The Hired Hand – Not just another blah-blah-blog

December 22, 2020

About me

Filed under: Uncategorized — Darcy Grabenstein @ 10:18 am

From print dinosaur to digital dynamo, I began my career as an editor at The Orlando Sentinel and still get an adrenaline rush from deadline pressure. I “defected” to advertising, working for Orlando’s Robinson, Yesawich & Pepperdine – a U.S. leader in hotel/resort advertising and named by Adweek as Florida’s largest agency.

A Florida native, I ended up in suburban Philadelphia, where I have worked for both corporations and ad agencies, writing copy for Nabisco, M&M/Mars, Johnson & Johnson, higher ed institutions, the tourism industry, pharmaceuticals, governmental entities and more. Philly is also where I finally learned what an ice scraper is for — just in time for the blizzard of ’96.

I am passionate about PR, and I hold professional accreditation from the Public Relations Society of America and the International Association of Business Communicators.

In recent years, my focus has been on digital communications: email campaigns, blog and social media posts, webinars, podcasts, SEO content, ecommerce, landing pages and banner ads. I love rolling up my sleeves and becoming immersed in the creative process. I was a contributor for three websites that won industry awards, and I also have served as a judge for major industry awards.

While I will never acquire a taste for scrapple, and still call a hoagie a sub, I do enjoy a good cheesesteak every now and then … widout.

You can reach me at darcy.grabenstein(at)

Check out more of my writing samples on Facebook and at The Hired Hand.

January 21, 2021

Our nation has gone coup-coup

Filed under: Uncategorized — Darcy Grabenstein @ 8:46 pm

The image haunts me. A grown man, in a fur hat with horns, his shirtless torso revealing a swath of tattoos that extend the length of his arms. His bearded face is painted with a design representing the American flag. My American flag. He holds a large American flag in one gloved hand, a megaphone in the other.

At first glance, it looks like a skit from “Saturday Night Live.” But this isn’t funny. It’s a real-life nightmare, playing out on our TV screens, our mobile devices, and in our nation’s Capitol.

I find it ironic that this horned caricature of a man is representative of those, misguided by ignorance and fear, who think it’s the Jews who have horns.

But that’s not the image most disturbing to me. The images that keep me up at night, postponing nightmares of my mind’s own making, are those of the “Americans” wearing T-shirts emblazoned with “Camp Auschwitz” and “6MWE” (6 million wasn’t enough), referring to the Holocaust in which 6 million Jews, along with hundreds of thousands more — including the disabled, homosexuals and German political opponents — were exterminated.

Anti-Semitism has reared its ugly head yet again. What really troubles me is that, unlike in earlier decades when KKK members cowardly hid their identities beneath hooded white robes, today’s bigots boldly flaunt their racism and anti-Semitism, showing their faces for all the world to see. They wave Confederate flags which, just as the swastika is a painful reminder to Jews of Holocaust atrocities, is a slap in the face to Blacks still trying to free themselves from the yoke of the white man. I grew up in the South, where I witnessed, only several decades ago, blatant racial discrimination.

The throngs that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, threatened our democracy. They attempted to mount nothing less than an insurrection, flamed by a fascist president (thankfully now ex-president).

Equally disturbing is how easily this mob breached the Capitol, raising the question whether some police officers were complicit. News reports showed uniformed officers taking selfies with the rioters. If we can’t trust the police — as many Black Americans have unfortunately come to realize — whom can we trust to protect us? Or, even worse, there’s the theory that Capitol insiders aided and abetted the insurgents.

On. Jan. 6, the unimaginable happened. And now, I ask you to imagine a totally different scenario. Imagine a couple thousand Black citizens, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with “Black Lives Matter” and other civil rights slogans, descending upon the Capitol. Think the National Guard would have delayed its response? Oh, wait. This did happen, on June 2, 2020, when BLM supporters descended upon the Lincoln Memorial in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. The two events were marked by stark contrasts:

  • The Capitol coup attempt was violent; the BLM rally was peaceful.
  • The Capitol crowd was predominantly white and male; the BLM rally was predominantly people of color.
  • Police took selfies with the Capitol rioters; police released tear gas and fired rubber bullets at the BLM protesters.
  • Rioters forced their way into the Capitol before the National Guard arrived; BLM protesters were met by armed and camouflaged National Guard members.
  • The Capitol coup attempt threatened our democratic values; the BLM rally upheld them.

