January 7, 2010


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Hooray for the New Year!

10 ways to green in the New Year

Pursuant to aging, I am not the person I was even seven short years ago. I was not always the tree-hugging, green-tea-slurping, holistic-preaching person that I am today. It did not happen overnight, not even over a year, but over many years of baby steps until one day, here I am, a homemade granola-crunching greenie.

There is a Buddhist saying that goes “a jug fills drop by drop.” My bucket started when I was pregnant with my son and I began analyzing everything I put into my body because it, in turn, affected him. I stopped drinking, which was as natural to me as putting on shoes.

When I got a cold, I learned how to nasal douche so I could breathe without taking decongestants. I bought an organic crib mattress because I read about the harmful effects of breathing in fire retardants. And so it went with each passing month, one organic thing leading to another, each contradiction exposing the next.

Over Christmas dinner I heard many conversations about these “hypocritical” people who drive 20 miles to go to a food co-op to buy local organic food or buy their food and bring it home in plastic bags. Isn’t their “do-goodieness” negated by their burning of gas and using plastic? Our lives are full of contradictions, but that doesn’t mean that we should stop trying just because we can’t do it all. We all have to start somewhere, step by step.

A few months ago, when I interviewed Katherine Lewis Sarsfield, co-founder of Sustainable Springfield, we discussed the challenges of greening our own lives and that of our community. She said she constantly has to think and rethink her choices about everything. Phew! That sounds like a lot of mental Judo! I won’t lie, it is. But it doesn’t have to be all at once. Those people who go out on January 1 and work out in a gym for three hours and have to stay in bed for the next few days because they are too sore to move, will not stick with it. Slow and steady wins the race here.

When I and fellow GRINCH member, Ann King-Musza, gave a talk at the J.S. Jenks school about recycling, we asked the children to imagine having to live with all the trash they create for the rest of their lives. This brings everything down to its most basic level. Do you want to live with that plastic swimming pool or Hello Kitty pencil case for the rest of your life? This is the premise, the starting point of making good choices drop by drop.

So these are my suggestions, easy first steps, of the top 10 things to green your new year, in my humble opinion.

Walk more. It’s free, great for your health and while you’re out you can shop and support the local economy.

Change from your big, national bank to a small independent bank, Valley Green Bank, for example. Let’s put our money where our mouths are and get rid of some of the banks here. See this link on how to “Move Your Money”

Host or attend a local food potluck. “One of the best ways to learn what foods are in season and how to prepare them is to invite others to teach you.” –

Get out in nature more. The University of Rochester in New York has found that nature actually makes us nicer. Other benefits include more rapid healing, stress reduction and improved mental performance and vitality. Join the Andorra Tree House, for one of its guided walks, or the Schuylkill Center by attending its ongoing nature classes and events.

Learn how to garden. Look for free classes in the spring at Laurel Hill Gardens on planting, composting etc. Plant some herbs in a window or fruit trees in your yard.

Buy or fix up a bike and start riding. You can walk to Wissahickon Cyclery! Google “Philadelphia bicycle map” to help you find safe bike routes.

Meet a new neighbor. Increasing our connectivity to one another improves our social capital, making our community closer and stronger. If you’re a parent and new to the area check out for meet-up groups.

Take public transportation more. “Public transportation produces on average 95 percent less carbon monoxide, 90 percent less volatile organic compounds, and about 45 percent less carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide per passenger mile than if people were to travel by private auto.” – Transit Riders for Public Transportation.

Think and rethink. For easy step by step help, check out

Have a very happy and eco-logical New Year! Please email me at


Cleats on, and running up the mountain

I wish, I do, and this is true ... I wish I had a kangaroo.

I’d put a bumper sticker on him that said, “I’d Rather be Short-story Writing” and send him hopping up the mountain in my place. Instead, I slog on toward imagined glory as a novelist, now beginning my third year of a jolly little task meant to be done in a year — “I’ll just make a quick dash up this hill” — and this after inviting the world (i.e. Chestnut Hill Local readership) to watch me. “I shan’t be a moment.” (Ever read Eric Newby’s “A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush”? It’ll open a world for you of wonderful travel writing.)

In the year 2000, I declared that the ‘Now’ part of ‘Now or Never’ had arrived. I changed my used book shop hours from six-days-a-week to two, and began writing every day. After I kept at it for a while, people praised me for my ‘discipline,’ but the compliment never took because there is a difference between discipline and desperation. (“Time’s winged chariot at my heels...”). Besides I knew very little about writing.

