Thursday, March 08, 2018

Date Night With the Empty Nest Folks

         The waiter at our favorite restaurant brought a bowl water for Joey. He told us about the Shar Pei his roommate had rescued. Shar Pei’s are the large dogs with all the loose skin folding around their faces. The original dogs came from China and look nothing like the designer dogs the West has produced.                                                                                                                

“They have all sorts of health problems,” he said, “blindness, renal failure, yeast infections in their ears.” 

“All because of human interference in the breed,” I said. He nodded and left with our order.

“Poodles are the same way,” my husband said, “if you don’t shave their butts, they can’t take a crap.” 

I’ve wanted a standard poodle for a long time, but Gerald always nixes that idea. His mom had a poodle. One of his childhood laments is how shaving the dog’s butt was his responsibility. 

“They’d die without humans caring for their butts,” he said.

“Poodles living in the wild would groom each other,” I said.

“There are no poodles living in the wild.”

“If there were, they’d clean each other’s butts. It’s like alcoholics and their enablers,” I said. “You enabled your mom’s dog to not clean his own butt by paying too much attention to that area. Own it.”

“That makes no sense.” He looked away, but not before I saw the teeniest smile.

“It’s perfectly logical.” 

The waiter brought our dinner and Joey sat at attention for his share.              


Monday, February 26, 2018

Retro Reptile

Slender shoulders, blades jutting out like wings, Lydia walked through treacherous high school corridors after first period, head held high, looking neither to the left nor to the right, straight out the door to her ‘56 Ford.  She tossed the parking ticket in the glove compartment with the others, giving no thought to the future.  No one knew who she was or where she was going.

She drove past low, pink hills dotted with piñon and adobe homes camouflaged in the scrub.  Lydia felt abandoned by the relentless blue sky filling the void above until she reached the vineyard. Well-tended and deserted as usual, she walked barefoot through rows of twisted vines, squeezing the crumbly black earth between her toes and listening to the shadowed creek down the hill. 

A little snake darted across her path and stopped.

Lydia froze.  She’d not thought about meeting snakes, only murderers or rapists.  They wouldn’t find her body for weeks, probably.  

The snake turned its head cartoon style to take her measure.  It was bright green under the blazing sky, and it was more frightened than Lydia.  It took off at a fast clip down the hill to the water. 

The day turned hopeful.

Appeared in Silhouette. 2009. WriteGirl publication 

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Alone in NYC

Graffiti in Brooklyn

I was a finalist for two book awards in 2013 but didn't plan on attending the awards ceremony in New York City. "Mom, you have to go," my youngest son said. A shrug of my shoulder, and "I never win anything," was my reply. He rolled his eyes which he does often around me, but for the first time it seemed totally appropriate. I hate being a chicken and have tried to brainwash my children into never giving up. I'd been to NYC before but I'd had business meetings and cocktail-laced liaisons. I wasn't so social anymore.

At one time, I feared my propensity for aloneness, for solitude, and thought it meant I was strange. I didn’t understand that it was a choice. It’s what makes it possible for me to write for hours. People who live with their own thoughts successfully have found peace within themselves.

My social plans this time around were vague, built on an invisible platform of my own devise, a loner's version of whatever
wherein I wallowed in being an onlooker. But here’s the thing, I  improvised.

The three threads of continuity were the awards program on May 30, my efforts to engage New Yorkers by getting them to laugh, and my attempts to arrange a visit to the Museum of Morbid Anatomy in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn.

A Brooklyn native described the area as next to a canal that was a mob dumping ground.

On my happy-go-lucky way to the Museum of Morbid Anatomy I paused on the Union Street Bridge to snap this pic of the milky water in the canal.  Is the water that color to camouflage the bodies, or hasten their decomposition? Charming.

Couldn't find the entrance to the Museum of Morbid Anatomy. Turned the corner and entered this lonely alley. 