Talk about white privilege. However, it is not “white privilege” to attack the very seat of our democracy. It is not “white privilege” to terrorize and attack our public servants, to commit hate crimes, to forcibly determine the outcome of an election.

The “Proud Boys” is a misnomer. They are Nazis, and they should be ashamed of themselves.

I’ve always taken pride in my country. That is, until Donald Trump took office. For the past four years, I was embarrassed to say I’m an American. America was the laughingstock of the world. But I’m not laughing. I’m mourning. I even wrote a prayer, “Kaddish for Our Country,” based on the Jewish prayer for mourning the dead.

Today, with a new president and administration that pledges unity, not division, I am cautiously optimistic.

Never again.

January 15, 2021

Am I My Brother’s (and Sister’s) Gatekeeper?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Darcy Grabenstein @ 10:28 pm
Tags: , ,

Writer. Dancer. Woman. Wife. Mom. Stepmom. Teacher. Aunt. Volunteer. Poet. Activist. Introvert. Beach lover. You could call these my designer labels. And now I suppose I should add one more: gatekeeper.

After receiving an email seeking screeners for the Gershman Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival (GPJFF), I decided to apply. I don’t claim to be a film expert and stated as such. Imagine my excitement (and surprise) when I was named to the screening committee. The GPJFF is one of the longest-running Jewish film festivals in the country and Philadelphia’s first film festival.

I got to thinking about how my roles as dance writer/critic for thINKingDANCE and as a screener for the film festival make me a de facto gatekeeper. To those who equate gatekeeping with censorship, I contend that gatekeepers fill a much-needed role in society.

It is fitting that my background is in journalism. Journalists are credited—or blamed—with being the gatekeepers of news. What is considered newsworthy? Is a story’s newsworthiness determined by the importance of other events that occur in the same news cycle? Who has editorial control, the writer or editor? While political, economic, and societal biases factor into the question of gatekeeping, I believe that in an age of so much information we need people and organizations to curate it for us.

These age-old questions have confounded editorial staffs and editorial boards for years. The fact that we still are asking ourselves the same questions over and over again is telling. At thINKingDANCE I, along with other writers and editors, grapple with similar questions as we strive to fully represent the Greater Philadelphia dance community. And now that I find myself in the role of film screener, new versions of these questions swirl through my mind.

It’s one thing to watch a dance performance for sheer enjoyment. It’s quite another to watch and critique it, translating movement and emotion into words, hoping nothing gets lost in translation. Likewise, it’s one thing to merely watch a film for pure entertainment, perhaps munching on popcorn, as opposed to viewing a film to determine if it is worthy of inclusion in a film festival. Both the dance critic and the film screener control the narrative, but the film screener has more control than the critic. The former may influence whether people choose to see a performance, while the latter makes that decision for them.

As I ponder my dual roles as a gatekeeper, I cannot help but notice many parallels between dance and film. Music is an important element in both genres, providing tempo and emotion. We experience dance guided by the choreographer’s perspective, just as we see a film through the cinematographer’s lens. Based on my experience, I find one major difference in the two roles. As dance critic, I share my personal reaction to the performance. As film screener, I  balance my personal preferences with those of other theater-goers. GPJFF screeners must fill out a form for each initial screening, determining whether a film should be considered for possible inclusion. If a film makes it to the next round, screeners fill out a more detailed form for each film. As I preview a film, I take into account the storyline, the acting, the directing and, most importantly, whether I think it will appeal to a broader audience.

Matt Bussy, GPJFF director, says that even before COVID-19, screeners always reviewed movies on their own. The screeners typically get together near the end of summer (last year was an exception for obvious reasons) and watch several short films prior to the Fall Fest to build community and finalize the festival lineup.

“Throughout the year, the staff at GPJFF seeks out the newest Jewish films by researching the latest film festivals, both Jewish and non-Jewish, and new movies from distributors,” Bussy says. “Every two to three weeks, the committee meets up to discuss which films we think were the strongest and could be a good fit for any of our yearly festivals.”

