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June 11, 2009

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Pastorius Park concerts kick off next Wednesday.

Senate Bill 850 got what it deserved

One of Northwest Philadelphia’s most influential lawmakers had a big hand Monday in blocking a piece of state legislation that would have slashed billions from state programs, including funding for “main street” development grants, libraries, education programs, health and human services and arts and culture grants. The bill, if passed, would have eliminated funding for the state’s park system, including nearby Ft. Washington State Park.

That politician, Oak Lane State Rep Dwight Evans (D-203), chairs the appropriations committee that voted 20-14 to kill Senate Bill 850, a state budget plan crafted by Republicans that sought to solve the state’s deepening budget woes by slashing programs and not raising taxes.

Evans told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he believed Senate bill 850 was a good start on the road to a compromise between Democrats and Republicans and said he believed that a state income tax increase might be necessary to avoid the steep cuts proposed by Republicans.

State Rep. John Myers (D-201) was not so circumspect. “This stinks,” he told the Harrisburg Patriot News “It stinks and it needs to be thrown out in the garbage.”

The apparent defeat of Senate Bill 850 is good news to the many who feared the cuts proposed by Republicans would have too severe an effect on the neediest state citizens, particularly the elderly, children, the poor and others in need of special services.

According to the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, an independent, non-partisan policy research project, Senate Bill 850 would have cut state programs by $4.4 billion.

The PBPC also noted that, in its zeal for cutting spending, while refusing to raise taxes or tap into the state’s “rainy day fund” (something proposed by Gov. Ed Rendell), Senate Republicans were simply kicking some state obligations off on others. According to a PBPC analysis (http://pennbpc.org/senate-budget-calls-deep-sweeping-cuts):

“In its haste to slash spending, the Senate cut or eliminated preventive programs, from the Homeowners’ Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program (HEMAP) to Nurse Family Partnerships to Supplemental Payments for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) beneficiaries, which redirect individuals to more costly alternatives and increase public costs over the long run. Finally, the Senate plan cuts services jointly funded with local governments, which will necessitate local tax increases in most instances.”

Clearly, even if state Republicans had gotten their way, state residents would still have experienced painful tax increases to pay for essential services in their individual municipalities. Perhaps state Republicans don’t consider those services essential.

Plugging the budget gap is still going to be difficult, even with Bill 850 off the table. Even the budget proposed by Rendell calls for spending cuts, but it also calls for targeted tax increases and tapping into reserve funds.

Rendell’s plan will do a better job, though, of spreading the burden of the current recession across the entire state, instead of burdening the needy and disadvantaged, who would lose services.

Pete Mazzaccaro

 

Weary of queries, then: “Hey you: send pages.”


A month has passed since I last reported on my quest “to write a novel in a year,” a month that had been crushingly discouraging up to this week. I’ll share my small triumph with you in a moment, after I tell you what it’s been like.

The original quest, you may recall, was to follow the guidelines set out by Walter Mosley in his helpful little writers’ guide This Year You Will Write Your Novel. Write every day for at least an hour and a half. No holidays. Then rewrite. Read it to yourself out loud and take notes. Tape record it and listen to it. Take notes. Rewrite. Within a year, you’ll have a short novel.

So, beginning January 1, 2008, I wrote every day for a few hours and in three months had a 90,000-word typescript. Then I re-plotted and revised and rewrote and re-tortured myself for the rest of the year until I finished. In February of this year, I gave copies of the book to four smart people and they poked their fingers in the soft spots. Through the rest of February and March I rewrote until I was “done.”

Fifteen months of hard work and I finally had a novel in hand.  But as they say in Victorian novels: “Little did I know the trials that lay ahead.”

With only rare exceptions, the way to get a book published is to convince an editor to read your book, get excited about it, and tell his publishing house to buy it. Sounds simple enough, except that editors will not read unsolicited manuscripts. And you can’t call them — they won’t take your call. You can’t send flowers and a note, or a box of candy or their favorite chocolate cake with a Word file inside. They don’t want to hear from you.

And why is that? you may ask. Well, good question, here’s the simple answer: There Are Too Many Gosh-darned People Out There Writing Novels. As wonderful as I thought my achievement was, spending fifteen months writing over 100,000 words, 300 pages, I was deluded if I thought what I’d done was rare.

The hills are alive with novels and novelists. They’ve sprouted up everywhere like toadstools after a spring shower. To the publishing world, we are the cast from Night of the Living Dead, staggering forward, manuscripts in hand, chanting “Read. Read. Read” in our mind-numbing voices.

Only — get this — the publishers know that somewhere out there in the great flood of words, there is a gem of a story, terrifically told by a gifted writer. From this person’s talents, say a Stephanie Meyer, or an H.K. Rowling, the industry can make enough money to stay alive. And  subsidize all the other writers, whether literary or mainstream, that make up the rest of the industry.

