Feature article: “Exotic Wood Importer,” Colorado Country Life, April 2011 (appeared in both print and digital versions)
Short Story: “A Night At The Theater,” First Place LAURA Short Fiction Contest, October 2010
Essay: “Friendship in the social media age,” Denver Post, October 6, 2010
“The average American has only two close friends, and a quarter don’t have any.” Mark Vernon offers this observation in his “USA Today” article, “Is true friendship dying away?” That comment stopped me cold. My first thought was how isolated, how alone being friendless would feel. My second thought followed Vernon’s line of research which focuses on friends in the social media age. Is a sense of isolation a driving force behind the explosion of social media usage, or is it a result of our addiction to technology?
Personal pages on social networking sites boast the number of “friends” each person has acquired. The count has become a badge of success, something to tweet about.
Yet, research by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggests the size of our brains, specifically the part that processes conscious thought and language, limits “the number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained.” Dunbar’s theoretical number is 150 people. He identified this number by studying primates and human groups from primitive villages to modern workplaces. Preliminary reports from his current study of social networking sites confirms the 150-person limits of our relationship capacity. One person reported on Answerbag.com that a college friend had over 2,000 Facebook friends but when that person died, “only about 150 people went to her funeral.” Hmmm. There’s that Dunbar number again.
Social media relationships remind me of “pen pals” that were popular in the mid 1900s. Mine was a girl named Marejke who lived in Europe. Our connection was made through an organization that matched students from different countries – the 1950s paper, pen and postage version of social networking. We wrote to each other about our families, our interests, what we were doing in school.
A letter took weeks to travel between Breda, The Netherlands and Evansville, Indiana. I remember my excitement when her letters arrived in the tissue-thin envelopes with matching paper we used to lessen the high cost of overseas mail. The thrill was not in what she wrote but the very idea that I was communicating with someone on the other side of the world.
We kept in touch, though less frequently, into adulthood. Eventually, I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon face-to-face with Marejke. To my surprise, we had little in common and soon ran out of conversation.
Today, technology makes worldwide connections commonplace and response time often immediate. But, are we building relationships with the depth of enduring friendship or merely friendly connections?
Vernon offers an intriguing quote from Aristotle: “Close friends share salt together.” This is not about passing the shaker during an eat-and-run meal at a fast food spot. Close friends, Vernon explains, ” sit with one another across the course of their lives, sharing its savor – its moments, bitter and sweet.”
I have “online friends” with whom I share mutual interests: reading, writing, genealogy, polymer clay. We have connected through membership in organizations related to these interests that host blogs and listserves. We might even meet face-to-face at conferences or over a cup of coffee when we happen to find ourselves in the same city. These connections offer encouragement, sympathy, advice, new ideas, resources for problem solving, a shared laugh.
Then there are “friends online,” people with whom I have a deep personal relationship beyond the confines of the computer screen. Some I have known since childhood. Others have been roommates, co-workers, community connections, neighbors. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, joys and sorrows, hopes and fears. We have a history together and our lives have been seasoned by shared experiences. They are people I “know, like and trust” (the American Heritage dictionary definition of a friend).
Many of us are separated by great distances now. Email has replaced telephone calls and letters we used to exchange by U.S. Postal Service. Today, technology allows us to sit together at a virtual kitchen table, discussing, consoling, encouraging, laughing and crying together. Our friendship has been tested by life’s events and found durable. These are the people who would come if I needed help and they know I would do the same for them. These are the real friends with whom I share digital salt.
Cynthia Becker is a past Colorado Voices writer from Pueblo who blogs at https://chipeta.wordpress.com but has so far avoided a Facebook page. EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an online-only column and has not been edited
Essay: “Putting the bones to rest,” Denver Post, January 10, 2010
The movie adaptation of “The Lovely Bones” is in theaters. Will I see it? Alice Sebold’s 2002 best seller, of the same title, remains the one book I could not read.
I did try. My friend Kathy said, “It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.” I picked up a copy at the library and settled on the sofa with it that evening.
From her vantage point in heaven, Susie Salmon, recounts her own grisly rape and murder at age fourteen. Her killer is her quiet neighbor. Susie observes the impact of her disappearance and death on her family, friends, and community.
By page twenty-eight, I was no longer alone in my living room. The image of a girl emerged from my memory. Her unruly black hair, full and blunt cut below the chin, tumbled forward over a freckled nose. I put down the book and confronted Avril Terry.