So I ask you (and myself): Is being a gatekeeper such a bad thing? Given today’s glut of information, I would argue that gatekeepers provide a valuable service to society. We help people find the information they are seeking. Want information on the Philadelphia dance scene? Check out thINKingDANCE. Want to watch Jewish films in Philly? Check out the GPJFF. We do not claim to be everything to everyone, and that’s OK.

In fact, I would argue that as gatekeeper it’s my duty to swing the gate wide open, not shut it. I make a concerted effort to review dance performances created by those who have been marginalized by the “mainstream” dance community and to expose readers to a variety of dance forms. I pride myself on the fact that I help bring the films of as-yet-unknown filmmakers to a broader audience, to choose films that address hard-to-digest topics, ones that encourage dialogue and understanding.

Whether I’m reviewing a performance or screening a film, I take my role very seriously. Artists have poured their collective heart and soul into these works, and I owe it to them—and their audiences—to view their creations fairly. I consider it a privilege, and I can only hope I do so with a great sense of responsibility and respect.

November 3, 2020

Pandemic writing prompt #2: intimacy

Filed under: Uncategorized — Darcy Grabenstein @ 9:55 pm

You’d think that being in close quarters for months on end would bring two people closer together. I’m not saying it took us further apart, but any expectations I had of a relationship epiphany were dashed within weeks, if not days.

Let’s start with mornings. He gets up early to go work out in the basement, or what he generously refers to as our home gym. I, on the other hand, stay cozily in bed and read a few more chapters of a book or, if I must admit, watch another episode of “Tiger King” or some other inane show to take my mind off all this craziness.

By the time I make it downstairs, he’s busy at his work station, dual big-screen monitors casting an eerie glow on his unshaven face. If he doesn’t have his headset on, a signal that he’s on a call (or at least says he’s on a call), I can sneak in a good-morning kiss. I grab some coffee, yogurt and fruit and eat at my desk, standing at attention, as I check dozens of emails in my inbox.

At lunchtime, if I’m lucky I make my way to the basement for some cardio. More likely, though, I make a salad and head back to my work area, scarfing it down until my next Zoom meeting.

After work, if I hadn’t made it to the basement for a workout at lunchtime, I often head downstairs to de-stress or sneak in a virtual Zumba class. When dinner rolls around, I’m often in scarf mode again as I prepare for a social justice meeting, a women’s nonprofit meeting, another board meeting, a writers’ meeting, a playwriting class or, my favorite pastime, online dancing with people from around the world. People except my husband, that is.

Occasionally, we’ll watch a movie on TV. He likes sci-fi. I like rom-coms. I didn’t say we watched it together.

When it’s time to turn in, one of us is usually sound asleep before the other. Then it’s wash, rinse repeat.

Where did all the hours, minutes, seconds go? What happened to bonding during the pandemic?

Pandemic writing prompt #1: On home

Filed under: Uncategorized — Darcy Grabenstein @ 9:47 pm

Before the pandemic, I worked full time from home 99.9 percent of the time. There’s a big difference between having the option of working from home and being forced to work from home. There’s also a difference having your husband work eight (nine? ten?) hours from home, too, even if it’s a couple rooms away. Add to the equation one stepson in his last semester of college. When he’s not busy working on class projects — and sometimes when he is — the sound of gaming screams can be heard from his room. Did I mention that his room looks like a bomb went off in it? But I digress.

During the pandemic, Zoom and I have become old friends. Zoom sees me at my best, all gussied up for a business event, and at my worst, after a day and night of Zoom meetings. On the positive side, I’ve had many reunions with friends across the country. Without the pandemic as an excuse, we probably would not have reconnected.

My pandemic-prompted work area consists of a makeshift stand-up desk. What once was a hospital-style bedside table, discarded on the sidewalk, has been resurrected as a stand-up desk. It’s perfect for the task: It can be adjusted up and down, and it even has a recess for a coffee cup or water bottle. Best of all, it was free.

After work, I need a change of venue. That’s when I move my laptop to our home bar, rows of martini glasses, shot glasses, and pint glasses tempting me to indulge. And indulge I have. A glass of wine with dinner, a shot of Fireball or swig of limoncello before bedtime to encourage a full night’s sleep.