By that I mean to say the craft of writing was largely invisible to me when I started writing. Insight, imagination, wisdom, and wit are all necessary to a story’s success, of course, but they’re useless when you don’t know how to write ‘scenes.’ Scenes pull the reader forward and structure a book.

Maybe I could have learned this vital truth sooner if I’d taken a creative writing course ten years ago, but I didn’t. I wrote two novels and a memoir in a kind of “and then” style. When it came time to rewrite and revise them, I thought that meant I should concentrate on writing better sentences. I spent a lot of time taking my sentences and making them ‘artistic.’ In doing so, I strangled the life out of all three books. Because I learned that lesson, I am now in awe of any writer who can create beautiful sentences while telling a story. 

In 2007, I read the mystery writer Walter Moseley’s, “This Year You Write Your Novel.” Just for fun, I thought I’d take time out from my serious, life-affirming novel/memoir to knock off a quick mystery book. One year, start to finish. I’d follow his suggestions: write every day for at least an hour-and-a-half, read it aloud, make notes, revise, read it into a tape recorder, listen, make notes, rewrite. Then maybe try it out on some critical readers. Rewrite again. Voilà! A novel.

Using his advice (selectively), I announced my theme for the year: publicly describe my progress toward writing a mystery novel, in a year. What a hoot! Hah.

I wrote every day and produced a 100,000 word ‘finished’ story by the end of March. I revised and rewrote for the rest of 2008, including complete rewrites where I changed the point of view from first to third person, back to first, then back to third.

In January 2009, I announced in this column that I was ‘finished’ enough to invite four trusted people to read and criticize my novel. They did. By the end of April I’d worked day and night to incorporate their suggestions into the — ahem — “finished” novel.

An unknown person cannot send a manuscript to a publisher in this day and age and expect to have it read. One needs an agent. To get an agent, one must write a ‘query’ letter to him or her. If that person likes your letter, he/she may ask for a sample of your book. This happens largely online, by the way, as e-mails (with attachments — but only on request).

By October I had been rejected or ignored by every agent in New York, California, New Jersey, Colorado, and Illinois to whom I’d written. Some had asked for sample pages, but, if they read them, they didn’t think they were commercially viable. Very discouraging. I considered (in print) quitting the novel. 

What happened next surprised me.

During the time I’d been writing the novel and revising it, I had been building a small following of people who hoped that all my hard work would pay off for me. First, because they wished me well; secondly, because mine was the test flight, if you will, for their own hopes and dreams as writers.

For example: In August, my wife, Janet, developed a high fever, with cough and lung congestion. We went to the emergency room at Chestnut Hill Hospital, where her illness was diagnosed as “Type A” influenza. While we were there, three people in three different situations, asked me, “Gilmore? Hugh Gilmore from the Local, ‘Enemies of Reading’?”


“How’s your book going? Have you found an agent yet?”

And a brief conversation revealed that the person who asked had herself, or himself, always dreamed of writing a book someday. Or had begun a book. Or knew someone who’d started writing a book.

This kind of conversation happened several times during the summer, before and after our hospital experience. I began to realize that my quest had turned me in the eyes of some people into a kind of Walter Mitty character who’d stepped out of anonymity and tried to make it on Broadway ... “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere, etc.”

That was interesting. By gosh, people Do read the Local. And when I said in an October column that I was discouraged and considering abandoning ship, I received a small flurry of letters that encouraged me to hang in there. Well, then maybe Mr. Smith could go to Washington after all, and I could go to Publisher’s Row in New York. I stated in my next column that I’d do one more rewrite and be done by New Year’s Eve.

“The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/ Gang aft agley.” [For anyone unfamiliar with Burns, that last line is old Scottish for “go often askew.”) I’ve worked every day since October. Some days 1,100 words, others as much as 2,700. But I did not finish by New Year’s Eve. And at my current pace, I will not finish till around Easter, I think. But I’ll finish.

First thing, every morning: the tyrant awaits me. I pound away. every morning. There’s no other way to get it done but doing it. So now, in 2010, I enter my third year of being chained to this little prank that began as something I would toss off.

And why aren’t I done?

Because I finally learned two things. (1) How to write a scene. (2) Revising means rewriting. I mean that literally. I do not rewrite by revising sentences. I envision the scene I must write until I know where it must go. Who’s in the scene and what’s at stake for that person? And then, without referring to the previous text, I write the entire scene fresh. That is the only way I know how to maintain a consistent tone and rhythm.

