone interested in what I’m doing and what I have to say. Blogging makes me feel alive. A few friends and relatives are interested. So are a few other people. I’d like to write a "Seniors" column for a newspaper or magazine, but the opportunity has not arisen (nor have I pursued it aggressively). Blogging is a way to write what I want to write without worrying about editors and deadlines. I don’t think I’d mind either, but for the moment, blogging is free, easy, and very enjoyable.

One of the purposes of my book is to encourage others, especially my fellow seniors, to write. Perhaps they will begin by writing some comments here on any of my posts that interest them. I hope that in 2007, we can have some on-line discussions about things that matter to us. Feel free to express your opinions and to suggest new topics.

Copyright 2006 by Marlys Marshall Styne
Photo by the author

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Senior Stereotypes and Ideas about Aging

Let’s face it: growing old is tough, and, as someone has said, "not for the weak." I’ve been dealing with aging for years, sometimes successfully, sometimes not (see my book), but occasionally I become aware of how younger people view us–and how I view myself.

The latest occasion was a holiday party for my volunteer group. It featured a great group of active, interesting senior citizens, wonderful hosts, good food, good music, lovely decorations, and good will all around. As a loner who is not good at small talk, I’m not much of a party person anyway, but what disturbed me (and I’m ashamed of my reaction) was an endless series of bingo games. That’s one of the common senior stereotypes: that seniors like to play bingo.

I realize that many seniors do enjoy bingo, or bridge, or shuffleboard, or golf, and there’s nothing wrong with these activities. No one forced me to play bingo. I left before the games ended. There was nothing wrong with the party. Was there something wrong with me? Yes.

About twenty-five years ago, I formed some ideas about aging, mainly my mother’s. I remember thinking that the residents of my mother’s midwestern retirement condo complex all looked alike: white hair, eyeglasses, walkers or canes, silver or black cars in the garage. They played bingo and bridge every week, wore dowdy clothes, and complained about a lot of "new-fangled ideas." They read mostly romance novels, if anything. They flocked to the restaurants’ Early Bird Specials. If they could afford it, they vacationed in Florida or Arizona or (later) Branson, Missouri.

I resented seniors for expecting me to give up my bus seat for them. I sometimes resented their handicapped parking placards and license plates when I had to park far away from the store.

Then a "funny" thing happened: I got old myself, retired, suffered through my husband’s final illness, and had to face reality. I am old. I look old, and I walk old (arthritis in my knees). I’m grateful to the young people who usually give up their bus seats for me. Yes, I always smile and thank them. I have a handicapped parking placard myself (my doctor says it’s dangerous for me to walk far in icy parking lots).

I've reminded myself that while it’s easy to laugh and joke about us, today’s active seniors are still doing things far beyond the usual stereotypical activities. Many of us still work or pursue valuable volunteer activities well into our seventies, eighties and nineties. Most have fascinating backgrounds and stories to tell.

Perhaps it’s not too late to help eradicate many of the stereotypes about senior citizens, including my own earlier unfair attitudes. I’d like to meet and interview non-celebrity seniors for a newspaper or other publication. Does anyone know of an opportunity for a "Seniors Columnist"? If you do, please let me know!

Copyright 2006 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Friday, December 15, 2006

Error-free Writing and Haughty Writers

I was fascinated by "Prima Donnas Need Not Apply" by Angela Hoy of WritersWeekly ("the highest-circulation freelance writing ezine in the world") and publisher Booklocker. In her article in the December 6 issue, Angela wrote of a would-be novelist, an attorney and former English teacher, who submitted a book proposal to Booklocker and reacted very argrily to Hoy's rejection of it. The "Prima Donna," according to Angela, was "very angry and quite stunned that someone of her prestige had been rejected." She bragged about her education and her accomplishments.

The problem? writing errors, including many misspelled words. Angela wrote, "We can't publish books with errors. That is clearly stated in our submission guidelines, and that is why I didn't accept your book. I'm shocked by your angry response. I could have just taken your money, accepted your book and put it on the market, embarrassing us both, but I don't do business that way."

My reaction was that the would-be author got just what she deserved, and the episode made me think about writing correctness and editing. They matter to Angela Hoy and they matter to me, but do they matter to enough people? I was one of several inspired to respond, and my letter to the editor was published in WritersWeekly on December 13. Here it is:


I chuckled when I read "Prima Donnas Need Not Apply." Your reaction was great! I fear that English teachers, both high school and college, are partially responsible–and I say this as a retired college English professor.

A pendulum seems to swing between "all" or "nothing" in educational theory. Years ago, we emphasized correctness far more than creativity. This emphasis "turned off" a lot of students in the large group who tell me they hated their English classes. Then the pendulum swung too far the other way: just express yourself. Be creative. Don’t worry about correctness. Of course the original idea was to create first and edit later, but since editing was the harder part for many students and teachers alike, many were happy to give it up.

I’m out of the teaching profession now, but my reading indicates that we have helped to create a generation of would-be writers who just don’t know or care. Their writing has received high praise for imagination and creativity despite misspelled words and convoluted sentence structure. I insulted an acquaintance when I dared to tell her that her self-published book was full of serious writing errors. She didn’t seem to believe me, and told me that she’d had an editor!

The answer is obviously the middle course: create and then edit–or find a good editor. I hope that publishers and readers will sort the good from the bad, but I’m not sure that enough people really care, or even recognize writing errors when they see them. I’m glad you reacted as you did. It’s a battle worth fighting.

To quote Angela Hoy's conclusion: "The lesson to be learned here is that everybody makes mistakes, even attorneys and English teachers, and being able to admit your mistakes and correct them, rather than attacking the critic, is an honorable trait." I hope we English teachers have not inadvertently created a generation that thinks otherwise.

Copyright 2006 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Sunday, December 10, 2006

'Tis the Season!

Peace, joy, and happiness to all.

Enjoy the holiday season!

from Marlys Marshall Styne

Photo taken at the Chicago Cultural Center Washington Street information desk by Marianne Wolf-Astrauskas, Director of Volunteers

Monday, December 04, 2006

New Year's Eve, Old Town Condo Style

'Tis the night before New Year's,
and all through the halls,
the young folk are leaving
for their New Year's Eve balls.

For some, dress is casual:
freshly-pressed jeans.
For others, their finery
a sight to be seen!

The ball gowns, the tuxes,
so seldom worn now,
are pressed and accessorized:
Beautiful! Wow!

The orchestra leader
from the very top floor
looks great in tuxedo,
starched shirt, and more.

His society orchestra,
known far and wide,
will play at a ballroom,
Chicago's own pride.

The snowbirds are probably
away where it's warm,
or surrounded by family
at cottage or farm.

A few will give parties,
right here in town.
The food gets delivered.
The costs make some frown.

The liquor will flow,
the music will play.
In the very wee hours,
they'll greet a new day.

Tucked in my recliner,
no parties for me.
I flick the remote
seeking something to see.

Parades on tomorrow?
Football galore.
I'm not a great sports fan--
I like reading more.

I may fall asleep
ere the New Year arrives.
My memories have kept
many New Years alive.