Retreated when a man entered from the far end of the alley near the red truck.  He wore a WWII German overcoat festooned with various medals. But for the tattoos and piercings, I might have mistaken him for someone on his way to a military reenactment. I tried to exit the alley at a leisurely pace. In other words, I tried not to run.

"Can I help you?" he asked.

I looked up into the friendly and kind eyes of a teenager. He knew I was frightened, but he was courteous and relayed no aggression. We were at the corner by now, and while there was no traffic, I felt less creeped out. Plus, I felt sorry for the kid. He looked something like this:

He showed me where to enter and rushed off on some urgent business. I waited in the lobby of the Proteus Gowanus Gallery for Laetitia Barbier, who is a contributor to Atlas Obscura and the Head Libarian at Morbid Anatomy Library. She'd generously rearranged her schedule to meet me at the Museum of Morbid Anatomy, a private museum in Brooklyn which "is committed to celebrating and providing materials dedicated to the places where death and beauty intersect." Laetitia is a beautiful European art historian who fell in love with an American artist and lives here now. She also introduced me to the work of  Joe Coleman. She's writing her dissertation on him and his art.

I love the back of Laetitia's knees!

The next night was the International Latino Book Awards and I won in both categories in which I was a finalist. Astonished is a good word to describe my emotions that night. I'd prepared myself for disappointment, not a double-win. A happy face in this picture, but my sympathies were totally with the people who didn't win. I wanted to go out drinking with them. Maybe go salsa dancing. I said nothing and left early . . . alone.

Back in my room, I quickly changed into more comfortable clothes and went for a walk passing Irish bars the concierge at my hotel had assured me I would enjoy. They were crowded and the laughter poured out into the streets. A couple of men raised their mugs to me. I walked as fast as I could in my beloved flip-flops, doubled back, passing more nightspots, and decided on a French Restaurant across the street from my hotel.

Cultural diversity is apparent at every turn of the head in NYC, and this bar was no different.  The place was empty except for two tables in the back, and the four blondes at the bar. Three of them were part of the same Polish family: mother, who must have been 12 when she gave birth to daughter, a tall gorgeous young woman with what appeared to be real double-D's. And her brother who was immensely nondescript.

I ordered a Margarita and the bartender, another tall blond, asked me what Tequila I preferred. Anejo with a dash of Triple sec and a squeeze of lime, on the rocks with salt. She was good friends with the Polish family. I took out my teeny notepad and made notes.

"Where are you from?" I ask the bartender.

"Serbia." She leans across the bar challenging me to make something of it.

"Oh, I thought Danish." That made the Polish family laugh. 

"Her boyfriend is half French and half Indian," one of them says.

"I need to stop drinking and get back to my writing," the beautiful, and now even more luscious blond says.

"Ha!" the bartender says, "her writing!"  

The gorgeous writer's family ostracize her in a friendly way. They talk about men they're seeing, or, at least, the ones the writer is seeing, has seen, when she's not drinking or writing or working. I  order another Margarita.

The writer asks the bartender if she's checked out Apparently she is also a bartender at this restaurant, but has the night off.  Free drinks for her family?

An older man with a massive stomach encased in a nice suit comes in. He knows both bartenders. They treat him like shit and the one behind the bar makes a crack about older men going after younger women. Her face is contorted with disgust. The man looks confused. He really doesn't get it. All this time the younger women glance at me. Finally we stare openly at one another. The man ignores me; I'm too old for him. I order another drink and flex my triceps. I don't tell them I'm married or that I just won two awards for my first book.

The last of the tables is cleared and the Mexican waiter collapses on a chair, disgusted with his tips and orders a double Vodka. I scribble a note and take out my business card, give it to the succulent blond writerling who has braces on her bottom teeth: 

 Keep Writing!!!

