Fighting City Hall

Fighting City Hall
  There’s an old saying that “you can’t fight City Hall.”  Some neighbors and I have been testing this proposition in recent years  Our battle is over the issue of noise.

We live in what used to be a quiet, tree-laden, residential area of Belmont, California.  The City’s website boasts:  “Its small-town ambience sets it apart as a tranquil, safe and desirable place to live.”

 Belmont is home to what used to be called the College of Notre Dame (in recent years changed to University of Notre Dame de Namur, or NDNU).  The college was a girls’ school with a campus as quiet and tree-laden as the neighborhood  itself.  The main thoroughfare of Ralston Avenue runs through the heart of Belmont and across the front of the Notre Dame campus.  Parking lots, interspersed with green lawns and a smallish field, were dotted across the front of the campus.  The quiet field, covered in season with California poppies and heavily surrounded by towering eucalyptus trees, was used for annual commencement exercises, informal play, and the occasional school games.  The activities were quiet and, except for Commencement, did nothing to interrupt the tranquility of the neighborhood.

 In 2003, however, things changed.  NDNU decided it would be financially beneficial to become coed.  An active intra-mural sports program was introduced, no doubt to attract and retain male students, and, almost overnight, the little playing field alongside Ralston Avenue became the scene of bedlam. The intra-mural program resulted in a full-blown schedule of college league soccer and lacrosse games that completely changed the nature of the neighborhood.  The grass on the field could not cope with the extra activity and soon the university decided to enlarge the field and cover it with artificial turf to turn it into a “state-of-the-art, world class” facility that could be used in all weathers.  Many of the giant old trees were cut down to create space.  Because the area was zoned Residential, a conditional use permit (CUP) was obtained from the City to enable the new field to be used as basically a full-blown ball park, but with certain restrictions on hours of use.

 The field itself is located in a kind of bowl and the noise from the games travels in amphitheatre fashion up the hill opposite, to the rue of neighbors who live in its path.  Instead of enjoying life in a “tranquil” place, they found themselves living in a sort of constant hell of noise, as games and practice sessions rolled into one another, weekend after weekend, and often day after day.  In 2004, we invited a council member and a planning commissioner to our home to listen to one game.  They declared, “No one should have to live like this,” and promised to introduce a city noise ordinance to address the issue.

 The noise ordinance was eventually passed.  However, it set a decibel level of 65, about the noise of a vacuum cleaner running, which, to our minds, is way too high to guarantee a tolerable living standard.  (Note:  The World Health Organization has recommended a far lower level of 55 db but notes that most Western countries insist on 40 db). Most importantly, the ordinance overlooked the fact that a single loud noise is quite different from continuous noise that lasts for hours at a time.

In 2009, NDNU applied for a new CUP that would allow unlimited use of the field, all year round, seven days a week, with no limits on who would be allowed to use the field. At the Planning Commission meeting to consider this, neighborhood protesters were shouted down by ardent NDNU supporters–most of whom do not live within sound of the field (some even live outside Belmont).  Some said they “love the sound of little children playing.” Unfortunately, these are not little children. They are full-blown adults–spectators, coaches and players who bellow to one another as they run around the field –with whistles, horns, amplified music, etc. to add to the mix.  Others say they just love the university–and whatever NDNU wants, NDNU should get (apologies to Lola!).

Incidentally, NDNU (a non-taxpayer) appears to get active cooperation from city staff who keep them fully informed on all developments, even advising when it would be a good idea to “pack” commission meetings with supporters.  By contrast, noise opponents (who are tax-payers) are often not notified of key meetings or deadline dates for giving input.  Another issue is that of the artificial turf used on NDNU’s field.  There has been much concern raised by government and the media of the harmful effects of lead and other chemicals in Astro-Turf, especially where young players are involved.  Repeated questions to city staff as to whether the turf on the field has been tested have not been answered.  Amazingly, neither university supporters nor commissioners have shown any concern when this question is raised in meetings.

At the September 7 meeting of the Planning Commission, noise opponents presented a petition signed by 43 residents (31 households) who live directly in the path of the noise from the field.  This requested that the Commission not allow expanded use of the field while so many people were still concerned with noise issues.  In spite of this, the commissioners voted to approve NDNU’s requested new CUP with some minor modifications.  They reasoned that because the noise from the games didn’t exceed the 65 db limit imposed by the noise ordinance, they had no grounds for withholding their permission.