I'm contented and warm
and glad to be here.
I'll post on my blog
my wish for next year:

Have fun and success,
peace, sharing, and love.
(I'm a senior, a writer
who's had the above).

And give me no pity,
my life is quite fine!
I'll toast the New Year with
a good glass of wine.

Disclaimer: I am not a poet and never have been. I wrote this tongue-in-cheek for a Chicago Writers Association holiday contest (which, as expected, I did not win). Still, my New Years wishes are sincere, and I want to share them.

Copyright 2006 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Fascination of Genealogy: the Bryant Connection

Here are my maternal grandparents, Edward Samuel Uhl, 1869-1928 (son of Joseph Alexander Uhl and Harriett Bryant Uhl) and Minnie Louise Blanchard Uhl, 1889-1978 (daughter of William Blanchard and Sarah Ludy Blanchard).

Once I discovered the family history of my German great-great grandfather John Adam Haag, I was hooked. I constructed a family tree on, and I began to wonder about my other ancestors.

According to one fascinating family legend, my maternal great-grandmother Harriett Bryant Uhl was a descendent of a brother of American poet William Cullen Bryant. I never saw any proof of that, but it was a legend of great interest to my mother and me, both students of English and American literature.

If this legend were true, it would mean that my ancestry could be traced back to the Mayflower: Plymouth Colony residents Stephen Bryant and Abigail Shaw and John Alden and Priscilla Mullins, the latter couple immortalized by Longfellow. Can I prove this? No. Would it make any difference in my life if I could? No. However, I find all of this fascinating!

There are obvious problems. First, according to my Internet research, William Cullen Bryant had four brothers, Austin, Cyrus, Peter (aka Arthur), and John Howard. (He also had two sisters, Sarah Snell and Louisa Charity.) If one of the brothers was an ancestor of mine, which one?

Then, while the Bryant family, minus William Cullen, who remained in the East, and the father of the family, Dr. Peter Bryant, who died in 1820, did move west to Princeton, Illinois, in the 1830's, Harriett Bryant Uhl was born in Pennsylvania and later moved to Iowa with her husband and children. Did Austin, Cyrus, Arthur, or John Howard Bryant or any of their descendents ever live in Pennsaylvania? If not, there goes the story.

Who were Harriett Bryant Uhl's parents and grandparents? Will I ever find out? Stay tuned.

Copyright 2006 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Monday, November 27, 2006

Unknown Authors and Internet Reviewers

I've read good reviews, mediocre reviews, bad reviews, and mixed reviews. An unknown author learns to rejoice in all of them if they indicate that someone has at least read his or her book and expressed honest opinions of it. However, today I noticed what may be a new kind of review: the "I didn't really read the book, but I'll write a review anyway." I don't object to the negative parts of the review (it's not technically a "bad review") but to the fact that it clearly indicates ignorance of the book's contents and some very basic facts.

After correctly listing my name and the book's title, the reviewer repeatedly refers to me as "Dr. Stone." First, my name is not Stone, and second, I do not have a doctorate. Then he refers to my long teaching career at "St. Olaf's College." My father graduated from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, and my brother taught there for many years, but I did neither. My forty-year teaching career was at Wilbur Wright College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago. The reviewer could have found the correct information on the back cover of my book. He even implies that I retired from my lofty position as a professor and then became a lowly secretary, and he wonders how I feel about that. Well, I do some secretarial work for a neighbor occasionally, but it's hardly a career--and the whole matter and how I feel about it are explained on pages 95-96.

The reviewer does say that I am a good writer (Thanks!), but he shows little understanding of what I tried to do or why. As an occasional book reviewer myself, I never review a book unless I've read 95% to 100% of it and formed some idea of who the author is and of his or her purpose. And I always take time to get the basic facts straight!

I shall not identify this reviewer or the relatively unknown web site, since I have no desire to recommend either, and fortunately, there are several more valid reviews of my book on the Internet. Were I to judge this reviewer as superficially as he apparently judged my book, I'd say that he's an intellectual snob who has a problem with older women who write--but that's not fair to say, is it?

(My title was suggested by Lord Byron's satirical poem "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers," 1809.)

Readers: how about adding some comments about this post and/or the art of book reviewing? Click on "comments" below.

Copyright 2006 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Tracing My Ancestors: Great-Great Grandfather John Adam Haag (with his second wife, Anna Margaretha Haag), 1883

I've often admired people who could trace their families back to the "old country," wherever that country was. I always said that I couldn't trace mine because of my mixed heritage (English, French, German) and the relatively early times all of my ancestors entered the United States. None of the relatives I knew spoke of any ties to any "old country," or if they did, I ignored them. I just wasn't interested.

Recently, on the occasion of cleaning out my messy home office for new carpet installation, I discovered a yellowed document entitled "Historical Sketch and Genealogy of the John Adam Haag Family," prepared by H. Arthur Haag and dated October, 1949. In 1949, I was a high school senior, and probably not very interested in my roots. I didn't recognize the name Haag or bother to find out what this document was about. I apparently just put it into the miscellaneous collection of things I moved around with me, even on my last move from my house. I thought I'd done a good job of "decluttering" then, but you'd be surprised at how much remains. This time, curiosity prevailed, and I decided to read about the Haag family. What I discovered was, indeed, interesting, now that I'm old enough to appreciate it.

John Adam Haag was born in Wildenthierback, Oberamt Gerabron, Kingdom of Wurttemberg, Germany, on September 29, 1819. He lived there until 1845, when, "unwilling to continue longer enduring oppression and tyranny" at home, he and a cousin emigrated to the growing village of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to find freedom. He worked as a cabinet maker and studied English at night. Later John was joined by his parents and other family members, and the entire family soon moved forty miles west to Helenville in what is now Jefferson County. There was not even a road to Helenville, but the entire family walked on a blazed trail through a dense forest, a two-day journey. They assembled a fairly large portion of farm land near Helenville.

John Adam soon married Barbarn Gunz, and all of the Haag relatives built log cabins on their properties. They hunted squirrels and prairie chickens, raised vegetables, collected sap and made maple sugar and syrup. They raised grain and grew fruit trees. John Adam also made wagon tongues from the white ash trees on his farm and hauled them forty miles west to Madison to sell. As a cabinet maker, he was called upon to make caskets for the pioneer community, priced at $10.00 each. John and his sons cut cordwood to haul to Whitewater (my old home town) by sled and sell. Oxen were used as draft animals, horses being scarce there until the 1860's.

Barbara Gunz Haag died in childbirth in 1856, and a about a year later, John married Anna Margaretha Haag (not related). By 1868, the Haags had eleven children, and John Adam needed more room so that his grown sons could live nearby. The land around Helenville was all taken, and the liquor was flowing a bit too freely. John Adam Haag was not a teetotaler, but the staunch Lutheran worried about the moral climate. The whole family set out for the new frontier across the Mississippi, the fertile black prairie land of northeastern Iowa. They settled in Sumner, Iowa, where John Adam continued his farming activities and managed a cane mill, then very important for processing the sorghum or cane used to manufacture the molasses often used on bread and pancakes. He died at age eighty-eight in 1907.