Her family moved to our rural neighborhood when I was in fourth grade. She was a shy girl who walked with her head tucked forward and her toes turned inward. We were not close friends, but in a small school we were all playmates.
The next year, Avril’s family moved to a small town 30 miles away. I did not think of her again until a few years later when she disappeared.
We saw the news on television. An anxious search was taking place in Boonville, Indiana. Avril was last seen walking to the town square to buy a birthday present for her little sister.
A few days later, part of an arm turned up in the river. A local handyman, who had done remodeling work in Avril’s home, was arrested. He had happened upon Avril when she dropped the handful of coins taken from her piggy bank. He knelt to help her collect the spilled money. He offered her a ride. She accepted.
Several times I put down “The Lovely Bones” only to pick it up again the next day. I felt like a coward because I could not manage to read the work everyone was talking about. Reviewers like Michiko Kakutani (The New York Times, June 18, 2002) described Sebold’s book as “an elegy about a vanished place and time and the loss of childhood innocence a deeply affecting meditation on the ways in which terrible pain and loss can be redeemed ”
The author’s words flowed with a seamless and compelling grace. Yet, I could not read that book. Avril hovered over every page. I finally quit on page 131 and returned The Lovely Bones to the library.
Avril, however, did not leave with the book. She lingered on the fringe of my consciousness, forcing me to recall my own vanished place and time. Her death ripped the cloak of innocence that surrounded my childhood. My friends and I huddled with our worried parents in the illusive safety of home and endured nightmares when we dared to sleep.
It was the first time we had experienced the death of someone our own age. It was a challenging concept, compounded by trying to imagine what Avril experienced before she died.
Summer’s end returned us to familiar routines. That was our redemption from pain. But, we were forever changed. The freedom of riding bicycles on rural back roads was tainted by potential danger. We watched over our shoulders for strangers. And neighbors were no longer safe just because they were neighbors.
Since Avril’s death, I have learned that it takes time to separate the person we knew from the circumstances of death, whatever the cause. In my failed attempt to read “The Lovely Bones,” I finally reclaimed Avril. For me, she is once again a real girl who giggled, and jumped rope, and dribbled ice cream on her skirt.
Will I see the movie? Actor Stanley Tucci, who plays the part of the rapist/murderer, told USA Today (December 8, 2009), “I’ve seen the finished movie. But I don’t know how many times I’ll be able to see it again.”
I’ll just stick with my own, now lovely, bones.
How-to Article: “10 Tips For Keeping Your Resume Current,” YAHOO! Hotjobs.com
It’s your first day on your new job. Time to start updating your resume!
That’s the last thing on your mind, right? Maintaining an up-to-date resume is the best way to prepare for your next career move, whether it turns out to be planned or an unexpected change. Just follow this 10-point guide.
1. Keep your resume on your home computer. Don’t take a chance that a coworker or supervisor might see it and think that you are looking for another job.
2. Begin by adding the name of your new company in top position on your old resume. Include the date you started work and your job title. Insert a few lines about the company — number of employees, type of business, products or services, annual revenues, scope of business (local, regional, national, international).
3. Add notes about the scope of your job. Include specific measurable details. For example, “Maintain complex database of drawings, materials specifications and instructions for over 3,500 parts used in manufacture of carbon phenolic sub assemblies on a $55,000,000 Department of Defense contract. Catalogue and insert about 15 revisions per month. Retrieve an average of 200 documents daily to meet production needs.” Be sure to update your resume when your duties change or expand.
If you are in a support position, include information about the number and types of people you support and the scope of their work. This will help define the magnitude of your job. For example, “Prepare and proof complex sales agreements for 3 agents completing an average of 30 new transactions per week with average monthly sales volumes of $50,000. Maintain files and transmit final documents to regional office daily.”
4. List specific computer programs you use and special equipment or processes you have mastered.
5. When you accomplish something significant, make an entry on your resume-in-progress. Quantify your accomplishment in terms of cost savings, error reduction, revenue increase, or service improved. Tell what you did, how you did it, and the measurable result.
For example, “Identified frequent customer complaints that they received 3 separate calls for information the day before their scheduled surgical procedures. Suggested a system that allowed one person to make the calls to the typical 60 patients per day and gather all information needed by billing, insurance, and admitting sections. Eliminated the customer complaints and an average of 120 outgoing telephone calls made by staff members each day.”