Thursday, February 15, 2018

A Writer’s Life with Kevin O’Connell

I'm honored to host Kevin O'Connell and introduce his latest novel in The Derrynane Saga series, Two Journeys Home: A Novel of Eighteenth Century Europe. He writes about Irish nobility and a relatively unknown aspect of Irish and European history (at least to me). The fallen Irish aristocracy served at the courts and in the armies of Catholic Europe. And, yes, they got to visit Vienna and Versailles. Tell us about your journey as a writer, Kevin.

As Beyond Derrynane and Two Journeys Home continue to be more widely-read, a number of questions have been posed to me, about writing them as well as about my writing in general. I have chosen to elaborate on several of the more intriguing ones.

     What are my goals as a writer.

 At the outset, unlike many later-on-in-life beginning authors, it was not a long-deferred dream of mine to write – certainly not novels.  Yet, once I began – on rather a lark, I must admit – it quickly became a passion, and, as “the first book” became the first book in what is now the Derrynane Saga, with the second one now recently published and the third underway – the passion has evolved into what I have now come to regard as being my life’s work.
Quite candidly, my initial goal – once I had the barest of story lines – was to see if I could indeed do it, that is, to actually write fiction, create characters and give them lives and voices, and tell their stories. The first reviews were very good and my goal has evolved into creating a series of books, a lengthy saga, worthy of the complex, colourful characters and of the tumultuous time and the challenging, oft-times dangerous settings in which they dwell.  
An equally important goal remains to do all of this – and more – as a storyteller, in a manner so as to make the books an enjoyable experience for both the casual reader as well as the true devotee of historical fiction. Especially in terms of the latter audience, my aim remains to have the history and the fictional tales meld well, such that it would be virtually impossible for the majority of readers to successfully parse which events actually occurred or did not.
Lastly, my hopes and my goals remain to have the books – and, indeed, once the Derrynane Saga is finally completed, the further work that I plan to undertake –  continue to be well-regarded as quality, accessible historical fiction, recognised as being meticulously-researched, beautifully-written and enjoyable.

   What are the boundaries you have pushed as a writer? 

Whilst I do not believe, nor do I pretend that my work has shattered any significant literary boundaries, in that the Derrynane Saga is the first fictional treatment, relating stories of members, and of families of what was referred to by then as the fallen Gaelic Aristocracy, as they served at the courts and in the armies of Catholic Europe in the Eighteenth Century. Though understanding that the topic is narrow I was indeed rather surprised to discover that it had never before been treated in fiction.
Whilst the books are not a specific chronicle of all courts – nor anything approaching an exhaustive even fictional treatment of the subject, I believe the Saga does succeed in opening a literary door onto a relatively unknown aspect of Irish and European history in the Eighteenth Century.

What is my writing style and how I have adapted it to work for my story?