The John Adam Haag clan featured large families and long-lived descendants. Here is where I come in: My great-grandmother was John's daughter, Maria Margaretha Haag Hoffman (1847-1930). My paternal grandmother was Maria's daughter, Rosetta Hoffman Marshall (1881-1957). My father was Rosetta's son, Clifford William Marshall (1905-1974). Maria Margaretha and her husband George Hoffman did not make the move to Sumner, Iowa, with her parents, so my family tree continued to grow in Wisconsin, never far from the old Haag homestead in Helenville.

Since I was born in 1932, I never knew the first or second generations traced by H. (Hugo) Arthur Haag in 1949, The author (b. 1883) was a nephew of my great-grandmother, the son of one of her older brothers, George Jacob Haag (1851-1936), so he was a cousin of my Grandmother, Rosetta Hoffman Marshall. I never knew H. Arthur Haag, and I'm sure he's deceased by now. However, I salute him for his efforts to trace this very large family, and I'm sorry I didn't know him when I was young.

Genealogy is an interesting science. Most of us hope to find famous people, royalty, heroes, or captains of industry in our backgrounds, and I've always thought that my English and French ancestors, little though I know about them, were more lively, talented, interesting people than the "stodgy" Germans. But to quote H. Arthur Haag, John Adam was "honest, sober, industrious and God-fearing . . . loved by his family and respected by his neighbors, " with the qualities of courage, leadership and initiative. "The Haags are plain, simple, honest people, not uppish or pretentious; well enough off in a material sense to be capable of taking care of themselves without following mean occupations, and poor enough to show that they are not grabbing everything in sight." Thanks, H. Arthur. Those are good qualities I'm happy to share.

Copyright 2006 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Look Up in Awe: Washington Street Lobby, Chicago Cultural Center

Here are two views from my usual volunteer post at the Washington Street lobby information desk at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington. Originally the main entrance to the Chicago Public Library, this lobby is "a dazzling light-filled space finished with white Italian Carrara marble inset with sparkling mosiacs of glass, gold leaf, mother-of-pearl and precious stones," according to an official brochure. "The soft-surfacded marble came from the same quarries used by Michaelangelo for his sculptures."

The white marble staircase (upper photo) leads to Preston Bradley Hall, where library patrons once received their books. Today, various concerts and other events are held there, and the large Tiffany dome is one of the building's chief attractions.

The golden mosaic arches (lower photo) feature the names of great authors. I sit in the shadow of American authors Longfellow, Emerson, Whittier, Bryant, Hawthorne, and Irving, and the arch nearer the doorway features Homer, Plato, and others from the more distant past. I never tire of staring at all this beauty.

I also enjoy watching first-time visitors to the Cultural Center. It seems nearly impossible for anyone to enter for the first time without staring upward, open-mouthed in amazement that such a building exists in Chicago, and that they can explore and enjoy it at no cost. Nearly everyone snaps photos; last week, a visitor without a camera rushed out to buy one and returned to take her pictures. As you can see here, pictures hardly do justice to the magnificence of the place.

I direct visitors to the various exhibits, concerts, and special events taking place, to the Randolph Cafe, the Renaissance Court senior center, the gift shop, and even the restrooms at the other side of the building, and to the Chicago Visitors' Center, which offers an array of information about things to do in Chicago.

Cultural Center visitors are a picture of diversity: all nationalities, races, ages, and interests are represented. When they tell me what a wonderful building it is and how much they enjoyed their visits, I always smile and say "Thank you!" even though I can hardly take credit for their experiences. Don't miss this building on your next trip to Chicago; I think you'll understand why I enjoy sitting at the information desk at least once or twice a week.

Copyright 2006 by Marlys Marshall Styne
Photos by the author

Monday, November 06, 2006

A Brave New, Brand-New, Brand-You World?

When my former neighbor and long-time friend Margot Wallace told me that she had written a book entitled Museum Branding (AltaMira Press, 2006), my first question was, "What's that?" Margot teaches at Columbia College, Chicago, and she worked in advertising/marketing for many years before earning a master's degree and becoming a teacher in her field. She's good at what she does. She cheerfully explained to this outsider that museums need identities, or brands, to promote their institutions to visitors and benefactors. The book's subtitle is "How to Create and Maintain Image, Loyalty, and Support." O.K. Museum branding makes sense.

Still, when I encountered Jeninne Lee-St. John's article, "It's a Brand-You World," in the November 6 issue of Time, I was startled to learn about "personal branding." According to Ms. Lee-St. John, personal marketing consultants apply "the language, philosophies and strategies of Madison Avenue to the brand that is you." According to the experts she quotes, we need to be "packaged," our images overhauled, in order to get ideal jobs or to find life partners. "The majority of [job-seeking] kids coming out of college are essentially generic," according to consultant D.A. Hayden of Hayden-Wilder. As a long-time college professor, I question that, but I'll concede that some graduates may need advice: relax, don't say "uh" or "like" so often, dress appropriately, and so forth. But do they need to pay $2,950 for Hayden-Wilder's "Illumination" branding package? I don't think so. There's even a New York company, PersonalsTrainer, that will rewrite your on-line personals or dating service ad for $159.95!

I don't especially need or want either a job or a date these days, but this article interested me for two reasons: a short-lived experiment with a senior on-line dating site (no dates), and the publication of my book, Reinventing Myself: Memoirs of a Retired Professor, earlier this year.

I wasn't serious about the dating site for senior citizens. I just wanted to explore, and I wouldn't have minded meeting someone in my age group for coffee and conversation if, indeed, there are any seventy-ish men out there who are interesting, single, straight, healthy, and not looking for a housekeeper, cook, and/or nurse. I was truthful. I did not claim to be beautiful or vivacious or eager to find romance. The two or three tentative responders lost interest quickly, as did I. And when one mentioned sex as his main interest or activity, I concluded that he must hit the Viagra a bit too hard. Possibly a personal branding consultant could have improved my image and found me a date, but I might have told the guy to get lost. There's not much wrong with being single.

Then, there's my book. I've learned about marketing and publicity packages that cost many thousands of dollars: possible radio and TV interviews; book tours; public appearances. How about an image consultant for an "extreme makeover"? A media consultant to improve my radio or TV performance? No sale. My book is mainly for seniors, whom I assume to be quite oblivious or resistant to such efforts, and I do not expect it to be a best seller. Its readers have been appreciative, but it's a book with a limited audience. Why waste money on the impossible?

I've grown up believing that I should be myself and not care what others think. I'm an individualist and a loner. Those qualities have never made me popular, and perhaps they helped make me the depressed recluse I became for a while after my husband died; some reinvention was necessary. I've improved me teeth and my hair, and more importantly, become a volunteer, joined writers' groups, and made a few new friends. I've attempted to market my book on line (where many seniors never venture). But as for aggressive and expensive personal branding? I don't think so. I wouldn't mind meeting a few new people or selling a few more books, but I won't buy a new image in order to do so. I know who I am, and I'm content with the imperfect brand that is me.