6. After a performance evaluation, make notes about the accomplishments you discussed with your supervisor. He/she may offer added information about the impact of your accomplishments on the work team or wider company performance.
7. When you receive recognition or awards, record the title of the award, the date, and what you did to receive it.
8. Keep a list of training courses you take, either company-sponsored or through outside organizations. Include title of course, sponsoring organization, and date.
9. Note company committees on which you serve along with the function and accomplishments of each committee.
10. Add your new title when you are promoted, and continue noting your accomplishments in the new position.
When that dream job suddenly appears or you find yourself downsized, you will have all the information needed for a powerful, up-to-date resume. If you choose a professional resume service, your editor will be pleased to have such good information. You will have a winning resume.
Cynthia S. Becker is a Certified Professional Resume Writer and resume writing consultant; she writes for ResumeEdge, the official resume partner of Yahoo! HotJobs.
Essay: “The brutality of cockfighting,” Denver Post, September 5, 2008
Cockfighting became illegal in all 50 states last month when Louisiana banned these events in which roosters rip each other apart for human entertainment. That does not mean the brutal practice will end in this country.
Supporters of cockfighting call it “sport.” Some consider it a right of their cultural heritage. Opponents call it animal cruelty. Birds bred for aggressive tendencies are fitted with metal spurs and confined in a pit for a fight to the death while bettors cheer. Wagering is a major part of event’s appeal.
Cockfighting was already illegal in Indiana when I was a child in the 1950s. We lived in a small cluster of houses surrounded by farm land. Our two-acre lot and the one next door were long and narrow, barely wider than the houses, and enclosed on three sides by corn fields. A sprawling chicken house sat on a rise far back on our next door neighbor’s property.
Mr. and Mrs. Mac were retired. They kindly fed my pets when we went on vacation and often appeared at the backdoor with a basket of fresh eggs. In good weather Mr. Mac sat under a shade tree tossing seed to his chickens, who gathered around him like children at story time. In summer, speckled hens waddled and pecked their way through our yard and a beautiful peach-tinted rooster swaggered across the patio and stopped to let me stroke his neck.
There was no sign out front but people in the area knew Mrs. Mac had eggs for sale. However, few egg buyers knew the secret of the chicken house. My father knew. He forbade me to go near Mr. Mac’s chicken house.
Of course, curiosity got the best of me. I was attracted by sprawling berry-laden brambles that grew behind the weathered grey building. When I ventured onto Mr. Mac’s property, I discovered secret treasure hidden by the blackberry jungle—a row of coops, each containing one elegant black rooster. Their feathers shimmered cobalt blue and deep purple. Great red wattles jiggled beneath their beaks as they paced back and forth in confinement.
They squawked at my intrusion. One bird locked eyes with me then hurled himself against the chicken wire. He hung in mid air, claws clutching the wire and wings beating furiously, as he shrieked and spit at me. I scrambled out of the thorny brambles with my heart pounding. That was my first and last personal encounter with fighting cocks, bred to tear opponents to shreds. I never told anyone what I had seen.
On many a Saturday evening Mr. Mac steered his green woodie station wagon down the overgrown driveway to the chicken house, loaded several crates and drove away. Sometimes I heard him make the return trip in the wee hours of a summer night. With my discovery of the secret birds and bits of overheard conversations, I understood that sweet old Mr. Mac spent Saturday nights at illegal cockfights held in rural barns. In my nightmares, battered and bloodied roosters attacked with killer vengeance like the bird that fought a wire shield in his attempt to get me.
One summer evening a long line of cars and trucks paraded down the drive to the chicken house. Dad closed all the blinds on that side of our house and suggested we spend the evening in the cool basement. Looking back, I know Mr. Mac hosted a cockfight that night.
Dad must have thought better of ignoring the illegal event. The next morning he told me to stay inside before he walked out the back door and headed down the long drive to the chicken house. I suspect he had a serious talk with Mr. Mac. Cockfighting was not mentioned in our house but I never again saw visitors to the chicken house and Mr. Mac stayed home on Saturday nights. When I ventured a peek into the hidden coops, I found them empty.
The secret birds were a sad discovery of my childhood, an introduction to human cruelty to animals. The birds were victims who led isolated, brutal and short lives. I’m proud of my father for whatever action he took to put Mr. Mac out of the cockfighting business.