My sleep patterns, too, have been a victim of the pandemic. Like many people, I’ve had bizarre dreams. And, now, with the election looming threateningly over us all, my dreams have morphed into nightmares. The question is: How different are they from reality?

September 6, 2020

The shortest blog post ever?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Darcy Grabenstein @ 10:43 am


June 9, 2020

Ponderings During a Pandemic: Depression vs. Dance

Filed under: Uncategorized — Darcy Grabenstein @ 7:21 am

As someone who worked from home 99.9 percent of the time prior to the pandemic, my daily routine hasn’t changed much in recent weeks. Wake up early (thanks to my husband). Get dressed (do T-shirt and leggings count?). Take vitamins. Use my neti pot (TMI?). Make coffee. Grab something to eat. Station myself at my standing desk.

Wait, did I brush my teeth? What day is it?

Wash, rinse, repeat.

However, having the option to work from home and being forced to stay at home are two different things. Those who know me know I’m not one to sit still.

So while my daytime routine remained—yawn—basically the same, my after-hours routine was “dance-us-interruptus.” So long, salsa. Bye-bye belly dancing. Farewell folk dancing. Zumba? Zilch.

Because my “day” job is tied to the pharmaceutical industry, my email inbox is inundated with COVID-19 references. Between this and the media onslaught, I face a constant barrage of coronavirus coverage. And, just like the virus itself, over-exposure is suffocating. Not to mention the numerous Zoom meetings, each of us trading our cubicle for a box onscreen. No wonder I feel so boxed in all the time.

This is when I came to the proverbial fork in the road. I could fall into a funk or get my funk on, so to speak. I chose the latter. After all, dancing is my antidote to depression. Dancing is my happy place. If I must shelter in place, that’s where I want to be.

While my work inbox overflows with COVID clinical trials, my personal inbox is filled with free trials and more. FREE trial subscription to [fill in the blank]! FREE shipping! FREE downloads! For someone confined to what amounts to house arrest, the term “free” taunted me cruelly.

Curiosity—and the desire to save a few bucks—got the better of me. I’ve always loved to learn new things, and the universe (or just the internet) was now serving up a smorgasbord of free online classes. I was like a kid in a cultural candy store, ready to taste a little of this, a little of that.

My calendar, which was as empty as shelves at the local supermarket, is now crammed with virtual activities. It all began with an offer I couldn’t refuse from Philly Dance Fitness.* A one-time fee through the end of march entitled you to unlimited online classes. Oh yeah. Like a junkie waiting for her  next fix, I eagerly signed up for Zumba, Afro-Caribbean, Bollywood. Much to my husband’s chagrin, I did not sign up for the striptease class. Given my interest in anything that’s got to do with dance, you’d never know I was a ballet school dropout.

I’ve also dabbled in some poetry, penning the soon-to-be-published “Answers During a PANDEMicONIUM”—not to be confused with “Ponderings During a Pandemonium.” Aspiring writers should take advantage of the free online write-ins held by Stockton University’s Murphy Writing program. Writers are given a prompt, about 40 minutes to write, then come together to share and critique.

Have I burned out yet? Au contraire! Here’s a look at a “typical” week for me. Maybe you’ll want to check out some of these classes yourself, or be inspired to pursue similar interests online.

Sundays start with a weekly study session, followed by free Facebook concerts and ending with a weekly Israeli folk dance session from North Jersey. Mondays include a weekly foreign-language class and free Zumba courtesy of Philly’s Dilworth Park, sponsored by Optimal Fitness and Rothman Orthopedic. Dwayne, the instructor, manages some impressive moves, despite the spatial limitations of his bedroom. Of course, I round out my evening with Israeli dance sessions from Boston and California.