So, can you fight City Hall?  Probably not.  Should you go on trying?  I would hope so.  I would love to hear from anyone who has had similar experiences in their city.





Teleseminars on Writing and Publishing

New Blog July 27, 2010

Category:  Tips for Writers (or create new category)

Internet Teleseminars on Writing and Publishing


July 28, 2010

There are innumerable teleseminars, many of them free, available on the Internet on the subjects of writing and publishing.  One particularly good one I signed up for recently was Michael Levin’s Ghostwriting Teleseminar  (  This contained a number of tips for authors writing for publication. 

Some were the usual commonsensical ones:

 *Always personalize your correspondence and make sure you’re writing to the right person. Call the agency/publication, if necessary, to check on spelling and gender.

*Do send multiple simultaneous submissions.

*Make sure your submission is neatly typed, without errors.

Other tips run counter to popular wisdom:

  • Don’t ever send a query letter—even if specifically asked for.
  • Don’t ever send a synopsis–even if specifically asked for.
  • Instead, send a cover letter with 50 pages of your manuscript (again, even if you are specifically asked not to send any of your manuscript)
  • Avoid electronic submissions—always send your cover letter and manuscript pages in hard cover (it is much too easy to press the delete button on an email).

 There are loads of other tips on submissions and many tips on the manuscript itself.  For example:

*It must have conflict on page 1 (not necessarily the main conflict of the book).

*It features a situation we haven’t seen before.

*Characters are likeable (even if they’re “evil”).

*It raises good questions.

All food for thought.

Joan Peceimer at San Mateo County Fair

On June 19, I talked with Joan Peceimer at the San Mateo County Fair.  Joan has worked tirelessly for the Friends of the Belmont Library for many years, serving at one time as their president.  During this time, she has recruited many to speak at authors’ nights at the Belmont Library (located at 1110 Alameda de las Pulgas, Belmont).  They include such award-winners as Elizabeth George and Michael Chabon, and, in a special event held in  Ralston Hall on the Notre Dame de Namur University campus, Joan arranged for the renowned Isabel Allende to speak to a large crowd.  In the fall, Joan is planning to hold an event that will feature local Belmont authors.

 On June 24, I was interviewed by Kim McMillon of The Writers Sanctuary Blog Talk Radio.  Kim is a lively interviewer who asked many challenging questions about my book, Straight Down the Middle.  You can check out this interview at

San Mateo County Fair

The San Mateo County Fair closed yesterday after a 12-day run.  There were a number of events for authors.  Twice, I read my winning short story, The Accident.  Other short story writers, memoirists and poets read their entries.  There were some excellent entries.  I particularly enjoyed the humorous poems of Ida Lewenstein—her poems are really fun and easy to follow.

 On June 19, I was part of an authors’ panel on the topic of So You Want to Write a Novel.  Other panelists were Jon Cory, Judith Marshall, and Teresa LeYung Ryan.  Geri Spieler was the moderator.  Our discussion focused on topics of interest to writers and would-be writers of fiction.  (See my earlier post on advice for anyone who wants to write a novel.)

 On Thursday, June 24, at 11:30 am, I will be interviewed by Kim McMillon at the Writers’ Sanctuary blog talk radio.  Please tune in.  This interview will be archived so it will also be accessible after this date.


So You Want to Write a Novel

 The dream of writing a novel is a common one.  And probably most people sort of know what they’d like to be writing about.  Their own personal experiences, perhaps, or something out of history that’s fascinated them or maybe wild sci-fi theme.

 But what is the best way to start?  Going to university to get a Master of Fine Arts degree is one way, but many people just don’t have the time and money for that.  And, perhaps surprisingly, there apparently isn’t much correlation between having an MFA degree and being a successful writer.

 Most people take simpler steps.  Just sitting down to write is a good first step.  You soon discover though that you need more than this.  Writing is communication and to communicate well you need to learn the rules—the art and craft of writing.  There are many ways to learn the rules.

Rule #1:  Read, Read, Read.  Not just the ordinary reading you do for fun but teach yourself to observe and analyze as you read.  Analyze the passages that really turn you on.  What is it the author has done to communicate effectively, to make characters come to life, to create a plot that pulls you into turning the page?