To find these writers, the publishing houses turn to talent scouts, aka literary agents. Agents find the good writers and sell their manuscripts for them, charging a percentage of whatever income follows.

An unconnected writer (i.e. someone who does not know someone, or is not a M.F.A. candidate in a university-based writing program) must seek an agent. With a little resourcefulness, finding agents’ names and business addresses is not hard to do, especially given the Internet.

But agents have the same problem the rest of the industry has: a heck of a lot of people want to be writers — probably as many as who want to be rock stars. No one can screen every book that is for sale out there in the cosmos.

So, a protocol has emerged. Unknowns can only get the attention of an agent through the equivalent of “speed dating,” or an “elevator pitch.” They must write a “query letter.” Some agencies accept only e-mail inquiries, some only snail mail, some both. Some none, as they post: “We do not accept unsolicited queries.”

The query letter is one page, but they do let you single-space it. It usually is formatted thusly:

1. Greeting: Hi, I chose you because you agented the book “X Meets Y,” and you are the best person in the world for my book, “Y Meets X,” a clever spin on the original. Edgy-like, you know.

2. Synopsis: “When X, the loneliest letter in the Alpha-Bits box, first tumbled out of the safety of the only home he’d ever known, down into a cold ceramic bowl, and felt the chilly milk pouring over his neck, he never expected to meet Y, the Vanna White-like letter-turner of his dreams (and heir to the Post cereal fortune). But how will they get out of the bowl together while a giant spoon keeps descending and randomly tearing their world apart? Perhaps by telepathically making the phone ring in another room X can buy time for himself and his beloved Y to escape. Will it work?”

3. Bio. What makes me qualified to write about soggy cereal with a professional’s eye?

4. Marketing Plan: Describe what I’ll say if I go on Oprah or am forced to get deep and thoughtful with Maury Povich.

Just kidding, folks, but after you do a number of these query letters you start to go a little batty.           

From April 6 of this year, up to and including this morning, my first piece of business every day has been to send off at least one query letter to an agent. Occasionally I’ll get an e-mail response that my letter has been received “and will be carefully considered within 6 to 8 weeks.”

On three occasions I received e-mails saying, “Just doesn’t seem right for our list,” or “We are not buying fiction at this time.”

Most agencies, however, take a “Waiting for Godot” approach: If they like you, they’ll get in touch...soon...maybe. If they don’t, you’ll never hear a word from them. Not even “no.”

I have never felt so discouraged in my life — throwing stones in the canyon and not even getting to hear them hit bottom. I seriously wanted to just stick the manuscript in the drawer, give up, and enjoy the rest of my life without this daily angst. But I felt a commitment to the four people who took the time to read my book. And a commitment to the readers of this column. I kept plugging.

And then, this week, something wonderful happened: for the first time, an e-mail response came back, within hours, saying: “Thanks for the query. Please email the first fifty pages as a Word attachment; include the query, bio, and synopsis at the start of the document.”

This is called  “being asked for pages.” I sent them, of course, quietly thrilled to at least be acknowledged. Many a novel dies right there. Most, in fact. But, if this agent likes what he reads, he’ll ask for the whole book. And if he likes the book, he’ll try to sell it. And if an editor likes his pitch and they do a deal...well, the world will be my oyster —maybe sometime late in 2010.

Probably nothing will come of it and I’ll have to keep plugging along. But at least I got a small response and that’s enough to let me know there is, indeed, a world out there I might escape to if “Y” and I can only get over the rim of the bowl.

gilmorebookshop@yahoo.com

 

Time is right for local produce


If you’ve been trying to buy local produce, you can now celebrate the official opening of the regional farming season. Fresh asparagus, rhubarb and finally strawberries are available at farmers markets, co-ops and also at my new favorite, pick-your-own farms.

After reading Barbara Kingsolver’s new book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I have committed myself to buying local and trying to eat foods in season. This means choosing fruit and vegetables as they ripen in southeastern Pennsylvania.

Although I am currently trying to grow many vegetables and fruits myself, my .05 acres will not allow complete self-sufficiency. To subsidize our own farming efforts, I will be heading out to pick my own crops from local farms.

Not only do I get to buy in bulk, reduce packaging and breathe fresh air, but I get to meet the farmers and see their operation. An added bonus is that my son gets to see where our food comes from and how it looks on the vine. Have you ever seen a brussel sprout plant? Shocking.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is a yearlong journal of one family’s attempt to become locavores. Kingsolver’s family of four grew what they could on less than a quarter acre and purchased the rest from farm markets.

