News from the author

Marin-bean is here!

My blog went dark for nearly a year, but I have the best excuse of all. I was gestating the Marin-bean. My daughter, Marin Pamela Liebtag, is nearly 4 months old. We read lots of books together and she has a wonderful natural curiosity about the world…just like Tippy. I hope she grows up to be optimistic and proactive, just like Tippy, but not as reckless or impulsive.

Marin is on a walk

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Don’t believe everything you read

It was so nice of WDTN to publish an article about my Jeopardy! appearance. But in the brief article, they misidentified me as Valedictorian of my High School, when I was in fact Salutatorian. (The Valedictorian was my bestie, Matt). And more egregiously, identified me as a graduate of The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, when in fact, I am a graduate of Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. I guess you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, but I can’t help wondering what Bob Garfield would say?

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Alex Trebek is my homeboy.

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RIP Lillian Jackson Braun

I just learned that Lillian Jackson Brown, author of the Cat Who… Mystery Series has died. When I was younger, I read nearly all the Cat Who.. books. I picked up The Cat Who Talked to Ghosts at a Scholastic Book Fair in Middle School, really liked it, then started the series from the beginning. When one of my friends remarked that her “Grandma loved those books,” I was fairly mortified and its true that sometimes the library only carried “Large Print” editions… they were for an older crowd. But they featured a smart cat and lots of interesting asides about antiques and goats and ancient Chinese pottery glazing techniques. My favorite Cat Who book was The Cat Who Saw Red. Many years later, when Miles and I adopted a Siamese cat named Mao, I always hoped that he would solve mysteries. Mao, unfortunately was cut down in his prime because of congenital cardiomyopathy, but I believe if he had lived to maturity, he would have solved a few murders or robberies. Thinking about the Cat Who books makes me think of Lillian Jackson Braun and my beloved Maocat, so I say ‘rest in peace’ to them both. Koko and Yum Yum would have liked Mao (although Mao was better looking, I’m sure).

Mao

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Husband and Wife Muddy Shoes

My husband Miles and I had a great time at the Nelsonville Music Festival this weekend…despite the epic amounts of mud. In the picture at left, I am wearing pink Lo-Top Converse and Miles is wearing Palladium boots and these are our feet after three hours, pre-, during, and post- Yo La Tengo performance. We are super-lame and having spent the previous night in a tent, listening to the various arguments and intrigues of adjacent campsites late into the night, we left before the headliners, The Flaming Lips, took the stage. In true, lame Harlow-Liebtag fashion, we went back to Miles’ dads, watched half of Spaceballs and fell asleep on the couch, feeling half-pityingly and half-contemptously toward the campers who were spending the night in the rain.

george jones on mainstage

a very tiny George Jones on the stage

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Moms are awesome

My mom taught me how to do a few things. She taught me how to cook (and now I think perhaps the student has surpassed the master), she tried to teach me penmanship, because she has such nice handwriting and mine is woefully hieroglyphic, (my handwriting is nearly identical to my father’s…a Harlow curse) and she taught me how to make yarn dolls but the most important thing she ever taught me was how to quiet the voice in my head that says “I can’t.”
My mom always encouraged me and seemed to really believe that I could do anything I was willing to work at. I’m not saying I’m thankful to my mom because she was a good cheerleader (although she was), my mom actually gave me a gift that was much more profound. After so many years of hearing that I could do it from the outside, I began to internalize it. She gave me the tools to combat my own self doubt. Self-doubt is a healthy feeling; it’s harmful to have an unrealistic assessment of your abilities and humility is important, but I’ve seen it undermine really talented people.
It’s so easy to psych yourself out, before you even attempt it, just having that extra bit of confidence can give you a big advantage. Lots of people, with amazing potential, psych themselves out something before they attempt something. Woody Allen said “90% of life is just showing up.” Thanks to my mom, I’m never afraid to “show up” even if I don’t expect to do well. When I tried out for Jeopardy! it was more or less a lark (I had to miss a day of work, so I wasn’t totally casual about it either) and I was amazed when they called to me be a contestant. I’m pretty good at Jeopardy! but I can virtually guarantee there people who are way better at it than me who are too intimidated to try out.
My mom has been my most important support in my writing career. Rejection is so common in the writing world, it’s so easy to become beaten down and to question your abilities. In some ways, you have do battle in your psyche with a rejection letter…one part of you says “you have it there on paper, your writing is not good enough.” I’m sure there are many talented to writers who just accept that as reality. Somehow, to keep going, you have to answer your own brain with defiance, you have to find some part of you that’s willing to answer back: the rejector is wrong! They’re misguided! They’re Philistines! Sometimes that little part of my brain, that my mom found and nurtured in me when I was young even answers back, “Maybe you’re a better writer than they are.” Whether it’s true or not, that little voice, so pushy and strident, so different from me, keeps me writing.
Just like my mom does in real life. My mom is my best editor, my loudest cheerleader and anyone who’s ever written me a rejection letter should watch out, ‘cause she might be coming for you. On this Mother’s Day (I’m a bit late, just like my mom often is), I have to thank my mom for her continuous support and the gift she gave me that no amount of Mother’s Day flowers or cards is ever going to repay.

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Sell your ideas they are totally acceptable.

The universe has given me a thumbs-up.

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My favorite podcast!

My favorite podcast.