At the risk of appearing glib, this is relatively easy– I had no distinguishable writing style before I began to work on these books, so I was not compelled to adapt any in-place pre-existing style to writing the books of the Saga.
This said, in reflecting on how I wished the reader to experience the stories, from the very beginning I had consciously decided to write “formally” (some would say “archaically”) – in some approximative suggestion of Eighteenth Century written communications, such that the gap between the descriptive text written in the Twenty-first Century and the dialogue of the characters would not be quite so jarring. Consistent with this decision, I write in “Irish (or “English”) English – both in terms of spelling (“colour”) and usage “whilst”).
In terms of dialogue, I make every effort to have the characters – be they Irish at the courts in Vienna or Versailles – or the nobility or royalty at those locations – speak and interact the way I believe they did. In the same vein, servants – whether at Derrynane or Versailles – may be viewed as subtly speaking differently than educated courtiers.
I frequently use correspondence as one means of telling the story, providing details and insights into what is occurring or the thoughts, hopes, concerns of the writer; in doing so I have worked hard to reasonably assure that any such letter is written as it would have been by the writer in the time and place of its composition.
I have, I believe successfully, largely avoided verbal stereotypes, I have employed the Irish “lilt” sparingly, recognising that, for example, that, despite that they were native Irish speakers and possessed at least to some natural degree the “brogue”,  the O’Connells were, for their station, sophisticate and highly-educated; they thus most likely spoke in tone and manner little different than similar lesser aristocrats would in England at the time.
I have selectively used non-English – Irish Gaelic, French and German – language for emphasis and./or to set the mood or tone of a scene or setting.  In replicating, in English, the cadence or manner of a native-French or German speaker, I have been as subtle as possible in choosing phraseology, such that an English-speaking reader could easily conclude that the character was speaking wholly in German, for example. (I find this to be less invasive than constantly reminding the reader “. . . she said in French . . .”
Comments made by an individual who’d read literally the first fifty pages of the original manuscript, “I can see the setting, where the characters are! I can hear them speaking!” had a profound impact on me as I was attempting to determine the importance, the appropriate degree of descriptive language to use. My conclusion was, especially in this genre – where virtually everything is different from life in the current century – that descriptions were critical and that details – from the largest, to the smallest – provide readers with the opportunity to say what had been said to me, “I can see the people, where they are, I can hear them.” As I write,  I make every effort to use vivid language so as to make the setting visible to the reader, permitting her to sense that she is at a ball, aboard a ship or in the saddle.
I have thus come to employ significant vividly-descriptive language to place the reader on the beach at Derrynane, in the courtyards and the interior of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, amongst the riders on a journey by horseback and in carriages, coaches:

The horses’ bells gaily marked their progress to the huge, ornate white building that housed the renowned Winter Riding School, also known as the Spanish Riding School, as it had thus been named for the horses that originated from the Iberian Peninsula during the sixteenth century and were considered especially noble and spirited, as well as willing and suited for the art of classical horsemanship. Eileen learnt that, in 1729,the empress’s father, Emperor Charles VI, had commissioned the magnificent structure in which they rode, and it finally had been completed in 1735. She had immediately fallen in love with the edifice, its history and all that went on within, to the extent that she had come to regularly smile at the massive portrait of the monarch, mounted on a magnificent white charger, which gracedone end of the splendid riding hall. . .

From her first days in Vienna Eileen had found herself frequently employing the term magnificent to the buildings, rooms,churches, opera house—somuch so that she’d inquired as to the appropriate German usage; advised that there were some thirteen—some tongue-twisting—ways of expressing the characterisation, she settled. It was as a result of her near instantaneous feelings for the Riding School that she would quickly learn to, meaning truly magnificent. The phrase came to mind virtually every time she entered the riding hall itself: its galleries buttressed by,despite their size, almost delicate Corinthian columns, massive and dazzlingly white, the hall illuminated on gloomy winter afternoons by a series of extraordinary crystal chandeliers, their dozens of candles flickering, as if each flame danced to its own unique tune. The crowning intricately-fashioned vaulted ceiling above the lights was an extraordinary work of art in itself.

In this vein, to the extent I deem necessary, and, thus on more than a few occasions I employ a minute level of description – including sounds,odours, the weather:

Mainly, however, she rode in blissful silence, the immediate atmospherealive with the soft creaking of coach wheels and springs, jangling tack and the steady rhythm of thudding hooves—the gentle squeak of her own body,her bottom, her thighs against the thick leather of Bull’s saddle, all to her comforting, timeless sounds. A light wind came up as they were perhaps two miles gone from the Hofburg, diffusing the morning’s thin cloud cover; the sun was growing brighter, warmer. More than once, she lifted her face to it, feeling the rays on her cheeks, the gentle breeze tossing her hair,sensing her spirits rising—beginning to feel in a way as frisky as Bull continued to behave.

Thank you, Kevn. I look forward to your next book in the series. 