Tuesdays often feature one of three book clubs I’m in (yes, I somehow find time to read, in between work, dancing, classes, and board meetings). The beauty of online courses, especially those on Facebook, is that one can choose to participate without being seen or heard. This especially comes in handy when I take the free voice class offered on Tuesdays by Lambertville’s Music Mountain Theater. Let’s just say I probably should focus on dancing, not singing. I’m not quitting my day job. I’ve also tried the theater’s tap and Broadway dance classes on Facebook. Tap dancing in rubber-soled dance sneakers on a tile floor leaves a lot to be desired, just sayin’. At 7 on Tuesdays, Trevor Algarin of The ZSpot offers a free online Zumba class. Algarin has enough energy to power half of Philly. Later in the evening, I’ve got my pick between Israeli dance sessions from the DC area and New York.

Wednesday mornings begin with a weekly meditation class. At some point during the day, I usually squeeze in a yoga class. My studio in South Jersey offers both livestream and on-demand classes with a paid membership. The management has committed to maintaining the online offerings even after the pandemic has passed. This news was as soothing to me as a long, drawn-out “ohhhmmm.” You see, I bask in anonymity, refusing to turn on my video for the Zoom yoga sessions. In the studio, the instructors remind us that yoga is a practice and we should not compare ourselves to our classmates. But when the student on the next mat over has manipulated her body into a Philly soft pretzel, I can’t help but be self-conscious as I strain to touch my all-too-distant toes. In the privacy of my own home, however, I can take comfort in the fact that no one sees me wobble in my standing tree pose, waiting for someone to yell “timberrrr!”

Later in the day, there’s a folk dance session run by friends of mine in Florida. But I must admit I’m a folk dance snob. Their session is international folk dancing, which to me borders on sleepwalking. My passion is Israeli dancing, a true melting pot, with music and steps influenced by Eastern European, Russian, Arabic, Greek, Latin American and other cultures. Circle dances, line dances, partner dances. I’ve even led a couple online classes myself locally. And so I wait until 9 p.m. Eastern time to join an online Israeli dance session from California.

The highlight of my week, dance-wise, is Thursday. Early in the evening, I sometimes catch an online session—you guessed it, Israeli dancing—from outside Boston. Later on is my Israeli dance trifecta: sessions from Chicago, North Jersey and the DC area. Unlike my shy yoga self, during the Israeli dance sessions I keep my video on, reconnecting with dance friends across the country. And I’ve got to admit that I bask in my 5 seconds of fame when the session administrator highlights me dancing.

Friday, it’s back to yoga so I can gear up for Zumba Saturday. If it’s Saturday, it must be Zumba. So many Zumba sessions, so little time. Marianne Martino-Giosa, owner of M’Fierce Fitness in Bucks County, offers a Zumba 20/20/20 class (Zumba, Zumba toning, plus a mat workout). Martino-Giosa, by the way, is also known for her Mummers Parade choreography. Mary Gagliardi, based in South Jersey, also offers a Saturday morning session. Ronnie Milbar, based in Montgomery County, offers a weekly paid Zoom Zumba session (Zoomba?).

Just as Philly’s Dilworth Park offers free online classes, the city of Fort Lauderdale offers free virtual line dancing and Zumba on Saturdays. The line dance class reminds me of my summertime visits to the VanillaSoul LineDancers Monday night session in Margate. However, throughout the three-hour class (yes, three hours), I did not see the instructor’s face. I only saw her seemingly disembodied feet. This made for excellent teaching but also a somewhat surreal experience as a student.

Did I mention I’m taking an online piano course? And, not missing a beat, I tried djembe technique and rhythms with Princeton’s Drum & Dance Learning Center. I did learn something: I need a bigger drum. I tried my hand (foot?) at dance classes on Instagram taught by The Rockettes and by Debbie Allen.

Proudly wearing my “We dance virtually anywhere” T-shirt, I am not alone in my obsession with Israeli folk dance. Case in point: I participated in a 24-hour global Israeli dance marathon online, mentioned in this article, with 26 instructors and up to 1,000 dancers at a time. For me, the icing on the cake was that the marathon benefited COVID-related charities worldwide. I found it deeply fulfilling to take something I love doing and turn it into doing good for others.

April 27, 2020

Our paths once crossed, and now his path has come to an abrupt end

Filed under: Uncategorized — Darcy Grabenstein @ 6:33 pm

This post originally was published Feb. 11, 2012

While the music world is mourning the loss of Whitney Houston, the literary world is mourning the loss of Jeff Zaslow.