Copyright 2006 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Memories of the Past: Whitewater, Wisconsin

The first photograph shows me (on the left) with school friends Joan and Virginia sometime between 1947 and 1950. We are standing in front of the old log cabin that was moved to the campus of what was then the Whitewater Normal School, Whitewater, Wisconsin, in 1907. The log cabin still stood behind the main building many years later, during my years at the college "training school" and College High School. When we were young, the cabin served as a lesson in pioneer life for us.

I was reminded of the old log cabin when I read Fred G. Kraege's book Whitewater (photo on the right), published earlier this year as part of the "Images of America" series by Arcadia Publishing. The main college building burned a few years after my high school graduation, and the college, now the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, is much different these days. The training school and College High are long gone, and I assume that the log cabin is too. Still, Kraege's book transported me back to my school days and my life in my home town from 1932 to 1950. See the August archives of this blog for an account of my most recent visit to Whitewater.

The author did an excellent job of collecting historical photos dating before, during, and beyond my years in Whitewater. He documents many of the changes I have observed in recent visits. I was happy to see a photo of the old City Hall, which I always found dark and mysterious, as well as ornate and romantic. The Whitewater skyline is much different without it. There's a picture of the old City High School, which we rather snobbishly referred to as "the other high school." In reality, of course, this was the town's main high school, while College High always remained small. Our school was not really elite, but we sometimes liked to think it was.

Churches and cemeteries are also featured in the book. First English Lutheran Church, which I attended for years, is described as a "prominent landmark today." I have either forgotten, or never knew, the church's history as first the Baptist Church and then the Norwegian American Lutheran Church. It was already First English Lutheran Church when I lived in Whitewater; the name refers to the language used, not the nationality of its parishioners.

While I could not find any references to my family in the book, I recognized enough streets and buildings to feel nostalgic. My grandfather, W. G. Marshall, owned a livestock farm on the outskirts of town (in an area once called Cold Spring, in Jefferson County) that my father, Clifford W. Marshall, later operated as a dairy farm. My paternal grandmother, Rosetta Hoffman Marshall, retired from the farm to a house on North Franklin Street just north of Main Street in Whitewater, a house that still exists. My mother, Violet Uhl Marshall, managed the Sears, Roebuck and Company Order Office on Main Street for sixteen years, during my high school and college years and later. She had begun college at Whitewater State Teachers College before I was born, and she finally graduated from what had become the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater in 1967, long after I had moved on.

I was eager to leave Whitewater, and I have had no close relatives living there for many years. Still, I have learned to appreciate my home town's history and beauty and the spirit of its early settlers. I'm glad I found this book!

Copyright 2006 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Monday, October 23, 2006

The Illinois Womans Press Association Book Fair

On Saturday, October 21, I was one of thirty Illinois authors, most of us little known, presenting our books at the annual IWPA fall book fair. This event was one of the many Book/Author events featured in the city's and the Chicago Public Library's Chicago Book Festival, October 2006. As a relatively new author, I enjoyed the fair very much. Does that mean that I sold a lot of books? No, but I still found the event very interesting.

For one thing, the setting, the Randolph Cafe of the Chicago Cultural Center, is a wonderful place. The Cultural Center itself, where I am often an information desk volunteer, is a building worth visiting for its architecture, mosaics, and marvelous Tiffany dome, as well as for the many exhibits and events presented there, most of them free and open to the public.

On Saturday, the cafe featured thirty large tables covered by purple cloths (the IWPA color), and each of us set up his or her own book and information displays. Fifteen of us were IWPA members, and the rest other authors and publishers from throughout the state. Many visitors passed our tables, and many stopped to chat with us and look at our books.

The emcee, Cheryl Corley of NPR's Chicago Bureau, did an amazingly efficient job of interviewing each of us on stage. She was able to interview thirty of us with interesting questions and good humor throughout. I'm sure that my lack of media experience showed in my interview, but Cheryl's skills really saved the day. I was impressed.

Another feature of the fair that impressed me was the diversity of both the authors and their books. Various races and ethnic groups were represented, and our books ranged from children's books to fiction to self-help to inspirational and spiritual topics, as well as other non-fiction titles. Chicago's diversity and the diversity of Illinois writing were on display.

The officers of the IWPA, including president Suzanne Hanney and event chair Marianne Wolf (also an author); my fellow Cultural Center volunteers; the staff of the Shop at the Cultural Center: all deserve praise and thanks for their hard work.

Get more information about IWPA and its parent organization, the National Association of Press Women, at or I'll hope to see you at next year's fair!

Copyright 2006 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Amazing Amazon!

If you haven't shopped for a book on lately, you should take a look. I am continually being amazed by the new features I find there. It's taken me a long time to discover the many things an author or publisher can do to promote a book and communicate with potential readers. Of course there are bare-bones publishers' listings on Amazon too, but I've had a lot of fun trying out the features, both old and new.

Of course I have a profile page with a picture and probably more facts than anyone wants to know about me. I have a "Listmania" list: "Inspiring and Interesting Books for Senior Citizens." I have forty-plus tags, from "aging" to "writing as therapy," to help readers looking for certain book categories, and I've added customer tags to other authors' books, too. I have a growing list of search suggestions in the "books for seniors" category. There are three customer reviews of my book (averaging 4 1/2 stars). I have written customer reviews for a few other books. I have references to this blog and to other web sites that mention my book, Reinventing Myself: Memoirs of a Retired Professor. All this is interesting--and free--but it's the newer features that really amaze me.

The "Search Inside" feature leads the way to the rest. With "Search Inside," the potential buyer can see large views of the front and back covers, the copyright page, the table of contents, and several excerpts. How do book listings get these features? Some publishers submit their books for "Search Inside," but authors can do so too. The only cost is a copy of the book, sent to a special address after Amazon has verified that you are, indeed, the author, with rights to the book. If the publisher retains the rights, it's up to him or her.

Just a day or so ago, I discovered four new additions to my Amazon listing: Condordance, Text Stats, SIPs, and CAPs. Perhaps only English teachers find such things fascinating, but at the very least, they show the power of computers. Concordance lists the one hundred most commonly-used words in the book, excluding the common "a," "an," "and," "the," and similar short words. The words are printed in sizes representing their prominence in the book. For my book, the largest is "time" (119 times), followed by "years" (99) and "remember" (98). That seems predictable for a memoir. By putting the mouse pointer over the word, one can find out how many times it was used, and by clicking on the word, one can see the page numbers and parts of the sentences in which the word appears! For example, "time" first appears on page three: "Having unusually well-educated parents for that time and place . . ." Why would anyone need to know this? For a book like mine, it's unlikely that anyone would care, but for a more scholarly book, the concordance could provide an easy way for a student or a writer to find relevant references. It's a new world out there.

Text Stats reveals information about readability, complexity, and number of characters, words, and sentences. It shows the book's standing on the Fog Index (11.8), the Flesch readability scale (56.3), and the Flesch Kincaid scale (9.8). My book is apparently about average in readability, as intended. These stats might be important for English or reading teachers checking on fiction or non-fiction books appropriate for their students.

Finally, what in the world are SIPs and CAPs? SIPs are "statistically improbable phrases." In my book, there is just one listed: "cat sitter." I wonder why that's so improbable? There are a lot of cat owners out there, and who takes care of our cats while we're out of town? CAPs are "capitalized phrases." Twenty-five are listed for my book, from "Old Town Pump" (my late husband's old place of business) to "St. Olaf College" (my late father's alma mater and the main location of my brother's teaching career).

