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Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Where Was I . . . Show Me the Way to Go Home

I grew up reading the late humor writer Erma Bombeck, and she authored a book in 1991 called When You Look Like Your Passport Photo, It’s Time to Go Home. I wish she were alive to today to ask her: Where do you go when you look worse than your passport photo?

Last month my husband, two grown sons and I headed for what some have called “a trip of a lifetime,” but I refuse to call it that because it implies it was a one-and-done, and I want to go back. Anyway, we headed to Rome for three days and then a Mediterranean cruise. I prepped for months, and on departure day, I thought I looked Rome-ready. Italians embrace a concept known as bella figura, meaning “beautiful figure” or presenting your best image to the world. 

So, I did my best to live up their sartorial standards. I had applied my fake tan, had gotten my hair cut, had a pedicure, applied some press-on nails because gel nails often weaken my own nails, and on departure day, I donned my chic cheetah-print palazzo pants, black sweater and glitzy gold jewelry. My oldest son said I looked like Karen Hill from Goodfellas, which I wasn’t sure was good or bad. But what I do know is that it was all down hill from there. 

Our arrival in Rome. My sons and I in St. Peter's Square wearing my fashionable cheetah palazzo pants.  I'm sparing you the return photo.  Let's just say Khalid Sheikh Mohammed coming out of his spider hole would have had company😉
 My press-on nails didn’t make it through the security check at Pittsburgh International, so on the plane, I plucked off the six that remained. While shuttling my luggage, a bag shifted chipping my pedicure and hitting my instep. I didn’t think about that until logging 10 miles on our first full day in Rome, and my right foot swelled, giving it the appearance of an elephant foot. But the trip was incredible; besides Rome, we visited Florence, Nice, Monaco, Palma Majorca, Barcelona and Naples. I sweated off my fake tan in on the beach in Majorca, but other than being pale and gimpy, things looked pretty good—I had budgeted my wardrobe so that I had one clean outfit left to don to fly home.

We had to be off the ship by 7 a.m., so I was too lazy to put on makeup or curl my hair at such an early hour. What did I care? By that evening, we’d be back in Pittsburgh. To make room in my suitcase, I ditched my deodorant, which had crumbled, and pitched the squished tube of toothpaste, thinking what use could that little bit left in the tube do me? 

Don’t ever tempt the toothpaste gods!

Although our flight leaving Rome for Montreal was delayed, we had an empty plane allowing us to stretch out, and in my case, elevate my elephant limb and watch movies, but we missed our connecting flight to Toronto. The airline put us on a later flight that got us into Toronto with only minutes to spare before our flight left for Pittsburgh. We passed through Canadian customs and then a kind airport employee tried to help us get through U.S. customs quickly. He collected all our passports and had my oldest son process us through the automated kiosks while we stripped off shoes, belts, watches and Fitbits to pass through security.

Unfortunately, my husband’s shoe got trapped in the conveyor belt for a few moments, and after doing our best O.J. Simpson dash through the terminal sans shoes and accessories to the gate, they wouldn’t let us on the flight because our bags were still on the plane from Montreal, and the U.S. Border inspectors didn’t want to retrieve and clear them. This necessitated us going back through Canadian customs and being put up in a Toronto hotel overnight.

By the time we settled in, it was 12:30 a.m. eastern time, but by our Roman-adjusted body clock, it was 6:30 a.m., and we’d been up more than 24 hours. We had to get up three hours later for our flight to Pittsburgh.

The girl who had cultivated her bella figura, was flying home with teeth that felt like they had a velvet covering because I had no toothpaste, a swollen elephant foot and major bed head while wearing dirty clothes and smelling of Old Spice. Since I had no deodorant, I used my husband’s. (Manly, yes. But I like it too!)

By this time, I looked, smelled, and felt worse than my passport photo, and I don’t know what Erma would have prescribed, but I did the only thing that felt natural when I got home. I brushed my teeth, took a shower and headed for my bed!

This originally appeared in the October 2019 edition of Northern Connection magazine.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Where Was I . . Worth the Ride

Last month, I wrote about the little boy at Phipps mistaking me for a hero, but his month I’d like to tell you about some real heroes. 

Five years ago last August, my youngest son introduced us to a girl, who for the sake of privacy, I’ll call Chelsea. Over a period of about three weeks, he took her out a few times and brought her to our house. She was pretty, sweet, soft-spoken and funny, and my husband and I liked her immediately as did our dog, who climbed into her lapShe and I hit it off discussing Broadway musicals and Harry Potter books.  