Jeff Zaslow and I were mere acquaintances, but I can’t keep from getting choked up as I write this. The best-selling author was tragically killed Friday in a car accident on a snow-covered road in Michigan. He had just done a book signing and was headed home to his beloved family — TV news anchor Sherry Margolis and their three daughters, Jordan, Alex and Eden.

Jeff Zaslow and I both worked at The Orlando Sentinel  (then called the Sentinel Star) back in the ’80s. He was an up-and-coming writer. I was a just-out-of-college copy editor. We both were young, Jewish and determined. (OK, I’ll admit it. I had a bit of a crush on him. I think I was mostly awed by his raw talent. If I could’ve, I’d have bought Zaslow stock.)

That’s where our similarities ended — although I just found out that we both were born in the same month, in the same year. Jeff hailed from the Philly area, where I now call my home. I remember Jeff regaling us with stories of his younger days as a hot dog hawker at Phillies games. He sure came a long way.

Our career paths led us in different directions. Jeff worked for big-name newspapers — The Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Sun-Times and USA Weekend. He got the Chicago gig, by the way, when he entered a contest to replace columnist Ann Landers at the newspaper for a story he was doing for The Wall Street Journal and beat out 12,000 applicants. I, however, worked as an editor at a small community weekly and a Tribune company before defecting from the media world to the advertising and corporate world.

Jeff went on to write best-selling books, including The Last Lecture, The Girls from Ames and Highest Duty. His most recent books were Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope and The Magic Room.

I, on the other hand, have had a couple of short stories published in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. (Hey, a gal’s gotta start somewhere, right?)

Our paths crossed again a couple years ago. Well, they crossed because I made them cross. When I found out that Jeff would be the keynote speaker at the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference, I made reservations to hear him speak. That evening, I was afraid he’d be mobbed by adoring Zaslow wannabes after his speech, so I approached him before his keynote.

I wasn’t sure he’d remember me, but he genuinely appeared to recall our days at the Orlando Sentinel. I tried not to sound too much like a Zaslow groupie when I praised his latest literary contributions.

The thing is, while Jeff touched my life as a coworker in the trenches of a daily metropolitan newspaper, he touched my life even more as the author of books that dealt with love, loss and — yes — death. He touched millions of lives in this way.

He not only touched the lives of those who read his books, he touched the lives of those who were the subjects of his books. Jeff wrote about famous people as well as people like you and me, simply living our lives as best we can.

I’ve often compared Jeff’s writing style to that of author Mitch Albom (Tuesdays with Morrie, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, Have a Little Faith), another favorite of mine. Albom spoke highly of his friend: “Jeff was a master storyteller. … He always wrote with great sensitivity.”

The words of Capt. Sully Sullenberger, whom Jeff wrote about in Highest Duty, say it all: “Jeff was a beautiful writer, wonderful collaborator, loving husband, father and friend. Our whole family loved him dearly and he will be sorely missed.”

What I find ironic is that Jeff wrote about Carnegie-Mellon professor Randy Pausch and his courageous battle with pancreatic cancer. (Jeff graduated from Carnegie-Mellon.) He wrote about Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who cheated death, and her equally courageous battle following her near-fatal shooting in Arizona. And he wrote about Sully, who also heroically cheated death by piloting his US Airways plane to safety in New York’s Hudson River.

But, in the end, Jeff himself couldn’t cheat death. And we have all been cheated out of one of the most talented writers of our time.

Most importantly, his wife and daughters have been cheated out of a caring husband and father. Rabbi Jason Miller and others have called The Magic Room Jeff’s own last lecture. The book is subtitled “A story about the love we wish for our daughters.” 

Jeff had three daughters. I have two sons. And so I say this (having lost my own father when I was just 18) to Jeff’s daughters: Remember the good times. Know that he was so very proud of you and loved you with all his heart. And so I say this (following the advice of one very wise father named Jeff Zaslow) to my own two sons: Know that I am so very proud of you and love you with all my heart.

Rest in peace, Jeff. I’ve got a feeling that you and Randy are having one heck of a reunion up there.

May your memory be a blessing.