I am now nearly halfway through this medium-length (aiming for 275 pages) novel I have ‘finished’ at least four times in the past few years.

After Easter, I face the agent go-round again. I’ll try to get them to look at it again by presenting this version as an entirely different book for their esteemed consideration.

And after that: I swear: Short story writing for me. Writing a novel is like running a marathon where they keep changing the distance you have to run. And you’re running all alone — there is no “pack.” And it’s getting dark.

In the meantime, thank you all for your support.

You know who you are, all those of you who get excited when you look at a blank page ... and feel slightly guilty when you walk away from it. 



Opinion: Burning questions — Reflecting on the aftermath of a fire

Some stories stick with reporters long after they’ve written them and become woven into the way those reporters interpret other occurrences.

That is bound to happen with events declared historic long before they’ve been added to the canon. (How could Seymour Hersh break the My Lai Massacre for the St. Louis Post- Dispatch and regard the U.S. military with anything but suspicion?) But even local events with limited consequences can profoundly affect a reporter’s perspective.

I’m no Sy Hersh, and the July 14 apartment fire at Henry on the Park in Roxborough was no My Lai. Still, the story haunts me. No one died. Four people suffered minor injuries. But under different circumstances it could have been a disaster.

Around 8:30 p.m., Patricia Gilberthorpe, 26, allegedly set clothing on fire in her apartment on the fourth floor of building B. It took firefighters 45 minutes to contain the blaze because the pipes nearest to the building had been blocked with sand.

Seventeen days later, the property owner, San Diego-based Fairfield Properties LP, would be cited for 13 fire-code violations. But the company waited 42 days before sending a representative to address residents’ concerns, and little has been resolved since.

Gilberthorpe was arrested July 17 on charges of arson, criminal mischief and reckless endangerment, but her preliminary hearing has been delayed because authorities say she hasn’t been mentally competent to stand trial.

Three days before the fire, residents saw Gilberthorpe ripping stitches out of her wrists, which fed speculation that she was released from the hospital too quickly after an alleged suicide attempt. Shortly after, they learned that Gilberthorpe was participating in Project Transition, an outpatient psychiatric treatment program designed to rehabilitate people with severe and persistent mental illness and teach them self-sufficiency through gradual independence.

Federal health-privacy law prohibits Project Transition representatives from discussing the details of Gilberthrope’s breakdown, but company president Luke Crabtree told the Local last year that he believed the proper protocol had been followed in responding to Gilberthorpe’s episode of self-mutilation. He also suggested that wrist cutting doesn’t necessarily signify a suicide attempt.

Either way, Project Transition will have to defend its protocols in court next year. Fairfield filed a civil suit against the program and Gilberthorpe on Sept. 11, 2009.

(Three months later, Fairfield filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.)

Fairfield and Project Transition can exchange blame all they want, but no matter how the litigation turns out, they both failed the people of Henry on the Park. Crabtree has apologized profusely, and I respect him for that. Fairfield sent a lawyer to deliver a half-hearted apology.

Meanwhile, residents of Henry on the Park are still waiting for closure, for justice, but the process drags along while they are left to wonder how much damage would have been done if the fire had started at 2:30 a.m.

Meanwhile, Project Transition patients who were truly committed to recovery must now fend off stigma and prejudice while battling their inner demons – as if mental illness weren’t debilitating enough on its own.

Fairfield’s thrift jeopardized the lives of innocent people. I know this because I saw the aftermath firsthand: the blackened walls, the missing fire hoses, the extinguishers overdue for inspection – all on the floor where the fire occurred.

I might as well come clean and confess that I called L&I until they cited Fairfield for the violations. The company failed to bring the complex up to code in the specified period, but managed to duck the fine. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a reliable source told me L&I didn’t cite Fairfield because the city was still broke and didn’t want to get tied up in court.

I did this because it could’ve happened anywhere, and if I were ever to end up on the tragic end of an apartment fire, I would consider myself blessed if someone scrutinized those responsible on my behalf.

Those who cling to the myth of objectivity would consider this improper. But let’s face it: Sometimes terrible things happen and the culprits try to spin or shrug it away.

In those cases, I believe journalists have an ethical responsibility to raise hell and trade objectivity for advocacy. I believe it’s possible to do this without abandoning the core principles of fairness and accuracy.

Besides, what’s the point of having sharp teeth if you’re not willing to use them every once in a while?





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