Right before they were due to return to college, Chelsea had an examination and learned that the brain cancer that she had beaten seven years ago when she was twelve was back. I didn’t know her medical history, so we were all shocked and heartbroken for her and her family. Understandably, because of her precarious health, she eventually had to break off the relationship with my son to focus on getting well 

Selfishly, I wondered why Chelsea had been brought into our lives? Had my son never taken her out those few times before school commenced, we’d have been spared this pain. What was the purpose of her coming into our lives for such a short time only for us to face the prospect of heartache, suffering and loss? I spent a lot of time thinking about her and crying. I hadn’t signed on for this and didn’t know if I could handle it 

I was presented with a choiceI could back offno one would have known the difference. We’d only seen Chelsea a few timesor I could go along for the ride and offer whatever measly support I could. I realized that both she and her family didn’t want this either. Ultimately, I chose Chelsea over my fear of pain. I had to; I already cared about her. So, I befriended her mom on Facebook, who provided updates of her daughter’s (and her family’s) battle with brain cancer.  

My family prayed, sent cards, gifts and offered support on Facebook posts—but it never seemed quite adequate. The day my first granddaughter was born was doubly joyous as Chelsea’s mom also posted then that Chelsea had gone into remission. But that didn’t last, and the cancer came back. There were so many highs and lows in their fight, that I can’t remember them all, but last year, Chelsea’s options for treatment narrowed, and she and her mom moved to Memphis to seek treatment at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. They lived away from home for months trying anything to save her life.  

Sadly, in late spring, all treatment failed, and Chelsea came home to the North Hills. Updates from her mom became fewer. When her mother posted in late July that Chelsea would soon be leaving us, requesting prayers that she pass quickly and peacefully, we knew what was dreaded was here. 

Chelsea passed away on July 20 at the age of 25 after a 13-year battle with cancer. 

My family and I waited for two hours in line at the funeral home to offer our support and express our sorrow to her parents. I had never met her mother in person before, but that didn’t matter. Our aching hearts bonded.  

I didn’t want to get on this ride; I didn’t want to see Chelsea suffer and die, but I’m so glad I hopped on boardThough we are heartbroken, I got to witness a beautiful young warrior fight, graduate from college, and live life like there was no tomorrow. I witnessed the terrible beauty of fierce, selfless, heroic parental love in action 

No, I didn’t want it to end this wayand I still don’t know the purpose of this, but I do know one thing—knowing you, Chelsea, and witnessing you and youparents’ grace and undying love for each other has made all the pain worth it. You enriched and blessed our lives. Rest in peace, dear girl.

This article originally appeared in the September 2019 edition of Northern Connection magazine.

NOTE:  I've received a lot of feedback on this article, telling me how much Chelsea's story touched them.  If your are so inclined, her family is supporting St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital, and donations are certainly welcome.   

Monday, September 16, 2019

Let's Welcome Karen Hulene Bartell author of The Keys: Voice of the Turtle

I'm always happy to feature a fellow writer on my blog. Today, let's welcome Karen Hulene Bartell, who has recently released, The Keys: Voice of the Turtle, a mainstream fantasy.

Finding buried treasure and love, Keya moves forward, but can she save the beach? Can Ruth find Maita’s murderer or help Bart solve his 400-year-old mystery? Join their adventures as they mingle with ghosts and talk with turtles.

Let's get to know Karen and her new book:

Q. - Please tell us a little about yourself, where are you from? Where do you live now? Family? Pets?

Thank you for inviting me to your blog, Janice Lane Palko! I was born in Jersey City, NJ, to rolling-stone parents who moved annually. My earliest playmates were fictional friends in books. Paperbacks were my portable pals. Ghost stories kept me up at night—reading feverishly. The paranormal was my passion. Wanderlust inherent, I enjoyed traveling, although I loathed changing schools—seven schools by the time I entered ninth grade.

Novels offered an imaginative escape. An only child, I began my first novel at nine, but stopped after several days. (Said I needed to learn more first.) Professor emeritus of the University of Texas at Austin, I live in the Texas Hill Country with my husband Peter and my mews—three rescued cats and a rescued *Cat*ahoula Leopard dog.

Q. - Where did you get the idea for THE KEYS: VOICE OF THE TURTLE?

The idea for THE KEYS: VOICE OF THE TURTLE came to me as my husband and I drove Highway 1 through the Keys all the way to Key West. (Something about travel always spurs my imagination.) Key West itself is so chock-full of history and ghosts, the two apparitions almost wrote themselves into this Mainstream Fantasy. Even Key West’s original name evokes mystery. The Spaniards called it Cayo Hueso, meaning Island of Bones, because they found human bones scattered across the island’s white beaches when they first arrived. Since I love turtles, the underlying  message of this novel is saving one of the few remaining sea-turtle nesting beaches from being developed into a hotel and lost forever to the turtles.