They preserved their extra bounty for the winter and gave up eating things from far away, all while focusing on the incredible flavors of heirloom plants and humanely pasture-raised animals. In their opinion, it wasn’t sacrificing at all.

As Kingsolver says, “Food is the rare moral arena in which the ethical choice is generally the one more likely to make you groan with pleasure.”

Local vs. organic. This is where I often have difficulty deciding, but getting to know your farmer can help shed some light on this decision. Many local farmers cannot afford organic certification, but still use integrated pest management (IPM) and other sustainable and/or organic practices.

Supporting a farmer nearby is far more important than supporting an organic farmer in California, in my opinion. When times are tough and a bag of lettuce that has traveled 3,000 miles costs $5, I’ll be happy to know that I’ve helped to keep the local guy in business.

If you’re going to try to make it through the winter while still buying only local, you are going to have to learn to put some things up. This means preserving, pickling, freezing, canning, etc., to save these delectables for the cold, dark days of January and February when kale is drawing mutinous mumblings from your family.

Envision yourself serving a fruit tart made from frozen berries that you picked one sunny summer morning back when you were warm. Your family shrieks with delight — a Martha moment to be sure.  I’m imagining my triumph now.

There are many books to get you started canning, some of which are probably on your shelves now. Joy of Cooking and many of the old cookbook standards have chapters on canning and preserving. Outfitting yourself with the right tools will make things easier.

Retailers sell canning kits that have most of what you’ll need. Kilian’s Hardware stocks many of these items, and Kitchen Kapers has a kit for $19.99.

If you’re just planning on doing jams and jellies or other acidic foods, you’ll be using a water bath technique and not the scary pressure-canning method. By all accounts, it’s not as hard as most of us imagine, but it does take time and planning.

How much fruit or veggies will you need to buy? This of course depends on an overly optimistic assessment of your time and temperament. I enjoy buying everything my eyes land on and then cussing my way through till the end.

You might be a bit more of a “ready, set,  pick your own” moderate and buy in small batches to try your hand at the process. Your recipe will be your guide to the quantities needed. I applaud your restraint. 

My next suggestion is to find some like-minded foodies and can together. Think of canning as the new knitting. Friends getting together all over the neighborhood to sweat over a steaming pot of Ball jars. Can you do it? Yes, you can can.

Now is the time to start planning and picking. The strawberries are in this week at most farms and cherries are next. Local pick-your own farms can be found at www.pickyourown.org, which also includes picking tips, how-to-can tutorials, canning supplies and suppliers and recommended books. Most of the farms listed will have links to their picking schedules, hours and directions.

Other Web sites to help you find a farmer near you include www.farmtocity.org and www.buylocalpa.org, which connects communities to local farmers through farmers markets, CSA’s, buying clubs and more. And then there is www.localharvest.org, a national Web site where you can look up farms, farmers markets, grocery stores and restaurants that use local produce — very useful while on vacation!

 

Hooked on racing and road trips to watch it

It’s been a while since my last column, but I’ve been on a binge. Once you get hooked on racing it’s a tough habit to break. So I’ve been on the road to get my fix — I’ve hit some amazing motorsports races and have seen some of the best drivers compete for coveted titles.

March 20, my brother Aaron took me to my first race of the year at Bristol Motor Speedway. Imagine visiting the Sistine Chapel for the first time — a lifelong aspired dream.  That’s what my trip to BMS was for me.  I loved it.  We arrived early Friday morning and went directly to the track and spent all day there, as well as Saturday and Sunday.

It was the first time ever that I was at a track for the Sprint series qualifiers. I didn’t miss any of the action and even though we were staying one hour away, Aaron and I were one of the first in and one of the last to leave the track that entire weekend.

A little over a month later I was ready and energized to get back to the track, so on May 2 I headed to the Richmond International Speedway with my buds. We were on the road at 7 a.m. Saturday and got back from Richmond around 6 a.m. Sunday. Even though I saw the new devil, Kyle Busch, win for the second time in person it was still a great time at the race.

Richmond is the only track that I know of that you can walk within 20 feet of the cars all the way around the 3/4-mile track. It is such a rush to be there and feel the cars running towards you and pass you at 170 mph!

May 21 I took an awesome trip with the guys that is sure to become an annual one.  We left Thursday and came back Monday.  In that span of time we hit Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C. to visit the Red Bull team and changed tires for two hours with the help of the real Red Bull pit crew.  We even had the chance to talk to and get autographs from Red Bull team drivers Brian Vickers and Scott Speed (a former Formula One driver).

Then we met Richard Yates, brother to car owner Robert Yates. It was truly a thrill as Richard shared a lot of racing stories that had us in awe.  Next we were off to The Dirt Track at Lowe’s Speedway in Charlotte to see Austin Dillon, nephew of multicar owner Richard Childress, win in the World of Outlaws race. We talked to him, Childress, Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne and others.

