I can’t explain what possessed me to start doing this but, similar to the things I find on City of Milwaukee sidewalks and our view of Lake Michigan, I started noticing the cinematography in some of the things I was seeing on TV and in movies, and freeze-framing and taking pictures of them with my iPhone.

A few weeks ago as I was watching the “Cold Stones” episode of “The Sopranos,” it struck me how similar one scene in it is to some elements of one of my favorite stories: “The Awakening,” written in 1899 by Kate Chopin.

In “Cold Stones,” AJ continues acting like a jerk; Vito comes back to town; Vito is killed; Fat Dom is killed; the ghosts of Adriana, Tony B, and Big Pussy appear; and Carmela and Rosalie go to Paris.

In Paris, Carmela and Ro are consumed with restaurants, shopping, smoking, and travel guides. But at one point on a walking tour, they turn on to the Pont Alexandre III bridge over the Seine and Carmela’s arm holding the travel guide drops to her side. She is in awe of the statues there. “Oh my god,” she says. “Who could have built this?” And then she can’t say anymore. The rest of the scene plays out in silence save for ambient sound and Ro’s rumblings. Carmela slowly and surely realizes that the world at large is much bigger than hers back in Jersey. And, as IMDB puts it, she wonders about her place in that bigger world. The whole thing runs maybe one minute.


The scene that immediately follows is Sil instructing someone who’s cleaning the sign outside the Bada Bing. It reminds me of how John and I felt upon returning to the States after our trip to Scotland.



We are exposed to the sting of betrayal by other human beings way before we really should be: for example, when two toddlers are peaceably playing and one steals the other’s favorite toy. Or when the third-grade classmate who sat with you at lunch yesterday is now laughing at you from across the playground with a group of students you don’t know.

High school is rife with betrayal, especially that of the boy-girl kind. Case in point: when you see your boyfriend with his arms wrapped around his old girlfriend in front of her locker, staring into her bright blue eyes. You were just on the phone last night and he’d said nothing.

Or the boyfriend who tells you he’s going out of town, but then you hear that he’s holed up at a poker game at a friend’s across town. You show up at the door and there he is.

There are the family members who betray, on all sorts of levels you don’t really understand and can never understand.

There are the betrayals that are perpetrated in the workplace, by both colleagues and bosses, and sometimes—although God knows why—by the people who are under you. The closest I came to having a colleague steal an idea of mine is a producer to whom I pitched a video concept to render an animated train that traveled through all the countries they did business in, to the tune of The O’Jays’ “Love Train.” She shot it down, saying it was preposterous, they didn’t have the budget to film a real train. She ended the conversation before I could correct her.

She left the company—and town—and all of a sudden a major beverage company is using “Love Train” and an animated train. You have to wonder.

I once had a boss—two bosses, as a matter of fact, in the same office at the same institution—who betrayed me. They were notorious throughout the organization for throwing their employees under the bus, and we all watched in fear as people in our office were betrayed, one by one. One day it was my turn. I was assigned a project that was not within my purview—I was a writer, not a traffic manager—and because one of the sheets of paper on which the project was printed was not folded the right way, I was ousted.

Betrayal stings no matter where it comes from, but it stings the hardest when it comes from friends—especially those you thought were good friends.

There’s the friend who drinks too much one night and turns mean. The friend who borrows money from you, who, when you ask for it back, says, “I didn’t borrow any money from you.” The friend who likes to control everything and when you finally call her on it, she wigs out on you and all of a sudden, you’re the bad person.

There’s the friend who sends you a long, scathing email after you’ve informed her that a friend you have in common keeps making unwanted contact with you. She sends you another long, scathing email a week after your mother dies.

The friend who is making unwanted contact is an ex-boyfriend you reunited with on Facebook. He reminds you about the time you caught him with his arms around his old girlfriend; that he followed her to another state after graduation; that she broke up with him; that he called you and said, “I’ll move back if you take me back”; and that my 18-year-old self said, “Hell to the no.”