Clicking on a CAP leads to information on what other listed books, if any, include that phrase. The "Signature Room" (one of my favorite Chicago restaurants) has two references in my book and three in Lonely Planet Chicago, by Chris Baty. "Wells Street" has five references in my book, and is also mentioned in at least twenty-two other books about Chicago. Clicking on a CAP also leads to a link to, where I found that most references to "Old Town Pump" refer to actual water pumps across the country, but number twenty-three is a quote from my book and a link to me!

I am fascinated and amazed by these features on, but it's too early to judge their effectiveness. I'm sure that the academic world, of which I am no longer a part, will let us know. My book's unimpressive Amazon sales ranking doesn't suggest any effect so far--but did you know that, according to Amazon's Fun Stats, my book offers 2,290 words per dollar (when sold at list price)? At the holiday discount price, you get 3,366 words per dollar!

Copyright 2006 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Isn't Readability Important?

I have noticed what seems to be a new trend in printed materials: white or black or colored type on a colored background. Two recent examples: the Life magazine included with yesterday's Chicago Tribune and the back of the Chicago Cultural Center's October schedule.

The Sudoku game in Life was printed in brilliant yellowish-green with white numbers. My vision, as corrected with glasses, is good, but this game seemed impossible to deal with. In order to figure out what the other numbers should be, one needs to read the numbers already there.

The newly-redesigned Cultural Center schedule is generally attractive and informative, but why is the monthly calendar on the back printed mainly in black on a brown background? It's nearly unreadable, as one visitor pointed out yesterday. Many of our Cultural Center visitors are in my age group, and many have much weaker vision than I.

Perhaps this is another example of computer and color printer overkill. I remember that we once went crazy with beautiful but virtually unreadable type fonts on our new computers just because we could. Maybe this is more elderly "What's the world coming to?" but what's wrong with old-fashioned, readable black on white? Explain this new dark background trend to me, design professionals.

Postscript: I have received a few comments on this subject. Margaret Holt, of the Chicago Tribune, asked the Tribune's design director about readability, and he answered that designers are sometimes overly optimistic about printing capability. "What looks good on a 17-inch computer monitor won't necessarily look the same on newsprint." I should add that the Tribune did not produce the unreadable Sudoku puzzle I complained about; the puzzle simply appeared in the Life magazine which was included with the newspaper. I noticed this week that Life has not changed its ways. Oh, well. The puzzles look pretty, and perhaps they're there simply for decorative purposes. It certainly isn't hard to find more readable Sudoku puzzles to actually work on.

I had no official comment from the Chicago Cultural Center, but several people who work there, as well as visitors and other volunteers, agreed with me. The November schedule isn't back to black on white, but it features a calendar on a lighter background than the brown one from October.

Copyright 2006 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Monday, October 09, 2006

The "Express Yourself" Authors' Conference

From September 29 through October 1, I attended Infinity Publishing’s “Express Yourself” Authors’ Conference in Valley Forge, PA, near Philadelphia. Most conference attendees were those of us whose books have been published by Infinity, but the conference was for anyone interested in marketing his/her books, regardless of publisher.

This conference opened a new world to me: I listened to inspirational advice on how to market books, as well as some basic information about publishers large and small, traditional and untraditional. The speakers included many stars of the independent book marketing world: authors of marketing materials, designers of web sites, providers of publicity packages, even a copyright law expert. I was fascinated.

Does this mean that I can or will get rich by turning my book into a best seller? No way. Both my age and my lack on entrepreneurial spirit are against me. I’m sure that the speakers can sell almost anything to almost anybody, but that’s not me. Perhaps I’m too comfortable. Of course I’d like to sell more books, but for me, the necessary expenditures of time and money seem excessive—and probably futile.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed the conference, and I learned a lot. I may try a few new book-selling strategies. There are plenty of them out there, including John Kremer’s 1001 Ways to Market Your Books, a book I own. I’ve used a few of Kremer’s easier tips, including’s tagging, author profile, “Inside the Book,” “Listmania,” and customer reviews, but 1001 ways? Talk about over-kill.

I admire the experts I heard: Kremer, Dan Poynter, Jerry Simmons, Penny Sansevieri, Brian Jud, Paul Krupin, and others. I enjoyed touring Infinity Publishing, as well as meeting its president, Tom Gregory, its vice-president, and other employees. I enjoyed seeing a few copies of my own book in the conference bookstore and on the publisher’s shelves. I enjoyed meeting some very interesting fellow writers and hearing about their books. They represent a wide variety of interests, experiences, and areas of expertise.

This conference made me happy to be an author, albeit a virtually unknown one, and reminded me how inspiring it is to learn new things, meet new people, and enter new worlds after retirement. But for me, it’s the writing, not the selling, that matters most.

Copyright 2006 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Before and After: Senior Smiles and Dentistry

Anyone who has read my essay, "My $30,000 Teeth," (included in my book) knows that I grew up with an addiction to chocolate candy, very bad teeth, and a problem with seeing dentists. I ended up with $30,000 worth of dental work, some cosmetic, some not, about two years ago. Just this year, two more teeth deteriorated and needed crowns, making the total about $33,000. For the first time in my life, my teeth look and feel good. See the photos above and below.

Why mention this now? I've recently met two intelligent, otherwise attractive people in my age group with "Jack-o-Lantern" smiles: just a tooth or two showing in the abysses of what I suspect were once toothy grins. I wonder why? These are not impoverished people. I suspect that neither has an extra $33,000, but surely they could afford standard dentures. I understand that even the poor can get dentures at little or no cost.

What's with senior citizens and dentistry, anyway? Costs have risen right along with the costs of medical care, of course. However, I've read that gum disease and rotting teeth can cause serious health problems. Are other seniors aware of this? Cosmetic dentistry may be a luxury, but dental health is not. Why are so many reluctant to consider it?

Copyright 2006 by Marlys Marshall Styne
Photos courtesy of Peter M. Tomaselli, D.D.S., Chicago Smile Design

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

I am a Ruppie!

Last Friday, I attended a luncheon at the Ritz Carlton Hotel presented by The Clare, the future lifetime care community where I expect to live in two or three years or whenever the fifty-three story building is completed. It's always a pleasure to meet a few of my future neighbors.

The featured speaker was Kyle Ezell, urban planner and author of Retire Downtown: the Lifestyle Destination for Active Retirees and Empty Nesters (Andrews McMeel, 2006). The book is dedicated "to the millions of Americans who already know and love downtown living and for the millions more who are just discovering it."

Ezell is a relentless promoter of city living for all, having grown up in a small town with visions of big city skylines in his head. He invented the term "Ruppies," or Retired Urban People, for people like me who love living in the city, or are at least considering it. According to his book's introduction, Ruppies "know the secret for staying young has a lot to do with where people choose to live. Downtown is their fountain of youth."