Rule #2:  Use resources like the Library and Internet.  To craft a good book, you need to understand a lot about such facets of writing as plotting, building characters, point of view, tense.  Browse the reference section of a library on writing, look through the contents page to seek out these topics.  Alternatively, the Internet is a fantastic source.  You can feed in a phrase like “point of view literature” and see what comes up.  Probably almost too much information which is why a good book or two may be more helpful by summarizing and organizing the information for you.  (Try Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass.)

 Rule #3:  Mingle with other writers.  Take a class at a community center, join a book club where several people read and discuss the same book, go to authors’ events at your local library, join a writing critique group where writers meet to read their own work and have the group critique it.  Last, but not least, consider joining a writers’ club. The California Writers Club, for instance, holds regular meetings featuring guest speakers, can put you in touch with critique groups, has news about conferences, workshops, and contests.

 Rule #4:  Develop a thick skin.  To improve your writing, it is essential to open it to criticism from others.  You can get practice in this through writing classes and critique groups.

 Other [yawn! boring!]  stuff it’s good to be comfortable with.  These include   rules of English usage, grammar, spelling, punctuation—knowing when to say “whose” and when to say “who’s”; knowing when to use “I, he, she, we, they” and when to say “me, him, her, us, them.”  Don’t rely on Spell-Check; that doesn’t know the difference either.  This is one reason it’s imperative to get a good editor before submitting a book to a publisher.  But it’s a good idea to get a feel for this stuff yourself.  (Try, for example, The Elements of Style by William I. Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White and The Elements of Grammar by Margaret Shertzer.)

 On June 19, I’ll be on an authors’ panel at the San Mateo County Fair, the topic of which is “So You Want to Write a Novel.”   I’m sure to pick up tips from my fellow panelists (Jon Corey, A Plague of Scoundrels; Judith Marshall, Husbands May Come and Go but Friends are Forever; and Teresa LeYung Ryan, Love Made of Heart )and will pass them on in this blog.


Coming soon:  A link to my interview with Don McCauley of “The Authors’ Show.”  Also my interview with Kim McMillon on her blog talk radio show.  This was  originally scheduled to take place at noon on June 8 but had to be cancelled due to technical difficulties.  It is now tentatively rescheduled for June 24–more details to follow.

Why do writers write?

Right now, I am preparing for a panel presentation at the San Mateo County Fair on June 19.  The topic:  So You Want to Write a Novel.  This got me to thinking about why it is  that so many people would like to write a novel, or at least say they do.  I thought of several reasons.

It’s an easy road to fame:  Some people think it would be easy!  Novelist Isabel Allende tells the story of meeting a brain surgeon at a party.  He told her, “When I retire, I’d like to write a novel.”  She countered with, “When I retire, I’d like to become a brain surgeon.”

You have an active imagination:  You’re the kind of person who daydreams about the experiences of others.  You read a real life account of, say, a small plane downed in the Sierras with a single survivor, and this puts you right into the mind of that survivor and imagining what they are thinking and doing.

It’s cathartic:  Those people who keep a regular journal know it is incredibly beneficial to consign your thoughts to paper.  Writing fiction will always reflect your own experiences and feelings–and this can be both comforting and fun.

You can write the truth but disguise it as fiction:   Many debut novels are fictionalized life stories. Writing is cathartic, as I said before.  Writing your own life story is particularly so.  A couple of reasons to turn truth into fiction:  (1) to minimize the risk of embarrassing or angering other people who are part of your story; (2) to reduce the need to get every single fact (dates, times, etc.) exact.

To publicize a cause you believe in:  Quoting Isabel Allende again,  “You can tell the deepest truths with the lies of fiction.”   Everyone likes to listen to a story; not everyone wants to hear a lecture.  Often the most persuasive way to get people interested in your cause is to write a story about it. 







Margaret Davis’s Book Launch Party for Straight Down the Middle

Party Bloopers!

On February 7, I held a book launch party for Straight Down the Middle. For me, it was a date picked at random; for the rest of the world it was Super Bowl Sunday.  What a blooper!  It was a lovely party, nevertheless.  We met in a beautiful reception room at The Peninsula Regent in San Mateo (courtesy of Ruth Silnes).  Family members helped me sell books and hand out cake.

Among the guests present were authors Luisa Adams (Woven of Water), Winifred McCaffrey (Gule Wamkulu—The Big Dance), Laurel Anne Hill (Heroes Arise), Joyce Robins (Aunt Lydia’s Trousseau), Teresa LeYung Ryan (Love Made of Heart), Geri Spieler (Taking Aim at the President).