With all of the excitement, the Nationwide Race seemed to be almost an afterthought.  The rain delayed, day late Sprint Cup Race was held Monday and while waiting out the rain, we devised our trip home and when to leave if the race was to go into the night.  We left before the official end of the race, which was to be the Coca-Cola 600.  It ended up being the Coca-Cola 340.5 race.  Despite the rain, we had a blast.

A week later we all took the trip south to Dover International Speedway for the Nationwide Race May 30 and then headed to the Sprint Cup on Sunday, May 31.  We are getting to be pros about taking road trips.  So far I have traveled about 4,000 miles to see racing. Just the memories alone made the trip worth every grueling mile. 

Now, it’s off to F1.  Yup, I don’t miss anything.  But, this is more of a plea, really.  I’m only a few years into F1 and don’t see myself as a great fan, yet.  I’m constantly learning new things from race to race.  What I do know is what F1 is doing right now, which is exactly what NASCAR did years ago: Grabbing audiences. And, not just anyone: US audiences are one of the hardest to get in the world.  We have everything already and are content with what we have, sports wise. We just want more and more of it.  So, what do we need a new sport for? 

But, F1 is like no other sport. I’m telling you, give it a whirl. Drivers go from 180 mph to take a turn at 40 mph, dropping speed faster than a rock drops and with G force that gives astronauts the chills.  The tracks are all over the world and each different.  The drivers are the best in the world and do things in these cars that make your head spin.  But, more importantly, Peter Windsor and crew are starting up an American F1 team for next year.  Get used to and familiarize yourself now so that you will be ready next year and you’ll get hooked. 

There is plenty of drama on and off the track.  F1 is facing, like everything in the world today, financial troubles and is looking at how it can save money and not spend it like it can’t be printed fast enough, as it has been for years now. In order to keep things going in F1, watch.  You won’t be sorry and I’ll be happy to guide you to where you can start.  Speed TV and speedtv.com will help tremendously.

For now, I must catch up on my sleep and get ready for another weekend of racing.  I can’t get enough and plan to go to the dirt track at either Grandview in Pennsylvania or Bridgeport in New Jersey this weekend.  Motorsports are great and the vast passion will get you hooked no matter what vehicle you like to see racing.  Drop me a line and I’ll talk racing with you.

Adam L Serfass can be reached at winstoncuplover@mac.com.

 

A letter to the president and chief executive officer of Mars Inc.

Dear Mr. Michaels:

Please excuse the pun, but I haven’t snickered — not once — at the new Snickers billboard ad campaign.

Before I tear it apart, though, I should give credit where it’s due.

In the ads I see a brilliant use of semiotic synecdoche. Brand recognition is evoked quickly and efficiently through the candy bar’s long-standing logo design and color scheme.

My praise ends there.

Look, I realize that funny ads are supposed to disarm us consumers, that they’re supposed to make us drop our guard long enough for you to slip through your message and sell us something we didn’t know we needed.

I liked your last ad campaign. If I’m hungry, why wait? There is a delicious, balanced meal in every Snickers bar. Chocolate, nougat, peanuts, sugar — what more could an impulsive manchild ask for?

My mouth is watering as I write this. My sweet and salty taste buds are begging to be indulged. But, in protest, I refuse to grab a Snickers.

I have a few questions for you. Perhaps you could pass them on to your advertising team.

How exactly do I “get a degree in snackonomics?” What is the course of study? Are there any prerequisites? Should I study lesser Mars products before moving on to something so complicated as a Snickers bar? Is Mars licensed to bestow academic credentials upon me when I finish my degree requirements? How long will that take? I’m kind of busy.

A “hungerectomy” sounds dangerous, so I’m wondering if there are any common medical complications. (Sounds like it could cause rectal bleeding.) Am I qualified to perform it myself? Or should I consult a specialist? Will my insurance cover the procedure?

What is a “chewmute?” Is that ad aimed at people who are allergic to chocolate? I can’t imagine that they’d be able to say much with a swollen tongue.

Who is your target market for the ads urging us to get our “bling” on with Master P-Nut?

If that ad is supposed to be funny or clever, I must have missed the joke. Actually, I think it’s mildly offensive since I’ve seen the ad mostly in neighborhoods where white people like me fear to tread. What’s next? Should we ‘holla’ at a Snickerz bar?

Please assure me that a bunch of fat, prematurely bald 30-somethings didn’t design that ad. Please tell me you didn’t actually pay them for that.

Here’s a suggestion for an ad you might mock up for your creative think tank, you know, to teach them a lesson.

Keep the logo and the color scheme, but replace chewmute — or any of the witless neologisms — with this: Tryagain.

 




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