(I am very proud of my 18-year-old self for that. In honor of her, I’d like to get all Mary Karr circa The Liars’ Club for a sec: Dude. Remember when you asked if I ever thought about you all these years, and I said “yes”? I was trying to be nice—a habit you helped break me of. I hadn’t thought about you at all. Thanks, though, for reminding me what a creep you were back then. Sorry that you’re still a creep.)


The most recent betrayal I’ve witnessed cut real deep.

For the sake of illustration, consider the case of what we’ll call a small, progressive start-up company. When the founder started the company, he asked his wife and three long-time friends to be a part of it.

Turns out that one of those long-time friends was a misogynist and didn’t want to work with a woman. Instead of saying, “I don’t like women,” he unleashed a torrent of old hurts on the founder on his way out the door. Both the business arrangement and their friendship ended.

New candidates were interviewed for various positions throughout the company. A few of them didn’t stick: the one who wanted to be part of a less risky operation; the one who said he had won a major award in his field yet couldn’t perform in that field; the one who already had four part-time jobs but said he’d squeeze you in when he could.

There was the associate who was tapped to be the star of the company, but who didn’t want to be the star. The one who checked his watch every ten minutes. The one who was always “too busy” and kept the rest of the company waiting as he finally condescended to show up for meetings. The one who showed up to work late and drank on the job.

There are the associates who are Zen, the level-headed ones who try to keep everyone, including the founder and his top leadership, grounded, but their efforts are more than off-set by the company’s two latest new hires. One you are not one-hundred-percent sold on, but decide to try anyway. She thinks she’s better than everyone else, and then you know you were right not to be one-hundred-percent sold. The other newbie wants to take over everything and has the temerity to continually challenge the founder of the company.

Both latecomers have been in the organization one hot minute—five months and two months, respectively. Together, they become the driving force behind breaking up the organization. Off company property, they tell the reluctant star what she wants to hear. The one that was “too busy” now all of a sudden has a spark in his eye and all kinds of time.

They call a meeting with the founder. They want a change.

The founder says, “Hey. This is my company. You’re either with me or you’re not.”

Things are quiet for a few weeks then out of the blue the founder receives an email the night before Thanksgiving that says, “We’re out. And we want the company name.”

A great deal of respect was lost and friendships destroyed, including one that went back years. In the aftermath of the company folding, pieces of it were pilfered and made off with in briefcases. The associates who created the schism are trying to build a new company that gloms off of the good reputation of the old company.

After the mutiny, the reluctant star emphatically stated in social media, “I one-hundred-percent believe in karma. If you’re not careful, it will bite you in the butt.”

To which I reply, “The great thing about karma is that it works both ways, boo.”

My friend Kathleen says that karma is best when you can witness it, and that it is possible to ask the universe for that opportunity.

In the case of the start-up, I don’t think I’ll ask to see it, but I know I’ll eventually at least hear something. When betrayal is the centerpiece of what goes down, you always do in one way, shape, or form. I still hear things about certain double-crossers that let me know karma is very much alive and kicking. That’s good enough for me.

In Langston Hughes’ short story “Thank You, M’am,” Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones tells Roger, “I have done things, too, which I would not tell you, son—neither tell God, if He didn’t already know.” I betrayed once—somebody I loved. It happened almost twenty years ago and I paid for it dearly. I have since apologized for what I did, and he and I are friends today, which means the world to me. The situation pretty much cured me of messing with another human being’s heart. 


My paternal grandmother’s name was Rose Marie DiNovo and she was an odd woman. She covered her upholstered furniture in clear plastic and was self-taught on the organ, which also had its own plastic cover. She insisted on playing for us within the first fifteen minutes of every visit. I can still see her, her back to us, starting and stopping, starting and stopping. It took her ten minutes to get through a three-minute song.

You would think a Sicilian woman would be a good cook, but Rose was not. She used her coffee grounds twice and boiled vegetables to beyond death. I don’t recall ever eating a single plate of Italian food at her house; our German grandmother was the one known for making great spaghetti.