Straight Down the Middle has received some wonderful reviews from readers.  Many of the full reviews are posted on Amazon.Com.  Some excerpts follow:  “[It] is the kind of a story that stays with you—a page turner.” (Ruth Silnes); “Margaret Davis writes a compelling story…I recommend this fine gift to any reader who appreciates a good story, a complex situation, and a heroic approach to the resolution of what has heart and meaning in life.  This book is a winner!”  (Luisa Adams); “A sweet love story.” (Holly Millar); “Thoroughly enjoyable…humorous and heart-wrenchingly human, Straight Down the Middle is a wonderful way to spend a day.” (Winifred McCaffrey); “Thank you for such a wonderfully entertaining book!…the writing is superb…” (Sarah Marion); “…A compelling, complex narrative…The Davis prose is fluid and rhythmic…  …Straight Down the Middle made this reader ask, ‘When will there be another story by the same author?’” (Gordon Seely)

Author Margaret Davis with Guests at Book Launch

Margaret Davis, Sociologist & Author of Straight Down the Middle.

Mate selection as social exchange

Mate Selection as Social Exchange

Recently, I was intrigued by a column in The Palo Alto Daily News (Feb. 26, 2010) by Malcolm Fleschner on the topic of “Should women settle?”  “Settle” as in “settle for what they can get in a mate” as opposed to “waiting for Mr. Right.”  The writer’s conclusion is that probably most women are willing to settle for a guy who’s good enough, if not the man of their dreams. After all, so many feminine romantic ideals hark back to Prince Charming stories that quickly fizzle in the cold light of real life.  And so many women, so popular wisdom goes, really do want to settle in another sense–into home and family-building–for which someone less than Prince Charming will surely do.

As a sociologist, this discussion took me back to college days where we debated Social Exchange Theory.  This theory offers a simple, if somewhat coldblooded explanation, of all social interactions–even a simple greeting to a stranger–as “exchanges.”  An even exchange, where my greeting of you is as robust as yours is of me, is more acceptable than one in which one party is giving more than he/she gets.

In this framework, mate selection would work as follows.  A man would assess what he has to offer in attracting a potential mate–such as, physical looks, height, strength, wealth, earning power, social class ranking. 

Similarly, the female would assess her own value in similar terms.  Each will use this self-assessment to determine the pool of mates each could realistically hope to be able to attract and get.  Of course, males and females may value different things in the opposite sex–a man may be more impressed by a woman’s physical attributes; she may be more impressed with the male’s job and earning power.

So, this theory predicts that pretty well everyone “settles” in the long run–men and women alike–whether they intend to do so or whether they even realize they are doing so.

Margaret Davis

Sociologist and Author of Straight Down the Middle

When Baby Makes Four

We have all heard of the “baby makes four” situation that occurs when an infertile male/female couple pay an outsider to help produce a child for them.  This can be a beautiful solution to the problem of infertility but not when the surrogate parent has a change of heart after the child is born.  Accounts of heart-wrenching custody battles regularly appear in the media.  More often than not, the surrogate is a woman who has carried a child for the infertile couple. As a woman myself, I can appreciate how difficult it must be to give up a child one has borne, no matter what business arrangement is involved. 

My novel, Straight Down the Middle, presents a slight variation of the “baby makes four” scenario.  In the story, a lesbian mother Diane is impregnated by a male acquaintance. After the baby is born, she finds herself caught in the middle between her love for her partner and what she increasingly chooses to see as her duty toward her child.  Societal pressures working in favor of the latter include family disapproval of her non-conventional lifestyle; the societal truism that “a boy needs a father,” and, perhaps most persuasive of all, the biological father’s desire to keep in contact with his son (i.e. “how can I deprive my child of his father’s love?”).  Diane is, in fact, pushed in the direction of “straight” long before her heart follows her mind.

The real-life events on which this novel were based occurred in the 1980s, when Diane’s situation was relatively rare.  But today infertility clinics often actively promote biological parenthood for gay men and lesbians and the numbers of such family units has increased considerably.   From random newspaper accounts and anecdotal evidence I have received, it would seem that that my protagonist’s experience of being torn between two worlds by their child is not uncommon either.

 Please leave me a comment.  Let’s get a discussion going.