September 15, 2019

The Games We Play

Filed under: Uncategorized — Darcy Grabenstein @ 11:03 am

Bob-bob-bob. Hands outstretched like a zombie, tippy-toes barely touching the bottom, eyes squeezed tightly shut, I navigated the wide-open waters. Or at least the shallow end of the pool.

With a fierce determination, I became hyper-focused on my sense of hearing. I was like a dog, with an acute awareness of sounds echoing off the water’s surface. That is, unless my ears were filled with water, which happened more often than not. I even swam like a dog, if you consider the doggie paddle swimming. It was a poor imitation at best.

“MARCO!” I shouted for all my friends – and anyone unfortunate to be within earshot – to hear. I experienced a nanosecond of fear before I heard the familiar reply: “POLO!” It was a resounding chorus: Claire’s Southern drawl, Kathy’s mouse-like yelp, David’s I’m-too-cool-for-this monotone, Nancy’s cheerleader-like chant. Splash! Splaaash! Splaaasshhh! My playmates took their aim, giving me a false sense of their locations.

While others in my position may have squinted slightly, catching a brief, watery glimpse of their prey, I resolutely kept my eyes closed like a vise. After all, the Marco Polo police might catch me cheating.

Well, I must admit I wasn’t totally innocent. When the tables were turned and I was part of the chorus, I often became eerily silent. Not moving a muscle, I would truly become invisible to the one who was “it,” until my raucous laughter gave me away.

I wasn’t always so fond of the water. When I was younger and enrolled in swim lessons, I would scurry to the back of the line, delaying the inevitable. Did I really think I would avoid having to face my fears and take the plunge?

ZaydeFast forward about half a century. This time, I’m not a competitor but a spectator. And there’s a lot more riding on this game. I’m at the Senior Games in Albuquerque, cheering on my 85-year-young father-in-law, who’s swimming in five events. To say that I have a lively family is an understatement.

Interestingly, on our drive to the aquatic center we passed by a motel with the sign: “Pool. No Marco Polo.”

One might assume that if you make it to the Senior Games, you like participating in competitive sports. For some, that may be the case. For others, it’s more about challenging themselves. It’s not about limitation, but possibility.

Watching the Games was both inspiring and humbling. As someone decades younger than the swimmers, someone who got winded just walking up the bleachers (I blamed the high altitude in Albuquerque), I was awed by these older athletes. They came in all shapes and sizes, each approaching their race with a unique flair. Macho, muscular septuagarians in Speedos. Lithe, limber ladies in bathing caps. Bald-headed men with bravado. Former Olympians. Current heroes.

Each athlete entered the water in his or her own way and own time. Some crouched in a definitively competitive stance. Some precariously perched on the slippery starting blocks. Some with no-holds-barred, beer-bellied belly flops. Some standing gingerly on the pool’s ledge. Some who slid into the water, hanging onto the edge until the starting horn sounded. And all appeared to be in “the zone.”

We waited until it was time for my father-in-law Dan’s heat. Patience was definitely a virtue; many of the races were not exactly what you’d call fast-paced. That’s because minimum times were not necessarily required in the qualifying trials preceding the Games. In Dan’s case, he sent us a photo of himself after his qualifying rounds at the state level, with so many medals around his neck that he looked like an aging rapper. In his email, he referred to it as “my Michael Phelps moment.” You see, he came in first in all his events … because there were no other competitors in his age bracket.

As we waited, we witnessed people in wheelchairs, with canes, with walkers. We saw a blind woman. Did I mention that these were competitors, not spectators?

One race included a 100-year-old woman. Yes, 100. When she touched the wall at the end of her race, everyone in the bleachers rose to their feet, hooting and clapping. Yes, I cried.

As I waited, my mind drifted back to those games of Marco Polo. I couldn’t help but think how being “it” forced me to approach the situation from a different perspective. I could no longer rely on sight. I had to quickly adapt, using my senses of touch and hearing. On the flip side, when I was one of those being sought after, I soon discovered that my soft voice was an asset, making me less easily detected than the others. Years later, however, I realized that not only did I need to be a good listener in life, I needed to work hard to make myself heard.