With the future Clare residents group, Ezell was "preaching to the choir"; many of us already live downtown or close by, while the others are already sold on city living. However, his talk reinforced my love for city living and made me wish that more of my friends would join me. There's nothing wrong with rural, small town, or suburban living (I've tried them all), but for me, Chicago (one of Ezell's twenty best retirement downtowns) is the place to live, and I'm glad to be a Ruppie! Thanks for agreeing with me, Mr. Ezell!

To check out The Clare, go to
To see Kyle Ezell's book, go to

Copyright 2006 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Monday, September 11, 2006

From the Reviews of Reinventing Myself: Memoirs of a Retired Professor

Wonderful book for those approaching retirement: “The Mrs. Styne that comes alive through these essays is someone the reader will genuinely like. . . . If you are approaching retirement, or if you have already retired and now find that you could benefit from some ‘reinvention,’ this book is for you. Learn from Mrs. Styne’s experiences.”

Marcelline Burns for Reader Views

Spirit and talent in a retired widow: “Few people have the spirit and energy to reinvent themselves. Marlys Styne has not only the will but the talent to become a writer. As she, and we, reexamines her life, clearly gumption has been there all along. How many professional women don leather suits, fling a leg over a back seat, and hang on for miles and days as hubby drives his motorcycle all over the world? . . . In the reinventing of Professor Styne, the tense is important. She didn’t reinvent herself in a gush of self-discovery; she’s been doing it quietly all along. . . . Pay close attention. Her style is straightforward and unadorned, which may speed you past the not inconsiderable wit of a life well observed.”

Margot Wallace on

A fine read as a glimpse of a fascinating life: "Lots of us who think we have stories to tell but find it hard to get started will find comfort, advice and inspiration in this book. . . . In a slender volume, the author manages to cover a range of topics from the lighthearted—Sudoku and cats—to the deeply serious—the loss of a dearly loved husband, a fight against breast cancer. She has a lovely voice and a lively pace. . . . This book is an inspiration to those of us who hope to be writers. Styne will tell us that we already are.”

Patricia Pando for Story Circle Book Reviews

A gentle and overall joyful collection: “[The author’s] reminiscences on family, aging, teaching, travel, revelations, and inspirational moments encourage fellow human beings of all ages and senior citizens especially to experience more and partake in the catharsis of writing.”

Midwest Book Review: Small Press Bookwatch,
The Biography Shelf, September 2006

Want to buy my book? Go to (read a "sneak preview" chapter there), (listen to an audio introduction there), or (see the table of contents, my profile, and my "listmania" list). To read an interview, go to To listen to an audio interview, go to

Friday, September 08, 2006

Must Reading for Teachers, Active and Retired

A Book Review of Teacher Man, by Frank McCourt (Scribner, 2005)

By the time he published this memoir, Teacher Man, in 2005, Frank McCourt was over seventy, and his great triumph, Angela's Ashes, had been published nearly ten years earlier. He had also published 'Tis, about his early years in New York. However, for teachers and retired teachers, like me, this is perhaps an even more fascinating book to read.

After struggling through his introduction to high school teaching at some of New York's more difficult schools, McCourt finally complered his career at the prestigious Stuyvesant High School, where his unorthodox techniques were criticized, but ultimately appreciated more often than not. He had his creative writing students reading recipe books aloud, with musical accompaniment. He told them, "Every moment in your life, you're writing. Even in your dreams you're writing. When you walk the halls in this school you meet various people and you write furiously in your head." I like McCourt's "writing is for everyone" message and his advice to his students to write down their grandparents' stories before it is too late.

I was impressed with his growing understanding of his students' reactions and their lives and their problems. If Frank McCourt's insecurities seem a bit overemphasized at times, the book does arrive at a positive message that we can share: writing material is everywhere, for everyone, and we should all make use of it as we move from fear to freedom. This is possible for the young (like our students) and the old (like Mr. McCourt and me).

Copyright 2006 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Shaw Festival

I spent last weekend at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake in Canada. I attended the Stratford Festival many years ago, but this was my first trip to the perhaps lesseer-known Shaw Festival. Just as the Stratford Festival is not exclusively Shakespeare, the Shaw Festival is not exclusively George Bernard Shaw.

I am no special fan of Shaw's plays, but when a friend suggested this trip, I decided to give it a try. I'm glad I did. I found seeing six plays in five days a challenge (while many in our group added extras from the festival's total of ten offerings). I guess I'm not a true theater afficianado; I seem to need more solitary relaxing and reading time than some of my fellow travelers.

Anyway, the hotel accommodations at the small Shaw Club Hotel were fine, the food was good, and the walks to the three neaby theaters fun, at least until the rain came.

Strangely enough, the play I enjoyed most was the new The Invisible Man by Michael O'Brien, adopted from the H.G. Wells novel. I guess I like special effects. Of course the play's message is a serious one, but there were some laughs as well.

Of the two Shaw plays I saw, I preferred Arms and the Man to Too True to be Good. Both were long, but the latter seemed to drag on.

I think Ibsen's Rosmersholm and Authur Miller's The Crucible are both good plays, but I've enjoyed some of Ibsen's other plays more: A Doll's House, Ghosts, An Enemy of the People. The Crucible was long, and I had difficulty hearng a few of the actors. Finally, Noel Coward's Design for Living seemed very dated. I guess it was new and shocking in its time, but certainly not now. Besides, it was the last play I saw, and I was tired.

Please note that these are just my personal reactions to a weekend experience. I am no drama critic, and not even a very frequent theater-goer. I think the Shaw Festival is a wonderful idea, and it's great that so many people attend. I enjoyed meeting the other members of our group, and I enjoyed the natural beauty of the setting. Would I go again? Yes, but probably not next year.

Copyright 2006 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Monday, August 21, 2006

Going Home Again, Part I: Is this Progress?

Top: Front view, the
original house today,

Bottom: Side view,
showing the addition.

On Sunday, I decided to take a closer look at my old farm home on the outskirts of Whitewater, Wisconsin. I knew that it had been turned into student housing many years ago, so I assumed that the house I remember as both beautiful and shabby was gone.

The house still stands on a curve in the road. From the west, the front looks beautiful: much the same, but refurbished quite attractively. The trees are not the ones that were there fifty years ago, but there are trees, as well as flowers. Of course the barn and other farm outbuildings are gone, replaced by new streets and small apartment houses.

Were this the only possible view, the house would seem to be a well-preserved version of the house I grew up in, but then there are the north, south, and east sides. There, a huge, box-like apartment building is attached, with multiple garages facing south. I suppose all this is progress, but my old home is gone.

Copyright 2006 by Marlys Marshall Styne
Photos by the author

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Going "Home" Again, Part II: My High School Reunion Picnic, 8/13/06

Last Sunday, I journeyed into the past. Like Thomas Wolfe and many others, I have dealt with the question of whether one can go home again, and both question and answer grow more complicated as time passes.

The home I sought last Sunday was the one I left at the age of seventeen, when I went away to college. That was fifty-six years ago, and other than a few summer vacations and short visits long ago, I never lived there again. The occasion was the annual reunion picnic of my old high school, Whitewater (Wisconsin) College High School.