Rose and my mother barely tolerated each other, and even as a small child I knew that the rift between them was long and deep. One time, while my mom went out with an old high school girlfriend, Rose, along with the girlfriend’s mother, babysat us kids and Rose said something very untoward about my mother in front of us. My brothers seemed oblivious, but I heard her. My ten-year-old self stared her down a little and she changed the subject.

Because my grandfather—his name was Mike—had heart disease, Rose did not cook with salt. To make up for it, she cooked with herbs she lovingly grew in a large garden just off the garage and alongside the fruit trees, which we kids spent a lot of time climbing. Rose grew things other than the standard tomatoes and cucumbers and beans in our garden at home, and I liked going up and down the rows looking at it all.

Although her cooking did not go over well with young children, my grandfather’s beer did. Mike made his own, in a small room with a dirt floor in the cellar. Every time we visited, he greeted us kids with “How ‘bout a shot and a beer?” and later, amidst Rose’s protestations, he’d take us down there and give us some of his homemade brew in tiny juice glasses.

Rose had a mole the size of a pencil eraser on her face. She was dark-skinned. When she started losing her hair, she a made a flat bun out of what she pulled out of her brush, and pinned it to the top of her head to hide her baldness.

She looked beautiful in her wedding picture. Everybody thought I looked like her, although I could never one-hundred-percent see it. One time I went to visit her at the mausoleum and my uncle was there, praying with his eyes closed. He caught his breath when he saw me.

“I thought you were Mom,” he said.

The day before Mike died, I drove from Cleveland to Pittsburgh to see him. He was in and out of consciousness. I sat at the end of his bed with my hand on his leg. At one point he came to; his bright blue eyes focused on me and shone like high-beams. He leaned toward me, arms outstretched.

“I think he thinks you’re Mom,” my father said.

I was well into my thirties and still had all four of my grandparents, which I came to find out was unusual, as most of my friends had only one or two left. I came to believe that it was a great privilege to be so old myself and still have these four eccentric and beautiful people in my life. They were a treasure.

Rose was our first grandparent to die. She hadn’t been feeling well and went into the spare bedroom in the front of the house, the one with the curtains made to look like someone had hand-painted scenes from China on them, to take a nap and she never woke up. Heart attack. Mike said that the moment she died, the anniversary clock on the fireplace mantel stopped. He never wound that clock again.

“This is how it starts,” I kept saying to myself. This is how it starts. Things will never be the same.

Rose was active in her church and made a lot of crafts there that she and the other church ladies sold in bazaars to help raise money for various causes around town. One time she gave me a doll she’d made out of a retired bowling pin; its eyes, nose, and mouth were drawn on with a black marker, and it wore a bonnet and cape made out of stiff gold velveteen.

When my ex and I married, Rose gave us a Jimmy Dean sausage cookbook (which incudes a recipe for sausage fudge) and several free recipe pamphlets that she’d written for from places like Quaker Oats, Snow-Floss Kraut, and the Beaver County Heart Association. She signed each one “To Cindy & Pat. November 14, 1981. Love, Granny.”

She gave me and my brothers eight-by-tens of my parents’ wedding portrait. I don’t know how she ended up with four extra eight-by-tens of our parents’ wedding portrait, but she did. When my youngest brother framed his and hung it in in the foyer of his house, my mother was pissed off to no end. She would have a fit if she knew I’ve scanned mine and put it on Facebook once or twice.

There were lots of people at Rose’s funeral, many of whom stayed afterward for a huge meal in the church basement. I kept thinking “I don’t have my grandmother anymore, just this stupid food” over and over in my head until I burst into tears and ran up the stairs into the sanctuary. This is how it starts. Things will never be the same.

After that the family went to my grandparents’ house and opened some wine. At one point my grandfather grabbed my arm and took me to the cellar, past the toilet in the corner and the room with the dirt floor where he used to make beer, into a large room I’d never been in before lined with metal shelves filled with boxes of Rose’s craft supplies. Mike took me up and down the aisles, showing me boxes of oilcloth, fake greenery, and floral ribbon.