I’m a huge fan of podcasts. I have very particular taste in music, don’t like much of it and get bored with the songs I like. But podcasts…they generate anew every week, sometimes twice a week! I download them on the very day they come out, and I seriously get impatient while I watch the progress bar creeping toward complete. Here is my weekly podcast calendar, just in case you’re curious or looking to add to your Itunes queue. It looks like a lot, but I don’t have television and unlike television, surfing the internet or even reading a book (although I certainly don’t discourage that!) you can very easily do other things while listening to a podcast. I do the dishes, clean, and sometimes do data entry for work while listening to these.
It’s important to note that not all of these are kid friendly— some would be actively hostile to children’s ears and some would just bore them, however, the Stuff You Missed in History Class or the Stuff You Should Know Podcast, might interest some younger kids. HOWEVER, in small doses the two podcasts I am writing about today I think could be GREAT for kids who have shown an interest in science or history. They’re my two favorites. WNYC’s produces a monthly podcast called Radiolab with fresh insights on scientific concepts. They often reveal the mundane to be wonderous, by finding an outlier or oddity that exposes how miraculous the normal functions of our brains or ecosystems actually are. Radiolab finds the exceptions that prove the rule.
In recent episodes, they describe one of the best ultra-runners in the world, who only ascends to the top after a seizure-prevention operation impairs her short term memory. She concludes that she owes her success in these grueling, long distance runs through extreme tempertures and terrains precisely to her inability to mark time as we do. It suggests that human limits, even under extreme conditions, may be tethered to boredom. Another powerful episodes include the sad story of Lucy, a chimpanzee who was raised by humans and later abandoned by them, to her psychological detriment. The story of Lucy shed light on how fine the line between human and animal can be, how much ‘nurture’ can and cannot conquer nature and finally, what a scientist’s responsibility to its own subject of study is, when that subject is capable of thought and emotion.
In a head-to-head between the two, I have to choose Backstory. Unlike my favorite History-centric television show, History Detectives on PBS (new season starts June 22, and yes, I’ve marked my calendar), Backstory doesn’t really focus on forgotten or marginal bits of history, they tend to focus on more well-known and well-trodden subjects. I am a history buff, so I don’t consider the Panic of 1873 such a very exotic subject. Their gimmick is a brilliant one (and quite post-modern) they assemble a specialist on 18th century, 19th century and 20th century America, focus a show on a broad subject area that still has relevance in the 21st century and debate it from the perspectives of three centuries. This is a brilliant setup; it gives them license to cover American History from inception to present day and they can cherry pick incidents or events that highlight the larger point they’re trying to make. In terms of incidents, they don’t veer too far off the menu of traditional American fare. The Fox sisters (the sisters from Upstate New York who claimed to communicate with the dead and touched off the spiritualism craze) are a well-known footnote; the assertion that Pilgrims might have been averse to the Native Americans because they farmed differently is not so controversial. It’s the insights and the connections they make between America’s “B-material” that elevates this podcast to a real work of art.
They manage to connect the rise of Spiritualism with the devastation of the Civil War, (makes sense, ok, I’m still on board), the nascent women’s suffrage movement (wait…huh?) and then invention of the telegraph (ummm…check your Morse code there buddy, I think the wires are crossed). Almost always, mediums were women, and they were often celebrities. They could be permitted, as attractions, to speak before live audiences (often the first time men had ever seen women speak publicly) and since they were possessed by the spirits of the dead, they could speak freely and even say scandalous things. I’ll let the historians describe the podcasts best insight in his own words, “the telegraph was not unlike that. There was a sense [with the telegraph] that there was a new medium, so to speak, to connect the “departed” with the living, which is not so crazy when you think about it…ok, we can now send messages instantaneously, anywhere, and not be there with our bodies. Is that really so different from imagining that people who used to be here can now communicate with us? Almost instantly, as soon as the telegraph was invented, it became the embodiment of what we’d longed to do throughout human kind, which is: talk to those we’ve lost. What it really did, in essence, it eliminated distance that stood between two people being intimate. You couldn’t have that kind of intimacy when you had geographically, physical distance but the telegraph really kind of allowed that, in an instantaneous fashion.”

“…The people who really brought spiritualism to the American population, the Fox Sisters, ironically communicated with the ‘spiritual world’ through something that was a lot like Morse code. It was knocking… it requires an interpreter. It requires somebody whose the equivalent of a wire, who’s more sensitive than normal people…I think that one reason why the word was called ‘medium’ early on.”

It doesn’t get any better for a podcast buff and history buff!

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Schenechtady’s ‘rail tragedies’ were all caused by crazy women!

These photos were snapped at the Schenechtady, New York train station. Their two ‘rail tragedies’ have a common theme: womenfolk were to blame!

Mrs. A Beterich, of Albany, was doing some shopping (when are women not shopping, especially HYSTERICAL ones?!) and crossing a street with multiple rail tracks. Two trains were coming down the track in either direction and the fool woman froze with fright, right on the rails. Patrolman James Mynderse pushed her out of the way of one train, but tragically reeled back into the path of the other train and….died.

The very next year, another crazy lady, Miss Cltytie C. Curtis was bicycling home from work, when a flagger tried to discourage her from the crossing the tracks. “Can’t you see? A train is coming! You crazy tomato!” cried the flagger, Henry Maloney (in my imagination). But she insisted: “Mr. Maloney rushed to push her off the tracks but she proceeded to cross and thrust Mr. Maloney back as she pedaled forward. Mr. Maloney was knocked backward and the train stuck Miss Curtis throwing her forward into the gate that crossed the Troy tracks.”

I bet these women were reading books or trying to vote or something! What else could make them so crazy? Certainly, the bicycle riding is suspicious…Miss Clytie C. Curtis, I’m looking at you.

The bicycle rider brought on her doom by riding the devil's velocipede

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This Onion article hits too close to home

geographically and figuratively

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