Declaring cockfighting illegal sounds like a solution. Louisiana has imposed a $1,000 fine and six-month prison sentence for first-time offenders caught participating in cockfights. However, the gruesome activity will continue in hidden locations so long as complicit friends and neighbors look the other way.
Cynthia Becker…was a member of the Colorado Voices panel in 2003.
Essay: “Spellbound,” Denver Post, Colorado Voices, February 1, 2003
There is big money in spelling these days. Last year a young man from Colorado, Pratyush Buddiga, captured the National Spelling Bee championship when he correctly spelled “prospicience.” He won more than $12,000 in cash and prizes.
Today marks the deadline for 2003 local spelling competitions. Across America, some 250 youths are now attempting to memorize more than 22,000 words on the official contest list. These orthographers have out-spelled their competitors to earn places at the 76th Annual Scripps Howard Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., at the end of May.
When I was a kid, spelling bees were simply welcome breaks from classroom routine. In the spring of 1958, my teacher, Mr. Cheshire, announced a special spelling bee with a prize for the winner. The champion would represent our rural Burkhardt Elementary School in the countywide competition in Evansville, Ind. It was the first step on the route to the National Spelling Bee.
Sixty students from the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades lined up around the perimeter of the classroom for the formal spell-off. The principal, Mr. Patry, pronounced the first word and the bee began. A few students dropped out in the first round and took their seats with drooping heads or made silly faces to hide their embarrassment. The line of spellers that wrapped around the room soon dwindled to the length of one wall.
Finally, two spellers remained standing: Mark Lively and I. To the chagrin of the older kids, we were fourth-graders, the youngest eligible competitors.
Mark and I competed in every subject from the time we entered first grade. We were equals in everything. (Perhaps I was just a fraction taller.) Round after round, we worked our way through the word list with slow, deliberate and accurate spelling.
“Dessert,” Mr. Patry said. “Johnny had to clean his plate before he could have dessert.”
Mark hesitated. “Dessert. D-E-S …” – he paused – “E-R-T. Dessert.”
I was so nervous! I did not know if Mark’s answer was right or wrong. Mr. Patry turned toward me and repeated, “Dessert.”
My heart pounded. Had Mark spelled it with one “s” or two? “Dessert. D-E-S …” – I paused – “S-E-R-T.” Mr. Patry nodded and pronounced the next word. If I spelled it correctly, the championship was mine. (To this day, neither Mark nor I recall that final word.)
Mr. Patry’s voice boomed, “Cynthia Simmelink is the winner! Congratulations.”
He awarded me a brown-and-gold plastic ballpoint pen. One side was emblazoned with “School Spelling Champion.” The other side had the name of the local sponsor, The Evansville Courier and Press.
Every night during the weeks leading up to the Vandenburg County competition, mother pronounced words from the official list for me to spell. I spelled as we drove all the way to Nashville and back during a spring-break vacation. Dad said he was going to stop to buy earplugs if I kept it up.
But despite all my hard work, I misspelled my third word in the county bee.
Twenty-eight years later, I ran into Mark at a high school reunion. He was now a Detroit police officer. He pulled his wife to his side and introduced us. “Honey, this is the girl who beat me in the fourth-grade spelling bee.”
I was surprised that he remembered. I was even more surprised when Mark’s wife broke into a wide grin and said, “Oh, I can’t wait to call our son tonight and tell him I met you!”
She went on to explain. The evening before the Livelys left home to attend the reunion, their 10-year-old son arrived at the supper table spitting mad. A girl outran him in the school track meet. He announced that he was never going back to school. To ease his son’s anguish, Mark related the saga of his own defeat, at the same age, by a member of the opposite sex in a spelling bee. The boy was astonished that his big, strong father had experienced similar humiliation and survived.
Not only did Mark remember the spelling bee, he remembered the prize. “I really wanted that pen,” Mark confessed. “Do you still have it?”
I do. The pen has survived many household moves and remains tucked in the center drawer of my desk along with my mother’s graduation fountain pen and Dad’s “I Like Ike” button. Now and then I take out that pen to savor my brief moment of victory. Then I recall old friends and simpler times when spelling was sport and a plastic ballpoint pen was the most important thing in our lives.
Cynthia Becker is an artist and writer.