One box was filled with large metal mixing spoons, the kind that cooks in a commercial kitchen might use. Except these were flimsy—their edges were sharp and they didn’t feel good in your hand. Mike reached in and grabbed two or three.

“Here,” he said as if pressing precious stones into my palm, “take these.”

Back upstairs, he walked from room to room with the box of spoons. “Would you like one? Would you like one?” he said to every woman at the house. His eyes were puffy and had the look of someone who can’t quite believe something he has just seen. Pretty soon there were women throughout the house who didn’t know quite what to do with their spoons. Some held them next to their wine glasses, others under their armpits. Later I saw one in the bathroom on the sink, and another sticking out of the corner of the couch.

I cried all the way back to Cleveland. Instead of my grandmother, I had a flower arrangement on the front seat of my car, and the spoons, which jangled every time I hit a bump on the road. I was angry that this was all I had of her anymore; I was scared because a significant part was missing from the only version of my family I’d known all my life. I didn’t even attempt to fix my face before going into the McDonald’s on the Ohio Turnpike. The man in line next to me looked at me with a sorrowful curiosity.

Within a month after Rose’s funeral I enrolled in classes at Cleveland State University, not knowing why exactly. Something was pushing me to it.

“Rose was a late bloomer,” said her obituary, and those closest to her reiterated this. “She was finally happy in her skin. She was coming into her own.”

My dear, strange grandmother and I were not close when she was living, but she has become one of the most influential people in my life since she died.

“I was really happy,” she seems to say. “You be happy too.”

At Cleveland State I finally figured out I wanted a bachelor’s degree in English, not for practical reasons, but for the sheer love of it. Upon graduation I was already a freelance writer.

When Greg died on March 14, 2010, he became another force. He tells me, “Put yourself out there. Don’t be afraid.”

When my mom Jo died in November 2011, it took her a little while but then she started saying: “I didn’t live the life I wanted. You should.”

I feel these three people around me all the time now, especially when I write, take pictures, and play music. There’s also a fourth: my maternal grandmother Dorothy, who loved me like crazy when she was alive, and who wrapped herself around me like a blanket of unconditional acceptance the moment she fled this Earth in 1997. Her atoms encircle me wherever I go.


We are at the point in the semester where Mizz G begins teaching “the writing process” to her English students.

We’ve actually been talking about it on and off all semester, because they’ve been writing and writing, for seven weeks now. Some of them have thrown off the cobwebs and are getting really good.

Part of that is due to the grammar brush-up I also teach in this particular course. But although we’ll keep referring to it, it’s time to let straight-up grammar recede into the background and let writing take over for the next eight weeks, when my students will be aggravating over and driven to near-tears writing the equivalent of four essays.

“Writing is a process,” the textbook and I tell them, “one that takes time and care. And if you take the time and care, it will be worth it in the end.”

To help drive this point, I use the “Whoop That Trick” scene from the 2005 film “Hustle & Flow.” The campus where I teach most often consists largely of African-American, Latino, and LGBT students, but no matter what their race or sexual orientation, they think it’s hilarious that a middle-aged white woman even knows about “Hustle & Flow,” much less says it out loud in class, and they hide their grins behind their hands.

By the time I utter the words “Whoop That Trick,” they can’t stand it anymore and burst out laughing.

All this aside, they quickly understand what I’m trying to tell them when I show them that the “Whoop That Trick” scene perfectly exemplifies the various steps in the writing process—any creative process—from brainstorming to finished piece.

In the film, DJay, a pimp, comes to the realization that he has a knack for writing rap lyrics—rhymes.

“My mode is crackin’,” he says, “[and] I can’t be stopped.” He dreams of one day becoming a rap artist.

These instincts burn inside of him and he begins carrying a notebook around with him everywhere. Every time he gets an idea, he writes it down in that notebook. He uses it so much that it starts to get a little ratty and dog-eared.

“This is some hard shit right here, trying to take what’s in your head, man, and put it into words that fit together like a puzzle,” he tells Nola, one of his girls.

DJay’s notebook signifies the brainstorming phase of the writing process. When something about one of his ideas strikes him, DJay takes it further and roughs out some lines. I liken this to the freewriting phase.