The school, a "training school" for what was then Whitewater State Teachers College (now the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater) closed fewer than ten years after I graduated, so there are no new graduates. The surviving graduates are all senior citizens now. This picnic is canes and walkers and 40's and 50's music, not frisbee-playing and young children. This year, there were two or three attendees who graduated in the late 1920's, before I was born, so this group almost makes me feel young again.

With class sizes under thirty students (ours wasn't the only high school in town), we were and are a small group. I was the only reunion attendee from the class of 1950 (see my graduation photo above). Last year there were three of us (of the original twenty-one). I know that four or five class members are deceased, and one is recovering from an operation, but I wish more of the others had attended.

Anyway, the reunion was well worth the approximately one hundred mile drive. I joined five or six members of the class of 1951 and one from my brother's class of 1952, only one of whom I've kept in touch with, and enjoyed a bit of reminiscing. It was no surprise that most of the others enjoyed their high school days more than I, the ultimate shy nerd, did. I can laugh at my old self now. For me, high school was not "home."

Physically, the school no longer exists, and in my memory, it grows more remote as the years pass. Home now is Chicago, and returning here required only a drive in heavy traffic. I didn't mind that, and I'll probably attend next year's reunion picnic.

Copyright 2006 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Senior Moments
times two: Self-Help and Inspiration for Seniors

Book Reviews:

For seniors looking for self-help, inspiration, or just indications that the writing world cares about us, two books I've just read, with identical titles but different approaches, are certainly worth reading.

I. David Wayne Silva’s Senior Moments: Getting the Most Out of Your Golden Years (Outskirts Press, 2005) is a self-help book and an autobiography by a senior citizen for other seniors. This book is a series of appropriately-titled chapters about the inevitable challenges of aging and the experiences of the author and his friends in dealing with them.

In the first chapter, “Thoughts on Time,” Silva writes, “Time that seemed endless in our youth now flies by with brutal resolution.” However, one positive aspect of aging is that mentally active seniors learn to savor every moment. “We see beauty in people, flowers, sunsets, and our animal friends,” becoming more aware of the beauty that surrounds us. This book shows how Silva and his friends have done exactly that. The author offers a great deal of practical advice.

In chapters including “The Christmas Tree,” “Another New Year’s Day,” and “Valentine’s Day,” Silva deals with loss and how to find comfort on what could be lonely, depressing holidays. He finds comfort not only in memories, but in observing flowers, pets, even squirrels, and listening to crickets around him. He also finds comfort in his strong religious faith and includes a short prayer at the end of each chapter, yet he does not claim that religion is the answer for everyone.

Toward the end of the book, Silva mentions his own serious health problems in “On Sleepless Nights,” “Thoughts on Pain,” and “Chronic Illness,” but with few complaints. He retains his focus on the positive side of aging, emphasizing in another chapter that “Living Means Growing.” He suggests that we ask ourselves, “Am I still growing? Have I given in to aging and the conditions that growing old brings to our lives?” This book will help the senior reader who answers “No” to the first question and “Yes” to the second to improve his or her life.

Californian David Wayne Silva, a former teacher, school administrator, and family and grief counselor, comes through as a friendly, outgoing, caring senior I would like to meet and talk with. This book should appeal to and comfort anyone old enough to be thinking seriously about the problems of aging, issues almost everyone will face eventually.

II. Senior Moments, subtitled “A book for seniors and those who love them,” by Jacqueline D. Byrd (Byrd & Byrd, 2005), is based on the author’s weekly “Senior Moments” column, originally written for two Maryland newspapers. Mrs. Byrd is more Baby Boomer than Senior Citizen, but as an attorney specializing in Elder Law, she is eminently qualified to advise seniors and caregivers on various issues such as estate planning, health care, senior housing, and other challenges ranging from how to tell when it’s time to stop driving, how to avoid scams and frauds, and how to recognize and deal with elder abuse to how to remain active and stay happy into old age.

This book is full of valuable information; the author cites and quotes various experts on aging and legal issues, and includes a detailed table of contents that makes finding specific topics and resources easy.

The final chapter is more personal as Byrd discusses her own “extraordinary” mother and grandchildren and her coming sixtieth birthday. There, she contemplates “the realities and the mystery and blessing of growing older.”

There are many opportunities for seniors, but, writes Jackie Byrd, some seniors won’t consider volunteering at a senior center, moving to assisted living when it’s needed, or joining senior activity groups because “old people are there.. . . So, unneeded, they waste away, full of sadness and regret, feeling misunderstood and unloved.” Anyone who reads Byrd’s book carefully and heeds her advice can avoid such a fate.

Copyright 2006 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Show and Tell

My first photo album (one of many) dates back to the late 1930's. The first photo in the album, apparently taken at school when I was about six or seven and in the first grade, shows me standing behind a desk and in front of a blackboard, hands on my hips (or what would later become hips), staring straight ahead with a look of pride and determination that seems to say, "So there!" or "Look at what I did!"

My dark hair is in long corkscrew curls, held back by a small barrette of some kind. I am wearing a plaid dress with a light background, but of course the photo is in black-and-white, so I can't tell what colors are in the plaid. I hope it was at least partly red.

Behind me on the blackboard is my artwork: a primitive chalk drawing of my first cat, consisting of a circle for a head, triangles for ears, an oval for a body with short, straight lines sticking out on all sides to represent fur, plus a tail. Under the drawing, in crooked small-child-style printing, is my cat's name, PURRCILLA MEWRIEL. I don't remember Purrcilla, but I assume that her name came from one of the books my mother read to me so often. She loved cats, and so did I.

That picture was taken by my teacher about sixty-seven years ago. I no longer remember the teacher or the occasion, but I love the picture and would never throw it away, despite its torn and faded condition. I have a few earlier snapshots from my mother's album, but this one is the first that shows me on my own, facing life without a parent or anyone else visible.

In this picture, I see pride and independence and determination, as well as a plump face suggesting my lifelong weight problem. I was probably shy and reluctant to participate in that show-and-tell exercise, or whatever it was called then, but once I'd finished my creation, I was obviously proud of it. I see the picture as a primitive metaphor for my long life: I've never been confident about doing anything, and yet having done it, I've been proud and rather defiant, being surprised by any appreciation or praise I've received. I've also appeared arrogant sometimes, my way of hiding my shyness, and I see that in the snapshot too.

I don't know what my classmates thought of my presentation; they probably concluded that I would never be an artist (I still can't draw). They probably wondered why my cat wasn't named something simpler, like "Fluffy." Perhaps my inner writer was already emerging.

I doubt that I was yet planning to be first in the class and graduate as valedictorian about eleven years later, but I like that look of pride and determination. Still, if I could talk to that child today, I might say, "Lighten up and smile, little girl. You'll make it!"

Copyright 2006 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Thursday, July 27, 2006

On Writing a (Short-Short) Story in Twenty-Four Hours

The weekend brought the summer WritersWeekly 24-hour Story Contest. I'd won the $5 entry fee as a grab bag prize in the winter contest. I'm no fiction writer, but I enjoyed the first contest, so why not try again?

The topic seemed crazy to me, something about teenagers on a bus encountering a man carrying a mysterious black bag. However, I put my imagination into gear and took advantage of the contest's flexibility: according to the instructions, I could change the characters' ages, etc. I made them senior citizens rather than teenagers, and I was off! I like the idea of a time limit and deadline, since there are so few of either in my life now.