Finally, Dan’s first race was about to start. Yes, we were one of those families. We all proudly wore our custom T-shirts with “GRABenstein THE GOLD” on the front (Grabenstein is our family name; yes, I’ll take credit for the slogan) and TEAM DAN on the back.

With cell phones, cameras and video cameras poised, we were like a pack of paparazzi. “GO ZAYDE!” yelled the grandkids, using the affectionate Yiddish word for “grandfather.”

At the awards ceremony, Zayde stood there in all his Zayde-ishness. Sporting a wide-brimmed cowboy hat and leather belt with oversized buckle, he beamed as he stepped up on the podium. Yes, he won several medals. Even if he had placed last, he’ll always be first in our hearts.

October 18, 2017

My Favorite Free Resources for Freelance Writers

Filed under: Writing — Darcy Grabenstein @ 9:59 pm
Tags: , , , ,

For more than 30 years, I’ve been a freelance writer. I’ll admit that I’ve also held down a full-time job for 99 percent of those years. I can’t afford to waste time searching for what I need to complete writing assignments. So I’m very discriminating when it comes to free online resources for writers. I want resources that are reputable, easy to navigate, and offer useful information.

Following are several of my go-to websites for everything from expert sources to stock images.


Purdue University’s OWL Writing Lab is a comprehensive resource on for more formal writing topics. You’ll find all the basics — grammar, punctuation, mechanics — plus subject-specific writing, research and citation, and more.


Let’s face it, when you’re optimizing copy for search engines, Google is the search engine to target. Industry statistics show that, in terms of global market share from July 2016 to July 2017, Google led with about 92 percent, followed by Bing and Yahoo! at 2.5 and 2.3 percent, respectively.

That said, the Google AdWords Keyword Planner is a helpful tool for researching which keywords and phrases to include in your copy. Granted, you need a Google AdWords account to access the tool, but you don’t need to spend any money to do so. One way around it is to create and pause an AdWords campaign. You may, however, need an active AdWords campaign in order to access the tool.


For marketing copywriters, the HubSpot blog is a treasure trove of information. The folks at Hubspot have content marketing down to a science. Admittedly, the categories are rather broad: marketing, sales, and customer success. However, the marketing blog posts cover many writing topics. A search on the word “writing” turns up dozens of related posts.

Seth Godin is synonymous with marketing. What I love about his blog is that it’s to the point. One blog post, for instance, is only 175 words. While this may go against SEO best practices for minimum word count, Godin’s posts are written with the reader in mind.


The Copyblogger blog offers useful insights, whether you’re a newbie writer or one with decades of experience. Topics run the gamut from conversion to eBooks to social media.


Many blogging sites require writers to supply their own images. One site that consistently shows relevant search results is Burst, powered by Shopify. When I entered the word “summer,” the site returned 141 matches, including these:

Summer images

Expert resources

If you’re looking for an expert resource for an article, Help A Reporter Out (HARO) is a great starting point. Founded by public relations guru Peter Shankman, HARO is now owned by Cision. HARO is used by both writers and expert sources. I also do public relations work, so I have used HARO for both finding sources and for making my clients available as expert sources.


The following site could also be categorized under “fun.” It’s easy to get distracted when you’re using the internet archive Wayback Machine. This nonprofit site is a digital library of Internet sites and other cultural artifacts in digital form. It’s a great visual reference for a historical perspective of websites as well as now-defunct sites.

I have to give another shout-out to Google here. If you don’t already use Google alerts, now’s the time to start. Wearing my PR hat, I’ve got to say it’s a free way to monitor mentions on the web. For research, just plug in your keywords and you’ll stay up to date on news regarding that topic. And from a marketing standpoint, it’s an easy way to keep tabs on the competition.


Many freelance writers do not have the luxury of running contracts by a lawyer. The Freelancers Union has a contract creator that lets you specify details including late fees, cancellation fees and numbers of revisions.

Freelance gigs

I’m hesitant to share the following resource, since it will increase my competition for writing gigs. It’s the Morning Coffee eNewsletter. The free weekly email digest includes a variety of freelance writing jobs, some of which are exclusive to the newsletter. I have landed several projects using this resource.

My list is continually evolving, as I come across new resources all the time. Be sure to bookmark your own favorite sites, and watch as your list continues to grow, too.



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