From his freewriting samples, DJay takes a selected few—rhymes he feels are really going somewhere—and finesses them, turning them into full-fledged first drafts with a beginning, middle, and end.

It is one of these first drafts that he shows up with the day Key and Shelby come to his house to do some recording in a homemade studio with McDonald’s drink holders (“poor man’s soundproofing”) stapled to the walls.

DJay wants to get high first (procrastination is part of the writing process, one of my writing professors used to tell us), but Shelby tells him, “No, man, we can toke up later. Let’s hear what you got.”

DJay presents his first draft, reciting the opening lines: “I bet you want to beat that bitch / whoop that bitch / got me actin’ buck and shit / hoes tellin’ me to calm down / but I’m like fuck that shit…”

DJay stops when he sees Key put his head in his hands. “What the fuck’s wrong?” he asks.

Key spurs the revision phase of the writing process.

“It’s just that we want radio play,” he tells DJay. “And you got a song called ‘Beat That Bitch.’ They might hear that and think that’s degrading.”

Shelby offers his input. “But that’s if you’re calling a woman a bitch,” he says. “Most of the bitches I know are guys.”

He turns to DJay. “If you had to say something different other than ‘beat that bitch,’ what would you say?”

DJay flips through his notebook and takes his own first pass at revising.

“I don’t know,” he says. “Stuff like ‘stomp that ho.’”

Key throws his hands in the air. “Who’s gonna play that?”

DJay makes a second revision. “‘Whoop that trick,’ ‘can’t trick’…”

“Wait, wait, wait, go back,” Key interrupts. “’Whoop that trick.’”

Shelby looks at Key. “That’s it,” he says.

Key suggests further revisions, including turning the line into a chant, adding the words “Get ‘im,” and arranging all the words into a rhythmic pattern. DJay chants along with Key—he’s so taken with it that he gets up out of his chair—and Shelby begins to lay down a beat.

“Find it, man, find it,” Key tells him. More revision. Another new draft.

Shelby adds a clap then more and more percussion. Key starts the chant and DJay joins in: “Whoop that trick / get ‘im / whoop that trick / get ‘im…” DJay picks up his notebook, referring to his other lines written there, and the real writing begins.

By the middle of the second verse, he puts the notebook down on the table. He is flowing now. Nola and Shug, who have been banished to the next room, hear that there is something special going on and come to the doorway. Key waves the women in. Everybody is up out of their seats and moving to the beat.

It’s all organic at this point; in this phase of the process, the song is practically writing itself, made possible by all the groundwork that has taken place before it.

When it ends, everyone in the room is breathless, spent.

“OK,” says Shelby. “Let’s go smoke that joint.”

I don’t condone weed smoking among my students, of course. But the metaphor is never lost on them: the ending stands for how they feel when they’re finally done with a college paper or essay, and they know they’ve done the best they can and that it turned out really good. “I don’t know how I did that,” they say. “I don’t know how I got from Point A to B to C.

“But I did it. And it feels good.”

Then they go crash on the couch for a little while, or throw a ball with the kids, or kiss their moms.

Then the process begins all over again the next time they have to write another paper. Like DJay, the more ideas they come up with, the more they rough out and rewrite, the better they get. DJay learns to write hit songs that make the charts; my students learn what it takes to write hit papers that make good grades.


Clips of the “Whoop That Trick” scene from the film “Hustle & Flow” don’t last long on YouTube—copyright infringement issues, I’m sure—so we’ll see how long the link I put here lasts. If you ever get a chance to see the movie, still a fresh take on the bildungsroman or “coming of age” story, I highly recommend it. Steve recommended it to me eight or so years ago, and it remains one of my favorites of all time.

I also use Skee-Lo to help teach subjunctive mood. We talk about how funny “I Wish” would sound if Skee-Lo sang it grammatically correctly: “I wish I were little bit taller” instead of “I wish I was…” There is indeed a difference between written English and spoken English, and one thing I try to convey in my classroom is that there are places for them both.