It's strange how the story just started to grow, with a touch of mystery and the supernatural. The result was "Mysterious Journey." I probably won't win the contest (results are still a month away), but I'm beginning to feel more like a writer. I plan to try more short fiction. Perhaps fiction has always moved me more that real life. My feeling of triumph didn't require winning; it involved finishing something I can be satisfied with.

Copyright 2006 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Saturday, July 15, 2006

In the Media: Brit Lit Rises Again

Yesterday, I found two articles in the Chicago Tribune relating to English literature, to old classics among the many that I tried to convince my community college students were worth reading.

Actually, the news item, relegated to the sixteenth page of section one, wasn't very surprising: "At auction, Bard brings $5 million." As Barbara Gaines' thriving Chicago Shakespeare Theater shows, Shakespeare has never really disappeared from the scene. And this rare copy of the First Folio, the edition in which Macbeth and Twelfth Night were first published, was bought and sold at Southeby's in London.

That's appropriate, and the US has its rare book collectors too. I guess I appreciated the description: "Widely regarded as one of the most important books in the English language." I also imagined my former students asking, "Why would someone pay that much for that book?"

The other article, in the Movies section, was more surprising. It was headlined, "Ancient epic poem Beowulf seen through a modern prism," a review by Michael Phillips of Beowulf and Grendel, and it gets two stars. Reviewer Phillips calls it a mixed-up and unbalanced picture, made nearly worthwhile by its filming location in Iceland and "the bone-white sea creature--Death, glimpsed only as a forearm with clawlike digits--who appears now and then..."

Apparently, in a revisionist heightening of the poem's tensions between pagan Norse legend and Christianity, Grendel "becomes a victim of blind, brutish racism." Who's the hero, Beowulf or Grendel? Reviewer Phillips also criticizes the "dizzying variety of accents" brought by the Scottish, Swedish, Icelandic, and Canadian cast (Gerard Butler, Steffan Skarsgard, Invar Sigurdsson, and Sarah Polley).

The review doesn't mention Grendel's mother, another impressive monster in the original epic. Perhaps director Sturla Gunnardson left her out. I may have to see this film to find out. When I first read this epic many years ago, I especially liked the idea of a female monster.

In my mostly unsuccessful efforts to revive traditional Brit Lit survey courses and Beowulf seven or eight years ago, I emphasized the modern-day appeal of monsters. Perhaps I would have been more successful emphasizing racism and discrimination. It's much easier to hate racism and discrimination than today's almost cuddly "monsters."

Anyway, I'm glad to see that Beowulf and Grendel have been revived once again.

Copyright 2006 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Thursday, July 13, 2006

It's Never Too Late!

Opening the small package to find three beautiful proof and copyright copies of my own book, with my name on the front cover and my picture on the back of each, was a major highlight of my life. When the books arrived in early May, 2006, it was more exciting than winning a lottery. I hope most writers don't wait seventy-some years for this experience, but there is really no time limit. It's never too late to write and publish a book, as I have proved. My book is Reinventing Myself: Memoirs of a Retired Professor (Infinity Publishing, May 2006).

I was a long-time community college English teacher. I've heard that most English teachers are either frustrated actors or frustrated writers, and if so, I belonged to the writer group. However, I did not teach at a publish-or-perish institution, and I kept very busy grading papers and preparing classes and serving on committees. In my last seven years of teaching, I was a busy department chair. I wrote and published a few short teaching-related articles, and I enjoyed doing so, yet I didn't feel like a writer.

To me, being a writer meant writing incredibly beautiful prose that flowed easily from pen or computer into beautifully-printed works of art. I admired authors from Shakespeare to Dickens to Twain to E.B. White, Alice Walker, and hundreds more. Yes, I really knew that writing involved hard work, but I chose to ignore that. I lacked the courage to try.

The turning point came in late December, 2005, when I returned from a pleasant holiday visit with extended family in Texas to an empty condo. By then, I had been retired for seven years and widowed for six. My beloved old cat, Lyon, had died at an animal hospital while I was away, and now I was really alone.

In an Internet search, I found StoryStudio Chicago, and since the beginning creative writing classes were filled, I enrolled in LifeWriting. I decided to write about what I know best, my life. The class motivated me to write and keep writing for eight weeks. I enjoyed sharing my work with my younger classmates, and I enjoyed hearing their work. Completing a book in eight weeks was not the assigned goal of the class, but I tried it anyway.

I had plenty of time to write, and writing, especially in the early morning hours, seemed to revive me. Words did not flow from my pen or computer in perfect order, but I revised and edited and revised again. I filled my wastebasket many times with discarded attempts. I also rediscovered a few essays I'd written as early as 1988, as well as a lecture on poetry and a commencement address I'd given in 1996. I began to envision not a chronological story of my life, but a series of personal essays old and new that told my story and encouraged others to write.

I really wanted to publish this book, but I realized that traditional publishers would not be eager to take a chance on a memoir by a new, unknown, elderly writer. For me, becoming rich or famous was not a priority, but of course publishers are in business to make money, as they must be. I began to explore the complicated world of self-publishing. Self-publishing had always been treated with disdain in my academic world, and I'd heard horror stories of exorbitant fees and writers' basements full of low-quality, unsold books. Still, computers seem to have changed the self-publishing world.

I discovered that I could publish my book for a reasonable fee that included cover design, retain all rights, and avoid any requirement to purchase copies. Of course I got no free copies beyond the proof copies either, but I didn't mind that. I could buy five or ten or one hundred copies as I chose, my first order at half-price and future orders at forty percent off. If the book sold, I would get modest royalties, even for those copies I sold myself, and if it did not sell, I was out only what I had already paid. Books, in addition to a very small publisher's inventory, could be printed on demand very quickly, and the book would never go out of print unless I chose to withdraw it, which I could at any time. I would be free to go to a traditional publisher if one showed interest later.

For me, independent former English professor and computer enthusiast that I am, it was thrilling to format the book myself according to the publisher's specifications, scan my own pictures, do my own editing and proofreading (with marvelous help from a friend), and submit my book in PDF format on a CD. I had total control. I didn't need to pay for editing or proofreading or formatting, although they are available and may be necessary for some authors.

That beautiful proof copy contained a few errors, of course. Still, making the corrections in my original Word file and submitting a new PDF disc was easy. I won't claim perfection, but except for one unintentionally convoluted sentence and one minor typo, I haven't found any errors in the finished book. I'll trust my readers to find any others that remain.

My book was finished by late March, the proof copies arrived in early May, and my book was published on May 24. I know it won't be a best seller, but just seeing it mentioned on various Internet sites is a thrill. The sales results will come later, but I've already achieved success on my own terms.

For me, self-publishing was a good experience. Seeing the proof book and then the final copies, selling a few copies myself, talking to old and new friends about the book, learning about promotional possibilities on various web sites: writing and publishing restored my enthusiasm and my enjoyment of life. That's why my title begins with "Reinventing Myself." I hope others will follow my example. It's never too late.

Copyright 2006 by Marlys Marshall Styne