Q. -  Why did you choose the Mainstream Fantasy genre?

I like to read stories that include mystery, romance, nature, and the supernatural.  As a result, I write stories that include those four elements. Although a romance develops between Keya and a dashing sailor, this is not a “Romance,” even though a budding love develops between a thirty-something man and woman.

A body washes up on the beach and begins a whodunnit mystery, but two other mysteries also crop up. Though Keya finds buried treasure and love, can she save the beach? Can Ruth find the body’s murderer or help Bart solve his 400-year-old mystery? Despite all these mysteries to solve and resolve, this is not a “Mystery.”

I chose the Mainstream Fantasy genre because where else can readers join the characters’ adventures as they fall in love, mingle with ghosts, and talk with turtles?

Q. - Was there any anecdote about THE KEYS: VOICE OF THE TURTLE you’d like to share?

Yes, finding the name Keya for one of the main characters—who is Native American and a turtle aficionado—was kismet.

In the Lakota Sioux language, Keya means Turtle. The setting of the Mainstream Fantasy novel is the Florida Keys, and the premise is protecting sea turtles and their nesting beaches. The title is The Keys: Voice of the Turtle.

Q. -  Are there any tricks, habits or superstitions you have when creating a story?

The only writing “tricks” I have are these two:
a)     I can only write in the morning when I’m fresh—which often means getting up at 3:30, so I can write before my day begins, and
b)     I write every day, which keeps the story going. Even afternoons, when I’m busy with other obligations, my mind continues thinking about what the characters will do next.

Q.-  What book have you read that you wish you had written?

Gone With the Wind, my favorite book of all time

Q. - What do you love that most people don’t like and wouldn't understand why you do?

I love researching my books and going on “Tory n’ Mom” trips with my dog—for instance, going on Louisiana’s Creole Nature Trail and getting cornered by a bobcat or walking through the Wetland Walkway and meeting an alligator. I love nature and enjoy going on rock hunts near the Rio Grande in Terlingua’s mountains, or walking barefoot through White Sands, New Mexico, or climbing the Franklin Mountains, or sitting in an open cattle trailer at dawn, waiting for Nebraska’s Prairie Chickens to begin their “dance.”

Q. - Are your characters based off real people or did they all come entirely from your imagination?

Completely, yet not at all. Let me explain ;) I take pieces of people—facial or other physical features, mannerisms, unusual speech inflections, or temperaments. Then, I combines these qualities into a wholly new character. Once in Taipei, Taiwan, I followed a man into a bookstore because he absolutely looked like the mental picture I carried of one of my characters.

Q. - Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?

Yes, in THE KEYS: VOICE OF THE TURTLE, the underlying message is to save one of the Keys’ few remaining sea-turtle nesting beaches from being developed into a hotel complex and lost forever to the turtles.

Q. - How much of the book is realistic?

All of it, yet none of it. Let me explain ;) Like I “piece together” characters, I merge real places (and sometimes events) with total fiction. Hopefully the result is a seamlessly “realistic” amalgamation that is plausible and could happen yet is rooted from my imagination.

You can purchase the book at:

Read an Excerpt: 


“These nesting grounds are the reason I’ve fought to keep this property intact. If this beach is developed, the impact will destroy it, but fighting the lawsuit is expensive. I’d hate to sell this place to pay court costs.”
“But you said keeping the nesting grounds intact is only part of the reason you stay.” Ruth gave her a sympathetic smile. “What’s the rest of it?”
“Call it my legacy.” Keya stood up straight. “When I’m gone, I’d like this beach to remain as nature intended it…for the turtles. Since I’ve never had children—”
Earnestine meowed.
Keya grinned. “That is, except for my furry, four-legged kids, I’ve never had children. I have no one to leave it to other than who or what will make the best use of it. Conveying this land to the turtles would be my way of leaving the world a better place.” She turned toward Ruth. “Does that make sense?”
Ruth nodded. Her cousin’s intentions were clear. “But legally, how can you will the property to the turtles?”
“Easy. I leave it to the Turtle Refuge.” Keya chuckled as they meandered along the beach. “And this is where you come in. When you’re writing the brochure, add a few paragraphs about planned giving and charitable bequests…” Keya stared as if in a trance.
“What’s wrong?”
Her hand shaking, Keya pointed to a shady patch of beach half hidden by sand dunes. A lifeless hand lay tangled in seaweed, its fingernails broken and bloodied.