Saturday, February 10, 2018

All the Things Wrong with the World are Made Right With You

My son usually introduces me to new music on road trips. This time he navigated hwy 22 to Memphis and we talked about the future of the planet. Gerald has done quite a bit of research on global warming and said we have reached the point of no return: life as we've known it will not be the same for future generations of humans.

We were commuting from his law school in Tuscaloosa to Memphis, where my husband's family will gather for simultaneous celebrations of birthdays and Mother's Day.  I leaned toward him, hanging on every word, while at the same time admiring the vibrant green trees and pasture land we passed.  There had been frequent showers in the area and his dire warnings ran counter to the verdant zone through which we drove. 

"People take all this for granted," he said. "We abuse it." 

He's living in an area of fervent unbelievers . . . in global warming. They do believe in hell fire, though, so maybe a convincing argument could be made from the pulpit.  If preachers got on the side of science they'd just have to get creative, convince people that the Lord Almighty wanted them to choose to live now.  Emphasis being their choice not the Lord's.  Gerald said it would never happen, and that's why he felt hopeless about our future.

The earth underlined his words with a blinding downpour and punctuated his hopelessness with thunder. Cars flashed emergency lights or pulled over to the side of the road. We kept moving, and talking, the Honda a tiny world of its own. Long haul trucks sped past us, fearless and mighty above our puny vehicles.  Seizing the opportunity to gain time in their individual and corporate pursuits-the American way-they pounded us with highway surf. 

I love you, honey. Your ideas are good. Now let's see if we can change the world.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Device and Conquer

         “In my day we had two tin cans and a string,” Reuben, 83, said. We were discussing electronic devices for children.
         “I tried those,” I said, “but the service was always down.”
         Reuben and I met at the local Coffee Bean and bonded over my dog, Joey. He’s there every day and I’d seen him either snoozing in the corner or talking with other old guys. One day, I tied Joey up to a meter and went inside to order my double cappuccino. He started to bark. Came outside to find Reuben feeding him something he'd dug out of his pocket: cookies and chips. Joey was captivated.
         We three sat on chairs outside and got to know each other. Reuben is from Romania. He’s been here 48 years and has two adult children living in Calabasas, a 45-minute drive which he can no longer do. His daughter brings the grandchildren over, which used to delight him. They'd play games, run around the yard. Now 9 and 11, they're only interested in their smartphones and don't interact with him.      
         I see very young children with these phones and even toddlers being pushed in their strollers with a smartphone or an iPad attached for their viewing pleasure. This is not a recent development. Thirty years ago I was horrified when a pediatrician friend hooked up a video player in her minivan for a road trip with her two kids. Two years later you could buy a car with its own screen. No "are we there yet?" for those parents. During that same period, I bought Suspense radio shows on cassette and played the stories on a drive to Utah with my sons. They had to use their imagination to visualize the scenes. When I pulled over for gas, they asked me to keep playing the tape.
         I’ve read complaints dating back 60 years about the corrupting influence of watching too much TV. True, our black & white TV was a babysitter of sorts. But we only had three channels in Santa Fe and at least two of them stopped broadcasting by 10:30 p.m. My mom worked nights and I waited up for her. I was forced to pick up a book and read.
         Posted an abbreviated version of this piece on Facebook for discussion and got a variety of responses. Here are three of the best:

“We have two grandkids the same ages. If I don't play their video games or can talk them into going for a bike ride, I am just an old adult, Grandpa, who they have a hard time relating to. The question that I ask is not, "When is introducing the 21st century tools too early?" Now I ask, "How can I interact with them and have us all engaged?” Mushroom Montoya.

This how we end up with a ‘media mogul’ as president!” Tom Pa

“It's the future get used to it. Human/machine integration will be commonplace.” Carlos Encinas


Monday, December 04, 2017

And Then There Was White

And Then There Was White

White eyebrow hairs. Mom said this would happen.
White hairs at hairline. Sophisticated look for the distant future.
White nostril hairs. Crap.
White pubic hairs. OMG.
White eyelash. End times.